Right, hello, I’m back again.
My seating plans are done, the classrooms are laid out in Victorian front facing style and there are lines of yellow tape marked around my desk to maintain a safe 1m distance between me and the students during lessons. Of course, this means that I can’t get to anyone at the back who may or may not be copying out their maths homework instead of analysing timelines of William’s conquest of England, but such is life now. On the plus side, I can legitimately throw things at kids and pretend it’s because I’m not allowed to hand things to them, rather than because they were annoying me (and if my headteacher happens to stumble on this blog, I’m joking. Ignore whatever Fred tells you.)
My first lesson back was to a class of fresh-faced year 7’s. With an alarmingly high level of energy I have no way of maintaining to next week, let alone Christmas, I started by asking them the age old question ‘what is history?’
“Stuff in the past.”
Okay, good start, I said. Any advances on “stuff”?
“The Tudors.” “The Victorians.” “My mum says we’re living through history right now.” Silently, I crossed off the last statement on my ‘first-day-back-post-lockdown’ bingo card. I would go on to hear the same sentence three times again that day. Truly, everyone’s mum is a history teacher now.
All great suggestions, I told them. I was clearly in a room with experts. But no one had quite answered the question yet: what is history?
Truth be told, I was stalling. The projector had packed in – shocked to death when I started it up after 5 months of inactivity – and I needed to reboot the system. While we waited, I overenthusiastically prompted them a bit more. Was history just the study of events and people? Was it just about reading accounts of things that happened a long time ago? And, that most golden of all nuggets: if history is about reading accounts of the past, who gets to decide what is and isn’t worth recording? Put ‘history’ on trial, kids, I said. Question it. Always look for the source of information and think: what is the real message here and why do they want me to know it?
And so, as their little eyes glazed over and they shared worried glances with each as if to say “trust us to get the mad one”, the projector sputtered back to life. A blurry photo of Tollund Man – our first lesson – appeared on the board, but upside down and in shocking fluorescent pink. I gave up and told them to turn to page 4 while I contacted IT support. A great start back.
Oh my God, what is the point of all this?
The point is I inspired myself that day, if no one else, to think about the aspects of history that are harder to define. This is where today’s experiment – a weird combination of historical sources – comes in: recipe, inventory, memorial, biography and art work all rolled into one. It is, of course, tiger nut cake from the iconography on the tomb of Rekhmire, an ancient Egyptian noble and official.
I don’t know loads about ancient Egypt. I signed up to a class in my first year of uni because I thought it would make me look clever and cool if I could decipher hieroglyphs and I dropped out of it when I realised that I was neither (at least, not enough to keep up with the others.) A low point was when we were handed a small section of text to decipher and the only thing I could do was draw moustaches and hats on all the figures whilst those around me made expressive noises of wonder and revelation. Apparently, once translated, it was meant to be a poem or something but all I’d managed to do was transport Hercule Poirot back to the age of the Sphinx.
Anyway, Rekhmire belonged to the 18th dynasty of ancient Egypt, A.K.A. the 1st dynasty of the New Kingdom (c. 1550 – 1077 BC) – a relatively late period in ancient Egyptian history. The New Kingdom followed the Old Kingdom (c. 2686 – 2181 BC “the Age of the Pyramids”) and the Middle Kingdom (c. 2050 – 1710 BC) and is known for its pharaohs. Tutankhamun and Akhenaten and his wife queen Nefertiti all belonged to the 18th dynasty, with Ramesses I (A.K.A. Ramesses the Great) following in the 19th. The New Kingdom can also boast the most famous of all Egyptians: Imhotep of Universal’s The Mummy fame (sorry not sorry to any genuine Egyptologists.)
We know a lot about Rekhmire from his tomb; almost every inch of the walls inside are covered with carvings depicting scenes of his life and administration. As well as being an official, it appears he was also a high priest of Heliopolis, amassing great wealth and prestige during his lifetime which explains why he was able to afford his own tomb. Despite the name, however, there’s no burial chamber inside and therefore no body – Rekhmire’s final resting place remains so far undiscovered. (Any intrepid explorers who fancy themselves as the heroes of a real life The Mummy can just wait until 2020 is over before they go poking around ancient Egyptian burial sites, thank you very much.)
Unfortunately for Rekhmire it seems he was deposed towards the end of his life, though we aren’t fully certain why; the scenes on his tomb unsurprisingly don’t tell us too much about that part of his life. What some of the pictures do show us, however, are scenes of cooking and it’s these scenes I was most interested in.
There are no recipes from ancient Egypt. Anything we know about cooking comes from archaeological evidence – pots, grains, wall paintings or hieroglyphs and fragments of documents. Some of those documents are official records (detailing the cost of bread, or the purchase of meat for example) but many are more narrative accounts of Egyptian life, which historians have carefully analysed. On Rekhmire’s tomb there’s one scene depicting people making some type of cake or bread.
Having already spent most of the day constructing a timeline I will never use again and working out how to put fancy borders round the pictures, I didn’t have the time (or the ability) to analyse the hieroglyphs and paintings myself. Most of them would have ended up getting the Poirot treatment after a few minutes anyway. Luckily, Rekhmire’s tomb had already attracted the attention of people far more qualified than me who had done the intellectual heavy lifting. The brilliant Ancient Recipes blog explained that the first scene on the walls of the tomb depicted workers piling tiger nuts and pounding them into flour which was then mixed with a liquid – most likely honey given the image of a honeycomb on the same wall. Fat was then added, such as olive oil.
Tiger nuts were not something I’d come across before. I had to order them online specially for the recipe. They aren’t actually nuts but tubers, and are one of the oldest cultivated plants in ancient Egypt. Tiger nuts are still used in cuisines around the world today, for example in the Spanish drink horchata de chufa.
I began by blitzing 150g of tiger nuts in a blender – ignoring the judgemental expressions of the workers in the picture of Rekhmire’s tomb who were having to pound the nuts by hand. It took a while as they were very hard, despite being pre-soaked in warm water. I ended up having to blitz them in batches until they were the consistency of ground hazelnuts. I sifted them to ensure as fine a flour as I could get and added 75g of honey and 35g of olive oil to them to create a thick and coarse paste.
It’s worth pointing out here that I bought a special type of honey for this as well. Ancient Recipes advised using raw sidr honey, a monofloral honey made from the sidr tree. Sidr trees were common in ancient Egypt and there is evidence of these trees being planted near temples and palaces. As most bees in ancient Egypt were kept near temples and tended to by temple beekeepers, it’s likely much of the honey in ancient Egypt was sidr honey, made by these temple bees collecting pollen from the nearby sidr trees. It was a bit expensive so if anyone wants to make these cakes for themselves rest assured that they’ll also work well with whatever local honey you can get.
To bake or not to bake, that is the question…
The next image on the tomb shows the baking (or not) of the tiger nut cakes.
There seemed to be some disagreement online about how these were cooked and prepared. Some people suggested the cakes were baked, whilst others pointed to evidence of them being fried. Furthermore, some suggested the cakes were conical whilst others thought they were triangular. Both sets of people pointed to the images in the top and bottom centre of the drawing which showed four triangular shapes with bevelled edges as proof of the final cone/triangle shape.
I decided to try two methods in an effort to placate both camps. Firstly, I moulded half of the mixture into four triangles about 1.5cm in thickness and heated them in a frying pan over a low heat for about 20 minutes, turning each side over regularly until they were evenly browned. The kitchen smelled of honey and bread, which was nice if a little surprising given the lack of wheat in these.
The second cooking method was more involved, but arguably more fun. Ancient Egyptians had many ways of baking and these methods developed over time as new ideas and techniques were discovered. One of the most well known baking methods from throughout ancient Egypt involved baking bread in conical clay moulds. In the bottom of the second drawing of Rekhmire’s tomb, next to the finished triangular shapes, are images of what appears to be conical moulds stacked on top of each other. It was time to get creative…
I didn’t have any ready made clay moulds or anything that could stand in for one, like a tagine lid. So, like a teacher trying to fill time as she waits for the broken projector to restart, I improvised. I fashioned a couple of cylinders out of folded tin foil which I greased with olive oil and packed the other half of the (uncooked) nut mixture into. Then I used the lid of an egg poaching pan balanced on a panettone tin as a frame to hold the cones upright. It wasn’t what you’d call authentic, as the picture below shows, but hey, if you wanted truly accurate Egyptian baking you should have gone to Seamus Blackley.
After 20-30 minutes of baking the cones were done. I let them cool in the oven for another hour or so and then gently unpeeled them, pleased to see that they held their shape well.
The fried cakes were a more appetising colour – golden brown with clear markings where the heat had hit them, whereas the conical ones looked a little anemic in comparison. Despite this, there was little difference in terms of taste between the two – perhaps these popular cakes were prepared and cooked both ways in ancient Egypt?!
These were soft but very crumbly, and not as sticky as you might expect. The first flavour was a deeply intense honey that had a buttery almost molasses undertone to it, but still with a bit of a lighter – almost sharp – initial tang. This was down to the sidr honey, which was much darker and deeply flavoured than my usual supermarket bought stuff. The tiger nuts had a subtle flavour, which I could taste once the honey had washed away and reminded me and my husband of brazil nuts. Together the whole effect was like eating very soft, very honeyed nougat. It was surprisingly moreish and though two cones and four triangles was too much to eat in one go, I found myself nibbling at bits of it throughout the rest of the day.
Would I make these again? Yes, actually. Maybe not into cones and triangles (small bite size pieces like sweets would be better), and maybe with easier to obtain ingredients. I’ve seen people suggest that almonds or hazelnuts would work well in place of tiger nuts. Others suggest that the Egyptians may have added extra ingredients such as dates to these and I think this would work well too.
In the end I don’t know how Rekhmire enjoyed his tiger nut cakes, but I found that they went best in small bites with a cup of tea and an episode of Poirot (I recommend ‘Death on the Nile’…) and were so pleasant that I relaxed enough to ignore the pile of marking already stacking up in the corner of the room. It would be future Ellie’s problem; for now, I was just enjoying being back in the world of food history.
Tiger nut cake
150g tiger nuts
75g honey (any type will do)
35g olive oil
- Soak the tiger nuts in warm water for 10-20 minutes to soften them.
- Blitz them in a blender until they are the consistency of ground almonds. It may take some time and you may need to blend the nuts in batches.
- Sift the nuts through a sieve to ensure as fine a texture as possible. Blitz any nuts left in the sieve or pulverize them in a mortar and pestle until they are fine as ground almonds as well.
- Add the sifted nuts to a bowl and add the honey and oil. Combine until it forms a coarse paste.
- If frying: take a portion of the dough in your palm, about a large walnut size. Roll it into the shape you want, flatten it slightly to allow for even cooking, and fry in a pan over a low heat for 15-20 minutes. Turn the dough over regularly to stop it burning. You should not need to add oil to the pan if you are using a non stick pan.
If baking: shape your dough into the shapes you want – cone or otherwise. Place on a non stick baking tray and bake at 160 degrees C for 20-25 minutes, until they smell toasted but not burnt.
- Drizzle with honey and serve.