In recent times the concept has been appropriated by millionaire celebrity chefs, but when you boil it down to its bare bones, the notion of ‘peasant food’ is a terrible affront to a world of people who live from hand to mouth
Kit De Waal cooks pigs’ trotters and deconstructs the notion of ‘peasant food’
Until the potato, European peasant food consisted overwhelmingly of bread, and terrible bread at that, often containing chaff, grass, bark and sawdust, and in times of famine, people ate lichens, moss, dirt, dogs, cats, frogs and in extreme cases, each other. And, of course, after the potato came the Great Famine of 1845
Ionce tried to recreate one of my favourite childhood dishes, souse, aka pigs feet pickled in lemon and garlic. I was working off a combination of YouTube videos, my sister’s memory and what my tongue could recollect; the slippery give of thick, soft skin, the unctuous jelly, the bounce of sinuous tendons that slid between the teeth.
I didn’t fancy asking for trotters at the hip, artisan butcher in my spa town that sells organic burgers at the price of an MOT. I didn’t fancy trying to claim they were for the dog. (I don’t possess one and couldn’t withstand even the smallest degree of interrogation on that point). I couldn’t imagine Sainsbury’s slaughtering their own pigs out back, but I knew I’d find the trotters where immigrants live, still making food from back home, one of the last connections to the past when dress and language have all but gone.
My father celebrated every Christmas by making West Indian fruitcake. Heavy with plump, rum-soaked fruit, blackened with treacle and burnt sugar, the smell permeated the very fabric of the house; you could smell it on the sheets and cushions, taste it on your skin. He actually started baking mid-December, hours he’d be at it, but not a slice was cut until Christmas Eve after it had had time to mature or “cook again”, as my father called it.
As we were children of a Jehovah’s Witness mother (excess of any kind, present-giving, carol-singing, merry-making, even the word Christmas itself was Satan’s work), this was the extent of good times over the festive season. Of course, like everyone else, we spent the whole of the holiday in front of the telly which didn’t help our feelings of being left out. Every film and every advert screamed “Look at the bloody food!” Enormous hams jewelled with cloves, pickles, heavy pork pies, dainty mince pies (we thought they contained meat), stolen dusty with icing sugar, sauce of every complexion, roast turkey, cold salmon, mountains of little sausages covered in bacon, chocolate, trifle, tins of toffees, sacks of sweets. But the truth was, we were hungry all year round; Christmas only magnified it.
It’s not that we didn’t eat, we just lived in a house where food came in, was quickly gobbled down and then the cupboard was bare. Since meals were mostly my father’s domain and he