Sunday, 12 February 2017

Fulacht fiadh - meat and fish curing facility

A fulacht fiadh or fulacht fian  is a type of archaeological site found in Ireland. In England, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man they are known as burnt mounds. They commonly survive as a low horseshoe-shaped mound of charcoal-enriched soil and heat shattered stone with a slight depression at its center showing the position of a stone or wood lined pit. In legend, Fulachta Fiadh, which were also called Fulachta Fian,  were the cooking place of the Fianna. 

Fianna (singular fiann) were small, semi-independent warrior bands in Irish mythology. They are featured in the stories of the Fenian Cycle, where they are led by Fionn mac Cumhaill. The historical institution of the fiann is known from references in early medieval Irish law tracts. A fiann was made up of landless young men and women, often young aristocrats who had not yet come into their inheritance of land.

Geoffrey Keating, in his 17th-century History of Ireland, says that during the winter the fianna were quartered and fed by the nobility, during which time they would keep order on their behalf, but during the summer, from Beltaine to Samhain, they were obliged to live by hunting for food and for pelts to sell.

Now this is very interesting. If Fianna were "obliged" to live by hunting for food and for pelts to sell, they were basically full time, professional meat and fur hunters. 

Fulachtaí fiadh are usually found close to water sources, such as springs, rivers and streams, or waterlogged ground. One of the reasons for this could have been because in thick forests rivers and streams are the easiest ways in and out. So a hunting party would naturally follow the river and set camps on its banks, venturing into the forest to hunt and bringing their kill back to the camp to be processed, cooked and eaten or preserved and stored. These seasonal camps were reused year after year and this is what caused accumulation of burned stones. I spoke about this in more detail in my post "Fulacht fiadh - sweat lodge" and in my post "Banya".

But there is another reason why Ancient Irish hunters would set camps along rivers. Fish. And one fish in particular: salmon. We know that the Bronze Age Irish had been catching and eating salmon on large scales using massive fish traps and weirs. Indeed the oldest fish traps found in Europe were found in Ireland and were used for catching salmon 8000 years ago. 

Now salmon is a delicious fish so no wonder people have been catching it for food for so long. But as any other fish it is highly perishable. Fish can only last 12-15 hours in fresh condition after catching. So if the ancient Irish really did built fish traps to catch fish in large numbers, they must have had a way of preserving this fish for later use. 

It is exactly the same with meat. A dead animal starts rotting straight away. Especially during the warm period of the year, the meat left outside will get spoiled within hours, unless it is preserved. 

In cold and dry areas of Scandinavia, during spring months, it is possible to air dry fish in 3 to 4 days. 


Such dried fish would keep for a long time. Here is an excellent video showing how this is done. But even there, later in the year, during summer and autumn, when the weather gets warmer and more humid, fish needs to be cold smoke dried in order to preserve it. 

So if the ancient Irish used some method for preserving meat and fish it was probably smoking or smoke drying. Smoking can be done with or without salting. However if you salt the meat or fish before you smoke it, it will last much longer. 

I believe that the Bronze Age Irish were perfectly capable of doing both salting and drying meat and fish using fulachta fiadh. And this is how:

Fish first needs to be scaled, gutted and filleted. This can be done in the stream or river or lake.  

After the meat and fish was cleaned, and before it is salted, it needs to be cut into thin strips to enable deep salt penetration and proper aeration and smoke exposure. 

The meat and fish then need to be salted. Salting is an essential feature in smoking both meat and fish. The basic role of salt in curing is to dehydrate the meat and fish just enough so that bacteria cannot thrive. It also works as an antibacterial agent which kills bacteria on contact cleaning the surface of the the meat. Using the plant salts with high level of nitrates is even better, as the nitrates kill botulism bacteria, which normal salts can't. I talked about these special salts, and the possibility that the ancient Irish could have used them for food preservation in my post "Not all salts were made equal". Unsalted fish particularly will usually sour or spoil if kept at smoking temperatures for any length of time. 


There are two ways to salt-cure meat and fish.

Dry curing: Salt is rubbed over the meat.
Wet curing: Also known as brining, this involves soaking the meat in a brine, a strong solution of salt in water. 

Dry salting

Meat or fish pieces are rubbed with salt and placed into a dry fulacth fiadh trough. Once all the pieces are placed into the trough, they are covered with salt, then with stone plates or wooden planks and then stones are placed on top to press the content. You need to leave the meat in the salt for 2 weeks. Every few days the meat is repacked, the bottom pieces are put to the top...

Wet salting

To salt a lot of meat of fish, you need a lot of brine and to make a lot of brine you need a large tub. 

On the website of "the New Zealand digital library, hosted by the University of Waikato", we can find instructions how to salt and smoke fish using primitive techniques. In this instruction we can see a drawing showing a salting tank with dimensions: 




It is strikingly similar to the construction and dimensions of large fulach fiadh troughs.


So where would you make brine in a fulacht fiadh? In a trough of course. The bigger the better. You need to keep the fish or meat covered with brine throughout the brining period. A log can be floated on the brine to keep the fish or meat submersed, but what ever you are salting should not be packed so tightly that the brine cannot circulate around each piece.

The strength of the brine is a matter of preference. Brining duration depends on the type of smoking you want to do. One method of determining the ratio of water to salt is to put all the fish or meat you want to salt into the trough and then cover it with water. Then just keep adding salt to the water until no more salt will dissolve in it. You can test the concentration of the brine by dropping an egg into the water and adding salt until the object floats. 

The salting period is 3 weeks. 

The thing is for either type of salting, the trough would have to be covered with a wigwam, to protect it from rain. 

After the salting, birning is finished, the remaining salt in the brine can be reclaimed by boiling the brine in the trough using super heated stones. This is the exact same procedure used for extracting salt from brine that I described in my post about a possible use of fulachta fiadh as salt extraction facilities

Now that the fish or meat is salted, it needs to be quickly rinsed in fresh water and it can then be hang and smoked. 

The reason why smoking preservers food is predominantly because a number of wood (or peat) smoke compounds act as preservatives. Phenol and other phenolic compounds in wood smoke are both antioxidants, which slow rancidification of animal fats, and antimicrobials, which slow bacterial growth. Other antimicrobials in wood smoke include formaldehyde, acetic acid, and other organic acids, which give wood smoke a low pH—about 2.5. 


In order to be smoked the fish or meat needs to be hanged off some kind of frame or placed on some kind of rack which is then placed over a smoldering fire. 


There are two general methods of smoking: hot-smoking and cold-smoking. 

Hot-smoking (also called barbecuing or kippering) requires a short brining time and smoking temperatures of  52 to 80 °C and smoking duration between 15 minutes and 8 hours. Hot-smoked fish and meat are moist, lightly salted, and fully cooked, but they will keep at the 4.5 °C for only a few days at best. If hot smoking was used, the meat or fish had to be straight away taken to the nearest settlement for sale. 

A simple wooden rack like the one below is sufficient for short hot smoking. 



Cold-smoking requires a longer brining time, lower temperature of between 26-32°C and extended smoking time of one to five days or more of steady smoking). Cold-smoked fish and meat contain more salt and less moisture than hot-smoked fish. Once the fish has been sufficiently cured by smoke, it will keep at 4.5 degrees Celsius for several months. 

There is also a method of smoking that preserves fish and meat in such a way that it will keep for longer than several months in room temperature

Basically you need to sufficiently dehydrate it through prolonged process of smoke drying. First you need to thoroughly salt the fish or meat and then you need to press it to squeeze out excess moisture. Then you need to smoke it for four days to a week on continuously smoldering fire. The resulting product is only about one third its original weight, is quite firm and has a glossy surface. This dehydrated fish or meat will keep for an undetermined period, (not indefinite). This is the kind of smoke drying procedure still used by peasants in Serbia. Meat preserved like this can be kept hanging in airy dry place at room temperature for as long as you want. Fish preserved like this needs to be stored tightly wrapped, in a dry place, at low temperature. 

For long cold smoking, and particularly very long smoke drying, there is a risk that it might rain, and rain will completely spoil the fish or meat being smoked. This is why cold smoking needs to be done in a covered space, similar to a sweat lodge. Remember the design for sweat lodges I proposed was used by the ancient Irish in fulachta fiadh? Exactly the same type of hut can be used as a very efficient cold smoker. 



It is amazing how every part of the fulacht fiadh can be used for so many different things...


This type of preserving fish was recorded by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, also known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition. This was the first American expedition to cross what is now the western portion of the United States. It began near St. Louis, made its way westward, and passed through the continental divide to reach the Pacific coast. 



On the website "A history of the Grand Coulee Dam 1801 - 2001" we can read that Lewis and Clark reported that they had encountered Native Americans that dressed similarly to the Nez Perce near the Celilo Falls, who were all drying and pounding fish. Here Clark wrote that he also saw "Several Indians in canoes killing fish with gigs". Clark details the drying process when he wrote:


"On those islands of rocks as well as at and about their Lodges I observe great numbers of stacks of pounded salmon neatly preserved in the following manner, i. e. after being sufficiently dried it is pounded between two stones fine, and put in a spaces of basket neatly made of grass and rushes better than two feet long and one foot diameter, which basket is lined with the skin of salmon stretched and dried for the purpose, in this it is pressed down as hard as possible, when full they secure the loops of the basket that part very securely, and then on a dry situation they set those baskets the corded part up, their common custom is to set 7 as close as they can stand and 5 on the top of them, and secure them with mats which is raped around them and made fast with cords and covered also with mats, those 12 baskets of from 90 to 100 lbs. each form a stack. thus preserved those fish may be kept sound and sweet several years, as those people inform me, great quantities as they inform us are sold to the whites people who visit the mouth of this river as well as to the natives below"

I believe that if the ancient Irish used smoking to preserve fish and meet, they must have used some method of smoke drying very similar to the one described above. And they could have used fulachta fiadh for it. 

So, there you have it. Geoffrey Keating, in his 17th-century History of Ireland, says that during the winter the fianna were quartered and fed by the nobility, during which time they would keep order on their behalf, but during the summer, from Beltaine to Samhain, they were obliged to live by hunting for food and for pelts to sell. If the Fianna really lived from hunting for pelts to sell, they had to be able to preserve a huge surplus of meat they ended up with during the hunting season for the winter or at least for the duration of transport from the hunting camp to the customers in villages. To do that they had to cure the meat through smoking or salting and smoking.  And as we have seen Fulachta fiadh could have been used as efficient fish and meat curing facilities. 

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