The latest NY Times Sunday Magazine has a lively article by Jonathan Reynolds about a Scottish food historian named Alan Davidson, author of the Oxford Companion to Food. The story of how he became a food expert is intriguing (his wife asked him about the varieties of fish in Tunis, where they were living, and he couldn’t find anything in print, so he started investigating: “I found the whole business of identification of fish quite interesting”), and there are some nice quotes—eg, on the Jerusalem artichoke:

By 1621, the writer John Goodyer, revising Gerard’s Herbal, was writing: ‘which way soever they be dressed and eaten, they stir and cause a filthy loathsome stinking wind within the body, thereby causing the belly to be pained and tormented, and are a meat more fit for swine than men.’

But what inspired me to post an entry about it is this:

So do we need to know the three meanings of ”ratafia” (it’s a liqueur; it’s a macaroonlike cookie; it’s an essence of almond), the proper way to clean a potentially lethal blowfish (wear gloves; cut off the head and tail and dorsal fin; peel back the skin like a glove) and the meaning of poubelles de table (the dustbin for picking up detritus from the table)?
If it’s written with Davidsonian elan, yes.

I was only vaguely aware of ratafia, and am glad to have the meanings laid out for me. But I can only confirm two of them from independent sources; the OED says:
1 A cordial or liqueur flavoured with certain fruits or their kernels, usually almonds or peach-, apricot-, and cherry-kernels. Now applied esp. to a type of aperitif made from grape-juice and brandy.
2 A kind of cake or biscuit having the flavour of ratafia, or made to be eaten along with it.
[a. Fr. ratafia (17th c., Boileau), †ratafiat, of unknown origin (see Littré for conjectures).]
And the American Heritage:
1 A sweet cordial flavored with fruit kernels or almonds.
2 A biscuit flavored with ratafia.
[French, perhaps of West Indian Creole origin.]
But I suppose I’ll take Mr. Davidson’s word for the essence of almond. He seems to know this sort of thing.


  1. I have just been surfing through a few blogs and yours is so incredibly interconnected. At least this is the first word that came to my mind. I don’t want to say web-like but perhaps that’s better. Rather fascinating. Right, and the 3 meanings for ratafia… “Jocularity, jocularity” as Father Malchay of MASH would say.

  2. Why, thank you, sir! And I see from your blog that you, like me, have had the eye-opening experience of teaching in Taiwan. “After spending two years of teaching in Taiwan, it became quite clear to me that a fair number of my male students were psychopaths…” My best English student was a rich kid, son of a general, and quite possibly psychopathic; I couldn’t stand him but had to give him straight A’s. My favorite student was a basketball player who’d grown up in Korea and spoke enthusiastic but terrible English; we went out for beers together and had a great time and the only reason he got D’s was because I wasn’t allowed to flunk anybody. Those were the days.

  3. Davidson is great. I do believe the Oxford Companion to Food (which I can see from here) is also the later and cheaper Penguin Companion to Food.
    At an earlier date, I had his Mediterranean Seafood, which has black-and-white illustrations of the fish and their names in many languages, plus recipes and background. So when I heard he was doing the Oxford Companion I was really pleased. No, I got it for Christmas and that was when I saw his name on it.
    I second the praise of the blog. Always a good read.

  4. I had a friend who lived on the Mexican coast with a local spear-fisherman during her hippy-chick days.(My friend’s hippy-chick days, not the fisherman’s.) She said that when she asked him the names of the fish he’d always do a double-take and then say something like “colorado” or “peligroso” — seemingly descriptions rather than names. Maybe if it was subsistence rather than market fishing, names weren’t needed. Someone oughta tell Frege about this one.
    (On the other hand, maybe he was translating Mayan names into Spanish, the language she knew.)

  5. Assuming that no-one is arguing about ratafia the distilled liquid (i.e. booze) or ratafia the biscuit (essential ingredient of proper trifle) then the best I can do is provide proof of the existence of ratafia essence in this Scottish recipe
    and on a BBC site
    There is even a reference – to meaning one – from Congreve
    As dictionaries tend not to be written by cooks, I had less luck with the etymology!

  6. Jonathan Wright says

    As someone you lived in Tunis for several years and greatly enjoyed exploring the vast variety of fish species in the local markets, I was interested to hear about John Goodyer. He has a worthy successor in Alan Davidson, a British diplomat who also lived in Tunis and wrote “Mediterranean Seafood” — a brilliant work which combnes careful marine taxonomy and enthusaistic cuisine. If you want to distinguish between the many species of Mediterrean bream, some of which look alike as two species of sparrow, go to Davidson. Bon appetit.

  7. Um, it was Davidson I was writing about—Goodyer is just somebody he was quoting on the subject of Jerusalem artichokes. But I definitely look forward to reading more Davidson.

  8. I am happy to report that the OED updated the entry in 2008 and now covers the “essence” sense:

    1.b. More fully ratafia essence. An essence used as a flavouring for food and drink, typically extracted from almonds or the kernels of cherries, apricots, and peaches (cf. sense 1a(a)).

    1727 To make a Ratafia Pudding… When ’tis almost cold put in two ounces of Almonds blanched, and beaten fine.
    E. Smith, Compleat Housewife 102 (heading)

    1758 Mix it with a Quarter of a Pound of Almonds well beat, the Juice of a large Lemon, a little Orange Flower Water, a few Drops of Ratafia, or a Laurel Leaf or two bruis’d.
    J. Thacker, Art of Cookery 17

    1851 This substance..forms..the volatile oil of bitter almonds… It is sold in different degrees of dilution to cooks, confectioners, and others, to flavour cakes and liqueurs, under the name of essence of ratafia.
    Penny Cyclopaedia Suppl. vol. I. 106/1

    1939 Boil for a quarter of an hour, add a flavouring of essence of ratafia and tie up the jam securely in pots.
    Times 6 November 11/6

    1998 Ratafia essence, an alcoholic extract of the kernels of cherries, peaches, almonds and other stone fruits used as a flavouring.
    C. G. Sinclair, International Dictionary of Food & Cooking 445/2

    And here’s the updated etymology:

    Apparently < French ratafia (although this is first attested slightly later: 1694 denoting a drink, 1675 as a toast in form ratafiat), of uncertain origin, perhaps ultimately (perhaps via Antilles Creole) < an unattested post-classical Latin expression *rata fiat, formula to seal a bargain (short for *rata fiat conventio let the agreement be ratified; 3rd singular present subjunctive of classical Latin rērī: see ratio n.), used as a toast, and subsequently understood to be the name of the drink. Compare Louisiana French Creole tafia (18th cent.), probably < French, with loss of the first syllable.

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