Culinary Coincidences: Savory Staples Discovered Quite Serendipitously
on 8/25/2006 (0)
Before you take a sip of beer or wine along with a nibble of bread and cheese, consider that these ubiquitous culinary staples are not the ingenious product of some Magic Chef of Olde, but were discovered quite by accident! Here are some examples of popular foodstuffs that were discovered entirely by chance.
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Salted and Smoked Meats: The action of common salt to cure and preserve flesh was probably first casually observed on ocean fish. When ocean fish die and wash on shore, the salt in the water permeates their tissue, driving out any fresh (non salinated) water, and if bacteria or the gulls don't get to it first, (as can happen in very dry climates such as that found on the Dead Sea) the remaining tissue will dessicate and dry out. Certainly, early man noticed the action of salt on fish tissue. When fish were caught for consumption by angling later on, salt was added, perhaps, as a seasoning, and any leftover nibbles and bits of overlooked or uneaten salted fish would keep, and not rot. One can imagine an early oceanside stone age community discovering, to their great delight, that dried fish kept for a great period of time when packed in salt, even for many years. Salt deposits are common near ocean fronts in the form of dried out sub surface sediment in shallow coastal areas, so mining salt was not a problem.
What works on fish tissue, works on other animal tissue as well. Man discovered that the meat of wild boar, wild poultry and deer could be preserved by salting as well. Keeping in mind there was no refrigeration, this was a monumental discovery, and certainly contributed to the exploding population of early tribes.
When man discovered that food could be cooked over a wood fire, he instantly stumbled upon smoke preservation. Smoke contains Nitrates and Nitrites that preserve meat. In addition to imparting a savory aroma and flavor on meat, wood smoke, along with salting, added an extra dose of chemical protection against harmful, freshness destroying bacteria and fungi, the most notable early examples being smoked (kippered) herring and smoked and salted beef (pastrami), bacon and ham.
Dairy Products: Every school child is familiar with the tale of butter. Mongolian horsemen would keep goat or mares milk in intestine bags for consumption on the trail. The agitation of the horses motion would inevitably churn the milk into butter. Whether fact or fable, the wide gamet of popular dairy products consumed all over the world today were certainly stumbled upon by chance.
Natural stomach or intestine bags were indeed widely used in ancient times as containers for liquids, and at some point man discovered that the milk held in the stomach of juvenile sheep would separate into curds and whey (a liquid, and a crumbly solid.) This separation was caused by Rennet, an enzyme that acted on the milk. Rennet, by chance, is naturally present in the lining of sheep stomach.
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Once the crumbly curds were isolated and pressed together, the precursor of the todays thousands of cheese varieties was born, all by accident. The flora and fauna indigenous to differe
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