Friday, 15 February 2013

A bitter taste

Two of my great loves in life are history and cooking (more specifically baking), and of late I've taken to combining the two. In part its research for my novel: determine what recipes were standard fare 100 years ago and then see what type of ingredients a back-water little place like Perth would have had access to.

What's also delightful is learning how these delightful dishes were summoned into existence without the aid of electricity or plastic. Without mixmasters, food processors, freezers... Without plastic mixing bowls, plastic spatulas, silicone moulds... Without many of the things we've come to take for granted as necessary implements when cooking. But while the presence of these just increase our ability to produce goods for consumption, there are yet other elements to the recipes which raise a puzzled eyebrow and ask more questions than they answer.

Take for example bitter almonds. Bitter almonds are poisonous. Exceedingly so, for they are choked full of cyanide, one of the most infamous poisons of our time. And yet they appear in Victorian recipes, 4 or 6 bitter almonds accompanying the requisite number of pounds of sweet almonds. In her advice, Mrs Beeton is kind enough to provide a definition of the bitter almond and a warning as to its danger:
'BITTER ALMONDS.—The Bitter Almond is a variety of the common almond, and is injurious to animal life, on account of the great quantity of hydrocyanic acid it contains, and is consequently seldom used in domestic economy, unless it be to give flavour to confectionery; and even then it should be used with great caution. A single drop of the essential oil of bitter almonds is sufficient to destroy a bird, and four drops have caused the death of a middle-sized dog.'
However she doesn't provide an indication of its taste, what it contributed to the dish, and why its use would possibly be encouraged amongst the general population who made up Mrs Beeton's readers.

In subsequent publications I had not seen any reference to the use of bitter almonds. I'd failed to spot them in recent recipes and have never seen them available for purchase, hidden in amongst the sweet almonds, or cordoned off with warning signs around.
That is until Maggie Beer decided she needed to use them in her latest recipes.

And with still no indication of what flavours they bring to the dish, I just don't know why they've re-emerged. 

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