|| Print ||
|Written by Daniel Polgar|
|Wednesday, 26 January 2011 00:00|
From last month's examination of oysters, those decadent and costly morsels, we now turn to a food that has been described as "the poor man's meat": the lentil. The nickname is well-deserved: a serving of lentils provides more protein than an equivalent serving of beef. (Eating 100 grams of lentils will give you 25 grams of protein; it takes 134 grams of beef to provide the same amount. The only more potent vegetable in this regard is the soybean.) Lentils are also a good source of iron, fibre, folate, vitamin B1, and various minerals. This wealth of nutrients has led Health magazine to name the lentil as one of the five healthiest foods in the world.
The lentil has been around for a long time - since the Mesopotamian civilization in modern-day Iraq, at least 8,000 years ago, according to Waverly Root's Food. Evidence of early lentil consumption has also been found in Turkey and Egypt, and the little pulse eventually made its way to central Europe and, ultimately, the rest of the continent by way of the Danube.
The lentil is mentioned in the Old Testament: Jacob buys his brother Esau's birthright with "a mess of pottage" -- that is, lentil soup. Today it is, along with boiled eggs, considered an especially appropriate dish for members of the Jewish faith who are in mourning -- the round shape evokes the natural cycle of life and death. And in some parts of Italy, it is commonly eaten around the turning of the new year, because its coin-like appearance signifies a desire for increased wealth.
Despite its great utility and illustrious history, the lentil has often suffered periods of unpopularity, and been denigrated for its fairly bland flavour and its cheapness. In Victorian-era Britain, shipments of lentils were sometimes left for years without any interested buyers, or were simply fed to farm animals. Going back a little earlier, Root quotes a 1475 Italian writer's scornful verdict that lentils are "the worst of all vegetables." But lentils have been disdained by the wealthy and picky for much longer even than that. Aristophanes, in his play Plutus, has a line, in reference to a newly rich man, that "[h]e doesn't like lentils anymore." (Root also notes, curiously, that Hippocrates prescribed lentils, accompanied by slices of boiled dog, for liver complaints.)
In Roman times, there was a brisk trade between the cities of imperial Rome and Alexandria, as Egyptian lentils were considered the best in the known world. (The red Egyptian lentil is still one of the most popular today.) In fact, the obelisk in St. Peter's Square in Vatican City was originally shipped across the Mediterranean while buried underneath 2,880,000 Roman pounds of lentils.
Despite falling out of favour in Europe in the Middle Ages, the lentil's popularity was revived by the French royal family, particularly by Marie Leszczynska, the Polish-born wife of Louis XV, who ruled from 1715 to 1774. Although the lentil's popularity fluctuated widely over the centuries in France and the rest of western Europe, in the 20th century, the gastronomic editor of Le Monde, Robert Courtine, wrote of it that, while "it brings with it a whiff of the boarding school and the barracks, not to say the prison[,]...[n]evertheless the true gourmet revels in it."
Today, India is the world's leading producer and consumer of lentils, where many different varieties of the vegetable are used in the endlessly variable dish known as "dal." (Anyone looking for delicious lentil dishes should look up the recipes of Madhur Jaffrey.) Lentils have always been popular in southern Asia, as well as in the Middle East, where they are often paired with rice. Somewhat surprisingly, though, Canada is the world's largest exporter, and second-largest producer, of the legume -- and Saskatchewan is the most productive region in the country in this regard. The lentil does have a long history in Canada -- it is one of the vegetables that Father Jean de Brebeuf helped the Iroquois of the St. Lawrence to sow, along with purslane and turnips.
Lentils are enjoying a resurgence in popularity, both because of their status as a top health food, and because of the growing trend in "gourmet comfort food." Lentils played a part in one of the most delicious meals I have ever had, serving as the bed for the confit lamb shank to rest on at Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal.
Lentils can indeed be bland and insipid in both taste and texture, but when prepared properly, and enlivened with other ingredients of sufficient character, they can contribute to fantastic creations. Lentils "du Puy," from France -- the kind that are used in the Pied de Cochon's lamb shank dish -- are recognized as the most prized variety of lentil, for their peppery taste and ability to hold their shape a little better than others. Another popular variety is the Beluga lentil, so named because its black colour makes it resemble caviar; the black pigment it contains is said to act as an antioxidant, and to protect against cancer, heart disease, and the aging process in general.In 1879, an Englishwoman named Eleanor E. Orlebar wrote an obscure, idiosyncratic treatise called Food For The People, in which she advocated an organized program of cultivating and distributing lentils to support the great numbers of labourers in Industrial Era Britain. While Orlebar's utopian idea never came to fruition, the lentil has, simply through its sheer availability and versatility, earned a status as one of the most important foods in the world.
"Eating 100 grams of lentils will give you 25 grams of protein; it takes 134 grams of beef to provide the same amount."