Thou shall eat the old
Smoked sausages hanging in a row and salt barrels brimming with whiting and herring. Stockfish dried by the west wind and ready to be soaked in water to rinse the salt whenever needed. A piece of fresh meat boiled in blood and vinegar: A delicacy of past wintertimes called Black Food or in old danish “Lummer”. Pig snouts, lard and feet – facing wintertime in the past was all about foresight, preparation and about using everything.
We are in the midst of the most challenging time of the year for a small season-based food shop in Denmark, like ours. But there was once, when dealing with the non-arable fields of wintertime was a fundamental condition. Can the past give us any inspiration on how we can deal with the modern challenges of wintertime? Let’s take a brief look at times when season was a need rather than a choice.
That time of year
End of October. Winter was coming and preparations needed to be done. The challenging months of fields being deep frozen were ahead in a time were import-dependent supermarkets and power-driven deep freezers didn’t exist. These late months of the fall were crucial and very busy.
It was the time of year for slaughtering. In Denmark before the 19th century, slaughtering a pig was not a job for the butcher. It was something that every household took care of on their own – in both cities and on the countryside. It was a demanding task. Sticks for hanging sausages needed to be cut and the barrels and vessels for storing food needed to be cleaned thoroughly.
The pig was slaughtered at home. The major artery was cut and the blood collected immediately. Nothing was lost and blood was used for both the famous blood-sausages and for ‘black food’ – fresh meat boiled in blood and vinegar. This was a dish eaten in all parts of society by rich and poor and it could be kept for months.
The intestines were cleaned and put in salt and cold water for the next day – ready to be used for sausages. The insides were prepared immediately. Kidneys, heart and lungs, boiled and chopped to pieces, mixed with spices. It was all poured onto pots and eaten within the first couple of months of the winter. Terrine was made of the head and the skin was used for rind, often boiled. The hams and bows were salted, later smoked, and the leaf fat was melted.
A storeroom kitchen
Of course, not only meat was prepared in this period. The storeroom was filled with pickled, salt-cured and dried vegetables. Cherries and other fruits were dried to last through the winter. So were peas. Cabbage was pickled and herring was salted. Cheese and butter was made and bread was crucial. All over Scandinavia, flat bread baked very hard seems to have been eaten. A tradition lasting until today with the Scandinavian ‘knækbrød’.
Eating the old – challenges of today
“Thou shall eat the old”, says a passage in The Book of the Leviticus, discussing how to manage the Jubilee-year. In this year of sabbath, fields were to be left uncultivated to give the land rest. How could you, in biblical times, manage a whole year without sowing and reaping? Like a winter lasting for a year? Eating the old was primarily about having excellent skills in making food last. It was essential for surviving.
What does all this have to do with the winter challenges of a modern, Nordic cuisine?
To be honest, running a shop based on selling organic vegetables and meat in Denmark in 2016, isn’t a big money making machine. Therefore being able to process without use of power and freezer-capacity can have big value for us. It’s about quality, but it’s also about surviving. Cabbage, for example, is cheap to buy when in season and with the help of a fermentation-process its possible to increase the value strongly – without the use of electricity. So we make sauerkraut, we salt-pickle lemons and we hang hams. We ferment the summer harvest of berries to be used as a winter luxury in our mealbags. In this way, looking into the archives is not only about an interest in history, but also about making past experiences useful in running a small season-based food shop today. It’s all about preparation and processing – and about eating the old.