I sometimes get unreasonably upset when I cannot source ingredients. The other day I was trying to make a Paul Prudhomme recipe that sounded interesting. Paul Prudhomme is an American celebrity chef, I live in America, so there shouldn’t be any trouble finding the ingredients, right? Well, none of my local supermarkets stock burdock root, Jerusalem artichokes, or wood-ear mushrooms.
On reflection, though, it occurred to me how amazing it is that certain things aren’t rare. Such as cucumbers. You can’t get much more mundane than a cucumber, but isn’t it a miracle of a kind that this vegetable was first cultivated 3000 years ago in India, introduced to Europe by the Ancient Romans, made it to the New World in 1600 AD, and was finally commonly available due to the invention of coal-heated hothouses in the Edwardian era? That’s an awful lot of history for something I now take completely for granted.
Or bread, for that matter. Bread is available in one form or another all over the world, and often holds immense religious and spiritual significance, but it’s not like it occurs naturally or anything. In the first place, we had to cultivate wheat. The timeline is somewhat conjectural, but the process was probably something like this:
11,000 BC: The last ice age ends, producing long dry spells over much of the Earth which favors the evolution of annual plants which die off and leave a hard seed remaining, such as the grasses. Meanwhile, humans are running around in animal skins and cutting up their food with chunks of stone (metalworking wasn’t due for a few more thousand years).
9000 BC: Einkorn wheat is domesticated at the Neolithic settlement Nevalı Çori in Turkey, becoming the first crop to be sown and harvested on a significant scale. Humans are still wearing animal skills and their kitchen implements are still sharpened rocks.
Or butter. Somewhere between the two above dates, sheep began to be kept in Mesopotamia. The first butter was probably made from sheep’s milk, at first inadvertently. Cattle weren’t domesticated until around 6000 BC, and were traded out of India, Africa, and the Middle East to China, Mongolia, and Korea by 5000 BC.
All this work, and we still had to wait a good few millennia for a pre-sliced loaf of bread with butter. So, to celebrate this astounding age of connections we live in, as well as the hot summer afternoons, here’s a recipe for cucumber sandwiches.
Several square slices of dense-textured white loaf
1 English cucumber
Remove the peel of the cucumber. Slice the cucumber thinly. Set the slices aside until the last minute.
Very thinly butter your slices of bread. The butter should be spread from edge to edge of the slices, primarily as an kind of laquer to prevent the cucumber slices from making the bread soggy.
When you are ready to serve, place a single layer of cucumber slices on a slice of buttered bread. Sprinkle the cucumbers with lemon juice and salt. Top with another slice of buttered bread.
Using a very sharp knife, carefully remove the crusts without tearing the bread in an unsightly fashion. You can then cut the bread diagonally and diagonally again, forming four small triangles, or in half, forming two rectangles.
Arrange the sandwiches artfully on a plate, and eat them all while you’re waiting for Lady Bracknell to arrive for tea.