Adulterated beef – a warning from the Oeconomia

How to make sure you are not sold horse or donkey by those tricksy Danes…

(marginalia: meat that is bought from Denmark and how expensively one buys the tun in the port cities)

I must set down another compendium to remember here, Much fine and hearty meat is brought to the port cities (Seestätte) preserved in casks from Denmark, Sweden, Iceland (? Eißland – this may be an error for Rußland – Russia) and Courland and other surrounding countries, and a tun is sold for more than an entire ox. You may buy the tun for 3 or 4 Thaler. One should have brought a tun or two or three according to the needs of one’s household and hang it in the smoke, then one may well supply one’s household with it.

But one must guard oneself that one does not receive quid pro quo horsemeat for oxmeat or one may find a head with long ears at the bottom of the tun. But one must have the tun opened and emptied until halfway down and inspect everything thoroughly and have it laid in again, and only then buy it. Dry, lean, coarse meat looks as alike to horsemeat as a monkey does to its young and when you cook it, it is very friable (mürbe) so that it falls apart. When it is still fresh, it tastes quite sweet. But if it is nicely marbled and fat, hang it in the smoke soon and retain some for daily cooking. Experto crede Ruperto (believe one who has experienced it).

(p. 327)

The most notable part of this passage – part of a lengthy discussion of preserved meat and fish a householder could buy in – is that apparently, German cities by the late sixteenth century had enough of a hunger for meat that it was imported by sea from Scandinavia and the Baltics. A tun would have been a very large container, though unfortunately we do not know which of the many tun measures the writer refers to here. The concern over adulteration is a common thread throughout Coler’s work, and not only there. Few people in this world trusted merchants.

The description he gives of horsemeat is also interesting: if you have ever had horse, you will recognise how the lean, stringy quality it can have, its sweet note, and the way that properly marbled, it can be delicious all ring true. For all the strong taboo against eating horse, it seems to have happened.

Johann Coler’s Oeconomia ruralis et domestica was a popular book on the topic of managing a wealthy household. It is based largely on previous writings by Coler and first appeared between 1596 and 1601. Repeatedly reprinted for decades, it became one of the most influential early works of Hausväterliteratur. I am working from a 1645 edition.

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