Category Archives: Sicily

Working through the Troparium

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So I did a thing. For the SCA East Kingdom’s Crowns Arts and Sciences Championship and Display, I decided to do a performance, of “Anni novi circulus” from MS 289. After working up the tune in MuseScore and getting the words from the David Hiley manuscript, I fired up Zoom and after about 20-ish takes, got a clean-ish performance. And no, I was not competing, only displaying, I do not need that kind of pressure in my life! (Insert nervous laughter here.)

Here is the link to a video and the accompanying essay I wrote about the piece, performance choices, etc.

In case there’s a problem viewing the above link, here is the performance itself.

Enjoy!

Also, Trouvere Medieval Minstrels did a livestream of songs from the Troparium on Facebook Live. If you recall, Gil from Trouvere was the one who brought my attention to the Hiley manuscript. Because her partner Paul can actually read medieval notation, they have been going through the original Troparium manuscripts online at the Biblioteca Nacional de España in Madrid, working on new tunes and reworking others. Buy them a coffee!

Makke vs. maccu: Medieval bean mash

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It’s December 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic still rages on. The Society for Creative Anachronism last week announced that we can’t hold any events until after May 31, 2021 – and that’s if a vaccine is widely distributed and taken by a large number of the population. I’m not holding my breath here, but I have a tiny bit of hope.

And I still have medieval activities to do. When I last posted, I was talking about learning to play the citole. That is proceeding. And just after Thanksgiving, I received a two-shaft rigid heddle kiddie loom from China to try my hand at weaving, since I spin so much yarn and I can’t possibly knit it all. Verdict: Well guess I’m going to find a real desk loom and get even better at it. I may even remove the heddle cards and the reed from the kiddie loom, sidle up to woodworking friends, and ask them to make me finer dent heddles and a beater so I can go really fine with my weaving, a greater number of threads per inch. This may be really good for making wide-band trims. We’ll see.

And I am still cooking. I watch a lot of culinary shows on YouTube while doing handicrafts, mostly historical documentary kinds of things. So today I clicked on Max Miller’s “What Did Medieval Peasants Eat?” and watched him talk about making “Makke” from The Forme of Cury.

I suddenly sat very straight up and said, “Ugh! I am such an idiot!” Because for years, I had overlooked something in Sicilian cooking that once upon a time, everyone ate, but is now considered a peasant food: Maccu, or mashed fava beans.

Makke recipe from the Rylands manuscript.

The Forme of Cury is one of the oldest known cookbooks, from 14th century England. It consists of recipes from the court of Richard II (to the left you can see the recipe as written in the manuscript in the John Rylands Library, Manchester).

Both the words “makke” and “maccu” stem from the Latin maccare, to mash. Both are made from fava beans – the only bean varietal available in Europe in the Middle Ages. The Form of Curye recipe calls for light-colored favas that are ground until they are “as white as milk.” Today’s readily available favas are dark brownish in color when dried and bright green when fresh. But there’s a very old varietal of fava bean in England called “Martock beans” that apparently vary in color, from black to brown to white. It’s also possible that there was a white variety that was cultivated but has been long lost as favas are very aggressive cross-pollinators. (Update: Doing a Google search for “white broad beans” yielded this cultivar, White Hangdown, which is either very pale green or white. So, there are white broad bean cultivars available to the modern cook.)

There are some differences between makke and a traditional maccu. For one thing, makke calls for the addition of beer or wine after the beans are cooked and as you mash them. Makke also calls for fried onions put on it before serving. Maccu at its most basic is fava beans cooked with fennel seeds or fennel fronds, olive oil, and salt. Fennel grows wild in Sicily so for a hungry peasant, a bulb of fennel or even dried fennel seeds can be foraged up pretty quickly. But onions and garlic are other optional things to add to the dish, and some versions of the recipe do call for them. These days it’s most traditionally made at the end of winter for St. Joseph’s Day.

So with similar names and with fava beans being grown in both England and Sicily, where did makke/maccu originate? The Sicilian claim is that the dish has been eaten on the island since Roman times. There are no 12th century Norman medieval Sicilian cookbooks so it’s not like I can check there. But there have been some very extraordinary ties between Norman Sicily and Plantagenet England. The most significant is Joan of England, daughter of Henry II, being queen of Sicily. She was married to William II. You can read more about the life of Joan of England here in an essay by the scholar Jacqueline Alio. She came with a horde of ladies in waiting, churchmen, and servants; and later her older brother Richard II spent a year occupying Messina with his soldiers.

Incidentally, the cathedral of Monreale has one of the earliest surviving depictions of Saint Thomas a Becket, not very long after Henry II’s nobles murdered him.

During the reign of Henry III, grandson of Henry II and Joan’s nephew, the king was allied with Frederick II Hohenstaufen, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, who had married Henry’s sister. After Frederick’s death, Pope Innocent VI made an offer to Henry III to place his son Edmund Crouchback on the Sicilian throne; Henry threw a huge amount of money at the enterprise but was unable to secure it. Rebecca Star Brown details the circumstances in an interesting post.

This was about 100 years before Richard II was even born, and according to the historian GA Loud, even in the 1250s Sicily was seen as an exotic and foreign place, despite the shared Norman ancestry of the royal houses. But maybe all those servants and cooks who went along with Joan and Richard II brought something back to England when they returned; a recipe for a dish of mashed fava beans, and passed it on, to others who enriched it with ale or wine. While Richard III’s cooks felt it was worthy of a king, “maccu” became considered peasant food in Sicily.

So when I get to cook a feast again, I am going to make maccu and makke, and let people decide which they like better. And if I have enough leftover maccu, I’ll chill it, bread it, and fry it, because that’s supposed to be delicious too.

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.

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.

Spinning as a noble woman’s activity

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I’m right now working on a baby blanket for a dear friend. Instead of going to the craft store and buying some big ol’ skeins of acrylic, I decided to be totally crazy and knit the blanket out of an organic merino that I handspun myself. And I don’t use a spinning wheel. I use a top-whorl drop spindle. The yarn weight is fingering size or thereabouts. Between the yarn weight and the intricacy of the knit (a basketweave) and the fact that I have to repeatedly stop knitting to spin up more yarn, to say this blanket is taking awhile to finish is an understatement.

The Royal Palace in Palermo was renowned in the Norman era for its tiraz, or silkworks, and the island produced a lot of silk, in raw materials (reeled silk and yarns) and in finished fabric. The amount of silk used by the palace actually amazed visitors to the island; Alexander of Telese famously noted that during the coronation feast of Roger II, even the servers were clad in silk. Though the embroiderers at the tiraz seemed, especially in the Norman later years, to be eunuch males (ibn Jubayr interviewed one of these embroiderers when he visited Sicily in the reign of William II), many of the weavers, and definitely the spinners, were women and girls.

And one thing knitting my blanket and my take on the cap of St. Denis has given me insight into, every single pair of hands that could possibly produce threads and yarns were probably needed to keep the tiraz’s production up to speed. Most of the scholars who have written about the tiraz are often men and definitely not engaged in fiber arts. I don’t think they understand just how intensively every woman and girl needed to spin and reel, and how long this takes.

This, my friends, is a degummed silk cocoon in which the worm has been allowed to get out:

Because of the closeup, this looks much larger than it actually is. It’s actually only about two inches long and fluffy because the fibers have been pulled out in the action of taking it out the bag (where it stuck to the mass of cocoons in there). I’ve angled it so you can see the open end. Handling it is very interesting; the fibers catch upon the slightest roughness on my fingertips. Shea butter is my friend.

This is my spindle. That’s about half a cocoon hanging off there, the fibers of which I am drawing onto the spindle as singles, and then using a modern-day ply on the fly technique to make into a 3-stranded yarn for knitting. That’s the result of about 20 cocoons so far.

This type of cocoon would not have been used by the spinners of the tiraz, however; because the worm was allowed to chew its way out, there are many short and broken fibers. Because of this, instead of getting a nice long continuous fiber when I spin, the short and broken fibers produce a thread that’s slubby. What the spinners would have used was reeled silk. Let Cindy Myers, the Silkewoman, show you her method of how to reel silk from cocoons and what reeled silk looks like.

Think of all the silk that had to be reeled, twisted, dyed, and woven to produce King Roger II’s cloak. Really think about this, and you can understand why Roger’s palace (and the palaces of William I and William II) were filled with mostly unnamed women and girls (we only know the regents such as Adelaide and the queens such as Elvira). Whether Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, noble, free woman, or slave, they weren’t sitting on their butts praying and embroidering (the noble Christian ladies), bathing in fountains and eating peeled grapes (the Muslim slave girls) and waiting for the king and his warriors to get home. We already know that in 1147, when the Normans sacked Thebes, hundreds of silk workers, mostly women, were taken back to Palermo to help improve the tiraz. But there was a tiraz at the palace when the Muslims held the island, and after the Normans conquered the island, they certainly would have wanted to continue such a prestigious – and lucrative – business.

One thing that I’ve built into my persona, Adelisa Salernitana, is that she spins silk yarns and threads as a supplementary source of income and as an activity as a royal lady-in-waiting. It is known that in the nearby Fatimid court, royal women did spin; famously, Rashida, the daughter of the caliph al-Mu’izz, was said to have “earned her living from spinning yarn and never laid a hand on anything from the royal treasury for her subsistence.” Incidentally, her sister ‘Abda has reputed to have at least 30,000 pieces of Sicilian cloth at her death (“Women and the Fatimids in the World of Islam,” by Delia Cortese and Simonette Calderini).

Keeping the women gainfully occupied was also a concern of the Fatimid vizier al-Afdal, who at his death in 1121 had among his effects two trunks full of gold needles for the use of the female slaves and the women of his harem.

Here’s another example of how important this work was even in upper class households. A century after Roger II lived, the Damascene scholar Shihab al-Din Abu Shama composed a poem in praise of his wife, Sitt al-‘Arab bt. Sharaf al-Din al-‘Abdari.  He extols her noble lineage, her wisdom, her mercy towards orphans, and her many virtues, including her contribution to the household income. He writes:

She always attends to household chores

despite her youth she shies away from nothing

tiraz embroidery, needlework with golden threads

cutting cloth, sewing and spinning

She moves from this to that and from that to this

not to mention the cleaning, the cooking and the washing.

(“Marriage , Money, and Divorce in Medieval Islamic Society,” by Yosef Rapoport)

I reason that if Adelisa wanted to build a life for herself and her soldier-husband outside the court, she had to raise money, and the best way for her to do that – and the most traditional – was by spinning. With a royal workshop to be supplied, threads she spun would have gone into secular and sacred textiles, to her profit.