Question

June 6, 2010

In preparation for a later food experiment, do you have any good suggestions for a medieval use of potash or lye, other than soap/washing,  glass or tinder?

10 Responses to “Question”

  1. Potash?
    The one use I can think of for that, that hasn’t been mentioned, is as fertiliser.

    I did notice(on wikipaedia) that lye is listed as an ‘deliquescent salt'(that it draws out liquids.)
    Could it have been used for curing and drying fish and meat?

    • eldrimner said

      Well perhaps, though up here lye has been used to rehydrate dried fish.
      Though a fair bit later than the viking age, I wanted to try the earliest evidence for this kind of reconstituting of dried fish. Generally the use of lye is associated with the Scandinavian countries and christmas. However I have found a recipe dating back to the 14th century that would use a similar method. What I am curious about is to what extent one may have started using this technique deliberatly.

      • Well… As one who doesn’t like lutefisk, and believe that if it is ever served to the US President, that we’ll be bombed back to the stone age for manufacturing and using chemical weapons of mass destruction…

        I believe that the technique for making lutefisk was discovered completely by accident. Possibly someone dumped the wrong powder into a container of fish, and no one noticed before they were trapped in the building(snowstorm outside) and no other food inside…

        In desperate times, people will eat anything…

      • eldrimner said

        I am not sure about the accident thing… though I do not mind eating it…as at least the recipe I have from the 16th century seem do indicate it as a delicacy. Also since lye had been use for other things it might have been a deliberate attempt of cooking or cleaning the fish.

        Actually thinking about it it could have been away of treating an inferior, somehow soiled fish, as the lye was used for cleaning.

  2. Talzhemir said

    All it takes to make lye is water and ashes. Put the fire out with some rainwater, or look what’s left after a downpour, and there’s lye.

    Fish would provide plenty fat; some were caught mainly for rendering. Smelt (the Eskimo’s Oolaken) were once an important source of oil; they’re still called ‘Candlefish’ although the reason why is largely forgotten.

    I bet somebody would forget the fish in the ashes and water, and they’d get fish flavored soap. 😀

    I think it’s important to consider that the ability to sense a flavor in a particular way is largely n one’s DNA. If, for example, your genetic heritage required eating very sour fermented things rich in lactic acid to survive, the cuisine of your ethnic background may routinely include recipes that makes the rest of the world cringe.

    Three ingredients come to mind. First, cilantro. Some people perceive it as pleasant; others perceive it as extremely foul. (See http://ihatecilantro.com for a tongue-in-cheek anti-cilantro union.)

    The second is the licorice and ammonium chloride delicacy called Salmiak. Some people perceive it as bitter and foul but some perceive it as salty. Scandinavians apparently used ammonium chloride because they didn’t have salt, but they did have volcanic vents that breathed out ammonium chloride.

    Third, there’s alcohol (ethanol). To some people it’s flavorless. To some, it’s faintly chemical-ish. Another group perceives it as definitely sweet.

    All of these perceptions are known to be inherited traits. So, if somebody just can’t stand the thyme flavor of Ajwain or the bitter flavor in young dandelion greens, it might not be that they’re closed-minded and only willing to enjoy the foods of their own family and culture, but genes and the quirky tyranny of evolution.

    Last but not least, I think that some medieval recipes combine an acid and a base in a desperate attempt to produce salty flavors.

    To get the acid, fermentation may be used, for instance, souring milk. Both lactic acid and vinegar are processed by the liver into precious calories. Fish was preserved by pickling it in either of these.

    Add in the lye, and it becomes salty, and it’s preserved without cold or drying.

  3. Katherine Barich said

    I don’t know how far back the practice goes, but isn’t it traditional to dip pretzels in a lye bath before baking?

  4. Daniel Schneider said

    Well, a high pH (basic) solution will gelatinise the surface of the dough, and break down some of the proteins in the flour, which allows the pretzels to be given a shiny brown “skin” without having to be baked till they’re hard and crunchy. Bagels are also given a lye-wash for the same reason, and this is also why some breads are brushed with eggs before baking (eggs are very slightly basic)

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