Amphorae for Sage, Rosemary and Thyme – Not Wine!

Greek Amphora – 3rd Century BCE

With the help of DNA analysis, scientists are getting a present-day look at centuries-old trade in the Mediterranean. Such studies may help debunk some long-held assumptions, namely that the bulk of Greek commerce revolved around wine.

During the fifth through third centuries B.C., the Mediterranean and Black seas were major thoroughfares for ships loaded with thousands of amphorae, thought from their shape to contain wine. But only recently have researchers peered through the lens of 21st century genetics to identify the actual remnants of the jars’ long-disappeared cargo.

Analyses of DNA fragments from the interior of nine jars from Mediterranean shipwrecks now reveal various combinations of olive, grape, Lamiaceae herbs (mint, rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage), juniper, and terebinth/mastic (genus Pistacia). General DNA targeting analyses also reveal the presence of pine (Pinus), and DNA from Fabaceae (Legume family); Zingiberaceae (Ginger family); and Juglandaceae (Walnut family).

The findings, reported in an upcoming Journal of Archaeological Science (Volume 39, Issue 2, February 2012, Pages 389-398), suggest that the ancient Greeks produced and traded a wide range of foods. The economy of the time was much more sophisticated than previously thought, says Brendan Foley, an archaeologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who coauthored the work with biologist Maria Hansson of Lund University in Sweden and colleagues at the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism.  Some samples already await analysis and further studies are planned.

With this new information, scientists could reconstruct a more accurate picture of the crops being grown and the products changing hands when the world’s first complex economies were getting under way, possibly gaining clues to the agriculture, technologies, art and geopolitics that played into daily life. (Words by Laura kelley; Photo borrowed from Ancienttouch.com)

Culinary History Mystery #3: Garum and Nuoc Mam

A post about how Garum and Nuoc Mam are related through a west-to-east technology flow.

You heard it here first folks: Over the course of the next six months or so, the kitchens of Chez Kelley are going to make the fish sauce of the ancients or garum. More accurately, we are going to compare easy or quick methods with traditional outdoor fermentation. If we haven’t been run out of the neighborhood, we will report our results in an end of summer post.

Asian and Italian Fish Sauce

I’ve been interested in making my own garum for a while now, and have a few traditional and modern recipes in hand to try. For those of you not familiar with this culinary wonder of the ancient world, it is a magical, translucent amber liquid that results from the fermentation of salted fish. When used with a heavy hand, the sauce understandably lends a fishy flavor to foods. When used with a lighter touch, it imparts a subtle, undeniably savory quality to dishes that is nothing short of absolutely delicious.

Interestingly, modern science has shown that analysis of remnants from ancient garum production from Pompeii has shown a pattern of free amino acids high in free glutamate followed by sweet-tasting glycine and alanine. These amino acid patterns are similar in modern Italian fish sauce (colatura di alici) and in some modern Asian fish sauces.

Importantly, fish sauce doesn’t appear in Asia until well into the period known as the Early Middle Ages in Europe, almost 1,000 years after its documented use in the west. Its use in China and Japan diminishes after about the 14th Century ACE, because of the rise of soy sauces, but in Southeast Asia, fish sauce use remains strong to the present day. Umami is as savory does.

A Garum Production Site Near Cadiz

Like salt-baked fish, garum production started with the Phoenicians in Carthage who controlled the Mediterranean salt trade from Spain and Morocco across Europe and North Africa to the Levant and well into Western Africa. The largest installations in the western Mediterranean was located at Lixus, on the Atlantic coast of Mauretania (Morocco), with another one in New Carthage (Cartegena) in southern Spain. Spanish garum was renowned as being of the highest quality and was traded widely across the ancient world. The Black Sea (Euxine) was another prominent area for the production of garum. Pompeii was the home of a major garum processing industry. Here, the liquid from already fermented fish was diluted and flavored with a wide variety of substances including wine, must, vinegar, honey and multiple herbs and spices.

The earliest mention of garum fish sauce is to be found in the agricultural writings of the Carthaginian Mago which was translated into Latin after the Third Punic War, but composed probably in the 6th or 5th Century BCE around the time of the rule of Magon (550-530 BCE). Cato the Elder mentions the trade of “Carthaginian fish sauce” in the 2nd Century BCE, and later descriptions can be found in The Deipnosophistae (The Philosopher’s Dining Table) by Athenaeus, I. 4b; II. 67f, c (3rd Century ACE). Athenaeus also mentions the remains of garum or liquamen production called allec which is not unlike the anchovy paste still used in Mediterranean cooking today.

Many different fish were used to make garum or liquamen in the ancient Mediterranean world with Tuna used during their seasonal migrations past Spain and Morocco, and mackerel, sardines and especially anchovies used during other times of the year. In fact, the remains of seasonally available fish from garum processing jars at Pompeii was the way that archaeologists confirmed the August date of the eruption of Vesuvius. Anchovies form the backbone of Asian fish sauce production for export, but many other local salt-water and inland fresh-water fish and shellfish are used for local and regional consumption.

Garum Amphorae from the Pompeii Pottery

The production of garum and Asian fish sauce is virtually the same as well. Fresh fish and salt in some proportion (recipes vary widely from 5:1 to 2:1) are layered in barrels, clay pits or earthenware crocks. Because of their large size, tuna were cut up before fermenting to prevent putrefaction, but most fish – especially the small species are processed whole and intact. In Rome, oregano and other herbs were added at the production phase for both flavor and to suppress bacterial overgrowth, but this step is largely omitted in the production of Asian sauces. The vats are then left to ferment – sometimes covered or sometimes uncovered (Carthaginian and Roman) in the heat and stirred every few days to a week to ensure even enzymatic digestion of the fish.

Basically the digestive enzymes of the very fresh fish digest themselves. The period of time the fish are allowed to digest varies widely between ancient west and modern Asian production, but it ranges from about 3 months to almost 1 year. As the fish ferments and decreases in bulk, bricks or a weighted bamboo mat is placed on top of the mass and presses down on the fish. When completed, the vats are siphoned from the bottom, or drainage holes opened in the bottom and the liquid is allowed to drain out. Multiple simple filtrations later, and the translucent amber fluid begins to emerge. In both east and west, the first draft is considered the highest quality sauce. Lastly the fluid is diluted with water to different degrees for culinary use. As stated above, the fish paste that remains after the garum or fish sauce is withdrawn is also used in the kitchen.

Ancient Romans flavored their garum extensively. For example, one recipe for oenogarum is a 1:1 dilution of garum with must from sweet white wine. This basic recipe can be augmented with both vinegar and pepper, or with crushed garlic, vinegar and salt. Other recipes have garum mixed with red wine must, vinegar, mint, coriander and honey. Commonly used herbs to flavor garum included dill, coriander, fennel, celery, mint, oregano – depending on what the garum was going to be used for. Oxygarum was garum diluted primarily with vinegar and meligarum was garum cut primarily with honey. Modern Italians combine the basic colatura with herbs and other flavors during the cooking process, but generally don’t flavor the fish sauce directly. For example, I cooked a pasta dish last night that had colatura, garlic, lemon zest, capers, chives and parsley in an extra-virgin olive oil base – it was divine.

Making Colatura and Nuoc Mam

Like the Ancient Romans, modern Asians use prepared fish sauce a lot. Vietnamese nuoc mam cham is a great example of this. Recipes for nuoc mam cham (or just nuoc cham) vary a great deal from region to region (and from family to family) but generally have some combination of nuoc mam, lime juice, garlic, chili peppers, rice vinegar and oftentimes sugar. There is also nuoc mam gung in which ginger and peanut or sesame oil is used to flavor the nuoc mam along with lime juice and chilis. The Cambodian tuk trey has similar ingredients to nuoc cham, but adds pounded peanuts to the mix. The Japanese shottsuru mixes fermented fish sauce with malted rice for a darker, deeper fish sauce and in the Philippines; people use calamansi citrus or lemon and pepper to flavor their fish sauce patis.

So, once again, we can identify a product that flowed from west to east and was eagerly adopted by Asians on the Silk Road. The recipes for garum changed and adapted as they moved east and became nuoc mam and nam pla according to cultural preferences and what gifts the Asian seas had to offer. Archaeologists and food scientists are working to confirm these flows and linkages, so stay tuned to this channel to learn more about garum production in the ancient world and in the kitchen of Chez Kelley.

Right now, I’ve got to run, my husband is preparing a rocking Parsi salad with fresh turmeric, onions, cucumbers, tomatoes and lime juice that smells incredible! (Words and Photo of Garum Amphorae from the Pompeii Pottery by Laura Kelley; photo of Modern Asian and Italian Fish Suaces from commercial culinary sites; Garum Production Facility near Cadiz, Spain from Wikimedia, and the photos of colatura and nuoc mam production from google images).

Venice and the Silk Road: The Muslim World

Villa with “Islamic” Windows

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.

San Marco – Quadriga

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.

Fish in Saor

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.

Roasted Coffee Beans

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.)

Culinary History Mystery #2 – The Origins of Ice Cream!

Ice Cream Treats

Triple digit temperatures have hit the Central Atlantic once again, leaving locals and visitors alike to find any way they can to keep the mercury down. Some become shut-ins moving between their air-conditioned homes to their air-conditioned cars to their air-conditioned jobs and back again; some take to the beaches, lakes and pools to swim and soak the heat away; still others turn to cold drinks, ices and of course, ice cream to keep cool.

The origins of ice cream are a convoluted tangle of misinformation and repetition. Alternately the Persians, Chinese, Arabs and Indians are credited with inventing ice cream. This seems to happen because non-dairy puddings and other chilled desserts are treated as synonymous with ice cream – causing a confusion of substance, time and place.

Although the Chinese seem to get the most credit for developing ice cream, the one really important thing bothers me about this version of history is that milk and milk products do not form a large part of the Chinese diet. The Tibetans and of course the Mongolians have lots of dairy in their diets, but the Han Chinese and other ethnic groups do not. Although a modern artisanal cheese industry is today taking root in China and producing Gouda and other western varieties, traditionally, cheese is not something associated with Chinese food. Bean curd-based concoctions, whether fried, or in soup or pudding form, these are often referred to as, “Chinese cheese”. There are only two traditional buffalo milk-based puddings that are sometimes eaten chilled that have any relation to ice cream, namely Jiang Zhuang Nai – the sweet gingery pudding and Shuang Pi Nai – which is a sweetened, cooked custard of milk and egg whites encased between two milk skins.

The pages of Marco Polo’s Travels record a lot of milk being enjoyed as cheese, curds, yogurt, milk, and even a sort of vodka (arkhi) in the Yuan court. So after the 13th Century, milk enters the Chinese diet through the Mongolian-led dynasty. However there is no mention of ice-cream, or anything resembling it.

In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), however, a poem entitled Ode to the Ice Cheese “詠冰酪” was written by the poet Yang Wanli (1127–1206).

It looks so smooth but still has a crisp texture,
It appears congealed and yet it seems to float.
Like jade, it breaks at the bottom of the dish;
As with snow, it melts in the light of the sun.

So it’s still possible that the roots of ice cream in China preceded the rule of the Mongols. But from where did the idea come from? Was it indeed an indigenous Chinese idea, or was it an adaptation of an idea that came from far-away shores?

Although information is hard to come by, a few pieces of information have solid references behind them. Ice harvested in the winter or from ice-covered mountainous regions and then used to increase the storage time of foods has been used in many cultures for millennia. The Persians had yakhchals to keep the ice frozen during the warm seasons and the Chinese and Mesopotamians had icehouses. Documentary sources exist of orders of ice coming from pharaonic Egypt to keep food in the warmest months.

Faloodeh

The first recorded ice-desserts are honey and fruit flavored sorbets offered for sale in Athenian markets in the 5th Century BCE. Both the Persians and the Chinese enjoyed ice or snow flavored with honey and fruit or sugary syrups. For the Persians, sherbet was more of a drink than the frozen dessert we now know by the same name. In the 4th Century BCE, the Persians were enjoying an ancestor of today’s chilled faloodeh pudding made from vermicelli noodles, rosewater, lime juice and a bit of cornstarch for thickening.

The next data point we have is from Pliny, recording Emperor Nero (54 to 68 CE) sending slaves to the mountains to gather snow and ice for as a basis for desserts flavored with berries and nuts. This doesn’t seem to be an advance on what the Greeks were doing five centuries earlier, but rather a simple repetition of a great idea.

So to the first century CE, we have ice and snow-based desserts flavored with fruit, nuts and syrups, in both east and west, chilled drinks on a shaved or crushed ice base in the west, and a rocking, chilled wheat based pudding also in the west. The next innovation that I have come across that walks us a step closer to ice cream is the addition of buffalo milk to the faloodeh. This seems to have occurred in China’s Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 CE) where a frozen concoction of milk, flour and camphor was enjoyed in the royal court.

Tang China was a cosmopolitan place. Arab and Persian traders were there and spreading the word of Islam by the early to mid 7th Century. Soon after this informal contact began, formal ambassadors arrived in China, led by Sa`d ibn Abī Waqqās, the maternal uncle of the prophet himself. Over the next century contact grew more frequent between the Chinese and the western Muslim world with Arab and Persian fighters assisting the Chinese in quelling rebellions in Tibet and with the exchange of servants from the royal courts. I think it likely that the Persians introduced the early form of faloodeh to the Tang Chinese and the next step in the evolution of ice cream took place.

Interestingly, I’ve seen references (that I cannot confirm) to the Indian use of ice and salt to create an endothermic reaction used to lower the temperature of other substances as early as the 4th Century CE. Also the Arabs are credited with being the first to sweeten ice-desserts with sugar instead of honey or fruit juice. But by the 10th Century CE, ice cream was widespread amongst many of the Arab world’s major cities, such as Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo.

Greeks, Persians, Chinese, Arabs, and Indians all can be referenced with developing some part of the process of freezing and flavoring ice, milk or cream to come up with ice cream. Sounds like a Silk Road creation to me – eh? I see ideas flowing around the globe, innovations taking place and being passed on to the next place until a precursor to the modern product emerged.

Today, some amazing innovation in ice cream flavors are coming out of Hong Kong – including: Sichuan pepper and Morello cherry flavored ice cream. Other flavors offered include: black sesame, jasmine tea, pear and port and even gorgonzola ice cream. (Words by Laura Kelley).

Culinary History Mysteries #1: Salt-Baked Fish

Salt-Baked Fish

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My friend and colleague in cyberspace, Chef Miles Collins provided the inspiration for this post by blogging about Salt-Baked Fish – a dish he was prepping for the menu of a family of restaurants in Spain. The restaurants serve up Spanish and related Mediterranean specialties with emphasis on seasonal and locally sourced ingredients. Miles post describes in nice detail how encasing a whole prepared fish in a vault of salt (measured in pounds or kilos) and baking it acts to steam and flavor the fish in a simple but delicious way. Some modern recipes call for adding herbs and spices or lemons to the fish prior to covering it with a thick salt crust while others call for adding lemon zest, lavender or other seasoning to the salt to add flavor. Either way, the fun part comes after the baking when the hardened salt crust is cracked to reveal the moist and delectable fish within.

I have long been fascinated by this dish, because so many nations have claimed it as their own. The Spanish have laid claim to it as have the French, Portuguese and Italians. The Moroccans have a version and the dish appears with East Asian additions such as ginger, star anise and wolfberries on Southern Chinese menus. I can smell a Silk Road Mystery from miles away – so I did a little research.

Even a few hundred years ago, this dish would have been expensive to prepare, because of the huge amount of salt needed to prepare it. Further back, it would have been a feast dish or reserved only for the wealthy and prosperous. The only people who could have originated this recipe on an ordinary budget were people in salt-producing areas. The recipe also seemed a bit to simple to be a European dish – or so I thought.

The earliest reference to anything that resembles Salt-Baked Fish in China is a recipe for Salt-Baked Chicken from Dong Jing in Guangdong during the Qing Dyansty (1644-1911). The recipe actually arose from the earlier preservation of cooked chickens in the salt fields of the area – which gave added flavor. I wasn’t satisfied, however, that this was the root recipe for the Spanish one that Miles blogged about, so I kept on digging.

Thinking about other salt producing areas, I turned next to North Africa or other parts of the Muslim world for the source of the recipe. I found one reference to it in Lilia Zaouali’s Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World. She writes about Shad Cooked in Salt which she says comes from, “a thirteenth century Muslim cookbook”. Unfortunately, that is the only definitive historical provenance that is offered for the recipe. It might be from Ibn Khalsun, an Andalusian author, but I’m guessing. In that recipe, one puts a layer of salt on a new terra-cotta tile, place the prepped fish on top, add another layer of salt and bake it in an oven – sounds like a good ancestral recipe for the Spanish one being offered at the restaurants that Miles creates menus for. Interestingly, the 13th Century recipe serves the fish with a selection of sauces, including: 1.) an appetizing sauce of oil, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, salt and black or long pepper; and 2.) a dark sauce (called murri) of small fish fermented with salt, oil, aromatic herbs, fennel and coriander. There is a lot of regional variation for murri recipes, but some call for barley, still others for wine.

But, the story doesn’t end in the 13th Century.

The earliest recipe I’ve found to date for salt-baked fish is from the 4th Century BCE in the fragments of Archestratus’ Life of Luxury. Archestratus was a Greek living in Sicily who espoused simple cooking methods, usually with minimal herbs and flavorings added to meats and fish. The only excption to this that I can find is a few strongly flavored sauces to optionally accompany cooked main dishes. His recipe calls for a whole, round white fish such as sea bass, sea bream or snapper that was cleaned and gutted. The fish is seasoned only with a few springs of thyme inserted into the cavity of the fish prior to encasing it in two pounds of salt moistened with water and egg whites. Baked and crust removed, the fish is served simply by drizzling first press olive oil on it.

Further research shows that this dish probably originated with the Phoenicians in Carthage along with their empire built on the salt and garum trades.  So, the simplicity I thought was, “African”, in a way really was.   Obviously, there may be Levantine roots to the dish given the origin of the Phoenicians in the Eastern Mediterranean, but I’ve yet to find direct or indirect evidence of that.  To me, it makes perfect sense  that the Phoenicians originated this recipe – given the extent of their colonies from the Near East to Southern Spain. Interestingly, this may be a recipe adopted by the sea-faring Chinese from contacts in the Mediterranean or Saudi peninsula and as thus may be another dish or ingredient that flowed from west to east. (Words by Laura Kelley, Photo of Salt-Baked Fish by Dextrosa | Dreamstime.com)