Sunday, August 19, 2018

Ask The Past--Interesting Tidbits About Food and Other Things

This past weekend, I discovered a very interesting blog called Ask the Past.  The posts consist of advice about various everyday concerns, including exercise, hygiene, recipes--taken from books published in the past.  The posts I've looked at so far are based on material from books ranging from the 12th through 19th centuries CE, though a review of past entries indicates that some are much older.   The writer of the blog has published a book of similar snippets, bearing the same title as the blog.

Interesting food posts include a recipe from 1850 for cold-brewed coffee, an 18th century recipe for pink pancakes (one of the Townsends' videos discusses a similar recipe), and a 16th century recipe for fake bacon.

Thanks to Katrin Kania, whose blog brought my attention to the Ask the Past blog.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Stone Age Bread

This seems to be a month for discoveries relating to Stone Age food.

This article from The Independent, a British newspaper, reports on an archaeological find from Jordan that goes back approximately 14,000 years, to the Upper Paleolithic period of the Stone Age.

In a surviving fireplace at a site called Shubayqa 1, archaeologists from the University of Copenhagen found a piece of flatbread, made with a strain of wild, uncultivated wheat--approximately 3,500 years before the beginnings of agriculture.  The researchers stress the fact that, given the relatively poor nutritive value of this strain of wheat, the work involved in making the wheat into bread would not have made it more nutritious.  Instead, they believe that the flatbread was made for a special communal meal--a forerunner of communal meals eaten in the same region of the world today.

Also of interest is the fact that, although barley was the most common cereal plant in the Near East at that time, the food maker chose to use wheat.  This may well have been because wheat contains more gluten, and dough made from wheat rather than barley can be more easily used to make bread.  Moreover, wheat can be used to make much thinner flatbreads than barley.  

The researchers believe that this discovery tends to show that cuisine--the creation of more interesting foods to be eaten for social purposes as well as for mere sustenance--came before agriculture, not the other way around.  

The researchers' report on the find will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, should any of readers of this blog be motivated to track down the actual report.

On a side note, the observation that the Stone Age residents of Jordan, despite living in a barley-rich area, chose to use wheat to make flatbread, suggests that I've been going about my Viking flatbread experiments wrong.  Although the Vikings may well have incorporated barley in their bread-making, they probably would have used wheat in their flatbreads, either alone or combined with barley--for the same reason the Stone Age Jordinians used it--because it makes better bread!  My future flatbread experiments will be conducted with this knowledge in mind.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Iceman's Last Meal

Replicas of the items of clothing worn by Ötzi the Iceman,
made for the documentary film Der Ötztal-Mann und 
seine Welt, Naturhistorisches Museum Wien.
Found on Wikimedia Commons.
In this week's Economist, of all places, there's a report about a recent analysis of the last meal of Ötzi, the Stone Age "Iceman" whose well-preserved body was discovered in the alps over 20 years ago.

A study of the contents of Ötzi's stomach was done by two researchers with the Institute for Mummy Studies in Balzano, Italy, named Frank Maixner and Albert Zink.  Drs. Maixner and Zink's study appears in the journal Current Biology.  Readers who do not have subscriptions either to the Economist or to Current Biology can check out other summaries of the findings here and here.  The National Geographic article in particular contains some interesting details about how the samples were obtained.

From prior scans of Ötzi's body, the researchers knew that his stomach had been full at the time of his death, so they resolved to cut into the stomach and perform a detailed analysis, including a chemical analysis, of his stomach contents.  The results of the chemical analysis enabled Drs. Maixner and Zink to identify the contents as meat and fat from the ibex and red deer, mixed with einkorn wheat.  Small amounts of bracken fern were also found.  Bracken is toxic, but tiny bits of it may have ended up in Ötzi's stomach if the meat had been wrapped in bracken leaves. The analysis indicated that the meat had been exposed to temperatures of less than 140 degrees Fahrenheit, supporting the idea that it had been smoked rather than cooked.  (Flecks of carbon found in the samples also support this idea.)

Of interest to nutritionists, as well as to those of us who attempt to "eat healthy," is the fact that the total contents of Ötzi's stomach were approximately 46% animal fat.  This result also raises new questions about Ötzi's final journey, as well as about Stone Age diet in general.  Did Ötzi eat a higher fat meal than normal before setting out, to fuel himself for trekking through the mountains?  The information gleaned about the meal suggests that he brought food with him for his journey, adding to the picture of careful preparation for a mountain journey drawn by his clothing and equipment.  But that preparation for a special trip still doesn't rule out the possibility that his meal might have been typical for a man of his age, occupation, and time.  If so, what does that tell us about Stone Age life?

Only one thing is certain; we have yet to learn everything there is to learn from the mortal remains of this famous traveller from the Stone Age.

EDIT:  Correcting the reference to the heat to which the meat is believed to have been exposed.  

Monday, June 25, 2018

All About Toasters

This past weekend, our toaster, a two-slice mostly plastic Krups model that cost about $60 when new, finally developed a kink in its internal mechanism that my husband, Eric, could no longer fix.

So we went shopping for a new toaster, and learned that a lot of commonly available US models are pretty much identical inside.  This outraged Eric, who likes to buy "quality" items that will last indefinitely whenever possible.  Since it didn't seem to be possible, we bought a cheap model and came home.

Eric blogged about our problem and what it taught him about toasters here.  His blog regulars have plenty to say in comments to his post about modern toaster choices, which comments I commend to my readers' attention.  Meanwhile, you may want to refresh your recollection of toaster history here and at the Wikipedia page now cited there. 

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.