The amazing fact about food preservation is that it has roots in every culture at nearly every moment in time. To survive ancient man had to harness nature to endure winter and drought. The first forms of preserving were simply to dry food by wind or in the sun in the warmer climates, but in the colder ones early man froze seal meat on the ice.
Later this developed to the salting and smoking of food stuffs, these ancient techniques then progressed to pickling and preserving in sweet syrup or alcohol. These methods were known in pre-Christian times, and were still in use in the nineteenth century in there basic forms.
The name ‘Chutney’ is the anglicized form of the Hindi word ‘chatni’ and is used to group a variety of relishes and condiments. In India there is an implied understanding that ingredients are only used when available and historically were only eaten on special occasions such as weddings or by the rich. The first Indian chutneys to reach Europe arrived during the late 1600s and were a luxury import. They were mostly mango chutneys in sticky syrups and were shipped in clay pots. The style was then adopted by western producers and became less spiced and sweeter to appeal to British tastes and appeared in cookbooks as “mangoed” fruit or vegetables.
Chutneys differ in saltiness, sweetness, sourness, or spiciness, many recipes combine several elements of these basic flavors and textures range from coarsely chopped preserves to smooth sauces. Food by its nature begins to spoil the moment it is harvested. Food preservation enabled ancient man to make roots and live in one place and form a community. He no longer had to consume the harvest immediately but could preserve some for later use.
Each culture preserved their local food sources using the same basic methods of food preservation. Pickling is preserving foods in vinegar (or other acid). Vinegar is produced from starches or sugars fermented first to alcohol and then the alcohol is oxidized. Wines, beers and ciders are all routinely transformed into vinegars. Pickling may have originated when food was placed in wine or beer to preserve it since both have a low pH. Perhaps the wine or beer went sour and the taste of the food in it was appealing. Containers had to be made of stoneware or glass, since the vinegar would dissolve the metal from pots. Never ones to waste anything our ancestors found uses for everything. The left over pickling brine found many uses, the Romans made a concentrated fish pickle sauce called “garum”, it was powerful stuff similar to “fish sauce” today . There was a spectacular increase in food preservation in the sixteenth century owing to the arrival in Europe of new foods.
Ketchup was an oriental fish brine that traveled the spice route to Europe and eventually to America where someone finally added sugar to it. Spices were added to these pickling sauces to make clever recipes. Soon chutneys, relishes, piccalillis, mustards, and ketchups were commonplace. Worcester sauce was an accident from a forgotten barrel of special relish. It aged for many years in the basement of the Lea and Perrins Chemist shop.
Canning is the newest of the food preservation methods being pioneered in the 1790s when a French confectioner, Nicolas Appert, discovered that the application of heat to food in sealed glass bottles preserved the food from deterioration. He theorized “if it works for wine, why not foods?” In about 1806 Appert’s principles were successfully trialed by the French Navy on a wide range of foods including meat, vegetables, fruit and even milk. Based on Appert’s methods Englishman, Peter Durand, used tin cans in 1810. Appert had found a new and successful method to preserve foods,but he did not fully understand it. It was thought that the exclusion of air was responsible for the preservation, it was not until 1864 when Louis Pasteur discovered the relationship between microorganisms and food spoilage did it become clearer.
More and more people live in cities and procure foods commercially, they have been removed from a rural self-sufficient way of life. Yet, for many a garden is still a welcome site and annually there exists a bountiful crop of vegetables and fruits. It is this cultural nature of preserved foods that survives today. Interests have shifted from preserve “because we have to”, to “preserve because we like to.”