Potted history

Pickled, Potted and Canned: the story of food preserving

Sue Shephard<em> Headline, 358pp, £15.99<

The horsemen of Attila the Hun discovered a novel way of preserving their snacks: they tucked a piece of fresh meat beneath their saddles and, as they rode, the meat was salted by the horses' sweat, excess moisture was expelled by pressure as the rider bounced up and down, and exposure to air was kept to a minimum. Pausing for a break between bouts of rape and pillage, they could carve a tasty chunk of cured flesh to chew on. The Marquis of Nointel, Louis de Bechamel, facing bankruptcy because no one would buy his Newfoundland salted cod, was forced to invent his famous white sauce to make the fish more palatable. Freezing, another method of preservation that came surprisingly late to these shores, proved so effective that William Buckland, the Dean of Westminster in the early 19th century, was able to serve his dinner guests slices of mammoth that had died a thousand years before.

Pickled, Potted and Canned is full of such stories - some mouthwatering, others repulsive. A Roman recipe for smoked sausage containing "pound pepper, cumin, savory, rue, parsley, mixed herbs, laurel-berries and liquamen" seems almost poetic and had me in forlorn contemplation of my Tesco chipolatas. They seemed an acceptable alternative, however, to a Sudanese dish made from the intestines, spleen, offal and bones of a gazelle, which are stuffed into a stomach bag and hung on a tree to ferment for a few days before being buried, cooked and sun-dried.

Why should we be interested in food preservation? Well, it enabled humans to change from hunter-gatherers into settled cultivators of land. It bound communities together as preservation techniques became rituals and part of a cultural identity. People were able to travel long distances, to survive bleak winters and adapt to changing climates. Huge, well-stocked armies could march or sail around the world without worrying about their food supply. It also became profitable for one country to demand the produce of another, as the Spanish did to the Sicilians to feed their Armada, and as we do now to third world countries to stock our supermarkets. So the story of food preservation is bound up with social, military, economic, political, naval, religious, culinary and even meteorological history.

In tracing the development of techniques to conserve food from ancient methods such as wind-drying and salting to modern freeze-drying and vacuum-sealing, Sue Shephard has hit on an interesting his- torical angle. However, attempting to tell her story - the story of civilisation itself, according to the blurb - in 350 pages is a tricky task; trying to throw in a whole load of recipes and amusing anecdotes makes the job almost impossible.The size and scope of the book's subject is simply too large, and the author's attempt to beat the unwieldy matter into shape by dividing it into different preservation techniques doesn't quite work, because the chapters overlap to the point of repetition. Shephard's prose is a bit po-faced and, at times, reads like a rather heavy educational text, peppered with such phrases as "in previous chapters we have seen how . . . but now let us take a look at . . ." Still, all the right ingredients are here - an excellent idea, some great stories and diligent research.

This article first appeared in the 31 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why Tony Blair is a Bobo