Saturday, May 19, 2018

Early Beekeeping

Although the Vikings were fond of mead, an alcoholic drink made from honey, there is some dispute about whether they kept bees or whether they imported the honey from which their mead was made.

But whether or not beekeeping was a skill cultivated by the Vikings, human beekeeping activity clearly goes way back in human history.  This article from LiveScience.com discusses recent archaeological evidence that the Etruscans were already expert beekeepers back in 500 BCE.  (The more formal report of the find, from the Journal of Archaeological Science, is paywalled, but the abstract is available for paid download here.)

The key to the find are fossilized honeycombs--a particularly rare item to find in a preserved condition.  The honeycombs were preserved after an ancient fire had charred them, and the site was buried in clay soil to allow rebuilding.  The combs were, of course, partly melted but still recognizable.  Bee breads (a mixture of pollen and honeycomb) and remains of dead honeybees were also found at the site.

Most interesting of all is that these bees appear to have been selected for keeping based upon the types of plants they were pollenating.  The pollen showed that the bees had been feeding on waterlilies and wild gravevines--types of plants that did not grow near the site where the combs had been found.  Interestingly, the find confirms some of Pliny the Elder's observations about period beekeeping.  The LiveScience article observes:
Indeed, the finding confirms what Roman scholar Pliny the Elder wrote more than four centuries later about the town of Ostiglia, some 20 miles (32 kilometers) from the site. According to Pliny, the Ostiglia villagers simply placed the hives on boats and carried them 5 miles (8 km) upstream at night.  
"At dawn, the bees come out and feed, returning every day to the boats, which change their position until, when they have sunk low in the water under the mere weight, it is understood that the hives are full, and then they are taken back and the honey is extracted," Pliny wrote.
One wonders what waterlily honey must have tasted like.  Now that this find has been published, some enterprising entrepreneur may make some so we can find out.

Friday, April 13, 2018

In Praise of Porridge

Millet flour porridges from Senegal:
 rouy (smooth infant porridge) and fondé (rolled pellets and milk).
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
It is fascinating to see how universal the humble porridge (grains that are boiled and/or simmered) is.  To illustrate the point, here are a variety of links about porridges from different cultures and times.   Most involve recipes for recreating them in your kitchen.

A blog called Pass the Garum featured a redaction, or modern conversion, of a porridge recipe attributed to the Carthaginians that can be made from semolina.  A Roman version may be found here. (Pass the Garum is in the process of moving, so these links to the old blog are here courtesy of the Wayback Machine.)

The Ribe Viking Center's food page provides a plausible recipe for Viking-style porridge here.  It uses millet, though barley would be plausible as well.

The Gode Cookery page serves up this late medieval barley porridge, or "gruel", as it was called at the time.  This 17th century recipe, also from the Gode Cookery site, is, except for the rose-water flavoring, very close to modern non-instant oatmeal.  

Plimoth Plantation provides us with an Amerind recipe for a maize porridge called "nasaump" here.  The Food Timeline notes that porridges made with maize, quinoa, amaranth, and other New World grains were eaten in Mesoamerica by the Aztecs and other peoples, but does not provide a recipe.  The Food Timeline's write-up about Mesoamerican porridge and other foods may be found here.

Porridges are eaten in Asia too, where they are typically rice-based.  The Chinese version is sometimes called congee. Here is a recipe for a similar, savory porridge, called arroz caldo, that is eaten in the Philippines.  Africa also has its porridges, as shown in the picture above featuring two different porridge types from Senegal.

Finally, Wikipedia has a page dedicated to listing porridges from all over the world, with their local names and a brief description of how they are made.  It probably is not complete, but it gives a good idea of how universal the concept of eating stewed grains is.  You can find that page here.

Most modern Western porridges are sweet, but savory porridges have been common throughout history.  There seems to be an attempt to make them popular again today, if this page of savory porridge recipes from the Huffington Post is any indication.  If I attempt to make such a recipe, modern or otherwise, I will blog about it here.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Flatbread--Second Experiment

Today, because I had time before supper, I decided to give the making of flatbread another try.  This time, because we are having chili con carne for dinner, I figured I'd try making flatbreads from corn flour, of which I have a goodly amount in store.

The corn flour reacted very differently to the "slowly add in water" technique.  It became a soft cohesive mass fairly quickly, without a lot of stickiness.  In fact, bits tended to crumble off quite easily, so I kept adding water until that propensity was curtailed (though not eliminated).

The tortilla recipe on the corn flour bag is similar to the technique I've been using, but it presumes that the dough will not be rolled out, but will be stamped to size in a tortilla press, after the dough has been sitting, covered under damp cloths, for a while.  I covered mine with a wet, crumpled, paper towel, since I can imagine how impossible this dough would be to handle if it dried out.

Even though the dough did not dry out, it became no easier to handle.  I could mold it into a ball, but when I tried to make a flat cake out of it, it kept crumbling apart.  i ended up putting it in the pan when it was at least twice as thick as my wheaten batch, and I believe I undercooked it as a result (despite leaving it in the pan until it had at least a few char marks on it).

The tortilla directions on my corn flour bag suggested putting rather more salt into the dough than I was comfortable with using (a quarter of a teaspoon of salt for 2 cups of flour) and I wonder if adding more salt than the pinch I added would have made a difference.  I suspect, however, that corn flour, lacking gluten as it does, may require a slightly different technique than wheat flour.  If I ever make flatbreads with corn flour again, I will add a substantial portion of wheat flour (perhaps even a 50/50 mix) to see whether it improves the handling of the dough.

These experiments make me rather leery of trying to make flatbread from barley flour alone.  Perhaps I'll try a barley and wheat flour mix.  That mix may be easier to handle, and both grains were available to the Vikings.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Flatbread--First Experiment

Today, I attempted to make some flatbread to go with a meal of ful medames (Near Eastern stewed, spiced beans) that I was making for myself and my husband.  

I used ordinary all-purpose wheat flour because this wasn't a Viking meal and because I wanted to work with something familiar, since we were long-overdue for lunch and I was hungry.  The only respect in which I did not comply with Chef John's instructions is that I only let the dough rest for about five minutes before attempting to roll it out.

The end result?  Rolling the dough out turned out to be very challenging because it was stickier than the "slightly sticky" test led me to believe at first; I had to keep sprinkling flour on it to make it rollable and keep it from sticking to the mini-rolling pin I was using for the purpose. Also, though I was able to roll the dough out very thin (approximately a millimeter) I couldn't cook it that way because it would rip as I transferred it to the hot skillet.  The resulting bread was rather flavorless (but then, so are sandwich wraps) but had reasonable texture.  It was tasty enough, however, when wrapped around a hunk of ful (stewed fava beans).  

My husband pronounced the result a successful proof of concept, and said he was all for further flatbread experiments.  

Next time, I will schedule things so that I can let the dough rest for an hour in advance.  I may also try a different flour; possibly corn flour if not barley flour.  I will also try to get pictures of my next experiment.

EDIT: (3/17/2018) Link to my original post on Chef John provided at a reader's request.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Book Review--Mort Rosenblum's "Chocolate"

A good friend of mine found a copy of the following book at a used-book store, which he then gave to me:
Rosenblum, Mort.  Chocolate:  A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light.  (North Point Press 2005).
Like The Secret History of Chocolate, by Michael and Sophie Coe, Rosenblum tries to give the reader a sense of the long history of chocolate, including some of the biology relating to the cacao plant.  But unlike the Coes, Mr. Rosenblum is not primarily interested in giving an encyclopedic history of the plant, or even in the story of its European adoption.  Instead he is interested in how chocolate is made today, and what makes the chocolate of the French, for example, "better" than the chocolate made by the Swiss or Belgians.  So he travels and visits chocolate makers, both mass market and exclusive, in over a half dozen countries on four different continents.

Mr. Rosenblum's conclusion?  The artisans do produce better chocolate.  But individual preferences, and mass marketing techniques, can and have created strong followings for even inferior products.  (He's not just looking at Hershey, either, though he devotes a generous amount of space to Hershey; its beginnings as well as the state of Hershey as of when this book was published.)

Chocolate is a fun and informative read.  If you are interested in the subject (and who is not, at least to some degree?), you should pick up your own used copy, or look for a copy at your local library.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

A Reenactor Take on Viking Flatbread

Alert readers may have noticed that I have edited my post about using Chef John's add-the-water-gradually-to-the-flour technique for making flatbread to mention a Facebook video showing a similar technique by a Canadian group called Ðrottin.

I couldn't figure out how to post the Ðrottin video here, but recently I found a YouTube video by a different Viking reenactment group called Marobud; that video appears to the right.  Like the Ðrottin video, it also shows a reenactor making flatbread in a similar way to Chef John's suggested method. Marobud appears to be a Czech group, and they have made several other videos showing the group's attempts to cook, Viking style, while camping in the wild.

This Marobud video shows a reenactor dumping flour into a large, mostly flat-bottomed wooden bowl, adding water, and then working the water-laden flour into dough and shaping that dough by hand into flat disks before cooking on a portable griddle (of a type also found in Viking archaeological sites) over an open fire.  As Chef John suggested, the breads were cooked until they developed at least a few black char marks, and no oil was used on the griddle.  It is true that the reenactor pretty much added his water all at once, instead of adding it gradually as Chef John suggests, and he hand-shaped his dough and did not "roll" it out, but that's because he was making the flatbread in the woods in winter and it was snowing.  :-)

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

An Old Foodway Preserved

From the Colonial Williamsburg foodblog comes this interesting article observing that our Thanksgiving feast comes much closer to the way our 18th century ancestors served and thought of food.  It's a fairly short post, and well worth reading, but the following passage from it sums up the gist rather nicely:
To the modern diner a dish such as an apple pie or a custard tart would be a dessert item.  Modern folks think - first your savory then your sweet. 18th century people see no need for that distinction. They think - heavy first, then light. Thus, that apple pie goes right alongside the roasted beef and potatoes, or THE PUMPKIN PIE next to your TURKEY. That’s right!
Or to put it another way, candied yams and pumpkin pie are both sweetened vegetable dishes, so why not serve them with the main meal?

Happy New Year, since I have not said so on this blog sooner.  Hopefully, I'll be able to fit in, and write about, a food experiment or two in February.