Wood is present in our kitchens and some of our foods; its contribution to the culinary world is incredible and its use in different cultures provides some fascinating reading.
The Woodhouse Cookery Club in the Woodhouse kitchen
Foods have been preserved by the process of wood smoke curing since before the dawn of recorded history. People from all cultures around the world have relied on this process for long term storage of meats, fish and other food stuffs
In its simplest form preservation of food can be achieved by cutting the flesh into thin strips and drying them out over a fire or sometimes in the sun.
In Europe during the Middle Ages smoked and salted foods were relied upon during the leaner times of winter and sometimes into early spring. Two distinctive products of curing were salt cod and Herring, which were heavily salted and smoked sometimes for up to three weeks.
Far more recently the rapid growth of logistical infrastructure beginning in the 1840’s marked a rapid decline in the demand for these products as then for the first time in human history it was possible to move large volumes of fresh fish and meat by rail or steamship. It was also at this point in our history that the industrialisation of sea fishing began its massive growth to which we are now experiencing the serious global effects of diminished fish stocks through over fishing.
Wood smoke varies hugely and for this we tend to stick to hardwoods for the following reasons; wood is made up mostly of three materials; cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. Cellulose and hemicellulose are the basic structural materials and lignin acts as a kind of cell bonding glue. Many softwoods, pines and firs in particular hold significant quantities of this resin which produce harsh tasting soot when burned.
However Cellulose and hemicelluloses are aggregate sugar molecules so when burnt they effectively caramelize producing sweet sometimes fruity or flowery flavours and aromas and it is for this reason that softwoods are generally avoided as hardwoods carry far less lignin.
Alderwood, beech and Oak were more commonly used in Europe where in North America Pecan, hickory, Mesquite and fruit trees were used.
Varieties of wood for smoking food
Wood in the food industry is hugely apparent once you begin to look closer; the Norwegian institute of wood technology in a study of wood in the kitchen found wood to be a far more hygienic product than plastic or steel, in many cases providing much poorer conditions for bacteria to survive especially when dry however the study found that even when green the porosity of wood did not appear to be a negative factor. Different species provide differing conditions for bacteria; timbers such as Beech and Ash win out over Oak by a long chalk. Bowls, utensils, chopping boards are mainly found to be made of Beech.
Wood used for packaging, fruit, fish, wine and beer have been used for centuries and still remain so. 5,000 years ago – wood, barrels, boxes, crates – all manner of boxes were found in Egyptian tombs.
Oak used for ageing and flavouring for cider, wine, port and whisky is crucial to these industries and of course to our palettes when we indulge in a nice hearty Rioja or a nip of malt on a frosty night.
Different types of oak aged bevarages - Cider, Wine, Port
Spain produces what has been described as the finest ham on the planet; ‘Pata Negra’ (black hoof) from the Iberian pig that is indigenous to the Mediterranean area. Almost wiped out in the 1960’s by African swine fever, these pigs are left to roam free range and are fed almost entirely on Acorns from the Holm Oak which produces a wonderfully sweet ham. But it doesn’t stop there, the presence of the acorn diet (as well as the curing process) have health benefits. In just 100 grams of this ham there are only 70 milligrams of cholesterol, this amount also provides you with nearly a quarter of the recommended daily intake of niacin and a third of the recommended protein; whilst containing 50% more protein than the same amount of fresh meat. But still there is more, there are also high levels of iron, magnesium, zinc, calcium, phosphorous, vitamins B1 & B2 in the ham alone; with the fat providing you with Oleic acid, the same acid found in olive oil. This helps to produce good cholesterol (HDL) while reducing bad (LDL).
The fine slicing of cured ham named Peta Negra (Black Pig)
I understand that this will not appeal to the vegetarian but there are definitely benefits to us all if we have a little wood in our diets smoked sweet paprika can help normalize blood pressure, improve circulation, and increase the production of saliva and stomach acids to aid digestion. Smoking tea over pine or cedar fires will give you a taste similar to that of Lapsang souchong. Teas contain fluoride which is a necessary mineral in bone development as well as flavonoids which may also protect the body from some cancers and heart disease.
Perhaps consider this next time you are staring at your pile of off-cuts or Oak shavings; you could use a little of this for curing some fish or for smoking a good Somerset Cheddar to share with your fellow framers at the end of a raising; or even a great gift for your client, a whole cheese smoked from the off cuts of their frame! Now there’s a thought!
Oak smoked foods - Somerset cheddar and salmon smoked over a barbeque
Lastly during my research for information on this topic I came across a question asked on a medical health forum. The question,
'What are the long term effects of eating wood? My friend has a strange habit of eating toothpicks and chopsticks and wood of sorts, I’m wondering what the long term effects could be on her if she digests the wood?'
With someones response being,
'Beavers have no problem with it. I hear they eat wood. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that if beavers eat wood and if nothing happens to them, then nothing should happen to her!'
Further reading into this subject matter -
Anthony Carroll at the Oakwrights summer BBQ cooking a paella with work collegues