Bread and Thread – Ersatz Foods

Opening music

Liz

Hello and welcome to bread and thread a podcast about food and domestic history. I’m liz.

Hazel

I’m hazel. We’re two friends who studied archaeology together and love history and making and or baking things. What have you been making?

LIZ

So I have been having a bad brain time and nick had been really lovely and I asked what I could do for them and they asked for the most chocolate cake.

HAZEL

I can see exactly how this went.

LIZ

I made a chocolate cake, put a chocolate cream layer between, buttercream obviously, and then I put chocolate fingers all around the sides and dark chocolate ganache and chocolate buttons on top. It is the most decadent thing I’ve ever created. It’s very very good if you have a small slice.

HAZEL

I do think you executed nick’s request to the max though.

LIZ

If you ask me to make the most chocolate cake I’ll make the most chocolate cake.

HAZEL

Part of me wants to try this but part of me values my sugar levels.

LIZ

I no longer care for such earthly things.

HAZEL

I think the part that wants to try it is bigger.

LIZ

I do recommend it like I say it’s very good if you have a small piece.

HAZEL

I’m slightly in awe of you right now.

LIZ

What have you been up to?

HAZEL

Nothing quite as magnificent unfortunately. I bottled my elderflower wine finally and it tastes really nice I was expecting like last time I got this really alcoholic slightly sour thing but this really tastes good. I made a wine. I think it needs a couple more weeks to age, a couple more months idk I’m just going to keep drinking wine at set intervals for science.

LIZ

I really thought you were going to say at the world.

HAZEL

I don’t know if wine is aggressive enough I think if you want to drink something at the world it should be rum.

LIZ

Straight whiskey that’s what jaded people in the films drink.

HAZEL

Oh yeah I need a trenchcoat and a cigar. Unfortunately I don’t like either of those things.

LIZ

You don’t like trenchcoats?

HAZEL

Not a fan honestly.

LIZ

Oh. I used to have this pink one that I loved.

HAZEL

Oh nice.

LIZ

It was the colour of a strawberry milkshake.

HAZEL

That’s cool. I’m more of like if frock coats were in fashion I would be all over them.

LIZ

I would enjoy a frockcoat I think I’ve said on this podcast before a part of me just wants to dress like beau brummell.

HAZEL

Yeah that would be excellent. Actually I’m thinking of getting into tailoring if I can. I dunno. I need some waistcoats in my life and can’t find any. Possibly a waistcoat and cape scenario.

LIZ

Oh yes.

HAZEL

Yeah. So what are we learning about this week?

LIZ

In the absence of a segue, ersatz goods, specifically ersatz foods.

HAZEL

Fake foods!

LIZ

Yes cause we were talking last time about acorn coffee and I went on a bit of a dive.

HAZEL

Oh yes I am excited to learn what atrocities people have been eating for centuries.

LIZ

So we begin in the victorian era.

HAZEL

Of course.

LIZ

People have been eating ersatz foods forever cause it just means replacement or substitute. So an ersatz food is just you think it’s this thing but it isn’t.

HAZEL

Like the current it’s a cake trend – where it looks like a thing, and it’s-

LIZ

Less that and more like vegan foods.

HAZEL

Oh ok. Right.

LIZ

Like you know when people use chickpea water instead of eggs that could be described as an ersatz egg.

HAZEL

Oh, ok. I do like the cake thing though.

LIZ

I like it. It’s outdated when we’re recording this, it’s going to be more outdated when it’s out.

HAZEL

Well I’m still tickled by it, so.

LIZ

So yeah In the victorian era it was less about necessity, like we talked about with acorn coffee, though there was some, there have always been poor people…

HAZEL

I feel like the victorians would be getting particularly good at it, they just found out about chemistry as well…

LIZ

The first one I want to talk about is alum.

HAZEL

Ok alum as in what you use for dyeing?

LIZ

Yeah or In laundry detergent.

HAZEL

Ok… In food?

LIZ

In food becuase you probably know white bread has always been seen as better than brown bread cause it’s more processed, white makes it look pure because that whole kettle of fish… So to stretch the white flour to make the bread look nice and white you put alum in with the flour or just straight up chalk.

HAZEL

Ok is that ok for you, can you eat that and be fine?

LIZ

That depends whether you enjoy chronic diorrhea.

HAZEL

I’m going to say no.

LIZ

In which case no. Cause alum is aluminium based and aluminium is not good for you.

HAZEL

Yeah I think you probably shouldn’t eat that. But wow.

LIZ

Most foods you can find in the victorian era you can find someone willing to adulterate it. Like dyeing red wine and port to make it redder.

HAZEL

What?

LIZ

Replacing coffee with ground up beans… Replacing tea with various tree leaves including ash and elder.

HAZEL

Ok aren’t elder leaves mildly poisonous?

LIZ

But you know you put em up and dry them and they look a lot like tea apparently. Just pop outside and get some of that you don’t have to import it.

HAZEL

Those wacky victorians.

LIZ

An early victorian writer called mr sedgewick, mr t sedgewick, not sure wwhat the t stands for.

HAZEL

Trevor.

LIZ

Might have been. He said it’s hard to find a single article of food that is not adulterated. This does include medicine obviously. This is why we now have things like the maximum amount of other stuff you’re allowed in food like you’ve probably seen the stat you can have six insect parts in a chocolate bar.

HAZEL

I have not but I shouldn’t be surprised.

LIZ

Cause it’s basically impossible to keep everything out, it’s like this is the amount that’s allowed.

HAZEL

Yeah I guess having made stuff from fruits and berries and things, you can’t always get everything out.

LIZ

Though I imagine the acceptable levels of say lead in mustard or arsenic in sweets is probably quite low.

HAZEL

Yeah there’s-

LIZ

They make them look pretty.

HAZEL

Yeah there’s a couple spider legs, and there’s arsenic and one of those is worse.

LIZ

Yeah people eat insects, it’s a thing, but I don’t think arsenic is an accepted source of protein.

HAZEL

So how much arsenic can you have in food?

LIZ

Basically if you can detect it it’s probably too much.

HAZEL

What were the victorians putting arsenic in?

LIZ

Various arsenic compounds make very very pretty colours, like the sort of toxic victorian wallpaper, the green, that’s arsenic, so you can make sweets look really pretty and sell them to the children.

HAZEL

Oh, oh no, don’t do that victorians.

LIZ

But the use of the word ersatz in the english language doesn’t really come into play until the first world war when no-one had anything and everyone’s having a bad time.

HAZEL

Yeah I’ve heard about a few sort of replacement foods and kind of fake foods that came about during the second world war.

LIZ

Well, second world war slash great depression. So the popularisation of the term probably comes from the ersatz core of the german army in ww1, which was the less good soldiers but they were running out of soldiers.

HAZEL

Ok…

LIZ

The people who were less able.

HAZEL

So country militia peasants with pitchforks?

LIZ

Partly that partly people who were turned away in the original draft for various relatively minor health issues. But yeah because there were naval blockades we got ersatz things in germany during the first world war including there was 6000 patents for ersatz drink products.

HAZEL

That’s a lot. I imagine that would be big business, cause people still want to enjoy things.

LIZ

The one from this very very long list I want to highlight is not a patented one but one people did was catmint or catnip as a tea.

HAZEL

Ok

LIZ

Which I am informed by certain corners of the internet does produce a mild high.

HAZEL

Sounds alright.

LIZ

If I was living through the first world war I might drink catnip too.

HAZEL

Ride it out, catnipped up.

LIZ

Interestingly we also get, when we get into the depression some ersatz fabrics including nettle, which I know are making nettle fabric.

HAZEL

Yeah I have heard of nettle being used but it fell out of favour in the early 20th century and I mean even a bit before when new machine made fabrics started coming in, but due to shortages in the first world war they started to bring back.

LIZ

Also fish skin fabrics…

HAZEL

Ok…

LIZ

The collection of aberdeen university apparently has a coat made of fish skin.

HAZEL

I’m not sure that would be… Would it be soft?

LIZ

On the basis they also made slippers out of it I would assume it’s at least comfortable. Slippers specifically not just shoes.

HAZEL

I can imagine that wouldn’t be the worst.

LIZ

I mean fish are fairly soft. That’s probably a nonsense logic but fish are fairly soft.

HAZEL

Also very slimy though, it’s difficult to unslime them.

LIZ

I don’t think they’re that slimy when they’re dry.

HAZEL

Ok, hm. Not sure I’m gonna…

LIZ

When you’re touching a fish it’s wet.

HAZEL

Not sure I’m going to try out that one.

LIZ

I’ll have to try it. What I would not be willing to try is the ersatz coffees.

HAZEL

Ok so we’ve got acorns as one that doesn’t sound too bad…

LIZ

Chikoree is one people still drink as sort of a like a decaf alternative in different parts of the us but then we also have lupin whifch is poisonous.

HAZEL

Yeah…

LIZ

Mustard seed, just straight up diluted treacle or molasses.

HAZEL

I feel that wouldn’t taste like coffee.

LIZ

Most of these wouldn’t I don’t think.

HAZEL

But some more than others right?

LIZ

Idk there’s some that sound disgusting but there’s a substance called postam or postum which was this really popular ersatz coffee during coffee rationing in the US during ww2 it was wheat and molasses.

HAZEL

That’s kinda like when you’re a kid and you put vimto in your wine glass and pretend you’re drinking wine.

LIZ

Ive done that.

HAZEL

It’ll look similar but won’t taste similar.

LIZ

Yeah it’s just… Yeah, although one thing I would be willing to try though the most well known example is very bad… Are you aware of the holodomor?

HAZEL

No….?

LIZ

Basically a manufactured famine under stalin in the ukraine.

HAZEL

Oh ok yes I have heard of it I didn’t know it had a name, but I guess obviously it would. Bad thing.

LIZ

Yeah we can say starving people is bad. That’s not a controversial statement.

HAZEL

We only make the most uncontroversial statements on this podcast.

LIZ

You say that when we said the civil war was about slavery, we got messaged on twitter because that’s apparently a controversial statement in parts of the us.

HAZEL

Of course they did, thanks twitter.

LIZ

Yeah. But apparently people would make flatbread from potato peels.

HAZEL

Ok.

LIZ

Apparently what you can do is boil it up to get the starch out and then combine that use that to bulk out your flour and because it’s very very starchy you do get it is the texture of sort of a not very good flatbread.

HAZEL

Kind of ingenious.

LIZ

Which naturally people have rediscovered the concept and made it fancy. I found a recipe for a potato peel foccaccia with bacon bits and shredded cheese and bits to make it feel like a loaded baked potato.

HAZEL

That does sound tastier than the original version.

LIZ

I find it beautiful that this food of absolute desperation someone looked at that and went I bet outside that context I could make this delicious.

HAZEL

I can see how someone would – you get these traditional foods that come out of hard times like that, and then people in the next generations improve upon them using the resources they have and it becomes something that’s really good.

LIZ

Look at american style mashed potato, mashed potato is stodge it’s there to stick to your ribs and make you not be hungry, and then america goes but what if we added cream and cheese and just made this fatty rich mass. It just- I’m actually tearing up a little bit cause it’s such a human thing, we’re the only creature that cooks and we just go – we will find things to eat, and when we survive the time when we need to hunt things down to eat we will make that same thing so delicious and that… It’s just… I cannot… It’s just… Can’t finish my sentence cause I’m getting emotional about humans.

HAZEL

I think in this day and age it’s a good thing to be able to do that, it reminds us that we are we are all humans and we are all sort of bumbling around down here. I think one of the most human things, even in times of incredible hardship when we’re struggling to find whatever we can to eat, we try to make it taste good.

LIZ

Yeah, but I’m going to distract myself from that, I found in the collection of the imperial war museum there’s a tin of ersatz tobacco…

HAZEL

Ooh what’s that made of?

LIZ

We don’t know what that specific one was made of cause it’s not been tested but examples of ersatz tobacco which was apparently sold, that specific tin was apparently sold by germans to a british ww1 pow, which I just enjoy as a fact, but things that could be used include hawthorne leaves, oak leaves, apple leaves, strawberry leaves, raspberry leaves, some of these are things that people legitimately make into tea now.h

HAZEL

So just smoking all the leaves you can find.

LIZ

Yeah if you run out of tobacco the message seems to be just boil and smoke whatever you can find, some of it might taste good.

HAZEL

I assume it’s not going to give you the same effect, but you can at least recapture the feeling.

LIZ

When I looked that up I also looked up menthol and clove cigarettes cause they’re kind of the if not ersatz then adulterated cigarettes that are common now, apparrently clove cigarettes were created for health reasons, the clove oil was used for respiratory illnesses, but clove cigarettes tended to give you more nicotine and tar, so it seems like a short term solution.

HAZEL

Yeah…

LIZ

Whereas menthol cigarettes were just created to taste good.

HAZEL

I want to know what the mystery tobacco is.

LIZ

Right? There must be a way.

HAZEL

Can we tweet at the imperial war museum to get them to test the tobacco?

LIZ

If you’re listening to this, tweet at imperial war museum, we want to know what the ersatz tobacco is.

HAZEL

Everyone tweet for the tobacco.

LIZ

It’s catalogue number eph749, we have to be specific here.

HAZEL

We can make a difference.

LIZ

So yeah, at the risk of me getting emotional again that is a brief history of ersatz foods.

HAZEL

I think it’s a pretty good thing to get emotional about actually.

LIZ

People are just so human.

HAZEL

People are, and it’s cool and it’s really nice to remember that at the moment.

LIZ

Yeah.

HAZEL

Aaw, well you cheered me up.

Probably bad plug.

HAZEL

So I’m going to talk about… Is it my turn?

LIZ

I think I have said everything I planned to say…

HAZEL

I’m going to let you collect yourself there while I do a bit of a local larder, and I’m going to talk about elderflower.

LIZ

Delicious.

HAZEL

I was bottling my elderflower wine as I said at the beginning and I thought it’s kind of a regional thing, at least to not just to britain but to a small area of northern europe anyway, really. And I do talk to quite a few people who just don’t know elderflower is a thing, so I’m going to talk a little bit about elderflower as a flavouring. So if you do haven’t come across it before, elderflowers are the flowers of the elder tree which grows in northern europe, nw africa and parts of asia as well I think, and you get elderflowers and later you get elderberries and you can also use the elderberries for things, you can get elderberry wine, and all sorts of stuff, but I’m going to talk about elderflower. Because t elderflower cordial is a really popular drink at least in the uk and it is also used in drinks in germany and possibly a few of the surrounding countries as well, though I don’t think france and italy and southern europe, but I don’t think in italy, spain any of that southern europe, cause I don’t think anyone I’ve talked to from there has heard of it.

LIZ

It’s interesting it being a thing in north africa and northern europe and not much in between.

HAZEL

Yeah, it’s interesting. Idk if it’s used a flavouring in northern africa.

LIZ

It just grows there.?

HAZEL

Yeah. If anyone knows of a north african elderflower flavoured thing I would be super excited ot know about it, but I’m not aware of any at the moment. So elderflower cordial is a delicious concentrated drink where you pour a little bit in and you dilute it with water or soda or a tonic, whatever you like, and it’s really fragrant and fresh and it’s just the taste of summer for me and it’s we did an episode a while ago now on temperance drinks and it’s one of the victorian cordials, although apparently it does elderflower does date back quite a long way, in even since the days of hippocrates who apparently used elderflowers as a medicine…

LIZ

He used everything as a medicine.

HAZEL

I mean… Yeah people were just using everything left right and centre at this point, they are mentioned as a medicine to encourage vomiting as a purgative, so interesting…

LIZ

Hasn’t been my experience.

HAZEL

No I have not vomited after drinking elderflower cordial which is fortunate. Elderflower wine and elderflower champagne, the sparkling version were very popular country drinks in the victorian era and going forwards, so my granny used to make elderflower champagne and I’d really like to make some. Apparently what makes it fizzy is the fermentation process is prolonged so it’s still fermenting a bit, and you can do that just by putting a little bit of sugar in the bottle to keep it ticking over when you bottle it. So that’s what it’s used for today, it’s making a comeback especially as a flavour as well, elderflower buttercream, icing, that kind of thing it’s starting to be…

LIZ

I would eat a lot of that.

HAZEL

Sounds good right? It’s a fancy flavour now but historically it’s been a kind of country flavour, like something you can go out and gather for free to make nice things out of. It has also been associated, I’m just going to talk a bit about elder, the properties of elder, and medicinal uses that’s quite interesting as well, so apparently nicholas culpepper mentioned it the 17th century herbalist, and the quote is that if you boil asparagus, the young leaves and stalks boiled in fat and broth doth mightily carry forth phlegm and choler. Sounds quite nice.

LIZ

I mean… I’m not that into asparagus anyways and then you said boiled in fat. Just deep fried asparagus.

HAZEL

You can deep fry elderflowers, elderflower fritters are a thing and they’re very good I’ve had them, so just coating them in batter and deep frying them, delicious. I’m not too sure about boiling them in fat.

LIZ

Thing is deep fried asparagus seems like one of those things where parents trick their kids into eating vegetables.

HAZEL

Yeah. Although I have also heard of elderflower fritters being earlier – you knwo the tales from the green valley series, that was a bbc series about the 17th century I believe?

LIZ

I think so cause it was jacobean that one, there was a whole series with different ones, that one was jacobean.

HAZEL

I remember there being elderflower fritters in that so I guess it must be a fairly old thing so maybe it’s one of those things that started off medicinal and people thought oh that’s tasty I’m going to make it better.

LIZ

Like lucozade did.

HAZEL

Really?

LIZ

Lucozade was originally an invalid drink, something you drank while in hospital. I’ll do a thing on lucozade soon.

HAZEL

So apparently the genus of elder is sambuccus, idk if that has anything to do with sambucca.

LIZ

Yes, I think I mentioned this in a very early episode, sambucca originally was an elderberry drink.

HAZEL

Oh that makes a lot of sense. Wow. That makes me like sambucca slightly more.

LIZ

I think the predominant flavour in sambucca now is generally more of an aniseed.

HAZEL

Yeah that’s why I don’t like it.

LIZ

This podcast is anti liquorice.

HAZEL

If it was some kind of elderberry liquer I’d like it more.

LIZ

Clearly you just need to make your own historical sambucca.

HAZEL

Yeah. Elderflower has had some historically interesting associations. When I was looking at this sort of folklore surrounding the elder tree I found a lot of stuff that is kind of unverifiable but what I can gather it is a tree that has been associated in folklore with protection for quite a long time. So there has been elder trees planted outside peoples houses to help protect the house, and apparently it was also known as danes blood cause of a belief that it grew on the sites of battles with vikings.

LIZ

That’s incredibly specific I love it.

HAZEL

It is, yeah. I’d like to read a bit more about it cause what I’m reading it from is an article that doesn’t give any reasoning behind this or place the statement came from, but it’s quite cool I’d like to know if it’s true or not.

LIZ

Probably one of those things where it happened once.

HAZEL

Maybe so yeah.

Shakespeare also mentions the elder tree, in fact shakespeare refers to elder as the wood that christ’s cross was made of.

LIZ

That sounds unlikely.

HAZEL

Yeah, correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t think elder trees generally grow in the middle east.

LIZ

It was not on your list of places where it grows.

HAZEL

It was not, so I’m going to go ahead and say it probably wasn’t but it was a folk belief.

LIZ

Shakespeare just sort of said things.

HAZEL

People did have a habit of carrying their own folk beliefs onto christianity, so I think it’s probably where it came from. For example the fruit that eve gives to adam, the fruit of knowledge, probably isn’t an apple. It doesn’t say in the bible it’s an apple, it was probably meant to be a pomegranate, but at least in anglocentric cultures it’s always depicted as an apple.

Liz

You know what? I’d sell out humanity for a pomegranate. I wouldn’t for an apple but I would for a pomegranate.

Hazel

Absolutely they’re so good. But you know apples are what we have here, we don’t have pomegranates, so when it said a fruit, we substitute. Apples already have a lot of significance, you know within british culture, so…

Liz

That is the fruit we have.

Hazel

Oh a fruit that’s significant, that’s what we have. And we have the golden apples, in scandinavian myth, so it’s already up there as a magical fruit, so insert your magical fruit here.

Liz

Beans. Sorry.

Hazel

I’ve got quite a long way from elderflower, but it’s quite a whimsical flavour I guess it is quite regional quite – it’s coming back but it was quite an old fashioned thing but it’s great cause it is one of those things you can go out and collect, and elder trees are around a lot they were used a lot in hedgerows cause they grow back well when they’re cut and hedgerows would have these plants that were good at being hedges and would bear fruit or something useful you could grow food out of, cause if you had your hedge why wouldn’t you make it nourish you as well. Elder flowers, elder trees are all over the place, you even get them in cities.

Liz

There’s two near me. Admittedly I’m in a suburb rather than full city thaht counts.

Hazel

I reckon most people at least in britain are probably within easy travel of an elder tree.

Liz

I think that’s a fair supposition.

Hazel

It’s something you can go out and gather you don’t need a huge amount of it to make cordial and you can go out and get a thing for free.

Liz

Just before we start encouraging people to start picking stuff, there are fruits that look a lot like elderberry but are poisonous. Don’t pick wild food unless you’re positive what it is.

Hazel

Find a picture of the thing, note what the things smell like and be absolutely sure.

Liz

Maybe bring someone who knows what they’re doing the first time.

Hazel

That’s the ideal scenario, but all that considered, I just love elderflower it’s the taste of summer.

Liz

It is, I might have to get the bottle green elderflower now.

Hazel

Go for it, tell you what though, gin and tonic with a splash of elderflower.

Liz

You know I don’t drink.

Hazel

I was talking to the others.

Liz

Nick might like it.

Hazel

So that’s my bit on elderflower.

Liz

Thank you I have learned. If you have enjyoed learning we do have a patreon where you can request your own special short episode and get access to monthly recipes and a discord server at patreon.com/breadandthread.

Hazel

We are on twitter as breadandthread and you can email us if you have any ideas for future episodes at breadandthreadpodcast@gmail.com

Liz

So thank you for listening and we’ll talk to you again soon.

Closing music

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