Zamzaganu: c. 1750 B.C.

No, it’s not a Dr Seuss character.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now I understand why they called him Cyrus the Great

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

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

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

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

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

E x

Zamzaganu

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

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

Pancakes through time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teganitai: 2nd century

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

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

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

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

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

Teganitai – because Splodgeroos doesn’t sound Greek enough

Crespes: 1393

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

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

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

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

The Goodman of Paris to his wife

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

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

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

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

Proper pancakes

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

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

Rice pancakes: 1755

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

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

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

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

The American Dream

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

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

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

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

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

E x

Teganitai

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

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

Crespes

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

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

Rice pancakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also helpfully, none of these are patina bowls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

E x

Honey nut custard

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

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

Honey-Cakes: 2nd century AD

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 book How 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.’

£1000 if you can catch all these in your mouth
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

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”.

The most exciting thing about this book is that there’s a winged horse jumping over a carrot with a moustache on the front cover

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.

Yes, dinosaur nerds, I know that’s not a T-Rex and I don’t care

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.

E x

Honey-cakes

150g spelt flour
75g honey
1 tablespoon olive oil
Water

  1. Mix flour, honey and oil together. Add water to form a stiff dough.
  2. Roll out to about 1cm thickness and cut into shapes or circles.
  3. Bake for 12 minutes at 160 degrees.

Patina Lucretiana (Roman pork with onions): 900 AD

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.

Delicious pointlessly salted meat

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.

I was never more aware of how unpleasant food poisoning might be than at this point

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.

Potato should always form 50% of the plate

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.

E x