Bird Droppings from Estonia: Christmas foods
Arvamus 08 Dec 2013 Hilary BirdEWR
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I look forward to winter seasonal foods! Pride of place at any traditional Estonian table is still taken by sizzling verivorstid (blood sausages) but blood “puddings” – made of blood, fat, groats and flavourings - are found worldwide. Our verikäkk is very similar to Finnish mustamakkara. The Germans have blutwurst but the French and English refer, less brutally, to boudin noir or black pudding: no traditional British breakfast is complete without it. The Spanish have morcilla and the Italians have regional sanguinaccio including a sweet, dark pudding made with milk and chocolate.

What better to eat with verivorstid than potatoes? According to the database DAFNE (Data Food Networking) the only Europeans who eat more potatoes every day than the Estonians (188 grams) are the Latvians (274 grams) and Lithuanians (234 grams). The potato was introduced from Peru to Spain in 1565. The Flemish botanist Clusius (1526 –1609) heralds the grand beginnings of its career when, in 1587, he tells that the Prefect of Mons received some “Taratouffli” (“small truffles”) from a friend of the Papal Legate in Belgium.

The potato soon reached the German-speaking world but widespread adoption took over 150 years because of a need to adapt a plant from the Andes to European climates. It gained acceptance because it was easy to plant and grow and gave big yields. It was also hardier than other staple foodstuffs – for many farmers the problem was not whether a cereal crop would fail but when. A community that could rely on potatoes was much less liable to famine and, in 1664; they were “a sure and steady remedy” for shortages in Ireland. Over-reliance on the potato would later lead to disaster for the Irish but in the 18th century the crop was a lifesaver.

New varieties arrived at a crucial time in the 1770s when famine in Europe was widespread. The English economist Adam Smith wrote in The wealth of nations (1776) that “the food produced by a field of potatoes is not inferior in quantity to that produced by a field of rice, and much superior to what is produced by a field of wheat.” Smith also noted that the price of potatoes had, in three-four decades, halved as their cultivation moved from the garden to the field. He thought that potatoes were responsible for the impressive physiques of the labourers and prostitutes of London (“the strongest men and the most beautiful women perhaps in the British dominions”) and contrasted them to his stunted fellow Scots whose main diet was oatmeal.

European governments promoted potatoes enthusiastically but prejudice persisted and not without reason. The potato belongs to the Solanaceae family of flowering plants some of which are poisonous. Solanaceae (also known as “the nightshade family”) includes belladonna (deadly nightshade), capsicum (paprika, chili pepper), tobacco, tomato, petunia, aubergine and mandrake. French farmers remained suspicious despite the widely reported fact that they were eaten at Versailles and that Marie Antoinette (1755-93) wore dresses with potato flower embroidery. Some would not feed potatoes to their pigs for fear of bad meat. The Burgundians invented a new name - pomme de terre (apple of the earth) - but they also banned the potato on the grounds that it caused leprosy. Pommes frites (“fries”, now gobbled all over the world in McDonalds) would not appear on French menus until the 19th century. When Frederick II of Prussia (1712-86) ordered his subjects to grow potatoes he was asked “what are they to us? The things have neither smell or taste, not even the dogs will eat them.”

In the 1760’s Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Baron de Laune (1727 –81), governor of Limoges, tried, like the King of France, to lead by example and dispel the belief that potatoes were poisonous by eating them in public. Turgot, an enlightened man, was opposed to serfdom and sympathized with the physiocrats (from the Greek physis kratein – “let nature rule”) who believed that the wealth of nations was derived from the land and agriculture. Labour and commerce, said the physiocrats, should be free from regulation (as opposed to mercantilists who held that the regulation of trade and manufacture generated wealth).

A version of physiocrat philosophy would be central to Estonian Awakeners Jannsen and Jakobson and to Jaan Tõnisson, all of who saw a nation of owner-occupied small farms as an ideal basis for Estonian society. But the 18th century Estonian speaking communities of Estland and Livland were not exposed to these thoughts– the idea that labouring classes should be free was anathema to the Russian overlords and their Baltic German henchmen. In 1776 the Free Economic Society of St Petersburg essay prize topic was “the advantages and disadvantages of serfdom” and, in 1778, the best that August Hupel (1737–1819), the well-meaning pastor of Põltsamaa, could ask was “Is there no way to improve the condition of the Livland peasant without making him free and without diminishing the income of his lord.”

The potato itself was more democratic. It became Europe’s food reserve during the Napoleonic Wars and then a staple crop: it arrived in the Russian empire (where it was called the “devil’s apple” and believed to cause cholera) in the 19th century. The Estonians were no less suspicious of it than the French, Germans or Russians but potatoes soon became indispensable and were, says cook Silvia Kalvik, baked in the threshing barn oven. By 1900 boiled potatoes, meat and sauce was a common Estonian lunch.

The potato became the original “convenience food” – energy-rich, nutritious, easy to grow on small plots, cheap and ready to cook without expensive processing. Increased consumption helped to reduce diseases such as scurvy and measles, led to higher birth rates and a European population explosion. Nowadays, Asia consumes almost half of the world's potatoes but its huge population means that consumption per person is modest. The heartiest potato eaters remain Baltic Europeans. So, raise your glass to your old pal. Häid jõule ja head isu! Merry Christmas and bon appetit!
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