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.”
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.
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.
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!
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
Mix ricotta and semolina together to form a paste.
Heat olive oil in a frying pan until it is glassy and sizzles when globi are placed in it.
Fry each globi, two at a time, in the oil until golden brown.
Drain the globi on kitchen roll, then drizzle over as much honey as you like.
Today’s experiment is from a work entitled De Re Coquinaria (now often just referred to as Apicuis), a 1st century Roman text full of recipes and instructions for the Roman cook. Though often attributed to the gourmand Marcus Gavius Apicuis, there’s actually not a lot of evidence that this was the case. Apicuis 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, Apicuis 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, Apicuis 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 Apicuis, notes that the intended audience (and therefore writer/s) of the recipes in Apicuis 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 Apicuis 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 Apicuis. The recipes in Apicuis 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 Apicuis was more of a Waitrose kind of guy.
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.
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.
The recipe may not have been written by Apicuis 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Once the lentils have cooked, drain them and add the herb and spice mixture to the pan. Stir to combine.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 willbe profits) which I’ll accept in the form of money and/or wheels of your original Garlic and Herb.
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
Make the flatbreads first. Heat the oven to 165 degrees C.
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.
Knead the dough and then turn out onto a floured surface. Roll it out to no more than 1/2 centimetre thickness.
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.
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.
Grate the cheese into the mashed garlic and add the herbs and salt.
Mix everything together, making sure the herbs and salt are well incorporated.
Add olive oil to loosen the mixture to a consistency you like, and a couple of teaspoons of white wine vinegar. Mix well.
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), Libum‘s 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!
Cake for the gods? Must be pretty fancy.
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.
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.
Libum (makes 1 cake)
250g ricotta 125g spelt flour or wholemeal plain flour 1 egg Bay leaves
Preheat oven to 180 degrees c.
Break up the ricotta in a large bowl to a rough paste.
Add the flour and egg to the ricotta and combine thoroughly.
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.
Shape the dough into a round disk, about the size of a hand.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Serve the Libum on a dish and honey and pine nuts in a jug or plate to dip slices into.
Hello fellow lizard overlords – sorry, I meant people. Perfectly ordinary hot blooded, delicious, bipedal people, which is a normal human greeting and Not Suspicious At All.
It’s that time of the week (or is it month, or year? Time has become meaningless) where I substitute some mediocre cooking for some mediocre history and the topic for today is: conspiracy theories.
I know, right? I’m excited too.
I love a good conspiracy theory. Not to believe in, I urgently must add. I’m not sat here thinking there’s any merit to the idea that Australia doesn’t existor that early noughties pop star Avril Lavigne died and was replaced by a clone called Melissa (for one – loving the fact they’ve called her clone something as ordinary as Melissa and two – surely the bigger news here would be that human cloning exists?)
Without wanting to get too emotional about it all, I love what conspiracy theories tell us about human nature. Last year I ran an on-off history club and one of the topics we looked at was the 1969 moon landings. We analysed the evidence to suggest the landing were real and then looked at the evidence that some people had put forward to suggest the landings were faked. At the end we had a debate and took a vote. Most of the club ended up deciding the moon landings were fake and we had to disband for a couple of weeks while they went away to do more accurate research (and I could have a lie down in a dark room with a lot of calming gin as I ignored emails from parents wanting to know just what the hell I was teaching their kids.) Why did the conspiracy theories about something as well documented and culturally significant as the moon landings trump the reality? What was it about these theories that seemed more appealing or truthful than the weight of all the evidence to the contrary?
To speak in vague terms akin to a conspiracy theorist: The answer lies in the question. It was to do with the appeal of the theories. When they knew they’d be given a platform to argue their findings on, the students instinctively wanted a wow! factor to their arguments. They wanted controversy and something unique or original that would make their voice stand out from the crowd. Arguing against the accepted (logical!) history was a chance for them to argue against the establishment – science and scientists (and, I guess me as their history teacher) – and they wanted to take that opportunity.
Sure, there were some sweethearts who watched as I rocked under my desk after hearing conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory and took pity on me by presenting wholly logical and scientifically sound arguments that the moon landings did happen, but even I have to admit their presentations weren’t the ones I remembered later that evening.
The boy who stood on his desk and chucked paper balls at the rest of us to show the effects of gravity, therefore ‘proving’ (tenuously) that NASA must have slowed down footage of the astronauts jumping around in space to make it look like there was no gravity? Yeah, I remembered him. If not for his terrible argument, at least for his showmanship. Afterwards he admitted he didn’t believe the conspiracy theory, but that it was more fun to argue that side of the debate.
What I’m trying to say is this: the truth is boring and conspiracy theories are exciting and get you noticed. That’s part of their appeal – that some purely hypothetical small time football player in the 70’s who sadly had to give up his dream of making the big league and become a sports presenter for a short amount of time before being fired could still make a name for himself as a ‘professional’ conspiracy theorist which would keep him in the public eye. Hypothetically.
But what makes Sharon on Facebook share clickbait articles like ‘THE SECRETS BEHIND CHEMTRAILS – YOU WON’T BELIEVE NUMBER 6!!!’? She’s not going to get famous from someone else’s theory, is she? All she’s doing is signposting that it’s absolutely fine for the rest of us to go ahead and never take anything she says seriously again.
Jan-Willem van Prooijen and Karen M Douglas give a good explanation of why people are so drawn to conspiracy theories. They argue that in times of crisis, usually on a large communal scale (and as we’ve seen recently on a global scale), people feel a inherent loss of control. The feelings that this loss of control stimulate, such as fear and confusion, propel people to try and make sense of the crisis so that they can regain some of the control they feel they lost. They begin to look for patterns or explanations in places and things that in ordinary circumstances they wouldn’t and – crucially – listen to people who claim to have the answers and are able to provide cast iron solutions to the problem. In addition to this, because the best theories serve a function, once they gain enough traction they can enter a group’s culture and become embedded in people’s philosophies and beliefs, eventually being passed down generations with little analysis on the part of those who believe it. That’s partly why the Flat Earth Society, founded in 1956, is still going strong today.
For today’s conspiracy theorists, torching 5G towers seems like a solution to coronavirus. During the Black Death of 1348 hounding Jewish communities who were accused of poisoning wells seemed like it would fix the problem (and, to be honest, was just another instance of Antisemitism in an achingly long tradition of using Jewish people as scapegoats for society’s ills.)
There are countless theories from history and as much as I personally love the sound of my own voice I don’t imagine everyone else does, so to narrow it down I’m leaving out the flat earth, JFK assassination and moon landings stuff – you’ve heard it before and nothing I could say (no matter how brilliantly) could offer a viewpoint that’s any more interesting or informative than what’s already been written. What I’m going to focus on is about as close to a conspiracy theory as I could find from ancient Rome – the story of how the emperor Diocletian dealt with the spread of Manichaeism.
You mean you don’t know? Ha. What an amateur.
Manichaeism was a Persian religion that focused on an early form of dualism during the 3rd century. To put it in terms so simple as to render it almost totally null (and to maybe hide that I don’t understand all the religious terminology) essentially followers of Manichaeism believed that flawed human nature was a consequence of a power struggle between the forces of good and evil, more often referred to as light and darkness. In a nifty sidestep to Mackie’s inconsistent triad, Manichaens believed that though God – the ‘Father of Greatness’ – was powerful, he wasn’t omnipotent and was therefore locked in a battle with the devil – the ‘King of Darkness. All the world’s suffering, evil and even just things that made people go “ugh”, like a rainy day, were byproducts of this struggle. One more of these byproducts was the potential for humans to do wicked things, since the battle was fought not just in the world, but inside each and every one of us – with good actions acting as triumphs for God and negative actions acting as triumphs for the devil. The whole world was one big battleground. A beautiful blossoming flower might be construed as a victory for God, but it could be neutralised by a victory for the devil when some nob came along to pick it and stick it in a vase, thus killing it instantly. In this way, nothing was inherently good or evil, but rather each thing had the capacity for both good and evil (light and dark) within it and the goal was to do more good things so that when the eventual day of judgement came and light and dark was separated for ever, there would be more light than dark and God would ultimately triumph.
Got it? Good.
By the 290s, Manichaeism had spread far and wide, finding a particularly strong foothold in Egypt, and had arrived in Rome by the 300s. Accounts of Manichaeism in Rome are largely written by anti-Manichaens so it’s hard to get a fully accurate picture but it seems that for a short time Manichaeism rivalled Christianity in its popularity. Saint Augustine of Hippo – part theologian, part Nile creature – had even been a follower of Manichaeism before his conversion to Catholicism in 386.
In 284 Rome got a new emperor: Diocletian. He’s not as famous as Nero (who was also the focus of an ancient Roman conspiracy theory when Rome was burned down in 59AD), or as totally bonkers as Caligula, but was known for being the architect of a fun 10 – 15 year period where Rome attempted a total annihilation of its Christian (and Manichean) population.
Losing interest…what has this got to do with conspiracy theories?
I get it: ancient conspiracy theories aren’t as exciting as modern ones. Fewer lizards, no robots and largely centered around mysterious and secretive organisations (actually, that’s one conspiracy theory that hasn’t gone away.)
Hear me out, though.
Diocletian took power following a pretty turbulent period in Roman history. Not the most turbulent by any means, but still a politically stressful time. The emperor before him, Carinus, is alleged to have gone power mad, spent most of Rome’s money on things he didn’t need and lived a generally debauched lifestyle – reportedly marrying and divorcing nine different women in a three year period. The emperor before him had been, er, killed in a mutiny just before Rome was due to fight the Persians – its very longstanding and much hated enemy.
So it was that Diocletian came to power. Rome was a bloated, rapidly waning super power with growing social divisions, increasing political and military corruption and witnessing an influx of religions and cultures which caused some to feel that the true essence of what made Rome great was disappearing. Surely there was a cause to this slow slide into the dung heap of oblivion?
Well, yes, actually. The Manichaens.
The conspiracy theories began: the Manichaens were sent by Persia to destroy Rome. They operated covertly to hide their evil doings. There was no religious element to them at all, rather their motives were purely political. At some point, much later on, Augustine piped up with more information – that Manichaensenjoyed eating sperm and menstrual blood during their quasi-cannibalistic religious ceremonies. Bit of a two faced backstabber, was Augustine; his old Manichaen mates must have felt more than a little betrayed, if only because their rituals were meant to be secret, damn it!
It was the perfect conspiracy theory; one reason for Rome’s decline from its glorious golden age centuries ago could now be attributed to this weird little religious sect. Even better that this so called religion was started in the Persian empire, Rome’s enemy – if anything that just proved it couldn’t be legit. It was all a Persian conspiracy to destroy Rome.
As for these people who set up new and unheard of sects contrary to the ancient rites [of Rome], in order that in support of their perverse belief they might drive out those doctrines which had been granted to us in earlier times by divine influence…we have heard that they, namely the Manichaens, have arisen and advanced into this world very recently from among the Persians – our enemies – just like new and unexpected diseases, where they are committing many crimes against our communities…
We should be afraid that they might attempt, as is their wont, to corrupt men of more innocent natures, the modest and tranquil Roman race, and the whole of our empire with the deplorable customs and sinister laws of the Persians as with the poison of a snake…
Mosaicarum et romanarum legum collatio
I mean, he doesn’t hold back. Poison? Perverse? Corrupt? Diocletian meant business when he set out this conspiracy theory. Woe betide you if you were a Manichaen in Rome after 31 March 302 – you’d probably end up in prison!
We command that the heads of Manichaeism be subjected to the harshest punishment; that is to be consumed by the burning flames along with their condemnable writings.
Mosaicarum et romanarum legum collatio
Ah. So…not prison then?
While Manichaen leaders were being burnt alive, low status Manichaens were being beheaded and high status Manichaens were being enslaved in quarries and mines to do literally back breaking labour until they died. All Manichaen property was seized and destroyed and all wealth was deposited straight into the imperial treasury.
There were no internet chat rooms and tin foil hats here; it was, as responses to conspiracy theories go, pretty hardcore. And yet, like most conspiracy theories, it was also pretty baseless. Whether or not Diocletian truly thought Manichaeism was a Persian conspiracy or whether he spotted an easy scapegoat is unclear, especially given the anti-Manichaen nature of the surviving sources about Manichaeism in Rome. What is clear, however, is that he certainly wanted the people of Rome to buy into the conspiracy theory.
Sure, there may have been some Persians and Manichaens who hoped for the downfall of Rome. And what religion doesn’t want to ultimately take over other cultures and civilisations? But in the end Rome’s alarm that Manichaeism was a massive Persian conspiracy to overthrow the status quo was unfounded. In subsequent years, Diocletian would go on to persecute other religions, most famously Christians, for many of the same reasons as he gave in the edict of 302. Ultimately, these persecutions were unsuccessful and within 25 years of the start of the Christian persecutions, the emperor Constantine would make Christianity the empire’s religion of choice. Too late for the Manichaens in Rome, though.
So what can we learn from this? Well for a start, the next time you comment on Sharon’s Facebook post asking her why she has to be like this, you can take heart knowing that to an extent humans have always “been like this”. Conspiracy theories are nothing new and in times of turmoil we’ve always sought to make sense of what’s happening, often by pinning blame on those we’re already angry with, or those who we think will be easy targets. Human nature is, in that regard, unfortunately timeless.
But if there’s one thing you should definitely take away it’s this: you can fight them all you want, but what the Illuminati wants, the Illuminati gets.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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
Brush the guineafowl with a little olive oil. Roast at 190 degrees for 75 minutes, basting frequently.
While the bird is cooking, chop and quarter the dates.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
120g plain flour 225ml of water 2 tablespoons of honey or a pinch of sea salt Olive oil for frying
Heat enough oil to cover the base of a pan
While the oil is heating, mix flour and water together. Add either honey or sea salt.
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.
Flip the pancake and fry on the other side for 1 minute.
Continue flipping over until evenly cooked.
3 dessert spoons of plain flour 2 eggs 150ml of white wine Dessert spoon of water Butter to fry the pancakes
Mix flour and eggs together.
Mix water and wine and gradually add to the flour and egg mix.
Melt butter in a pan and when it is bubbling, add enough batter to the pan, making sure it thinly covers the entire base.
Cook for 1 or 2 minutes and flip the crepe over.
Cook for 1 minute and then serve. Makes 5 or 6.
500ml whole milk 5 dessert spoons of rice flour 125g butter Grated nutmeg Sugar to taste 2 eggs
Slowly heat the milk and 4 spoons of flour together until the mixture has thickened completely.
Stir in the butter and let it melt.
Grate the nutmeg into the mixture.
Beat the eggs.
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.
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.
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 Apiciusjust 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’.
The version of ApicuisI 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.
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)
Toast the nuts in a pan.
Add the honey to the nuts and stir.
Add the nam pla and pepper and stir.
In a bowl, beat the eggs and milk together and add to the pan.
Pour the mixture into a greased pyrex or oven proof bowl
Bake at 180 degrees for 30 minutes or until the top is firm to the touch and a wooden skewer comes out clean.
Sounds like a disgusting cutesy nickname to me. Luckily, it’s not (at least not in my household where our nicknames tend to fit more comfortably within a broad ‘ballbag’ theme.)
Loathe as I am to go from ballbags to my mother in law without a sentence in between, I have to admit that as it’s her birthday this weekend, I’ve been thinking a lot about birthday celebrations and the various traditions that surround them. When did we first begin marking the anniversary of the moment a family said goodbye to sleep forever? Why do we look back on a person’s life instead of looking forward at what’s to come (I mean, ultimately death, right? Think I answered my own question…) and why, oh God why, do we give gifts to the little buggers who don’t even remember the bloody day instead of to the woman who can remember every slow and agonising minute in glorious never-ending technicolour?
Obviously what I’m most interested in is the history of the birthday cake. I remember the cakes my mum made for me when I was little were always the second best part of the day (after the presents, obviously). She worked so hard to get them perfect: a 3D witch hat cake for a spooky themed birthday party and a hot dog shaped cake for a BBQ party stand out most. The BBQ one was made out of ginger cake with marzipan buns which not only tasted delicious but also hid the questionable sausage shape from a congregation of 9 year olds.
It was when I got older that my mum hit the cake jackpot, though. Gone were the novelty shapes and questionable amounts of food dyes – now it was all about pure sophistication; if you haven’t made Nigella Lawson’s chocolate sour cream cake, do. It’s in her bookHow To Be A Domestic Goddess, which was my bible as I got older but isn’t available online. I found this instead, which is an approximation and also by the goddess herself so go and make it!
Despite my love of birthday cake, I was guessing the cakes of bygone ages probably contained ever so slightly fewer E numbers and jelly diamonds than the ones I grew up with. Still, I remained hopeful for my mother in law’s sake and began to search for the first ever birthday cake.
I thought the parameters of my research topic (“history of birthday cake”) were clear, but the internet thought otherwise: ‘Do you mean the first time someone put candles on a cake?’ Google asked me mockingly as it flung several thousand results my way. ‘Or do you mean the first recorded use of the words ‘birthday’ and ‘cake’ together in a recipe? What about the development of the idea of birthday cake as part of a celebrated cultural tradition, is that what you meant? Here, have some pictures of cats.’
After I’d watched 8 or 9 cat videos I narrowed my research down a little bit and found that there were two predominantly accepted ‘first’ birthday cakes. The first involved giving cake to a child on their birthday with candles on it to mark their age with an additional candle to “symbolize the light of life” and dates back to an 18th century German celebration called Kinderfeste.
As part of Kinderfeste, parents would tenderly bake their precious child a fruit or simple sponge cake and might decorate it with nuts and dried fruit; you know, the sort of wholesome but boring treats favoured by people who don’t know what hundreds and thousands are. Then they would lovingly present the cake to the delighted birthday girl or boy whose eyes would shine in the flames of the candles that illuminated it. They might wait for their special poppet to take a deep excited breath with the growing anticipation of whether they’d get their wish in one blow or not, and then suddenly they would very tenderly and lovingly snatch the cake from the little sucker and make them wait all day, unrelentingly replacing each suffering candle as it flickered and died until evening came and finally, finally, the child would be permitted to eat the (presumably) wax covered stale treat. Happy birthday! Obviously the kids knew that tradition stated they weren’t supposed to eat the cake until the day was done, but I like to imagine that every year they got their hopes up that maybe this would be the year mum and dad relented early and that every year their hopes were dashed.
I couldn’t see my mother in law being overly delighted if I pulled that stunt, so I turned to the other ‘first’ birthday cake: the Ancient Greek honey-cake.
Ancient Greek stories, be they epic, play or poem, are littered with references to honey-cakes. In the Odyssey the father of the teenage princess Nausicaa serves them to Odysseus after he returns her to him as a thank you (unlike modern day parents, who probably wouldn’t welcome a naked older man in for lunch if he turned up on the doorstep with their underage child, the Greeks had a very specific brand of hospitality called xenia which forced them to put all reasonable parental responsibility aside in the name of being good hosts. Naturally.)
Honey-cakes were also made for the gods, and one of the earliest uses of them acting as a celebration of an anniversary involved them being offered to the Greek goddess Artemis. Followers of Artemis, goddess of hunting, the wilderness, chastity and the moon, would bake ‘moon shaped’ honey-cakes at various points in the year to celebrate different aspects of her divinity. In an amazing display of irony, every 9th month followers of Artemis also celebrated her status as a champion deer hunter by offering her simple honey-cakes shaped like stags. Next month, however, when she was meant to be honoured as a gentle mother nature figure, they hunted and sacrificed a full on goat.
Like Anglo-Saxon bread, the Ancient Greeks don’t seem to have considered the average honey-cake worthy of recording a recipe for. Maybe, given their prevalence throughout Greek writing, they were so culturally ingrained that people just knew how to make them without needing to learn. So I’ve had to do some proper research for this; the kind of internet searches that sound so academic Google would now think twice about flinging cat pictures my way in the results pages. One of the things I’ve found is that if you’re specifically interested in the cultural use of cake as an offering to gods in ancient civilisations, you should definitely check out this blog.
Apicius, the 1st century Roman cookery text, has an entry on Greek honey-cakes which is helpfully just one sentence long: “To make honey cakes that will keep take what the Greeks call yeast and mix it with the flour and honey at the time when making the dough.” There are no instructions on cooking times or on the function of the cake, which I’ve just come to expect by now, to be honest.
Digging deeper still, the Greek rhetorician Athenaeus, who was writing during the end of the 2nd/beginning of the 3rd century records in his Deipnosophistae numerous references to honey-cakes, even providing some sparse ingredients and an idea of how they should look: “a little loaf…made of oil and honey.”
I felt I was getting closer to what would surely be the most underwhelming birthday cake ever made. My final burst of research took bloody ages because I spent half a day trying to find an English translation of the 2nd century Greek grammarian Julius Pollux’s Onomasticon; one of the earliest dictionaries of ancient Greek phrases and words which sounds just about as exciting as a wet Monday afternoon. In Onomasticon there’s a chapter entitled ‘On meals [and] the names of crimes’, because those two topics are so obviously linked, which mentions honey-cakes. I was therefore hopeful that Julius Pollux could provide the final piece of information I was looking for (or at the very least the dictionary definition of ‘honey-cake’) but it turns out no one’s bothered to translate Onomasticon into anything other than Greek or Latin. I can’t think why. I did spend a woeful hour hopefully searching for the Latin word ‘mel’ (honey) and ‘libum’ (cake) in a pdf of a Latin translation, but it was utterly pointless and nearly cost me my laptop when in a fit of frustration I tried to throw it across the room after a passage I had been really hopeful about was Google translated as “the pig the cake does dancing outside”.
Yet again I was saved by someone doing history far, far better than me who had provided a version of a recipe from Onomasticon which confirmed that oil, water, honey and flour were the only ingredients I’d need. To make it as authentic as possible, I decided to use spelt flour, which had been cultivated in the ancient Middle East and, along with wheat and barley, was an important crop to the Greeks. Encyclopedia of the Ancient Greek World also says the ancient Greeks believed the goddess Demeter gifted them spelt and so it was often associated with religion and ritual, making it perfect to use for these birthday cakes. (I’ll be honest – at this point I was so deep into a black hole of websites and tabs and books that I’d forgotten that my mother in law’s birthday was meant to be the priority.)
Anyway, enough history; more cooking. Making the honey-cakes was easy peasy. I mixed oil, water, honey and water in a bowl until it formed a dough and then rolled it out. Like an idiot, though, I hadn’t realised that the honey would make the dough as damn sticky as it was and I spent ages scraping it off the rolling pin and re-flouring the surface while my toddler impatiently shouted ‘cake! cake!’ in what felt like the most stressful and judgmental way possible.
Once the dough was finally rolled out, I tried to cut it into stags in honour of Artemis. Now, the ancient Greeks may have had a booming market for stag-shaped cookie cutters, or they may have just been very handy with freehand shaping, but I couldn’t get the antlers right and my stags looked less like the magnificent beasts they were supposed to and more like unidentifiable roadkill. I didn’t think my mother in law would appreciate some bulldozed animal biscuits, so I improvised and used a dinosaur shaped cookie cutter instead after the ancient Greek deity T-Rexima, goddess of tiny arms and shouting loudly, who incidentally is also my daughter’s god of choice.
I also made some ‘moon shaped’ biscuits (plain old round to non Greeks) and because it was my mother in law and not Artemis I was honouring, I stamped them with a ‘J’ instead of the symbol for Artemis (a bow and arrow) and baked them in the oven, crossing all my fingers and toes that these would work.
First things first: these are not cakes. What we have here is a biscuit, which is Definitely Not A Cake. It’s obvious now why there aren’t any English translations of Julius Pollux’s dictionary and that’s because it’s obviously a steaming pile of trash. Maybe he realised he’d accidentally left the word ‘biscuit’ out of the ‘B’ words and couldn’t face melting his wax tablet down to make space to correct it so just lumped these in with ‘C’ for cake, knowing full well that no one would ever read that far? Well I’m on to you, Pollux. Maybe you could add another rhyming ‘B’ word to the Onomasticon too for a description for your dictionary?
Imaginary arguments aside, these were very pleasant. Because of the spelt flour the texture was grainy and fairly rough – I’m glad I didn’t try with plain white because it would have changed the feel of these totally and I think they would have been further away from the originals. They were also very hard initially, but once you chewed them a bit reminded me of an oatcake. The honey obviously ensured they were sweet, but it was a very subtle sweetness. My husband (who took one bite and apparently turned into some sort of gourmand) said they’d make perfect cheese biscuits, particularly as a complement to goats’ cheese.
Everyone was quietly surprised by how good these were – my daughter ate most of the dinosaur ones by herself (which to be honest isn’t really a useful indication of whether they tasted nice or not as she’ll eat anything). My mother in law, who isn’t one for very sweet and sickly things, also seemed to enjoy them and even said she could see these being sold successfully if they were marketed as sort of semi-sweet biscuits. The fact she enjoyed them was a huge relief because I hadn’t made any sort of back up cake if they had been disgusting. Fortunately my father in law had thought ahead so we ended up having honey-cakes and proper birthday cake too.
Overall the link between ancient Greek honey-cakes and modern day birthday cakes might be a tenuous one, but this afternoon it was one we were all glad to pretend was much stronger.
150g spelt flour 75g honey 1 tablespoon olive oil Water
Mix flour, honey and oil together. Add water to form a stiff dough.
Roll out to about 1cm thickness and cut into shapes or circles.
I seriously considered pretending I understood Latin for this one. Actually, I started learning it back in summer but then stopped when I went back to work having only just grasped the basic fundamentals of the nominative, accusative, dative and despair.
Still, I had enough to know that Patina Lucretiana does not mean ‘Roman pork with onions’. It’s actually named after a Roman contemporary of Cicero, Lucretius Epicuraeus, and loosely translates to The Lucretian dish. (I think. Despite having an amazing teacher I was better at the despair parts of my Latin lessons.)
This recipe is taken from a Roman cookbook called Apicius which is a collection of recipes organised really helpfully (genuinely!) into 10 books for each type of food: game, veg, poultry, fish etc. The first book is called ‘The Careful Experienced Housekeeper’ and is basically a 21 chapter long text on how to make sure your household doesn’t run out of the basics, and how to stop food from rotting. Before you get to that, though, the author thought that what a truly careful and experienced housekeeper needed to know was how to get properly pissed, and so the first 5 chapters are dedicated solely to making and keeping alcohol – including salvaging wine that probably should be thrown out, as in chapter 5 ‘To clarify a muddy wine.’
Patina Lucretiana is essentially braised pork belly cooked in onions and something called ‘liquamen’. This obscure term was totally lost on me and after a bit of research I found that no one truly knows what it is, but it’s likely to have been some kind of fish sauce, a bit like garum. Coupled with the fact that the recipe also mentions a broth I assumed it was meant to be more of a stock.
The recipe is also very specific in calling for salted pork belly. This is probably because, and I don’t think is common knowledge, the Romans didn’t have fridges. In order to preserve meat they might salt it, smoke it or air dry it, to draw the moisture out and make it last longer. Though I probably could have used the pork chops we had in already, (thanks to the freezer, which, in an annoying twist for the author, was invented just after the fall of the Roman Empire) I wanted to see what it would taste like with the proper cuts prepared as closely as possible to the original recipe.
So, armed with just over 500g of pork belly and a bag of sea salt, I carefully yet cluelessly began preserving the meat. It took ages because I employed the timeless chuck-it-and-hope-it-sticks method when applying the salt, which didn’t work as well as I’d hoped because the pork skin was quite dry and covered a lot of the area. In the end I had to salt some clingfilm, lay the pork on it and try and wrap it up as I poured more salt down the sides. Stuck it in the fridge and waited 2 days, an arbitrary number plucked out of the air and which I’ve since learnt would have given just enough time for the salt to do sod all as apparently it takes about 5 days to cure 1 inch of meat. So much for authenticity.
After 2 days I began on the rest of the meal. The recipe stated that onions needed to be added to a pan with some of the liquamen, but first they should be cleaned and the “young green tops of them rejected”. This was tough on me and the onions and I for one was in tears by the end. Afterwards I realised that the reference to young green tops probably meant I should have used spring onions, so if I did this again I’d use them, not ordinary onions.
I let 2 chopped onions cook for 10 minutes in olive oil while I made 150ml of liquamen by dissolving a fish stock pot in water with a couple more teaspoons of oil. I added this to the cooked onions and then added the very salty pork belly (I did scrape some off).
This bit I was quite nervous for, actually. I don’t really cook pork and the recipe didn’t make it clear whether to cook it on the hob or in an oven, or for how long. Since most Roman cooking was done over a hearth, with pans supported by tripods or grid irons, and the recipe had made no mention of roasting or ovens, I decided to cook it on the hob but in a dish with a lid so that it cooked in the steam of the stock and onions.
To help me work out how long to cook this for I looked up some modern day recipes for braised pork belly. I found that it works best when left for a long time (lots of recipes suggested 2.5 hours for 1kg of pork.) With that in mind, I left my 500g (checking that the liquamen levels didn’t get too low) for about 1.5 hours. After about an hour I added a spoon of honey, about 150ml of water and a few dashes of vinegar and then left it to cook more before serving.
Honestly? It wasn’t as good as I’d hoped; perhaps the author wasn’t such a fan of Lucretius after all! Now, I hold my hands up and say that could well be down to my inferior cooking abilities, but I found it a bit tough and difficult to cut through. Unsurprisingly, salt was the predominant taste and only stopped short of becoming overpowering because the honey and water sweetened it slightly. Still, by everyday modern standards it was way too much.
The ancient Romans didn’t have mashed potatoes but we did, which was a bit of a saving grace for this meal, along with the onions which were delicious. The whole thing combined reminded me of an overdone gammon although the potatoes with a bit of the sauce on top worked well.
Despite the fact that I should have been in my element as this meal contained no green whatsoever, I wouldn’t rush to make it again. This is one that can stay in the past.