A cooking query this week, from a lady whose expertise in that department is so renowned that she needs a map to find her way to the kitchen. Once armed with the map, she gets out her Words-worth guidebook to terra incognita culinarius.
Ignore the big white box with the dials on it, says the guide-book. Go to the big white box which has a small door in the top section and a bigger door in the lower part. Open the big door and find some beer. Consult the map again and retrace your steps to where Wordsworth is thinking deep literacy thoughts and with the aid of a cold beer he will explain your query.
“Poaching,” she asks again. “Why is the same word used for the method of catching a salmon and the method of cooking it?”
Strangely enough, the term could also be applied to the boil-in-a-bag meals which are the lady’s gastronomic tour de force.
Poach derives from the old French “pochier”, meaning a bag. Its cousins include pouch, pock, poke, and pocket. In the sense of poaching an egg, the bag is formed by the white which encloses the yolk.
Over the centuries, the bag connotation has fallen away, so that poaching is loosely applied to any kind of cooking in boiling water.
As for illegal acquisition of salmon or other game, the word first means to trespass. In the same way that “poachier” was a bag or pouch, the effect of trampling over wet land would leave it “poached” or pock-marked.
Land- owners complained bitterly that their territory had been poached by lesser mortals, usually while taking a short-cut. Straying cattle would also poach the land, leaving it mired and full of holes.
Anyone taking a short-cut would hardly fail to notice the abundance of pheasants, partridges, game, trout, salmon and whatever else lived in abundance. One or two less would hardly be noticed, so trespass led to help-yourself and poaching acquired a new meaning.
Now, the trespass sense is virtually archaic, and poaching is almost exclusively used to describe the illicit capture of game.
Chaucer knew about poaching eggs and Shakespeare was personally more than familiar with the other sense. All that explanation has made me thirsty. Consult your map and guide-book and fetch another frosty. With your new-found knowledge, Mrs Beeton would be proud of you.