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Tag: chocolate

No Chocolate, Potatoes, or Tomatoes in Europe?

If you took a trip to 16th Century Europe, you could meet or see Michaelangelo, da Vinci, Martin Luther, Charles V, Henry VIII, and many other fascinating people from that period. But, you’d also be shocked by many things, especially everyone’s diet.

Michaelangelo never tasted marinara sauce on his pasta because tomatoes were unknown in Italy. No Irishman, German, or Pole had ever seen a potato. No German, Swiss, or Frenchman had ever tasted chocolate, nor vanilla.

What? It’s true. Foods from the Americas started coming to Europe in 1493 when Columbus brought bell pepper seeds and a few others. But it took decades for these to become noticed and spread. Some items like tomatoes took a long time to catch on. It was believed that tomatoes were poisonous until a Frenchman demonstrated that they were not. Cortez first learned of chocolate from Moctezuma in 1520.

European Diet

Fundamental to Italian cuisine are the fagioli soups. Fagioli means beans — the common bean like navy, kidney, black, lima, northern, and pinto. There were none of those in Europe, just fava beans. Nor was there corn, squashes, yams, strawberries or pineapples — no peanuts, so no peanut butter — no zucchini, pumpkins, avocados, or cashew nuts.

There were no hot chili peppers in Europe. The only hot spices were pepper, mustard, and horseradish. But what about Asia? The Chinese and Indians love chili peppers. Chili peppers were brought there from the Americas by European sailors, and they became extremely popular. In fact, chili peppers found their way to Europe from the Americas, to India, then to England. There were no bell peppers either, of any color.

There was no white or brown sugar, just honey for sweetening. No Englishman puffed on a pipe, nor did any Frenchman smoke a cigarette — tobacco was unknown. No green beans, tapioca, papaya, guava, passion fruit, cranberries, sunflowers, pecans, allspice, or chicle (chewing gum).

The European diet was bland. Nourishment came from breads, pasta, grains and meat porridges, apples, pears, berries, beer, eggs, fish, and dairy foods. There was no coffee at this time either, although coffee came from Arabia, not the Americas.

Sound boring? It was. Most of the foods for which European countries are famous like Swiss chocolate, and Irish potatoes, were introduced in the past 400 years. Yet, most people I know think that potatoes came from Ireland.

Negative Side Effects

I find it interesting to observe the effects of introducing new food sources to a place. We’ve all heard of the great impact of the Irish Potato Famine. How did that happen?

The potato was brought to Europe in 1536 and was spread by seafarers to the rest of the world. It quickly became a staple food crop in Europe. It was so successful at feeding the people of Ireland that it touched off a population explosion, resulting in hordes of Irish immigrants to North America. By 1800 it was not unusual for an Irishman to eat an astonishing ten pounds of potatoes a day! Many Irish were literally surviving on potatoes.

For over 7,000 years, the Indians of South America cultivated more than a thousand varieties of potato. But the lack of genetic diversity in Europe left the potato vulnerable to various diseases. One potato disease known as Late Blight, caused by a fungus-like oomycete called Phytophthora infestans, was responsible for the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1845. It spread rapidly in western Ireland and resulted in widespread crop failures. More than a million Irish died of hunger and 1.5 million more emigrated to the United States, resulting in a huge increase in demand for the potato in the USA.

So, introducing a great source of nutrition to a region triggers a population explosion. This makes sense. And, it happened again. Africa never had an overpopulation problem before. What happened?

Corn was domesticated from a wild plant called teosinte more than 7,000 years ago in Central America. Corn is fundamental to the Mayan creation myth and is considered a sacred plant. The ears of the wild teosinte plant were small but years of domestication resulted in larger plants and larger ears of corn. Corn spread throughout the Americas. Popcorn was invented by North American Indians. Corn was brought to Europe as a curiosity by the first explorers and Europeans were not much interested in it. However in Africa, it spread quickly, and together with the peanut and cassava from the Americas, completely transformed the diet of much of Africa. The productivity and nutritional value of these foods resulted in a rapid rise in population in Africa, similar to the effect of the potato on Ireland.

Another negative side-effect came from the introduction of tobacco. In the Americas, tobacco was smoked in moderation, often associated with religious or other ceremonies. In Europe, and throughout the world, it became a highly addictive drug, smoked excessively, resulting in millions of premature deaths.

Lastly

To finish off the list of foods from the Americas, we have turkeys, brazil nuts, prickly pear, huckleberries, annatto (achiote), and maple syrup.

Lastly, although not foods, many other important substances came from the Americas such as rubber, mahogany, hickory, cochineal dye (Natural Red Dye #4), and logwood. Logwood was a very important commodity, driving politics, economics, and piracy in the Caribbean until the invention of aniline dyes in the 19th Century.

If you plan to travel by time-machine to Europe of the past, be prepared for extremely disappointing dining.

Please comment below.

Kriegskuchen (War Cake)

Back in 1963, my Aunt Annie, who was at that time 90 years old, gave me a recipe she had gotten from her mother for an unusual cake she learned to make as a child in Germany. She called it Kriegskuchen, which translates as “War Cake”, and it was called this because it’s easy to make and does not require butter, or eggs, or oil, which are in short supply during a war. And for those of you on a low-calorie or low-fat diet, or for those with an egg allergy, this is just what you were looking for.

Kriegskuchen (War Cake) 1

My mother made this cake often during the year all through the 60’s and 70’s, and especially around Christmas. The flavor of the standard recipe is very Christmas-like, but the recipe is very flexible. I have continued the tradition for many years, and I’ve experimented a lot with variations on the original recipe. Around Christmas I bake and ship these cakes in various flavors to my friends and my kids, and I thought I’d share it here.

Kriegskuchen (War Cake) 2

All of these cakes are baked in a standard bread pan. The recipe I got from my aunt was all in grams but my mother converted it all to more convenient units right from the start.

Original Recipe:

2 cups flour
3/4 cup cocoa (Hersheys)
3/4 cup sugar
2 to 2-1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/2 cup raisins or currants, soaked in water until they swell up then dried off on a paper towel
1-1/4 cup milk (measure precisely)

Mix together all the ingredients except the milk then add the milk and mix with a spatula until everything is wetted. The batter is quite thick so it takes some effort to fold and mix. The moisture content of flour varies so sometimes you need to add a tiny bit more milk. There should be no dry flour or cocoa visible. Then scoop it all into a greased breadpan and bake at 350F for one hour. Remove from oven and allow to rest for five minutes, turn out on a cake rack to cool off.

Kriegskuchen (War Cake) 3

Next we can get creative and have some fun with this cake. If you want a super chocolaty cake add one cup of chocolate chips to the original recipe, or add one cup of peanut butter chips, or 50/50. Adding a teaspoon of vanilla changes the taste. Omitting or reducing the cloves changes the taste.

Or, we can substitute other fruits for the currant/raisins. Elsewhere in my blog you will find a recipe for candied orange peel. Candied orange peel (and you can add quite a lot) combined with the chocolate makes a heavenly flavor. If you really want to go crazy add candied orange peel and chocolate chips. Wow.

Or, we can omit the cocoa. For this variation, omit the cocoa, reduce the milk to one cup, and be sure to add one or one and a half teaspoons of vanilla. You can add just about any candied fruit you like. About one cup does the job. My son-in-law’s favorite is a version made with candied pineapple and no cocoa. For this, I purchase cans of small diced pineapple wedges and I candy them the same way as the orange peel recipe elsewhere in my blog.

Have fun with this low-cal, non-fat cake. Depending upon the ingredients, calorie count for the whole cake varies from 1,400 to 1,800 calories except for the super chocolaty version above that comes in around 2,900 calories.

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