Clng-Cly-Pots-art - 3/17/13
"Cleaning Earthenware and Stone Pots" by Dom. Galefridus Peregrinus.
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Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
Cleaning Earthenware and Stone Pots
by Dom. Galefridus Peregrinus
A frequently discussed topic in medieval Islamic cookbooks is proper hygiene in the kitchen. Among the issues discussed are foul odors and tastes and how they relate to the kinds cookware used and the cleanliness thereof. Unglazed earthenware was considered to be among the most problematic because of its tendency to absorb off odors which in turn were very difficult to get rid of. For this reason, Ibn Zuhr, writing in 12th century al-Maghreb, recommends using such pots only once. The Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook (13th century) makes a similar suggestion, but allows for the possibility of cleaning unglazed pots "with hot water and bran." Both of these sources are from the far west of the medieval Islamic world, where clay pots were the primary cookware. But as one moves east, soapstone starts to replace pottery as the material of choice for cookware. al-Warrāq's 10th century Baghdad cookbook specifically recommends soapstone as the best material for cooking pots, since it does not absorb the odors of the foods that are cooked in it. Nevertheless, al-Warrāq acknowledges that clay pots can be used to prepare food and even recommends them for many specific dishes. But even soapstone was known to carry off odors when improperly cleaned, as stated in al-Warrāq's opening chapter, titled "What causes the cooked food to spoil, have greasy odors, or vitiate." This chapter opens with specific instructions for cleaning pots, indicating that cleanliness is the first step toward preserving the quality of cooked foods.
As I have used both soapstone and earthenware pots, I have made the same observations noted by the above sources. Both tend to absorb the smells and flavors of the foods that were cooked in them. Stone can be washed with modern dish detergents without damage – it is a highly non-absorbent material, and the detergent serves to remove much of the thin film of grease that carries the off odors. Nevertheless, soapstone retains a residual smell of the last thing cooked in it, even after cleaning with detergent. Unglazed earthenware is another matter entirely, since it has pores that absorb odors quite deeply, making those odors very difficult to remove. Moreover, such pots cannot be washed with soap or detergent, since these cleaning agents will be absorbed, thus creating another source of contamination.
Al-Warrāq's initial instructions tell the cook to wash the pot (probably with water, although not explicitly stated), smear it with clay, wash and smear with clay again, then allow the pot to sit overnight, stating that on the following day "you will notice that a film of grease has formed on the clay." Further on in the same chapter, he recounts an anecdote in which a cook is told to wash a pot multiple times with clay, then finally to wash the pot with parsley. Those eating the food prepared in the pot thus cleaned "all marveled at its beauty and excellent aroma." Finally, toward the end of the chapter, al-Warrāq describes a way to make sure that the pot is truly cleaned. Below is the section describing this method:
Therefore, if you want to make sure that the washed pot is thoroughly clean, put a pebble in one nostril and sniff at the pot with the other. If the pot smells like the pebble, it is clean. However, if the smells are dissimilar, wash the pot again until it passes the test.
For this project, I applied the cleaning methods described in both al-Warrāq and the Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook to an unglazed earthenware pot, which I had used several times. I then repeated al-Warrāq's process with a similarly used soapstone pot. The Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook strongly implies that its method is intended for earthenware; nevertheless, I tried it once on soapstone. For both methods I cleaned the pots as thoroughly as possible using only hot water and a stiff brush, and in all cases the pots retained a slight odor of the foods previously cooked in them. The odor was not unpleasant, but it seems likely the flavor of every dish cooked in the pots subsequent to the first would be affected.
Earthenware: al-Warrāq. The first question I had was what kind of clay would have been used. Historically, clay has been obtained from geological deposits, often at or near a river bank. Since both the rivers and the soils in my area have a history of chemical contamination, I was hesitant to dig my own clay. I therefore purchased a quantity of high quality pottery clay from a local art supply store. Before making the purchase, I confirmed that the clay was of natural origin and of food quality. As packaged, the clay was very firm, so I added a bit of water to soften it. Following al-Warrāq's instructions, I washed the pot, applied the clay to the inside, washed it off, reapplied, and let the pot sit overnight. I did not observe the "film of grease" that al-Warrāq wrote of; however, I noticed a significant reduction in the intensity of the food smells. I repeated this process about ten times. Each repetition was accompanied by a slight reduction in odors. Finally, I washed with parsley as described in the anecdote. I decided that chopped parsley rather than a bundle of sprigs was called for. While the parsley added a slight aroma of its own, I could detect no further reduction of residual odors. The pot retained a slight food odor mixed with what I would call a faint mineral odor. The mineral odor does not seem to be related to the smell of the clay used to clean the pot; in fact, when I sniffed a bit of the clay and water that I had saved from the last washing, it had the same smell as the pot, although much fainter. I further verified that the clay itself was for all practical purposes odorless.
Even though the pot had not completely lost the smell of food, I decided to try the pebble test for the sake of being thorough. I purchased a bag of clean pebbles that were intended to be placed in a vase as a support for cut flowers, and rinsed them in warm water. These pebbles retained a slight mineral odor similar to that of the pot itself. I chose two pebbles, approximately the same size, inserted one in my left nostril and sniffed with my right, then removed it and inserted the other pebble in my right nostril and sniffed with my left. I obtained the same result in both cases: All I could smell was the residual food odor, since the smell of the pebble masked the slight mineral odor of the pot.
Earthenware: Anonymous Andalusian. I tested this method on a different earthenware pot that I had used to cure olives. Since the olives had sat in the pot for several weeks, it was deeply permeated with the smell of the cure. The Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook gives no details on how to apply this method, stating only "clean the pot every night with hot water and bran." I interpreted "every night" as meaning "every night that the pot was used." I prepared the bran by bolting stone-ground wheat flour through a fine sieve. The coarser, darker residue thus removed is bran. I then scrubbed the pot using hot water. While the pot was still wet, I added one or two tablespoons of bran and continued scrubbing for a couple of minutes, using the bran as if it were an abrasive, after which I rinsed thoroughly with hot water. When moistened by the residual water in the scrubbed pot, the bran gave off a wheat-like aroma. While scrubbing with hot water and bran partially reduced the smell of the previously cooked food, but not to same degree as al-Warrāq's method. Bran did not remove the smell of previously cooked food, not even after several repetitions. This method seems less effective than that of al-Warrāq.
Soapstone: al-Warrāq. Using a soapstone pot in which I had just cooked a meal, I repeated al-Warrāq's method described above. The results were striking. After several uses, soapstone cookware darkens, developing a coating similar to what one might find on a well-seasoned cast iron pot. After applying clay and permitting it to dry, I could see the film of grease described by al-Warrāq. A second similar application of clay completely stripped the dark coating, including any food aroma. This method is more effective than hot water with modern dish detergent and a scrub brush.
Soapstone: Anonymous Andalusian. Even though the Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook strongly implies that this method is intended for earthenware pots, I thought it a worthwhile experiment to try it with a soapstone pot. My conclusion is that it was of minimal effectiveness, not removing any more than scrubbing with hot water and stiff brush. This method had no impact on the dark coating.
Based on these results, I am inclined to recommend al-Warrāq's method for cleaning both unglazed earthenware and soapstone cookware. It seems superior to any of the other possible methods, including the modern ones.
An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook of the 13th Century. (no date). Perry, C., tr. http://www.daviddfriedman.com/medieval/cookbooks/andalusian/andalusian3.htm">http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Medieval/Cookbooks/Andalusian/andalusian3.htm#Heading123. The relevant section can be found in the paragraph under "How It Is Made."
al-Warrāq, Ibn Sayyār. Annals of the Caliphs' Kitchens: Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq's Tenth Century Baghdadi Cookbook. (2007) Nasrallah, N., tr. Leiden: Brill. The first chapter, pp. 79-83, contains the relevant information on the proper procedure for cleaning pots.
Ibn Zuhr, Abu Marwan 'Abd al-Malik. Kitāb al-Aghdhiya (Tratado do los Alimentos), E.G. Sanchez, ed. and trans. (1992). Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, Instituto de Cooperacion con el Mundo Arabe. Instructions regarding the use of unglazed earthenware pots are on p. 136 of the Arabic section.
Soapstone pot, second cleaning with clay
Copyright 2013 by Loren Mendelsohn, 3 Morris Pl, Towaco, NJ 07082. <galefridus at optimum.net>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited. Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, please place a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.