“My definition of man is a cooking animal. The beasts have memory, judgement, and the faculties and passions of our minds in a certain degree; but no beast is a cook.”
― James Boswell, The Journals, 1762-95
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Homemade dry yeast from Ancient Rome
Pliny the Elder (23 or 24 – 79 AD), in his “Naturalis Historia“, wrote down this recipe for a grape based dry yeast. Yeast derived from grapes is what I commonly use for baking Roman bread, now drying and storing it for the year would be fantastic. Let’s try!
Music: Mystic Force Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com), Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/b…
A Medieval feast – from Baghdad to Scandinavia
In this video for the online culinary history conference “Past to Apron“ I showed, using five example dishes, the way regional cuisines from the Middle East all the way up to England influenced each other.
Braised Fowl from Ancient Rome
Apicius proposes this preparation for different types of poultry: crane, duck, chicken or pigeon. I agree with all of these, except maybe for crane. Choose a fowl that has been bred and fed naturally and has been allowed to grow slowly.
And in this case I really prefer soy sauce over fish sauce.
Eezgii – An age-old Mongolian cheese preparation
I’m feeling experimental and very curious these days, so I have been approaching a cuisine that is quite different from what I’m usually presenting here. I have been preparing a Mongolian dinner in our yurt for some of our friends and one of the dishes I prepared was eezgii. Now, eezgii basically is boiled-down cheese curd, an unusual and original way to dry up and thus preserve cheese without pressing or even leaving it to mature (which is difficult when living a nomadic lifestyle). I think it might have been a rather early way of milk preservation, so I just had to try this one. I’ve been cheese-making for years, so the first steps were very familiar. It’s the subsequent boiling down of the curd that makes all the difference. The milk sugar caramelizes and gives the eezgii a golden hue.
Murri – Medieval Arab “soy sauce“: an experiment
During the past month I’ve been trying to recreate this salty seasoning from the Middle Ages, in a purely experimental procedure. Murri stands in the tradition of the Roman fish sauce, but although “fish murri“ existed as well, the most common variety was made from fermented barley (not from soy beans, but the comparison gives you an idea of its procedure and use). The term “murri“, although meaning “bitter“ in Arabic, probably originates in the Greek word for brine.
Oxygarum digestibile – Ancient Roman digestive aid
The “Oxygarum digestibile“ from Apicius’ collection of recipes is simple but good. Apart from resulting in a sauce that is great both as a dip and a marinade, it is also claimed to be an excellent digestion aid. The ingredients are fairly simple to come by, apart from the unclear identification of “Gallic silphium“. As this herb must come from the family of Apiaceae and it is supposed to help digestion, I went for wild fennel from the garden. I would propose dried dill or fennel greens as a handy substitute.
Renaissance stuffed eggplants
This recipe from 16th century Italy was written down by Bartolomeo Scappi, cook of several popes, as a lent dish, so it’s vegetarian. Although it’s not one of the prettiest dishes I ever prepared, it is very, very tasty. The fact that the eggplants are boiled in a spiced vegetable broth makes them savory and very juicy.
Eggplants were introduced to Southern Europe from the Middle East during the Middle Ages but at first aroused suspicion in regard to their edibility. Their Italian name, “melanzana“, still reflects that prejudice: it derives from “malasana“ – meaning bad for health. By the Renaissance, though, Europeans had figured out that the eggplant is indeed a very edible and innocent vegetable.
Music: Renaissance by Audionautix, Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 Unported— CC BY 3.0: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/…, Music provided by FreeMusic109 https://youtube.com/FreeMusic109 and Suonatore di Liuto Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com), Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/b…
THRION – Stuffed fig leaves from ancient Greece
This ancient form of the well-known stuffed wine leaves is first mentioned in the ancient Greek play “The Acharnians“ by the Athenian playwright Aristophanes in the 5th century BC. There must have been plenty of versions of the stuffing – this specific one , a sweet dish with honey, is said to be a classic from Athens.
The fig leaves are edible and the whole dish is astonishingly tasty, although I would add some more honey or, alternatively, pieces of dried fruits.
Wild foods: pickled bulbs
Remember those wild blue flowers I was showing you in the last video, the ones with the edible bulbs? They’re called muscari or grape hyacinth, and here in Puglia their bulbs are known as lampascioni (or lampagioni – depending on the region). They grow pretty much everywhere at this time of the year and I will show you how to gather, prepare and pickle them.
Wild herb foraging & crêpes
In this video we will go out into the field and forage some wild herbs and leafy greens that grow here in Italy, but also in many other places. And of those herbs we will make a tasty wild herb crêpe.
You will also be able to get a glimpse of Luna, our dog, and our yurt.
Easter Lamb Shank
It is an old tradition to eat lamb for Easter, as it is a symbol for Christ’s sacrifice and at the same time a continuation of the Jewish tradition of the Passover lamb. This recipe is taken from the French 13th century cookbook „Enseignements qui enseignent à apareillir toutes manières de viandes“ (in English: „Lessons which teach the preparation of all kinds of meats“). The trick is to first parboil and then roast the meat at high temperatures, combining the best results of the two cooking methods: juicy meat and a roasted crust. I can only really recommend this preparation, including the sour-peppery condiment that goes with it.
Music license: Suonatore di Liuto Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com), Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/b…
This week we are moving a little ahead in time: to the 16th century, the renaissance. The artichokes, according to a recipe by Bartolomeo Scappi (c. 1500 – 13 April 1577), personal chef of the popes Pius IV and Pius V, are first boiled, then fried. Scappi offers several other options for cooking artichokes, mainly involving to boil them and then stuff them with minced veal. I found this simple one more appealing.
The original text proposes, in addition to frying the artichoke halves in fat, to douse them with lard before serving. I didn’t deem this necessary and in fact prefer to drizzle them with lemon juice, but go ahead with lard, if you like.
Make sure to use the small, purple variety of artichokes, not globe artichokes.
Bazmawurd – a sandwich from the Court of the Caliphs of Baghdad
Who wouldn’t like to show off with a sandwich or party finger food prepared according to a medieval recipe from the court of the Caliph of Baghdad? The 9th century cookbook “Kitab al-Tabikh“ (“The Book of Recipes“) makes this possible: it penned down a vast number of recipes from the Abbasid Court, listing the personal favorites of a number of caliphs, including the famed Harun ar-Rashid.
The recipes are heavily inspired by medieval Persian cuisine, and so are the dishes’ names. They constitute the food of the rich and mighty, and thus probably are not representative of the average Middle Eastern cuisine of the Middle Ages, but that is, in fact, the case with most historical recipes. Food has been subject to social stratification for millennia.
I have chosen this one, Bazmawurd, because of its striking simplicity and its resemblance to a contemporary chicken wrap. You could easily take this sandwich to office, or serve it, cut into pieces, at a party buffet. The amount of fresh herbs, the chopped walnuts, and not least the chopped lemon give it a special touch.
The ideal bread for the wrap would be lavash, Persian flatbread, but tortillas would do as well.
Fake Boar – An ancient Roman recipe
Sometimes you want to impress your neighbors in the villa next door, but you just cannot get hold of wild boar. By marinating pork chops – according to this ancient recipe – you might be able to create a fake boar dish. I’ve added the red wine to the original recipe, as I find it is absolutely necessary to create the game effect. Good quality meat, not too lean, is essential to make this work.
Mistembec – carnival fritters in honey
It is carnival, traditionally the last chance to feast and indulge before the start of lent, the fasting period before Easter. That means that in medieval times, when lent demanded abstaining from all land animal products (fish were excluded which was interpreted very freely – anything that swims or spends time in water is a fish in a way, isn’t it?), people were using up all their stocks of animal fat like lard before it might get rancid. So, anything that could be fried was fried, including these lovely little dumplings doused with honey. Similar dumplings, frittelle, are still a widely common carnival snack throughout Italy. This recipe is taken from the 14th century cookbook Liber de Coquina, but versions of it would have been common all over Europe. Their name, “mistembec“ – “messo in bocca“ / “mise en bouche“ – means “put in the mouth“.
Of course you can equally use vegetable oil instead of lard.
You need: 1 cup flour, 1 cup wheat starch, a cup water, baker’s yeast, lard or oil for frying and honey.
Music: Folk Round Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com). Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/b…
Chicken Parthian style
Despite its name this is a dish from Ancient Rome. Parthia was a region in north-eastern Iran. The Parthian Empire constituted Rome’s big competitor in the east, and therefore maybe caused a certain fascination between awe and exoticism among Romans. Why this specific dish is considered particularly Parthian is a matter of debate, as the ingredients and the way of preparation are rather Roman and called for in many other recipes. One theory is that a specific chicken breed from Asia was asked for.
You need: chicken pieces (legs and/or wings), oil for frying, fish sauce (or soy sauce, if you prefer), wine, ground pepper, lovage (fresh or dried), caraway, garlic
A Viking porridge
There is very little written record about medieval Scandinavian food, but we can very well determine the kind of foods that were available from the archaeological record, as well as the cooking methods involved. Grains were surely the base of most every day dishes, predominantly barley, but also oats, wheat and rye. Fish played an important role in the Nordic diet, while meat was more expensive and hence used rather as a condiment, like bacon for example. As in many historical cuisines, fruits would have been commonly added to savoury dishes. Apart from the seasonal berries that would have been mainly apples.
Therefore I have chosen this porridge as a showcase of everyday Viking cooking: barley porridge with bacon, onions, apples and hazelnuts (the only nut that is native to Scandinavia).
Roman roast chicken in cold sauce
Another recipe from the ancient Roman cookbook written (or at least sponsored) by Apicius (ca. 25 BCE – 42 CE), this time a cold, sweet-and-sour sauce for roast or fried chicken, ideal to pep up some chicken leftovers, to be eaten either warm or cold.
Sit felix convivium!
Itriyya – migrant noodles
Pasta is commonly associated with Italy, and indeed there are more than 300 types of pasta to be found here on the peninsula. Already the ancient Romans ate some kind of pasta – laganum – which might have been a kind of lasagne, or maybe an unleavened pie crust – that is not entirely clear. But the noodle as we know it probably came to Italy during the early Middle Ages with the Arab invasion of Sicily in the 9th century. (And not with Marco Polo from China: he stated, in fact, that Chinese noodles were as good as the ones he knew from home.) During the time of the Emirate of Sicily and the following Arabo-Norman era, the island was famous for exporting dried noodles called Itriyya to mainland Italy and other Mediterranean neighbours. In the Salento, the southern part of Puglia, “tria“, deriving from the word itriyya, is still a common pasta, usually eaten together with chickpeas. The term Itriyya is also known from medieval Middle Eastern and North African sources such as the 14th century cookbook named Kanz, or by the Jewish physician Isaac ben Solomon (in Arabic Ishaq ibn Suleiman) in Kairouan, now Tunisia, who lived approximately from 832 to 932 (yes, he apparently got really old). The recipe I am going to show you in this video is from his collection: he recommends it as a dish that is easy to digest and will help the sick regain their strength.
This migration of recipes is another nice example of how the Mediterranean in the past used to be a uniting, and not a dividing geographical entity. (You can read more about that in the article I wrote for National Geographic Italy a few years ago.)
By the way, the word “Itriyya“ has nothing to do with the name of the Valle d’Itria, where we are staying, although the idea would be nice.
Lenticulam de Castaneis – Lentils with Chestnuts
This recipe from the cookbook by Apicius (ca. 25 BCE – 42 CE) is an exemplary showcase of ancient Roman cuisine, with its classical combination of the sweet, the sour and the salty. Lentils, like kinds of pulses, were an important staple for the population of the Roman Empire, and this vegetarian dish (you can substitute the fish sauce with soy sauce if you like) would have likely been eaten by all social classes. Chestnuts played an important role in the diet of mountainous regions until the 19th century and only later became a luxury food, due to the amount of labor involved in peeling them.
I used fresh chestnuts from our garden and spend a happy hour or so peeling them, but you should be able to find peeled chestnuts (depending on where you live) either vacuumized, frozen or in brine.
I soaked the lentils over night in water, cooking them for about half an hour.
The extinct spice I am mentioning, laser (no connection to the light rays), was obtained by a plant called silphium, which, again, is not identical to the modern plant species with the same name. It is not clear which family the antique silphium belonged to. Asaphoetida was recommended in antiquity as a cheaper alternative, and as this one has an aroma reminiscent of leeks and garlic, I would simply recommend one of them as a handy substitute. I went for garlic this time.
This dish should be served warm.
Fava beans with hazelnuts – a recipe from the Middle Ages
This medieval recipe from 13th century Egypt from the book of Kanz transforms fresh Fava beans into a filling and seriously delicious salad with tahina, spices, fresh herbs and hazelnuts.
Please note that some people suffer from favism, a rare metabolism disorder causing hemolytic response to the consumption of fava beans.
Medieval cheese & wine waffles
This nice little recipe is taken from the French household guide book „Le ménagier de Paris“ from 1393. It proposes several different varieties of waffles, but I couldn’t help but trying this cheese & wine version, which is really tasty, by the way.
Conditum Paradoxum – Spiced wine from Ancient Rome
This wine-based aperitif – its name means literally “surprise spiced wine” was commonly believed to lift the spirits, open the stomach and prepare it for the meal to come. It basically is a cold mulled wine, and maybe an alternative for those who are not overly wild with the Christmas market version. Just make sure to use a good wine as a base.
In Ovis Apalis – an egg dish from ancient Rome
This egg starter from the cookbook of Ancient Roman author Apicius (1st century CE) is easy to reproduce and a makes a nice little party dish / finger food.
This medieval version of a chickpea-based hummus has been written down in Egypt under the reign of the Mamluks in the 13th century CE. It doesn’t use tahini, instead the recipe aims at a fresh, lemony zestiness and is slightly lighter than the common contemporary version.
For in-depth reading I recommend: Lilia Zaouali, Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World. University of California Press, 2007.
Mersu – An Old Babylonian sweet dish
This simple but tasty (and even healthy) confection is a sweet dish made from dried fruits and nuts, reconstructed from cuneiform tablets that pinned down the shopping list for the king of Mari (now in Eastern Syria).
Almost vegetarian sausages from Ancient Rome
This week we’ll try an unusual dish by Ancient Roman gourmet and cookbook author Apicius: egg-based sausages. I say almost vegetarian, because there’s still the issue of sausage casing and, as in virtually every Ancient Roman dish, there’s fish sauce.
The original recipe reads: “Botellum sic facies: ex ovi vitellis coctis, nucleis pineis concisis, cepam, porrum concisum, tus crudum misces, piper minutum, et sic intestinum farcies. Adicies liquamen et vinum, et sic coques.” – „Make botellum sausages as follows: from boiled egg yolks, crushed pine nuts, onions, chopped leaks, raw incense, crushed pepper, to be stuffed into intestines. Add liquamen (fish sauce) and wine and boil them.“
Now, you could either boil the sausages in fish sauce and wine, which the word order might suggest, but the mixture is very dry without added liquids, so I decided to add them directly to the stuffing.
The incense is a little odd as an ingredient. There are various interpretations of it, one possibility might be young pine needles. I tried to use the real thing, in a minimal dose. Nevertheless the aroma gets a little overwhelming after several bites, so you might as well skip it and add some herbs instead, rosemary, for example.
Zukanda – A Babylonian yoghurt soup with barley flatbread
This recipe is part of a collection of Ancient Mesopotamian recipes from the Babylonian Culinary Tablets at Yale. These cuneiform tablets list, very shortly, a number of dishes with their ingredients – without quantities, that is – and with hardly any instructions, so there is plenty of room for interpretation. I have chosen a dish from one of the Old Babylonian tablets described as “Elamite broth”, so strictly speaking it is not Babylonian but claims to be from what is now South-Western Iran. The name of the dish is given as “Zukanda”. I serve this soup with barley flatbread.
The original text reads: “Elamite broth. Meat is used. You prepare water. You add fat. Dill, wild leeks, leek and garlic bound with blood, a corresponding amount of sour milk, and more garlic. The original name is Zukanda.”
A dinner fit for a knight: Wine stewed chicken crêpes with cinnamon apples
Stuffed dormice from Ancient Rome
And if you are wondering how on earth the Romans kept their dormice: here is the answer.