<Mededelingen van land en tuinbouw>

dinsdag, september 04, 2012

At the roots of piccalilli

For over ten years now I have been ‘collecting’ and comparing Asiatic recipes in the recipe books of 18th Century Dutch ladies. A fascinating collection of curries, sambals and achars. Sometimes a detail in these recipes springs to the eye. Then again, a certain ingredient triggers you. And sometimes it’s a combination of both.
For instance the three achars I found, the Indonesian word atjar phonetically written as Aathiar, Aathia, Aazia and such. But there is a second handle to these recipes: Tjamparade, Cola and Lely or Leylie, or Lelie, or Lily, or Lilli, or Lillo.

Achar originally is a Persian word meaning ‘pickling in vinegar’ and the word and recipe migrated to India and Sri Lanka and from there to other Asian countries. The first part of the recipe is no problem. But the additions? The first two can be explained quite simply. Tjamparade is of course tjampoer, or campur, meaning mixed. So Atjar Tjampoer, or Aathiar Tjamparade stands for Mixed Pickles. And the Aathia Cola is also called Aathia van Kool, meaning Achar made of Cabbage (Kool). So what about Aathia Lelie (lily), there are no lilies in this recipe I find on the first pages of the recipe book of Haasje Fabricius, née Van Notten (1767-1844), that she well may have inherited from her mother.   

Reading her recipe carefully, I discover that it is probably a kind of piccalilli. And I start to explore the English sources on this subject. Starting of course with Sue Shephards, ‘Pickled, potted and canned’, 2000. She tells us that it was the first Indian pickle to conquer England, at the end of the 17th Century. One recipe dates from 1694: To pickle Lila, an Indian Pickle. It describes a sauce with salt and vinegar, spiced up with pepper, garlic, mustard seed and curcuma. Vegetables named are cabbage, cauliflower, celeriac and others. So far, so good, but still, I have no primary source. I decide to mail Sue and ask whether she still remembers where she found this fascinating recipe. And I’m lucky, among the four possible sources she gives me, I meet Lady Anne Blencowe, born in 1656, daughter of a Math professor in Oxford. In 1675 she marries John Blencowe, who inherited Marston Hall a year before. Most well-educated young ladies in Anne’s time collected recipes in a notebook and so did Anne. When exactly she added To Pickle Lila, an Indian Pickle we don’t know, but she got the recipe from Lord Kilmory. Here the trail peters out, I cannot find any connection between India and Lord Kilmory, or any mentioning of a recipe collection at Kilmory.

The puzzle remains: why lilly (or lila, or lillo) in piccalilli? The solution seems to lie in the word lehya, a category of foods that are meant to be licked, one of several food classifications (see etiquette). In medical parlance it came to have the connotation of a medicated paste or viscous liquid. (…), according to K.T. Achaya in A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, 1998. 

So, it means ‘something  of a viscous nature to be licked according to Indian etiquette’. That reminds me of the meaning of chutney, or chatny. Also a condiment to be licked. What does the Indian etiquette book tell us? On a leaf several types of food are presented, each with a particular texture and taste and way of eating (with your fingers, or to be licked) to value the food properly.  

When the English settled in India chutney was one of the first things to be exported to Patria, England. Usually this was mango chutney, mildly spiced and conserved in sugar syrup. Recipes for chutneys also can be found in late 17th Century cookery books, like John Evelyn’s Acetaria, 1699. But what do you call these wonderful new recipes? Evelyn decides on ‘mango’ as common denominator instead of chutney. So, you’ll find a recipe for a mango of cucumbers. More like an achar than a chutney, and nothing to do with mango. Europe was very much in the experimental stage at that time re Indian cuisine.  

My conclusion at the end of the day is: Nothing romantic about piccalilli, it’s just a pickle to be licked, a pickle in a thickened sauce. That fits wonderfully with the mixed pickle and the cabbage pickle. No wonder the 18th century ladies chose fancy names for their exotic dishes! 

The picture was taken in the experimental kitchen of Kesbeke Tafelzuren in Amsterdam, where managing director Oos Kesbeke and I tried out Haasje's recipe for Aathia Lely. Lots of work, but the result:  delicious! 

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