I am a lecturer in Ancient History at Cardiff University (United Kingdom). My research focuses on the history of Greek and Roman pharmacology and botany, with a special emphasis on gender. I have my personal blog, Concocting History, where I discuss more recipes and at times experiment with ancient concoctions: www.ancientrecipes.wordpress.com
When Lisa Smith, Elaine Leong and Amanda Herbert invited me to join the editorial team of The Recipes Project in the Autumn of 2014, I felt elated. I was so happy to join what I knew would be a supportive team of editors. My contribution was to solicit posts from scholars working on ‘ancient’ material, and I started in my editorial role with a series on Greek and Roman Recipes in January 2015. Since then, we have had a post on pre-1500 recipes almost every month, which is extremely pleasing.
Before I joined the editorial team, I had been blogging for The Recipes Project for two years. I wrote my first post for TRP while on maternity leave with my second son, G. That leave, which blissfully lasted an entire year, was a turning point in my career. I had been extremely lucky to gain an open-ended lectureship in Ancient History at Cardiff University, but I was finding it increasingly difficult to juggle my job with motherhood, that is, with one son, T. As is often the case, my research was suffering: students – quite rightfully – come first for a lecturer. How was I going to cope with a second child? How would I ever find time to write articles, let alone books (gasps)?
Blogging was the solution. It quite simply saved my research career. I started blogging on my own blog, Concocting History, and The Recipes Project around the same time, at the beginning of 2013. With blogging, I discovered that I could take a few ancient recipes and write an entertaining (well, at least I hope) piece in a couple of hours. It was all so different from ‘traditional’ academic writing, where it can take years for an article to see the light of day. Of course, blogging cannot entirely replace that slow process of maturation that happens when writing academic articles, but it can certainly complement it. And I also discovered that I could apply the discipline that I had learnt from blogging, that of writing a short piece of research in a given amount of time, to article and book writing. Gone were the leisurely days I could devote to research – at least for the foreseeable future – but I could now write faster and in a more targeted way.
The benefits of blogging do not end there. The wonderful TRP community allowed me to meet so many new people, some virtually, others in person, and to engage with their ideas and material. One of my favourite way of blogging is to respond to another post. Thus, I particularly enjoyed responding to Jennifer Park’s post on curdled milk in the breast. I was learning to open up my horizons and become more adventurous.
Scholars working on recipes know perhaps better than most that there is no recipe for happiness. But we also know that working with historical recipes can bring a great deal of pleasure. To do so in the supportive environment of The Recipes Project, one that is based on collaboration and encouragement, is particularly joyful. Do join us!
In September 2016, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 500 posts in our archives and over 120 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.)
But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.
This month, with the first signs of spring here in the UK, I want to share a floral-themed post by Colleen Kennedy. In this piece from August 2013, Colleen discussed early modern uses of violets in confectionery and perfumery. I am particularly touched by Renaissance descriptions of the scent of violet as melancholy. Unlike overpowering floral scents, that of violet strikes a softer, perhaps sadder, chord.
The violet (Viola odorata) is cited in several herbals and many recipe books as a particularly sweet scented, fragrant flower. Herbals, such as Culpeper’s, describe the violet as a “cold and moist” plant, with many medicinal qualities. It is used as a laxative, and as a treatment of syphilis and uterine complaints; it counterbalances choleric humors, is good for many lung ailments, eases headaches and sleeplessness, and is a general panacea.
Violets are also commonly used in recipes, either as “cakes of violet,” “candied violets,” “conserve of violets,” or “syrup of violets,” as flavoring for metheglins (meads), and to add aromatic qualities to vinegars and other recipes:
To Make Syrup of Flowers:
Take of Violet flowers fresh and pickt, a pound, clear water boiling one quart, shut them up close together in a new glazed pot a whole day, then press them hard out, and in two pound of the Liquor, dissolve four pound and three ounces of white Sugar, take away the scum, and so make it into a Syrup without boiling. (Woolley 6)
Any of Hannah Woolley’s recipe books are a good place to begin to study early modern recipes utilizing violet flowers. Violet’s pleasant odor is also the source of its medicinal powers and cause for its common domestic usage.
So, what does the violet smell like? English, alas, lacks a smell-vocabulary, and violet is repeatedly only listed as “sweet” or “fragrant.” Avery Gilbert considers the two distinct “voices” available to modern perfume makers: “Ingredient Voice” (the actual list of and proportions of ingredients) and “Imagery Voice” (“atmospherics, the drama of seduction, passion, and mystery”) (15). It is in that latter voice that we move closer to the more detailed early modern accounts of the aroma of violet.
For example, modern perfume blogger Normand Cardella, in his review of Yves Saint Laurent’s Paris, muses on the smell of violet: “So… what does a violet note smell like? Well… it’s powdery, a little sweet and decidedly sad. Musically, a violet note in perfume would be a minor chord.”
Likewise, for early modern writers, the violet is also a sad and musical aroma. Francis Bacon, in his essay “Of Gardens” (1625), links pleasurable odors and sounds (and much earlier than our modern perfumers): “And because the breath of flowers is far sweeter in the air (where it comes and goes like the warbling of music) than in the hand, therefore nothing is more fit for that delight than to know what be the flowers and plants that do best perfume the air”. Violet is his favorite perfumed flower: “that which above all others yields the sweetest smell in the air is the violet”.
The violet’s “imagery voice” is most fully articulated in Duke Orsino’s opening lines of Twelfth Night:
“If music be the food of love, play on.
Give me excess of it that, surfeiting
The appetite may sicken and so die.
That strain again, it had a dying fall.
O, it came so o’er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour. Enough, no more.
‘Tis not so sweet as it was before.” (1.1.1-8)
Much of the language here that applies to music or love is equally applicable to the sensation of smelling violets, especially violet’s unique chemical compound and its effect on the sense of smell. As Diane Ackerman describes: “Violets contain ionine, which short-circuits our sense of smell. The flower continues to exude its fragrance, but we lose the ability to smell it. Wait a minute or two, and its smell will blare again. Then it will fade again, and so on.”
The discovery of its isomer ketones did not occur until the late nineteenth century, yet, its affects were all very real experiences for early modern writers, such as Shakespeare, who attempt to distil and capture the essence of violet in distinctly beautiful terms, with the violet “stealing and giving odours.”
The “dying fall” of Orsino’s sad tune is like the melancholy aspects of the violet, evoking impermanence, transience, and death. Even Orsino’s command to stop the music can also describe the anesthetic properties of ionine. As Orsino complains though, the scent, the song, the sensations, and so on is “not so sweet as it was before.”
Orsino’s very mind, in its melancholic state, is affected by sweet airs—whether sad songs or fragrant violets. As the early modern brain was believed to be acutely affected by odors, and the violet emits a particularly sweet and sad aroma, the botanist and herbalist John Gerard’s regard for the violet’s olfactive and affective properties should not be surprising:
[Violets] haue a great prerogative aboue others, not onely because the minde conceiveth a certaine pleasure and recreation by smelling and handling of those most odoriferous flours, but also for that very many by these Violets receive ornament and comely grace …And the recreation of the minde which is taken hereby, cannot be but very good and honest: for they admonish and stir up a man to that which is comely and honest… do bring to a liberall and gentle manly minde, the remembrance of honestie, comelinesse, and all kindes of vertues. (Chapter 312: “Of Violets” 849-850)
Gerard nicely summarizes the memorable, virtuous, affective, symbolic, and olfactive properties of the violet that we have been sniffing out in this brief essay.
References (in order of appearance)
Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (London: Arcturus, 2009).
Hannah Woolley, The Accomplish’d lady’s delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery containing I. the art of preserving and candying fruits & flowers (London: Printed for B. Harris, and are to be sold at his shop, 1675).
Rebecca Laroche, with Steven Turner, “Robert Boyle, Hannah Woolley, and Syrup of Violets”, Notes and Queries 58 (2011): 390-91.
Avery Gilbert, What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life (New York: Crown Publishers, 2008).
The Norton Shakespeare Based on The Oxford Edition, second edition, Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean Howard, and Katherine Eisaman Maus (New York, 2008).
Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses (New York: Vintage Books, 1990).
Rebecca Laroche, “Ophelia’s Plants and the Death of Violets”, in L. Bruckner and D. Brayton, eds. Ecocritical Shakespeare (Ashgate, 2011).
Jessica Kerr, Shakespeare’s Flowers (Boulder: Johnson Books, 1969).
Richard Palmer, “In Bad Odour: Smell and its Significance in Medicine from Antiquity to the Seventeenth Century”, Medicine and the Five Senses, eds. W.F. Bynum and Roy Porter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
John Gerard, The Herball or Generall historie of plantes, 2nd ed. (London, 1633).
On a chilly November afternoon, we gathered in a student lounge to grind cocoa nibs in a borrowed molcajete and read early modern recipes with a class of undergraduate students. Inspired by previous hands-on exercises, we asked students thinking about indigenous cultures in the seventeenth-century Atlantic to consider recipes as a kind of evidence. 
This pedagogical exercise took place at Wesleyan University in Fall 2016, in John’s course entitled “Pirates, Puritans, and Pequots: Literatures of the Early English Atlantic,” which brought together the literary archives of the English Renaissance and the first century of English expansion westward into the Atlantic. The course’s final two sections dwelt extensively on Anglo-indigenous and Anglo-African contact, real and imagined, in the early Atlantic. In these units, students engaged with a recent wave of scholarship that has attempted to expand our sense of the colonial archive. Scholars like Walter Mignolo, Elizabeth Hill Boone, and Birgit Rasmussen have shown the limitations of approaches to the question of early modern indigenous history that focus solely on texts produced by Europeans; Saidiya Hartman, in the slightly different context of transatlantic slavery, has made a related point about the archive. One way around this problem—that of the European near-monopoly on textual production and the ties between textual production and the often violent action of colonial development—is to turn to the techniques of material history, thinking through how the circulation of objects and technologies worked in the newly global economies of the seventeenth-century. Attending to these stories helps expand our ideas about agency and cultural contact. This is perhaps clearest in the history of food and, particularly, the wide-ranging influence that indigenous technologies and tastes relating to tobacco and chocolate had in the period, as Marcy Norton’s work has demonstrated. Turning to the history of food, then, has the potential to show students a more nuanced story about cultural contact that uncovers the agency and influence that indigenous cultures exerted back across the Atlantic.
We had the idea of bringing these scholarly insights about Anglo-indigenous contact to the classroom by tracing food history through English recipe books: unruly documents rich with medicinal, culinary, and other household materials such as accounts and records of births and deaths. On the one hand, these books provide rich material about places, people, ingredients, and practices unlike other archives. On the other hand, they are difficult to read, classify, and often mute on the conditions of their making and aspirations of their makers. Among the many things recipe books can show us about food history, these manuscripts bear the record of indigenous influence in Europe.
Rebeckah Winche’s hot chocolate is a case study in rendering a familiar food strange.  Our recipe workshop had two distinct parts: transcription and cooking. Transcribing a few recipes, including Winche’s receipt for “Chacolet,” introduced students to using recipe books as sources and to reading secretary and italic handwriting. The recipe starts with roasted and ground cocoa beans. It is heavily spiced with vanilla, cinnamon, and chili pepper and sweetened with sugar. The instructions advise you to form your chacolet mix into cakes and let them cure for three months before using. This is a delectable and portable preparation in its original form. We didn’t wait three months. Following the practices Marissa developed in the Cooking in the Archives project, we asked students to identify the key ingredients and practices in Winche’s recipe. Then we distributed three different updated versions of the original recipe. One group started with roasted cocao beans and ground them by hand in a molcajete. Another used cocoa powder. We taste-tested the different mixes, all possible modernizations of Winche’s original recipe.
Students had prepared for the workshop by reading Marcy Norton’s “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics,” and this was the starting point for our discussion. As we moved through the ingredients and Marissa spoke about them in turn, students were also struck—as we had hoped they would be—by the vast global trade networks embodied in a single recipe. They were also, once the final product was assembled, interested in the strangeness of the hot chocolate—both the graininess of the hand-ground nibs and the unfamiliar spiciness added by the chili pepper—helping them to see the way that indigenous chocolate-making tastes were influencing even English recipe keepers like Winche living in London and Buckinghamshire. This exercise, paired with a later digital material history project that examined the many objects found in Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, produced in the contested Anglo-Algonquian Massachusetts borderlands around the same time, helped students to see the way that material history can reveal new stories about cultural contact in the early modern world.
A while ago, Professor Helen King (Open University) offered Dr Patty Baker (University of Kent) and me the opportunity to be involved in an exciting project: a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) on the topic of Health and Wellbeing in the Ancient World. We had previously worked together on a pedagogical project (an article on the difficulty of teaching sensitive topics such as the history of abortion), and were prepared for a new collaborative challenge.
Several months down the line, the MOOC is in the final stages of writing. We chose to organise our material in the ‘head-to-toe’ order, which is the structure so often adopted in Greek and Roman medical texts. We cover a huge variety of themes and topics, in what we hope will be an original and informative introduction to ancient medicine.
I was particularly keen to introduce as many recipes as possible into the MOOC material. We did so both in written sections and in video ones. For the film sections, I chose to recreate two ancient recipes: that of a collyrium (an eye remedy) found in Galen’s pharmacological writings and an oxygarum (a recipe supposed to aid digestion) found in Apicius‘ cookery collection.
The wonderful National Roman Legion Museum at Caerleon (South Wales) was kind enough to host the filming. They provided us with authentic looking Roman pots to put all the ingredients in, as well as a costume – complete with winged-phallus amulet – for me to wear. I believe being in costume greatly helped me feel slightly less nervous.
For nervous, I certainly was. This was only my second experience of filming: the first had taken place a couple of days before, at the Wellcome Library, where we filmed a piece on manuscript herbals. I had not quite realised that filming a cookery piece usually involves several cameras, as multiple takes are not possible (because ingredients are expensive). I therefore had to pretend to be natural in front of the producer (Lizzy Jones) and three cameramen. Let’s just say that I can’t see an alternative career for me as a TV chef…
We started with the collyrium:
White collyrium, for a persistent flow of tears and other afflictions; it is called ‘delicate’: calamine, 16 drachms; white lead, 8 drachms; starch, 4 drachms; gum, 4 drachms; tragacanth gum, 4 drachms; opium, 2 drachms. Take up with rain water. Use with egg. Galen, Compositions of Medicines according to Places 4.8, 12.757 Kühn
Of course, I could use neither white lead nor opium, which are dangerous substances. I substituted the former with zinc, and the latter with a white powder.
As someone who has experience recreating ancient recipes, I knew exactly what to expect: the ingredients mixed together with water would take on a consistency similar to a very thick shaving foam. But, while photos can illustrate this point, they can’t do so as powerfully as a film.
Like so many ancient eye-remedy recipes, this one omits to state that the preparation has to be left to dry, a process which I discovered takes at least 24 hours… Fortunately, I had tried this at home a few days before the filming! Once the preparation is dried, it can be crumbled, and a small amount is then applied to the eye. But to what part of the eye, and how exactly? I knew that the part of the egg to use is the white (I can now add ‘can separate an egg in a highly stressful situation’ to my CV), but I did not know whether to dip my finger in the crumbled remedy first and the egg second, or vice versa. Helen King and I had a quick chat, and decided that the egg came first!
The second recipe I recreated is named after its main ingredient, garum, the famous Roman sauce made with fermented fish. A purist would have prepared some garum in advance, but I simply went to the supermarket to buy some Nam Pla, also known as Thai fish sauce:
Another oxygarum, for digestion: 1 ounce each of pepper, parsley, caraway, lovage; mix with honey. When done add garum and vinegar. Apicius, De re coquinaria 1.37
Preparing that recipe was very simple. Instead of using an ounce (a relatively large amount), I used a spoonful of each ingredient. I confidently announced to the camera that Roman medicine was ‘all about proportions’ merrily throwing spoonfuls of ingredients into a mortar. I failed to notice that I had been rather heavy handed with the pepper.
Of course, the crew insisted that I should try some of my wonderful aid to digestion. I obliged – the things that one does! The preparation tasted surprisingly sweet, until – that is – the pepper kicked in. I am sure my face pulling will be much appreciated by the MOOC learners!
I was left with a fishy, fiery taste in the mouth for several hours. Perhaps the Romans were wired differently from me, but I suffered from heartburn for the entire afternoon.