Normally I don’t keep track of whichever saint we are celebrating on whatever day, but a Twitter post by Foods of England made me sit up and take notice of St Mark.
Because, you see, St Mark’s Eve is the chance of a year for women to see into their own future, in a limited sort of way. Specifically, it’s a chance for unmarried women to get a glimpse of their future husbands through the use of *~*ritual magic*~*.
I know what you’re thinking: I’m already married. And while that may be true, the opportunity to check that there wasn’t a future husband out there was too good to pass up. Perhaps one who was willing to build me a replica Roman kitchen in our garden rather than moaning about “building regulations” and “fire hazards” and “parental responsibility to spend our money on school shoes instead” blah blah blah…
According to Foods of England there are a few versions of Dumb Cake and the ritual that goes with it. The name may come from the Middle English word “doom” which originally meant “fate” or “judgement” – as in the Domesday Book (sometimes spelled Doomsday).
Anyway, the basic principals of the ritual were the same: unmarried girls had to bake some sort of cake together in silence. They would either eat the cake themselves or give it to another girl to eat, and that night would dream of the man they were to marry.
Cake before bed was an idea I could get behind. Though there seemed to be a few versions of the cake, many of them had missing ingredients or required the use of more girls than my family of 3 could accommodate.
In the end I settled on the 1911 recipe from Weather and Folk Lore of Peterborough and District by Charles Dick. It seemed most appropriate – a complete (if very plain) recipe requiring the use of only 2 girls and, as Peterborough is not that far from me, semi-local.
“Dumb Cake. On Midsummer Eve three girls are required to make a dumb cake. Two must make it, two bake it, two break it, and the third put a piece under each of their pillows. Strict silence must be preserved. The following are the directions given how to proceed: The two must go to the larder and jointly get the various ingredients. First they get a bowl, each holding it and wash and dry it together. Then each gets a spoonful of flour, a spoonful of water and a little salt. When making the cake they must stand on something they have never stood on before. They must mix it together and roll it. Then they draw a line across the middle of the cake and each girl cuts her initials each on opposite sides of the line. Then both put it into the oven and bake it. The two take it out of the oven, and break it across the line and the two pieces are given to the third girl who places a piece under each pillow and they will dream of their future.
Not a word must be spoken and the two girls after giving the pieces to the third girl have to walk backwards to bed and get into bed backwards. One word or exclamation by either of the three girls will break the charm.
Another variation is that two only make the cake and go through the same form as the preceding, only they divide it themselves, then each eats her portion and goes to bed backwards as in the first case and nothing must be drank or a word spoken.
Weather and Folk Lore of Peterborough and District.‘ by Charles Dick (1911)
I had to make peace with the prospect that this might not work. Firstly, I was married and in every case the ritual stressed it was for unmarried girls. Secondly I intended to rope my husband into helping me; the recipe said it should be two girls making it, but I thought that he might appreciate the chance at seeing if there was a future husband for him too.
As the recipe made it clear the girls should go to bed as soon as the cake had been baked and eaten we decided to make it relatively late, so as not to waste our evening. Personally, I’d have quite liked an evening of silence.
We began by finding things we had never stood on before. I chose two books and spent much of the following hour slowly descending into the splits as the books slid further apart on the tiles. My husband, being a bit more practically minded, put one foot in a gift bag and one foot in a bag of our daughter’s toy blocks.
Then we began our cake in silence. Together we scrubbed a bowl and dried it. We each put a spoon of flour, a spoon of water and a pinch of salt into the bowl and mixed it up to a dough.
We rolled the dough out and shaped it into a circle. Then we scored it down the centre with a knife and added our initials to each side. The cake (although let’s be honest – it was bread dough really) was baked for 12 minutes while we shuffled around each other without saying a word and trying to make as little noise as possible. Of course within three minutes I’d slipped off my book-shoes and pulled a pile of plates off the side as I fell.
Once it was cooked we took it out of the oven together and very solemnly broke it in half. We ate our halves in silence, then, walking backwards, made our way upstairs (if you’ve never walked up steps backwards you’d be surprised at how tricky it is. I looked like a broken marionette, exaggeratedly lifting each leg because I couldn’t judge the step height.)
But did it work?
This morning the first thing I asked my husband was what he’d dreamed of. His reply was “you”. Lovely, I thought.
“We were having an argument, and I decided I didn’t want to be married to you anymore.”
My outcome was equally disappointing. Rather than a dashing prince, or an exciting adventurer (or even my current husband I guess I should add), I dreamed of Jim Henson. You know, the guy who invented the Muppets and who passed away in 1990.
Trouble was, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a picture of Jim Henson, so what I actually dreamed was that I met a man in a full body banana suit – like the ones people run in for charity – who told me he was Jim Henson.
Language is a funny thing. Most of us know what good writing looks like, but few of us can actually write good.
That’s partly because writing is so subjective; what’s funny, moving, interesting to one person is awkward, vapid, dull to another (apart from the work of Terry Pratchett which is universally fantastic.)
Sumerian is the oldest written language and was spoken in regions of ancient Mesopotamia. Clay tablets dating as far back as 3200 BCE have been found bearing Sumerian writing and, like the writing of the late great Sir Pratchett, much of the content found on the various tablets is pretty inspiring:
“A heart never created hatred; speech created hatred.” “Fate is a raging storm blowing over the land.” “A good word is a friend to numerous men.”
When the writing wasn’t being insightful it was being practical.
“Putting unwashed hands to one’s mouth is disgusting.” “Before the fire has gone out, write your exercise tablet!” (guess kids have always resisted doing their homework). “The owner of a house should reinforce the windows against burglars.”
But just to balance it out so that no-one became too self-confident or capable, the Mesopotamians also had language to remind you of your place in society.
“Your worthiness is the result of chance.” “Your role in life is unknown.” “The battle-club would not find your name – it would just find your flesh.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking that a civilisation so adept at putting ink to paper – or more accurately stylus to clay – would go hard when writing recipes.
Leg of mutton is used. Prepare water add fat. Samidu; coriander; cumin; amd kanasu. Assemble all the ingredients in the cooking vessel and sprinkle with crushed garlic. Then blend into the pot suhutinnu and mint.
Firstly, Ancient Mesopotamians were writing on clay tablets, not papyrus or paper. Because the letters were pushed and embedded into the clay, rather than scratched on, each tablet had to be fresh and pliable before writing. This meant that someone had to make the tablet and carve out the stylus before any writing could occur.
Secondly, the script used was cuneiform. This script (which was developed by the Sumerians), underwent a huge number of transitions during a 2000 year period (3000 BCE – 1000 BCE), developing from pictograms to glyphs to horizontal and vertical wedge shaped lines. Recipe 23 dates to about 1700 BCE, placing it in the middle of the Old Babylonian era, and uses cuneiform script but is written in the ancient language of Akkadian.
The Akkadians were another Mesopotamian civilisation who, according to linguist Guy Deutscher, developed a culturally symbiotic relationship with the Sumerians which included widespread bilingualism. By 1700 BCE, Akkadian had just about taken over Sumerian as the main spoken language of Mesopotamia, but Sumerian cuneiform script continued to be used. However, Sumerian was structurally inconsistent to Akkadian. To combat this, (and save time developing a brand new script), the Akkadians began to write out their texts phonetically using the Sumerian cuneiform symbols that most closely corresponded to the Akkadian sounds.
As if that wasn’t confusing enough, Akkadian cuneiform was also pretty wild to look at. As time went on the Akkadians altered cuneiform script into highly abstract versions of the original pictograms, some of which contained as many as 20 separate marks. Furthermore, some of the signs could be read either logographically or syllabically, making their true meaning more difficult to decipher.
This is confusing.
Basically it boils down to this: cuneiform script could be relatively time consuming to copy out and the meanings could be pretty unclear.
Also, recipe writing simply wasn’t that important to Mesopotamians, be they Sumerian or Akkadian. As Karen Radner and Eleanor Robson point out, most ancient texts dealt with numeracy and were quantitative in nature, focusing on administrative matters; wages, accounts and contract. How to make the perfect pavlova or a lasagne to wow the in-laws just wasn’t a major part of the Mesopotamian literature.
That’s not to say that Mesopotamian food was simple, far from it. In fact, you could argue that the annoyingly sparse succinct nature of the recipe suggests that Mesopotamian cooks were so adept that they knew, as standard, what phrases like “prepare water add fat” meant without needing extra hints and tips.
In addition to this the Mesopotamians enjoyed an abundance of fruit and vegetables, baked over 300 types of bread and made many types of cheese. They recorded their bounty on stelai and relief panels which show fruits like pomegranate, apricots and apples, vegetables such as radishes, lettuces and leeks, and meat including wild fowl, goat and cattle – hardly the range of inexperienced chefs.
The problem for modern historians trying to recreate these recipes, though, is that we don’t share their common knowledge. Knowing that the ancient Mesopotamians were experienced cooks who could understand the nuances of “prepare water add fat” was all well and good, but I still ended up in my kitchen boiling five kettles just in case and having a breakdown over whether to use lard, butter or olive oil.
And what the hell was samidu? Kanasu? Suhutinnu? Even Waitrose didn’t sell these ingredients (and they stock seven different types of salt and pepper!)
“Hey Google, translate ancient Akkadian”
Google translate was no help at all. It failed to detect any translation for samidu, told me that suhutinnu meant “mouthwash” and that kanasu was a “dream”. Reluctantly I accepted that I was going to have to do some proper research.
The authority on Mesopotamia was Jean Bottéro. He wrote the first book on cooking in Mesopotamia, The Oldest Cuisine in the World, and provided translations for some of the words found in the recipes.
Her argument for this is based on similar words from nearby regions: The Syrians used the word semida to mean “fine meal”. The Greek word semidalis meant “the finest flour”. And “a fine flour [was] called semida in the Talmud (Pesachim 74b, Shabbat 110b, Moed Katan 28a.)” Similarly, Kelley argues that the word semida “is the Targum Yonatan translation for solet – also meaning “fine flour”.” The University of Chicago’s Assyrian Dictionary also defines semidu as semolina.
Kelley translates suhutinnu as some kind of root vegetable, but cannot be more specific. She suggests carrot, turnip or parsnip (but not an allium) based on the fact that tablets tell us nothing more than suhutinnu is “dug up”.
Bottéro gave no translation for the word kanasu (other than “a kind of edible plant”, which doesn’t really narrow it down), but Kelley believes it refers to emmer wheat flour. Emmer was one of the earliest crops domesticated in the Near East, growing naturally throughout the Fertile Crescent before domestication.
Making Kanasu Broth.
I gathered my ingredients: mutton was sourced at a local farm shop (I had to get diced rather than a full leg), emmer wheat was bought from a specialist mill, and semolina was found lurking on a back shelf in Waitrose, resentfully eyeing the more commercially successful rice pudding grains.
But how to cook it?
In his book A History of Food in 100 Recipes, William Sitwell points out that when the collected recipes are examined together, myriad cooking techniques are mentioned: “slicing, squeezing, pounding, steeping, shredding, marinating and even straining.” He suggested that despite the thousands of years separating us from the ancients, cooking techniques and food preparation hadn’t changed all that much.
So I followed my gut. Would I want to eat meat boiled in water without having been seared first? Not really; searing helps build flavour. I assumed, then, that the ancient Mesopotamians had a similar thought process.
With the meat seared and set aside I began work on the water and fat. Assuming I was making a stew rather than a broth after all, I added just 200ml of water to a pan .
The fat mentioned in the recipe was likely to have been sheep tail fat, which I couldn’t find anywhere at all at short notice, so I used olive oil. I figured that since olives had been cultivated in Mesopotamia from around 5000 years ago it wasn’t outside the realms of possibility that oil might have been used in place of animal fat when needed.
As the water and oil mixture heated, I crushed coriander and cumin seeds with a pestle and mortar and mixed the spices with semolina and emmer flour. Then the whole lot was tipped into the water and oil mixture and stirred to prevent lumps.
Once the sauce had thickened a little, I returned the browned meat to the pot. I added crushed garlic, sliced parsnips and a handful of mint and then let the whole thing cook on a low heat for just over an hour.
This meal was probably intended for the wealthy. The ingredients and tools needed (knives, caldrons, mills or grinders), to make it suggest it was probably cooked in palace or temple kitchens, rather than bog standard houses. Though literacy among Mesopotamians wasn’t just the domain of rich men, the idea that ordinary people would see the value in writing out recipes such as this just for personal use is also far fetched.
And the food itself? Delicious! Far more stew like than broth in my opinion, which I actually preferred. The mutton gave it a stronger flavour than lamb, but it wasn’t too dissimilar. The mint worked exceptionally well (who would have thought that the lamb/mint combo stretched back so far?!) and the spices were subtle enough to add depth, but not so overpowering that they drowned out the other flavours. In fact, I could probably have added half a teaspoon more than I did.
If you’d like to watch how I made this then please see the video below (and hang around til the end where I attempt a visual joke that made my husband declare he would “divorce me within 20 years” when he saw my preparations for it.)
500g (1 pound) of mutton or lamb (I used diced but the original recipe refers to a leg. I give instructions below for both methods but if you are using a 1kg (2 pound) leg of lamb you will need to double the rest of the ingredients.) 200ml (6.7 fl. oz.) water 2 tablespoons of flour (any type will do) 1 tablespoon of semolina (or another tablespoon of flour if you can’t find semolina) 1 parsnip 2 cloves of garlic 1 teaspoon coriander seeds 1 teaspoon cumin seeds 2 tablespoons olive oil Handful of mint
Sear the meat in a pan if using diced meat. (If using a full 1kg leg, cut holes in it and rub with olive oil and salt before roasting in an oven at 220C / 200C / gas mark 7 / 425F for about 45 minutes and then skip ahead to step 3. Remember to double the quantities for the rest of the ingredients!)
When the meat is browned, remove it from the pan.
Add the water and oil to the pan and heat.
Grind the coriander and cumin seeds in a pestle and mortar and then add the flour and semolina to them. Grind everything together and then add to the water and oil. Keep stirring! (If cooking a leg, skip to step 6.)
As the sauce thickens, add the diced meat back to the pan to allow it to cook through.
Chop the parsnip into chunks and add it, along with the garlic and some torn mint, to the pan.
Cover the pan with a lid and cook on a low heat for about an hour if using diced lamb or until the leg of lamb is cooked if using a leg. Keep checking on it regularly to stir it and add more water if it gets too thick.
Serve! (If using a leg of lamb allow the lamb to rest for 15 minutes or so after cooking before pouring the sauce over it.)
Do you know what’s one subject you don’t want to take at GCSE if you’re not very good at it?
Unfortunately for 15 year old me, all my friends wanted to do art and I wasn’t very good at the alternative option either (Design Technology – I think the exam had something to do with birdhouses, or ashtrays, or ashtrays for birdhouses?) so art it was.
Big mistake. In French I could mumble my way through the verbs I’d spent my weekend not revising. I could play with enough enthusiasm during music lessons that my teachers didn’t mind that most of the notes were wrong. But art? Each week I’d have to pin my feeble attempts at fruit bowls on my easel for all to see. And worse still, everyone else’s attempts (which were also pinned up at the end of each lesson) were always so much better.
“You have a very medieval way of drawing people”, my teacher told me once.
“Is that good?” I asked hopefully.
“It’s certainly… distinctive.”
I dropped art as soon as I could, but my teacher’s comments stayed with me and a couple of years later I applied to study medieval history at university, citing the moment I realised I had a “medieval” style of drawing as the moment I realised I was interested in medieval history.
What has this got to do with Easter?
Today’s post is basically just a way for me to prove my art teacher wrong by making my shoddy drawings the star of the show. But I’ve cunningly disguised that fact by pretending it’s all about the festive topic of the Easter bunny.
The Easter bunny’s origins are a bit vague. A commonly held belief is that as abundantly fertile animals, rabbits represent new life which ties in nicely with the religious message of Easter, but it’s really not as simple as that.
Our modern bunny is a commercial creature with his soft floppy ears and non-threatening, chocolate-loving persona. This creation is, unsurprisingly, thanks to America. When German Lutherans arrived in America during the 17th and 18th centuries, they brought the tradition of the “Osterhase” with them. This tradition stated that children would be judged every Eastertime by a hare. If they had been good, they would be rewarded with a treat. Over time the tradition grew and developed until it became the sugar-fuelled, garden-destroying day we all know now.
Some people argue that the Easter bunny’s origins date back even further to the pagan festival Ēostre which used the hare as a symbol of renewed life. However, this might be wishful thinking; A Dictionary of English Folklore states there’s little evidence of any links between Ēostre and hares – and even if there were, these links would have been unlikely to have survived the subsequent centuries of invasion and Christianisation of Britain.
Despite the ambiguity, it’s likely that hares originally had more to do with Easter than rabbits. In Leicestershire there was an annual hare hunt held every Easter Monday, the first recording of which was in 1668. The 1620Calendar of State Papersrecorded that “…huntsmen say that those who have not had a hare against Easter must eat a red herring.” And in Warwickshire the parson supposedly offered a groat, a calf’s head and one hundred eggs to the man who presented him with a hare before 10:00am on Easter Monday.
A many-anused beast…
But people were interested in hares long before the 17th century.
“Hares are seldom tamed…”, wrote Pliny the Elder in The Natural History. “In the hare, the number of cavernous receptacles in the body for the excrements always equals that of its years.” Basically, hares were not pets you’d want to keep indoors without protecting your soft furnishings from their many “cavernous receptacles for excrement.”
By the middle ages, hares and rabbits were relatively luxurious commodities. Manorial lords would have an automatic “right to warren” on land they owned and would often grant tenants leases to maintain their warrens for them.
Sometimes the lords would complain about the abundance of rabbits or hares outside their warrens, as in the case at Freckenham in 1551 when rabbits were condemned for “increasing and multiplying on the common land” and the lessee of the warren was ordered to block up all the rabbit holes on the common land.
Hare was also a popular dish for the rich; as far as I can see there are two separate recipes for hare in the 14th century English cookbook Forme of Cury and about seven or eight from the contemporaneous French text Le Menagier de Paris.
In addition to food, rabbits and hares were seen as good gifts and in 1345, the Prior of Ely sent sixty rabbits to Edward III – an enormous display of wealth. In fact, by the 14th century rabbits were seen as such a status symbol that during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the rebels explicitly demanded that all men should have the right to take game and to hunt “hares in the field.”
Despite this, hares and rabbits were seen negatively in some circles. In medieval art and literature hares were sometimes seen as symbols of promiscuity. Even more concerningly, some thought hares were linked to the occult; the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th century German text on witchcraft, commented that witches had the ability to transform themselves into hares.
Later, when the witch-crazes swept Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, a Scottish woman called Isobel Gowdie confessed to turning herself into a hare by chanting: I shall go into a hare, With sorrow and sych and meickle care; And I shall go in the Devil’s name, Ay while I come home again.
Having confessed to the crime of witchcraft, the law stated that she be executed, but there’s no firm evidence whether this happened to Isobel or whether she was acquitted. Perhaps she really did turn herself into a hare and hopped away?
Whether witches in disguise or the real deal, you messed with hares at your peril.
The Smithfield Decretals, a mid 14th century manuscript, details some scenes where hares enact their revenge on the humans who blocked up their warrens, skinned them and ate them.
In this highly decorated manuscript there are numerous drolleries – fanciful drawings meant to titillate and amuse the reader.
Often these images depict imaginary mash-ups of animals; snails with human torsos or birds with elephant heads. As well as the more usual ones, the ones in the Smithfield Decretals also depict what can only be described as killer hares enacting revenge on the humans who would destroy them.
In one image two hares flay a bound man alive, starting at his feet. Rather than watching the unfortunate victim, the hares’ unfeeling, bulbous eyes are askew – an artist’s comment on nature’s detachment from human suffering or, (like my own arty shortcomings) an inability to draw perspective? You be the judge.
In another, a hare carries a trussed up man on a stick while another triumphantly blasts a tune on a hunting horn. In yet another, a hare is seen with a ridiculously long sword, beheading a man. It’s probably worth noting that medieval people didn’t do realism in their art (in case you’d not worked it out.) This included realistic facial expressions – so rather than screaming in agony, the man being beheaded is just frowning sadly, as if the whole thing is slightly inconvenient (take a look at the images at the end to see what I mean.)
Rather than being a crafty design to get people to go vegetarian by forcing them to confront the reality of their hare-hunting ways, these images represented the idea of the world turned upside down; the hunted becomes the hunter. Just think on that while you’re searching for your eggs on Easter Sunday.
Who wants a biscuit?
I could have written a post about hot cross buns or tried making another Simnel Cake. But I didn’t fancy any of that. Instead, I wanted to draw some art and I wanted art that celebrated the mighty Easter bunny in all its glory. And I wanted it to be delicious.
So this Easter, in addition to my foil wrapped egg(s), I’ll also be tucking into some very special Easter biscuits depicting the more unusual aspects of the human/Easter bunny relationship. The images are taken from a variety of texts so even though the recipe isn’t medieval the artwork, according to my teacher at least, sure is.