Mark Grant on Roman Cuisine

We will soon be sharing some warming winter recipes from culinary researcher Mark Grant’s Roman Cookery, but in the meantime here is an interview with Mark on Roman cuisine and its relationship with modern Mediterranean food. Mark teaches classics and has edited and translated a number of culinary works by historical figures such as the Byzantine physician Anthimus and Oribasius, personal physician to the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate.  His most recent book is Austro-Hungarian Cookery: Leaves from a Family Kitchen.

What led you to become interested in Roman cuisine? Why do you think it is a culinary tradition worth exploring?

Shaun Holman, one of my Latin teachers at school, asked if anyone in the class had come across the cookery book by Apicius. He had bought a copy for the library and that evening I borrowed it.  Over forty years later I am still experimenting with Roman food. I pay tribute in the book to his memory. What I find fascinating about Roman food is the survival of flavours. There are predecessors of pesto, Provencal beef stews, agrodolce sauces, filo pastry, honey cakes and dried fruit. This culinary tradition unites east and west, the Christian and Islamic worlds, a common heritage that dates back over two thousand years.

Can you tell us something about the research process? How did you go about finding the recipes in Roman Cookery?

I studied Latin and Ancient Greek at school and university. My PhD looked at the broader topic of ancient dietetics. I also taught Classics at secondary schools for nearly twenty years. Almost from the outset I wanted to find recipes from outside Apicius, a compilation from the late Roman Empire, and so I kept a notebook of references. The sources can be divided into three main types: recipes detailed in agricultural and technical works, for example Cato’s On Agriculture (3rd/2nd century BC), Pliny’s Natural History (1st century AD) and Galen’s extensive writings on medicine (2nd century AD); marginal notes by ancient commentators and scribes to explain difficult words in a text, for example dishes mentioned in the plays of Aristophanes (5th century BC) and Plautus (3rd/2nd century BC); and fragments of other cookery books, for example the Heidelberg papyrus and authors quoted by Athenaeus’ Partying Professors (2nd/3rd century AD). Archaeology can show the content of larders around the Roman Empire, and thus the regional variations, and how this was prepared for the table.

How does Roman cookery relate to modern day Mediterranean and Italian cooking?

Roman cookery is quintessential Mediterranean cookery. It is its very foundation and for some recipes it has hardly changed. Yet just like any other cookery, it needs lots of practice to make perfect, and then some more. Without a family tradition from which to learn, anyone interested in Roman cookery must keep experimenting, trying out proportions and testing ideas. Each cook has to create that family tradition, as if there were a slave in a tunic standing by the side of the stove.

What do you think readers will find most surprising about Roman cooking

That it is really very good – and very sophisticated. I have run cookery sessions around the UK, the most recent at the Wells Latin Summer School, and the verdict is positive. Sometimes the impression from history books is that Roman cooking is not for the modern palate. The flavours can be both familiar and unusual. It is exciting to have such a window on the past.

If you were to recommend one Roman recipe what would it be?

This is a difficult question and the answer will of course change. But for the moment I would recommend a recipe by Apicius (4.5.4) for apricots. Mint, vinegar and wine do not sound as if they will work. Adjust the proportions – the recipe, like most, does not give quantities – and the result is exquisite in its subtlety. For a recipe where I have noted my own interpretation of quantities, the nut cake on pages 144-5 of Roman Cookery is wonderfully moreish.

Read more about Roman Cookery here.

Lorca — Voyage to the Heartland

Published back in September, we were pleased to see author Nicolas Lalaguna’s review of Lorca’s Sketches of Spain in The Morning Star:

“Sketches of Spain lets you bear witness to the 18-year-old folk musician Lorca discovering the poet inside. In his prologue he tells us that every book is a garden and how “lucky the man who can plant it out and blessed the man who cuts its roses and feeds his soul.” He begs the reader to look beyond the set horizons, to dream and “experience in myriad shades” the garden he is planting out before us.

For many this book will be an ongoing source of wonder and insight into the development of a beautiful mind.

For those who don’t have the opportunity to read Lorca in his own language, trust in Bush’s unpretentious and welcoming translation not to sully the melodic metaphors, along with Bell’s illustrations which act as a visual echo of the world the musician describes.

Sketches of Spain is a welcome addition to any library, doubly so for those who wish to see Spain’s past and all of our future a little differently.”

Full review here.

The Strange Death of… Everything

Not a week goes by it seems without an article or a book being published that adapts the title of George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England. Examples abound – from the obvious such as The Strange Death of Tory England and The Strange Death of Liberal America to more obscure examples such as The Strange Demise of British Canada and The Strange Death of Social-democratic Sweden. Indeed the latest edition of the London Review of Books promises an article entitled ‘The Strange Death of Municipal England’.

Yet it’s not simply the title of George Dangerfield’s classic work that retains its relevance. In an era where all political certainties seem questionable and where the dominance of traditional political parties across Europe seems to be breaking down, now is the perfect time to revisit Dangerfield’s chronicle of the collapse of the Liberal party in the face of radical popular movements and resistance in Britain’s colonies. As investigative journalist Paul Foot wrote back in 1997:

“There are, of course, many history books about this period… even after 61 years, however, George Dangerfield’s book is supreme.”

We are inclined to think that the same is true now, more than 80 years since The Strange Death of Liberal England was first published.

Chitrita Banerji and Bengali Cuisine

Over the next few weeks we will be publishing interviews with some of our fantastic authors. First up is Chitrita Banerji — novelist, translator, and one of the very few Indian food historians in the world. We asked her about her book, Bengali Cooking: Seasons and Festivals and the changing reception of Bengali cooking in the West.

You grew up in Calcutta but also spent many years in Bangladesh. How does Bengali cuisine differ between what used to be West and East Bengal?

The Muslim influence is very strong in the cooking of modern Bangladesh. That is evident in the preponderance of meat items in both daily meals and festive menus. Vegetables are accorded a distinctly secondary place and hardly appear in the meals served at weddings or during big religious festivals. The use of onions is ubiquitous, almost as if it were salt. Not surprisingly, there is far greater variety in the preparation of meat dishes than in West Bengal.

The Hindus of East Bengal (many of whom eventually migrated to West Bengal) are noted for the diversity of their fish preparations. Their cooking is also marked by a greater use of spices and oil. While the culinary culture of West Bengal also includes many fish dishes (as well as meat) the use of spices is more moderate. There is a far greater range of vegetable dishes here, probably a lingering influence of the vegetarianism promoted by the sixteenth-century Hindu reformer of the Vaishnav sect, Sri Chaitanya. The addition of small quantities of sugar in savoury dishes is also a characteristic of West Bengali cooking. However, many of these distinctions are ebbing, given the increasing tendency of eating out, preference for meat, and interest in the cuisines of other parts of the world.

You have been settled in the United States since the early 90s. How has American interest in Bengali cooking changed over the years and what has the role of Indian emigrants to the United States been in that

Bengali cooking is still largely unknown in the United States. There are Indian restaurants that mostly serve northern Indian food, sometimes adding a few items from southern India (such as dosa) or items from the coastal cuisines of Goa or Kerala or Mangalore. That is what the American consumers are familiar with. The few restaurateurs who have tried to specialise in serving Bengali food have not succeeded. This is a wide open field, awaiting a committed, knowledgeable entrepreneur.

Many people in the United States and the UK will know Bengali cooking largely through restaurant food. What do you think they may find surprising about Bengali home cooking?

Although Bengali cooking is really not known in the United States the situation is different in the UK, because of the greater number of Bengalis living there. Even so, I don’t think too many people are aware of the range and nuance of authentic Bengali food. The good thing is that now some really enterprising Bengalis are opening small-scale, home-based restaurants to serve traditional Bengali food. In Bengal, we think of “bhat-machher jhol” (rice and fish stew) or “dal-bhat-aloobhatey” (rice, dal, and mashed potatoes seasoned with mustard oil and chopped green chilis) as quintessential Bengali meals–simple, yet exquisite. You hardly ever see that outside of Bengal. New restaurants like Calcutta Streets in London are attempting to serve such items and, from what I hear, their customers are both surprised and delighted. I hope more of them come up and people begin to realise that chicken tikka masala is not necessarily an accurate representation of the vast variety of India’s regional cuisines.

Are there any common misconceptions about Bengali cuisine that you feel need challenging?

Once people in Western countries recognise what Bengali cuisine is, it would be important not to conflate the cooking styles of the two Bengals–Bangladesh and West Bengal. I would also like to stress that the notion of any and every Indian food being heavy on spices and chilis is an erroneous one. Many Bengali dishes are very mild and their taste depends on the flavour imparted by a selection of whole spices rather than heavy-duty ground masala or a combination of onions and garlic and tomato.

If you had to choose just one recipe to recommend from your book which would you choose and why?

Although Bengalis, by and large, are not vegetarians, the one recipe I would like people to try from my book is a vegetarian one—Chholar Dal (in the chapter on Early and Late Autumn). It is absolutely delicious. The taste is complex and the fragrance of garam masala permeates every mouthful. It is substantial; you can almost make a filling meal out of this dal served with some rice or paratha or luchi (Bengali fried bread). The addition of fried coconut chips to the dal adds both texture and nutrition. And given the current trends towards vegetarianism and veganism, this is a recipe that anyone can try!

Find out more about Chitrita’s book here.