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You might think when you’re tucking into a vindaloo on a Friday night washed down with a pint or two of lager that you’re taking on the hottest challenge that the Indian kitchen has to offer. Well, hot it may be. But Indian it ain’t. At least, not originally.

 And, for that matter, neither is pasta Italian, nor haggis necessarily Scottish, nor French toast French – as I found out during the course of researching A Curious History of Food and Drink, published this autumn by Quercus.


Vindaloo, known today as one of the hottest of curries, originated in Goa, the Portuguese colony established on the west coast of India in the 16th century. Rather than being a native Indian dish, however, vindaloo owes its name and nature to the Portuguese dish called carne de vinha d’alhos, composed (as the name suggests) of meat, wine and garlic. These items are also – with the addition of spices and the substitution of vinegar for wine – the leading ingredients of vindaloo. And, what’s more, chilli – which gives vindaloo its fire – isn’t Indian either. It was the Portuguese who brought chillis from the New World. Prior to that, the heat in Indian cooking was supplied by peppercorns.

Vindaloo? Na…too spicy for us!



The first record of pasta on Italian soil dates from 1154, when the Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi describes the mills at Trabia in Sicily making large quantities of something called itriyyaItriyya is mentioned some two centuries earlier in an Arabic medical text written by a Jewish doctor in what is now Tunisia, and was the word for long thin strands of dried dough, which were cooked by boiling. The word itriyya is not in fact Arabic, but rather an Arabic transliteration from a Greek word for some kind of dough-based food cooked by boiling – but whether this might have resembled pasta is uncertain.

Now that looks amazing!



Alongside porridge and deep-fried Mars Bars, haggis is often seen as the archetypal Scottish food, served at every Burns Supper. But until 1700 or so, haggis was also popular in England. The earliest known recipe appears in a 15th-century manuscript from Lancashire, and the earliest printed recipe is in Gervase Markham’s The English Huswife (1615).

Now that has NEVER tickled our fancies!


French Toast

After the Battle of Crécy in 1346, many English knights who had been captured by the French were obliged to sell their estates to raise the ransom demanded for their release. Returning home in penury, they were given a pension and living quarters at Windsor Castle by Edward III, who established for them a new chivalric order, called the Poor Knights of Windsor. By a process that remains obscure, this name also came to be applied to what the Germans call arme Ritter (‘poor knights’) and the English call French toast. To confuse matters further, French toast was known as German toast until the First World War, when it was patriotically renamed in honour of Britain’s principal ally in the conflict.

A yummy way, to start the day!


Sweet Pizza

The pizza described in 1570 by the Italian chef Bartolomeo Scappi bore little resemblance to the pizza of today. It was a sweet pie with a marzipan crust stuffed with crushed almonds, pine nuts, figs, dates, raisins and biscuits. Tomatoes had not yet been introduced to Italy from the New World, and thus the savoury pizza had not yet been born.

The sweet pizza of yesteryear wasn’t quite the same as this sweet pizza!


Pizza Margherita

When the savoury pizza did arrive, it was looked down on by most Italians as food fit only for the impoverished slum-dwellers of Naples. This all changed in 1889 when Queen Margherita visited the city, and asked the pizza-maker Raffaele Esposito to visit the kitchens of the royal palace of Capodimonte. Esposito offered the queen three basic varieties: one with oil, one with whitebait, and one with tomatoes, to which Esposito added mozzarella and a little basil – red, white and green being the colours of the flag of the newly united Italy. The queen favoured this last variety, which was duly named in her honour, and her patronage helped to make pizza more acceptable across Italy.

Bread. Cheese. Tomato Sauce…what more do you need!?



There is a tradition that tapas originated during the reign of Alfonso the Wise of Castile (1252–84). When at some point Alfonso fell ill, his physician advised him to eat snacks between meals to help soak up the wine that he was constantly imbibing. Feeling the benefit of this regime, Alfonso instituted a law that dictated that tavern-keepers could not serve wine to their customers without also providing them with a little something to eat with each glass. Tapa literally means ‘lid’ or ‘cover’, and it has been suggested that the original tapas were slices of bread, ham or chorizo that drinkers in Andalusia placed over their glasses to keep the flies off their sherry.

Tapas. Great for sharing!


Chicken Marengo

On 14 June 1800 Napoleon Bonaparte won a decisive victory near the little village of Marengo in Piedmont, leading to the expulsion of the Austrians from Italy. After the battle, the famished Napoleon asked his chef Durand to prepare him something to eat. A quick forage produced a handful of ingredients – a scrawny chicken from a nearby farmyard, olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, crayfish, eggs, stale army bread and a dash of Cognac from Napoleon’s own flask. Napoleon was delighted with the result, and often asked his chef to prepare ‘Chicken Marengo’. That at least is the story, although some authorities suggest that the recipe was actually invented in a Paris restaurant several years after the battle.

Wow. This article has been hard work…off to eat!!


Do you have any fun, historical facts about food?

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