Samui Wining & Dining
Keeping Fresh
There’re lots of ways to preserve food, but eating it super-fresh takes some beating.

 

Keeping FreshPreserving our food supplies has always been of prime importance to man. For a start, it allowed us to stay in one place throughout the seasons. And the advent of agriculture put an end to a forced nomadic existence. Preservation wasn’t just about food though, it was coming of sustainable communities, trade and culinary innovations. Nowadays farmers, food manufacturers and individuals use a myriad of techniques to keep food fresh and last longer. For most of us it’s our refrigerators and freezers, but what if there was no electricity? And what technological advances await the next generation?

 

Before the invention of the refrigerator, icehouses were used to provide cool storage for most of the year. Placed near freshwater lakes or packed with snow and ice during the winter, they were once very common. Interestingly though, the invention of modern fridges and freezers was actually a great help to people like the Inuit and other Artic dwellers. Beforehand, they had no method of controlling the temperature and their meat was either alive or super-frozen. The first known artificial refrigeration was demonstrated by William Cullen at the University of Glasgow in 1748, although it would be nearly another 200 years before they would be relatively common. It’s notable that whilst 60% of households in the US owned a refrigerator by the 1930s, it was not until 40 years later that the refrigerator achieved a similar level of penetration in the United Kingdom.

 

Burial of food can preserve it due to a variety of factors: lack of light, lack of oxygen, cool temperatures, pH level, or desiccants in the soil. And burial can be combined with other methods, such as salting or fermentation. Cabbage was traditionally buried in the autumn in northern farms in the US for preservation. Some methods kept it crispy whilst other methods produced sauerkraut. A similar process is used in the traditional production of Korean kimchi. Sometimes meat can also be buried on hot coals or ashes. The heat can kill pathogens, the dry ash can desiccate and the earth can block oxygen and further contamination.

 

Drying food using sun and wind to prevent spoilage has been practiced since ancient times. Water is usually removed by evaporation (air drying, sun drying or wind drying). Bacteria, yeasts and moulds need the water in the food to grow. Drying effectively prevents them from surviving in the food. You can see Thai-sausage makers here on Samui hanging them up to dry; it’s particularly prevalent with traditional sausages from the Issan region. And many different foods today are prepared by dehydration, such as Parma ham and beef jerky.

 

Food curing dates back to ancient times, both in the form of smoked meat and as salt-cured meat. Salt slows the oxidation process, effectively preventing the meat from going rancid. And sugar can be added to meat for the purpose of curing. Sugar also contributes to the growth of beneficial bacteria like Lactobacillus by feeding them. Smoking is still popular and is used for hams, bacon, tea leaves, the malt used in whisky, some fruits (dried plums) and vegetables (jalapeno peppers), cheeses and fish like salmon, eel and Arbroath Smokies.

 

Pickling agents, like brine (high in salt), vinegar, alcohol and olive oil, are also very effective preservatives and are used to in the production of corned beef and piccalilli. Materials that solidify to form a gel are also still in common use and most kitchens will have gelatine, agar agar or arrowroot. Stewing meat and then placing it in an air-tight jar with brine, gravy or red wine was popular until the middle of the last century with ‘jugged hare’ being a prominent British delicacy.

 

More modern methods of food preservation such as vacuum packing, are used for long-term storage of dry foods, such as cereals, nuts, cured meats, cheeses, smoked fish, coffee, and potato chips. It can extend the shelf-life of some foods by up to 3-5 times. And vacuum packing also allows for a special cooking method, sous-vide, which involves poaching food that’s vacuum sealed in a plastic bag.

 

Irradiation is the exposure of food to ionizing radiation; either high-energy electrons or X-rays from accelerators or by gamma rays. It’s estimated that about 500,000 tons of food items are irradiated per year worldwide in over 40 countries. These are mainly spices and condiments with an increasing segment of fresh fruit irradiated for fruit fly quarantine. Pulsed electric field (PEF) processing is a developing technology for sterilizing food products. And there’ve been limited industrial applications of PEF processing for the pasteurization of fruit juices.

 

Modifying atmosphere is another recent innovation that preserves food by operating on the atmosphere around it. Salad crops which are notoriously difficult to preserve are now being packaged in sealed bags with an atmosphere modified to reduce the oxygen concentration and increase the carbon dioxide. Grain stored in this way can remain edible for five years. And bio-preservation is starting to be used to control spoilage and render pathogens inactive in food. It’s a benign ecological approach which is gaining increasing attention.

 

Methods that we all grew up with, like canning and bottling, are in the decline. That’s partly due to technological advances but there’s also a greater importance placed on fresh foods that are readily available. And some cultures have never placed great store on them or had sufficient access. Take a look in any Thai person’s larder and you won’t see many cans. Bottles have been with us since the time of the ancient Chinese, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans. However the food industry has almost completely replaced glass with plastic bottles, though they do have a huge environmental impact. Thankfully, though, some things are sacrosanct and beer and wine still come in beautiful bottles.

 

Little thought is given by most people to methods of food preservation and hopefully you’ll never have to rely on bygone ways. But it might pay to take a keener look at how ordinary, everyday folks and small restaurant owners on Samui buy and store their food. They get it fresh every day from the markets, and store it in the best place possible – theirs and your stomachs.

 

Johnny Paterson

 


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