Commonplace, Vol 1, Issue 9

In which there is virtual conferencing, and the author considers research directions.

Hello! It’s been a while. Mostly this is because time is non-linear, yesterday resembles tomorrow except that the rules of travel, gathering and hopscotch have been changed (apparently by means of dice-rolling, nephomancy and other scientific means), and because I’ve been job-hunting. However, this does also mean that a number of food-related topics have built up, so I’ve plenty to talk about.

Raspberry Yogurt

My favourite flavour of yogurt, by far, is raspberry. There are harder flavours to find; if you’re into pineapple, you probably live in some sort of metaphorical yogurt desert. But raspberry is just normal, right? Easy to find, comes in 500g tubs, is on every supermarket shelf? … nope. Right now, or at least as of Thursday 20th August 2020, there is one brand of raspberry yogurt on the shelf in Tesco. It’s Yoplait - so simultaneously over-sweet and bland - and it comes in a four-tub multipack of 125g pots, two of which are blackberry. You can get raspberry skyr, the non-dairy variations, and a few other yogurt-like things, sometimes. But plain raspberry yogurt isn’t there.

Onken do a raspberry which is available in the bigger tubs. Tesco don’t carry that; I can only get it in Dunnes Stores. Onken used to have a product called “Naked Raspberry”, which was a really good, really raspberry-y yogurt, but it’s been discontinued entirely (it was on their website up to a few months ago; now there’s only Naked Strawberry, which sounds like slightly dodgy fanfic of 80s cartoon characters). Lidl have a raspberry in their Deluxe brand, which is of the plain yogurt with a swirl of syrupy jam variety, which is acceptable. But if things follow their normal course of events, it too will be discontinued within months.

Given that raspberry is one of the absolute most popular flavours in everything else, and is very in this year, I don’t know what’s going on in yogurt. It undoubtedly has something to do with supply lines, and getting raspberries picked, and maybe Coca-Cola’s raspberry variation of Coke Zero absorbed the whole supply, or something. I would just like to be able to pick up the damn yogurt without going to three different shops.

vIMC

The International Medieval Congress is usually held in Leeds. This year, for obvious reasons, it went online as the vIMC, which was also free (or very low cost) to attend. This meant I was able to afford to “go”, which wouldn’t have been possible otherwise; between the actual conference price, accommodation, food and travel, it would cost me well over a thousand euros, and doing that while still unemployed is not happening.

Anyway. There were a couple of food-relevant papers and discussions.

One of those was a fringe piece called “Medieval Food in a Remote Learning Environment: Pedagogy and Resources”, presented by a group called “Mens et Mensa”, who specialise in teaching food history. I noted with interest that almost all (possibly actually all; I don't recall hearing any male voices) the people talking about teaching experiences in classrooms and online were women. This doesn’t line up with scholarship looking at the authors of papers and books, but I suspect that food history, like much of domestic history, is still seen as being somewhat feminine. I also reckon that the actual teaching of domestic history in general is the domain of women, because academia is still like that.

Also interestingly, the teaching seems to be very practical and hands-on, from herb samples being passed around in classrooms to field trips and cooking sessions. I don’t know if other domestic history teaching is like that - I can’t see students being taught how to do period-accurate laundry, say - but it aligns well with my thinking on food. I’d find it very difficult to think and write about food without also cooking and eating it, and I think I’d regard anyone who thought otherwise a bit strangely.

Later, Lydia Allué Andrés spoke about the effects of the Little Ice Age in the Communidad de Aldeas, in Spain. This was particularly about villages that were abandoned there because the altitude limit on where settlement could be reduced considerably - it literally got too cold to have people living up in the higher areas. My notes say that “crops were lost to hail every year from 1413 to 1428 in one village [Almohaja]” which must have been absolutely devastating. Presumably the village’s fields were in one unfortunate spot where hail showers tended to sweep in; there’s a place like that near my hometown whereat, in winter, when it rains everywhere else, it hails there. There were frequent mentions of frost and snow in the annals, too, which cannot have been a pleasant experience for people unused to them. One particular site was between two rivers, which was great during warmer periods, but pretty unpleasant when there were frequent floods. And there's evidence that cereal fields were converted to pasture, and vineyards just plain abandoned. While I’m definitely aware of the effects of changing climate on food (that’s a lot of what Gentle Decline is about), it’s somewhat chilling to see the effects laid out. And of course, many of these mountain villages were never re-occupied.


Todd Preston gave a presentation about salmon and pike in Early Medieval English literature and ecology. This included mention of the Anglo-Saxon Fish Event Horizon, which is one of my very favourite things in all of history. One particularly interesting detail is that salmon occur more in texts than pike, but pike appear more in the historical record (like cows and pigs in Ireland). Pike bones are liable to last longer, of course, and salmon - which can be caught at sea, or at least in nets as they swim into estuaries - coincide with the greater number of documents after the FEH, so there's some calculation and guesswork involved in which was actually eaten more. Also there’s the interesting datum that both fish were huge in the medieval period, growing to well over 2m in length (this is borne out by bones as well as written accounts; one could be forgiven for assuming fishermen might exaggerate). As I noted on Dreamwidth, I do not fancy trying to convert a 2m pike from angry river monster to dinner. But a 2m salmon would be an incredible centre-piece for a feast.

Jane Holmstrom presented a study of diet of elites in Saint Jean de Todon, France, via stable isotope analysis. Apparently, millet stands out in this analysis; most crops contain a form of carbon called C3, while millet has C4. I tried to get a better grasp on what that means, but either I don’t know the right search terms, or it is completely beyond my grasp of chemistry. Anyway, she was trying to see if the elite burials in the graveyard had a different diet. There wasn't enough material for conclusions before COVID stopped stuff, but there will be soon. There was also the note that while the isotope analysis can pick up animal protein very well, it can't distinguish between meat and dairy consumption. Some of that almost certainly has bearings on analysis of Irish food consumption, and also points up a few things that can’t usefully be determined that way.

Chris Woolgar, of whose books I own more than a few, spoke about gifts, exchange and particularly inheritance of silver plate in medieval England. Cups, he says, were really important in memorial culture in this era, to the degree that some, inherited over multiple generations and associated with specific original owners, became "secular relics", clearly recognisable to anyone in or near the family. Some of these - and other plate - were eventually donated to parish churches to become chalices and the like; turning secular relics into sacred ones. I’m trying to think of anything with that kind of significance in modern life that isn’t an actual house, but I don’t think our material goods have that kind of duration anymore.

I really enjoyed the vIMC. I missed the dance, and the pubbing, but other than that, it was in many ways a better way to go to a conference; quite aside from the costs, it didn’t eat a day for travel either side, and I could still do ordinary things like walk the dog. Also, one could wander off to get coffee or to the bathroom mid-session without disturbing anyone else, and indeed, not have to wake up at oh-gods-thirty in an unfamiliar town in order to make it to the first session in a conscious state.

Research Directions

Job-hunting has been taking a lot of my attention of late, along with the overall pandemic uncertainty being tiring. So I haven’t gotten a lot of research done, even as I’ve attended conferences and accumulated books. I think I’ve taken the line about the purple-berried pottage as far as I can in terms of finding literature, so it’ll be time to try out a few of the variations of actual food I came up with, and see what they taste like. Given the spread of possibilities, I could likely cook four dishes from the same line, and have them constitute four different courses of a meal, which might be an interesting approach.

For the next line of research, I’m not entirely sure where to go. I could trawl through more medieval Irish literature, but I feel like I want a break from that. I might settle for poking through some of the books I’ve acquired and seeing if anything in there sparks a direction I can’t resist. Sparking directions is no problem, mind; almost any non-fiction I read gives me an average of one thing to look up or find out more about per paragraph.

Foraging

It looks to be an excellent year for foraging. The hazels and rowans are bending down, and there’s a stellar blackberry crop in waiting if we get just enough sunshine in the next couple of weeks. There are already mushrooms popping up in odd places, and I’ve located feral apple trees, crab apples, European cranberry, and a whole row of bullaces in the last couple of months. And the oak trees are going heavy on the acorns, although that’s not really forage material without a lot of work, but does mean that my plot of having oaks to plant all over the place will be off to a good start.

(Hazelnuts, cluster of five, still white/green)

I’m trying to sort out a few foraging trips for the local SCA shire, but the lockdowns and the unpredictability of the weather make that tough, not to mention the guesswork involved in when things will be ripe. Foraging - like many natural things - hasn’t heard of calendars or clocks. It has heard of local geography, though, which is why despite the majority of the blackberries still being green, I had a few good ripe ones in July. And also why there seemed to be far more sparse crops in Sligo than in Kildare; whatever conditions have made this a (potential) bumper year here don’t seem to have happened there.

This issue has been brought to you by August storms, notebooks, backyard chickens, and some wandering around the edges of other people’s internet glades. Eat well, and I shall write again soon.