Serendipity, Spores and Savoury Stuff

CLICK ABOVE TO PLAY MUSIC

Music – “Penicillin Boogie” from Tuitti Fruitti by Slim Gaillard. Released: 2010.

We’ve all had the experience of finding a plastic container, retrieved from the far reaches of the refrigerator and reeling in disgust upon opening it, assaulted by it’s intensely overpowering odour, not to mention the rainbow of fluorescent colours it now exhibits.

"I think I just found the egg salad I made last summer!" (Photo Credit:  www.thriftyfun.com)

“I think I just found the egg salad I made last summer!” (Photo Credit: http://www.thriftyfun.com)

Although we hate to waste food, tossing the offending item is safer than risking our health (possibly our lives). But, wait. Some instances of food “going bad” have, over the course of history, actually benefited us and many of these occurrences were purely serendipitous.

Years ago in studying anthropology, I was intrigued to find several articles about ancient Nubian skeletons, which were located during archaeological excavations. The remains dated to approximately AD 350 to AD 550. During analysis, the bones, when viewed under ultraviolet light, appeared to fluoresce in a manner typical of modern bone, which has been affected by tetracycline (a broad spectrum antibiotic).

The fluorescence in this bone cross section indicates tetracycline ingestion, as were found by George Armelagos in Ancient Nubia (Photo Credit:  www.sciencely.com)

The fluorescence in this bone cross section indicates tetracycline ingestion, as were found by George Armelagos in Ancient Nubia (Photo Credit: http://www.sciencely.com)

Research studies suggested that the Nubian practice of storing grain in deep jars for later consumption provided an ideal environment for the production of the little critters that produce tetracycline, approximately 1400 years before the antibiotic era! Without realizing it, this particular population was ingesting preventative doses of antibiotics, quite possibly staving off infections. How cool is that?

More fermentation products (Photo Credit:  www.dreamstime.com)

More fermentation products (Photo Credit: http://www.dreamstime.com)

Without a lot of these little organisms, many of which seem to show up in foods we would normally deem a little “off”, we wouldn’t have penicillin, wonderful blue cheese, beer or wine and such treats as corn smut, or huitlacoche, a fungus (Ustilago maydis), which results in a blue/black mold on corn (depending on whom you ask, the corn smut fungus is considered either a disease or a delicacy -it is sometimes packaged as “corn truffle”!)

Corn Smut (aka "Corn Truffles") Photo Credit:  www.en.wikipedia.org

Corn Smut (aka “Corn Truffles”) Photo Credit: http://www.en.wikipedia.org

The stuff of penicillin (Photo Credit:  www.beyondthebeauty.com)

The stuff of penicillin (Photo Credit: http://www.beyondthebeauty.com)

The lovely result of mold and cheese - blue cheese! (Photo Credit:  www.seriouseats.com)

The lovely result of mold and cheese – blue cheese! (Photo Credit: http://www.seriouseats.com)

That wonderful sauce that millions of us enjoy, soy sauce, would not be possible except for Aspergillus oryzae, which is used to ferment a mixture of soybeans and wheat.

Soy sauce is another tasty result of fermentation (Photo Credit:  www.allergiesandyourgut.com)

Soy sauce is another tasty result of fermentation (Photo Credit: http://www.allergiesandyourgut.com)

Sake is the result of fermentation, with a tasty end result (Photo Credit:  blogs.browardpalmbeach.com)

Sake is the result of fermentation, with a tasty end result (Photo Credit: blogs.browardpalmbeach.com)

Sake is manufactured using a mold of the same group, which breaks down the starch in rice.

World's largest salami, shown at a Chinese agricultural fair (Photo Credit:  www.telegraph.co.uk)

World’s largest salami, shown at a Chinese agricultural fair (Photo Credit: http://www.telegraph.co.uk)

Even the familiar salami frequently has a culture of mold to improve flavour and where would we be without the mold which results in the delicious blue cheeses?

"Here's to the little yeasties!"  (Photo Credit:  www.huffingtonpost.com)

“Here’s to the little yeasties!” (Photo Credit: http://www.huffingtonpost.com)

We have a lot of little organisms to thank for many of the foods we love. The moral of the story: savoury stuff may spring from serendipity!

Now that's a lot of mold action!  (Photo Credit:  www.baltimoresun.com)

Now that’s a lot of mold action! (Photo Credit: http://www.baltimoresun.com)


My EatYourBooks cookbook collection

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About vintagecookbookery

Cookbook lover and collector with a burgeoning collection of cookbooks. Reading and researching food trends, history of cooking techniques and technological advances in cooking, what we eat and why and cookbooks as reflectors of cultures is a fascination for me. As of November 7th, 2013, I hold the current Guinness World Record title for the largest collection of cookbooks: 2,970 at the official count on July 14th, 2013 (applaud now, thank you very much!) The current (unofficial) number is now 5,851. What next? More cookbooks, naturally (small ones !)
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