Why would anyone be crazy enough to collect pestle and mortars?

Throughout my life I have been through a number of collecting phases which span varied subject matter, hmnn, let me see: I used to collect stones from the garden and I realise now they must have been ancient pebbles worn smooth by the sea, but didn’t realise that at the time. I would wash these treasures carefully in a bucket and lay each specimen on a pair of step ladders attached to the garden fence and that was my museum! I then graduated to Sindy clothes, cut out clothes for Bunty (er, why?) Gonks, horrible, jelly-like monster things that attached to the top of a pencil, trolls, erasers, pictures of David Cassidy, Led Zeppelin scrap books, poetry collections, cookery books, plants, LPs, candle snuffers and the subject of this particular piece: pestle and mortars. What does this journey say about me I wonder? I don’t think I want to delve into that subject too deeply. So, pestle and mortars, you may very well ask why?

I can only offer this defence; I grew up with a wooden one which always sat on top of the kitchen worktop. When still very young I learned to crush garlic with salt which seemed to be necessary for every dish cooked in our household. It would become totally encrusted and I would spend ages attacking it with a knife and became quite addicted to the smell. It was an unassuming, highly practical item which was never replaced, it was always there. I didn’t know anyone else who owned such an item and even when Habitat was in its heyday, fashionable cooks seemed to favour the stainless steel, hand-held garlic crusher rather than a traditional pestle and mortar. I was intrigued to note the only other versions I ever saw were in chemistry and biology labs in school and I began to wonder about the history of this item. But it also had a more romantic side and I read the stories of Baba Yaga who was a witch from Russian folk tales who flew in a mortar and steered with a pestle, some may well say I had truly found my milieu!

Wikipedia insists on calling this treasure ‘a mortar and pestle’ and describes it as something used to ‘crush, grind and mix solid substances’, which for those of a completest disposition, is termed ‘trituration’. What interested me most is the fact this wonderful pairing of objects is also known as an ‘Apothecary Grinder’, now we are getting somewhere. Mortar comes from the Latin mortarium which has lots of meanings but in this instance ‘receptacle for pounding’ will do nicely and pistilium meaning ‘pounder’ was the etymological root for pestle.

You can see references to such a tool stretch back to Egypt around 3 and a half thousand years ago. This is not a surprise as it is only a little more sophisticated than using one stone on top of another to grind grains into flour or another primitive tool, the Metate, which was a slab used for grinding. The biology/chemistry link is important as these tools were used in producing prescriptions and is a pictorial symbol still known right across the world. The classic pestle with a ceramic base and a wooden handle did not come into production until the late 18th century and is called a Wedgwood.

But to return to more familiar territory it is fascinating to see how this tool has actually given rise to particular staples such as pesto (you can easily see how its name originated) gazpacho and guacamole. The Japanese prepare mocha in this manner and within India, Pakistan, South East Asia spice mixtures are created by being pounded and mixed with these tools. If you want real drama have a look at the mortars with huge pestles used in Malay.

My collection is varied and numbers about 60 different types, ranging from bronze alloy to basalt, granite to olive wood, ceramic to glass, but I have yet to source a bamboo or a Mexican molcajete y tejolote – one day perhaps. My collection is contemporary and I never spend much on each one but love to see what is available. I quite fancied a late 19th century Renaissance style brass with satyr masks and swags which might set me back a cool £500 or a Bulgarian hand painted model. As I delve deeper there are 17th century pestle and mortars on offer, French enamelled versions, Dutch Brass, solid maple and the one I really like which is an extra-large, battered traditional model, London signed model from around 1940. The hollowed tree is a thing of interest which is going for $190. So you see I could obsess and become a real anorak.

I was gratified to see the local pharmacy near the writing retreat has a very beautiful collection of these items in its window, yet another example of synchronicity which underlined my decision to live in this part of Portugal. Perhaps I should shift my search to Portuguese pestle and mortars then write the definitive history but maybe I have something more interesting to do and that’s go crush some garlic for lunch.

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