A Brief History of Stew

03.1.2005 | Mark Fahrer | Food | 2 Comments
My son Jacob wanted a stew tonight for dinner, a story nearly as old as creation.

“Beef Stew” he said, and off to Dean and DeLuca we went.

Stew, which  amounts to pretty much any concoction of foods cooked slowly in simmering liquid, dates back at least to Genesis and that Jacob’s purchase of his brother Isaac’s birthright in exchange for “bread and pottage of lentils.”

We left DeLuca’s better stocked than that, with tail of sirloin to chunk, baby yellow and maroon carrots (carrots come from Afghanistan and the original carrot was actually maroon), butter, garlic, fingerling potatoes, leek, fresh lemon thyme and sage, cippoline onions, red wine, chicken stock with which to cover the meat and pancetta for extra flavor.

Herodotus tells us of the Scythians, who “put the flesh into an animal’s  paunch, mix water with it, and boil it like that over the bone fire. The bones burn very well, and the paunch easily contains all the meat once it has been striped off. In this way an ox, or any other sacrificial beast, is ingeniously made to boil itself.”

In those primitive tribes whose cuisine survived into the 19th and 20th centuries, we see that they could and did make such stews. Amazonian tribes, for instance, used the shells of turtles, boiling the entrails with various other ingredients. The development of pottery, perhaps 10,000 years ago, made cooking, and stews in particular, much easier.

The first known stew recipes are found in the oldest cookbook known, De Re Coquinaria (On Cookery), a fourth or fifth century AD collection believed to be based on the recipes of one of the three Roman gastronomes named Apicius (literally bee-keeper, but after its various possessors also used as a synonym for both wealth and Epicureanism)

No one seems quite sure which Apicius was the author, but there’s no doubt that the most famous and colorful of the three was M. Gavius Apicius, who taught haute cuisine under Tiberius and who legend has it exhausted a vast fortune on his lavish dinners, finally killing himself when his funds no longer permitted him to eat to his tastes. Livy described M. Gavius as inclined toward “every extravagant luxury that could be contrived.” Think plates of nightingales’ tongues, or pigs fed figs and then poisoned with vast draughts of honeyed wine.

Here is a recipe for lamb stew from De Re Coquinaria:

Put pieces of kid or lamb in the stew pot with chopped onion and coriander. Crush pepper, lovage, cumin and cook with broth, oil and wine. Put in a dish and tie with roux.

And here’s what Jacob and I had:

Start with butter, pancetta, leek, garlic and herbs. Then add meat dredged in flour, salt and pepper. Once brown add wine and stock. Set to simmer and add the rest of the ingredients in about 15 minutes. Simmer one hour or until meat is tender and liquid is reduced to sauce.  

If you like, you can serve the stew with moutarde (fruits preserved in mustard and sugar syrup from Italy), a nice balance to the saltiness the pancetta added.

12.9.2008 | Ericson

Completely understand what your stance in this matter. Although I would disagree on some of the finer details, I think you did an awesome job explaining it. Sure beats having to research it on my own. Thanks

03.7.2011 | nikon coolpix p80

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