Edible histories: blood

Categories: History of food

From Homer to Isaac Newton via an intense theological controversy: Mark Riddaway on the history of blood as a cooking ingredient

Throughout the centuries, black pudding has been many things—an essential element of the full English breakfast, the most famous thing about Bury, and an ingredient paired with scallops and pea puree by every second contestant in the early rounds of MasterChef. It has also, most remarkably, been the source of fierce theological debate, involving no less a man than Isaac Newton.

The consumption of animal blood has long been a controversial subject. The story begins with the dietary laws contained within Leviticus, the third book of the Jewish Torah. One of these states: “I will even set my face against that soul that eateth blood and will cut him off from among his people.” A pretty strong injunction, to say the least. The removal of blood from the carcass has since been an integral part of kosher meat preparation. The Qur’an, incidentally, contains a similar prohibition.

In stark contrast, Christianity paid little heed to the idea of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ foodstuffs. As Jesus says in Matthew, “not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth.” St Paul, while preaching his new religion to the Gentile world, made it clear that Old Testament dietary laws no longer applied. “Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, that eat, asking no question for conscience sake,” he wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “for the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof.” Or to put it in the modern parlance, fill your boots.

But this seemingly clear position on matters of diet is contradicted by one short biblical passage—and therein lay the problem. At the Council of Jerusalem, which took place around 50AD and was recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, the fathers of the church set out some rules for their increasingly international flock. Gentile Christians could, the council concluded, ignore most of the laws of Moses, with the proviso that they “keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from strangled, and from fornication”. In other words, tuck into as much pork and shellfish as you like, but step away from that boudin noir. The seeds for an argument were sown.

Maixmum calorific return
The consumption of animal blood is deeply embedded in many culinary traditions. For good reasons, too: it offers a delicious and nutritious method of ensuring the maximum calorific return from a highly valued, recently slaughtered animal, and it works well in the thickening and flavouring of sauces—a process central to the production of the French civet or the British jugged hare.

The Le Manegiér de Paris collection from 1393 features a parsley-laced poultry and bacon soup which uses blood to colour and thicken the broth, while the 15th century Harleian cookbook includes a recipe for roast lamprey in which the blood of this parasitic fish is mixed with ginger, vinegar, salt and saffron to make a sauce.

One 16th century Italian writer even suggested using blood as a way of seeing off greedy guests. In Giambattista della Porta’s Magia Naturalis, this Neopolitan polymath advised using dried blood to make good meat look rotten, thus discouraging “parasites and flatterers” from scrounging off your table. He wrote: “Boil hare’s blood, and dry it, and powder it. Cast the powder upon the meats that are boiled, which will melt by the heat and moisture of the meat, that they will seem all bloody, and he will loath and refuse them.”

The creation of puddings and sausages was far and away the most common use for blood. This was particularly true of pig’s blood, which solidifies quickly while retaining a pleasing moistness, unlike cow’s blood which becomes a little drier and crumblier. One of the earliest recorded mention of blood sausage is in Homer’s Odyssey, dating from around 850BC, where the cooking of a black pudding is used as a metaphor for a bad night’s sleep: “And as when a man by a great fire burning takes a paunch full of fat and blood, and turns it this way and that and longs to have it roasted most speedily, so Odysseus tossed from side to side.”

Blutwurst, blodpudding, morcilla
The Romans were especially partial―in De Re Coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking), a cookery book compiled around the turn of the 5th century and attributed to Apicius, there is a delicious-sounding recipe for ‘botellum’, a small sausage containing blood, hard-boiled egg, pine nuts, onion and leek. As with much of their culinary tradition, the Romans shared their penchant for blood pudding with the nations they conquered, and over the centuries pretty much every European culture developed its own distinct version: blutwurst in Germany, blodpudding in Sweden, morcilla in Spain, sanguinaccio insaccato in Italy (or, for a real aficionado, sanguinaccio dolce—a sweet chocolate fondant with pork blood).

Popular though these delicacies were, that old biblical contradiction remained the spectre at the feast. At almost exactly the same time that Apicius was writing out his botellum recipe, no less a figure than St Augustine was declaring in his Contra Faustum that the Council of Jerusalem strictures could now be ignored and blood sausages happily dispatched. A few hundred years later though, Pope Gregory III would insist that this position was false and that the eating of blood should draw a gruelling 40-day penance.

Then, in 17th century Britain—a period of intense theological debate in the aftermath of the Reformation—the argument exploded into a very public rumpus, conducted through the pages of books and pamphlets. In one corner were those who thought that eaters of blood were sinful heretics. In the other were those who thought that abstainers from blood were a bit, well, Jewish.

Tracts with titles such as A Bloudy Tenant Confuted, The Eating of Blood Vindicated and Moses Revived batted the argument back and forth. The most famous—and most gloriously named—of these polemics was Triall of a Black-Pudding, written in 1652 by the clergyman Thomas Barlow, who argued that “God would not have Men eat the life and the soul of Beasts, a thing barbarous and unnaturall”.

Titan of science
But by far the most eye-catching intervention came from one of the true titans of science and philosophy, Sir Isaac Newton. In The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended, published shortly after his death in 1727, the great man set out in considerable detail some of his highly unorthodox religious beliefs. And one of these was that the eating of blood defied not just the Council of Jerusalem, but the very soul of the Abrahamic religions.

Newton outlined his belief that one of the essential moral laws, passed down from Noah and embedded into the heart of Christianity, required “mercy to animals”. His abstinence from black pudding was close in tone to that of a proto-vegetarian—an approach publically defended by his niece Catherine Conduitt, who insisted that the scientist’s stance had nothing to do with ignoring St Paul and everything to do with his belief that “animals should be put to as little pain as possible” and that “eating blood inclined men to be cruel”.

The great black pudding debate seems to have fizzled out shortly afterwards, and the nation returned to its breakfast without any overt concern for the Council of Jerusalem. The only debate that remains is whether it’s acceptable to boil black pudding rather than frying it, as my uncle in Lancashire insists is right and proper. Now that, as all right-thinking people will surely agree, is a truly horrible heresy.