Straw Berries

I was probably in my teens, visiting relatives in the Lake Contance region, the fruit basket of Germany, close to the Swiss border. We were going for a walk, and came by a large strawberry field. All along the ground beneath the plants was spread a thick layer of straw.

And all of a sudden the penny dropped: strawberries!

I was already familiar with the English word, which I had learned in school. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “[t]here is no corresponding compound in other Germanic languages”; the German word is Erdbeere, earth (or ground) berry – presumably because they grow so low to the ground. But seeing that straw spread under the berries suddenly made sense of the English word.


“What’s the straw for?” I wondered. Somebody explained (or maybe I figured it out myself, I don’t remember): it’s to keep the ripening berries from sitting and rotting directly on the damp soil.

It makes sense that in rainy England, it would have been common practise to protect the precious crop that way, and so have given rise to the name. Strawberries are extremely susceptible to wet: they can rot in a matter of hours on a rainy day, right on the vine, and even after they’ve been picked. (So if you’re picking strawberries, do it when the sun is shining; and if you’ve brought home a flat of strawberries from the farmer’s market on a soggy, dreary day, better get them into those jam jars or freezer bags ASAP, or you’ll lose half your purchase. Yes, I know that from experience.)


I have no idea if “strawing” the berries is common practise anywhere, or is even done anymore back in the Lake Constance region. However, in my own garden, I actually got some strawberries for the first time this year (I don’t have much of a green thumb, so this is a triumph). And, well, I didn’t “straw” them, but I had a cardboard box of wood shavings around (I think they were left from somebody’s project). So I “sawdusted” the beds between the berries. Or one of them, anyway – I didn’t get around to the other one in time. And sure enough, the berries in the bed with the wood shavings were nice and clean; the other ones had dirt stuck to them and weren’t as happy-looking. I’m going to have to see about doing this again next year – I think grass clippings would work as well, or maybe even bark mulch.

And meanwhile, we’re going to enjoy this year’s strawberry harvest, the whole pound of it.

Life, the Universe, and the Straw in Strawberries. The best fruit ever.

PS: Old-fashioned strawberry jam: 1 kg of strawberries, 800 g of sugar. Mash the berries, mix with the sugar, bring to a rolling boil, boil for 10 minutes. Put in clean jars and cap to keep from drying out (doesn’t need to be sterilized or refrigerated; the sugar is preservative enough). Very sweet, very tasty, keeps in the cupboard for a long time (except it doesn’t because it gets eaten so fast).

Biscuit, Biscuit, and Biscuit

I was reviving my refrigerator micro-pets, aka waking up the kefir and the sourdough which usually languishes in the back of the fridge. Twice-daily feeding of the critters makes for a fair amount of excess sourdough. There’s only so much bread you can bake, and it usually takes all day, which is inconvenient – so what to do with the stuff? I could just dump it in the compost, I suppose – and I’ve done just that, too. But it’s wasteful, so really a last-ditch thing to do (haha, see what I did there? Last ditch, ditching the sourdough. I’m so funny).

Also, due to one thing and another, I was feeling in need of something very basic, old-fashioned to do, something nourishing, something non-electronic.  Sourdough baking fits the bill.

And I’ve got all this lovely fresh strawberry jam from yesterday – what to put it on? Biscuits, methinks! So I booted up Google (yes, I’m aware of the irony this creates with the preceding paragraph), and found a nice recipe for sourdough biscuits.


They’re really just ordinary baking powder biscuits with sourdough by way of liquid and some baking soda added, but the sourdough does give it a nice tang. Feeling retro-nostalgic (i.e. longing for a past that I never experienced, when everything was simple and children frolicked in meadows while birdies tweeted in trees instead of people on the internet), I got out the cast iron and baked the biscuits in the 12-inch Lodge skillet. Which, incidentally, worked extremely well; I’ll definitely use the cast iron for baking pans again.

But while the biscuits were merrily baking away, I got to thinking about the word “biscuit”, and how it means something completely different in different countries.

First (or, actually, last – but we’ll get to that in a moment) there is the American meaning, which is the sense I’m using it here, in my trusty Lodge cast iron. American biscuits are medium-sized little soft baking powder cakes or buns – about 3″ across, 1 1/2″ thick, not very sweet, and always, always eaten as fresh as possible, preferrably still hot. They’re a lovely accompaniment to stew or soup, and yes, quite nice with butter and fresh strawberry jam.

Then there’s the English biscuit – what Americans call a cookie. If I’m not mistaken, an English biscuit is most commonly crispy, with a nice crunch to it, suitable for dipping in cups of tea. Also delicious.

Marguerite Patten, Step by Step Cookery, 1973

And then there’s the German Biskuit (pronounced bis-quit), which is the same as the French biscuit (bis-quee). It’s what English-speaking people would call sponge cake – a soft, light cake batter with lots of eggs, made by separating egg yolks and whites, whipping the whites to stiff peaks, and very carefully folding everything together. It’s the basis for many of the amazing cream cakes and tortes Europe is famous for (a proper Black Forest Cake, for example, is usually a chocolate Biskuit with cherry filling, kirsch, and whipped cream – none of that fake pastry cream concoction American supermarkets deign to call by that name).

Dr. Oetker, Backen macht Freude, 1987

Now, my guess is that the journey of the word meaning actually went in reverse order from the one I have here – from Latin to French, thence to England, then with the Pilgrim Fathers to the New World where savoury sourdough biscuits were easier to produce in the campfire dutch oven than tea-dipping shortbread fingers. But that’s entirely uneducated guesswork on my part; don’t go quoting me in papers on the history of food.


Incidentally, there’s also the word “bisque” or “biscuit firing” that potters do – the first firing of the pots after they’ve dried; it’s followed by the glaze or glost firing. “Biscuit” literally means “twice-baked”, so it’s far more apt here than in cooking. Potters also sometimes use biscuits, or cookies, in the kiln – flat discs of unglazed clay to prop smaller items up during glaze firing so if the glaze runs the item doesn’t get glued to the kiln shelf. But I think in that case, the “biscuit” refers to the shape of the thing, not it’s twice-baked aspect. The same goes for a biscuit joint in carpentry, where a small round disc is glued into a slot, holding two adjoining pieces together.

And now the timer on my stove tells me that my cast-iron-baked sourdough bread is ready to come out of the oven, so I’ll leave off my biscuitual musings and see to my loaves.

Life, the Universe, and Biscuits. Pass one over here, please – I don’t care what kind.



Keeping Food for Winter

A reblog from William Savage, whose blog I discovered recently.
This post is quite fascinating. I’ve never eaten purslane, just pulled it out of my garden as a weed; it’s supposed to be quite good. Pickled asparagus, however, you can even buy in the grocery store here. Storing lettuce in sand for winter – never heard of that, but again, sometimes you can get “gourmet” lettuces here – little butterhead ones – with the roots still attached, which I guess is the same principle.
As for the word “walm” (check the footnote), I bet that that’s where we get “overwhelmed” from!
I want a copy of that “Compleat Housewife” book he talks about. Wonder where you could get it.

Pen and Pension

pickled-purslaneIn the days before refrigeration and canning, different means for keeping foodstuffs edible over the winter were an essential part of every household’s routine. If you didn’t pay attention to this, much of your harvest would go to waste. Besides, if your own stores failed or were inadequate, you couldn’t easily make up the deficit through purchases.

Some fruits, like apples and pears, could be stored for several months by setting them on racks in a cool place. Others had to be cooked with sugar and preserved in jars, sealed with butter or fat — no rubber seals yet. Pickling could work for others, or even drying. Quite a few fruits were dried, many we would not think of drying today, like gooseberries.

Unusual Choices

You quite often find unusual or surprising recipes in cookbooks from the eighteenth century. All the ones in this post come from “The Compleat Housewife”

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