Commonplace, Vol 1, Issue 3

In which the writer thinks about food retail and daily routine.

Hello! This issue deals with historical food retailing and y. It’s been a quiet week here, and we’re starting to fall into something resembling a routine. I’ve been making weekly meal plans, and I’m fascinated by the way in which I can simultaneously not know what to put down for dinner on a given day and have too many things I want to cook, and not enough days of the week on which to do them.

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Food shopping is interesting right now. Tesco have implemented a strict limit on the number of people that are allowed in the shop, so there are long queues to get in; so long that after yesterday’s forty-five minutes to an hour of alternately standing and taking a few steps (while masked up), we’re probably going to go elsewhere for next week’s outing. They had signs at the end of each aisle saying that only 5 people could be in each at once, which is sensible enough, but also made the whole experience very odd, having to peer down an aisle and see how many people were there. The fact that their own pickers for delivery orders are in there as well doesn’t help, not least because they take a long time in each aisle.

Several local shops have implemented a new layout; they have a table right in front of the door, effectively barring it, and a staff member standing behind it fetches the things you want. This seems to work reasonably well. Oddly, this is how small shops worked when I was small - there was a counter at the front, with maybe a rack of some goods you could look at directly yourself, but otherwise everything was behind the counter and needed to be fetched by the shopkeeper. This was the default for Irish shops in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and while the transition to self-service shops was under way, it was really only bookshops and toyshops, and a very few supermarkets (mostly still a new concept then) that allowed you to browse. Even hardware shops had a counter - more often in the middle of the shop than the front - and most patrons would march straight up to it and start asking for specific goods, rather than wandering the aisles.

This leads me to thinking about how food retail has worked in the past, which is one of my favourite topics anyway, a rather well-trodden path of mind. For actual research in this, I commend to your attention Evelyn Welch’s Shopping in the Renaissance, which is an excellent, excellent book, but for a thousand metre view: two of the things which are common to almost all historical food retail are specialisation and the direct interaction with the seller, both of which have been absent from Western food shopping for some decades (and are now, at least temporarily, re-appearing).

Direct interaction with the seller is a notably odd topic, because for much of Northern and Western Europe, certainly through the Middle Ages, and up into the early modern era, what we think of shop-keeping - buying from a food producer and selling to the public - was a crime. Sometimes, indeed, it was several crimes: regrating, engrossing, and forestalling.

The definitions of the three overlap a bit, and in a way they’re all different forms of the same thing. Forestalling had more of a contractual or persuasive feel about it, and included talking producers out of selling directly, or even talking them into raising their prices, in some cases. Regrating was the straightforward act of buying to resell locally (the limit of four miles is mentioned in some sources, beyond which you were magically engaging in legal and reputable trade). And engrossing was all about amassing a concentration of a particular good - particularly grain - so as to control the price for one’s own benefit.

The 1911 Britannica (which is now in the public domain, and makes for fascinating reading; we’re in the lucky position of having a hard copy on the shelves here) noted:

The statute of Edward VI. (1552) was the most important, and in it the offences were elaborately defined; by this statute any one who bought corn to sell it again was made liable to two months’ imprisonment with forfeit of the corn. A second offence was punished by six months’ imprisonment and forfeit of double the value of the corn, and a third by the pillory and utter ruin.

Ouch. I’m somewhat fascinated (and also a bit disturbed) by the concept of ‘utter ruin’ as a legal punishment, and somewhat loathe to look up the details. Britannica also says that these remained illegal up to 1844.

To illustrate a contemporary, street-level view of retailing, I quote Hugh Alley in 1598:

“a sorte, of like greedie kind of people, inhabiting in and about the citty, & suburbs of the same, called Haglers, Hawkers Huxters, and wanderers, uppe and downe the streets, in buyenge into their own handes, to rayse the prices, for their own luker and pryvate gayne, all kinds of provisions, and victuals”

Alley had presented the aldermen of London with a book of drawings of the markets, along with a recommendation that existing regulations be rather more enforced than they were. The ideal was that you would deal directly with the producer of food - the farmer, ideally, bringing his wares directly to the market square and selling them there. Buying from the farmer (or whatever producer; this wasn’t limited to food) and reselling was seen as inserting an unwelcome extra step into the process, for one thing, and was also seen as profiting without doing any actual work. The gods only know what such thinking would make of the stock market, although it does seem that at larger volumes, such behaviour was more accepted.

This wasn’t new:

“[A] general disdain for retailers pervades among our elite authors, since retail was equated primarily with deception and dishonesty. Cicero, for example, drawing on a Greek philosophical tradition, holds that while trade on a significant level is morally acceptable, purchasing goods solely to sell on is dishonest, since the value of the goods must be inflated in order to make a profit”

— C. Holleran, “Food Hawkers in Ancient Rome”, in Food Hawkers, Selling in the Streets, eds. Melissa Calaresu & Danielle van den Heuvel.

Cicero, mind, had a general disdain and and somewhat sniffy distaste for anything that wasn’t very specifically his own way of life. But the point did stand.

At the same time, the process of selling went on regardless, and sometimes with very peculiar specificity. For instance, in fifteenth century Milan, Welch tells us, there was a complex setup whereby fruit wholesalers rented out the produce of specific trees to individual people who then sold them in the streets from trays or baskets. Given that we regard a greengrocers as rather specialised these days, that throws some shade.

By and large the moral and proper thing to do was to go to the market - it’s very broadly fair to say most towns had a small daily market, and then a bigger weekly one - and buy your goods directly from the producer at their stall. Or, at least, have your servants do that.

The degree of specialisation among the Milanese fruit-sellers was an extreme. But it’s also fair to say that it’s the broad generalisation of Tesco that leads to the massive queues now; you can get everything in one place, and so everyone tries to do just that. And it’s not like Wednesday morning at 10:30 would be a peak shopping time in anyone’s mind; the queues have, from various accounts, been worse at other points. The smaller shops, the butchers, greengrocers, fishmongers, etc, have much shorter or no queue, and are able to do the front-counter thing in a way that’s completely impossible for a supermarket.

There’s also the point that with a shop-keeper behind a counter, wearing latex gloves, you can be fairly sure that the stuff you’re buying hasn’t been touched or breathed on by many people, so in the pandemic era, it’s several degrees of certainty safer. This leads me to wonder if we won’t see a resurgence in front-counter layouts for small shops in the next few years. I’m a little torn on whether I personally like the experience or not; I’m quite fond of the experience of wandering through supermarket (or smaller retail) shelves and comparing different goods, or finding some obscure ingredient unexpectedly available. But when you’re dealing directly with a knowledgeable seller, you can actually ask questions about what you’re buying, which is straight-up impossible in any bigger establishment.

I do wonder if the possible problems in food supplies (see last issue) will lead to changes in food purchasing. For instance, the various places where workers aren’t available to harvest crops could open the fields to customers who pick for themselves. This is a popular enough thing in orchards in New England, and you see a little of it elsewhere, but it does come with the issue that the general public doesn’t know how to harvest anything more complicated than an apple. It does, of course, assume that there were workers enough to plant the crops, although planting is usually easier to mechanise than harvesting. Presumably there will be specific conditions of permitted travel, for both workers and customers, which will encourage or discourage this. Of course, the concept also puts me in memory of strawberry picking in Wexford in the 1980s, for which I was paid 8p per pound weight of strawberries picked; it was back-breaking work, even at the vastly more flexible age of eight, but definitely satisfying.

Speaking of satisfaction, I made May Bsisu’s Arabic flatbread again yesterday, alongside a reprise of the hashweh with slightly less of the allspice. It’s amusing to me how quickly something can go from “completely new and unknown” to “a thing I know how to do”; in this case it’s literally three iterations of the bread. I am not at all sure why this particular recipe doesn’t run into the slight mental block I otherwise have about baking, but at the moment, it’s a very simple thing to make the dough, let it rise, and then, a comfortably indeterminate period of time later, make it into flat loaves and put it in the oven. The speed of actual baking - about 6 minutes - has something to do with it; I am an inveterate poker and stirrer of stovetop cooking pots, so the leave-it-alone bit of baking discomfits me slightly.

In terms of tasks to do, the flatbreads and the hashweh go well together. You make the dough, and leave it to rise, you cook the rice-and-beef and leave it wrapped up, and then you’ve a gap of a few hours (usable in my case to walk the dog), and then you finish out the loaves and unwrap the rice and put together a salad. That gap could also be used to cook something else, and I am thinking that some dish with meat or fish and a sauce would go about filling out the meal nicely. I’ll look through The Arab Table and see what’s available in that line, and also through al-Warraq; in this case, Annals of the Caliphs' Kitchens, Nawal Nasrallah’s glorious translation of and commentary on the 10th century Baghdadi cookbook. I do feel that Nasrallah’s publishers should be paying me some kind of commission, because I’ve successfully encouraged more people to buy that book than any other, I think.

I had to check that Easter was in fact last weekend before writing the next bit; I had the sudden notion that it might have been longer ago. Linear time is becoming a fragile concept. Anyway: the Easter food went well. At the medival end of the menu, the beef rolls were perhaps a little drier than they should ideally have been (even more basting would solve it), but their stuffing with garlic and breadcrumbs and suet and some herbs worked out very nicely indeed. The beans yfryed were duly fried, and I almost hesitate to call that a dish, because it’s otherwise dead simple: fry onions, add beans, add seasoning, cook for a bit, serve. The Arabic part of the menu included the flatbreads’ second outing, and also a dish called batata ma kuzbarah, potatoes with cilantro. The potatoes for that are fried from raw, which feels a little odd to me. It is entirely possible, and even likely, that Bsisu is using a different kind of potato, but the ones I have available would have benefited from brief parboiling before kicking off the frying process. The outcome was good, and I love coriander (cilantro), but I’m wondering what would happen in this case if it were replaced with basil.

Nina made pascha, a traditional Finnish desert, and kulich, a sort of Russian fruit-bread, to be eaten with the pascha. Both were excellent, of the standing at the fridge door at 4am variety. She also made a quark-and-cream tart with apricots in it, but we ate that at breakfast, not dinner. Come to think of it, there might be the tail end of that left in the fridge, and if there is, it won’t be there for long.

This week’s menu includes some reprise from previous weeks, and also some experiments, most notably the Glamorgan sausage I mentioned before. I was unable to get Caerphilly cheese, but I think I have an acceptable substitute, which at least matches the description of “hard and crumbly”. Jane Grigson, whose recipe I’ll be using for this, is quite insistent that “English hard cheeses” should not be kept at room temperature, and goes into some degree of rapture over what can be done with cheese that is kept at room temperature. My 21st century fridge-owning mind is a little taken aback by this, but I’m willing to try out the concept, with some care.

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This issue has been brought to you by Hugh Alley, pandemic shopping experiences, Lidl’s rather good Easter eggs, and my own personal alley of bedside food books. Eat well, and I shall write again soon.

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