Today and tomorrow I dedicate them to study because this Friday I have the last university exam of the second year: Microbiology of food and wine. Complex matter that I am enjoying beyond expectations: I am really learning very useful things in particular about wine yeasts. I had long understood that yeast plays an important role in the sensory characteristics of wine, but only now can I tell how the various strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae! This morning I was reading the emails when I found a message from Quora inviting me to read the response from Francesca Sau, graduated in intercultural linguistic mediation at La Sapienza in Rome, to the question "What did people eat inVictorian age that today would be considered strange? ". An answer (I bring it back to you in green color) so beautiful that I want to share it here on my wine blog and on which I want to make some final reflections. And what you will see is more relevant than what you think about the subject I am studying!
Victorian era: small premise
In the Victorian era, urbanization grew very fast, bringing large numbers of people to live in cities. As a result, the demand for food has also grown. However, there was still no control over the food production chain and its healthiness, other than the fact that science did not have all the answers we have today about how bad certain additives could do. What interested the Victorian merchants was profit: they lowered the cost of raw materials and raised the selling price. This has led to the adulteration of food with cheaper ingredients, but which we would not consider edible today.
Victorian era: bread
One of the most adulterated foods of the Victorian era was bread. A compound that today is found in some detergents, based on aluminum, was mixed with the flour: AlK (alum). It had the property of making the bread whiter, but also of retaining water making the bread more "compact" and dense. In small doses it was not dangerous, but if those who produced the flour added it without any control and also the baker after him did it, the quantity contained in the final product could become a great health risk. Another additive was "simply" gypsum powder. It is estimated that often in a Victorian loaf 1/3 of the total was not flour, but additives of this kind. The housewives of this period, contrary to our passion for the most natural and genuine looking foods, would ALWAYS have preferred the whitest loaf of all, therefore adulterated. It is easy to understand how easy it was to get to malnutrition for a worker of the time if his diet was mainly based on this bread of which 1/3 had no nutrients and he charged as much as "normal" bread. Moreover, these ingredients caused chronic gastritis in adults and even death in children, as they altered the normal functioning of bowel movements and caused severe diarrhea.
Victorian era: the cult of beauty
Another reason for adulterating food was to make it more beautiful on the eye. Then they began to use a variety of substances to give food an inviting color. For example, mustard was made more yellow and cheaper (for those who produced it) by adding lead chromate. The same that is used today to paint the American school buses that we see in the movies: a very very bright yellow.
Victorian times: five o'clock tea
The tea was adulterated with everything: iron filings, various powders, previously used tea leaves plus lead to make it look black and the green tea contained Prussian blue.
Victorian era: milk for children
One of the greatest health risks was hidden in one of the most popular foods of the time, especially in the diet of children: milk, the most important and economical source of calcium, a food considered important in the diet from the point of view of health. In 1882, 20000 milk samples were tested and 1/5 of the total had been adulterated. In general, however, this adulteration was actually known and considered beneficial. The milk that arrived in London was almost all treated with boric acid, also called borax. At the time it was believed that adding this compound to milk was able to "purify" it by postponing the date on which it would go bad or turning the expired milk into good.
When milk is good it has a neutral pH of 7. When it goes bad, the pH becomes acidic. Adding the borax would bring the milk's pH back to being neutral again. By neutralizing the acid, the milk has a palatable taste again. Borax was also sold in stores and bought in powder form by housewives. In addition to adding it to milk, it was used to clean bathrooms, purify water from bacteria and many other things.
To neutralize the acidity of half a liter of milk, 5 grams of borax were needed. 5 grams of borax is potentially enough to kill a baby. The symptoms it caused were heartburn, vomiting and diarrhea for small doses, brain and kidney damage for slightly larger doses, and eventually death.
The greatest danger lies in an even more serious basic error: borax is not able to kill bacteria as previously thought, but only to mask the flavor. One of the bacteria that remained in borax-treated milk is brucella, which can cause severe fevers that last for weeks. But the most terrible bacterium that spread due to borax was that of bovine tuberculosis. Bovine TB is also called non-pulmonary and damages internal organs and bones. One of the most terrible effects of TB is the formation of abscesses in the spine. Abscesses make the bones of the spine more fragile, causing them to collapse. If multiple vertebrae are compromised, the result is severe deformity. Labscess and collapse of the spine cause pressure on the spinal cord and the consequences are paralysis and death.
All children of the Victorian era, from all walks of life, are considered to have been exposed to this bacterium at some point in their growth. Many of them died. Hundreds of thousands of children.
My thoughts: what has changed?
In about ten minutes I'll be back to review microbiology. Among the things I am studying are the risks of contamination during the production, processing, transport and storage of the ingredients that arrive on our tables and restaurant counters.
Pistachio and salmon ice cream
The first consideration I want to make is that even today there is the cult of beauty and I believe that very few prefer the less inviting food than the more "flashy" one. I want to give you a couple of classic examples of two foods I love: pistachio ice cream and salmon. The pistachio ice cream without dyes does not have an inviting color: it is a beige that slightly tends to green, very dull. Yet in most ice cream parlors you will find pistachio ice cream of all shades of green. The most used dye is chlorophyll, and it is often used to mask the addition of almonds to pistachio paste in its cheaper versions. Without going into the matter of food fraud, ice cream in bags (I still have the chills thinking about the Sigep Fair in Rimini) and dyes that are really too bright / fake, we are led to prefer a pistachio ice cream that is greener than a brown one. And we make the wrong choice.
Things get worse if you love salmon. Farmed salmon sucks and should not be eaten. For heaven's sake, the flavor can also be good, especially if we have never tasted wild salmon and if the farmed one has been adulterated in various ways. The feed of farmed salmon contains synthetic astaxanthin, a carotenoid that gives the meat its pink color. This additive has the same chemical form as that of which crustaceans are rich in wild salmon.
Intensive salmon farming is unspeakable for the cruelty to animals, the risk to which the entire ecosystem is subjected and also for a health issue, because eating lots of antibiotics leads us to become immunoresistant. All this is not fought by becoming vegetarians or vegans which is not in our nature and has other hallucinating consequences for both us and animals, but consciously choosing what you eat. And the excuse of "wild salmon costs too much" does not hold: rather you eat it once less, have one less aperitif or quit smoking.
(Co) science from the Victorian Era to today
Beyond the food fraud that existed in the Victorian Era, they exist today and will always exist, even if we are in 2021 there is a situation of general mistrust in scientific progress perpetuated above all by the less educated people. So-called grandmother's remedies or natural remedies are preferred. Yet they are the same ones who killed millions of people in the Victorian Era. A paradox? You are afraid of the synthetic preservative, but you are not afraid of the potentially lethal bacteria that can develop naturally in the food. Even in wine it is like this: endless praise for natural wines that in almost all cases stink in a hallucinating way - and the stench, ladies and gentlemen, are the nice acetic bacteria and gang - but we praise the absence of treatments necessary to produce a quality wine, both from the organoleptic point of view and from the healthiness point of view.
The lack of culture was dangerous yesterday and it is dangerous today, in this sense nothing has changed. Extreme solutions, from veganism to the consumption of so-called "natural" products, are not the universal solution of a world increasingly sick of profit and speculation. Nature must be loved and respected, but when needed, let's trust the science and progress that researchers give us every year with their work.
They kill grandmothers more with their home remedies than scientific and cultural progress, let's never forget that. (Co) science lives in harmony with nature, protects and enhances it to bring it to a better quality.
These are my values.
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