12 February 2007

Cooking through the Ages

A well-dressed couple enters a handsomely decorated house for a bit of dinner and entertainment. The setting and clothes don’t matter, what do they eat? Food is one of the necessities of life and yet thousands of years of cuisine are only theories. Paintings, sculpture, archeology can tell what the ingredients were, but really how did the ancients or even the not so ancients eat? With cooking a largely mundane task, recipes were passed orally, few getting around to actually writing such things down. Even the cookbooks that did make it onto paper, assume quite a bit of local cooking knowledge.

Roast Duck with Damson Sauce
From Romans in Britain

Ingredients
1 duck

For the damson sauce
Pepper
Dried onion
Lovage
Cumin
Celery seed
Stoned damsons (a type of plum)
Mulsum
Vinegar
Liquamen
Defruitum
Oil

To give the bird a greater flavour and make it more nourishing and keep all the fat in, wrap it in pastry made of oil and flour and cook it in the oven.

Damson sauce
Take pepper, dried onion, lovage, cumin, celery seed, stoned damsons, mulsum, vinegar, liquamen, defruitum and oil. Cook together until damsons are tender. Strain.

A scholar might know that Liquamen is a very salty fermented fish sauce, and so would a Roman matron who heard the recipe from a friend. Very much like adding salt to a dish, but how much? What were the tastes of the ancient Romans? Mulsum is honeyed wine, and defrutum is reduced must of wine, both sweet so the research says. With no amounts given would you describe it was a salty dish or a sweet dish. Duck in plum sauce, I would imagine sweeter, but would fish sauce completely change my conception of the dish or would it just add salt?

The cook had outdone himself on the meal; grilled damsons and pomegranate seeds, truffles and mushrooms, sausages on a silver grill, piping hot wild boar, lobsters garnished with asparagus, apples whose scent was a feast in itself, Syrian pears in a soufflé. It was all the best that could be purchased, but as far as feasts went, it was quite modest. The family prided itself on its fine standing in Rome, but they weren’t the sort to have lavish feasts that people spent all night long at. Besides, there was business to take care of this night.
This is a paragraph that I wrote for A Little Roman Scandal, the feast little more than a list of dishes whose recipes are lost to time. I think if I remember right, I found an archeology magazine where they were trying to recreate them. Does it matter that the reader won’t know more than that, are the names enough of an impression to imagine the splendor of a wealthy roman senators banquet?

How about we go back even further? The Ancient Egyptians left hundreds of records of banquets and food preparation, but in the most basic terms. Few recipes exist and the ones there are come simply as a list of ingredients. The following is a recreation of what they think an Egyptian recipe might be.

Tiger Nut Sweets
From An Ancient Egyptian Herbal

Grind a quantity of tiger nuts in a mortar. Sift the flour carefully. To the ground tiger nuts add a bowl of honey and mix to a dough. Transfer the dough to a shallow vessel, Place on top of the fire and add a little fat. Boil over a gentle fire until a firm paste is obtained. It must smell toasted, not burnt. Cool and shape into tall conical loaves.

"Oh look, Tameri’s cooks make the best duck." Kifi squealed in delight as more servants brought in tray after tray of food. Mounds of vegetables, more birds and fish than she could count and wine enough to float a ship.
Just a tiny paragraph in Egyptian Days describing a feast, but with drawings alone, even names are not known, how do you describe what is there when it’s all guessing? Whole books have been written about incantations for the dead, sexual practices, herbal medicine, gods, daily life, but not one about the food, a small chapter telling the ingredients they had access to, maybe one or two recipes, but even the vast internet can’t provide more than a snippet of how the Egyptians ate with certainty.

After looking up food history for some 40 stories I ended up making a cookbook called cooking through the ages, I’m working on an updated version with some more recent stories included but you can still get it free off my website free reads. I mean just how do you use all those little tidbits you find? An 1850 recipe for sore nipples relief just isn’t in demand, interesting, but I’m sure the Lead would turn people off. So for good cooking and a few facts you might not have known. Enjoy!

Jennifer Mueller

Out Now!!!!

Samburu Hills Visit Africa 1907 http://www.chippewapublishing.com/
Lord Dronovic From http://www.thedarkcastlelords.com/ebooks2.htm
For other titles see http://www.jennifermuellerbooks.com

3 comments:

Tess said...

Very cool, Jennifer. I enjoy reading about food through history (I have quite a few books on the topic.) Thanks so much for the link to yours :-)

Michelle Styles said...

Fish sauce was used like salt from research. Interestingly Mark Grant (Roman Cookery --ancient recipes for mordern kitchens ISBN 1897959397) has done some research on the number of liquamen amphora found and they are not as many as one might think. It would appear that it was an aspirational ingredient and used sparingly.

jennifer said...

And they say that many romans were probably loosing thier sense of taste due to the lead pipes carrying water. I've heard Worsteshire sauce as fairly close to what it was like. Even a sparing amount would be noticable in dishes that were lighter. In the end its all guessing what it might have tasted like.