Young wheat grain, stripped from its stem in late summer, tastes sweet and juicy, an attractive nibble for Stone Age foragers. Eventually, though, we became provident and realised that grain left to grow to maturation and stored in a dry place would provide food throughout the bleak northern winter.
A simple stone mill known as a quern was devised to crush dry grain. In time, the lower stone became dished, to contain its contents, and the upper stone grew smaller and easier to manipulate. Thus evolved the design of the bowl-shaped mortar with its handled pestle. The crushed wheat was cooked with water to produce a porridge which up until 200 years ago in Britain provided vital sustenance for the poor. Thomas Hardy describes meals of frumenty, or firmity, in The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Of the antique mortars that have survived in Britain, most are brass, and some were used by pharmacists. Stone and marble kitchen mortars like those of Eliza Acton and Mrs Beeton appear to have been discarded in the days when domestic kitchen equipment was considered of little interest. But now, in Britain's post-modern kitchen - where cooking is valued not simply for its speed - there's a remarkable mortar revival. They can be found in all sizes, in brass, cast-iron, porcelain, marble, stoneware, glass or wood.
Bearing in mind that the function of the mortar is to resist the force you apply through the pestle, it is clear that of all these materials, porcelain is much the best. It is the hardest, smoothest and most practical, as it is heavy, highly durable, does not absorb flavours and is easy to clean. The best porcelain mortar around is made in Staffordshire, by Milton Brook. This cool, off-white, spouted bowl with matching wooden-handled pestle is a joy to use. A circular movement crushes the contents against the base and side of the mortar, while a strong downward movement crushes the food by pounding.
A well-equipped kitchen has two mortars: a small one about 10cm across for spices, garlic, or herbs; and a larger one, say 18cm across, for pounding nuts and meat, and making sauce.
Spices freshly crushed in a mortar are a revelation compared with their stale, tired taste when ground weeks before. You can gauge the fineness more easily than when using an electric coffee mill, which pulverises almost too quickly. Coarsely crushed coriander seeds or gently bruised cardamom pods are most easily achieved in a mortar. And using a mortar to grind and blend your own spice mixtures is sheer pleasure; a combination of cumin, fenugreek, and mustard seeds, with black peppercorns and dried red chillis ground together for Indian dishes; or a fiery Tunisian paste of caraway seeds, garlic, red chillis and fresh coriander; or simply a traditional English blend of cloves, allspice and nutmeg.
The sauces of the ancient world such as Roman garum were prepared in a mortar, and Mediterranean salsas still taste at their best prepared in this timeless vessel: Provencal aioli, Genoese pesto, Greek skorthalia, anchoiade and countless fresh herb-rich green sauces. Such a sauce has more character, intensity and texture than when whizzed up in an electric processor which incorporates air that lightens both colour and flavour. A simple, elegant mortar containing an aromatic sauce is its own serving dish, welcome on any table. Serve the one below with grissini and crudites as an appetiser, to garnish vegetable soups, dress pasta, or with grilled meat.
2 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
4 anchovy fillets, drained of oil and roughly chopped
1 tablespoon capers, drained of brine
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
30g/1 oz flat-leaf or continental parsley leaves
2-3 tablespoons each of basil, and mint or coriander leaves
100ml/3 1/2 fl oz olive oil
squeeze of lemon juice
In a mortar crush together the garlic, anchovies, capers and mustard until fairly smooth. Add the herbs and pound with a little olive oil until you have a homogenous mixture, but still with some texture. Gradually add the olive oil, mixing until well combined. Add lemon juice to taste.Reuse content