Recovering from Al-Hafla (and sharing a few recipes)

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AlHaflacup

One of the prizes for the Al-Hafla poetry contest, a brass goblet with a beaded cup cover and a brass medallion, both with the arms of the Barony of Buckland Cross.

Valentine’s Day weekend (Feb. 15, to be precise) the Barony of Buckland Cross hosted the second annual reincarnation of a well-loved event called Al-Hafla. The event was one that gave an opportunity for the “Unaligned Middle Eastern Tribes” of the SCA to meet and party together sooner than Pennsic (it used to be held in January but February was the earliest we could manage to do this year). Live music, dancing, and lots of food of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean origin were the order of the day.

This year I once again served as a cook for the event, but I was also in charge of the menu and securing the site, etc. What made my job infinitely easier was the participation of every single member of the Barony either on site that day and helping me plan out details. Our Baron, Aurddeilen-ap-Robet, went all out for decoration, obtaining tent cloths and stands to stretch it out across the hall. Aurddeilen also baked cookies from authentic medieval and old Middle Eastern recipes, and brewed tea and coffee. His sweets table was also a treat for the eye, beautifully arranged with all of his drinks decanters and dishes. Tommaso, the husband of our Seneschal Jaz, created folding table legs to support the brass tray tables given into Jaz’s keeping by one of the founders of the event, Baron Mukhtar Durr al-Jabal al Mukhfi. Baron Durr was also there on site early to help set up.

And when it came to the food, we had a lot of it. We went for a rolling dayboard spread, where people could help themselves when they wanted to. Besides oil cured black olives from Turkey, Turkish panir and Greek feta cheeses, Turkish stuffed grape leaves, flatbreads and rustic Italian breads, and some Turkish eggplant relish, my idea was to have a variety of hot and cold dishes of various kinds. Some of the dishes I chose are not of the medieval period, but they are Middle Eastern favorites and people expected them: chickpea hummus, spanakopita, and cucumber yogurt salad. Also popular but probably not period to any particular country is our “Moroccan chicken” – chicken breasts and thighs marinated in whole milk Greek yogurt suffused with ras al-hanout spice mixture (containing cumin, cinnamon, coriander, black pepper, turmeric, and saffron) and grilled.

There were some period recipes on the table however. Jaz made a medieval sumac chicken, using the recipe from Scheherazade’s Feasts: Foods of the Medieval Arab World. I wound up making my cicera fracta (the onion and saffron version of it). As well as my version of the Emir of Catania’s chicken dish, or chicken baked in bread, a traditional recipe from Sicily of cooked chicken macerated with pistachios, chicken broth, lemon juice, bread crumbs, and capers, all combined into a hollowed semolina bread loaf and baked (you can get a recipe here in my revised paper on Academia.edu on Sicilian food).

In the runup to the event, however, I found myself leafing through Charles Perry’s Scents and Flavors: A Syrian Cookbook. I was thinking of recreating the lamb/garlic/spinach/chickpea dish I had done from this text from 2019’s Al-Hafla (from Chapter 6: Sautes and Related Dishes, Section on Spinach: four recipes), but the quantity of lamb I used last year was prohibitively expensive. I needed to cut my budget way, way down.

Providently, the answer to reducing my food costs came when I opened the book randomly and stumbled upon the lentil dishes:

Section on lentil dishes, for which there are four recipes

The first recipe is of two kinds. Market folk and the bulk of people cook the first kind—so there is no point in giving a recipe here. It is worth noting though that adding carrots, chard, large taros, and saffron will improve it. (Scents and Flavors, page 133)

According to Charles Perry’s footnote to this recipe, the reason for “no point in giving a recipe” is because the dish is simply just boiled lentils. Of course I opted for the jazzed up version. Unsure if taro was available at the local Indian market and without the time to look, I went with chard, carrots, and saffron. Here is my version:

Syrian Lentils with Chard, Carrots, and Saffron

2 pounds of lentils

1 large bunch of carrots

1 large bunch of green chard

1/8 teaspoon of saffron threads softened in a few ounces of hot water

Boil the lentils until just done. Peel the carrots and chop them into thin disks (recipes in this book called for either carrots in coin form or in slivers; I opted for the coins). Destem the chard and roughly chop the leaves. In a separate frying pan, saute the carrots in olive oil until soft, and add the chard, sauteing until that is soft and cooked through. Add the carrots and chard to the cooked lentils. Mix thoroughly. Add the saffron and water; mix thoroughly. Serve warm.

I had some leftovers from this amount, but it freezes well. If you want to adapt it to more modern and carnivorous tastes, add chicken sage sausage to it, it’s really delicious.

Second recipe Boil lentils until done. Pound meat, boil, drain the water, and pound in the mortar until soft. Add in hot spices, pour in tail fat, and cook it in a brass pan until it contracts and browns. Put in a frying pan—putting in a layer of noodles, a layer of pounded meat, a layer of lentils, and so on—until the pan is full. Pour on a good quantity of melted fat and a little of the meat broth. Put the fat on while it is on a low fire—pouring along the edges, using a thin ladle, so that the fat reached underneath/ Keep boiling until the noodles are done and it is ready to eat. (Scents and Flavors, page 133)

My first thought when I read this is, “This is Syrian hamburger helper.” I was not about to boil meat and pound it in a mortar the night before an event when I had many other things left to do, though. I opted to use ground meat (which also means I did not also need to use lamb’s tail fat, since I was not going to boil all the fat out of the meat). I was set on using ground lamb mixed with ground beef, like in a kofte mixture. Unfortunately, due to my local Turkish market burning down (don’t ask, I have no idea what happened, but it’s closed and gone now) I had no ready resources for ground lamb so instead used beef. This was not the meat the recipe actually called for—there’s a section of chicken recipes but everything else is lamb—but I had to improvise. As far as “hot spices” go, pepper, cinnamon, coriander, and cumin rank among those, and they flavor beef well. And since I have galangal and long pepper on hand, I planned to use those too.

What did the author mean by “noodles”? From my research on medieval Sicilian food, my assumption was that this was dried semolina pasta, the type known as “itriya” (“threads”). In Sicily, dried pasta was made as early as the 12th century and even became a trading commodity. Frustratingly, there is not one recipe in this book for the noodles made for savory dishes. They must have been so common and commonly made that it was not needed to give a separate recipe for them. The cooking directions for this recipe, however, with the call for liquids to be added to the dish as it cooks low and slow, certainly in my mind point to the pasta being a dried one rather than fresh.

Interestingly, the combination of lentils with pasta has continued into modern-day Syrian cooking, with a dish called horaa esbao; this is one version I have found, but it is very different than the medieval version. For one thing, it is meat free and uses flavorings such as pomegranate syrup. Like most homestyle dishes, every cook puts their own twist on the recipe. Some make their own fresh pasta, some use dried.

Here is my redaction from Scents and Flavors:

“Al-Hafla Casserole”

5 pounds of ground beef

2 pounds of lentils

Enough dried thread-like pasta, broken up, to generously cover the bottom of a large catering tray pan (two boxes of spaghetti or angel hair will do, I used a Polish noodle that I found at my local international market on sale that looked like short broken up spaghetti and saved me time).

1 box or two small cans of beef broth

Cinnamon, cumin, black pepper, coriander (not found in any of the recipes but also used by me: long pepper and galangal, because I had them and they stand up well to beef)

Preheat oven to 375F. Boil the lentils until done. Brown the beef with your chosen spices; drain some, but not all, of the resulting fat. When the meat and lentils are cooked, layer the noodles at the bottom of the tray; then layer the meat, and then the lentils. Pour about half of the beef broth into it, and put into the oven for about 45 minutes, adding the rest of the broth midway through. It’s done when the pasta at the bottom is cooked.

Verdict: People liked it, and the redaction made a lot of food (I was aiming for 60 people and spent about $50 on ingredients, so it certainly was economical). It is a rib-sticking dish between the lentils and pasta. I want to try it again, in smaller quantities, with ground lamb and without the galangal and long pepper.

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This past weekend, my local SCA group held a big event – the investiture of our new baron and baroness. Because the king and queen of the East were there, there also were a looooooot of people attending at least for the day, to see the ceremonies, etc.

chickpeas

Image of cooked chickpeas from gettystewart.com, http://www.gettystewart.com/cook-chickpeas-soaking-storing-freezing/

That meant about 200 people to feed during the day, and I pitched in to produce some food for the dayboard. Looking for something vegetarian/vegan, I looked at cicera fracta, a 13th century Italian recipe from the Liber de Coquina. The cookbook was written by someone around Naples in the 13th century; there is a theory by the linguist Anna Martellotti that the Liber and another southern Italian medieval cookbook, the Anonimo Merdionale of the 15th century, have recipes that originally derive from the court of Frederick II of Italy. Frederick’s mother Constance was the daughter of Roger II of Sicily, and Frederick spent his childhood in the Arabicized Palermo court, and as emperor had many Muslims among his soldiers and personal retainers. There is also her theory that his personal cook, Berardo, was the originator of some of these recipes in both books. If you’re curious about the Anonimo Meridionale recipes, David and Rebecca Friedman have translated Libre B of the Meridionale and redacted some recipes.

Here is the recipe for cicera fracta:

Item, aliter : accipe cicera fracta et pone ad decoquendum cum oleo, pipere et safrano et cum caseo detruncato et ovis perditis et ovis debatutis; uel aliter, cum ciceris fractis et perbullitis et, aqua bullitionis eiecta, ponatur cepa frissa et bene confecta cum lardo uel oleo sicut dies exigit.

Crudely translated, it’s a chickpea porridge either flavored with oil, saffron, pepper, cheese, and crumbled hardboiled eggs, or oil, bacon (technically lardo), and onions.

There’s also another version in which the chickpeas are cooked in almond milk, with saffron and ginger.

Well, neither version of the first cicera fracta recipe would really do for vegans/vegetarians; the second cicera fracta recipe, while vegetarian, didn’t appeal to me. Also there are people with severe nut allergies who attend events, and I didn’t want an open crockpot of almond milk stew to be aerosolized death for them.

Having no saffron in the house and no chance to get more before the event, I went rooting among my medieval spices and found my grains of paradise and my cubebs.

Although grains of paradise were present in medieval Arabic cooking and perfume making, they were unknown (or rather forgotten about) in Europe when the Liber de coquina was written. Cubebs were known but they and grains of paradise were considered “hot,” humorally speaking, so I would have been a very irresponsible cook in medieval times. And I added white pepper too!

So this is what I wound up doing: I soaked 2 pounds of dried chickpeas overnight, and then in the morning, I boiled the chickpeas for a few hours, in water in a large stockpot, until they began to get soft. I then added sea salt, 1.5 teaspoons of grains of paradise, ground to a powder; 1.5 teaspoons of cubebs, ground to a powder; and about the same of white pepper. I boiled the whole thing a few hours more, and then caramelized in olive oil four medium onions, slivered. Once the onions were ready I dumped them into the pot and simmered for about 15 minutes, then dipped out about half of the chickpeas and onions into my mixer bowl, and using my stick blender to puree it. I pureed about half of stew again after returning the first batch of pureed chickpeas and onions to the pot. Then I simmered the mixture to thicken it a bit more.

The resulting effort was hearty, and the sweetness of the onion counterbalanced the sharpness of the spices used. I was told several times by people, “I don’t like chickpeas, but I like this!”

I’ve made the bacon and onion version before and lots of people who like bacon like that, because, well, bacon. Though I want to try it with lardo, if I can get my hands on any. I’ll try prosciutto or speck as well.

The saffron, cheese, and egg one…I don’t think it should be a melty cheese; I think it calls for something very salty and strong, like feta or ricotta salata. The eggs, I would hardboil and then crumble on as a garnish, with more egg provided so diners can add what they wish. The same thing with the ricotta salata, adding some to the pot before serving and providing some on the side so diners can add what they wish.

I have to admit I am intrigued by the almond milk one; I wonder if I added sugar to it, how it would taste. Sweetened almond milk pottages are a staple of medieval cuisine after all. Looks like I am going to be giving an order soon to Nuts.com for some saffron (the best online source I have found for saffon, quality and prices are very good).

 

 

More medieval Sicilian music

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I havLuteLadyCapellaPalatinaen’t had a lot of time to do much in the way of research lately. I keep trying to change that, but overall, I am a lazy lump and being a freelance writer and editor, I have clients to keep happy, because eating and keeping my bills paid is nice.

At present I am looking into pieces of music in anticipation of getting my rehabbed rebab/citole back one of these days. One of the pieces I would like to play is one allegedly from the Troparium de Catania, called “Anni novi circulus,” and it’s a Christmas song.

There’s just one problem: I cannot find the damn lyrics anywhere and my Latin is not good enough to just listen to the versions I have found and write the words down. You think one scholar would have analyzed the text in an article but apparently when it comes to early medieval music, the Troparium de Catania doesn’t get a lot of scholarly love.

MS 19421 allegedly has “Anni novi circulus.” But Madrid also has three other manuscripts of Norman Sicilian music. There’s MS 288; MS 289; and Vitr 20/4. They’re all scanned images and not searchable except for me straining my eyeballs. Pretty simply, I am just trying to find the three words “Anni novi circulus” and hoping that the rest of the words of the song are there. Wish me luck!

Here is Al Qantarah’s version of “Anni novi circulus.”

Trouvere Medieval Minstrels also did a version of “Anni novi circulus” on their CD “Magna Melodia”; here is a video with a snippet of the song and some glorious images of the Cathedral of Monreale and the Capella Palatina. The CD itself is available on iTunes and Amazon.

An UPDATE!

The fabulous Gill Page of Trouvere graciously replied to my inquiry, and has told me the words are in MS 289. But even better, there is actually a thesis available from David Hiley, where he transcribed the pieces of 289, with lyrics.

I have just bashed out my own version in SoundCloud, and now look forward to transcribing and performing more of these pieces.

A cockatoo in 13th century Sicily

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Siciliancockatoo

Look at this bird. How adorable and grumpy he looks. He’s also the oldest depiction of a cockatoo, a bird from Australia, in Europe:

“The four images of the white cockatoo feature in the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II of Sicily’s De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (The Art of Hunting with Birds), which dates from between 1241 and 1248.

These coloured drawings pre-date by 250 years what was previously believed to be the oldest European depiction of a cockatoo, in Andrea Mantegna’s 1496 altarpiece Madonna della Vittoria.”

I just love that Frederick II called the sultan of Cairo “the sultan of Babylon.”

Frederick II is after the period that I favor, but his court managed to translate the cultural achievements of the Norman court to a much broader audience, besides creating achievements of its own. The Italian forms of poetry, canzone and sonnet, were invented at his court. I often wonder what would have happened if his son Manfred was able to keep the throne, instead of being killed at the Battle of Benevento

 

Bread, the staff of life: an update

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I bake a lot of bread these days; I very rarely buy any storebought bread, unless it’s something like potato bread. At first, I was using traditional yeast. When I started exploring historical baking—particularly medieval baking—I realized very quickly that any bread before commercial yeast was available in the 1800s was going to be sourdough.

I had clues about traditional Sicilian bread from Mary Taylor Simeti’s “Pomp and Sustenance.” In it, she gives a recipe for traditional Sicilian bread, which I have quoted in my paper on Sicilian food on academia.edu. Even though the recipe uses commerial yeast, she notes that some bakers use a “criscenti”, a bit of dough from the bread batch preserved in olive oil, as a starter for the next batch of bread. This bit of dough would accumulate other yeasts and lactobacilli, and so on and so on.

Inadvertently, I think Simeti gave another clue as to how some Sicilians created their own starters and introduced wild yeasts to their loaves. She said one old woman told her that in her tiny mountain village while she was growing up, the women would knead elderflowers into their dough: Elderflower contains wild yeasts, which makes the flower a good candidate for fermentation for elderflower cordials and champagnes.

Today, elderflower-infused dough is essential for the production of vastedda, a focaccia-like bread filled with sliced tuma and salami. In this article, a more thorough description of vastedda is provided:

Vastedda con sambuco

The last specialty we will be featuring takes us to Parco dei Nebrodi, a protected natural area that extends between the provinces of Messina, Catania and Enna. In Troina, a village in the verdant mountains of the Enna province is where vastedda cu sammuccu, or, vastedda with elderflower is made. According to different sources, the term vastedda (or guastedda) could derive from the ancient French term gastel or Germanic wastel. In Sicilian, this word has several meanings, the majority of which refer to bread products. The one exception is in Valle del Belice, between Agrigento, Trapani and Palermo, where vastedda is a PDO protected cheese (Vastedda del Belice Dop).”

My own sourdough was derived from a starter given to me by a friend. It was originally white, but I fed it durum wheat flour over time to make it an all-durum one.

I have no idea how the microbiota of my starter compares with that of traditional Italian breads. There is actually a research paper, from the Journal of Applied and Environmental Microbiology, that does profile the microbiotas of 19 traditional Italian sourdoughs, but I am no scientist and I do not have access to a lab to profile my starter. But I can tell you one thing: my bread is delicious.

My next step is getting some coarser semolina flour, possibly traditional Indian atta flour, and create a starter and bread from that. But that is an experiment for another day.

Rebab rehab

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Rebab rehab

Another long pause between entries. And this time, I am not writing about food. I do continue to bake my sourdough bread, but due to a starter mishap, am only down to white right now and have not yet restarted the semolina.

I’ve been playing more music with my friends in the Bhakaili Branslers this year. Mostly I play frame drums, but I want to start playing more stringed instruments again. As much as I love my Larrivee 3/4 parlor guitar, however, it is not period to my 12th century Sicilian persona.

A citole or rebab would be much more in keeping, but I have not had a lot of spare money as of late, especially for a custom-built instrument. However, a solution seems to have presented itself. Back in the winter, I noticed, in a local antique store, something dubbed an “Indian guitar.” It was only $50, so I bought it.

It turned out to be an Afghani rebab, and it is a direct descendant of the Persian or medieval Middle Eastern rebab, seen here in a mural from the Cefalu Cathedral.

Cefaluluteplayer

The rebab is now in the hands of Paul Butler (known in the SCA of Master Arden of Icombe) for a complete rehab. There is a lot that needs to be done to it to make it playable. Paul told me, only half jokingly, that the instrument was probably made on some mountainside in Afghanistan in the 1970s with just a hook knife, a chisel, and a file, and whatever materials the maker could lay his hands on. The fretboard was actually nailed on, with actual scavenged building nails, probably because the maker didn’t have access to decent glues.

Part of the rehab will entail putting a solid top on it, instead of animal skin, for stability’s sake and less worry about skin replacement later. All of the pegs need to be replaced, and the bridge and nut need to be replaced. Of course the fretboard needs to be glued on instead of nailed, and there will be new strings. Tuning will probably be in “standard,” or as what is inferred as standard tuning, with a set of drone or sympathetic strings. Paul has more information about citoles and their theoretical tuning here.

There’s some debate about these instruments were played. Modern Afghani musicians play their rebabs like a a guitar or any non-bowed stringed instrument (here is a very good video that not only shows it being played, by a musician named Udi Ben Kna’an, but talks about how the rebab is constructed). Paul notes in his instrument-building and research pages (found here) that rebabs were bowed in period. But the beam painting from Cefalu Cathedral and paintings from the Capella Palatina muquarna show the rebabs played as nonbowed instruments. A luthier in Sicily, Giuseppe Severini, has his own reproduction of a plucked rebab from Sicily here. To me, it doesn’t really look like the one in the Cefalu Cathedral or any instruments depicted on the Capella Palatina muquarna. Then again, these visuals are very abstract. And some details, you have to use artistic imagination to fill them in.

I look forward to having my rehabbed rebab back before the end of this year – Paul’s very busy and I am very grateful he chose to take this beast of a project on. I know it’s in the best of hands now.

 

Back to the research grind: Bread bread bread

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Greetings, strangers who happened to wander onto my page!

You’ll notice that this is the first posting in quite awhile. There are lots of good real-life reasons for this, which I am not going to get into here. But now it looks like I will have some time to take up my research into 12th century Sicily again.

My papers on Sicilian food continue to be some of the most-viewed ones on Academia.edu. Rather than letting you dig around for them here on the blog, here are Food in Medieval Sicily, and Food in Medieval Sicily, Revised.

Over the past few years, I have taken up baking my own bread. First it was a way to save money, now it’s because I prefer the taste. I like rustic loaves the best; just water, flour, salt, and yeast. Fresh-baked bread also makes the house smell yummy.

But I couldn’t say I was baking in a medieval manner at all. Commercial yeast didn’t come on the market until the 19th century. But I was at a loss of how to create my own starter. All the recipes just seemed too intimidating.

This dilemma was addressed last winter, when I was given a jar of starter by a friend. I immediately started learning how to use it effectively, through trial and error. I now have three jars of starter; the original white; a rye starter; and most important for my Sicilian research, a semolina starter. I started each of the other two jars by pouring out half my white wheat starter into them, adding rye or semolina flour, and repeatedly using them and feeding them the appropriate flours. The rye starter makes an appealingly tangy rye bread; and the semolina starter makes loaves more akin to the ones I tasted at a luncheon in Selinunte. These were huge yellow loaves baked in a wood-fired oven and were dense and tangy.

So, my next steps will be to research contemporary sourdough semolina bread recipes; and do some all-semolina loaves. I have baked with the semolina starter, but I have been mixing the starter with regular white flour. I have gotten very good loaves with this. But I want to compare and contrast methods and recipes as well as flours. Apparently there were several types of wheat grown in medieval Sicily; soft red winter wheat and durum wheat being two of them. Most flour sold in the US for baking is of the hard white winter wheat variety; soft white wheat flour can be found as pastry flour. Finding a red wheat pastry flour may be a bit of a challenge. I’m on firmer ground with durum wheat flour, as a I can get a good silky fine durum flour and a coarser semolina at my local Amish market.

Stay tuned for hopefully tasty results!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beccafico, Liber de coquina, and cicera fracta

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Greetings! I can’t believe how long it’s been since I’ve posted. The last time I said anything of note here, I was researching dishes that could have been served during Richard II’s Christmas feast in Sicily. I did wind up making, since I’d already thawed out the game hens, my twist on how “beccafico” could have been prepared for the table.

Here’s what I did: I took four tiny game hens, sauteed up their tiny giblets with chopped onion, and mixed the minced up giblets and cooked onion with bread crumbs, pine nuts, raisins, and a little sugar. I moistened the mixture with lemon juice and vinegar, and filled the birds up with it. Then I layered the birds in my cast iron enameled baking dish, dotted the extra stuff in and around them, and named them, covered, for about an hour and a half at 325 degrees F.

Here they are:

Hot out of the oven!

Hot out of the oven!

 

They were incredibly tasty, but it got me to thinking about what kinds of dishes with small games hens or pigeons could have been around in Richard’s time.

Back in November, I finally got my own copy of Anna Martellotti’s “I ricettari di Federico II,” in which she compares the Liber de coquina, a 14th century cookbook attributed to the Angevin court of Naples; the Meridionale; the Anonimo Toscano; and a previously unpublished treatise from the Vatican Library; and draws the conclusion that the origin of many of the Liber de coquina recipes was not the Angevin court, but the Arab-influenced Norman-Swabian court of Frederick II. And the Vatican treatise was an earlier version of the Liber de coquina.

So I dove into Martellott’s book looking for cooking chickens together in a pot, and there’s a recipe from the Anonimo Toscano that has a vague similarity to what I did, as well as the ‘Ujja (Frittata) of Piegons from the Anonymous Andalusian, a 13th century cookbook from Spain. However, the Liber does not have anything specific about songbirds.

In December, I became the student of a a Laurel in the SCA – Danabren is the person I bounce research off of; she gives me pointers and hooks me up with resources. I also became a member of the Order of the Maunche, for my research about Norman Sicily. Danabren is a foodie but hampered in her enjoyment of much medieval cooking because of a diagnosed gluten intolerance; even most non-gluten grains are out (no barley, no rice, though she’ll indulge in sushi because the small amounts of rice involved are tolerable). She also had to cut out pretty much all of the sugar from her diet. Oh, and yeast is also right out.

Because she is an all-around cool person and I am a loyal student, and she was jonesing for a pizza-like substance, I started looking into what I could cook with bean flours, specifically chickpea. I was already familiar with pannelle from Palermo, and had come across the Genoese farinata and the socca from Nice.

So then I came across a reference to “gallettes of chickpeas,” based on the “cicera fracta” recipe from the Liber de coquina, and redacted the Liber recipe for my own use.

The original recipe for “Cicera fracta”:

Item, aliter : accipe cicera fracta et pone ad decoquendum cum
oleo, pipere et safrano et cum caseo detruncato et ouis perditis et ouis
debatutis; uel aliter, cum ciceris fractis et perbullitis et, aqua bullitionis
eiecta, ponatur cepa frissa et bene confecta cum lardo uel oleo sicut dies
exigit.

There seem to be two versions – either take mashed chickpeas, mix them up with oil, pepper, saffron, small pieces of cheese, and beaten eggs; or take mashed chickpeas and mix them with fried onions and bacon. The assumption is that each mixture is cooked, either as little cakes/pancakes, or in a dish like the way farinata is cooked. I decided to use chickpea flour because of the long traditions of chickpea flour dishes throughout the Mediterranean (and cicera fracta translates as “broken chickpeas,” and grinding them up is as broken as you can get).

You do have to let the chickpea batter stand for awhile before using it; most recipes say a minimum of three hours, but I like to let mine stand longer. What happens is this truly disgusting foam rises to the top:

batter

Looks delicious, no? No!

I don’t know if that’s some sort of fermentation happening, but yuck is all I can say. You skim off the foam, though, and mix the separated liquids back together. Mix in some black pepper and salt, pump it into a greased baking dish, dot it with your chosen garnishes (a great combination is goat cheese, bacon, and fried onions), and bake it until it sets firm.

I plan to play with this recipe some more; for example, beating some eggs into the batter; using saffron; actually using mashed, cooked chickpeas instead of the flour; etc.

Sicily’s “medieval” beef roll

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Farsumagru image courtesy of anwarnieninqe on Flickr.

If you read my post about the 12th century Crusader king food challenge I am putting together for an SCA event in November, you’ll know that I am on the hunt for recipes. A post to the Known Worlde Cooks List, an e-mail list for SCA cooks all over the world, brought a slew of ideas and book and article links from Johnnae Ilyn Lewis. I also did more poking around in the resource treasure that is Stefan’s Florilegium. And I think I have come up with a dish that could work for Richard I’s table.

There is a traditional Sicilian beef recipe called “farsumagru,” The name translates as “false lean,” and could be a pun on the appearance of the dish – it looks like a simple beef roll, but when you slice into it, you’ll find a rich filling that includes hardboiled eggs, cheeses, and meats. This Website gives another interpretation of the name, and says the dish was “invented” in the 19th century by the French-trained “monsu” chefs in wealthy Palermitan households, or it was introduced by the Spanish in the 15th century. Traditionally, mortadella (Italian bologna) or pancetta (salted, but not smoked, bacon) are used, though one version by Mario Batali includes sausage. Many versions of the recipe include pine nuts and raisins, such as this one by food writer Clifford Wright, an expert on Mediterranean cuisine.

The egg yolks struck a particular chord of memory with me, so I went looking in the Florilegium to see if there were any discussions of beef roll recipes. And there they were, several citations of a 15th century English recipe called “Alows de beef.” A large, thin piece of beef is filled with chopped-up hard boiled egg yolks, marrow, onions, and a mixture of spices (ginger, saffron, salt, pepper, and cinnamon) and is rolled up and broiled, and served with a sauce of vinegar and hardboiled egg yolks.

Here is one version of the recipe,  from the “Two 15th Century Cookery Books” manuscript.

The many versions of the farsumagru recipes share some elements in common with the Alows de beef:  the breadcrumbs, parsley, onions, and hardboiled eggs as part of the filling. But instead of using marrow as the rich, fatty ingredient in the filling,it’s mortadella or pancetta. And Alows de beef do not include the grated cheeses, while no farsumagru recipe is complete without them.

Interestingly enough (at least to me), if you check out the spices used in the two versions of mortadella available in Italy, mortadella di Bologna and mortadella di Amatrice, the flavor palette is somewhat reminiscent of the spices found in Alows de beef and many recipes of  the medieval period (the mortadella di Amatrice does contain cinnamon).

Now, would a beef roll have been on Richard I’s Christmas table? It’s definitely a possibility. Beef rolls are certainly a way to eke out meat. It was wintertime, and Richard’s and Philip’s soldiers would have been eating everything in sight around Messina, so I bet older animals would have had to been used. Taking a piece of tough meat and pounding it out flat and tender would have been economical; and stuffing it with rich spices and marrow and eggs (the latter are scarce in the winter as the hens do not lay then) would have made it fit for a king.

Now, how did this beef roll get into Sicilian cuisine? Was it the 19th century French monsu? Something from the 15th century Aragonese kings? I don’t think it really matters. Medieval noble cuisine was “pan European;” the same recipes were copied from England to Spain to France to Southern Italy. There were regional twists; recipe collections differed. But Sicily, with its waves of “invaders” and settlers – Greek, Arab, Norman French, Lombard, Swabian German, Catalan, Genovese, Aragonese, etc. – was a perfect place for some of these recipes to find a new home. And the island’s isolation and poverty (especially from the 17th century onward) helped preserve the medieval traditions in peasant kitchens that died out elsewhere.

I’m looking forward to making my medieval farsumagru!

Eating and drinking in King Richard I’s Messina

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On Nov. 3, I will be at the Artisan’s Challenge and Display in Blue Bell, Pa. It’s an SCA event where participants can answer challenges put up by others; everything from metalwork, to fiber arts, to cooking, to music, and lots of other things. I’ve gone to this event for the past couple of years, presented or entered a few things, and always had fun.

This year, one of the challenges caught my attention because it offered an interesting twist on my own Norman Sicilian research, “On the Crusaders’ Trail.” During the Third Crusade, Richard I of England, Philip I of France, and Frederick I of the Holy Roman Empire planned to go out and free the Holy Land from Saladin.

However, the trip didn’t go quite as planned. Richard and Philip came to Sicily in September 1190, a stop on their way to Palestine. Richard was mad. The former king, William II, was dead, and his wife, Richard’s sister Joanna, was imprisoned by Tancred of Lecce, an illegitimate cousin of William who stepped up to the throne. So not only did Tancred have Richard’s favorite sister in durance vile, he refused to give up her dowry and other moneys she was entitled to as a widow.

When Richard arrived in Messina, he demanded Joanna’s release. Tancred did release her, but with only a fraction of the money she was due. So Richard responded forcefully, occupying a monastery outside the city as well as Bagnara across the straits in Calabria. Richard’s soldiers also made no friends along the local – harassing women, taking food, that sort of thing. The Messinese revolted. Richard and his army then burned and sacked large areas of the city. He built a timber fort, Mategrifon (which translates as “scourge of theGreeks”), and took some noble hostages from the local Messinese nobility.

Tancred, to get this pesky king out of his city and his country, capitulated in November, but with winter making travel to Palestine impossible, Richard and Philip (and their armies) stayed. They didn’t get under way again until March 1191.

Richard held a magnificent Christmas feast at Mategrifon as a sort of peace offering for Philip; the food historian Clifford Wright has some description of the proceedings, quoting the poet Ambroise, who said every dish was gold or silver and there was not a dirty tablecloth in the hall.

Based on this history, I thought a great project for the Artisan’s Challenge would be to have a few dishes that could have been on the table at that Christmas Day feast.

The first problem, however, is that there are no extant 12th century Sicilian recipes. Or French ones for that matter (Richard, though an “English” king, spent most of his time in his mother Eleanor’s land of Aquitaine). So I am looking at cookbooks of a slightly later time and nearby countries, such as the Anonymous Andalusian; and the Liber de Coquina, an anonymously written set of recipes from the early 13th century, probably near Naples, Italy. One of the recipes from the latter struck me, adapted in “The Medieval Kitchen.” Called “Inside Out Stuffed Fresh Sardines or Anchovies,” it is essentially a famous recipe still done in Sicily today, called “Sarde a beccafico.”

Aha. The Sicilian recipe essentially translates as “sardines, songbird style.” Beccafico, “beak figs,” are a small native Sicilian songbird. Songbirds were a popular medieval dish, roasted or fried whole and eaten whole. Sardines done “songbird” style are stuffed with a mixture of breadcrumbs, pine nuts, raisins, lemon juice and/or vinegar, and sugar. The way they are traditionally prepared, they strongly resemble little skewered songbirds on their backs (take a look at the photo at the beginning of this blog entry, the bay leaves even look like wings).

Incidentally, a rare (and now illegal) delicacy in France is roasted ortolan, another small songbird. They don’t bother to stuff them, just roast them and eat them whole.

So, perhaps a pile of stuffed roasted “songbirds” for my Mategrifon feast? Except I will have to use tiny squab or quail (which I incidentally spied in the butcher’s case at my local Amish market this past weekend), because there’s no way that songbirds can be legally obtained for eating in my part of the United States.

You probably are wondering why I just don’t cook the sardines. For two reasons: I hate them, I can’t even bear the smell of them; and also, it’s a king’s Christmas, and roasted songbirds are fit for the table of a king. Perhaps a stew or roast of lamb or beef? Yes, probably. Meat was THE status food after all.

Other things to put on the table? Bread, of course. Perhaps a sweet porridge of ricotta cheese and fruit cooked in wine and sugar? Plausible; ricotta is local, period, and so is sugar. Maybe even as part of a frumenty. There is a traditional porridge made for St. Lucy’s day, of boiled wheatberries with sweetened ricotta, called cuccia, which is very frumenty-ish. Perhaps topped with pomegranate seeds? Pomegranates have a close connection with Sicily, as it is the island of Persephone – she was kidnapped from the plains around Etna, and wound up having to spend half the year with her husband Hades after consuming six pomegranate seeds. And some cheeses probably wouldn’t go amiss, as well as olives. And wine, of course, would have been on the table.

It will be interesting putting this all together.