It’s Christmas time! The true meaning of the holiday is complicated, and always has been, thanks to its mix and match ancient origins (yes, before the birth of Jesus).
Even though that famous nativity scene is the official reason for the holiday, many of the activities and traditions we practice at Christmastime come from much older customs celebrating the winter solstice. Decorated trees, gift giving, holly, mistletoe, caroling, and much more all have ancient, B.C. origins, and were later folded into the Christian celebration.
No ancient holiday influenced Christmas more than the Roman Saturnalia. The actual date of Jesus’s birth is unknown, but in the 4th Century A.D., Pope Julius I declared it to officially be December 25th. Many speculate that this was to Christianize Saturnalia, a holiday that many in Medieval Europe still celebrated despite the fading out of Rome.
Saturnalia was known for gift giving, charity, and above all, feasting and merriment! So to celebrate, I dug into Apicius for some dulcia, or sweets recipes, to make a dessert plate worthy of both a festive Roman noble, and a chef and amateur historian thousands of years later.
Baklava is another one of those Mediterranean foods that every country touching the sea claims to have invented in some form or another. While the sweet nut and filo pastry in its exact form is a more modern creation, the basic ingredients go back much further, to the ancient days of those same lands.
I thought it would be fun to make a more “primitive”baklava, forgoing all the fussing around with store-bought filo, using nuts indigenous to the ancient near east, and just honey for sweetening. Sugar doesn’t amount to more than a rare luxury good for many thousands of years.
Our first real recipe from history. . . why not for a beverage?
The discovery of beer goes far back into Neolithic times. It’s reasonable to assume that the first beers were made by accident, when porridge or mash from grain malted for other purposes was left too long for whatever reason, and fermented.
Thus by the 2000sBC and the rise of Mesopotamian civilization, people were already proficient brewers. Sumerian texts mention eight barley beers, eight emmer beers and three mixed beers (one of which we’ll be making today) This special beverage was made from the same grains which the Sumerians were well aware how important it was to their civilization. As such, brewing was sacred, serious business.
Sumerians drinking beer through giant straws, via biblicalarchaeology.org
The Hymn to the goddess of brewing Ninkasi, from around 1800BC at the peak of Sumerian culture, not only shows the peoples’ reverence and awe at this fermented beverage, but also contains a recipe for how to make the stuff! Modern brewers have taken the instructions and recreated this ancient recipe for barley and wheat beer, which Cathy K. Kaufman handily publishes in her great book Cooking in Ancient Civilizations.
The basic method is to malt some wheat berries, then soak them with water, yeast, date-syrup, and a par cooked, fermented loaf of barley dough. The whole process takes about a week and yields a mild, pale brew that’s only 2% alcohol and doesn’t quite taste like what you’re used to in modern beers.
But it’s not unpleasant! And it does the job. I would compare the flavor more to cider than to beer. Barley cider if you will, but this is a close approximation of the kind of draught which helped build a civilization. Continue reading “Sumerian Beer”
“Mustard is a plant. Mustard is an herb. Mustard is a condiment. Mustard is a sauce. Mustard is a green leafy vegetable. Mustard is a natural medicine.” —via foodtimeline.org, Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999
Mustard is not only my favorite condiment, in all its forms. It is the original condiment. Ground wild mustard seed paste goes back far into prehistory. We can’t even say who or when it was invented.
This is my version of a sweet and spicy ancient honey mustard, using dates and their syrup as the sweetener and nothing else but mustard seeds and vinegar. But you can use any combination of seeds, greens, other spices, herbs, or milk can make your own favorite mustard.
For Pickled Mustard Seeds: 1/2 cup mixed mustard seeds 2 cups vinegar, boiled
Pour the boiling vinegar over the mustard seeds and let sit and room temperature for 24 hours.