Thick and thin

Food - Bee Wilson thinks there's no real substance to arrowroot

In novels of the 19th century, it is not uncommon for the characters to take a cup of arrowroot, particularly if they are about to go to bed or are ill in some way. In Anthony Trollope's Can You Forgive Her?, Mrs Greenow is recovering from the remorseless attentions of her suitor, Mr Cheesacre. "Between nine and ten in the evening, an hour or so after Mr Cheesacre had left her, Jeanette brought her some arrowroot with a little sherry in it. She usually dined early, and it was her habit to take a little light repast before she retired for the night."

Now that arrowroot has all but gone out of use, except as a thickener for clear sauces, it is hard to imagine what it would have meant to drink or eat it, or why one would have wished to do so. The starch that these literary characters drank might have been mixed with milk and sugar as a hot milky drink, or with water and sherry or brandy as a cool jelly. In either case, great claims were made for its nutritional properties, and great insistence was set on its purity. Nowadays, however, we neither look on arrowroot as nourishing, nor care much about its authenticity. The story of arrowroot is well worth telling, because it illustrates in one small area some of the many differences between the Victorians and ourselves. It is a story full of irony.

First, there is the question of nourishment. In the early 19th century, arrowroot was much prescribed by doctors for infants and invalids. It was valued because it was so quick to prepare: the arrowroot had only to be mixed with milk or water and it was ready. Arrowroot drink or arrowroot jelly were thought to be easy to digest, good for weak bowels and a useful counter to the debilitating effects of emetics and violent purges. All these things may be true. But arrowroot was wrongly believed, as the food historian Layinka M Swinburne has shown in a number of scholarly articles, to be very nourishing. In the aspic-loving 19th century, people set great store by anything with gelling properties. Hence arrowroot was used to build up those who had been ill and were too weak to eat solid foods, much as today we might use Complan. In her recipe for arrowroot jelly, Mrs Rundell says it is "very nourishing" and comments that it was a useful way to provide a sick person "with a fine supporting meal in a few minutes". In fact, this "nourishing" meal would have provided the invalid with a mere nine calories, less than in a carrot. How many Victorian invalids, especially babies, must have wilted away to a better place on a diet of nourishing arrowroot? Now, in so far as arrowroot is used at all, it is beloved of the diet-conscious, because they can create fat-free sauces from arrowroot and stock, or make fruit compotes seem more substantial without many extra calories, as the fruit gels to a crystal-clear solidity.

The second irony concerns authenticity. Mrs Beeton, and those food writers who preceded her, were obsessed with finding arrowroot that was unadulterated. The true arrowroot, or Maranta arundinacea, was a product of Jamaica, Saint Vincent and other West Indian islands (Napoleon contemptuously said the English love of arrowroot was just a way of supporting the commerce of the colonies). True, arrowroot was expensive, and fraudsters often thinned it with potato flour or sago. But true arrowroot has unique properties. As Mrs Beeton says, true arrowroot, "when formed into jelly, will remain firm for three or four days, whilst the adulterated will become as thin as milk in the course of 12 hours". Fancy moulds and blancmanges made from falsified arrowroot simply melt to nothing.

In our age, when we are always talking about "purity" in food, you might expect arrowroot to be genuine as a matter of course. If so, you would be wrong. Swinburne tested 16 samples of "arrowroot", including those sold in chemists, and found that only two were the genuine article, real Maranta starch (Lion brand and Culpeper). Most of the others were cassava flour, which does not have such good gelling properties. Apparently, this mislabelling is not even illegal. It does seem odd that this generation, which sets such store by "nutritional information", wanting every last gram of polyunsaturated fat to be listed before we dare eat a product, can allow such basic falsification to go on unchallenged.

There has been another, rather comical side effect to the mislabelling of arrowroot. Swinburne observes that "about five years ago, the Midland Shove-halfpenny Championships had to be cancelled. In this version of an ancient game of skill, the board or slate on which the coins slide is traditionally dusted with arrowroot. All at once the stewards found that the half-pennies were sticking." The problem was that they had been using cassava wrongly labelled as arrowroot, and cassava is much less slippery and much more sticky than true arrowroot. This peculiar game had revealed what the modern consumer's senses could not tell them: that cassava and arrowroot are not the same thing.