Globi: c. 160 B.C.

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

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

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

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

De Agri Cultura, 2.7

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

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

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

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

Not a fan of Cato, we get it.

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

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

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

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

Not the reaction I’d hoped for.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

E x

Globi

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

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

‘Lasagne’: 1390

It was a bitterly cold and windy day when I decided to make the ultimate comfort food: lasagne. It had been a disappointing morning – every time the Met Office issues storm warnings I get my hopes up that Hurricane Santa might bring me a trampoline or part of someone else’s fence, but alas, yet again I hadn’t been good enough this year.

So, the lasagne was to cheer me up – proper comfort food, which I’ve been trying to avoid in an effort to be healthier. Something hot, cheesy and far too calorific to be good for me. I planned to eat it standing tear-stained at the window, brandishing a fork trailing strings of cheese and shouting “see what you’ve made me do, Santa?!’ angrily at the wind. As is his way, my husband gently suggested that the sight of a fully grown woman shouting cheesy nonsense at an invisible Santa two months after Christmas might give the neighbours cause for concern. He promised to look into whether adult trampolines were a thing, if I’d redirect my anger to something less overly dramatic.

Which is how I came across medieval lasagne, or Losyns, as Forme of Cury would have you spell it (click here for a bit more info on Forme of Cury when I made Caudle Ferry.) Cheese? Check. Pasta? Yes (after a fashion). Meat? Er…

Maggie Black, who translated and adapted this recipe in The Medieval Cookbook tells us that lasagne was thought by some to be considered an ideal dish to serve at a last course at a banquet. The heaviness of it would ‘seal in’ the copious amounts of alcohol imbibed during the dinner, at least for long enough until the guests got back to their own homes (although possibly not; most medieval hosts rich enough to throw banquets would also house their guests for several nights too.) There’s also some suggestion that lasagne would have been served to resting armies, being quick and easy to make and incredibly filling, as well as being a bit of a crowd pleaser.

The first thing I noticed about this dish was the pasta. There was a study done recently* that ranked homemade pasta as one of the best comfort foods there is – along with mashed potatoes and roast chicken. Having said that, I’m always a bit wary of people who have their own pasta machines because it does take a bit of effort and the sorts of people who make it regularly enough to need a machine always seem like the sorts of people who jog up mountains for fun, or think watching foreign art films without subtitles is a good date night. You know, people who just generally do well at all aspects of life in an effortless and supremely annoying way. My life always seems to be full of effort of one kind or another, so I have no time for that sort of smugness, and no time to make pasta regularly, so we don’t own a machine.

Medieval people must not have thought of pasta as the richly comforting food I do. The recipe I used said that the lasagne sheets should be made out of fine white flour, “paynedemayn” which had been mixed with water into a dough. No eggs, no seasoning, no nothing. With the dough made, I rolled it out into as “thynne foyles” as I could just using rolling pin and cut it into strips.

The worksurfaces were now covered in flour and sticky grey mush. Every time I make dough I think of the people we bought our house from: who excitedly told us that they’d updated the kitchen and put new worksurfaces in – their pride and joy. I had promised I’d take care of them. As I surveyed the mess of ground in dough, sticky stained wood and crevices turned ashy with flour no duster could reach, I hoped they had no idea this blog existed.

The recipe told me to dry the pasta, and back in the 14th century it would probably have been air dried over a number of days. Because I have to work in order to pay for the kitchen I promised I wouldn’t ruin, I didn’t have a couple of days to just do nothing waiting for this to air dry, so I laid the lasagne sheets out on a baking tray and dried them in a very low oven for 2 hours at 80 degrees until they were hard and brittle.

Bland and anaemic, just how comfort food should be

The lasagne sheets baking, I turned to the filling and was straight away struck by the next medieval twist. No meat. No filling, really, of any kind unless you just count cheese, which I did, so I cracked on with it.

Cheese was a very popular and common foodstuff of the middle ages, with many different varieties eaten throughout Britain. Since meat was expensive, pretty much every peasant household would make their own cheese as a vital source of protein and richer houses might buy more expensive or imported varieties from the continent. According to P. W. Hammond there were 4 main genres of cheese during the middle ages: hard cheese (like cheddar), soft cheese (like cream cheese), green cheese (a very young soft cheese) and the appealing ‘spermyse’ (cream cheese with herbs.)

The original recipe calls for grated “ruayn”, which is a cheese that no longer exists in its original form. Some people think it could refer to cheese made with rowan grass from the second harvest of crop season and so was only made at certain times of the year, whilst others suggest it may have been a variant of ruen cheese, which just meant cheese made with rennet. Either way, if I didn’t have time to air dry pasta I definitely didn’t have time to wait until the end of harvesting season to make some obscure long lost cheese. In 1170 Henry II bought 10,240 lbs of cheddar and so since it was definitely available by 1390, I couldn’t see too much harm in substituting ruayn for a mild Cathedral City, especially not one that was 50% off.

Once the lasagne sheets had dried, I boiled them in chicken stock until they were soft again (why?!) and then laid a layer of them in a rectangular dish. I sprinkled on a handful of grated cheddar and then a pinch of “powdour douce” – a curious medieval seasoning that appears in lots of recipes and for which no definitive recipe seems to exist (surprise, surprise). I knew from previous research (which quickly taught me to spell ‘douce’ correctly) that powder douce was meant to be a combination of sweet spices, such as cinnamon possibly with some sugar mixed in, and was the lighter alternative to the other popular medieval seasoning “powdour forte” which was seen as a stronger collection of spices containing black pepper. In the end I used Dr. Christopher Monk’s recipe, which also gave a very full account of the history and preparation of this enigmatic spice cocktail.

And so I built the cheesiest lasagne man has ever known: a layer of cheese, a dusting of powder douce, a layer of lasagne sheets, and so on until I had used up all the pasta. Into the oven it went for 20 minutes or so until the cheese was bubbling and the air smelt and felt odd – hot and spicy, but also greasy. My idea of comfort food heaven.

It contained no white sauce, no meat, no tomato and pseudo-pasta but it did at least look like a lasagne

I’ll admit that when it was done even I was a little bit alarmed at the amount of melted cheese. I mean, it was literally just a dish of cheese with a few brittle bits of dough languishing in the middle. Luckily I pulled myself together and cut a slice to make your eyes water.

Initial thoughts were that the cloves in the powder douce ruined it slightly. Not liking cloves in any form, I imagine my initial dislike was down to personal taste, but as they were one of the most widely used spices in medieval England and a key component of the seasoning, I had to add them. The general flavouring was a peculiar mixture of cheese and cloves and one that I wasn’t used to, but wasn’t 100% unpleasant. This is something I’ve found is true for lots of the things I’ve cooked so far – often the combination of flavours is a bit jarring to modern palates, but aren’t necessarily horrible.

The lasagne sheets were quite flavourless but the texture was robust and very similar to pasta cooked al dente (MasterChef here I come…) It was clear their role was to add bulk and fill diners up, which it did well, rather than to be a complementary flavour to the cheese and spices.

So. Much. Cheese

Would I make it again? Yes, with tweaks: I’d cut out the spices for a start and include more salt. I’d use eggs in the pasta and I think the whole meal would work well with the addition of some sort of minced meat, possibly in a tomato sauce, added in with the cheese. Actually, as that sounds bloody delicious, I’m off to patent it.

E x

*A study done by me. It was delicious.

Lasagne

9 or 10 lasagne sheets
3 pints chicken stock
Powder Douce
175g cheddar cheese (more if you’d prefer your coronary to come earlier)

  1. Cook the lasagne sheets in a pan of boiling chicken stock until soft and malleable.
  2. While the pasta is cooking, lay a base of grated cheese in a rectangular lasagne dish. Sprinkle over a pinch of powder douce.
  3. Cover the grated cheese with 3 sheets of cooked lasagne.
  4. Repeat the pattern two more times: cheese, powder douce, lasagne until you have used up all the lasagne
  5. Sprinkle cheese over the top and bake in an oven at 160 degrees until cheese is melted and pasta is cooked through.