Recalling one village’s time of plague: Inspiration for those enduring the ‘Great Confinement’

Apr 10, 2020 | 8 comments

By Giovanni Cambizaca

Now that the coronavirus is no longer just a smudge of misery hidden by the curve of the earth’s surface, writing about food all the time seems a little trivial, so this week I’m going to consider the way we live now and try to place that in a historical context. The story I’m going to tell doesn’t have a happy ending, but it does show what we are capable of if we choose.

We have been in our homes for almost four weeks, and I suppose most of us have had enough, but the “great confinement” continues and I thought it might be helpful to seek inspiration from people who have lived through similar circumstances, so today we will visit the village of Eyam in England. Since Roman times this remote area, high in the Derbyshire Dales, had been the site of lead mining. Consequently, the village was historically quite wealthy and it supported a substantial population.

In 1665, the plague — the Black Death — came from the east to London, the last major outbreak of bubonic plague in England. In May, 43 people died, in June 6,137 people died, in July 17,036 people, and at its peak in August 31,159 people died. By the time it was over, the Great Plague had killed an estimated 100,000 people — almost a quarter of London’s population — in 18 months.

In late summer of 1665, a parcel of cloth was sent from London to the tailor in Eyam, carrying with it a cargo of plague fleas. Within a week of the arrival of the cloth, the tailor’s apprentice, George Viccars, was dead, and more in the household began to die soon after.

As the disease spread, the villagers turned to their pastor for advice. Several precautions were introduced in May, 1666 to slow the spread of the contagion. These measures included the need for families to bury their own dead, and one villager, Elizabeth Hancock, was obliged to bury six children and her husband in eight days. Remarkably, she survived. Church services, the principal social gathering, were relocated to a natural outdoor amphitheater, allowing the villagers to separate themselves and so reduce the risk of infection — an early example of social distancing.

Although this slowed the spread of the disease, it did not stop it. Eventually, on June 24, 1666, the villagers agreed that they would have to quarantine Eyam to prevent the disease from reaching their neighboring communities. No one was allowed in or out, and to pay for food and medicine from outside, money soaked in vinegar was left in holes drilled into a stone that marked the village boundary.

The plague ran its course in Eyam over 14 months, and on November 1, 1666, farm-worker Abraham Morten gasped his final breath, the last victim of the plague in Eyam. One account states that it killed at least 260 villagers, with only 83 surviving out of a population of around 350. St. Lawrence’s church in Eyam has a record of 273 individuals who were victims of the plague.

The villagers’ actions prevented the disease from moving into the surrounding areas.

In light of the sacrifice made by the people of Eyam, the actions required of us seem quite modest. At least we, in the comfort of our homes, are sealed off from our scourge, not cloistered with it like the unfortunate villagers of Eyam. And, given the less lethal impact of Covid-19, we all have every expectation that we will survive this trial if we behave wisely.

Andy’s sushi

Suzanne Condy sent me a photo of her husband, Andy’s, homemade sushi. All I can say is it certainly looks like Andy knows what he’s doing. Send me a photo of something you’ve made recently, or a recipe that you would like to share with us to:

Today, I want to introduce you to one of my favorite food writers. Rachel Roddy is an English writer living in Rome, and every Monday she writes a column for the British newspaper The Guardian. Her column weaves together stories and easy recipes for thick bean soups, fresh pastas, braised vegetables, and slow-cooked meats. Her recipes are always delicious and require only a few ingredients.

Rachel Roddy’s Lentils, Potato, Greens and Sausage
Prep 15 min, cook 30 min, serves 4. You can omit the sausages, if you prefer.

1 small onion, peeled and diced
1 stick celery, diced 1 garlic clove, peeled and gently crushed
1 bay leaf
1 tsp red chilli flakes
6 tbsp olive oil
300g small brown lentils, rinsed
1 large potato, peeled and cubed
150g spinach or acelga, or any green vegetable
4 large sausages

In a large, deep frying pan or casserole over a medium heat, fry the onion, celery, garlic, bay, chilli and a pinch of salt in the olive oil until the vegetables are softish and translucent.

Add the lentils, stir for a minute, add 1.2 liters water, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. After 15 minutes, add the potato, and simmer until the lentils are tender but still holding their shape; the idea is that much of the water has evaporated, but not all, so the lentils are still slightly soupy. Add more water if the pan looks dry.

In the last few minutes of cooking, add the spinach or acelga and wilt down. Serve with some olive oil poured over the top.

If you are serving with sausages, you have two options. The first is to cook them in a separate pan and then serve on top. The second is to start off by browning them  in another pan and then add them along with the potato so they finish cooking with the other ingredients.

Te enviamos un abrazo
Giovanni, Maria Eliza y toda la familia

Susan Burke March

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