The Food Industries of Europe in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries is a dry collection of academic articles that is written in what is often the dullest possible prose. So why am I telling you about it? Well because the subjects are so fascinating that they overwhelm the format and, while encouraging skipping to the narrative bits, are well worth hanging in for. It also has a broad pan-European view that’s quite unusual and illuminating.
We begin with the start of industrial food production – somehow it’s unsurprising it’s a war that provides the impetus, or rather the Napoleonic Wars. Britain needed hard tack (biscuits used instead of bread) to feed its navy, and suppliers started to gear up for the bulk production.
But for products more recognisable today, it’s in the last four decades of the 18th century that advertisements for branded pickles and sauces started to appear in the London newspapers. “John Burgess, for instances, offered West India Pickles, Cayenne Pepper, Bengal Currie Powder, Japan Soy, Lemon Pickle, Oyster Ketchup, Shallot Ketchup and Devonshire Sauce.” These were, if not exactly reserved for the wealthy, certainly not reaching far down the social scale, in part because they were designed to go with fish or meat, households in which animal protein consumption was increasing.
Popularity of a new flavour led to mass production. There’s a lovely example of Elizabeth Lazenby who in 1793 was given a fish sauce recipe by her innkeeper brother, Peter Harvey, so she could support her family. She manufactured and sold it from Portman Square (you wouldn’t want to try that now), and when she retired Harvey’s Sauce (why are women’s names never preserved?) delivered her a substantial annuity of £300 a year. The brand continued, becoming Lazenby Pickles, operating from 1808 from a Southwark factory, where they remained until 1926.
It’s a case of pick your favourite bit of food history – there’s the rise of the Societe des Caves de Roquefort (pushed initially by a crisis in the wool industry and based on the labour of farm women, who made “loaves” of curds in moulds that were then sold to wholesalers); the development of the Mediterranean olive oil industry from the 1850s to the 1930s (Spain was behind the Italians in technology until the Twenties, when it raced ahead); the birth, life and death of the Menier chocolate factory in Noisiel (which helped make France the largest consumer per head by 1904); the rapid change in the composition of Danish port in the 70 years to 1960 (basically lots more protein, less fat); the rise of the fish finger market for Icelandic and Norwegian fishermen (based heavily on the US market), and the rise of the chicken nugget in Britain (yuck!).
One disturbing aspect of the collection of essays is that there’s generally, except for a few short comments in the conclusion, a remarkable lack of critical thinking about industrial food production and the problems it has created. The one case here where there’s an argument for saying industrial production has made a positive production to human health and wellbeing is industrial bread production in Romania, which has effectively wiped out pellagra, the deficiency disease arising from an unvaried diet of maize porridge.
But above all there’s a reminder that the way we eat now, the industrial, centralised production, the substances transformed into products to the point where their ingredients are unrecognisable, and their nutritional contents often less than desirable, is a recent, sometimes very recent, development. Change has happened fast before, and it can again. That’s something we can certainly hope for, for the wellbeing of the planet, and human health.