Friday, 10 July 2015

TASTE, THE FINAL FRONTIER: CAN MUSEUMS RECREATE THE FLAVOURS OF HISTORY?

HISTORIC KITCHEN

BY: LEAH MONCADA

Selected Classical Recipes
Athenian Cabbage – The Classical Cookbook
Parthian Chicken – The Classical Cookbook
Lentils with Chestnuts – A Taste of History


For a full bibliography of the books used in the classical journey of Historic Kitchen, see this post.

Museums today are exploring different methods of display that incorporate senses other than sight and allow visitors to experience knowledge in new ways. It is not uncommon to see exhibits featuring soundscapes and opportunities for touch. Though growing as an interpretive tool, smell is still fairly rare.

But what about taste?

Pompei Banquet Wikipedia
A Roman Banquet in 1st c CE Pompeii. Source.
Food programs in gallery spaces have long been difficult due to valid logistical and conservation concerns. (The thought of crumbs, sugary materials, and bacteria-loving messes around delicate artifacts is an insurmountable hurdle in many cases.)

That is not to say they do not happen! The Canadian Food and Agriculture Museum has a Demonstration Kitchen opening onto their special exhibitions area. To compliment their current special exhibition Taking Care of Beesness, they host cooking with honey sessions. As well, the Children's Museum in the Canadian Museum of History has recently brought back their popular Kids in the Kitchen series with Great Greek Gastronomy to compliment the opening of The Greeks: Alexander to Agamemnon.

So what is a Museums to do if they lack a kitchen conveniently installed in their gallery space? Due to the nature of how taste works it can usually be replicated through the (much more exhibit friendly) sense of smell. The visitor may not have the satisfaction of consuming something, but the knowledge gained is similar enough for substitution. However, there are still potential issues of negative modern association, or lack of authenticity, that museums should be aware of.

The following recipes feature a number of pungent spices and herbs common in Roman foods, but noticeably unfamiliar to the average museum visitor. (I have handily researched and provided substitutions.) Not included below, but also found frequently throughout my recipe books are such intriguing spices and herbs as spikenard, cyperus, and myrtle.


The Recipes

Athenian Cabbage with Honey Vinegar– The Classical Cookbook, Sally Grainger and Andrew Dalby (also in Roman Cookery, Mark Grant)
Cabbage - Mnesitheus, quoted in Oribasius, Medical Collections 4, 4, 1
Honey Vinegar - Galen, Staying Healthy 4, 6

Athenian Cabbage The Classical Cookbook Sally Grainger
Athenian Cabbage. Photo: Leah Moncada
Honey Vinegar
½ cup honey
2 tbsp red wine vinegar

Cabbage
1 small cabbage
2 tsp chopped fresh green coriander in oil

2 tsp chopped or fresh dried rue (can substitute rosemary and pepper)

2 pinches asafoetida powder

salt
To make the honey vinegar, boil the honey, skim if necessary. Add the vinegar and reduce slightly. Set aside. 

To make the cabbage, finely slice, wash, and dry the head. Toss the herbs with 3 tbsp honey vinegar, sprinkle with asafoetida and a little salt to taste.

This recipe is quite good as a refreshing side, and was later adopted by the Romans from the Greeks. Lacking rue, I substituted rosemary and black pepper. According to Grant this omission is a travesty. Rue has a very distinctive flavour that simply cannot be replicated with any other herb. While once quite popular, rue has virtually disappeared from western kitchens since the Tudor period. Due to the unique taste and the ubiquity of its use in greco-roman recipes, I would be extremely interested in experiencing its flavour!


Parthian Chicken – The Classical Cookbook, Sally Grainger
Apicius 6.9.2


Parthian Chicken The Classical Cookbook Sally Grainger
Parthian Chicken. I do not know to what degree the violet hue is authentically Roman, but the dish certainly tasted just as good as it looked! Photo: Leah Moncada.
4 pieces chicken 
ground black pepper
¾ cups red wine
2 tbsp garum (or other fish sauce)
½ tsp asafoetida powder or 5 drops asafoetida tincture
2 tsp chopped fresh lovage or celery leaf
½ tsp group lovage seed or celery seed
2 tsp caraway seeds

Place the chicken in a casserole dish and pepper liberally. In a separate bowl, combine the wine, garum, and asafoetida. Mix. Add the lovage and caraway, mix, and pour over the chicken. Cover and bake at 375F for 1 hour. At the 30 minute mark uncover the chicken to allow it to brown. Serve covered in its own sauce.

This wonderful recipe deserves to be repopularized. There is a strong caraway undertone while the wine produces an extremely tender chicken. Though unfamiliar in my own cooking, asafoetida is commonly used in Indian recipes and can be found at your local Middle Eastern or Indian grocery store.

Aptly named, this dish is clearly from the Parthian Empire given the dominant taste of asafoetida. However, the caraway reminds us that this is a Roman adaptation. While caraway has disputed origins (ranging from central Europe to Egypt), it was extremely popular to the Roman palate.

Silphium from Cyrenaica Wikipedia
A coin from Cyrenaica depicting silphium. Source.

Asafoetida is actually a Roman substitute for the tragically extinct silphium. Grown only in small areas of Cyrenaica (modern Libya), this remarkable spice was so valued by the Romans that it was stored amongst the gold and silver in the state treasury. It was humorously known to incite deep slumber broken by sneezing fits amongst livestock who grazed in its fields. As recorded by Pliny, one fateful year grazing goats devoured the entire crop. Asafoetida is a distant cousin to this spice and quickly replaced silphium, though apparently it is not nearly as powerful.


Lentils with Chestnuts – A Taste of History, Jane Renfrew
Apicius 5.2.2

Lentils with Chestnuts Jennifer Renfrew A Taste of History
Lentils with Chestnuts. It's better than it looks! Photo: Leah Moncada.
100g lentils
100g shelled chestnuts
½ tsp baking soda
a pinch of pepper, cumin, coriander seeds, mint, rue, and pennyroyal (can substitute rue with rosemary and pepper; pennyroyal with strong fresh mint)
1 drop asafoetida essence
1 tsp garum or other fish sauce
1 tbsp vinegar
1 tbsp honey
1 tbsp olive oil

Cover the lentils with water and simmer gently for 30 minutes. In another pan, boil until tender the chestnuts with the baking soda in just enough water just to cover. Pound the spices and herbs. Add to the herb mixture asafoetida, garum, vinegar, honey, and mix. Pour over the chestnuts (drain nuts slightly if too much water), add olive oil and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Mix with the lentils. Taste and adjust with extra spices if necessary. Serve hot.

A delightful recipe, I can imagine this would be wonderful in autumn. It has a very complex taste, reflecting the number of herbs and spices included. Of note is pennyroyal, a member of the mint family much beloved by Pliny. Pennyroyal is usually found among list of dangerous herbs. The oil is fatally toxic and improper consumption of the leaves can also be quite harmful. However, the incredibly pungent flavour lent itself well to sauces and stuffing.

Next time of Historic Kitchen:
I look at the staples of the Roman diet. We have previously explored imported flavours and high class cuisine. I want to conclude the Classical journey of Historic Kitchen by exploring a typical meal for the masses. Of course, with the Roman flair for extravagance, 'typical' Roman food never means 'boring'...

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