Although we have no recipes definitively attributable to the ancient Phoenicians, and little information about the foods and dishes they ate, we do know from their material culture that they dined in style. The platter below is a beautiful example of Phoenician craftsmanship from the 8th Century BCE.
In the center of the platter, a man stabs a raging lion. The pair are surrounded by a ring of flying ducks and prancing stallions. In the next ring, archers on foot and mounted spearmen advance among trees behind chariots. The design, which may represent a hunting expedition, is encircled by a serpent with delicately patterned skin. One of the most stunning things about the platter is that the musculature of the animals and people is produced by repoussé, or hammering from the reverse side to raise the metal. And speaking as a former anatomist – it is gloriously correct in the highlightling of the stallion’s haunches and the leg muscles of the hunters.
The Silk Roadiness of the object is evident in the use of both Egyptian and Mesopotamian styling. The clothing and hairstyle of the figures is Egyptian while the subject matter of the central scene is a common Mesopotamian theme of combat between man and beast. Phoenician artists frequently worked in the styles of neighboring cultures, in part because they had so much contact with them as a major trading hub between the civilizations in Western Asian and Northern Africa. I just wish we knew what filled the platters!
(Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Phoenician Platter from Walters Museum by Laura Kelley)
At this time of year when cuisine blogs are awash with recipes for cookies and roast beast for the Christmas feast, I thought it would be a nice idea to create a notional menu for what the first Christmas feast might actually be like. In truth, that concept was brough to me by a writer from Bon Appetit magazine who wrote a great short piece based on my input. This post will look at the First-Christmas menu in more depth and discuss the reasons behind some of the choices. It will also examine some of the issues that influence our ideas regarding the birth of Jesus and hopefully dispel some myths about the event.
To start, we have to get Jesus’s birthdate right, which was probably during the Feast of Sukkot in the first few years BCE. The feast is celebrated today according to the lunar calendar, but it usually falls in the early autumn. In 2012, it was celebrated from 30 September to 7 October, so Jesus was a Libra not a Capricorn. The temperature at this time of the year in Bethlehem was between 70 and 80 degrees Farenheit in the day and down into the 50s and 60s at night – so it was a comfortable time of year. Bethlehem was a fertile area at a good altitude and with more rainfall than in much of the rest of the country, so food would be plentiful.
September-October is a time for harvesting grapes, figs, pomegranates and olives in Israel, so these would have figured heavily into the meal, regardless of the social class of the family. Which brings me to another point, we know that Joseph and Mary were poor, because Joseph brought two doves to the temple to sacrifice after the birth of Jesus instead of the more traditional lamb. By extension, his family would probably have been poor or working class, so there would be no royal feast for the Nazarene – at least not at home. Also, keep in mind that Joseph and Mary were Jews and as such they probably would have observed Kosher dietary laws. This would have been particularly true for Mary because she was with child.
There is a lot of information in the bible about the individual foods that people ate, but not a lot of information about how they put ingredients together. With no recipe “tablets” to work from, I have prepared a notional menu for a feast that is based on these lists of ingredients, other historical knowledge, and a lot of creativity on my part. It is rooted in Sephardic tradition and in that respect breaks us out of the European cultural mindset that dominates most Christmas celebrations in the west.
– Olive oil with za’atar or other herbs for dipping
– Plate of fresh herbs
Lentil salad with cracked or sprouted grains
Plates of Dates and Figs
Mixed local olives, salted, cured and brine marinated
Wine served throughout the meal
Roasted Fish with Herbs and Honey
Roasted Pigeon or Doves with Herbs and Pomegranate Syrup
– Fish sauce garum to use as a table condiment
– Small bowl of salt
– Citron or Rose-petal Jam to eat with meat
Roasted Barley or Millet Pilaf
Honey-Sweetened Herbal Tea or Raisin Wine
Date and Pistachio sweets
Dried apricots and raisins
Examining some of the menu choices in more detail, I chose a mixed-grain bread as written in Ezekiel 4:5: “Take thou also unto thee wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentils, and millet, and fitches and put them in one vessel, and make thee bread thereof.” Fitches are black onion seeds (nigella sativa, or kalonji from Indian cuisine). It wouldn’t be necessary to use all of these ingredients at once, but the idea of mixed grain and spices (onion seeds) is important. Bread could have been flat or sourdough. For a celebratory feast in an extended family home, I would choose sourdough as pictured here.
Za’atar is a local herb (Origanum syriacum) that is mixed with other ingredients – notably sumac, and sesame or pine nuts and a litany of other choices. This would have been mixed in olive oil and used to flavor bread as a dip. Plates of herbs, like dill or fennel, might have also offered flavor to the bread and would have been served as fresh as possible.
Lentils or fava were very common source of food and might be eaten with sprouted or cracked wheat or barley for flavor and texture. Cumin and coriander would be likely flavorings as would leek or onion.
Plates of dates and figs would be set out and would be fresh from the harvest. Olives might be from the current year’s harvest if enough time had elapsed between picked and curing or fermenting and brining, otherwise they would have been from last year’s crop.
Grape or mixed fruit wine would be served throughout the meal. It would have the resiny overtones of a modern retsina and would be sweetened with figs in the amphorae or herbs like rosemary. It might be diluted with water, especially for the women.
Looking at the main courses, we find the option of Roasted Fish with Herbs and Honey that is based on Luke 24:41-43, in which Jesus as a grown man eats fish with honey. The fish would probably be a mullet, or sea cod (cheap and easy to catch as surface-water fish), but it could also be a grouper, sea bass or sea
bream. Depending on the fish, thyme and/or dill with cilantro could be used as herbs. If it was a large fish it could be cooked on a spit or open fire. Smaller fish or fish slices or filets would be cooked in an oven if the family had one or if a communal oven was available for use.
After fish and eggs, pigeon or dove was the most commonly eaten meat in ancient Israel. Lamb was for the wealthier or for holidays and cow/oxen/bull was for the feast of the wealthy. I can see pigeons spitted and covered with herbs like mint and cilantro or spices like cinnamon and then roasted and basted with pomegranate syrup as a delicious entrée.
Since Augustus was still on the throne in Rome, the use of garum in Roman Palestine would be likely. The archaeological record tells us that Jews had special garum made by the Phonecians using fish allowed by Kosher dietary laws. This could be a table condiment and mixed with herbs (such as oregano) or mixed with water, honey or wine. This would, of course have enhanced the flavor of food as regular readers of this blog well know.
Since it is the Feast of Sukkot, citrons would be available. A common way to eat them is to make jam out of them and use that to flavor meat. Another option is rose-petal jam.
The meat would be served with (or on) a pilaf of roasted barley or millet with herbs and spices. Of the two grains, millet would be fresher at this time of year as it was just harvested in August.
For a sweet ending to the meal, people in the ancient Levant drank all manner of sweet herbal teas and could have enjoyed some after the main meal. Alternatively, a sweet, raisin-based wine could be served to clear the palate and end the meal. Tea would be sweetened with local honey made by imported Anatolian bees that were fed on citrus blossoms and wild desert flowers.
Any manner of sweets made from pounded and rolled dates covered with pistachios could be served or simply a plate of dried apricots and raisins. A sweet spread of nuts and dates like modern charoset could have been enjoyed with bread or all by themselves.
A few more cultural points in closing: Bethlehem would have been bustling with lots of out-of-towners (like Joseph and Mary) because of the census. Forget what you have learned about,” no room at the inn”, there weren’t many inns (or even any) and Mary would not have stayed in one as a woman. The only women in “inns” were working there. They would have stayed with Joseph’s relatives and would have been greeted and treated as extended family. Because other visitors also sought the family’s hospitality at the time of the census, there was probably no room for Mary and Joseph in the family’s “guest room”.
Mary probably gave birth in a cellar off of a central courtyard that was used to store supplies for the family and prized animals in the evening or in times of bad weather. A private and isolated area was chosen because of the physical mess of childbirth and because of Jewish cultural practices separating men and women at this time. She was probably attended by a midwife or older women from the family.
If Jesus’s birth was celebrated at all, it would have been in with wine and a bit of noisiness by the men of the family as was custom after the birth of a child. If there was a celebratory meal, there were no tables or chairs, a floor cloth or mat (or both) would be laid down and communal dishes with food placed upon it. Guests would sit or recline around the “table” and converse as they ate and drank. There were no individual plates; food went from communal bowls or platters – to hand – to mouth.
It’s also possible that Mary would not have taken part in a feast because women are considered “unclean” for one week after the birth of a boy and for two weeks after the birth of a girl. She might have had food brought to her by birth attendants or female family members, at least in the hours or days after the birth.
I hope this post brings some fresh ideas to your Christmas table, I’ve got some other ideas up my sleeve for the kinds of foods the three kings might have brought to an epiphanal feast to share as well. Remember, however you chose to celebrate, enjoy the time with famiy and friends and reflect on why you come together at this time.
(Words by Laura Kelley. The major points of this post first appeared in an article on Bon Appetit online entitled, What Would Jesus Eat. Photo of Sourdough Bread by Djauregui@Dreamstime; Photo of Mixed Olives by N. Larina@Dreamstime; Photo of Roasted Pigeon by Zhiqian-Li@Dreamstime; Photo of Citron Jam by Reika7@dreamstime; Photo of Barley Pilaf by Richard-Semik@Dreamstime; and Photo of Dried Apricots and Dates by M. Averyanova@Dreamstime.com)
I’m at it again – questioning the assumptions and conclusions about Mesopotamian flavors that Jean Bottero made when examining the Old Babylonian culinary tablets from Yale University. Is it some manic spirit that grabs me each Spring and forces me back into the ancient Near East or is it just that it is an activity that grabs my attention from time to time? Whatever the cause, those of you who have been following the blog for a while may remember last year about this time a post on Mesopotamian ingredients that were either undefined in Bottero’s work or, in my humble opinion, defined incorrectly or made little sense from a culinary point of view.
Well, I am once again actively engaged in reconstructing ingredients and recipes that I think the good professor erred on. Carob, wheatberries, licorice and pistachio nuts – all are flavors that I think were included in the Mesopotamian diet that Bottero left undefined or defined as other types of ingredients – all too often onions or other plants in the allium family.
Before the Yale tablets, Bottero notes that there were only two recipes. The first one is for “Mersu”, which Bottero defined as a “cake” with dates and pistachio nuts as ingredients. It turns out that the tablet – transcribed in Oldest Cuisine in the World (OCW) – only states that dates and pistachios were received for the making of mersu for the king, not that mersu was a cake or how to make it. The assumption that those were ingredients for a cake was made entirely by Bottero, because mersu/mirsu is simply an Old Babylonian word for a “confection” made of dates. He also makes the entymological link with the verb “marasu” one meaning of which is to stir into a liquid. He neglects to note that a secondary meaning for the verb is to squeeze or crush (although I admit, that this is not generally used in connection with food or offering words.)
Could mersu be a cake? Sure. But there are many other types of things that it could be as well. A look at modern Western Asian and Levantine cuisines shows that mersu could easily have been a date-nut roll or a beautiful date “candy” as pictured here. Both sweets are based on pounded dates and chopped nuts or other fruit or nut toppings.
Adding only some type of flour, mersu could be something like the modern Iranian dessert Ranginak which consists of dates stuffed with pistachios enclosed in a thin crust of dough, or it could be like the modern Lebanese Ma’moul which has a pounded date center covered in a layer of semolina that is then covered in a layer of chopped pistachios.
My point, if it is not evident, is that there is no need to use secondary or teritary sources to conjure additional ingredients beyond those listed to have a dish fit for an ancient king and his court. A secondary point is that all too often, I believe, Bottero interpreted the ingredients and dishes on the tablets from a French haute-cuisine perspective, instead of a modern regional one that would perhaps be more illuminating and appropriate for understanding Mesopotamian cuisine.
The second recipe known before the Yale tablets is one that Bottero calls “court boullion”. The ingredients listed are nuhurtu, sahlu, kasu, kamu, cucumber (?), and the meat of a slaughtered animal. Bottero translates these as fennel, watercress, dodder (Cuscuta), cumin and cucumber (all of which he states he is uncertain of). My own research suggests that the ingredients are asafoetida, garden cress (but possibly watercress) wild licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), and cumin. The characters or transliteration for the ingredient thought to be cucumber is not included in OCW, so I cannot research or comment on it liguistically, but I can say that with a flavor lineup including asafoetida, cress, licorice, and cumin that cucumber makes little culinary sense as it would be overwhelmed in the quantities required (15 grams). (Note: See additional entry below for a better suggested translation of “cucumber”)
The recipe states to boil six liters of water with kasu and cook for a long time – I presume this to be until it is reduced by at least half or two-thirds. Then it reads that the cucumber (?) should be added and cooked until it is reduced to 1 liter. Then the liquid is strained and meat is added and cooked. I assume that the other ingredients are added when the cucumber (?) is added, but no specific instructions are given, they could be added when the meat is added, or even before the broth is strained.
Even a modest amount of meat – a pound or two – added to a liter of water and cooked is not going to produce a boullion (for there are no further instructions to strain the liquid again) but rather a stew. A licorice and lamb stew – what an interesting idea! Of course it could have been a braised cut of meat as well – a licorice braised lamb. The point is, it could be many things other than court boullion.
So, my point here is that many of the ingredients listed by Bottero may not be correct, and many make little or no culinary sense. I’ve been told by a real Assyrian language scholar recently that the whole field of plant name identification is, “diabolically slippery”. What bothers me, however, is that there seem to be a good deal of scholarship about plants and ingredients that existed at the time of his writing that Bottero either ignored or rejected without argument. As I said in the first post on this subject, I may not be right about the ingredients, but I am transparently referenced. (See post on Mesopotamian ingredients for the growing list of terms I have examined and the references I’ve used to inform my point of view).
I’ve adopted this as an ongoing project and am interested to see where it leads, I may even try to reconstruct the licorice and lamb stew and give it a taste, but will have to get my hands on a copy of the original reference for the “court boullion” recipe to check the translation and interpretation of the “cucumber” before I do. If I do, I’ll let you know, so we can breathe new life to an ancient Silk Road dish.
(Words and research by Laura Kelley; Confections and Photographs of Date Nut Roll and Date Balls by Kajal of Aaplemint, where many of Kajal’s recipes for her confections can be found. Photograph of Braised lamb Shank by Becky Luigart-Stayner, borrowed from Google images.)
The missing ingredient has been found! Ukus-hab, is not cucumber or colocynthe, but rather citron! At least that’s what I think. See the lexicon link to see the reasons and reference.
Sea gulls calling, businessmen sweeping the sidewalks in front of their shops and restaurants and of course the incessant lap of the waves on the stone foundations of La Serenissima – the serene place. These are the sounds of Venice at dawn – the same sounds to which the city has woken to for countless generations. More than a powerful city-state that became an Italian province in the 19th Century, Venice was a major European player on the Silk Road that was often the end stop for goods and ideas coming across the Black Sea and Mediterranean.
Coming to power from the 9th to the 12th Centuries, Venice first rose to prominence by defeating Dalmatian pirates that often seized or demanded payment from the merchant vessels coming to trade in the city’s lucrative markets. With defeat of the pirates and control of the eastern Adriatic, Venice’s sphere of influence spread westward onto the mainland to secure the flow of agricultural products for the city and then into the Aegean all the way to Cyprus and Crete. From the 9th Century on, trading relationships with merchants from North Africa, the Levant and Arabian peninsula also helped feed Venice’s growing prominence among European cities. A large portion of the city’s growing wealth also came from its dominance of the salt trade in the Mediterranean.
At first a defender of the Eastern Roman Empire against Norman and Turkish incursions, the Venetian conquest and sack of Constantinople in 1204 made Venice a major imperial power that also helped to bring about the fall of Byzantium. At the height of its maritime power in the late 13th Century, Venice had more than 3,000 ships dominating commerce from one end of the Mediterranean to the other. Remnants of this age of empire can be seen in design elements around the city today in the use of spiraling sets of glass lanterns and Persian carpets to adorn the interior of churches and in the pointed, domed windows and doorways on the buildings that line the canals. Insidiously perhaps, the graceful curve of these Islamic-inspired windows and doors are often topped with a Coptic cross or a Fleur de Lys reminiscent of the triumph of Christianity that the crusaders would have espoused.
War spoils seized from Constantinople can still be seen in the San Marco treasury today, gold, precious gems, jewelry, scepters, goblets and statues of almost incalculable value are on display for the payment of a few Euros as are the famed quadriga of bronze horses that once pulled a chariot on a monument to second century Roman emperor Septimus Severus.
Even after the recapture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in the 15th Century, and the loss of many of Venice’s territories in the eastern Mediterranean, links from the city state to the Muslim world remained strong as evidence in the portraits of Ottoman and Turkmen rulers that still line the Ufizzi. Friezes of palm trees, camels and gazelles decorate the ancestral home of the Zen family who were merchants trading with the Arabs, geographers and explorers, and ambassadors to Muslim Persia and Damascus.
When moveable type reached Venice in the 15th Century, Venice became the printing capital of the world. The leading printer, Aldus Manutius, also invented portable books that could be carried in a saddlebag. Instantly popular, these books soon superseded the heavy, metalclad manuscripts and books and the dissemination of knowledge was brought beyond the bounds of the monastery, palace and private library. At this time Venetian printers also began to reprint Islamic treatises on medicine, philosophy, astronomy and mathematics thus allowing these disciplines to spread freely in Europe once again. Among the portable books printed were also cookbooks, with Apicus’ early text being printed in 1498.
With all of this cross-cultural contact, trade and exchange, the Silk Road also had a strong effect on Venetian cuisine that can be enjoyed to this very day. In addition to the spices such as cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, black pepper that came from Asian shores or agricultural products such as oranges, lemons and saffron, there are recipes that also bespeak Asian and/or Muslim influence.
One of the special Venetian dishes that display the maritime contact with the Muslim world is Pesce de Saor. Fish – often sardines, sometimes mackerel – is marinated for days in layers of onions, white wine vinegar, pinenuts and raisins. The fish is sautéed (dredged if desired), and set aside, then the onions are cooked over low heat until they begin to caramelize and the vinegar, pinenuts and raisins added. This is then placed in alternating layers of onions and fish in a large casserole and allowed to sit in a cool place for several days prior to eating. This dish is clearly related to Sayadia or Sayadieh enjoyed from the Levant through the Arabian Peninsula – but is not cooked after layering given the omission of rice. It is delicious and lightly sweet despite the large amount of vinegar and onions used. The dish is sometimes served with grilled polenta which takes on the flavor of the saor. Shellfish and other fish such as monkfish are also traditionally prepared in this manner in Venice but have variations on ingredients such as the use of oranges, bay leaves and mixed greens to flavor the saor.
Many dishes labeled “Italian” also have ties to the Silk Road as well. One such dish is the Salmon with Oranges. This flavorful dish, served as a carpaccio or in pieces often served on a bed of arugula owes two of its main ingredients – arugula and oranges to Western Asia. A peruse of The Silver Spoon shows a variety of baked Persian vegetable omelets known as “kuku” for their use of eggs. Almonds for use as ground nuts and sauces are another popular Muslim addition to Italian cuisine. Pomegranates were also brought into Italy and flourished in its many warm, dry temperate climates. Bartolomeo Scappi’s cookbook (Opera) in 1570 included treatises on Arab pastry making and “Moorish” couscous in addition to the many Bolognese recipes he recorded.
A discussion of the Islamic world’s influence on Venice and Italy’s cuisines wouldn’t be complete without a mention of coffee. Muslim traders first brought coffee to Venice where merchants and their customers would sample it in Piazza San Marco. At first, raw beans were boiled and then fermented and then cooked again – a time consuming process – that produced a bitter brew. Later, in the 16th Century, when the Muslims began roasting the beans prior to brewing them, the Venetians embraced coffee drinking and the fashion spread quickly to the rest of Europe.
We stopped recently at Venice’s Cafe Florian – which opened in 1720 – to enjoy a late night desert and listen to some great live music. The gianduiotto of hazelnut gelato with bits of peidmontese chocolate and whipped cream was wonderful. My husband had a melon gelato based dessert while the kids played in the square in front of the cafe. Later, an evening thunderstorm raged while we continued to enjoy the cafe – sheltered under the arcade of Procuratie Nuove and my daughter (successfully) videographed lightning.
The influence of the Silk Road and of the Muslim merchants who traversed its land and sea routes can be found all over Venice and more broadly in Italian art, architecture, cuisine and culture. This post is a toe-in-the water of a subject we shall revisit again and again in future explorations. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photographs of Palazzo with Islamic Windows by Laura Kelley; Photograph of Pesce de Saor borrowed from Buttalapasta website.)