Monday, July 4, 2011

So What Does Byzantium Taste Like?

Last month, I finished reading the following book on historic cuisine, which I picked up for my usual reason, namely, because I knew almost nothing about the book's subject matter. 

Dalby, Andrew.  Tastes of Byzantium.  I.B. Taurus & Co., Ltd. 2010.

However, the title, "Tastes of Byzantium",  annoys me, because even after finishing the book I'm still not sure I have a very good idea of what Byzantine cuisine was like.  Let me try to explain that statement.

Dalby's book includes just a little bit of a lot of different types of information: a little general historical background about Byzantium; a discussion of available foods and food customs; excerpts from period textbooks, written to give advice about diet and general health; and a few recipes.  The overall impression I have acquired from this assortment is that Byzantine cuisine is what you have when you combine the basic recipes and elements of classical Roman cooking (e.g., use of garum, sauteing in olive oil, olives, grapes, wine, and figs) with the types of spices we now consider characteristic of India (cumin, fenugreek, cardamom), and a greater fondness for seafood of all kinds than was the case in the classical period. In addition, the Byzantines had greater access to cane sugar (from India) than had the classical Mediterranean, and consequently used it more. They also had developed the fondness for resinated wines, such as retsina, that characterizes modern (but not necessarily ancient) Greece.

The end result is that many Byzantine foods seem relatively modern, modern enough to fool the reader into thinking their foodways weren't all that different...until a difference springs up to startle the unwary researcher. It is clear, for example, that the Byzantines had a fondness for seasoning meat with honey and cinnamon--a fondness that helps explain that trope in the cuisine of most of Europe during the Middle Ages, but seems odd to most moderns.

The following recipe for a souffle is a good example of this combining of elements;

Greek has the name afrutum [aphraton] for what is called spumeum in Latin. It is made from chicken and white of egg. You must take a lot of white of egg so that your afrutum becomes foamy. It should be arranged in a mound on a shallow casserole with a previously prepared sauce, based on fish sauce,[?] underneath. Then the casserole is set over the coals and the afrutum cooked in the steam of the sauce. The casserole is then placed in the middle of a serving tray, and a little wine or honey poured over it. It is eaten with a spoon or a small ladle. We often add fine fish or scallops to this dish, because they are very good and also common at home. (pp. 176-77)
This recipe comes from Anthimus, whose translated recipes I have written about before, but Mr. Dalby assures us that it is Byzantine rather than Frankish, because Anthimus himself was a "refugee" from the Byzantine court, even though Anthimus wrote this recipe down for the King of the Franks, in whose court he was then residing. Certainly the wealthy and noble Franks were keen on imitating the style and culture of Byzantium, the most powerful state in Europe.

I decided to share this recipe with you because I think it gives one a good idea of the types of contradiction Mr. Dalby's book reveals in Byzantine cooking. The recipe depicts an egg dish not that far from a modern souffle, but eaten with fish sauce (though Dalby notes this phrase of the original is unclear, hence my question mark) and wine or honey--the last things that a modern would reach for to season an egg dish. 

Mr. Dalby also tells us that the Byzantines were very serious about the four humors theory of healthy eating, i.e., classifying foods as to whether they were "hot" or "cold", "moist" or "dry", and attempting to balance foods with one combination of humors with another food, or perhaps a sauce or herb, with different properties.  I'd like to leave the reader with a quote from a period health text that purported to give food and living recommendations for each month. I'd like to quote the advice for July, since to a modern it is more amusing than anything else:
This month one should avoid sexual activity, excessive food of all kinds, stress and excessive drinking. As prescribed for June, eat, in moderation, rich kid meat from castrated animals, hare, gazelle, deer, turtle doves and wood pigeons; always eat these with some vinegar. Garden herbs as for June. Among fish eat the rich-fleshed kinds such as corkwing, wrasse and all rich-fleshed and moist fish. [Conserves] in honey vinegar and in fish sauce and vinegar. Among fruits choose the moister ones such as melons, green figs eaten with salt, and any grapes except the black ones, pear, apple, plum, peach and all that are moist to eat; avoid other fruits. Light wines; eat sparingly but take plenty of wine, also rose wine. Do not take any vegetable soups except carrot, flavored with honey and spikenard. (p. 166)
So enjoy your Carolina-style venison, apple pie, and green salad, and have a great Fourth of July!*

* My last remark above is an off-the-cuff attempt to apply the Byzantine advice on July eating given above. Venison, is of course deer flesh, and according to Wikipedia the states of North and South Carolina in the United States favor vinegar-based barbecue sauces, so this kind of barbecue  amounts to eating the deer "with some vinegar."  The June herbs referenced in the quote include some items, such as onion, radish, and rocket (now known as arugula), which a modern person might make into a salad. Finally, apples are among the "safe" fruits for July according to the Byzantine writer Dalby quotes, as well as being a traditional fruit from which to make pies here in the United States. You could perhaps add watermelon (a traditional summer food in the U.S.!) to the menu, since our Byzantine writer includes melons in his list of recommended foods for July.  In fact, the Byzantines probably had watermelon, since it's native to Africa, and shows up by the 13th century CE in both China and Europe. 

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