Sunday, 31 August 2014

Food: A Survival Manual

The summer sun and the holidays mean I haven’t blogged for a few weeks.  But whilst I was sitting on my tropical holiday island – well, okay, the Costa Brava – one of my chosen books for holiday reading was the account of a man’s experience on a desert island, namely Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

First published in 1719, Robinson Crusoe is one of the earliest novels written in English.  A first-person account of the protagonist’s experience of being shipwrecked on an island off the coast of South America for more than 28 years, the novel can be read in a number of ways.

Firstly, it is a good old-fashioned – and rather racist - adventure story which includes slavery, pirates and cannibals.

It is also a moral tale.  Crusoe refuses to heed his father’s advice to aim for the middle station in life and to train as a lawyer.  Instead he runs away and goes to sea.  Despite difficulties and small disasters – which act as a warning that he is not made for the sea-life – Crusoe returns again and again to the sea, and his comeuppance comes when he is the sole survivor of a shipwreck and is cast ashore on a desert island.  Through his experiences of solitude and endurance Crusoe learns humility and to place his trust in God.

A third way of reading the novel is as the story of a man who has to redefine himself as an Englishman and build English society on a foreign, godless island.  Crusoe exhibits the worthy Protestant characteristics of hard work and self-sufficiency as he builds shelters and transport, makes his own clothes, grows and catches his own food and even does some cooking.

Food is – understandably – one of Crusoe’s great preoccupations.  Although he finds some provisions on the wrecked ship – including flour, rice and Dutch cheeses – these run out quickly and he is then thrown upon the resources of his island.  Luckily for him, wild goats are abundant.  He initially shoots them with weapons taken from the boat but, realizing he will run out of gunpowder if he continues like this, he then begins trapping and breeding them.  And as Crusoe notes, the goats do not just provide him with meat:

For now I set up my dairy, and had sometimes a gallon or two of milk in a day.  And as nature, who gives supplies of food to every creature, dictates even naturally how to make use of it; so I that had never milked a cow, much less a goat, or seen butter or cheese made, very readily and handily, tho’ after a great many essays and miscarriages, made me both butter and cheese at last, and never wanted it afterwards.  

Robinson Crusoe milking a goat, from a child's plate from 1840
Like all good cooks, Crusoe makes mistakes, but he tries and tries again, and eventually gets there.

I’m only just back from my holidays –and keen to get blogging again – so I haven’t got around to sourcing any goat meat yet (though I hope to do so before I’m through with Defoe).  But since goat meat is not widely available, and since many recipes for goat say you can use lamb instead, this recipe uses lamb.  But I've added some goat’s cheese as an optional extra, for the authentic desert island experience – and barley because, as I’ll explain in a future post, barley is one of the grains Defoe grows successfully on the island.


750g cubed lamb or neck of lamb cut into large pieces
1 large onion
2 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 carrots
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
150g pearl barley
200g peas and/ or beans (I used runner beans)
(goats’ cheese – optional)

Heat the oven to 160C (140 fan), Gas mark 3.
Brown the lamb, garlic and onion in the olive oil in a large flameproof casserole.
Add the bay leaf, thyme, carrots and enough cold water to cover.
Bring to a simmer.  Remove any scum that comes to the surface and then place – covered – in the oven.
After 1 hour, add the pearl barley.
Cook for a further 30-45 minutes until the barley is cooked (soft but with some bite).
Add the peas and beans to a saucepan of boiling water and cook for 5 minutes.
Add the cooked peas and beans to the lamb stew and season to taste.
If you are using the goats’ cheese, crumble some over the top before serving.

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