Category Archives: food

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14th century cookbook attributed to the Angevin court of Naples; the Meridionale; the Anonimo Toscano; and a previously unpublished treatise from the Vatican Library; and draws the conclusion that the origin of many of the Liber de coquina recipes was not the Angevin court, but the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.

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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.

What HAVE I been doing of late?

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A friend of mine had pointed out that I had not been active here since January.

Ooops. Well I can say that work began to eat my life steadily starting just after the holidays, and then there was preparation for some dance performances in February, March, April, and May. And then there was my sister’s wedding as well.

But I have completed a few projects and did some displaying and teaching. There is my interpretation of a knit cap from the 14th century (seen in the thumbnail), done in handspun silk. It’s based on the cap in byssus found at the cathedral of St. Denis, France. Here is my paper on it. I displayed the cap and the paper at the Mudthaw Arts and Sciences competition back in March. Here is a closeup of the cap so you can see the stitches:

I also did some cooking for that event, in which I contrasted two recipes featuring rabbit – the Qanura of rabbit (rabbit in walnut and vinegar sauce) from the Anonymous Andalusian cookbook, and the traditional Sicilian rabbit in sweet and sour sauce. Here is my paper about that.

And last month, I taught a class about Norman and Muslim Sicily at the East Kingdom War Camp in the Barony of Carillion in June. I have no paper to go with that, but I did share some food – my version of the emir of Catania’s chicken dish, a cold salad of roasted eggplant, chopped celery, capers, pistachios, sugar, mint, and vinegar, and things to nibble on – tuna-stuffed olives, and chilled cherries. It was a warm day and the cold food was welcomed by the class attendees. I gave a brief history of the Norman kingdom and the Muslims before them, and what happened to the Muslims after the island was conquered by the Normans.

I’ve also been doing some reading. Right now, I am trying to get through Alex Metcalfe’s “The Muslims of Medieval Italy.” It’s been slow going as I have had a lot of distractions. But it is essential reading for trying to understand the Muslim influences in the culture of the Norman kingdom.

I am hoping that a class slot opens for the East Kingdom University Collegium in August, because I would like to teach how to use a silk sari to create a 12th century Norman Sicilian tunic. But we’ll see about that.

So that’s about it for now. More to come!

Life is sweets …

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I have been very negligent of the blog as of late, but as work has been crazy and it’s been the holidays, those are my excuses. Plus, I was involved in an Andalusian dance and music project that was performed at a local barony’s Yule celebration. Al-Andalus and Muslim Sicily had many ties, so doing research for the project was very worthwhile.

Anyway, Christmastime means on Christmas Eve, I will be stuffing myself silly on the fish feast at my aunt’s house. In the true Sicilian/Italian way, she strives to have 12 fishes on the table. Even a little dish of anchovies counts.

My non-Italian mom, however, provides the desserts. This is due to the shocking fact that my Sicilian/Calabrian aunts, while amazing cooks, cannot bake worth a damn. And considering that Sicily is known for its pastries, gelati, and sweets, this is quite sad. My Sicilian grandmother would make what she called “sfinj,” little fried balls of dough that she would pile into pyramids on paper plates, pour honey syrup over, and dust with red and green sprinkles. My cousins reported that when hot and fresh, they were actually quite good, but by the time my sister and I saw them a week later, at family dinner, they were stale and totally stuck to each other and the plate. Yecchh.

Sicily’s sweet tooth was cultivated by the Arabs, who started the island’s sugar plantations. But before there was sugar, there was honey – gathered from the bees who swarmed the heathered plains around Mount Etna. Honey production in Sicily is very associated with the Hyblaean Mountains in southeastern Sicily. Here is the page of a honey producer in Sicily today, Apicoltura Iblea.

Here’s an interesting little article about the use of, and types of honey, in Sicily. Although Roberta Gangi is quite correct about the low use of honey in Sicilian desserts, there is a more concerted use of it on the “Greek” eastern half of the island, particularly the towns clustered on the slopes of Mount Etna. And there is one Sicilian sweet with an Arab name – cubbaita, or qubbayta, derived from the word qubbayt – that uses honey. Traditionally, it’s honey and sesame seeds and toasted almonds, a sort of nutty brittle. There are no egg whites in it, and traditionally no sugar, as in torrone.

In my paper on Sicilian food, I erroneously cite al Idrisi as mentioning the existence of qubbayta (he did mention the manufacture of pasta). I will be correcting this paper with new information and reloading it to the blog.

So, as to the origin of cubbaita/qubbayta on the island – there is a Greek honey and sesame seed candy called “pasteli,” which is for all intents and purposes the Sicilian cubbaita. This blogger attributes the introduction of what became to be called cubbaita to the Byzantines who held the island before the Arabs invaded. I think the blogger is a little off when he/she says the food contributions of the Byzantines/Greeks were minimal; I think they were just absorbed into the Arab cooking traditions, as the Arabs absorbed Persian food traditions.

After the Arabs invaded, there were a lot of half-hearted conversions by islanders; ibn Hawqal disparaged the rural populations for their base, mumbled Arabic, and intimated that Christian women who married Muslims were allowed to raise daughters as Christians. Before the Normans invaded, Christian=Byzantine Greek. And I think this is how a Greek candy came to be called “qubbayt” – as the Christian women of these “half-Muslims” continued to make this sweet as they always did, and passed the tradition on, in an area where honey was more available than sugar. As the area was also full of almond and pistachio trees, these things also went to cubbaita, though the most common is the sesame seed version.

I wanted to look up more Arab and medieval candy recipes, and some half-remembered thought caused me to go to Duke Cariadoc’s “Miscellany,” where he has a translated recipe from the “Mappae Clavicula.” The recipe is titled, “The recipe for sesame candy.” It’s made from honey and sesame seeds, but is pulled like a taffy.

Not familiar with the “Mappae Clavicula,” I went looking for some information about it and about this recipe. Fortunately, there was a discussion about sesame candy from the Known World Cook’s list that was captured in Stefan’s Florilegium, in which Cariadoc (David Friedman) explains that this recipe comes from is the 12th century edition of the “Mappae Clavicula.” I am curious if the origin of this particular recipe was Italian, but will have to find out more about the manuscript

As for the original, Arab qubbayt? I found a few citations in “The best divisions for the knowledge of the regions,” a 10th century geography book by Muhammad ibn Ahmad Muqqaddasi (translated by Basil Anthony Collins) that the city of Harran, now in modern-day Turkey, exported qubbayt, “preserves of locust-fruit and nuts.” We’re talking carob here, not bug parts. The author also cites qubbayt made in Palestine, and on page 184, says in al-Ramla, “They make from the locust tree a sweetmeat from the locust tree called qubbayt; that which they make from sugar they call natif.” Cariadoc has a translated recipe for natif, or what is known today as hulwa or halva, a nougat confection.

So, in Sicily, the name became applied to a previous Greek sweet. But carob is grown in Sicily, and has been for centuries. Here is a great blog post about the Sicilian carob harvest in eastern Sicily. I can find no signs of carob actually used in the ancient Harran, qubbayt way – though carob flour from the seeds is used today in certain cookies or cakes, and there is a modern-day carob candy.

I also found cubbaita is sometimes called giugiulena – which actually is Sicilian for sesame seeds, and derives from the Arabic word for sesame, juljulan. Giugiulena can also be sesame seed cookies, so I prefer to use “cubbaita” to describe the candy.

Food, glorious food

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One thing I love to do is eat. Doing research about the food of Sicily has been a pleasure. So many recipes to try!

This post is about my favorite Sicilian recipe, “The Emir of Catania’s Chicken Dish.”

Of course, I did a paper about it. Rather than me repeating what’s in it, go ahead and download it.

It’s a great addition to a dayboard menu. I had made it for the al-Hafla running dayboard in January 2009, where it was well-received. I’ve made it for the A&S baking competition at Mudthaw, where it got a few tokens of appreciation.

I also found a version of the pasticcio in a paper by Donna Serena da Riva when she did a feast based on Norman Sicily. However, she calls it a “pasteda” and includes mushrooms, which confuses me, because the only place in Sicily where mushrooms are actually cultivated today is right by Mount Etna, and mushroom cultivation has only really taken off in the 1980s. There is a long tradition of wild mushroom picking in Sicily and Southern Italy (my Calabrian grandfather was an expert mushroom hunter), and theoretically a cook could have found some dried mushrooms for sale in the markets of Palermo brought in by enterprising country people. But would the Arab cooks have bothered to seek them out? I am not sure.

But then again, we all have our own interpretations of recipes, and Donna Serena’s version is undoubtedly tasty.

If you try either pasticcio recipe, let me know how they turned out for you!