Tiger Nut Cake: c. 1400 B.C.

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.)

It took several hours to make this when I should have been marking.

Rekhmire

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.

Egyptian cooking

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.

Drawing by Norman de Garis Davies. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1943. From Ancient Recipes.

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.

Drawing by Norman de Garis Davies. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1943. From Ancient Recipes.

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…

Imagine how annoyed you’d be if you only got the tip and someone else got the end slice…
Credit here.

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.

Not a method seen on Rekhmire’s tomb but just as effective.

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.

Conclusion

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.

E x

Tiger nut cake

150g tiger nuts
75g honey (any type will do)
35g olive oil

  1. Soak the tiger nuts in warm water for 10-20 minutes to soften them.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Add the sifted nuts to a bowl and add the honey and oil. Combine until it forms a coarse paste.
  5. 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.
  6. Drizzle with honey and serve.

A Fish Banquet: 3rd Century

Oh my God, it’s hot. It’s so hot that when my daughter went to the kitchen to look for an ice-cream she found that the heat had somehow penetrated through the freezer door and vaporised an entire box of her Fabs – wrappers and everything. Truly nature is a wonderous thing.

In weather like this, what else is there to do but have a barbeque?

My husband was delighted when I suggested BBQ for lunch but his joy quickly turned to apprehension as I announced gleefully “not just any barbeque! A history barbeque!”

All I had to do was find some inspiration.

Today’s experiment is from Athenaeus’ The Deipnosophists, specifically book seven: “The Phagesia”. Deipnosophists was an early 3rd century Greek work which somehow managed to fuse the two genres of philosophy and cookery together in a fairly entertaining way, despite being fifteen books long. Maybe it was just the translation I used, but I was able to read quite a few chapters without wanting to pull my brain out through my eye sockets in boredom and confusion, as can sometimes happen with ancient philosophical texts (looking at you, Plato’s The Republic.)

A 17th century version of Deipnosophists depicting the fusion of philosophy and food: the birth of “Plat-ato”…

Put simply, Deipnosophists is a fictional account of the Greek rhetorician Athenaeus’ time at various banquets where he spoke with educated and philosophically minded guests. In it, he recalls the conversation between the guests on all manner of things, but one thing in particular stood out for me: the food.

Book seven is long and entirely dedicated to discussion of fish. Every kind of fish is discussed with various epithets attributed to them: “gold brow’d fish”, “sacred fish”, high-backed fish”, even “girl-like fish” (I don’t know why either.) In fact, fish are so exulted in this book that early on Athenaeus reminds us of the words of the 4th century BC Athenian poet Amphis: “Whoever buys some relish for his supper and, when he might get real genuine fish, contents himself with radishes, is mad.”

Equally important to bear in mind is the information that if you found yourself on Rhodes and came across the chance to eat a “fox-shark” you should resort to any means possible – even stealing – in order to taste it; according to one guest, the experience of tasting fat fox-shark can compose even those about to be executed and allow them to “meet [their] fate with brow serene and mind well satisfied.”

Despite all this talk of fish, there wasn’t a huge amount in the way of practical instructions from preparing it. The guests in Deipnosophists seem more interested in showing us how well travelled, how knowledgeable, how learned they are. Guidelines for preparing food are vague at best and often left open for interpretation. What I’ve done for today’s experiment, then, is to pick a selection of foods mentioned in book seven and form a sort of guesswork meal based on ingredients and cooking methods.

The experiment

One such “recipe” that stood out for me early on was for “dainty” fish soaked in oil and covered in marjoram which was then wrapped in fig leaves and cooked under hot ash. Elsewhere, another recipe following similar guidelines used prawns. I rang my mum, who is the proud owner of a long-suffering fig tree. It has never borne any fruit and until earlier this year we really thought it might die. Only a few months ago, when she moved it to another part of the garden in an effort to save it did it seem to come back to life and grow large leaves. No fruit, still, but lots of leaves.

“You know that fig tree you only just saved?” I started by asking.

“Yes…”

“Can I come round and hack some branches off it?”

Once her screams had died down I was able to explain that actually I only needed 10 leaves. We bartered for a while and eventually I was granted two large leaves, three medium ones and one small one “just for any gaps.”

The next dish I wanted to try involved tuna. Athenaeus told of a very simple recipe, supposedly belonging to the 4th century BC poet Archestratus, for roasted tuna sprinkled with salt that I thought would cook well in the heat of the BBQ once the smoke had stopped. This could be served with a “brine sauce”, but also went very well on its own.

I returned from my jaunt to the shop (via mum’s garden) laden with prawns, tuna steak and a few green bits to make it into a full banquet.

I started by lighting the BBQ, which was very exciting for next door’s dog, who I think gets a sausage every time next door does one of their own. But at lunchtime on a Monday, when they were both trying to work, hearing the whines and door scratching of Lulu the Lab for a solid twenty minutes was probably a bit annoying. Oh well, I thought, that’ll teach them to let her dig a hole under our fence.

While the flames were flickering higher and higher and Lulu was getting more and more excited at the possibility of a tasty, juicy sausage I got to work on the first fish dish: prawns wrapped in fig leaves.

[Take] a noble and dainty fish…wrap in fig leaves and soak it through with oil and over all with swaddling clothes of marjoram…and hid[e] it like a torch beneath the ashes.

The  Deipnosophistae

“Do these look noble and dainty to you?” I asked my husband, holding up a prawn against a fig leaf.

He smirked. “They’re not the biggest leaves in the world are they? No wonder Eve was disappointed in Eden…”

Absolutely useless, but he was so pleased with his joke I promised I’d put it in. Anyway, the smirk was wiped off his face when I showed him the larger leaves and pointed out that this one was in fact a small one.

No foil in ancient Greece, apparently.

With the prawns wrapped in fig leaves I turned my attention to the next dish – tuna. Now, I’m not going to lie and say this was the cheapest thing I’ve ever bought, because it wasn’t. I had no idea fish could be so expensive, but by the time the lady on the fish counter told me the price she’d already wrapped it out and printed that little sticky label so, as a true Brit, I was bound by the conventions of awkward politeness to accept the fishy parcel with a smile and a quick calculation that if we only ate beans on toast for the rest of the week it would even itself out.

That mighty fish [tuna], whose home is Byzantium. Cut it in slices, and then roast it all with accurate care, strewing on nought but salt most thinly spread; then sprinkle a little oil, then eat it hot, first dipping it in brine or if you like to eat them dry they’re good like the immortal gods in character…but if you once forget and vinegar add to them, then you spoil them.

The  Deipnosophistae

Because of the price tag I was very, very unwilling to go too off piste with the recipe. Not that there was a lot to go off piste with, but the fear was there. I sprinkled salt onto the tuna steaks, made a mental note not to add any vinegar to them, and set them aside to focus on the accompaniments.

Obviously I had to make something with radishes, if only to check I hadn’t gone mad. Spring onions were described in ancient Greece as early as the 4th century BC and it was believed that they had certain medicinal properties such as “balancing the blood” which could help prevent things going wrong with the body – handy, then, for putting right any temporary radish-related madness. I sliced the radishes finely using a side of the cheese grater I’d never really understood before now (you know the bit I’m talking about, don’t pretend), and put them in a bowl with the chopped spring onions. To this I added two tablespoons of olive oil, a tablespoon of red wine vinegar and a dash of garum (nam pla).

Asparagus was also mentioned in Deipnosophistae along with its various medicinal properties. There were no cooking instructions but I knew it was renowned for being quick to cook thanks to the Augustan expression “as quick as cooking asparagus” to describe something as being fast. With this in mind I imagined that the ancient Greeks, especially Archestratus (of tuna recipe fame) who was renowned for promoting simplicity in food, would have cooked asparagus using the easiest method to hand. For this meal that meant dowsing them in olive oil and salt and placing them on a grate over the ashes of the BBQ to roast.

After fifteen minutes or so of the prawns cooking under the ash and the tuna and asparagus roasting on the grate above them I felt it was time to taste. Tentatively, I removed the coals and and pulled each fig parcel out of the pit. The tuna was placed on a plate with the asparagus and the radish mixture was brought to the table.

So satisfying to unwrap.

Firstly, let me say that unwrapping food from hot leaves, covered in ash and smelling vaguely of fruit and smoke was such a treat. I felt like a child opening a present it was that exciting. The prawns were a rich pink colour and surprisingly juicy considering they’d been right among the coals. There were little pools of moisture in the fig leaves from the meat juices which meant the prawns must have steamed and roasted at the same time. In terms of taste: delicious. The fig leaves did make a difference, albeit a subtle one. It was an unidentifiable sweetness, reminiscent of the sultana filling in peshwari naan, but much less noticeable.

The tuna was cooked to perfection, which I was doubly relieved about as it meant our money hadn’t been wasted and also that I’d managed to keep to Archestratus’ exceptionally vague instructions to “judg[e] by instinct of the time it takes to be completely done without being burnt.” Helpful, right? It was tender, juicy and so flavoursome that I double checked the recipe – surely these elegant and sophisticated tastes were modern creations, not ones that were thousands of years old?

I think this might be the best photo I’ve ever taken.

The asparagus was slightly crunchy – we ate the tips and left the very bottom of the stalks – but rich and oily and salty all the same. My husband squeezed some lemon over his asparagus but I abstained since there’s some debate as to whether lemons were used in ancient Greek cooking – the lemon was used in Roman cooking from the 1st century AD, but whether it made it into Greek recipes soon after is unclear.

I had to admit that by this point I was sure radish-hating Amphis had been right; who would ever choose a bowl of raw veg over meals such as this? And then I tried the radish and spring onion mixture. It was the perfect relish for the tuna – tangy and crunchy. I know that Archestratus had been very clear that adding vinegar to the tuna would ruin it, but maybe he hadn’t tasted good vinegar. Or maybe he had and it was my taste buds that were unsophisticated and uncultured (after all, Deipnosophistae was also known as the “The Learned Banqueters”, and I wasn’t sure I fit that description.) Whatever the case, the radish was so delicious that even after the fish had all been finished I was still eating it out of the bowl.

Okay, the skewers weren’t authentic, but I had a pepper and some spare prawns to use up.

Overall, this looked and tasted incredibly modern. Possibly that’s because I was allowed a little more creative freedom to interpret the recipes in this one, so I chose techniques and flavours that I’d be used to, but I’m not so sure. Rather, I think that ancient Greeks just knew really, really good food when they saw it. I will absolutely be making this again – just as soon as we’ve saved up enough for two more tuna steaks.

E x

Prawns in fig leaves

Two fig leaves per person
Three to four raw, shell off king prawns per fig leaf
Olive oil
Marjoram

Tuna steak with salt

Tuna steak (1 per person)
Salt
Olive oil

Accompaniments

200g Asparagus spears
150g radishes
4 spring onions
Olive oil
Red wine vinegar
Nam Pla
Salt

  1. Light a barbeque to give the flames a chance to die down.
  2. Rub each prawn with olive oil and cover with marjoram
  3. Wash the fig leaves and then place three or four prawns on the leaf. Fold the edged of the leaf over the prawns until you have a small parcel. Flip over so the the weight of the prawns keeps the fig leaf from opening up.
  4. Rub the tuna steaks with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt.
  5. Grate the radish into slivers and chop the spring onions. Place both into a bowl.
  6. To the bowl add the oil, vinegar and nam pla. Stir well.
  7. Rub the asparagus with olive oil and salt. Place the asparagus on the BBQ.
  8. When the flames have stopped, carefully remove the grate with the asparagus on and move aside the charcoal and place the fig leave parcels on the bottom. Pile the ash and charcoal over the leaves.
  9. Replace the grate and turn over the asparagus to ensure all sides are cooked.
  10. Place the tuna steaks onto the grate with the asparagus. They will only need a few minutes on each side depending on how hot the BBQ is so keep an eye on them for when they start to flake.
  11. After ten to fifteen minutes of cooking (again, depending on the heat of your BBQ), the fish should be cooked. Remove the tuna, fig parcels and asparagus from the BBQ.
  12. Give the radish mixture one last stir and serve it all up.

Stuffed Goat: 1st Century

Time for a Roman one.

I’m working my way up to dormice but I’m not quite there yet. One day, I promise. Maybe.

The Romans were, like most ancient civilisations, extremely resourceful when it came to food. I suppose if famine was a very real threat, and you didn’t have supermarkets to just pop in to for bits and bobs, you’d learn pretty damn quickly how to use every part of an animal or which flowers were pretty and edible. To the modern cook, the Romans do seem to have taken that survival instinct to the extreme though; they didn’t just know how to survive on the weird and wonderful – they seemed, at times, to revel in it. In 2005, archaeologists excavating a food quarter in ancient Pompeii discovered the bones of a giraffe leg – complete with butcher marks – in the gutter of an ancient diner. Similarly unnervingly, the most famous Roman cookbook, Apicius, had not one, but two recipes for roasted flamingo and added, as a footnote, that if one fancied, “parrot [may be] prepared in the same manner.”

Of course, that’s not to say that every Roman ate this sort of nonsense everyday. Far from it. Flamingo tongue, for example, was considered a delicacy even for the wealthy – and the poor were lucky if they got within 10 feet of the grease of the plate (I’m assuming; I don’t actually know how greasy flamingo tongue is?)

Most Romans ate a diet of fish and meat or cheese, legumes, vegetables and bread; fairly normal stuff. Dormice didn’t appear on menus as frequently as popular history would have you think. Though Apicius appears to have been a manual used by experienced cooks (including slave-cooks), only the wealthier classes would have had access to some of the more frivolous recipes in it, and even then some of these recipes would have been enjoyed only at very special occasions; like eating caviar as a canape instead of in a sandwich (unless you’re like my husband’s grandfather, who was given some caviar as a gift but had no idea what to do with it and unknowingly created the most expensive butty in the world for his work packed lunch…)

Cute, tiny and delicious… Credit here.

I’ve talked a little bit about the background of Apicius here, but the headlines are basically that it was an instructional work to guide the accomplished cook in the preparation and cooking of everyday meals – as well as meals for banquets – for their wealthy masters. The name Apicius has been attributed to the 1st century gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius, though historians now doubt he wrote the manual himself. More likely is that thanks to his reputation as an unrelenting glutton of the most expensive food (Pliny wrote that Apicius was “equipped for every ingenuity of luxury”), his name became a byword for “gourmand” and seemed a fitting title for the work, which was probably composed by a series of educated cooks.

Goat isn’t anywhere near the same “unusual food” league as flamingo tongue or giraffe. In fact, it’s relatively common in parts of the UK with high African and Caribbean populations, and in other countries it’s as easy to get hold of as chicken is here. My dad, who lived for a few years in Nigeria as a boy, enjoyed it regularly in curries. Unfortunately for me, the nearest butcher that sold goat meat (I couldn’t find it on Sainsbury’s shelves) was in Leicester, which is still in a strict lockdown. Much as I love historical cooking, I wasn’t about to take a jolly into a city still very much in the grip of a pandemic, so looked elsewhere and found that I could get goat meat delivered from the Dorset Meat Company, an ethical grass-fed, outdoor-reared butcher in my second favourite county. Win!

And…I could end the post there. You’d all be thinking that this was a lovely, educational experiment using ingredients I was unfamiliar with to create a semi-authentic Roman meal. But you’d be wrong. So, so, dead wrong. I almost didn’t write this post up, believing that the end result was so disastrous that there was nothing anyone would gain from reading it. Alas, my ego and need for attention spurred me on.

The recipe I attempted was one of 10 possible recipes in Apicius for goat. It was essentially a roasted dish, with an accompanying sauce. Some of the other recipes were pretty simple, such as kid stew which was cooked in chunks with onion, wine and various herbs and if I’d only stuck to these ones, there may have been a very different outcome to this experiment. The recipe I chose to follow, however, lured me in because of its precise measurements and quantities. That’s right, it was that most rare of historical recipes: one with exact instructions. I should have known it was too good to be true.

Aliter haedus sive agnus syringiatus: lactis sextarium unum, mellis unc. IV, piperis unc. I, salis modicum, laseris modicum. Oleum acetabulum, liquaminis acetabulum, mellis acetabulum, dactilos tritos octo, vini boni heminam, amulum modice.

“Another kid or lamb syringiatus: one pint of milk, 4 ounces honey, 1 ounce pepper, a little salt, a little laser. Oil, liquamen, a spoon of honey, 8 [ounces] crushed dates, a good glass of wine, a little starch.

Apicius, Book VIII

(Huge apologies for dodgy translation, I used a combination of Google translate and already translated versions to try and get as accurate picture of the original recipe as I could.)

Anyway, Sally Grainger’s version seemed to have converted most of the original quantities to modern day equivalents, so I used her translation as guidance. The first thing to do was to roast the goat. Underneath the original recipe was another recipe which appears to have become disjoined from the first, but clearly belongs to it as it gives instructions for preparing the raw goat. I was to rub the meat with oil and pepper and sprinkle on liberal pinches of salt and coriander seeds before roasting. So far, so simple and even delicious; the smell of meat as it roasted with coriander was mouthwatering.

You know what a roast looks like.

Having never cooked goat before I’d done a little research and knew that there was a danger, thanks to the low fat content, of it becoming too dry and tough. In order to combat this, modern cooks (as well as Apicius!) advised regular basting throughout the cooking process. Some cooks even suggested cooking the meat in a tin foil tent to trap any escaping moisture. I rolled my not-technically-authentic foil out and dutifully shaped it so it would fit over the meat before setting regular timers on my phone to remind me to baste it.

The Romans took a lot of their understanding of insanity from the Ancient Greeks, and certain schools of thought taught that madness was a divine punishment; a common trope in Greek mythology or epics. The 1st century Roman physician Celsus subscribed to the belief that insanity could be visited upon a person by “phantoms” which could cause a person to descend in to one of two types of madness: the “depressed” or the “hilarious”.

I’m telling you this so you’ll understand why I decided, halfway through roasting the goat, to remove the cot sides from my toddler’s bed – a task that in itself took over half an hour – and then expected her to go to sleep without any issues. Whatever phantom it was that inspired me to do this was clearly a fan of schadenfreude.

I sat on the floor of the landing as the smell of roast goat grew stronger and shepherded my daughter back into her new bed when she appeared at her doorway, wildeyed and wailing, every 45 seconds. To add to the madness, the alarm on my phone went off every ten minutes to remind me to baste the meat. I ignored it nine times; the foil tent would have to do on its own.

After just over an hour and a half of battling the world’s most resistant toddler there was silence. I checked in on her: she had pulled her pillow and blanket onto the floor and had fallen asleep under the bed…we clearly had much work to do. The work would have to be done another night, though, because by this point it was almost 9pm and I hadn’t even started on the sauce to go with what I presumed was now incredibly burned goat.

As I headed back into the kitchen, I saw that the foil covering I’d been relying so heavily on to stop the meat from drying out had been left in a neat tent on the side – in my mad rush to take the cot-sides off my toddler’s bed I had forgotten to actually cover the goat with it. Any “hilarious” aspects of the phantom madness that had gripped me earlier began to fizzle away and were quickly replaced by “depressed” ones.

Truth be told, by this point I was ready to jack it all in and order a takeaway – I’d try a goat curry in the spirit of it all if necessary. But the masochist historian in me forced me to see this thing through to the bitter end, so I began work on the sauce.

I added the milk, pepper, honey and salt to a pan along with a little asafoetida. The ingredient “laser” was an ancient herb that has since become extinct, but was believed to be closely related to asafoetida, which made a reasonable substitute. While it was heating enough to dissolve the honey, I blitzed the dates with more honey, oil and liquamen – I used nam pla as a modern alternative. Nam pla has a very distinctive smell and despite being used in countless Thai recipes, it’s a smell I just can’t get used to. I fully understand that it transforms dishes with its umami flavour but once I smelt this I just couldn’t get the scent out of my unsophisticated nose and I knew I was going to struggle to eat dinner. Unfortunately for me, Grainger’s reading of the recipe called for a full 70ml of it – not an inconsiderable amount.

Once the dates and liquids had been transformed to a runny paste, I transferred it to a pan, added a small glass of wine and heated the mixture slightly. I strained the warmed milk and combined the two and stirred like a madwoman to try and stop it from curdling too much. Once I was sure I could stop stirring, I added a tablespoon of cornstarch to thicken it slightly over heat. I may have added too much because after a while the sauce became as thick as wallpaper paste, which did nothing to add to my anticipation of the meal.

The goat had been roasting on a low heat for about two hours now. I took it out, drained the pitiful amount of meat juice into the date sauce and rested the goat under foil to reach the warm but not hot temperature that it would have been served at.

Roman diners often ate roasted meat in slices and dipped each slice into small bowls of sauce, rather than cover the meat entirely. I decided to copy this method of serving: partly for authenticity reasons but also on the off chance that, if the goat wasn’t too tough, I didn’t ruin it by drenching it in cheesy smelling sauce. Despite being called stuffed goat, it actually wasn’t clear where the stuffing occured, and I wasn’t about to risk it by filling the meat with the dubious sauce.

At least the bowl was pretty.

We sat, apprehensive, in front of our plates until my husband went first and took a bite. He chewed thoughtfully. He chewed some more. After what felt like a solid minute of chewing, he stood up and wordlessly made his way to the kitchen to put some chips in the oven.

“Oh God, is it that bad?” I asked.

“No,” he lied (still chewing). “I just thought it would go with chips.”

I took a bite. The quality of the meat had been very good, so this tasted very similar to lamb with only a subtle “goaty” hint to it. However, my fears of it being too tough were right – it was so chewy that I felt like the stereotypical image of Henry VIII, tearing meat off in chunks with his teeth and eating with his mouth open, as I ate.

The sauce, though not as bad as I’d thought, failed to save the meal. It was too thick, for one, and clung to the meat rather than soaked it which therefore did nothing to alleviate the dryness. It was faintly sweet and creamy, but with an alcoholic tang. Though you couldn’t taste the fish sauce on its own, there was a lingering scent of it (I couldn’t work out if it was from the sauce or from remnants in my nose), and so with each bite there was a slightly cheesy retronasal smell that I found pretty off-putting.

In the end we continued determinedly through about 1/3 of the meal before giving up and sharing the bowl of chips. Late into the evening I made brownies, too; it seemed like that kind of night. I was determined not to waste the leftover goat, though, so I have plans to mince what was left and add it to a ragu.

Overall, the night did not end as I thought it would. My toddler was asleep on the floor, all the windows were open to drive the smell of fish sauce out and our dinner lay mostly uneaten on the side. I’m not saying an experiment with flamingo tongue would have been better, but it couldn’t have been much worse.

E x

Stuffed Goat

1kg goat (or lamb) leg
Small handful of coriander seeds
12g black peppercorns
300ml whole milk
110g honey
Pinch of asafoetida powder
4 dates
70ml fish sauce
70ml olive oil
150ml white wine
Tablespoon cornflour

  1. Rub the goat with olive oil and cover in salt, pepper and coriander seeds. Roast, under a foil tent, for 2 hours at 160 degrees C. Baste regularly.
  2. When the goat is roasted, take out and keep covered in foil. Begin the sauce.
  3. Crush 6 peppercorns and add them and the rest of the peppercorns to a pan with the milk. Add 40g of honey, the asafoetida and some salt. Heat gently.
  4. Grind the dates in a food processor with the rest of the honey, the fish sauce and oil. Transfer to a pan and add the wine. Heat.
  5. Strain the milk and add it to the date sauce, stirring whilst adding.
  6. Take the meat out of the oven and allow to rest a little. Pour the meat juices into the date sauce and stir.
  7. Transfer the sauce to small dishes, carve the meat and serve at just above room temperature.

Globi: c. 160 B.C.

How do you pronounce ‘globi’? Is it glob-ee? Glow-bee? Glob-eye? Does it really matter when they all sound just as unappetizing as each other? When I saw the title of today’s experiment I assumed it would be for some sort of hideous fish, oozing mucous and slime and served on piles of raw seaweed – that sort of thing. I don’t know why I bothered to read the rest of the recipe, to be honest.

Luckily for me, it turned out that globi weren’t anything to do with mucous-y fish at all. In fact, once you got over the unfortunate name they actually sounded quite delicious: balls of fried cheese covered in honey and poppy seeds. ‘Globi’, meaning spherical in Latin, was therefore a description of the dish’s appearance rather than a gooey sea creature.

The recipe was from Cato the Elder’s De Agri Cultura, the oldest surviving work of Latin prose, which I found in The Classical Cookbook. It’s written in Cato’s usual uptight and stoic way and was intended to be a useful manual of the rules of farming and agricultural management for those rich enough to own large farms (or be looking to expand smaller farms), or those who wanted to create profitable agricultural businesses. The average large Roman farm would usually be staffed by slaves, as many profitable businesses in Ancient Rome were, and so parts of De Agri Cultura are also concerned with how to manage the slave-labourers. It’s here we can see the more jarring elements of Cato’s writing; he talks about the slaves on the farm as if they were any old farm tool rather than people, and advises masters to work slaves constantly before selling them alongside “worn-out” animals and objects when they become too weak, old or sick:

“Sell worn-out oxen, blemished cattle…old tools, an old slave, a sickly slave and whatever else is superfluous.”

De Agri Cultura, 2.7

Really nice guy, right? Though Cato’s thoughts on slavery should be viewed within the context of the Roman Republic – a society built on the belief that slavery was a necessary element to a successful civilization – his opinions were still considered extreme by some. As Rebecca Gove notes, the poet Seneca, for example, viewed slaves as conquered people who needed to be supervised in order to ensure efficiency, but deserved more dignity and compassion than was given to animals, warning overly harsh masters that “[Slaves] are not enemies when we acquire them; we make them enemies.” That doesn’t mean Seneca was sympathetic to slaves, just that he thought they worked better when they were well treated.

When he wasn’t advocating the sale of exhausted humans in the name of good farm management, Cato could be found loudly supporting laws designed to restrict women’s wealth. I know, I was shocked too. The Lex Oppia was the first in a number of sumptuary laws established in 215 BC which specifically banned women from owning more than half an ounce of gold, wearing purple clothes or ride in a carriage in the city of Rome (or any town within a mile of Rome). This might seem shocking now, but sumptuary laws were a very common way of controlling the status quo and maintaining social order and continued for centuries after the Roman Republic – and not just in Rome, either.

There’s a bit of debate surrounding the Lex Oppia and whether it was a “true” sumptuary law or whether, because it was introduced during the peak of Second Punic War between the Roman Republic and the Carthaginian empire, it’s better to view it as an emergency wartime measure to protect the wealth of Rome. Either way, by 195 BC the people of Rome, having beaten the Carthaginians, felt it was time to repeal the law.

But who argued that women simply couldn’t be allowed to grow their wealth and wear fancy clothes again? Why, our man of the people – Cato. His reasons for upholding the law were varied but centered mainly around the argument that women would instantly resort to competitive dressing which would shame those who couldn’t afford the best clothes. Alternatively, he argued that all women were afflicted with an insatiable desire to spend money – an urge he likened to an incurable disease – and therefore the Lex Oppia was a kindly restrictive measure to prevent the poor unrestrained dears bankrupting themselves.

Not a fan of Cato, we get it.

I know, I know: it’s anachronistic to apply modern sensibilities to the past… sorry. Still, when he wasn’t working his slaves to the point of death or stopping women from wearing silk underpants or whatever it was he had a problem with, Cato came up with some pretty decent recipes.

I’d covered his libum (also from De Agri Cultura) with success so I had high hopes for globi in spite of their dubious name.

To begin with I needed ricotta cheese. Now that I’m a bit more experienced at cooking I thought I’d try and make my own. I felt pretty cocky about this; cheese-making always seemed so difficult and something that “real” cooks did. I swanned off to alert my husband to my newly acquired status as master chef.

“Oh yeah? Ricotta’s pretty easy isn’t it? Do you want any help?”

Not the reaction I’d hoped for.

I heated 1 litre of full fat milk until it was just under boiling and added 30ml of white wine vinegar. The Roman author Varro wrote about cheese making, stating that fig sap and vinegar could be used to coagulate milk into soft cheese. I didn’t have any fig sap and when I asked my mum if I could cut a twig off the ailing and temperamental fig sapling she’s been attempting to grow for years she hung up on me. So I just had to hope that the vinegar alone would do the trick.

Every instinct in my body told me not to eat this.

True, it looked like a yoghurt I once left in my locker over the summer holiday but I was confident it would all work out for the best. After ten minutes of it coagulating I poured it into an old muslin cloth and left it to drain overnight.

The next morning I had been rewarded with 150g grams of creamy, cheesy ricotta. Success! I added 80g of semolina to the cheese and mixed it together to form a thick paste, which I shaped into large olive sized balls.

Each ball fried in a pan of olive oil until it was golden brown before being transferred to a kitchen roll covered plate to mop up the excess oil. The globi were then drizzled with honey and rolled in poppy seeds before being “artfully” arranged on a plate.

Looks fancy, right? I had to lie on the cold kitchen floor and get my husband to squat above them, squeezing honey onto the plate to get just the right kind of drip. Less fancy now, I bet.

As you can see, they look pretty great. Elegant and easy – they only had to be tasty and I’d have pulled off a cooking hat trick. And they were!

The globi themselves were quite creamy and mild in a savoury kind of way, which made them very different to modern sweets. All of the sweetness came from the honey and the beauty of that meant they could be sweetened to personal taste by having only enough of it drizzled on to get the poppy seeds to stick, or by being served with a side bowl of it to dunk them in. It’s probably not a surprise to anyone that I opted for the sweeter option.

Texture wise they were slightly gritty, thanks to the semolina, but it was a grittiness that was enveloped in smooth ricotta, so it wasn’t very noticeable and certainly not unpleasant.

In the end I was actually a little put out by how easy it was to make these. What with the cheese-making and the frying, I’d sort of assumed these would safely earn me my place in the hallowed halls of advanced cookery but I felt a bit of a fraud by the end. Still, as I handed my husband the honey and told him to help with the photos I pretended to wipe sweat off my brow and sighed with the imaginary effort of it all.

I think he bought it because afterwards he offered to do the washing up and I got to sit on the sofa with my feet up, dipping globi into warm honey with reckless glee. Win!

E x

Globi

150g ricotta (or you can make your own by heating 1l of full fat milk until just below boiling and adding 30ml of white wine vinegar. Stir for a few minutes then leave to coagulate. After 15 minutes, pour the mixture into a cheesecloth with a bowl under it to collect the whey. Leave it for at least 30 minutes, or overnight for a firmer cheese.)
80g semolina
Olive oil for fying
Honey to taste
75g poppy seeds

  1. Mix ricotta and semolina together to form a paste.
  2. Heat olive oil in a frying pan until it is glassy and sizzles when globi are placed in it.
  3. Fry each globi, two at a time, in the oil until golden brown.
  4. Drain the globi on kitchen roll, then drizzle over as much honey as you like.
  5. Roll the globi in poppy seeds and enjoy.

Lenticulam De Castaneis: 1st century

That’s lentils and chestnuts to you and me.

Today’s experiment is from a work entitled De Re Coquinaria (now often just referred to as Apicius), a 1st century Roman text full of recipes and instructions for the Roman cook. Though often attributed to the gourmand Marcus Gavius Apicius, there’s actually not a lot of evidence that this was the case. Apicius lived a life of luxury, sampling the finest food and drink the ancient world had to offer and generally sashaying around the Mediterranean like a 1st century Rich Kid of Instagram. According to Pliny, Apicius considered himself an expert in top quality food: he advised that red mullet tasted best when it was drowned in a bath of fish sauce made out of red mullet blood and that pork liver was sweetest if the pigs were gently fed dried figs (aww) and then killed by overdosing on honeyed wine (argh), in a similar manner to foie gras. His devotion to excessive animal cruelty gourmet dining was extreme. Seneca wrote that having spent 100 million sestertii on his kitchen, Apicius realised he was soon to be bankrupt and could no longer afford top-dollar food… so he chose to poison himself to death rather than, I don’t know, get a job? When I say bankrupt, by the way, I mean bankruptcy according to the standards of the uber wealthy: by Seneca’s own admission Apicuis still had 10 million sestercii left in his account.

Sally Grainger, author of Cooking Apicius, notes that the intended audience (and therefore writer/s) of the recipes in Apicius may well have been experienced cooks, including slave-cooks, rather than elite gourmands. It’s easy to think of slavery in Ancient Rome as being a one-size-fits-all type of situation; that there was no differentiation in status, ability or lifestyle between the slave population, but this was wrong. Slave-cooks had a higher status than slaves working as labourers and, as highly trained members of rich households, were expensive and valuable to their master. Their skills not only covered food preparation (including inventory and budgeting for ingredients), but also included reading and writing – which it’s often wrongly assumed all slaves weren’t taught in ancient Rome. It’s no secret that wealthy ambitious Romans used wining and dining as ways of networking, so it was imperative that the food served at banquets for the political elite be of excellent quality. In order to achieve that quality a rich Roman master would have to invest in the education and wellbeing of his cooks.

That’s not to say that slave-cooks were routinely educated to a very high level. The language of Apicius is ‘Vulgar Latin’: the Latin of everyday workers. There is none of the refinement or polished poetry – ‘Classical Latin’ – in the recipes that one would expect to see if they had been written by a man as educated and elite as Apicius. The recipes in Apicius are particularly no-frills in terms of writing style. In addition to this there are also almost no quantities at all, no timings, no measurements. In some cases there are entire steps in the cooking process that are missed out – all of this suggests that the author expected his readers to be competent enough that they could fill in the culinary blanks without needing poetic devices to elevate any appreciation of the food. In short, it was a functional manual for the labouring masses rather than a literary work for the elite.

Going to talk about lentils or chestnuts any time soon?

Lenticulam de castaneis – which Google translate tells me actually means, in a weirdly jaunty way, “a spot of chestnuts” – is a deceptively delicious dish to make. Essentially it’s meant to be a meal of boiled lentils with a sort of mashed chestnut pureé addition, as Cathy K. Kaufman advises in Cooking in Ancient Civilizations.

The trouble with this recipe – which despite Google’s overly nonchalent reading translates as lentils and chestnuts – is that it doesn’t mention lentils. Not once. Not under a euphemism or assumed name. Not even in passing. It’s just a recipe for chestnut mush, which does admittedly sound quite nice in a foraging/back to nature kind of way, but doesn’t constitute a whole meal in my book.

The recipe that comes after this one is called ‘Lentils another way’. Putting aside that we’re yet to receive the first way, this second recipe appears to follow on from the first and provides clear instructions on how to prepare lentils, but nothing about chestnuts. It may be that both recipes were originally part of one whole recipe that somehow become fragmented over time, or that they were indeed two separate recipes and the author assumed cooks would be competent enough to prepare lentils without needing instructions, but either way I used both for this experiment.

I began with the chestnut pureé. The chestnuts I had bought had already been cooked, so I just put them in a pan and added a splash of water to heat them through in.

To the chestnuts I added crushed black pepper, cumin, coriander seeds, mint and dried rue. The recipe also called for ‘laser root’ and ‘fleabane’ to be added. ‘Laser root’ was also known as silphium – a highly prized plant used in ancient cookery that we don’t have in today’s world. It was considered so useful and precious that it became literally worth its weight in gold. Its sap was dried and grated over food and its petals were crushed for their perfume. Its stalks were eaten as a vegetable and, like all disgusting yet inexplicably expensive things, its juice was considered a powerful aphrodisiac. Pliny the Elder wrote that in his lifetime only a single stalk was discovered, such was its rarity. The stalk was picked and sent to the emperor Nero, but history is quiet on whether it was used for edible or bedible (ha) reasons.

I, like everyone else in the world, didn’t have any ‘laser root’. I also didn’t have any ‘fleabane’ – a furry kind of daisy – mostly because its names made me suspicious that it was a fictional herb from the Harry Potter universe rather than an actual ingredient, but also because it wasn’t stocked in Sainsbury’s herbs and spices aisle. I guess Apicius was more of a Waitrose kind of guy.

A needlessly large close up of some herbs and spices I probably won’t use again for months. You know how it is.

To this chestnut and herb mixture I added a little white wine vinegar and honey. For my version of liquamen – Roman fish sauce – I used nam pla, which is made in exactly the same way by fermenting the whole fish – including its guts and bones rather than just its blood – and is an excellent substitution if you lack the nasal capacity to ferment your own fish guts at home. I added olive oil and heated the lot until it had just started to bubble. The recipe then said to “taste to see if something is missing, and if so, put it in…” Something like, oh I don’t know, lentils? It was time to start on recipe two.

Lentils were enjoyed all across the ancient world and not just in Italy. I used red lentils for this because they were what we had in, though I think the Romans probably would have used the more commonly available brown lentil. Having said that, red lentils may have been used too and were actually perfect for this dish, which talked of reducing them to a purée, as one of their properties is forming into a thick paste when cooked.

Having boiled about 180g of lentils until they were almost cooked, I added chopped leek, coriander and various herbs with honey, vinegar and liquamen to them and stirred over a low heat until all combined and cooked. The recipe then said to “bind with roux”, which seemed odd given that it was all pretty much bound anyway but perhaps furthers my theory that brown lentils, which don’t form a paste when cooked, were the Roman lentils of choice. In any case, I added a tablespoon of roux in an effort to keep as closely to the instructions as possible.

To quote Beyoncé: “To the left, to the left. Lentil/leek purée in the pan to the left.” (Chestnuts to the right.)

I had a choice in terms of serving suggestions: serve it as two dishes – as written out in the recipes – or as one combined dish. Kaufman suggested the chestnut and lentils should be combined in one dish and because she is “a scholar-chef and Adjunct Chef-Instructor, Institute of Culinary Education, in New York City” and I am just a greedy armchair historian with too much time, I took her word for it.

Now would be an honest time to admit that I’d been a bit worried about this meal. My last foray into Roman cooking using liquamen had not ended well – in fact, I still feel a bit queasy when I think of it. However, this time was different. Oh boy, was it different. This was good – really, really good.

Thanks to the roux, which I’d incorrectly assumed wouldn’t do much, the lentils were very creamy and rich. The leeks, which were just cooked through but still had a bit of a crunch, had an alium tang that cut through the creaminess and worked really well with the sharpness of the vinegar and herbs. In comparison, the chestnut puree was sweeter than I’d expected – maybe I’d added a touch too much honey? – and there was a slightly fiery aftertaste in the back of the throat because of the pepper and coriander seeds, which was delicious swirled through the lentils in a marbled effect.

Yes, I ate it with a spoon. It seemed like that kind of a meal.

The recipe may not have been written by Apicius but it would definitely have been one he would have enjoyed, I’m sure. It was also kind of nice that it had the added bonus of not requiring any animal to be drowned in the blood of its kin. In the end the quantities made enough for two very large lunches or three modest ones, so obviously I chucked a cheese sandwich at my toddler, and my husband and I enjoyed a huge portion each. Delicious!

E x

Lenticulam de castaneis

160g cooked chestnuts
180g lentils (any is fine, really)
1 medium leek
Black pepper
Coriander seeds
Cumin seeds
Rue (or sorrel, chicory or any other bitter herb. Certain people – including pregnant women – may want to avoid using rue.)
Mint
White wine vinegar
Nam Pla
Honey
Plain flour
Olive oil

  1. Heat the chestnuts in a pan with a little water – a couple of tablespoons. In another pan, add boiling water to the lentils and cook.
  2. In a mortar, grind a few good twists of black pepper with a good pinch of coriander seeds, cumin seeds, rue (or other herbs) and a couple of leaves of mint.
  3. To the herbs and spices add a teaspoon of white wine vinegar, half a teaspoon of honey and half a teaspoon of nam pla. Set aside.
  4. When the chestnuts are heated through, mash them to a pulp with a masher and add the herb and spice mixture. Stir and then remove from the heat.
  5. By now the lentils should be almost cooked through (after about 10-15 minutes), add the leek, finely chopped, to the water with the lentils and continue cooking for another 10 minutes or so.
  6. While the lentils and leek continues cooking, start on the roux. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a pan and add 2 tablespoons of plain flour. Over a low heat, whisk this together and add about 125ml of milk. Whisk constantly until the roux thickens to the consistency of buttercream, then take off the heat. You may need to add more milk or flour to achieve this thickness.
  7. In a mortar crush coriander seeds, cumin seeds, rue (or other herbs) and a couple of leaves of mint, as you did in step 2 (without the pepper). Add a teaspoon of white wine vinegar, half a teaspoon of honey and half a teaspoon of nam pla.
  8. Once the lentils have cooked, drain them and add the herb and spice mixture to the pan. Stir to combine.
  9. Take a couple of tablespoons of the roux and stir it through the lentils, making sure it’s combined. You can add more, if you like, to create a creamier texture.
  10. Pour the chestnut purée into the lentils and stir through, making sure not to combine it too thoroughly. You could leave a dollop of it on top.
  11. Chop some mint finely and sprinkle on top.

Moretum: 1st century CE

Salve, suckers!

Actually, I apologise. That was really inappropriate and I shouldn’t have said it; I meant salvete, suckers.

I’m going to go ahead and slap a big warning on this one for anyone who might come within 6 feet of me in the next few days: don’t. Seriously, this isn’t a joke. Especially if you’re a ‘sleeps all day, turns into a bat and drinks people’s blood by night’ kind of a person.

In fact, if there was ever a recipe made for enforced self-isolation, it’s this one. Containing a whopping four bulbs of garlic, this is one dish that’s not for the faint of heart or faint of nose.

Luckily, we love garlic in this house and (obviously) have no parties to go to where – had we eaten this beforehand – we might have been written out of the social calendar for the next decade. True, in recent times the closest I’ve come to having a ‘social calendar’ is booking my daughter’s parents’ evening slot at her nursery but you get the picture.

Today’s dish is Moretum. No, it’s not just something I see in the mirror after a heavy cake binging session, but is actually a Roman cheese paste mixed with herbs that was eaten through the Roman Republic (c. 509 – 27 BC) and into the Imperial periods (27 BC – 476 CE.) The word moretum translates to ‘salad’ (if we believe the notoriously hit-and-miss abilities of Google translate) and was enjoyed with bread. Since the main kitchen tool used in the preparation of Moretum was a mortar and pestle, there may also be a linguistic link between the recipe and the method of mixing the ingredients together. I don’t know though, and Google translate also tells me that the Latin word for mortar was mortarium, which translates as ‘trough’ – not very well linked to ‘salad’ after all.

As with previous Roman recipes, I’ve found that Farrell Monaco’s website (where she covers not one but three Moretum recipes – including the one I’m trying today) has been invaluable for advice and information. As always, if you prefer your historical cooking to be done by someone who a) knows what they’re talking about and b) has the tools and ability to carry out the cooking with as much historical accuracy as possible, then you should definitely head on over to her brilliant site. If, however, you just like the schadenfreude of reading about a woman bashing four bulbs of garlic to smithereens with a rolling pin (we’d lost our pestle) while her husband and daughter flee the kitchen, gasping for fresh air and vowing never to be in the same room as her again, read on.

The recipe I’m using isn’t really from a recipe book at all. It’s from a collection of poems from the 1st century CE called the Appendix Vergiliana – specifically one poem simply entitled ‘Moretum’. Yep, it’s my idea of great poetry: an ode to cheese.

Virgil: Author of the Appendix Vergiliana?

Except it’s not really. The author (whoever he may be – despite the name, there is debate around whether Virgil or other unknown author(s) wrote the poems in Appendix Vergiliana) isn’t really writing a love song to the Roman equivalent of Boursin (however much Boursin deserves such exaltation.) No, what we have here is a pastoral poem – a mode of literature which Terry Gifford summed up as having a focus on countryside lifestyles whist highlighting the contrast between urban and rural. Virgil himself popularized pastorals in his Eclogues, which maybe explains why, if the poem Moretum was written by a copycat, they chose the pastoral mode rather than any other. Traditionally, a pastoral poem would paint an idyllic image of rural living and simple country folk. Reading it though, I was struck by how unappealing it all sounded. The main character is portrayed as sweaty, sweary and smelly. He lives a life he doesn’t seem too happy with – unable to even afford meat and going round and round in a cycle of hard toil and sleep; hardly the blissful existence most pastorals painted. If anything, I ended up reading the poem as a satire of a pastoral – but that might be my poor literary judgement.

In fact, to say I lack a sophisticated appreciation for literary art is putting it mildly; I find cracker jokes funny and am naturally wary of people who say not all poetry has be written in rhyming couplet. The problem is, if it’s more advanced than a limerick out of a children’s book I lack the required nuance to ‘get’ it and
I’m not good with free verse poetry that
Does this sort of thing
in an
Arty kind of way –
It makes me panic, I mean:
Which words should I
Emphasise?
(And why do none of them rhyme?)

So here’s my no-frills, no-nuance breakdown of Moretum: a peasant farmer called Symilus wakes up and begins his day’s chores. These include lighting the fire, milling grain, making bread, picking the ingredients for Moretum, making the Moretum and ploughing. He’s not alone, old Symilus, though. He lives with a slave woman from Africa called Scybale who is described in uncomfortable and intrusive detail – notes on her hair, facial features, skin colour, breasts, stomach and legs made for jarring reading in the 21st century. For eight lines the author daydreams through a voyeuristic fantasy and though I’m sure someone will come along to tell me that this was/is a valid literary trope and we shouldn’t push our modern sensibilities onto past cultures (fair) it doesn’t stop my initial reaction to it.

All that aside, the poem does give a very detailed breakdown of how Moretum was made, which I tried to follow as closely as possible. First, I peeled four bulbs of garlic and placed them in the mortar with salt and and entire block (170g) of grated pecorino cheese (the poem doesn’t specify how much or which cheese Symilus used but it does refer to a cheese “hard from taking up the salt” and “hanging” by a rope which suggests a salty, hard cheese. Not only does pecorino fit these criteria, it was also a stalwart of the Roman army and is still (mostly) made following original methods, making it an ideal choice for my experiment today.

Now I understood why Symilus hated his life and “cursed his early meal” when making it; this was bloody hard work. It took well over 20 minutes to pulverize the garlic cloves in a mortar (even after I’d finally located the pestle but but not before I ruined our rolling pin) and I ended up with a blister in the middle of my palm. I’ve never looked at a kitchen appliance with as much longing as I have when I gazed at our mixer, with its shiny blades and never-before-used grater attachment. But I stayed strong; if I was going to do this at all I was going to do it no less than 75% properly and I’d already lost most of my leeway because I’d grated my cheese to make it easier, instead of bashing it up in chunks too.

To the finally mashed garlic and cheese I added parsley, rue and ground coriander seeds. The rue was dried, not fresh, so wouldn’t have been exactly the same, but I’m pretty sure the general bitter flavour was still there. It’s safe to use rue in food quantities (i.e. a couple of pinches) but some people, particularly pregnant women or breastfeeding mothers, should not eat it. More info here.

The smell. Good God, the smell.

Once the ingredients were in the pot (I had to transfer them out of the mortar because it was too small), Symilus began to mix all the ingredients together with his right fist while his left hand “‘neath his hairy groin” stopped his tunic from flapping into it all. What a delightful image. What a lucky woman Scybale was to live with such an appealing sounding man.

The mixture turned quite green, matching the description in the poem where Symilus notices the white from the garlic and cheese mingling with the green from the herbs, and smelled pungent. Very pungent. Even with the window and doors open I knew we wouldn’t be rid of the smell for days. I hoped to God it was worth it.

Eventually the mixture formed a stiff coarse paste. I added enough olive oil to loosen it up to the consistency of, well, Boursin (I promise I don’t get royalties from them or have shares in the company) and some white wine vinegar, as per the poem’s instructions and shaped it a little of it into a pleasing ball to serve along with some Roman flat bread (also mentioned in the poem – recipe is also below). Then there was no putting it off any more – it was time to try it.

My unsuspecting husband said these looked like veggie meatballs so I dared him to eat one whole. He’s not allowed to open his mouth for a month now.

What did it taste of? Garlic. There was just no getting away from that. But until you try it I don’t think you can know just how garlicky garlic can be. We’re used to eating it in a cooked form, which somewhat mellows it. This was raw mashed quadruple garlic and boy did I know it – it brought tears to my eyes. The first mouthful was so overwhelming I actually didn’t take anything in apart from Oh my God this is very garlicky quickly followed by why is it so spicy?! and Bloody hell I can see my own breath.

But once the heat from the first mouthful had died down, I was able to think about it more. It was fairly creamy, because of the cheese, but in the tangy way parmesan or other aged hard cheeses are (rather than the creaminess of soft cheese) and though I couldn’t really taste the herbs they did make it look more appetising. I think this could have taken even more cheese, so in the recipe below I’ve recommended two blocks of pecorino (yes, I know) and you can scale it down if you need to. The recipe is from the original poem and makes far too much for the average family to enjoy in one go, so I’d half it if you didn’t want any left over and you were feeding a (hungry) family of 4.

Garlic may have been the overriding flavour but once you got used to it, it was very moreish. I actually ended up standing in the kitchen absentmindedly dipping slice after slice of flatbread into the bowl as I watched my husband and daughter playing in the garden among the flowerbeds together (see, I can do pastoral scenes too.)

The best way I could describe it was like a very, very, very strong thick garlic butter (the olive oil obviously acting as the butter element). It was not, however, a meal. No wonder Symilus couldn’t find a partner if he was scoffing a plate of this for his lunch each day. But it was too good to just throw out once we’d tried a bit. So I froze what was left in an ice cube tray for individual portions – I reckon that one large cube or two small ones stirred into pasta would make a strong but delicious garlicky sauce for a family of 4.

I would absolutely make this again. Perhaps in smaller quantities, though, and only if I knew I didn’t have to speak to anyone the day after eating it. I recommend making Symilus’ flatbread too to go with it – it was the perfect subtle companion, offering a nutty but otherwise quite plain base for the Moretum to do its thing. I’ve yet to try the frozen Moretum but I have high hopes it’ll do well – let me know if you can think of any other cooking ideas for it other than pasta sauce.

And to the manufacturers of Boursin – if you’re reading this and now you’re thinking of making a Moretum inspired version; I would like 20% of the profits (and there will be profits) which I’ll accept in the form of money and/or wheels of your original Garlic and Herb.

E x

Moretum (half this recipe if you only want enough for 4)

For the Moretum:
4 bulbs of garlic
340g of pecorino cheese
A large handful of finely chopped parsley
One or two pinches of dried rue (or a few leaves of chopped fresh rue – but no more than a few leaves of fresh because rue can be toxic in large quantities and DO NOT use any at all if you are pregnant or breastfeeding)
1/2 teaspoon of freshly ground coriander seeds
Olive oil
White wine vinegar
Couple of pinches of salt

For the flatbreads:
320g spelt flour (or wholewheat flour)
Approx. 100ml warm water
Salt

  1. Make the flatbreads first. Heat the oven to 165 degrees C.
  2. Mix flour, salt and water until it forms a stiff dough. You may need more water – add as much as you need to get a stiff dough.
  3. Knead the dough and then turn out onto a floured surface. Roll it out to no more than 1/2 centimetre thickness.
  4. Cut the dough into equal rectangles or squares and place on a baking tray. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes. They should be crisp when you remove them. If they aren’t, bake a bit longer.
  5. Peel the garlic and place the peeled cloves into a mortar. Pulverize them until they are a coarse paste. It will take much longer than you think. Alternatively, whizz them in a blender for a few seconds.
  6. Grate the cheese into the mashed garlic and add the herbs and salt.
  7. Mix everything together, making sure the herbs and salt are well incorporated.
  8. Add olive oil to loosen the mixture to a consistency you like, and a couple of teaspoons of white wine vinegar. Mix well.
  9. Transfer to a bowl and enjoy with the flatbreads.




Libum: 160 B.C.

Who likes cheesecake?

Because I don’t want to live in a world the alternative is true, I’m going to assume that most of you said you did – good. Well, you’re in luck: today’s recipe from Cato the Elder’s De Agri Cultura could be seen as a type of blueprint cheesecake – one of the very earliest forms.

Before you get excited I should quickly read you the small print because there are a couple of caveats to this cheesecake recipe. For one: does it look like cheesecake? No. Does it smell or taste like a cheesecake? Also no. Essentially what we’re dealing with is a cheesecake in the sense that it has cheese in it and is shaped like a cake but really that’s where the similarities end. Libum may translate as ‘cake’ but rather than matching our modern day idea of cake as something sweet, the notion of ‘cake’ here just relates to the round shape. Some people (my husband is one of them) still use the term cake in this way today – a cake of soap, for example, which is why my toddler spent most of the night hiccuping up bubbles.

That’s not to say that ancient cakes couldn’t be sweet – far from it. Liba may not have contained any sweeteners in the dough, but that didn’t stop people serving them drowned in honey or pomegranate syrup. The Greek writer Athenaeus, writing some 350 years after Cato wrote the recipe for Libum also tells of basynias – boiled dough filled with a honey and date stuffing – and elaphos – dough shaped like deers cooked with honey and sesame – for the festival of elaphebolia.

Back in Cato’s De Agri Cultura we find a large number of different cakes listed, included the alarming entitled ‘placenta’ cake – but his concern with listing these cakes isn’t frivolous. In fact, as Nicola Humble points out in a book that encapsulates my two greatest loves with frightening precision – ‘Cake: A Global History‘ – Cato’s preoccupation with cake in a work that is otherwise serious and instructive shows how culturally significant it was to the ancients.

Libum fits in perfectly with this assessment of the seriousness of cake. Rather than be baked to be eaten (although of course they were also used for this), Libums primary function was as a sacrificial offering to the household gods of ancient Rome. Each household would have had an altar upon which one or two of these cakes would be offered to give thanks to the gods. Is there a link with the word ‘libations’, which seems to be only associated with liquid offerings to the gods? I don’t know – opinions and guesses are welcome! Someone who specialises in Roman food and who made much better Liba than I, Farrell Monaco, sheds some light onto the religious function of these cakes. Go and read her post on Libum for much more accurate history and baking than I can provide!

Copy of De Agri Cultura at the Laurentian Library. Credit here.

Cake for the gods? Must be pretty fancy.

Er…

The thing about sacrificing food to the gods in the ancient world is that people often, um, cheated. They didn’t see it as cheating, obviously, but the foods that were offered were usually not what we’d call the cream of the crop.

Take the ancient Greeks. If you know your Odyssey or your Illiad (*scoff* and who doesn’t?!) you’ll know that men of ancient epics quite frequently cook and offer up food as sacrifices to the gods. It happens fairly often – in fact, Odysseus could probably have been home a lot sooner if he hadn’t dilly-dallied around with “burnt offerings” as much as he did. And what were the offerings of choice? Why, thigh bones wrapped in fat and roasted to a crisp, just like mum used to make. Yummy!

The ancient Egyptians were little better – oh sure, they might make a show of offering their gods fruits, breads, wine, fatty meats and rich cheeses up to three times a day, but once the prayers had been said the altar was cleared before the gods could tuck in and the food was taken home to be eaten by the priests (who later died of blocked arteries – true story.)

And finally, the Persians. Herodotus tells us they had no temples to their gods as they believed altars to be “a folly” but when they felt the need to do some praying they stuck with good old fashioned human sacrifice. Even with this unconventional offering the gods might not get long to enjoy the meal; the butchered victim later had his flesh carried away by a holy man (Magi) to make “whatever use of it he may please.” Hmm. Whether or not we trust Herodotus’ account of human sacrifice – notorious anti-Persian sensationalist that he was – is of course another matter.

Engraving dating from 500-475 BC possibly of Persian king Xerxes killing Spartan king Leonidas to make a tasty kebab with later (also possibly not.)

All of which is meant to say: humans are greedy and don’t like sharing. Why offer Zeus an actual saddle of lamb when you can just burn some bones and say that the gods appreciate the smell of burning fat more than the taste of meat? Why allow cheese and meat to fester away on an altar to Osiris when you, a priest, can just eat it and claim that your actions were divinely inspired? Why sacrifice something as useful as a cow to Ahura Mazda when you can kill a potential criminal and ask for a successful harvest in one go?

Liba were no different. No one was going to stuff them with expensive spices or insist they be filled with precious honey just to be left at the altar to some god of lost car keys or getting red wine out of the carpet. Of course, if one were to make enough Liba for the gods to take their share and for everyone else to enjoy then that was another matter. Then all sorts of toppings and additions could be added.

So what’s in them?

Ricotta, spelt flour and egg. They could not be simpler!

The recipe is as follows:

Make libum by this method. Break up two pounds of cheese well in a mortar. When they will have been well broken up, put in a pound of wheat flour or, if you wish it to be more delicate, half a pound of fine flour and mix it well together with the cheese. Add one egg and mix together well. Then make into bread, places leaves beneath, and cook slowly on a hot hearth under an earthen pot.

Cato, De Agri Cultura

I used wholemeal spelt flour because 1) spelt was a very common grain in ancient Rome, 2) we already had it in, and 3) like any good victimarius before me I wasn’t about to waste my best quality plain flour in a time of flour shortages.

I mixed all the ingredients together until a sticky and quite wet dough formed. Although I kneaded it for a few minutes I found that there was only so much it would actually stiffen up, so turned quite quickly to the baking of it.

I greased a cake tin with olive oil and made a bed of bay leaves which I placed my wet dough, rounded to perfection by my own fair hands, onto, and placed the pan into the oven. Cato stated that the dough should be cooked “under an earthen pot”, which panicked me slightly because I imagined the steam would only make my already damp dough damper, which could hamper the dough de-dampening – d’oh! Nevertheless, I complied and in lieu of an authentic earthen Roman pot, I placed a stoneware lasagne dish over the pan and left it to cook for an hour.

After an hour the Libum was firmer but still felt a bit undercooked. It lacked any sort of brownness, so I put it back under the lasagne dish for another thirty minutes and crossed my fingers that I wasn’t about to give our household gods indigestion from under baked dough. After half an hour it looked much better and was ready to offer up to the goddess of house and hearthside, Vesta.

Before we placed it on our household altar, though, we thought we should probably try it. Cato’s original recipe was somewhat plain but would probably have been embellished with all sorts of additions. For authenticity I chose not to add any of these additions to the actual dough, but instead heated honey and toasted pine nuts, both very common features of Roman kitchens, to have as accompaniments.

Eaten alone, Libum was perfectly pleasant. Both my husband and I struggled to equate it to a modern day food – it didn’t taste cheesy but there was a creaminess to it that was thanks to the ricotta. The base of the cake where it had been sat on the bay leaves was particularly delicious and fragrant. I’d never really tasted bay before, not having a palate sophisticated enough to pick up on bay in stews or casseroles, but here it was unmistakable. The spelt was also a great choice of flour as it provided additional texture that fine white flour wouldn’t, as well as a contrasting nuttiness that worked very nicely. The Libum was dense – very dense – but not exactly heavy or stodgy, and it cut beautifully. It wasn’t, however, like a cheesecake. There was no light moussiness or whipped quality to it.

So far, so good. Of all the things I’ve tried to cook, this felt like something that was as close to the original as I could make it – it tasted ‘old’ and looked authentically simple. One Libum fit comfortably in the palm of a hand and I could imagine a young girl laying a couple of these at the household altar and munching absentmindedly on one for herself as she made her way back to the kitchen.

With honey was where Libum really shone, however. I drizzled a little, then a lot, over a slice and sprinkled it with pine nuts. It was glorious. I would now consider honey and multiple little Liba an essential on any cheeseboard, if I were the sort of person who was fancy enough to serve cheeseboards after dinner, or pick them instead of cheesecake for pudding at a restaurant. In fact, if I’d ordered a cheesecake for dessert and a slice of Libum with honey arrived instead, I don’t think I’d send it back.

Cheesecake it isn’t, however. Libum is much closer to bread than cheesecake and there can be no doubt that like most bread, Libum performs best when warm and fresh from the oven.

Unfortunately, this morning I realised we’d run out of bread (fresh or otherwise) for our morning toast and wondered whether leftover Libum would work instead. Cato may have argued that the best Liba were the ones that were offered to the gods, but what he might have been pleased to know is that a day old Libum, slathered with lemon curd and eaten on a rainy morning in front of the TV also holds up well, with or without the gods’ blessings.

E x

Libum (makes 1 cake)

250g ricotta
125g spelt flour or wholemeal plain flour
1 egg
Bay leaves

  1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees c.
  2. Break up the ricotta in a large bowl to a rough paste.
  3. Add the flour and egg to the ricotta and combine thoroughly.
  4. Grease a round cake pan with olive oil and make a bed of bay leaves in the bottom. You want enough bay leaves to completely cover the base of the dough.
  5. Shape the dough into a round disk, about the size of a hand.
  6. Place the dough on the bay leaves in the cake pan and place in the oven. If you have an ovenproof dish to cover the pan and help create steam you can place it over the dough. If not, don’t worry and just bake as you would a normal cake but check on it after 1 hour.
  7. After 1.5 hours if baking under a pot (and after 1 hour if baking as normal) check on the cake. It should be golden brown on top and the edges and firm to touch, like bread. If not, bake for another 5-10 minutes and check again.
  8. Take the cake out of the oven and while it is cooling, place some pine nuts in a dry frying pan and toast for a couple of minutes. Keep an eye on them as they turn quickly and you don’t want them to burn.
  9. Heat some honey in a microwave or add it to the frying pan with the pine nuts if you want to combine the two and heat until runny.
  10. Serve the Libum on a dish and honey and pine nuts in a jug or plate to dip slices into.

Zamzaganu: c. 1750 B.C.

No, it’s not a Dr Seuss character.

I’m fortunate that I’m able to teach topics that are often not covered in mainstream education. One of them is the early history of the Persian Empire. Oh, sure, none of the kids can pronounce or spell any of the names of the people without the help of complex mnemonics that take half the lesson to get through (Nebuchanezzar, anyone? Alright – how about Udjahorresnet?) and they all seem to think that finding a decent coach company is the main reason why we won’t be going on a school trip to the Iranian site of Pasargadae any time soon, but overall it’s a privileged position to be in.

Like all good ancient history, lots of our knowledge about ancient Persia is made up. Details of heroic feats and daily life have come to us from historians who either had an agenda to push at the time, or had an agenda to push a couple of hundred years later. You can usually tell when a historian isn’t being completely authentic when they quote, supposedly word for word, the private pillow talk that convinced a king to go to war. Of course, Herodotus could have had a time machine and a much more open relationship with Persian king Darius and his wife Atossa than other historians had previously understood, but evidence for that is limited.

Unfortunately, the historian Herodotus is pretty much all we have in terms of writing when it comes to the Persians. As he embellished a lot of his texts with anecdotes and stories, we have to take a lot of what he says about the history of Persia with an entire cellar of salt. Combined with other fragments of text and physical artefacts, though, historians who specialise in non-fiction are at least able to fill in some of the gaps about this ancient civilization (and Daniel, if you’re reading this – for the last time: no – that doesn’t mean you can just ‘make it all up in the exam’.)

However, since this meal isn’t really about the Persians, but rather the people of Babylon who came before them and ‘lent’ their land and people to the Persian empire, I’m not going to go into too much depth about them. Read it here if you’re desperate. What I will say is that Herodotus tells us that “there is no nation which so readily adopts foreign customs as the Persians” and so even if today’s meal wasn’t Persian per se, it’s likely that if a recipe was good enough to write down then it was good enough to ‘adopt’, and so may well have been enjoyed by founding father of the Persian Empire Cyrus the Great 1,000 years later as he and his army conquered Babylon in 539BC. In fact, the Persians seem to have been exceptionally fond of fine dining and consumed such excessive amounts of food that Alexander the Great, when conquering the Persian Empire, found a pillar detailing some of the details of Cyrus’ banquets and was so horrified by the levels of excess and gluttony that he ordered it to be torn down. Problematic as he is, Herodotus also tells us that costs for food for the Persian king Xerxes and his entourage were so enormous that the royal mob risked bankrupting the Greek cities they swept through if they stayed longer than one day.

What I’ve attempted for this post is one of the oldest recipes ever found. It comes from a set of broken tablets from ancient Mesopotamia which the team at the Yale Babylonian Collection have been painstakingly repairing and translating from cuneiform – the oldest form of writing in the world. Unsurprisingly, it’s not been an easy task. There are words that have no modern day equivalent and whole chunks that are missing. Like many of the recipes that would follow, these read more as inventories of ingredients rather than clear instructions and assume a level of cultural understanding I don’t have. Despite every effort, sometimes a best fit guess has had to be used in order to glean an insight into what these people meant – for example the word suhutinnu, which seems to appear in almost every recipe found, has no description other than an indication it might be some sort of root vegetable as it’s referred to being “dug up”.

Historians were disappointed to learn that when translated, this particular cuneiform cylinder said “Oi Darren you’re dumped, I saw you kissing Chloe behind the chip shop, never contact me again.”

The recipe was taken from this blog. It was unclear exactly what meat should be used but Laura Kelley, author of The Silk Road Gourmet has conducted research into the dish’s name ‘Zamzaganu’ and discovered that it may translate as ‘field bird’. I chose guineafowl for the not at all academic reasons that it was currently on special offer, I’d never cooked one before and it sounded more interesting than chicken. The second problem was how to cook it. The recipe just said to ‘cast the meat in a kettle’ (not that kind) but I didn’t fancy de-boning a raw carcass that, even if it was on special offer still cost £6.50, just to boil it to death in plain water and end up with disappointingly bland chunks of meat like Mrs Beeton’s rabbit stew. Since the instructions were vague, I decided to employ some of Daniel’s imagination skills and chose to interpret this as a primarily roasted meat dish. Laura Kelley may agree with this choice as she states “the recipes allow for a great deal of creativity in using what is on hand or in reinterpreting dishes…” I cooked the guineafowl in the oven for just over an hour and after it had been cooked and rested tore it into lumps and placed them in a pan.

To this I added chopped dates, cumin seeds and coriander seeds and fried it all together in the juices of the roasted guineafowl and a little water until a fatty sauce had formed. Once that had been cooked through and the dates were softened, I strained the meat and dates from the sauce and placed it in a bowl. It was then time to work on the Babylonian equivalent of a side dish.

An absolute staple of Mesopotamian food appears to have been garlic and leeks, with most recipes found including these ingredients in some form or another. It’s amazing, actually, just how much garlic is mentioned in the tablets and so I became a bit blind to how much I was adding – it was like each time I read the word ‘garlic’ I thought I had to add to another clove, forgetting that I was reading about multiple recipes and techniques, and not just the one I was working on. This recipe called for mashed leeks and garlic to be cooked in the sauce of the meat, which sounded brilliant. The trouble was that I had become so emboldened by how well it was all going I ended up mashing about five or six cloves of garlic before I realised that I’d gone quite mad and just because the texts mentioned garlic a lot, didn’t mean they added that much to individual dishes. It was too late by this point and although the mashed leek and garlic looked strong and punchy it also smelt strong and punchy. Very punchy. To this I added slices of raw turnip – the suhutinnu mentioned earlier – and let it all cook for a few minutes.

Immediately had to go and wash everything I owned after this in case the smell of garlic lingered and year 11 made fun of me on Monday. You know they would.

That was it. The recipe gave no indication of whether the meat should be added back to the greens or not. Luckily for me, this fantastic blog gave me an insight into how Cyrus the Great might have enjoyed this meal if did survive the centuries between its creation and his conquest of Babylon. It would appear that dishes were served separately in the palaces of Cyrus, with meat, bread and vegetables all being brought out on individual platters from which guests could help themselves. I therefore decided not to add the guineafowl back to the bowl, but serve it as its own dish.

To finish off the Babylonian banquet I added a final staple of all ancient dinner tables: bread. Everyday Life in Babylon and Assyria states that there were four varieties of bread that were consumed in the ancient kingdom. The most common and widely eaten was a flatbread made of barley flour and would have almost certainly been consumed at the palaces of Persian royalty centuries later too: on Cyrus’ dining pillar that had so offended Alexander the Great there was a list of provisions for the king’s table, among which was barley flour. The flatbreads were likely cooked on griddles over open flames, or in domed clay ovens. I compromised and employed the same technique I used for my Anglo-Saxon bread: dollops of barley flour mixed with water on a griddle pan with a wok placed over the top to encourage some element of leavening from the steam.

After a few minutes, the barley breads were done. I placed the various elements of the dish into individual bowls and summoned my husband with all the imperiousness of a Persian king.

Now I understand why they called him Cyrus the Great

Sod Cyrus, I was ready to invade Babylon myself when I plated it up. My husband liked it so much he’s taking the leftovers to work (not the leeks and garlic – we need him to keep his job.) If you get the quantities right there was nothing about this that was unpleasant and in fact most of it was absolutely delicious. I could see why the Persians kept it!

The guineafowl was very flavoursome, probably because it had been roasted before being fried with the dates and spices and the dates were sticky and sweet, but not overbearing. The coriander and cumin worked particularly well too. Each fork was a sticky, treacly mouthful – the only criticism I had was that it was slightly drier than I’d like, possibly because of the double cooking. I’d drizzle oil over it and baste the meat during the roasting stage next time – the only reason I didn’t this time round was to try and be as authentic as possible since the recipe didn’t mention using oil at all.

Obviously, the leeks and garlic were very, uh, garlicky but even so still delicious. The turnip was a bit odd because it was pretty undercooked, but I just ate around the slices. Because the leeks had been mashed with the fat from the meat it wasn’t an insipid side dish but almost rich enough to be a meal on its own – you could taste traces of fat and cumin and occasionally a touch of date syrup would trickle through too. In fact this was probably the part I enjoyed the most.

The barley cakes were excellent at mopping everything up once it was finished. The barley flavour gave a more nutty finish than wheat flour, which went well, and the fact they’d been grilled meant that the chargrilled parts added yet more flavour and texture.

I know I employed some of Daniel’s technique of ‘make it up and hope the examiner doesn’t realise’ when approaching this dish, but it was really tasty. Even if this Babylonian meal had been lost to time by the time the Persians rolled into town, I can absolutely see why flavours and combinations such as these survive in much of the foods consumed in the Middle East today.

E x

Zamzaganu

1 guineafowl
8 – 10 dates
Cumin seeds
Coriander seeds
1 leek
2 – 3 cloves of garlic
1/2 Turnip
5 dessert spoons of barley flour
Water

  1. Brush the guineafowl with a little olive oil. Roast at 190 degrees for 75 minutes, basting frequently.
  2. While the bird is cooking, chop and quarter the dates.
  3. When the guineafowl is cooked, tear the meat from the bones and place in a pan. Pour the fats from the baking tray into the pan and add the dates and cumin and coriander. Add a little water to the pan and cook until the dates are soft and sticky. You may need to add more water as it cooks.
  4. Strain the liquid and place the meat, dates and spices to one side, cover with foil to keep the heat in. In the pan of liquid, mash the leek and garlic and add slices of the turnip. Cook together for 10 minutes.
  5. While the leeks cook, mix the barley flour with enough water to form a thick paste and pour dessert spoon sized disks of the paste onto a hot griddle pan. Cook the dough disks on each side until cooked through (about 5 minutes per side).
  6. Serve!

Pancakes through time

I know – I’m late to the party. It seems the world and its wife have been posting about pancakes and their histories recently but work has been busy and I missed the chance to cook them all yesterday, so I hope you’re ready for another Pancake Opinion Piece today instead.

Let’s be honest right from the start – there are two types of people in the world: those that like their pancakes thin with sugar and lemon, and those that are wrong. You were all thinking it (and if you weren’t you need to take a good hard look at yourself in the mirror.)

Oh, pancake fads may come and go – and yes, I’m counting Nutella in this, deal with it – but the eternal Queen of pancakes is a paper thin lacy crepe absolutely drowning in fresh lemon juice and rapidly dissolving mountains of sugar. I have known people who swear by abominations such as fresh fruit and cream or melted chocolate with a glug of Baileys or Cointreau and have even met truly twisted souls who say they enjoy a ham and cheese pancake (it’s pancake day not galette day!) Since I don’t have time for that sort of nonsense in my life I try to spend as little time with these people as possible and will deny all friendship with them if directly asked. Sorry, mum, but some of us have standards.

I didn’t want to add to the mountain of information about why we celebrate pancake day – Shrove Tuesday – as there’s really only a limited amount to say about it but you know the drill: last day before Lent to use up all the food you actually want to eat before embarking on a miserable 40 days of hiding in the pantry secretly stuffing crisps in your mouth when you should be fasting instead. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that all this is in preparation for gorging on chocolate at Easter as a celebration of the time Jesus returned from the dead as a man-sized bunny and performed the miracle of handing out candy eggs to children who happened to be visiting Golgotha that day on a school trip. Or something like that.

Shrove Tuesday may be a distinctly Christian celebration but it has roots that are much, much older. There’s evidence to suggest that before Christianity arrived in Britain, pagans enjoyed pancakes at the start of spring (because the round shape symbolised the returning sun) in a celebration a bit like the Eastern Slavic tradition of Maslenitsa. Before that, pancakes were enjoyed by Ancient Roman soldiers as they ate their breakfast before returning to their station to keep guard over the portions of Britain they’d conquered. And before that too, high up in the Italian Alps the 5,300 year old Stone Age man Otzi enjoyed pancakes as part of his last meal – traces of charcoal in the grain found in his mummified stomach indicate that he cooked and ate something that may have resembled a pancake before he died.

Go on – find another pancake blog that would lead with an image of a mummified corpse

So you’d think that this foodstuff – which spans millennia, religions, countries and customs – would have undergone some pretty radical changes. The pancake Otzi munched on as he hunkered down from the snow and tried to dodge skiers must have looked unrecognisable to the one my daughter kindly left festering on the floor under the table, right?

And yet, not so. Okay there may be some differences in thickness and the laciness so evidently required for a pancake to be truly worthy of its title, and some of the basic elements may have become more refined over the years, but the fundamental principle of what a pancake is doesn’t seem to have changed: flour and liquid (and sometimes eggs) mixed together and fried in a pan in fat.

For this pancake day I had planned to do something spectacular – attempt the original Crepe Suzette. Despite having no previous experience of flambéing or the ability to speak French beyond ‘le weekend, je vais à la piscine’ (a phrase I haven’t needed to use as much as my French book made me think I would) I did not immediately foresee a problem with this. No, it was only when it became apparent that there was no definitive first Crepe Suzette that I began to question whether it was possible.

One of the most popular origin stories of Crepe Suzette relates to a teenage waiter Henri Charpentier in 1895. The story goes that whilst working at the Maitre at Monte Carlo’s Cafe de Paris, he was called upon to prepare a dish of pancakes for the Prince of Wales and his entourage. As he sensibly mixed the alcohol together next to a naked flame, it accidentally caught fire and he thought the dessert was ruined. Fearing the loss of his job, he tasted it in the hope it could be salvaged and to his delight found it was “the most delicious medley of sweet flavors I had ever tasted.” The Prince thought so too, and when he asked what it was called the suck-up Charpentier told him that in honour of His Royal Highness he had named it Crepe Princesse (because like chairs, police stations and socks, all French pancakes are apparently girls.) The Prince asked that since there was a lady present in his entourage, could Charpentier rename the dessert after her – and so Crepe Suzette was born. Soon after Charpentier published this tale in his autobiography, the Maitre restaurant released a vehement response calling his version of accounts a lie because, given his young age at the time, there was no way he’d be let loose as the waiter to royalty. Other less self-aggrandizing stories tend to give versions that link Crepe Suzette to the French actress Suzanne Reichenberg, or the chef Monsieur Joseph’s desire to wow his diners and keep the food warm at the same time.

Whatever the truth was, it was clear that I was going to struggle with this one. Actually, it’s probably good that I didn’t attempt it as one restaurant critic wrote that the flames reached heights of 4 foot – and that was in the hands of an expert. So instead I decided to look at pancakes from three distinct time periods: Ancient, Medieval and Georgian.

Teganitai: 2nd century

Our first pancake comes courtesy of Galen, a man who’s well known as a 2nd century physician and philosopher in the Roman Empire but who somehow manages to escape the well-deserved title of ‘twit who helped halt medical advancement for a thousand years’ thanks to his promotion of the 4 Humours. History is full of twits like this so to be fair it’s not solely Galen’s fault that for years people thought that if someone was really sickly draining them of their blood would somehow cure them, but he definitely had key role in the tenacity of this belief.

When he wasn’t inadvertently contributing to humanity’s demise, Galen liked to write his thoughts down. He liked it a lot. In fact, he wrote so much down that even though an estimated two thirds of his works have been lost, the surviving texts we do have account for almost half of all the extant works of ancient Greece. One of these texts is called On the Properties of Foodstuffs and is a sort of treatise on various foods and their perceived attributes and abilities to cure or cause illness. For example, Galen advised boiling lentils once and seasoning with garlic to give a laxative effect (known as ‘purging’ in Humoural Theory) and that onions should be eaten by people with colds to thin the phlegm and restore the balance of the Humours.

On the Properties of Foodstuffs also contains one of the earliest written pancake recipes which Galen calls ‘teganitai’. It’s a very simple dish of wheat flour and water mixed into a paste the consistency of thick cream and then fried in olive oil. Galen mentions that there are two main flavourings that people added to the mixture – sea salt and honey. So, once my daughter had hoovered up her pancakes and set a new world record for stickiest toddler, I set about making my own teganitai.

Having just eaten binned my daughter’s rejected floor pancakes (as well as being deeply disappointed that the two flavourings weren’t lemon and sugar), I only made enough to make one of each type of teganitai. The batter was a doddle to mix up and heating the oil wasn’t exactly a minefield either. It’s interesting, then, that Galen writes about the production of these as if it were intricate surgery, going so far as to give detailed instructions on how to flip the pancake once it was cooked: “…the cook turns it, putting the visible side under the oil, next to the pan, and bringing the sufficiently fried side, which was underneath at first, up on to the top, and when the underneath is set they turn it again another two or three times till they think it is all equally cooked…” I mean I know I complain about a lack of detail in older recipes but that was too much.

After my basic kitchen competency had been sufficiently challenged, I tasted them. They. Were. Delicious. I take back everything I said before about Galen being a twit – who cares that his party piece was performing live dissections on squealing pigs? – the man knew how to make a pancake. I had been a bit wary of frying them in olive oil because I thought, given how few ingredients there were, that fried oil would become the dominant flavour and they would be limp and greasy but they weren’t at all. They were very reminiscent of doughnuts in that they were soft on the inside but crunchy outside but because of their smaller and flatter size they weren’t as greasy or heavy. Because they had been fried all over they weren’t soft and flexible, and of the two I preferred the honey pancake (the sea salt one was a little bland) because I naturally associate pancakes with sweeter tastes. The sea salt pancake cooked quicker and easier than the honey one because the batter was thicker whereas I found the honey one dripped a bit when I first flipped it (thus bringing the sufficiently fried side, which had been underneath at first, up to the top – cheers for the tip, Galen.) Although they cooked for the same amount of time, the honey one came out a couple of shades darker than the sea salt one, but it didn’t affect the flavour; I would genuinely make them again.

Teganitai – because Splodgeroos doesn’t sound Greek enough

Crespes: 1393

And so on to the medieval pancakes. Or should that be crepes?

I still really wanted to pay homage to my original idea of Crepe Suzette, but I also wanted to keep my eyebrows in tact. It was then that I was struck by the pancake gods of inspiration – why not make the first documented version of French crepe instead?

Enter the Goodman of Paris – a man who needs to thank his lucky stars he’s been dead several hundred years because the #MeToo movement would definitely want to have words with him. Written in 1393, Le Menagier de Paris (‘The Parisian Household Book’) was written by an anonymous 60 year old man for his very new and very young bride – an anonymous 15 year old girl. The central purpose of the book is to instruct the young girl on how to run a household and perform her wifely duties (gross) and, surprise, surprise, it comes off exactly as nobbish and pervy as you’d expect.

“Each night, or from day to day, in our chamber [I would] remind you of the unseemly or foolish things done in the day or days past, and chastise you, if it pleased me, and then you would strive to amend yourself according to my teaching and corrections, and to serve my will in all things, as you said.”

The Goodman of Paris to his wife

Dodgy relationships aside, one of the things the Goodman of Paris is concerned with is making sure his wife knows how to supervise and instruct her cooks in the correct preparation of fine food. Being a woman of some means (no, actually, a girl of some means – again: he is sixty years old, she is fifteen), she wasn’t expected to cook the food herself but should ensure her cooks knew how to. One of the many things her cooks should be able to prepare was ‘crespes’ and it appears that this is the first recorded recipe of something resembling modern day crepes.

This recipe was a step up from Galen in that it contained eggs and wine, but the general method was still the same: mix flour and liquids together and fry in sizzling butter. The difference was that this mixture was clearly meant to have higher quantities of liquid to flour, given that the Goodman says the mixture should “run around the pan”.

In an uncharacteristic bit of forward planning, I checked the recipe before I went out for the morning. I had to take my daughter to the dentist and figured that I could stop off at the shops beforehand to pick up anything I needed. Unfortunately it turned out the only thing I needed for this was white wine. No matter, I thought, I think I can style this out. Let me tell you now – I couldn’t. There can be little that’s more awkward than sitting in a dentist’s waiting room at 9:30 in the morning clutching a single bottle of Sauvignon blanc in one arm and a wriggling, shouty toddler in the other; I’m pretty sure that the receptionist called social services when we left.

In spite of the slight embarrassment, the wine was necessary because the recipe didn’t use any milk and only called for enough water to ‘moisten’ the egg and flour mix if it got too thick. I measured 150ml out and added it to the flour and eggs, which had been beaten into a smooth paste. The consistency was exactly the same as modern crepe batter and it cooked exactly like a crepe too, in a blob of butter. I felt delighted at the prospect of getting some real pancakes after all! Maybe, like his name implied, the Goodman of Paris wasn’t so bad after all?

Proper pancakes

These were also lovely. I could definitely tell there was alcohol in them but because they were so thin it was a background flavour rather than a key element. They had the texture of modern crepes and were just as satisfying. The only disappointment was that the Goodman served his with powdered sugar and made no mention of going one step further to add lemon juice, without which they were slightly dry.

I’d like to imagine that after a couple of years of putting up with him his young wife wrote her own version of Le Menagier de Paris filled with amendments and notes for him to improve on, but I suspect she didn’t. Maybe she just spat into his batter occasionally.

Rice pancakes: 1755

Someone who would have dished out criticism to the Goodman of Paris with the same relish as my daughter eating pancakes, was the English writer Hannah Glasse (of Curry ‘the Indian Way’ fame.) Hannah Glasse does not seem to have suffered fools gladly and wrote against French cooks specifically for being (as she saw it) wasteful and pretentious in their cooking: “I have heard of a [French] cook that used six pounds of butter to fry twelve eggs; when everybody knows…that half a pound is full enough, or more than need to be used: but then it would not be French. So much is the blind folly of this age [people] would rather [use] a French booby, than give encouragement to a good English cook!” Yikes. Also, what were 18th century French cooks getting up to in their kitchens?!

Glasse first published The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy with the modest tagline ‘which far exceeds any thing of the kind ever yet published’ in 1747. It sold quickly and went on to run to over 40 editions, each with new recipes in it. Lots of these recipes were plagiarised, but Glasse was on to a good thing and simply swiped criticism away with a well manicured hand.

The 1755 version of The Art of Cookery contains several recipes for pancakes ranging from “a fine pancake” which contained an insane 18 eggs and which Hannah ensures us “will not be crisp, but very good” to an equally decadent pancake containing orange blossom water and sherry. The one that caught my eye, however was rice pancakes.

I’d never cooked with rice flour before but expected these to be very gelantinous and imagined they’d be reminiscent of scotch pancakes in their thickness and size. Hannah implied they should too as she described the mixture as being the consistency “of pap” and just as appetising. A quick analysis of the pap batter in more depth shows that it’s based on exactly the same principle as the previous two pancakes – the main ingredients are flour and a liquid (eggs and cream or milk in this case) fried on a pan. The one difference with this recipe is that the fat is incorporated into the batter before frying.

The American Dream

Okay – these do look like the quintessential fluffy American pancakes – all that’s missing is a blob of butter and syrup. I admit they’re the most photogenic of all three pancakes and are probably what most people incorrectly think of when they think of pancakes. However, they were a pain to cook.

The recipe started off well enough and smelled lovely, kind of creamy and semolina-ish, thanks to the rice flour. As someone who loves a milk pudding, I was all over the idea of them at this point. I also found the rice flour really pleasant to work with, it just sort of dissolved into the milk as I stirred – unlike its temperamental plain flour cousin who always throws a hissy fit and clumps if I take my eye off it for even a second.

The trouble came when it was time to cook them. I don’t know if the measurements were off slightly, but it was hard to flip these. They kept disintegrating, so what you see in the photo is actually only about two thirds of the total, the rest ended up in fluffy piles in the corner or shovelled into my daughter’s mouth who now thinks it’s pancake day every day.

Taste wise, they were also the most disappointing of the three. Because I’d only put in a little sugar and Hannah doesn’t suggest serving them with any accompaniments they were a bit bland and underwhelming. Very fluffy and light, but just a bit…meh. Unlike American ones, these rice pancakes wouldn’t hold up against maple syrup – the liquid would just make them disintegrate even more. Amazingly and against all my natural instincts, I found myself thinking that would would really work would be melted chocolate and fruit, so I guess that in that respect they were a success.

Overall, it’s easy to see why the basic recipe for pancakes is so unchanged – they’re easy and quick and can be adapted to be as classic or as flamboyant as needed. I may not quite have achieved pancake nirvana in any of these recipes, but I’m glad they paved the way for my beloved lemon and sugar variety – and to anyone reading who still thinks there’s a better topping: flip off.

E x

Teganitai

120g plain flour
225ml of water
2 tablespoons of honey or a pinch of sea salt
Olive oil for frying

  1. Heat enough oil to cover the base of a pan
  2. While the oil is heating, mix flour and water together. Add either honey or sea salt.
  3. Spoon two tablespoons of mixture into the oil at a time, or until you have a pancake the size of your palm. Fry on one side for 1 minute.
  4. Flip the pancake and fry on the other side for 1 minute.
  5. Continue flipping over until evenly cooked.

Crespes

3 dessert spoons of plain flour
2 eggs
150ml of white wine
Dessert spoon of water
Butter to fry the pancakes

  1. Mix flour and eggs together.
  2. Mix water and wine and gradually add to the flour and egg mix.
  3. Melt butter in a pan and when it is bubbling, add enough batter to the pan, making sure it thinly covers the entire base.
  4. Cook for 1 or 2 minutes and flip the crepe over.
  5. Cook for 1 minute and then serve. Makes 5 or 6.

Rice pancakes

500ml whole milk
5 dessert spoons of rice flour
125g butter
Grated nutmeg
Sugar to taste
2 eggs

  1. Slowly heat the milk and 4 spoons of flour together until the mixture has thickened completely.
  2. Stir in the butter and let it melt.
  3. Grate the nutmeg into the mixture.
  4. Beat the eggs.
  5. Leave the mixture to cool a little before stirring in another spoon of flour and the beaten eggs and enough sugar to suit your taste.
  6. Cook in thick dollops on a hot frying pan for a couple of minutes on either side, turning when bubbles form and pop on the surface.

Nut Custard or ‘Aliter Patina Versatilis’: 1st century AD

What do you get if you mix old socks, cat vomit and honey? Something that smells like patina, looks like patina and tastes like like patina. Mmm, delicious!

Actually, I’m going to hold my hands up to this one and say I’m pretty sure it’s my poor skills that led to the kitchen abomination you’re about to bear witness to. For a patina that you’d actually want to eat check out Farrell Monaco’s pear patina, also from Apicuis. I know – it’s a bold move to usher all 2 of your readers off to the blog of someone who’s absolutely nailed what you were trying to do when your own attempt at it has failed so badly, especially only 2 paragraphs in, but you deserve to see what a good patina looks like. Once you’ve seen Monaco’s amazing creation you’ll understand that I can’t compete for culinary ability, or historical accuracy, or photo skills but damn it I won’t be beaten on amateur enthusiasm and not knowing when to quit.

I’ve attempted an Apicuis recipe already, but haven’t yet really looked into the background of who or what Apicuis was. Turns out that it’s not particularly clear but some historians think the recipe book Apicuis was possibly linked to a famous gourmet called Marcus Gavius Apicuis who it turns out is famous for a couple of things: sailing round the Med looking for the biggest prawns he can find (I like him already) and poisoning himself at a banquet when he realised he’d spent most of his money on food and dining; clearly he preferred to die rather than live a life where he couldn’t have big prawns whenever he wanted. In fact, such was his devotion to food and excess that Roman authors such as Seneca frequently used him in moralizing contexts as the archetypal glutton. At some point the book Apicuis became linked with Marcus Gavius Apicuis, although there isn’t concrete proof that he himself wrote it.

And so on to the dish itself – what is it actually called? In Apicuis itself it’s described as ‘another dish, which can be turned over’. Helpful! Google translate, that falsest of friends, says that Aliter Patina Versatilis means “otherwise pan shifting”. Doubly helpful. As you can see I didn’t need any assistance with translating this dish, but I felt I should double check with Sally Grainger’s Cooking Apicius just to see what she thought. Grainger indicated that a patina is a type of cooking dish – a bit like a modern day pudding steamer – as well as a meal, and that the patina mixture could be cooked over heat in the patina bowl either like an omelette or in an oven like a baked custard – hence ‘nut custard’.

Also helpfully, none of these are patina bowls

The version of Apicuis I used had a footnote attached to the patina recipe. It said: “It is characteristic of Apicius for incompleteness and want of precise directions, without which the experiment in the hands of an inexperienced operator would result in failure.” Inexperienced operator? Me? I scoffed at the possibility and ploughed on.

First, I toasted 100g chopped walnuts and hazelnuts in a frying pan – an arbitrary number which happened to match up to 50% of the packet of nuts I had in anyway. I admit, I had to do this twice because I burned the first lot while watching a trailer for This Country, which I admit isn’t a problem Marcus Gavius Apicuis had, but was totally worth it. Once the second batch had toasted (to perfection), I added honey.

True to form, there were no quantities given. For a moment I wavered as the editorial Words Of Doom whispered around the kitchen: “Inexperienced Operator…operator… Failure…failure… Hands…hands…” I pulled myself together and went back to Grainger. She used a tablespoon for her version, with more poured on once cooked, so I followed those instructions.

This actually looked and smelled pretty good! I was excited; so far, everything appealed to me. On to the next part – the liquamen. For those who don’t know (she said, as if she herself did), liquamen was a type of fish sauce. In the last Apicuis dish I made I used a fish stock pot for a broth, but I’ve since learned that liquamen is very different. It was made by layering anchovies and salt in a pot and then leaving the mixture to ferment for several months, before skimming off the layer of clear liquid that rose to the top. The closest thing we have today is nam pla, which to be fair is pretty bloody close – the ingredients are literally just ‘anchovy, salt, sugar’.

I’d never used nam pla before. I felt so cultured that I walked home holding it in my hand rather than putting it in a shopping bag, just in case some high end foodie spotted me and we could share a knowing nod of pomposity. As per Grainger’s advice, I added a tablespoon to my heavenly smelling nut and honey mixture. And stopped. This new smell was intense. Nam pla may do wonders in terms of being the ‘umami’ flavour once incorporated into a meal, but while it was just sitting in the bottle it smelt like the inside of my toddler’s shoes.

Still, the Romans thought liquamen was good and nam pla remains a staple ingredient in much East Asian cuisine so clearly the problem was with me. Peg on nose, I stirred it in, trying not to care too much as my much loved toasted nut flavour evaporated fast.

To the nutty, fishy mixture I added pepper, milk and 4 eggs and then poured it into a pyrex bowl that had been lightly greased with olive oil and put it all in the oven for 30 minutes at 180 degrees. By this point I was actually looking forward to trying this – I knew that the nam pla wouldn’t be a key flavour on its own once cooked, but I had no idea what it would taste like or how it could enhance the dish without just making it taste of fish. After half an hour, the bowl was ready to take out and be upturned onto a plate – a Roman egg blancmange.

Well. I mean, you can see the photos yourself. As soon as I saw it on the plate I booked myself the best divorce lawyer I could, knowing full well that I had just baked my way to the end of my relationship. If you look up ‘Reasonable Grounds’ in the divorce lawyer dictionary, it’s just a picture of this. I tried every light available to me and my limited skills to save my marriage and make this look less like a mound of reconstituted dog food. In previous dishes I’ve tried not to add my own plate decorations and garnishes so that you can see what the actual food looks like, but with this one I feared Google would ban it under ‘Offensive Images’ if I didn’t do something – hence the ground walnuts and pointless knife.

I was trying to be very positive, but I do have to admit that there was still a scent of cheesy feet coming off the steam. Taking a big breath – figuratively! – I cut a slice and bravely waited for my husband to try it first.

If you didn’t look or smell this, you would probably think it wasn’t too bad. It was not great – probably because it was mainly just overbaked scrambled eggs – but it had some subtleties to it. The honey, for example, gave it just a hint of sweetness and the pepper a definite spiciness. The nuts were still a prominent flavour, which I was glad of, but if you tried to pass this off as a ‘custard’ in a restaurant you’d get your license taken away for mislabelling.

As predicted, the nam pla wasn’t a flavour on its own. I can’t really describe what it did to the meal, other than lend a very meaty/savoury element to the dish. It seemed to work with the flavours in the patina rather than against them, without trying to take over. Unfortunately, though, this dish has taught me that I’m one of those people who tastes with their eyes and nose and I couldn’t escape the smell. Even after I moved to a different room, to be sure that it wasn’t just a bit that had splashed on a surface I was smelling, I could still smell it – an olfactory indication of my newly certified status as Inexperienced Operator. I guess one positive is that once you have the quantities, whatever the hell they’re meant to be, sorted you could easily adjust the recipe to feed as many people as you need. Good news for someone recently single.

E x

Honey nut custard

4 eggs
1 tablespoon of honey
1 tablespoon of nam pla
50g finely chopped walnuts
50g finely chopped hazelnuts
pepper
100ml milk
Olive oil (to grease a pyrex or oven proof bowl)

  1. Toast the nuts in a pan.
  2. Add the honey to the nuts and stir.
  3. Add the nam pla and pepper and stir.
  4. In a bowl, beat the eggs and milk together and add to the pan.
  5. Pour the mixture into a greased pyrex or oven proof bowl
  6. Bake at 180 degrees for 30 minutes or until the top is firm to the touch and a wooden skewer comes out clean.