Sunday, November 18, 2018

Eat wisey-lamb in western Europe

      The rise of the Roman Empire intensified the process of transhumesence that had been going on for very many centuries.  Sheep, after all, had been brought to Britain sometime around 4000 BCE, and the Romans didn’t move in and decide to call the place their own until a good three thousand years later.  What made a difference was the Roman emphasis on increasing production and trade to the point where surplus goods (in this case wool) would enter into a trading system that would ultimately benefit the economy of the Empire.      The original sheep brought by pre Iron Age nomads were quite different from how we envision sheep.  For one thing, they look very much like goats (a trait some strains of sheep never entirely lost) and tend to move rapidly.  They are much more intelligent, and indpendent enough to run at and attack a sheep dog when angered.  The Romans tended to prefer their sheep (and colonies) to be more docile and, frankly, stupid- which is what happened through selective breeding of sheep.  They became larger, fatter, and easier to handle, with more luxurious fleece.  The original sheep breed now can only be found on St. Kilda, off the coast of Scotland.  It is an island uninhabited by people, a fact the sheep must find inordinate relief in.     What the neolithic pastoralists began, was simply built upon and enlarged by the Romans.  Spain, Gaul and Central Europe all developed sheep production that went far beyond subsistance needs and fueled a hefty wool industry back in Rome.  But the thing about empires is that they fall apart.  Western Rome went into a military and financial tailspin from which it could not recover.  This did not mean that sheep production reverted to a pre Roman susbsistance level, but it did slow markets down considerably.    We know relatively little about the sheep eating patterns of early Celtic peoples, nor of the Anglo Saxons, and even less about the Vikings, save that they did eat them, and that the meat was probably smoked over a fire.  This mutton came to the table late in the sheep’s life, after it had given up many seasons worth of fleece and milk.  The meat was then probably boiled in stews, or roasted, but there was little in the way of savory spices that grace cooking in the Levant.  There is some indication in the Norse sagas that the feasts of their gods featured a roasted sheep’s head, a delicacy prized by Turkic cultures.
     In Eastern Europe, Christian Byzantium held sway, and became a vast Empire on its own.  As we have seen, Christian iconography made extensive use of the sheep and shephard.  For the Greek speaking Romans of the east, the new religion spoke in a metaphor readily comprehended.  It was no accident that both Passover and Easter occur at the same time sheep are giving birth, which means lamb will be on the table.  Roast lamb readily became a central ritual holiday meal not only for Jews, but for the adherents of Christianity.  By the seventh century, the Pope was regularly blessing flocks of sheep driven past the Papal palaces prior to Easter.
     Anthimus tells us that roasted lamb was much enjoyed in southern Gaul during the sixth century.  Even mutton, he concedes, is fine to eat, but requires a bit of attention in the cooking, as when it is cooked near a fire, the outer portions are burned, but the inside remains rare.  Rather, it should be slow cooked for a long time over a slow fire.  Roasted lamb is to be basted with a mixture of salt and red wine.  This was done with a feather, as it had been done since Roman times (and quite probably since roasting meats had been basted.)  Although he does not mention it, the lamb Anthimus was familiar with what became a prized dinner morsel, in that the sheep of Languedoc were often pastured in salty marshes near the sea from which their flesh acquired a specific and delicious tang. 
     Hildegard von Bingen heartily approves of mutton (or lamb- she makes no distinctions.) and finds it of a cold nature, but good for people in whatever state of health to eat.  She notes what will be the primary cycle of eating sheep in Europe.  From spring through summer, sheep is the primary meat, then from autumn into winter, one eats pork and beef.  A cycle that will remain in place throughout period and well into the modern world, that is, when things go relatively well.  When they stop going well, then the possibility of famine exists.  She also believes that wearing wool, as opposed to the fur of any other animal checks human vices such as lust and pride, and keeps them free of disease.  She must have found an uncommonly fine wool dealer, for I can think of no one else who has made such an extravagant claim.
      English wool was a prized commodity for the growing textile industry in Flanders.  Demand meant more sheep, more sheep in turn meant more lamb and mutton on the table.  Yet there seems to have been less enthusiasm for this meat than there was beef.  This became particularly true after the Black Death period, when farming methods and husbandry of cattle improved.  It is not that mutton and lamb were not being consumed regularly, they were.  But reviewing period cook books that center on Northern European feasts leaves one with the impression that lamb and mutton were perhaps more of an everyday dish and other meats were given more special treatment.  Mutton might be stewed along with onion, wine, vinegar or verjuice, salt, salt pepper and cinnamon.   Or the broth might consist of ale and mustard.  The delicious and wide sweep of spices so prevalent in Arabic cooking is missing here.       One particular variation in cooking sheep comes to us in the form of haggis, which people think of as a quintessential Scottish dish, devised somewhere in the mid 1400s.  There is little reason to think of it that way at all.  The method of cooking organ meat (liver, lungs, and lights, er, the eyes) along with oats, barley, or some other grain, garlic, onion, and whatever else one might have at hand in a stomach was old when Roman cooks were preparing it.       The practice of eating tripe is much less common now than it was for our ancestors, and while it may be said that necessity sharpens the appetite, no one who has eaten a hot
dog need turn their noses up at these dishes, as they derive from use of intestine and gut, and often some other items one might not necessarily want to know about.  The haggis of the poor obviously contained less than choice goods.  But we find the same dish also made by filling the sheep stomach with roasted chicken and pork, cheese, spices  (pepper and saffron are recommended), grated dried bread, and eggs.  These are all ground together.  Sometimes milk or cream is added.  This is then boiled.
     This was not the case in Southern Europe.  Italian dishes give lamb and mutton a little more of the lavish attention we have seen in Arabic cooking.  These include lamb cooked in sealed clay pots, a carry over from pre-Roman times.   By the mid 1300’s the number of sheep driven to market in the city of Florence was twice that of pork. 
     One notable southern French dish is cassoulet.  Its name derives from the earthenware container it is baked in.  Cassoulet contains white haricot beans, and we have now exhausted all the points people agree on.  Cassoulet may contain lamb, which is a common denominator among most partisans of this food, but also duck, if not duck, then duck confit, or goose fat must be present.  Or perhaps pork.  Or else beef supplements the lamb.  Sometimes sausage is present, while others deny that sausage has any place in this dish.   Does it contain carrots or turnips?  And so on.      The origin of cassoulet is also filled with contention.  Was it first devised as provisions to hold off a long siege of Carcassonne by Edward, the Black Prince?  That would place it around 1335.  Critics of this idea point out that the white beans of cassoulet were not to be found in France until popularized by Catherine de Medici (1547 at the earliest), while others contend that the stew is hardly any mystery as to its origins. It is the bastard child of Arabic cookery, adding local ingredients to supplement the original idea.  This notion is supported by the presence of Arabs in Languedoc from the eighth century on, and of all theories, it seems the most reasonable.  What seems unassailable about cassoulet is the profound satisfaction one derives from it.  It is quintessential farm cookery, carrying with it all the substantiality one could wish from a stew, and marrying it to a complex bouquet of flavor.
    Platina remarks on the variety of benefits of sheep, their meat, their milk, the fleece and manure.  The royal pastures of Spain were almost half given over to grazing, and the wheat fields planted after being heartily fertilized by the sheep gave yields twice that of any other.  Neither Platina, nor any other dietician repated Galen’s warnings about mutton.  Necessity dictated against it, and for once, Roman authority was ignored.  Many physicians even held that mutton was a good staple food for those who struggled with melancholy.  Marsilio Ficino somewhat sagely suggests that the elderly might do better to imitate sheep themselves, and spend their days in the sun.  Richard Burton, a mighty scholar on the subject of melancholy, says mutton, being moist, is good for one, best if boiled, but if roasted, one should pare off the burnt portions, for this is not easily
digestible, and what does not digest well contributes to black bile, and hence is problematic.  Mutton even had advocates that said ludicrous things on its behalf.  One English doctor maintained mutton was so good  for one its flesh could be consumed uncooked.  Do not try this at home, or elsewhere.
                                                                         Maitre Gilles de Beauchamps
Sources:                   Ken Alabala  Eating Right in the Renaissance  University of California  2002 Richard Burton  The Anatomy of Melancholy  The Michigan Historical Reprint Series 2015 Hildegard von Bingen Physica  Healing Arts Press 1998 Marsilio Ficino Three Books on Life  The Renaissance Society of America  2002 Mark Grant  Galen on Food and Diet  Routlege 2000 Platina On Right Pleasure and Good Health trans Mary Elia Milham  Univeristy of North Carolina 1999  Cindy Renfrow  Take A Thousand Eggs Or More  Cindy Renfrow 1997 Maguelone Toussaint-Samat  History of Food Blackwell 1999    Clifford M. Wright  A Meditterranean Feast  William Morris & Co. 1999  

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Lamb in the Levant

   Sheep were domesticated roughly around ten thousand years ago.  Prized equally for its wool, milk production, and finally its meat, sheep and human civilization are arguably an inseparable combination.  The practice of sheep raising is thought to have developed in Persia and spread westward.  It is conceivable that pastoral nomadism has done more for populating the globe than one would ever expect.  By the time the Roman Empire was thriving, there wasn’t an area people knew about where one couldn’t find sheep.      Sheep, as a medium of exchange not only between people, but between people and the gods, was a long established currency of belief in the archaic world.  Sheep as an animal sacrifice was an ancient practice from long before the Book of Genesis records its very old stories, a practice that runs right up through Pliny’s comment that sheep “appease the gods and give us fleece.”  The Christian adaptation of sheep metaphors (Lamb of God, the Good Shephard)  may have been one of the shrewdest uses of imagery to market its ideas ever developed, neatly dovetailing on the Jewish use of sheep as the centerpiece of the Passover meal, while using an animal whose presence in the known world was more or less universal.     The meat however, is our main concern.  On this topic, Galen is rather clear.  The meat of a young sheep is desirable.  The older the animal becomes, the more it develops powers that do not promote good health.  Castration of the animal improves this tendency, both in sheep and goats.  That said, a lot of people eat mutton.  Lamb, by definition then, is relatively expensive, especially if you don’t have your own flock.   Tastes vary- there are those who find mutton absolutely tasty, and those who find it an abominable dish.        Galen says that lamb is moist and phegmatic, but the Byzantine physicians say it is moderately warm, but the use of it is harmful to phlegmatic constitutions.  Yet, because it is watery, it tends to digest easily.  This is sound humoral thinking- the younger the animal, the more moisture it contains.  Ageing is a condition marked by the progressive drying out and cooling of the body.        Among the Arabic physicians, however, it is thought that the optimum meat of sheep is derived from a yearling wether (castrated male) and finds the excess moisture of lamb itself to be less advantageous for people.  Lamb, especially that which is fatty and grilled, is considered good for those who are melancholic- that is, people whose temperament is cold and dry.        Partisans of barbecue do well to note that the technique has its ancestry in nomadic Arabic cooking.  A whole lamb or kid is rubbed with spices and oil.  This is then placed in a pit lined with stones.  A wood fire is lit on top of this, until the stones are thoroughly heated.  The fire is removed and replaced with sticks from a tamarisk tree, which are latticed over the bottom of the pit.  Atop this the lamb is laid, over which contains
another wood fire is placed.  The hole is then covered and sealed with mud.  The meat is slowly roasted and said to be very tender.        Such preparations could be made more elaborately.  In the fifteenth century, it was fashionable to rub the stones with flowers, and the tamarisk was replaced with banana leaves, which also covered the meat, along with more flowers.  In both primitive and the latter preparations described, the cooking takes an entire night. 
    Every cuisine has its own preferred cooking fat.  For much the the Arabic world, this is derived from the fatty tail portion of sheep.  The tails of these sheep are legendary for their heft and weight.  Herodotus tells us, most inaccurately, that they required a small cart pulled behind the sheep to carry them.  The fat from around the tail is preserved and is used in cooking a great many meat dishes.  This cut is called the liyya.  It is the center from which stews are made, and there is no shortage of these in Arabic and North African cookery.     Another use for the liyya is to pound it into other cuts of finely chopped meat and stuff this into the washed intestine of the sheep, in other words, to make a sausage of it.  The sausage recipes we have from the ninth and tenth century cooks of Baghdad reveal a heady use of spices- in them we find coriander seed, cumin, black pepper, onion, cilantro, cassia, ginger, and somewhat disconcertingly, murri- a fermnted sauce said to taste akin to the marriage of fish and soy sauce, and a constant companion to the Arabic cook at that time.  Other sausage treatments added sweet, honey and sugar, along with cloves.  These sausages were called laquniq, which resembeles the Greek Loukanika, although the Greeks, as do the Romans, prefer sausage made from pork.     As a practical matter, it was thought that the use of lamb fat would make tolerable the diet of poorer people, who often had to subsist heavily on barley.  In both Byzantium and dar al Islam, the poor generally had to make do with the innards of sheep and kid.  These organs were, for the most part, considered indigestible, and naturally sold for a fraction of the cost of meat itself. In the Maghreb, (the western portions of North Africa and Spanish Andalusia) sausages were often made using barley, chickpeas or couscous as part of the stuffing.  These are called asban.  Both laquniq and asban are to be boiled in water and then fried in oil.  They are either served with mustard or are used in other, more complicated dishes, such as stews or casseroles.
     For sheer simplicity, one cannot beat roasting a piece of meat over a fire.  Homer describes the Greek heroes doing this on the beaches of Troy and it was surely a very ancient practice by then.  Most likely, the meat skewer came into being on Day Two right after cooking over fire became a thing.  Yet somehow the Turks are credited with the invention of the shish kebab.  They obviously did nothing of the sort.   What can be said is that Turks were inordinately fond of this simple preparation, and the rise of the Ottoman Empire did much to revive this manner of cooking throughout not only dar al Islam but also south central Europe, where Turks were frequent uninvited guests. 
      An elemenatry kebab is alternating pieces of lamb and lamb fat, along with some salt and pepper.  If you wish to get jiggy with it, sprinkle cumin over the meat just as it is taken off the fire.  Onions can be added, if one wishes.  Our modern notion of the kebab with tomatoes and green or red peppers could not have existed in period, since these items did not exist for those cooks.     The next layer of complexity in kebab cookery is to marinate the meat.  It can be further refined by using ground meat.  These dishes are known as kofte or shashlik.  In them, ground meat is mixed with onion, garlic, bay leaf, olive oil and paprika.  Alternate preparations included allspice, cumin, cinnamon, pepper and nutmeg.  These dishes were mightily pleasing to the Turks, but also made their mark on later Greek and Slavic cuisines where they came into prolonged (and not always pleasant) contact with the Ottomans.  What we widely know as the gyro is based on a Turkish custom of vertically grilling spiced meats, coovering them with a sauce and serving it wrapped in a thin flatbread.     Not all Ottoman innovations and customs caught on well.  The notion of the host serving the head meat,  particularly the eyes, of a roasted sheep to an esteemed guest is one that most westerners found rather disagreeable, and so failed to make its way into our modern notions of fine dining.  But it is the way things are done, even now, in Turkey and the rest of Eurasia.   
     The roasted lamb that marks Passover is perhaps the oldest, continuous ritual dinner celebrated in the world.   Conceived as the original “grab and go” meal, it marks the liberation of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery.  One might suspect that lamb in this context would make it sacrosanct in the Jewish diet, but this is not at all the case.  Lamb and mutton were just as much a staple food for Jews as it was for their other Levantine neighbors.  It is a reasonable guess that the dishes served by earlier Jews were similar in nature to those neighbors.  The cuisine and culture of Sephardic Jews is not exceptionally different from their Arabic and Berber cousins.         We are forced to rely on such an assumption due to a dearth of early period cook books of Jewish origin.  Where we do find recipes is from the sad denouement of Moorish Spain towards the end of the Reconquista, where Muslim and Jew alike met with unrelenting hostility and expulsion by a resurgent Catholic Spain.        Jewish dietary laws required that no work be done on the Sabbath, and for that reason, dishes were cooked in advance of Saturday, including one that was slow cooked overnight.  In Moorish Spain, this was called adafina.  Ashkenazi Jews, in Central and Western Europe developed their own variant called cholent.  Adafina featured a variety of meats, including lamb, chicken and beef.  This might include chickpeas, onions, garlic, as well as an assortment of spices like ginger, pepper, cloves and cinnamon and cumin.  Hardboiled eggs were added to this, on occasion carrots, and the variety of meats used would be tailored to one’s resources.       A very elaborate dish enjoyed by both Jews and Muslims was eggplant stuffed with ground lamb.  In this dish a very large array of spices as well as meat is used as stuffing.
Cloves, saffron, thyme, lavender flowers, fresh mint, fennel and coriander seeds vie with rose water to make a deeply scented meal.  Sweetly scented or not, few Northern Europeans would be anything but horrified by it, as eggplant was considered somewhat poisonous, capable of inducing melancholy at best, or possibly mental illness.  Eggplant was in some quarters known as “insane apple.”    Empanadas of lamb were favored by Spanish Jews, although the recipes for these indicate the laws of Kosher were not always strictly adhered to.  The meat pies make use of the familiar blend of meat and raisin, but also a bit of grated cheese.  This would be seen as mixing milk and meat, which dietary laws prohibit.  These empanadas are interesting in that honey is used as a garnish.             One would like to end on a sweet note here.  The Spanish Reconquista brought an end to Moorish rule in Iberia.  It also resulted in the forcible conversion or expulsion of first Jews, then Muslims from Spain, and then Portugal.  Much of what we know about Jewish cooking in Andalusia is derived from court trials held by the Inquisition, and there is no honey garnish at the end of anything connected to the Inquisition.
                                                                          Maitre Gilles de Beauchamps

 David M. Gitlitz & Linda K. Davidson  A Drizzle of Honey St. Martin’s Press 1999
Mark Grant  Galen on Food and Diet  Routlege 2000
Henry Marks  Byzantine Cuisine  Henry Marks 2002
Nawal Nasrallah  Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens  Brill 2010
Maguelone Toussaint-Samat  History of Food Blackwell 1999
Clifford M. Wright  A Meditterranean Feast  William Morris & Co. 1999
Lilia Zaouali  Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World  University of California Press 2007

Eat Wisely; A Remarkable Dinner Companion

   Sometime around, let’s say 790 CE in Baghdad,  a slave was freed and taken into the service of the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid.  His name was formally given as Abu al-Hassan, or possibly Ali ibn Nabi, but he was known as Ziryab, meaning “Blackbird.”  It is unclear whether he came by this nickname because he was of African origin- we don’t know where he came from- some sources allege he was Kurdish or Persian by birth.  What we do know is that the young man in question showed musical abilities, enough that the court of Haroun al Rashid placed him to study directly under Ishaq al-Mawalli, said at the time to be the most gifted musician in the world.       The young student propered under the direction of his teacher.  Ziryab became schooled not only in music, but other pursuits that befitted a man in courtly society of what was then the largest and wealthiest city of the known world.  At that time, Baghdad was nearly double the size of Constantinople.  London, Paris, and Rome were barely the size of one of its quarters.  For a learned man, Baghdad was the place to be, and a learned man was expected to learn poetry, astronomy, geography, and of course, in Ziryab’s case, music.  He was said to excell in singing (another possible source of his nickname) and playing the oud, the Arabian lute.  It was said his memory was phenomenal, and the repitoire of songs he knew was vast, and that he knew music that dated back to Ptolmaic Egypt.       Things suddenly turned sour for Ziryab.  This may have been his fault.  One story says that Ziryab had played for Haroun al -Rashid, but in the process of doing so, he had managed to disparage his master’s abilities.  An unforgiveable display of oneupmanship by student over master, and made in front of the Caliph.  Or it might not have been his fault at all- another story says that Ishaq overheard a conversation in which it was remarked to the Caliph that “when Ishaq finally dies, then Ziryab will really make music the eminent art of Baghdad.”  Either way, the result was that Ziryab was suddenly made aware that his former teacher was now his mortal enemy.  Ishaq made it known he would kill Ziryab if he found him.       Being a sensible man, Ziryab left Baghdad in haste.  He languished in Cairo for some time, nervously juggling the difficult task of trying to earn a living that would keep him in the the state of living he’d long been accustomed to, while not drawing too much attention to himself.  Whether agents of Ishaq really persued him as far as Egypt is not known, but Ziryab probably had reason to think so.  He abruptly left Cairo and began a lengthy trek across North Africa.       As luck would have it, when he arrived in Morrocco, he attracted the attention of a Jewish court musician named al-Mansur, attached to the emir of al- Andalus.  He returned to Cordoba to inform its ruler, Abdul Rahman II that a true prodigy from Baghdad had turned up, a brilliant musician in exile, eking out a frugal existance in the
desert!   Intrigued, the emir sent word that if Ziryab was truly the person he claimed to be, Cordoba would give him a suitable home where he would flourish.     Legend has it that Ziryab was greeted by the emirate’s court as he got off the boat.  He was escorted into Abdul Rahman’s presence and asked to sing.  He did- so beautifully and powerfully that the emir handed him a bag of gold and silver.  Ziryab bowed and then took up a lute, and by the time he was done playing, the emir handed him the deed to a large estate.       There was more to this than simple largesse towards someone who had suffered an unfortunate setback, or a mere reward for entertaining well.  Abdul al Rahman saw in Ziryab a narrative not dissimilar to that of his own father’s.  Abd-al Rahman I had been a prince in Baghdad, a member of the powerful Ummayid dynasty.  When it was overthrown by the rival Abbasid clan, Abd- al Rahman was forced to flee for his life, and like Ziryab, scramble his way across North Africa for safety.  In some way, he must have perceived Ziryab as a kindred spirit.     But there was undoubtedly something more at stake.  Ziryab represented a shining light in the glory that was Baghdad, and now he was in Cordoba- at the farthest edge of dar al Islam.  For a long time, fashionable people in Baghdad had thought of the Maghreb, the western portion of North Africa and Spain as something very akin to our Wild West- full of backwards people, rubes.  By this time, Cordoba was comparable in size to Constantinople, and its growing wealth made it a clear rival to Baghdad.  With the support of Ziryab, might it not also prove a rival power in culture?    The emirate lost no time in helping Ziryab establish a musical school, the first formal music conservatory in the West.  In establish the school, Ziryab set about rearranging and expanding the practice of music.  As would be expected, he taught his students harmony and traditional forms of composition, but he also instituted new forms of musical expression which might have been some of the earliest forms of counterpoint and polyphony.  Ziryab wrote at least Nawbaat, suites that incorporated by vocal and instrumental parts, each having nine movements, each movement built around its own rhythm.  A long lasting effect of Ziryab’s musical compositions is that many of its ideas are echoed in flamenco music.    This achievment alone would have made Ziryab a remarkable man, but he did not concern himself with music alone as his contribution to the culture of Cordoba.  Ziryab was nothing if not a consumate courtier.  He knew all the contemporary and classical literature of the Arabic (and Persian) world, and he was said to excell in the world of urbane, agreeable conversation a courtier ought be well versed in.  In Cordoba he did not lack similar minded people to mingle with.  He found it’s libraries well stocked, and the more relaxed social life in Cordoba, with its lively round of dinner parties very close to the cosmopolitan life he’d enjoyed in Baghdad.  Ziryab must have found the drinking parties in Cordoba, which featured songs by Jewish and Christian muscians quite stimulating.  Cordoba illuminated its streets at night, a feature unknown even in Baghdad.
     Still, something was missing, and Ziryab began by improving the hygiene of the Arabs of Cordoba.  Like any Muslim city, there were opportunities aplenty to bathe- but Ziryab introduced them to a toothpaste of his own manufacture.  We do not know its ingredients, but it was noted to have a minty taste.  Next he made it fashionable for men to trim their beards, and later would make acceptable the notion of shaving.  From there, he taught people how to rearrange their hairstyles, encouraging people to wear bangs and cut their hair to show more of the neck and ears.  It is said he taught women how to shape their eyebrows.    The body suitably refined, he turned his attention to sartorial matters.  Ziryab seems to have been the first to introduce the notions of changing the colors of seasonal garb.  Eveyone who wears white only in the summer is to some degree a devotee of Ziryab’s doctrines.       These matters well in hand, Ziryab turned his attentions to those of feasting.  The customs of both the Arabic world, as that of the Romans before them, had been to bring all the dishes to the table at once, in no particular order.  To Ziryab’s mind, this created a confusion of tastes and showed an incredible lack of organization.  Possibly basing some of his ideas of medical texts, he formulated the notion that dining should progress from easily digested items to more substantial ones, ending in light desserts, fruits and nuts.  Yes, from soup to nuts is said to have originated with Ziryab.  The same idea would evolve in France- but not until the advent of the Enlightenment- some seven hundred years later, where it was considered the cutting edge in proper dining.     Nor was he finished with the order of the meals.  The table itself had to be refined.  The wooden table had to be covered with a festive (and clean) linen.  Drinking vessels ought not be heavy and crude goblets, such as were used by the detestable Visigoths and were still in use by the new Arabic aristocracy.  Even when made of gold and silver, they were clumsy.  Ziryab ordered that the fashionable way to drink was from glassware, and Cordoba was soon home to the manufactury of fine crystal drinking vessels, noted for their fine hand cut patterns.  The soup spoon was also made much more slender under his direction.     As to the food itself, Ziryab, like any courtly gentleman in the Arabic world, enjoyed cooking.  There are several dishes named after him, a meatball filled pastry fried in coriander oil, a dish of seasoned broad beans, and a dish of lamb meat, cabbage, eggs, and onions, all well spiced.  This was topped with a crust of ground meat, eggs, ground almonds and breadcrumbs.  It is impossible to know if he personally invented these dishes, or if they were named after him – precision is not a strong virtue in culinary history.     It is also said that Ziryab was instrumental (pardon the pun) in making chess a popular game in al Andalus, that he was well versed in astronomy and astrology and encouraged its study, and he may have brought the sport of polo to the west.   What dinner party would not be improved by having such a guest?

                                                                        Maitre Gilles de Beauchamps
 Robert W. Lebling in Culinary Biographies Houston 2006  
R. A Fletcher Moorish Spain  University of California 2002  
John Gill  Andalucia: A Cultural History Oxford 2008

On Figs

   If the Book of Geneis is a reliable guide, it was fruit that got Adam and Eve in trouble.  We do not know what that fruit was- we assume it was an apple based on deptictions of Northern European painters, most of whom, we can safely guess, had never seen trees other than those in their own locale, let alone the Original Garden.  The text of Genesis simply states fruit from a tree.  But once they realize they are naked, Adam and Eve set about making clothing from fig leaves.     Figs were among the first foods cultivated by people, before wheat, rye or barley, before legumes.  This dates back to at least nine thousand years before the Common Era. It’s a very long trek from hunter gatherer to Fig Newtons.  Figs were a staple in the diet of the ancient Greeks.  They were thought a food fitting for athletes...and geese, it appears.  A prototype of fois gras was developed by the early Hellenes by feeding geese on figs, which tends to swell their livers, which then becomes indescribably yummy to humans.  The Romans would feed their dormice with a similar object in mind.  Rome brought the fig to Gaul, and planted it as far north as Paris.  The City of Light is not, alas, always the City of Sunlight.  The fig favors a Meditterranean climate, and while a few fig trees soldiered on in Paris, they grow much better in Provence.       Galen minces no words on the subject of fruit and hold that there are none better for people than figs or grapes.   But Galen’s understanding of fruit in diet differs considerably from our own.  He believes that fruit contains little or no nourishment for the body.  It seems he stopped eating fruit at the age of twenty five (excepting grapes and figs) until he reached old age, and believed this spared him illness.  The best apprach to fruit, Galen holds, is to consume that which does the least harm.   In this, figs excel when ripe, for they move through the body rapidly.  The only problem which might rise from this is eating too many, for figs engender bad blood, and bad blood produces fleas or lice on a person.  This it was thought, killed no less than the philosopher Plato, and the notion surely serves as an object lesson in the idea of “nothing in excess.”    Figs are often dried, and while Galen concedes that these too are beneficial as a stimulant to the bowels, he says because of their sweet nature they may cause inflammation to the liver.  This is something that must be kept in mind with all sweet foods.  To counteract this tendancy, he advises figs be taken with pennyroyal, ginger, savory, oregano or hyssop, all ingredients, one notes, not to be found in a Fig Newton.  It is somewhat disconcerting to learn that figs were served in vinegar or fish sauce.  He also tells us that consuming figs with fattening foods will do the body no harm.     Pliny tells us of a variety of figs available to the Roman market, all of which are sadly beyond our reach.  What one generally finds available (unless one lives in California) are dried figs from Turkey.  Regarding these, we learn that the Pontic King Mithradates had a regimen of eating two dried figs, one walnut, twenty leaves of rue and
a grain of salt all ground together.  This was taken on an empty stomach as a prophylaxis against poisoning.  Mithradates died anyway, but one notes, not of poisoning.    The Byzanine physicians abbreviated this regimen to simply eating them while otherwise fasting as an antidote to poisons.  They also believe that figs are beneficial to the chest and lungs, and they are a good cure for kidney stones. 
     Among the Arabic physicians, figs grown in what is now Syria and Iraq are esteemed as the best.  Because of their natural heat, figs are thought best consumed by those of a more phlegmatic (cool, moist) humor.  They suggest one cure for the pesky problem of lice and fleas arising from the bad blood figs engender is to eat them with walnuts.  (This probably works- Mithradates did not die of poisoning, nor from scratching himself to death.)      Figs and grapes appear on the table at the very end of an Arabic feast, after other desserts.  One eats them at the beginning of a meal only if a laxative effect is desired, presumably not part of one’s feast plan.  In any case they tend to bloat, and are considered bad for the stomach. Galen and his Stoic mores notwithstanding, the desire for sweet trumps a little bloating and presumably a lot of fleas.    The spread of Islam brought fig cultivation back across North Africa (where it had languished after the collapse of the Roman Empire) and by the eleventh century we find excellent figs grown in Tunisia, as well as Spain and Portugal. 
     Doubtful as it seems, the eleventh century in Germany might also have had fig trees.  Hildegard von Bingen, the abbess cum mystic cum dietician wrote about them.  Given the seclusion of her life in the convent, it seems that she encountered them somewhere near her abbey.  Her reports are at variance with anything else we have as yet perused, but this is not uncommen for her.  She says that the wood of fig trees is not good for people, if one is in the vicitity of smoke from a burning log of it, they become enfeebled. To carry a staff made of fig wood makes one weak.  (I wish to scoff at this, but have never been exposed to the smoke, nor carried a staff of this wood, so how exactly, would I know?)        As for the fig itself, the food is practically sinful, and not good for healthy people, as it makes them proud and greedy.  It may be consumed by the infirm with no harm to moral character, but those who are not ailing are cautioned to consume figs only when doused in vinegar or wine.  And not too many of those at a time either, she cautions.
     One characteristic that sets European cookery apart from Arabic is the practice of stewing figs in vinegar or wine.  The Romans made a tasty side dish of stewed figs to accompany roast pork.  Variations of this are still enjoyed today.  Less common, but not unheard of, is the marriage of figs and liver as found in a scrumptious Venetian dish.  Northern European cookery is replete with a large number of recipes that feature figs prepared by boiling.  They would have been very expensive, so it not surprising that the dishes call for a half and half mix of raisins with the figs. This is boiled in wine, which
generally would have been sweet.  Cinnamon and cloves were the most common additions, although one sometimes finds ginger as well.  These would be “seethed” until a sweet syrup was rendered.  Sometimes this was mixed with almond milk, sometimes rice flour.  Often this figgy syrup was poured over meat dishes, and somewhat disconcertingly to our modern tastes, over fish dishes.  From a humoral standpoint, this makes sense- the natural heat of figs, combined with the warming spices of cinnamon and clove help offset the cold, wet humors of fish.  One notes the absence of walnuts in these dishes, but they are consumed by wealthy people, people one assumes, who could afford the leisure time to scratch their own lice.
    A peculiar aspect of the Renaissance was a deep curiosity, and an attempt to eat as much like the Imperial Romans as possible.   Yet this did not lead to a revival of raising dormice as a food staple.  By and large however, foodstuffs for them are approved based on the approbation of Roman authorities.  Marsilio Ficino, who wrote a lively and occasionally brilliant book on health regimens, says of figs that they engender black bile, and are not good for scholars, but they are quite fine for the elderly.  Thus we find ourselves back in the company of Galen, who advises fruit be pushed aside until our declining years.  But surely, a fig or two will not hurt one.  Go ahead.  Should you have to resort to Fig Newtons, you probably won’t even have to boil them in wine or vinegar, or eat walnuts with them.  But don’t have too many, unless you don’t mind being up all night scratching

                                                                                  Maitre Gilles de Beauchamps

Ken Alabala  Eating Right in the Renaissance  University of California  2002  
Hildegard von Bingen Physica  Healing Arts Press 1998
Marsilio Ficino Three Books on Life  The Renaissance Society of America  2002
 Mark Grant  Galen on Food and Diet  Routlege 2000
Nawal Nasrallah  Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens  Brill 2010  
Platina On Right Pleasure and Good Health trans Mary Elia Milham  Univeristy of North Carolina 1999
Maguelone Toussaint-Samat  History of Food Blackwell 1999

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Academy of St Clare of Assisi

If you find your zen while embroidering, you won’t want to miss The Academy of St. Clare of Assisi:  EVEN MORE Stitches in Time, hosted by the Shire of Abhainn Ciach Ghlais (central PA).

From the moment the site opens at 5 pm on May 4th until it closes at 11 am on Sunday, May 6th, it’ll be all embroidery, all the time!

Friday evening will feature a Show-and-Tell of finished projects from one of last year’s classes.  Afterward, spend the evening making new friends while you stitch.  (The first two events had attendees from five kingdoms!)

Saturday morning begins with a Keynote Address by Viscountess Leyla al-Manadiliyya, a Laurel from the Kingdom of Northshield whose specialty is Middle Eastern research, arts, and culture.  Her presentation, “Holbein goes to Egypt,” will take you on a journey through time, across cultures, and between continents.

Two hours of short classes, on a wide variety of topics for all levels, will follow the Keynote Address.  Topics include:

  • An Introduction to Celtic Embroidery
  • Blackwork, Beyond The Basics
  • Felted Knitted Bags and Pouches
  • Finding Inspiration
  • Medieval Gold Work
  • Spanish Drawnwork and Other Unique Spanish Needlework
  • Thread Play

After a delicious lunch, stitchers will spend the afternoon attending their pre-selected “kit class.”  This year’s “kit classes” include:

  • Assisi Work: leap into the void! (Students will create an end-bordered linen towel in red, green or blue.)
  • German Ornate Sleeve (Students will learn hand applique, pearling, beading to create a one-of-a-kind sleeve with a unique design based upon their own heraldry, interests and preferences.)
  • Pattern Darning (Students will embroider a 10” x 10” kerchief based on Egyptian finds.)
  • Russian Gold Work Embroidery (Students will decorate a small cloth bag with Russian-style embroidery using pearls, beads, padding and waste-of-time cording.)

These three-hour classes provide students, under the tutelage of skilled instructors, the time needed to learn and practice the skills needed to complete the “kit” project.  To allow ample time to work one-on-one with students, instructors set a limit of students — from six to 15, depending on the topic.  The kits range in price from $15 to $30 and include all of the materials for the project.

(NOTE:  The only way to guarantee a space in a “kit class” is to pre-pay for the class you wish to take.  To allow instructors sufficient time to order supplies and then prepare the kits, payment for “kit classes” must be received on or before March 31.)

pexels-photo-842544.jpegOur celebrated afternoon tea provides the perfect opportunity to rest tired fingers and eyes and chat with friends and colleagues, while the interlude between tea and supper allows time to check out the work in the Embroidery Display, peruse the Reference Library, or bid on items in the Silent Auction.

An Embroidered Fashions Show on Saturday evening offers an opportunity to hear about and admire each other’s beautiful handiwork.

For those who haven’t had their fill of stitching yet, after breakfast on Sunday morning, the class “Bayeaux Basics” will cover the history and stitches Bayeaux tapestry.  Students will receive a handout, preprinted linen, hoop, and enough wool to complete a figure from the Bayeaux tapestry.

For this weekend-long event, the Adult Event Registration is $40. (Adult Member Discount Event Registration is $35.)  This includes lodging in a heated cabin as well as breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, and supper on Saturday and breakfast on Sunday(NOTE: Bunk spaces will be filled on a first-paid, first-served basis; please reserve early if you need special sleeping accommodations, such as a bottom bunk or access to electricity.)

Much more information – including detailed descriptions of each class and photographs of the instructor’s work in that style – can be found on the event website.

Those wishing additional information are welcome to contact the autocrat, Mistress Alicia Langland