Thursday, September 08, 2005

Cooking and history

At the moment, I am really enjoying reading about Roman cookery, particularly every day cooking.
Eating is such a fundamental thing and the way we get food to the table, the food stuff we eat, and preparation has changed through out the years. A study of food can give a lot of insight into the culture.
Romans had precursors of pasta, pesto, pizza, souffle, baklava, panforte and pancakes. They ate a version of the Mediterranean diet -- lots of fruit and veg, olive oil and wine. The sweet and sour combination of Roman dishes laid the foundation for French cooking. Dolamades ( stuffed vine leaves) , Greek yogurt and honey,tyropitas ( cheese and filo pie) can all be found in ancient recipes. Hams, sausage and smoke fish were also used.
There are differences of course. The pasta dough was fried and then used to scoop up thick soups. There were no tomatoes, chiles or potatoes. Even old world foods such as lemons, oranges, tea and coffee were not there. Sugar in the form of sugar cane was only used for medicine. The main sweetener was honey. And carrots were not orange. They were white and were used interchangeably with parsnips. The orange carrot was developed in Holland in the 13th century for the House of Orange and is a cross between the European white carrot and an Afghanistan red carrot. Major fruits included: apples, pear, plums and apricot. Figs were important. One quibble I have with Mark Grant is that he does not understand how French beans could be dried. Of course borlotti beans, and a number of French beans are routinely dried today. I use a lot of pulse in making soup or stews.
The need to get a good supply of wheat forced some of Rome's expansion. The distribution of spices around the Empire shows what trade was like. As food becomes plainer, one see the trade routes collasping. Items disappearing off menus, only to be rediscovered later.
I love thinking -- how and what did people eat? How did they cook? What were their favourite foods? How did the preparation of such foods affect their lifestyle?
I first became interested in the cooking history when I moved to my present house and had to cope with a coal burning Aga. Suddenly modern cookbooks with their emphasis on microwaving just did not suit. The timing was all off. I turned instead to cookbooks and recipes of the American West and then to recipes from earlier times. The breath of foodstuffs has astounded me. Delicate cakes made in difficult conditions. Cooking was a real skill. You had to know how to read your oven.
Personally I find the history of cooking fascinating, but so little of it is taught in school. Understand the need to trade food, and you can understand a great deal of what was happening through out history.

The post brought an envelope from Hale -- a photocopy of the Historical Novelists Society review of The Lady Soldier. It was a good review --ending with Fans of romantic adventure will enjoy this book. So I am well pleased, particularly as HNS can sometimes be a overly harsh on historical romance -- adventure or not. Goodness knows when my copy of the HNS Review will show up.


Anonymous said...

I found what you had to say about Roman cooking really interesting. I love food history. One of my fave books is Food In England by Dorothy Hartley also The Art of Dining by by Sara Paston Wiliams.

Michelle Styles said...

Sara Paston Williams is great. I have several of her cookbooks from the National Trust.
I love poking around in the local NT shop every so often as you can find books on the history of food, dining, and housekeeping. All subjects close to my heart. (Okay so I am more fond of READING about housekeeping than actually doing any...

Alex Bordessa said...

You have got your HNS review by now! I've had mine for about a week, and have now read it cover to cover.

Anonymous said...

I second Pam. Interesting stuff. Didn't Maggie Black do some cookery books for the British Museum? I have her medieval one (on my research bookshelf - my cookery bookshelf is groaning under my Nigel Slater-fest from last week, vbg)

rakpol said...

I too love food history. During one passover I tried several dishes from a book of medieval cookery as much Eastern European passover recipes have not changed much since medieval times. I had a few successes and a few flops with the new recipes. And as usual, much success with tried and true recipes.

It seems to me, that many lovers of history and historical romance are curious about the little everyday details of life in the period of intrest.