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The perpetually stewing pot

Zubin D’souza

There is an old story told about a magic pot. It was always full no matter how much food was taken out of it.

I had heard different versions of this story from several parts of the world.

Some had a tragic ending; others had a poignant tale to tell. There were some told with a moral at the end of it; others were told to inspire mirth and laughter.

The tales were similar; the endings were not so. It wasn’t the story that I was really interested in; it was the pot.

Oh! To be able to find a wondrous and magical pot such as this.

To a young man, such as myself, growing up on the poorer fringes of society, where whole meals were often a luxury, this represented the Holy Grail that would sort out all our problems.

Imagine that you could dip into the pot and fish out wondrous treasures of food whenever you were hungry. A never-ending stream of delicious goodies.

I decided to commit my entire life into searching for this wondrous cauldron.

I did not have to look very far; I located one pretty much on my first attempt.

And although there wasn’t much magic involved and the never-ending part was dubious, the products contained within were thrilling and charmed indeed. It was as if the entire pot was willed into existence by an extremely powerful mystic. And the contents of every pot that I encountered thereafter were completely different from each other. Different they may have been but the common thread that ran through each and every one of them was that they each gave out a heady, fragrant aroma and a sublimely satisfying feeling when they were eaten.

In ancient France when the weather turned cold, people lit fires inside their homes. At some point in time, someone thrifty and sensible realised that they could kill two birds with one stone and hung a large soup cauldron in the fireplace. Realising that it did not make sense to remove the smoking hot pot out at the end of the meal, it was left right there occasionally topped up with gallons of water and odd scrapings and bits.

Vegetables from the garden were thrown in as was leftover bread and wine. On the odd chance that a rabbit was trapped in a snare or the family raised chicken was butchered, the trimmings and odds and ends had a permanent resting spot. When the stew got too thick, more water was added in.

Hungry family members could ladle some of the always simmering broth into their plates and mop it up with freshly baked bread. Not being particularly artistic in the dissemination of titles, they named it ‘pot-au-feu’ which literally meant ‘a pot on the fire’.

The Europeans, particularly the English referred to this as ‘perpetual stew’ or ‘hunters stew’ or ‘hunters pot’.

Polish cooking created ‘bigos’ which is something similar with the addition of sauerkraut and freshly added cabbage.

The pot was rarely emptied. Early custom decreed that it had to be cleaned in preparation for the meatless weeks of the Christian Lenten season but laziness made many skirt that law to allow their pots to simmer into perpetuity.

One particular pot in Normandy has not budged an inch for over 300 years, while a pot of stew in Perpignan had been bubbling since the 1400s but did not live past the Second World War.

An analysis of the contents of a pot in a Cistercian abbey led researchers to conclude that there were certain ingredients in the mix that had eluded landing themselves on a plate for over 350 years.

As rumours go, the origins of the Swiss fondue is believed to have originated when an overenthusiastic young lad threw some cheese trimmings into his family stew pot.

And the Chinese, more specifically in Canton and Fujian cuisines have something called loumei or master stock which is used repeatedly to braise and poach meats. These master stocks are never discarded; usually handed down from one generation of cooks to the other with some lasting several centuries. Many Japanese chefs who run ‘oden’ restaurants feel as passionately about their stocks. In fact one particular restaurant called Otafuku has a batch that has been simmering on from 1945. An earlier batch with a particularly stellar vintage was destroyed in WWII.

The Vietnamese feel equally passionate about their soup called pho although many long protected reserves are believed to have been destroyed in the years of strife and civil war.

Wattana Panich, a Thai restaurant famous for their version of ‘neua tune’, which is a beef stew served with noodles has protected their master stock for 45 years. The flavour only seems to improve as is attested by several loyal generations of customers.

I can’t wait to get my dibs into this food. It is probably the only time in my life when I am going to feel that old and possibly stale food is a wonderful thing indeed!

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