Beethoven – Peas and ham


July 1823: “rice soup, but without veal, because she couldn’t get it. Green peas with ham. Leg. Pastry. Salad.” Thanks to the “Konverzationshefte”, the notebooks the stone deaf Beethoven used to communicate with other people, we are acquainted with the earth-shattering news that one day in July of the year 1823, Ludwig van Beethoven ate green peas with ham.

Say “peas and ham”, and the first thing anyone acquainted with Central-European cuisine will be thinking of is a dish that can be found in every cookery book from medieval times until this very day: “Böhmische Erbsen”, Bohemian peas. An early Viennese version of this recipe is found in a manuscript dating from the first half of the 15th century, under the archaic name of “Ein behamysch arbaissn”. The manuscript comes from the former Dorotheer monastery (since its close-down in 1786 an auction house, the “Dorotheum”) and is now kept in the Austrian National Library. It is a simple recipe of boiled dried peas, served with fried bacon. You fill a pot half with dried peas. Add a piece of bacon, salt and water and cook it over medium heat till the peas are done. Now increase the heat so the water can evaporate. In the meantime you fry a piece of cubed bacon in a generous quantity of lard. To serve, you put the peas in a bowl, sprinkle them with breadcrumbs and the bacon and pour the hot lard over it.

Here we could conclude this article, except that there is, as usual, a “but”. Beethoven’s peas parade through the pages of a conversational book of July, which happens to be the month that the new peas are harvested. It would be very unlikely if Beethoven, a sucker for freshness, would be eating dried peas in July, of all months.

So we try another recipe, one for braised peas, from the famous “Die Wiener Köchin wie sie seyn soll” (The Viennese cook as she should be) by Theresia Ballauf. For this dish we need a pot of pea-broth. We found one in “Die bürgerliche Küche” by Elisabeth Stöckel, 1837: put the (dried) peas with a halved onion in a pot with water and boil them until mushy. Remove the onion, sieve the peas but save the cooking water. Purée the peas by working them through a sieve (we use a blender, of course). Melt a lump of butter in a pan, stir in 2 tablespoons of flour, add the mush and as much of the cooking water as necessary for your pea-broth.

Beethoven - Green peas with ham

Now we are ready for Theresia’s recipe for “Erbsen, grüne, gedünst”. First, shell the peas. Melt a liberal lump of butter in a sauté pan, add the peas en let them calmly braise for a few minutes. Meanwhile, melt a second lump of butter in another pan. Add some chopped parsley, pour in some of the pea-broth and bring it to a boil. Sprinkle the braised peas with one or two tablespoons of flour, stir cautiously and transfer them to the pan with the pea-broth. Let it gently simmer until the peas are done. Beat two eggyolks with some butter, a spoonful of cream and some milk. Add it to the peas, stir well, put it in a bowl and serve, together with the ham.

Ah, yes. The ham…

Nowadays, Cook can simply slice a ham and send it to the table. In Beethoven’s days that wouldn’t have been advisable if she wanted to keep her job. Pigs were slaughtered in winter, in December or January, and the meat, that was to be conserved for months on end, had to be so thoroughly salted and smoked that it was hardly palatable. Especially pork, because of the large amount of fat that impedes the penetration of salt, was brined in an extra strong solution. After being rubbed in with salt and saltpeter the flesh was laid in brine for a period that could last from a few days up to a few weeks, depending on the weight. For a whole leg of pork -a ham- it would have taken four weeks at least for the salt to have ample time to penetrate the meat entirely. The longer the meat had to be conserved, the more liberally salt was used. After brining the meat was smoked, again a few weeks. After that the meat was hung in dry air, so it could develop its typical flavour. Unnecessary to say that it was so salty and dry that it was virtually inedible. Before being allowed anywhere near the table, a ham had to be soaked in water to lose some of the salt and the acridity of the smoking, then baked in a crust of dough or boiled. The first method, baking, was according to the then cooking experts the best, because that way the meat kept all her flavours, while the boiled meat lost more of it’s strength.

The baking was done like this: de ham was soaked overnight in cold water. That water was refreshed several times. The next day, a dough was made of rye flour. It was rolled out and sprinkled with salt. The ham was placed on the dough, sprinkled with salt in turn and then wrapped in the dough. The whole thing was put in the oven and baked for 3 to 4 hours. The bread crust wasn’t removed before the meat had fully cooled down.

The second method, boiling, was somewhat less elaborate. Again, the ham is soaked overnight in water. The next day the pot was drained and refilled with fresh water and put on the stove. When the water came to a boil, the ham was put in again and left to simmer until half done. Then it was drained again (the water would be quite salty), refilled with fresh water and simmered until tender. Before serving, the rind was removed. The ham was eaten warm or cold.

We want it warm, with Theresia’s peas and Beethoven’s kindest regards.


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