Where is Asturias, food and promoting living heritage

Cornish Fabada

Cornish Fabada

Within ‘the heritage sector’ we compartmentalise its different aspects. Museums, libraries, archives as guardians and interpreters of collections. The historic environment sector as recorders of the built environment and historic landscapes. Archaeologists who excavate, record and analyse material remains. Then there’s natural heritage, everything about our world that isn’t human made. The subject divisions proliferate the idea of heritage further, science heritage, art heritage, industrial heritage etc; as does scale: family, house, community, society, region, country, and the ever increasing interest in global heritage.

This bowl of stew was just as powerful as some exhibitions are in evoking a sense of place and its culture.

So what has all this to do with a bowl of stew? Cornish Fabada is a gastronomic pun or perhaps homage to the better known Fabada Asturiana, a simple but delicious stew made in the Asturias, the most westerly region in Spain, indeed Spain’s Cornwall perhaps. Yet another ‘Celtic fringe’. I was emailed a couple of weeks ago about a video project that seeks to showcase the best of Asturian culture and heritage called Where is Asturias. So far seven videos on Vimeo immerse you in carnivals, dramatic landscapes and food.

The two food videos about Tapas and Pinchos and Fabada Asturiana (white beans, pimentón or paprika, olive oil, mineral water, morcilla (blood sausage), chorizo and belly pork slow cooked to a rich heavenly stew–with variations depending on recipe) immediately stood out. Their stories immediately drew me into Asturian culture and heritage. Regional food traditions are a living heritage. They encapsulate and nurture a region or nation’s distinctiveness just as much as their material culture, language, rituals and festivals. But food is not often thought of as heritage, nor is it used as a gateway to interpreting a region’s character, at least not in Britain. Many of the values of good local produce and good cooking are shared by those engaged in promoting and safeguarding other aspects of the heritage of place: sustaining tradition, sharing it, communicating distinctiveness, making comparisons. But we don’t really use food as a vehicle for communication.

Restaurants, cafes and chefs often promote the historic setting of the diner, not least here in Cornwall, but this is all about the building, not about the food, which often comprises ingredients and techniques that have grown up in a region over time and are as much part of the fabric of the place as the old abbey or bakehouse or flour mill or whichever beautifully restored dramatic old building you find yourself in. I’d quite like a line or two on my menu about my John Dory or Skate and how long people have been fishing them and how they do it (and why)–not just that it was sustainably and locally caught.

It seems to me that the instinct of the Where is Asturias team to use food in videos promoting their region was right. This isn’t just about promoting travel and tourism to the area (where good food and ingredients are often used to lure in the lustful traveller) but about appreciating food as an integral part of a living heritage of a region, both tangible and intangible–two concepts that have aroused a lot of debate since UNESCO began to record non-material or intangible heritage on the World Heritage list.

So well done to Where is Asturias. These videos inspired me to cook up my own version with ingredients I could get hold of. Okay, hardly authentic but I remained true to the cooking method which was something I hadn’t tried before, like a slow confit in olive oil, water and spicy smoked pimentón). I speciously called it Cornish Fabada but the point is that by cooking this up I gained an understanding of ingredients and cooking methods that are enshrined in the cultural DNA of the Asturias and so I feel as though I have gained a feeling for this region’s heritage, and more importantly it has persuaded me to want to know more. This bowl of stew was just as powerful as some exhibitions are in evoking a sense of place and its culture, in some ways perhaps more so.

Copper, business history and material culture

Following the discussion of some of the themes I have been exploring related to the historic copper industry through the lens of business archives, I have begun to think more holistically about the relationships between place-industry-business-commodity. My recent relocation to West Cornwall put me in mind of its world-class mining heritage and a landscape and society shaped by the demand for the commodities of copper, tin, and other minerals particularly during the 18th to early 20th centuries. Mining history is the staple of industrial heritage in Cornwall and Britain as a whole and mining landscapes in the rest of the world are beginning to receive similar attention, such as in South Africa and Australia.

But from the perspective of a material culture historian, mining is only part of the story and it has surprised me so far that both scholarly publications and public interpretation has largely been cursory in its treatment of ‘what happened to all that copper, or tin…?’ Those  who appreciate the value of biography as an epistemological tool (or theoretical framework) will have a natural desire to follow a commodity through the whole materials cycle.

The idea of studying the whole materials cycle in an historical context was mediated to me as I wrote a recent piece on the historic copper business, ‘Pioneers and profits‘ for Materials World, the magazine of  the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3). This is an organisation that focuses on contemporary issues related to materials from extraction to their eventual use and even recycling. Their description sums up this approach well:

The Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3) is a major UK engineering institution whose activities encompass the whole materials cycle, from exploration and extraction, through characterisation, processing, forming, finishing and application, to product recycling and land reuse.

Historical studies of business and industry tend to compartmentalise one or two aspects of the historic materials cycle. Those that deal with the whole will usually privilege one stage, e.g. mining and extraction or smelting over others. This is particularly the case with the history of metals and metallurgical processes. It was with this in mind that I have begun to hammer out a plan to research copper through several of its materials cycles to try and understand how the supply chain operated, the skills involved, which individuals and companies were connected together (current work on historic social networks will come in handy here) and how changes in demand and technology manifested themselves in this cycle.

I described some of the ways I have been using business archives to  at a recent workshop on the value of business archives in research, held at Swansea University and organised by the Powering the World project. In this paper I suggested that focusing on a firm that dealt with buying raw materials for smelting and refining copper and then supplying its products to onward manufacturing industries was an effective way to exploit the full potential of business archives held in local and specialist collections. Pascoe Grenfell and Sons is one of the firms I am most interested in. Not having been the subject of any major study, PG&S’s activities spanned mining, smelting, refining, transport and part manufacture of copper and brass. Archives related to their business concerns spanning the late 18th to late 19th centuries can be found in Swansea, London, Cornwall, Aylesbury, Birmingham and beyond. They illustrate the huge complexity and balances required in the procurement of materials to produce saleable commodities.

An example I gave of constructing a biography of copper was of craft copper, such as developed in Newlyn at the end of the 19th century. It’s very schematic and only intended to illustrate the idea of looking at materials cycles. Determining accurate percentages of actual Cornish copper in what was crafted in Newlyn and elsewhere is of course an impossible question to answer at the moment. Also bearing in mind that it is estimated that 80% of copper ever mined is still somewhere in use today, the study of materials cycles become even more compelling.

Newlyn copper biography

Newlyn copper biography