Friday, May 11, 2012

A Tough Nut to Crack

Recently, I asked an innocent question.  "So tell me," I said to my friend, who is a historical re-enactor with a flair for cooking up scrumptuous medieval feasts to feed lots of people, "how did people shell all those almonds in the middle ages?  With all the recipes for almond milk, or using almonds as thickeners, what did a one-cook kitchen do?"

"I have no idea," she breezily replied.  "But I'll ask some people who might know."  And she then passed my query, my innocent question, along to a group of people eminent in the same historical recreation group, to see what light they could shed on the matter. 

Now, to be fair, I failed to mention in my query that I'm interested in learning this because I'm writing a book set in Florence in around 1300, so it shouldn't have surprised me that most people immediately assumed I was talking about England.  (We're communicating in English, right?  So it must be about England.  This happens to me a lot.)

This meant that several of them first tried to tell me that almonds were a rare and costly import and a one-cook kitchen wouldn't have used them.  They were considered a spice, I was told.  I was informed that dukes, bishops, archbishops, the pope, and royalty would have been the almond milk consumers.

Florence was a tad short on all of the above except the bishop, but I imagine we could reasonably include a bevy of fabulously-wealthy merchants, and even a few struggling nobles still strutting their stuff to keep up appearances.  But what about our one-cook kitchen?  No scullery maids, no boys to turn the spits, no slave labor.

Right out of luck, you might well conclude.  No almonds for them.  But did I mention that this was Florence? Italy?  As in, they're growing almonds in the back yard?  Surely that makes a difference.  They can hardly be a costly import if you can walk out the door and pick some.

England and Italy:  not the same.  Trust me on this.  Almond trees popped up in vineyards and olive groves, in orchards, in gardens.  Francesco Datini, the famous Merchant of Prato (a close neighbor to Florence), grew almonds, and he didn't make much fuss about it, unlike his much rarer prized orange tree (oranges were just beginning to be seen as far north as the Florence-Prato area).  His apothecaries billed him (in 1406) for almonds, and they were not considered spices - spices appeared elsewhere in the same billing.  (These were, however, probably bitter almonds, used medicinally.  The almonds Datini grew would have been sweet domestic almonds.)

And people needed their almonds.  Almond milk was less perishable than animal milk, and it could be consumed on fast days, when animal products were forbidden to Christians (which could add up to as much as a third of the year).

So how did they shell them?  Let's look at some possibilities:

More online discussion ensued, most of it still centered on whether or not my characters would have used almonds.   A couple of people sketched out ideas for almond-shelling machines, which I thought was rather delightful.  Books were recommended.  Most of the latter centered on England, but a few did mention the Mediterranean.  (I already had all of those books, by the way.)  Nutcrackers, the consensus seemed to be.

Look at the recipes, one of them advised me.  See what ingredients they called for.  (The Italian recipes?  You guessed it - almonds.)  But, others  added, recipe books were for the elite, not the one-cook kitchen. So all the written evidence might not matter anyway.

Stubborn as I am, based on my own reading I remain convinced that almonds were used in relatively modest households in Tuscany.  Not, perhaps, by the poorest of the poor, but certainly not restricted to the richest of the rich, either. And I continue to be frustrated at the it's-gotta-be-England assumptions that I run up against at every turn, such as all the sweeping histories of aspects of the middle ages that confine themselves to that (admittedly fascinating) island, as if the rest of the world didn't exist. 

As a writer you wouldn't wander around in time, would you?  You wouldn't give your medieval people glassed windows before there were such things, or assume a wall fireplace in a time when hearthfires lived in the middle of the room?  You wouldn't have them eating tomatoes or potatoes, or drinking coffee.  You would certainly not assume that life was the same for people before and after the Black Death swept through Europe. 

I maintain that wandering in space isn't any better.  Different climates, different weather (not the same thing), different resources, different politics, different religions, different people running things, different histories, different levels of urbanization, different population patterns. 

But back to the original question:  did any of my sources, books or experts, actually tell me how almonds were shelled?  Of course not.  It was never going to be that easy.  I know how to blanch the little guys and crush them and cook with them, but not how to oodge them out of their hard little shells beforehand, at least not in quantity (remembering that I have the patience of a modern person, not a medieval person).

There were nutcrackers.  There were hammers.  But I can't shake the feeling that somewhere, somehow there was also an economy of scale in use here, one that we just don't know about.  And nobody mentions it because it was all so obvious at the time. 

It's true that almond oil was prepared professionally and sold, generally, not made at home.  But then, somebody - or a lot of somebodies - had to maneuver those almonds out of their shells at some point, didn't they?  Or did they just crush them whole, like olives?

Almond oil for sale
Almond milk, which is quick and easy to make (once the almonds are shelled, that is), would have been made at home, but it took a lot of nuts.  Our forefathers were an ingenious lot, and our foremothers perhaps even more so, and I still think they must have had some way to speed up the tedious process of breaking into all those little nuts.  I know that some nuts can be briefly boiled, to make shelling easier, but I don't know if that or some other preparatory process was applied to almonds.

So I still don't know how they shelled almonds.  Do you?  If you do, or even if you have a good guess, I'd love to hear about it.

Images in this post:  common (metal) nutcracker and the collection of colorful nutcrackers are both under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 Unported license; all others in the public domain.


H Stuart said...

Alas, I have no information to offer, only musings, but the topic of how our foremothers cooked interests me deeply. (For example, my own mother claimed to have made divinity, by herself, many, many times, drizzling the hot syrup into the whipped egg whites while beating the whole mess, more or less one-handed, *with a hand-cranked eggbeater* fast enough to keep hot spots from congealing! I still cannot imagine this process well enough to venture to re-create it. I never saw Mom perform this amazing feat, however, because long before I came along, she had gleefully turned in her eggbeater for an electric mixer and refused to look back.)

My only thoughts on the topic congeal around your comment on patience. I know from experience that I can make a surprisingly large pile of pecan nutmeats from whole pecans in a surprisingly short period of time, especially if I have even one helper to crack them, or if I pre-crack them myself before pulling the nutmeats out. (I presume any and all children, grandparents, etc. would have been drafted for such tasks.) And I know that commercial whole almonds (which may be steamed before consumers see them; I don't know, but Google might) are ridiculously easy to crack--much easier on the fingertips for removing nutmeats than those vicious pecans were. I could well imagine some Florentine housewife sitting on her balcony, shelling almonds while she says her daily prayers, enjoying the excuse to sit down for a time in the sun/shade/breeze.

But as to what implements were historically used to do the cracking, I confess to total ignorance. Hammers or even rocks should do it. Did you find no Etruscan nutcrackers? (I still remember my utter delight at recognizing an Etruscan cheese grater which looked just like the ones still in modern stores, except for the green patina.)

There's a thought. Basic kitchen gadgetry changes very little with the passing of centuries. Perhaps researching Italian nut-cracking techniques in later eras would yield fruitful (nutful?) results.

Tinney Heath said...

One of the people trying to help me out with this sent me a link to an interesting site. I don't know if the link will work here, but here it is, anyway.

It mentions a metal nutcracker from the 3rd or 4th century BC, and also a bronze Roman nutcracker from somewhere between 200 BC - 200 AD. I think that the simple lever variety was quite early. To my knowledge I've not seen an Etruscan nutcracker, but one of those pictured on the nutcracker museum site did remind me a lot of Etruscan design: the one where the two metal "legs" really ARE legs, which was something the Etruscans loved to do, with tripods or candlesticks or pretty much anything else that could be made with human or animal legs and feet rather than left plain.

For now, I guess I'll have to leave my characters patiently cracking nuts with a nutcracker, while they await a technological breakthrough that would be the equivalent of your mother's electric mixer.

Emmalyn said...

Great point about place and its nature. How else, among other things, to differentiate one land from another if characters are traveling through, if they are all the same? In modern times, similarities have become much more common, but photos from WWII - I may not know the place, but it's usually obvious if it's not British Isles, and I can often guess the country or at least region, because of the number of visual differences.

You can make quite a lot of almond milk with not too many almonds: doubling the water will thin it and weaken the flavor, but still works in the recipes I've tried, so if your not-so-rich patrons have to buy them, they might use more water to make it go further. Also, the more ground the almonds (I imagine a mortar and pestel would be more effective than a chopping knife, but lots of chopping also works) the more/thicker the milk they can make, and the less flavor will be left if the ground bits are used as a source of protein/fiber/bulk in some other dish.

Almonds are easier than other nuts to crack and separate, and the smaller almonds can be a problem in some nutcrackers due to the sixe and difficulty of keeping them in place/lined up. A hammer/rock in a mortar might actually work better than a nutcracker for larger/harder nuts. A wide flat rock/press might break a lot of almonds at a time if it's handled right. Just a thought.