Tag Archives: cooking

Roman Recipes and the Senses

By Erica Rowan

We do not have many recipes from the ancient world and certainly none presented in the user-friendly format found in today’s cookbooks with precise measurements, cooking times and images of the finished product. Some ancient recipes are found at the end of agrarian handbooks, like those produced by Cato the Elder (234-149 BC) (for more see Catherine Draycott’s post https://recipes.hypotheses.org/5005), while others are described as part of a philosophical dinner party (Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae). The most famous recipe book, and the one which most reconstructed Roman recipes are based, is Apicius’ De re coquinaria or On the subject of cooking. Compiled sometime during the 4th century AD and named after an infamous 1st century AD cook, it contains recipes for vegetables, pulses, meat, seafood and game. Ingredients are listed in the text along with rough instructions for the preparation and cooking of the dish (think instructions for the technical challenge in The Great British Bake Off). The lack of ingredient quantities suggests that it functioned as part coffee table book and part chef’s manual, whereby the cook already had a good understanding of ingredient combinations and quantities. In other words, it was not for the beginner home cook.

Despite a lack of precision and clarity in these surviving recipes, it is possible to gain a detailed understanding of the sensory experience involved in the preparation and consumption of these dishes. This is due to the survival of several pieces of Roman kitchen equipment and at times, the food remains themselves. At sites like Pompeii and Herculaneum (Italy), which were destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79, we not only have cooking pots, plates and serving dishes, but also the remains of the kitchens and dining rooms where the food was prepared and eaten.

So what was it like to make and eat Roman food? Let’s look at one of Apicius’ recipes in detail.

Lentils with mussels: take a clean pan, (put the lentils in and cook them). Put in a mortar pepper, cumin, coriander seed, mint, rue, pennyroyal, and pound them. Pour on vinegar, add honey, liquamen, and defrutum, flavour with vinegar. Empty the mortar into the pan. Pound cooked mussels, put them in and bring to heat; when it is simmering well, thicken. Pour green oil over it in the serving dish.

[Apicius, On the subject of cooking, 5.2.1, from Grocock and Grainger 2006: 209]

The first thing you may notice about this dish is the vast number of flavours and seasonings involved. In addition to the various herbs, the recipe also calls for liquamen, a fermented fish sauce similar to the Thai fish sauce Nam Pla, and defrutum, concentrated grape syrup made from boiled down grape juice. Roman dishes are notorious for their seemingly strange and startling mix of flavours. However, before we get to the taste, let’s start with sensory experience of preparing this dish.

Firstly, let’s assume that this dish is being prepared for a dinner party in a wealthy Roman household. If you were the one making the food you would have been a slave, working in a hot, small, smoky kitchen. Roman kitchens are readily identifiable by their large ceramic hearths. Cooking took place on the hearth; the space beneath is just for the storage of fuel, usually charcoal or wood. The lack of chimneys in Roman kitchens means that there was poor ventilation and the smell of the cooking food would have been quite strong. The small size of most kitchens, even in larger houses, meant that the room would have been hot, even in the winter.

At least two pieces of cooking equipment are required to make this recipe, a pan and a mortar. The mortar would have been a mortarium (image), a large shallow ceramic bowl with stone inclusions in the bottom to provide a rough grating surface. All the seasonings would have been ground by hand using a mortarium and wooden pestle. The pan (perhaps made of bronze) would have been placed on a metal or ceramic tripod with charcoal underneath. The varying materials of the mortarium, pestle and pan would have made the tactile experience quite dynamic. Once the dish was finished, depending upon the wealth of your owners, you would have poured the finished product onto a ceramic, bronze or silver platter. You’d then promptly move on to preparing another dish as Roman dinners usually consisted of several courses.

Now let’s shift gears and say you’re a guest at the dinner party and you have the opportunity to taste and smell this dish. The combination of flavours in this recipe, and particularly the mixture of the liquamen, defrutum, honey and vinegar would have given it a sweet and salty taste. In my experience, having made several Roman dishes, the flavour combination is strange but not jarring or unpleasant. Roman food tasted much more like modern Thai or Chinese cuisine than modern Italian with its frequent combination of sweet, sour, and salty. The black pepper in the dish, imported from India, would have provided a hint of wealth and exoticism as it was by far one of the most expensive and foreign seasonings you could use at this time. If you had grown up consuming a Roman diet then this dish would have smelled and tasted very normal to you. The herbs, in addition to appearing in numerous other Apician recipes, are also frequently mentioned by other ancient authors, suggesting that they formed an important part of the Roman diet. This importance is confirmed by the recovery of many of the herbs, and in particular coriander, at sites throughout the Roman Empire.

The military and merchants carried and imported these herbs to all the corners of the Empire, perhaps to evoke a taste of home. Some individuals native to the northern provinces, such as Gaul and Britain, adopted these seasonings into their local cuisines. In addition to probably enjoying the taste, they used them to display their wealth or allegiance to Rome.

In sum, there is much sensory information that can be gleaned from Roman recipes and the archaeological remains of food preparation and consumption. What is perhaps most striking is the vastly different interactions and experiences of those in the kitchen compared to those in the dining room!

Select bibliography

Grocock, C. W. and Grainger, S. 2006. Apicius: A Critical Edition with an Introduction and an English Translation of the Latin Recipe Text Apicius. Totnes: Prospect.

Livarda, A. 2011. ‘Spicing up life in northwestern Europe: exotic food plant imports in the Roman and medieval world.’ Veg Hist Archaeobot, 20(2): 143-164.

Livarda, A., 2018. Tastes in the Roman provinces: an archaeobotanical approach to socio-cultural change. In: K.C. Rudolph, ed. Taste and the Ancient Senses. London: Routledge. pp. 179-196.

Rowan, E., 2017. Bioarchaeological preservation and non-elite diet in the Bay of Naples: An analysis of the food remains from the Cardo V sewer at the Roman site of Herculaneum. Environmental Archaeology, 22(3), pp.318-336.

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Erica Rowan is a lecturer in Classical Archaeology at Royal Holloway, University of London. As a Roman archaeologist with a specialization in archaeobotany, her research focuses on Roman diet and consumption practices. She uses literary, archaeological, and archaeobotanical evidence to explore the way cultural tensions within Roman society were expressed, embedded, and resolved through the prevailing food culture.

 

Records and Reminiscences: Some Interesting Aspects of Chiquart’s Du fait de cuisine (1420)

By Sarah Peters Kernan

Sion/Sitten, Médiathèque Valais, S 103: Maître Chiquart, Du fait de cuisine, 1420, fol. 113r (http://www.e-codices.unifr.ch/en/list/one/mvs/cuisine).

With the holiday season behind me, I am already reminiscing about my family’s recent celebrations and thinking ahead to next year. I have gathered recipes I would like to try next year, made notes about recipes that worked (and those that didn’t), and listed the menus of the many meals my husband and I hosted for friends and family. When I starting thinking about appropriate topics for a Recipes Project post, I realized this was the perfect opportunity to consider the 1420 Savoyard cookbook, Du fait de cuisine. In it, Master Chiquart Amiczo, the chef of Amadeus VIII, Duke of Savoy, dictates seventy-eight recipes to a scribe, provides an extensive description of how to acquire food and provisions for days of feasting, and records a menu of one particular feast. In October 1403 Chiquart prepared two days of lavish feasts in honor of Mary of Burgundy. Although Amadeus VIII and Mary of Burgundy had been contracted in marriage since 1393, due to a number of political complications the bride had not left her Burgundian home. The feast celebrated her arrival at the Savoy court when she would join Amadeus VIII’s household as his wife.[1] Chiquart’s menu and notes on preparing for a feast describe a much grander event than any I might prepare during the holidays, but the intention is the same: describing a successful event so that one might remember it or even replicate it.

Despite being a very accessible medieval cookbook, Du fait de cuisine has had relatively little scholarly attention. This cookery exists in a single manuscript, held at the Médiathèque Valais in Sion, Switzerland (MS Supersaxo 103). While the manuscript has been digitized, Terence Scully has been the only scholar to devote significant attention to the book, producing a French edition and two English editions.[2] Du fait de cuisine is particularly interesting when considered among the larger corpus of contemporary cookbooks. While there are many similarities among the recipes, the surrounding text is remarkably different from most contemporary Continental and English cookbooks.

First among these differences is the amount of text and detail provided to the appointment of a kitchen for a feast. Folios 12r to 18v are devoted to this topic; Chiquart describes the necessary kitchen staff, how to order food from various purveyors, how much food to order, the vessels and equipment necessary for cooking, and the proper serving dishes. This section seems to be an attempt at describing the art of the kitchen, part of the aim of Du fait de cuisine.[3] The only other medieval cookery with such an extensive section on these aspects of the cooking process is Le Ménagier de Paris, produced in 1390s Paris for a wealthy administrative, but not noble, household. [For  more on the Ménagier de Paris, see my previous Recipes Project post on “A November Feast.”]

 Du fait de cuisine stands apart from contemporary texts in the level of detail included in the recipes. Many fit on a single folio, but others span up to eight folios. Other cookbooks describing lavish entremets, like the Viandier of Taillevent pale in comparison to the description of the final products. Chiquart’s creations of performative, edible art come alive on the page; even without illustrations, it is easy to imagine his castle with four lighted towers defended by various soldiers. Characters breathing fire are part of the creation, as well as a Fountain of Love spouting rosewater and mulled wine. Roasted and redressed peacocks and hedgehogs also make an appearance. As if this weren’t enough, Chiquart’s glorious entremets includes a faux sea filled with ships attacking the aforementioned castle. The entremet is naturally accompanied by a small group of musicians.[4] Each aspect is described in such a manner that it can be replicated, provided that the cook has some knowledge of creating pastry and sugar and meat pastes which constituted the basis of construction.

Another difference is a variety of brief texts that Chiquart includes after the culinary recipes. This includes a verse the Chiquart composed to honor Amadeus VIII and his family on fols. 107v to 109r and several other types of brief writings on the final nine folios. These are mainly non-culinary writings, including a verse against the plague, a note on Virgil’s Georgics, and several aphorisms. It is not unusual to find such an array of writings alongside cookery books in late medieval manuscripts, especially in English manuscripts. Du fait de cuisine is unique in its inclusion of these items within the cookbook itself, seemingly at the request of the author, self-described as lacking learning and wit (“n’ay grand science ne sens”).[5] I find these elements one of the most intriguing of the cookery and deserving of much more exploration.

The combined coat of arms of Amadeus VIII and Mary of Burgundy. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Français 18982, fol. 9v. (http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b8528579f/f20.item.zoom)

A final difference is the menu of the feast in honor of Mary of Burgundy.[6] Many medieval cookbooks provide generic menu suggestions or menus for unspecified events, and many non-culinary records provide menus for historically important feasts. However, relatively few cookbooks include menus for actual events.[7] Amadeus VIII and Mary of Burgundy’s wedding feast was certainly a magnificent affair and a significant event in the House of Savoy. Mary was the eighth child of Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, and Margaret III. Philip the Bold had arranged Mary’s marriage to solidify a political alliance to Savoy in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War. The bride was only seven when her marriage was contracted; she would not arrive at the Savoy court for another ten years. While the alliance was only initially important to the House of Burgundy, the Savoy court benefitted greatly from this alliance. Amadeus VIII needed to welcome his bride to Savoy with all the opulence he could muster. His chef was tasked with preparing two days of lavish feasting to accomplish the goals of proving his wealth and status to his new bride and her family.

The fact that Chiquart recorded an account of the wedding feast seventeen years after the event is quite interesting; this is the only specific event the author describes. While Chiquart was evidently asked by Amadeus VIII to write the cookbook as a compendium of culinary knowledge, Chiquart does not provide any reason for recording the wedding events at the end of the cookbook.[8] The menu is also written after what seems to be the original ending, the poem glorifying and thanking Chiquart’s employing household. I wonder if it was associated with the birth of Amadeus and Mary’s ninth and final child in 1420; perhaps the pregnancy or birth was particularly difficult, and Chiquart attempted to garner favor with his lord by crafting a glorious recollection of Mary’s arrival in Savoy after his original culinary text was complete. However, my guess is merely that, as the text does not indicate a specific intent.

 Du fait de cuisine is an imaginative and detailed record of culinary information. There is much to explore in its similarities to and differences from other contemporary texts. For the moment, however, I take heart that some of my post-holiday recordkeeping habits are a bit like Master Chiquart’s.

NOTES

[1] Richard Vaughan, Philip the Bold: The Formation of the Burgundian State (Reprint, Boydell Press, 2002), 89.

[2] Terence Scully, “Du fait de cuisine,” Vallesia 40 (1985): 103–231; Chiquart’s On Cookery: A Fifteenth-Century Savoyard Culinary Treatise (P. Lang, 1986); and Du fait de cuisine / On Cookery of Master Chiquart (1420): “Aucune science de l’art de cuysinerie et de cuisine” (ACMRS, 2010). Another French edition was also published: Florence Bouas and Frédéric Vivas, eds., Du fait de cuisine: Traité de gastronomie médiévale de Maître Chiquart (Actes Sud, 2008).

[3] Sion, Switzerland, Médiathèque Valais, MS Supersaxo 103, fol. 11r.

[4] S 103, fols. 30r–33r.

[5] S 103, fol. 108v.

[6] S 103, 111v–114v.

[7] A couple exceptions are the Ménagier de Paris (multiple manuscript copies) and London, British Library, MS Harley 279.

[8] S 103, fols. 11v–12r.

Cooking (Over an Open Fire) In Class

 By Ken Albala

Hearth Cooking.  Photo courtesy of Ken Albala.
Hearth Cooking. Photo courtesy of Ken Albala.

I often use recipes in various classes as primary documents, to examine social issues and gender roles, to explore the meaning of various ingredients and techniques and their movement around the globe, and to discuss anything the text might yield as a record of the past. Cooking with these recipes is a little more complicated. Apart from the lack of kitchens, my food history class is usually about 60 students, and feeding them is just impractical. But I still really want students to get a sense of what historic food tasted like, especially when cooked on an open fire using period implements. In graduate classes I have had students cook in groups at home and we connect via video conferencing so everyone at least gets to discuss the historic recipes as they cook them. It’s much more satisfying to bring a smaller class to my home so we can not only get our hands dirty before the hearth, but get a physical sense of what cooking was like in the past, and of course taste the food to get a direct idea of people’s taste preferences.

For one gathering of history majors a few years ago I chose to cook from the 16th century Livre fort excellent de cuysine, a cookbook I had recently translated with Tim Tomasik, but neither of us had tested most of the recipes. So there was not only an element of uncertainty, but even I could only guess how the recipes would taste in the end.

I had some students chop pork by hand and stuff intestines to make cervelat sausages. Some used the wood-fired oven to bake, others cooked a rabbit with bacon at the hearth in a clay pipkin. I think the biggest hit was an opulent pie made with sole, rich with spices, dripping with butter and verjuice. There was also a “hochepot” stew made with chicken, dried fruit and a lot of sugar. A dish of frumenty, which is whole wheat berries and “crespes” (which are like funnel cakes) rounded out the menu. The only rule was to stick as closely as possible to the original early modern recipes, which thankfully didn’t include many measurements, so there was a good deal of leeway.

Clay Pipkin.  Photo courtesy of Ken Albala.
Clay Pipkin. Photo courtesy of Ken Albala.

Everything turned out to be not only good, but excellent, as I knew it would if we had stuck to the directions. More revealingly, dishes that the students fully expected to dislike were devoured. Flavors they thought would clash, like the sugar in the stew, turned out to be very appealing. The riot of spices reminded some of Indian food. Most importantly, rather than hearing a description of these flavor combinations, students got to experience them first-hand. It was much like hearing music played on period instruments or seeing a 500-year-old painting up close. History can and should be made palpable and cooking is one of the most thrilling ways it can be done, as long as you start with a lesson in fire safety!

Ken Albala teaches food history at the University of the Pacific in Stockton California and is Director of the Food Studies Masters Program in San Francisco.

Snowballs: Intermixing Gentility and Frugality in Nineteenth Century Baking

By Rachel A. Snell

Carolina Snow Ball, https://savoringthepast.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/001snowball.jpg
Carolina Snow Ball, https://savoringthepast.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/001snowball.jpg

For most readers, snowballs likely conjure memories of childhood winter games or, perhaps, the small, rounded cookies covered with shaved coconut or powdered sugar often prepared around the winter holidays. Of course, there is also the Sno Ball snack cake (cream-filled chocolate cakes covered with marshmallow frosting and pink coconut flakes), first introduced to American supermarkets in 1947.[1] The association between snowball named treats and coconut is a decidedly mid-twentieth century convention, likely due to the increased affordability, availability, and accessibility (dehydrated flakes) of this tropical fruit. In the nineteenth century, snowballs took a decidedly different form depending on the region where they were produced, revealing the intermixing of gentility and frugality that occurred in rural or peripheral areas.

My research suggests there were several versions of Snowballs circulating within the Anglo-American world during the first half of the nineteenth century. These versions of Snowballs were essentially apple dumplings served with a sauce or icing. One particularly sumptuous version consisted of whole apples, cored and filled with orange or quince marmalade, covered in pastry and baked. Once removed from the oven, the Snowballs were covered in icing and set near the fire to harden.[2] This description of Snowballs comes from Colin Mackenzie’s Five Thousand Receipts, first published in England in 1823 with several expanded American editions between 1829-1860 that were readily available throughout North America. The comparative extravagance of this recipe is unsurprisingly since Mackenzie’s recipes appear to be aimed at a middle-class or higher audience with many elaborate and costly recipes.

 

Snow Balls, Colin Mackenzie’s Five Thousand Receipts (p. 182).
Snow Balls, Colin Mackenzie’s Five Thousand Receipts (p. 182).

The American variation on this dish, appearing in several sources such as an entry for Snowballs in Caroline Hayward’s manuscript recipe collection and a clipping pasted into an edition of Catharine Beecher’s Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book, is a dish consisting of peeled and cored apples, flavored with lemon peel, cinnamon, and cloves, and tightly wrapped in cooked rice. Hayward’s recipe instructs the cook to tie each apple “up in a cloth like dumplings.”[3] The finished product would resemble Mackenzie’s Snowballs, but with rice in the place of pastry. These recipes are sometimes labeled Carolina Snow Balls, a reference to the use of rice. Since this version did not require the butter and refined wheat flour required for pastry or the costly marmalade, it may have been more economical to produce for family suppers or those with limited means.

Caroline Hayward Recipe Book, 1815-1834, Massachusetts Historical Society.
Caroline Hayward Recipe Book, 1815-1834, Massachusetts Historical Society.

The Frugal Housewife’s Manual, printed in Toronto in 1840, presents a related, but decidedly unusual version of Snowballs. A.B., the anonymous author of the Manual, undoubtedly had access to Mackenzie’s Snowballs recipe. Five Thousand Receipts was a major source for the Manual, nearly the entire cake section and many of the pudding recipes were adapted or copied from Mackenzie. Unlike the American versions, A.B. omitted the apples entirely. An unusual choice since apples would have been readily available in the Lake Ontario region. This incredibly simple recipe consists of balls of boiled rice, sifted with loaf sugar and served with “wine sauce is best with them, but butter and sugar with them is very good if they are kept warm.”[4] It is easy to imagine the source of the name; these balls of boiled rice covered with sugar glistening in the candlelight likely bore a striking resemblance to the snowballs manufactured by local children. It would be a very pretty dish and an economical one as well.

Snowballs FHM 1
Snowballs, The Frugal Housewife’s Manual (p. 9-10)
Snowballs, The Frugal Housewife’s Manual (p. 9-10)
Snowballs, The Frugal Housewife’s Manual (p. 9-10)

A.B.’s Snowballs were likely adapted to make the recipe better suited to regional cooking and entertaining habits. Her recipe for Floating Island, a popular nineteenth-century dish of French origin consisting of meringue floating on vanilla custard, has likewise been significantly altered to both simplify and economize the recipe. A.B. suggested serving her recipes for Floating Island and Snowballs together, which would produce a dramatic effect, Floating Island “is a very ornamental dish by candle-light, together with a dish of snowballs on the opposite part of the table; in exchange for a snowball you get a bit of floating island.”[5] Allowing the housewife to impress her guests with manageable effort. Thus, the recipe for Snowballs was tempered with frugality from the sumptuous and elaborate dish presented by Mackenzie, to the American variation that substituted cheap and plentiful rice, and finally A.B.’s version, which avoided expensive ingredients and time-consuming labor to produce a dish pleasing to both the eyes and the taste buds.

In this way, The Frugal Housewife’s Manual reveals a transition in regional foodways within the Ontario Lake region. At mid-century, recipe collecting was shifting from the practical and frugal recipes associated with subsistence farming in a frontier region to the recipes associated with status and gentility that signal established agriculture and the beginning of middle-class sensibilities about dining and entertaining. Recipe collections like The Frugal Housewife’s Manual allowed women to balance frugality and gentility in their cooking and entertaining. An example of the hybrid sociability identified by Catherine E. Kelly, A.B. and her community sought to imitate urban, middle-class social mores within the constraints of agricultural work rhythms and rural work-based sociability. For these women, gentility intermixed with frugality was the answer. While A.B. presents recipes that rely on imported luxuries (liquors, wine, citrus fruits, raisins, currants, and spices) and commercial products (saleratus, milled wheat flour, loaf sugar) that together suggest a comfortable family budget, economy is still the underlying theme. A.B. frequently notes recipes that are inexpensive to prepare or provides hints for preparing dishes less expensively, such as substituting or omitting rare and costly ingredients. She likely would have echoed Lydia Child’s advice to housekeepers to “prove, by the exertion of ingenuity and economy, that neatness, good taste, and gentility, are attainable without great expense.”[6]

Note: For those interested in attempting to make Snowballs in their own kitchens, Kevin Carter has an excellent post at Savoring the Past with instructions to make two versions and a discussion of rice’s connection to the American slave system.

[1] And we cannot forget the Baltimore Snowball, an iconic concoction of shaved ice and sweet syrup, often topped with marshmallow cream. More information about this local treat is available here.

[2] Colin Mackenzie, Five Thousand Receipts in all the useful and domestic arts (Philadelphia: James Kay, Jun. & Co., 1831), 182.

[3] Caroline Hayward Recipe Book, 1815-1834, Joseph H. Hayward Family Papers, Ms. N-2368. Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA 02215.

[4] A.B. of Grimsby, The Frugal Housewife’s Manual: Containing a Number of Useful Receipts Carefully Selected, and Well Adapted to the Use of Families in General (Toronto, Ont.: J.H. Lawrence, 1840), 10.

[5] A.B., The Frugal Housewife’s Manual, 9.

[6] Mrs. (Lydia Maria) Child, The American Frugal Housewife, Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy (New York: Samuel S. and William Wood, 1838), 6; Catherine E. Kelly, “‘Well Bred Country People’: Sociability, Social Networks, and the Creation of a Provincial Middle Class, 1820-1860” Journal of the Early Republic 19, no. 3 (1999), 451-479.