Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Brief History of Foods: Chocolate

"A Brief History of Foods" is mostly aimed at improving my knowledge on the origins of the foodstuffs commonly eaten in Britain throughout its long history.  Over the years I have been surprised to learn how few of our commonly used ingredients are actually native to these shores, and just how many were introduced, when and by whom.  Perhaps you too might discover something new and quite interesting.
Cacao seeds (Theobroma cacao), from which chocolate is derived, has been cultivated by many cultures in Mesoamerica for at least three millennia.  For nearly all of its history chocolate has been prepared as a drink.  For example, one vessel found at an Olmec archaeological site on the Gulf Coast of Veracruz, Mexico, dates chocolate's preparation by pre-Olmec peoples as early as 1750 BC.  On the Pacific coast of Chiapas, Mexico, a Mokaya archaeological site provides evidence of cacao beverages dating even earlier, to 1900 BC.  In fact, the majority of Mesoamerican people made chocolate beverages, including the Maya and Aztec, who called it xocolātl /ʃoˈkolaːt͡ɬ/, a Nahuatl word meaning "bitter water".  Very apt as the seeds of the cacao tree have an intense bitter taste and must be fermented to develop the flavour.

In contrast to the Maya, who liked their chocolate warm, the Aztec drank it cold using a broad variety of seasoning, including the petals of the Cymbopetalum penduliflorum tree, chilli pepper, allspice, vanilla, and honey.  The residues and the kind of vessel in which they were found indicate the early use of cacao was not simply as a beverage, but that the white pulp around the cacao beans was likely used as a source of fermentable sugars for an alcoholic drink.

Until the 16th century, no European had ever heard of this drink.  Christopher Columbus and his son Ferdinand encountered the cacao bean on Columbus's fourth mission to the Americas.  Apparently, on 15th August 1502, he and his crew seized a large native canoe that proved to contain cacao beans among many other goods for trade.  Yet, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés may have been the first European to encounter the frothy chocolate drink as it was part of the after-dinner routine of the Aztec king, Montezuma.

Although cocoa originated in the Americas, today Western Africa produces almost two-thirds of the world's cocoa, with Côte d'Ivoire growing almost half of it.  As a consequence chocolate has become one of the most popular food types and flavours in the world.  Health benefits or concerns aside, a vast number of foodstuffs involving chocolate have been created all of which fuel a billion dollar-a-year worldwide business.  So much so, that today boxes of individual chocolates, moulded into many assorted shapes, with or without additional filings, have become traditional gifts on certain holidays and, echoing its origin, chocolate is still used in cold and hot beverages.


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Roman Burgers on the Wall

An interesting, and somewhat challenging, day.  After a 5 am start, we drove North through squally showers to spend the day at Birdoswald Roman Fort on Hadrian's Wall.  Arriving in good time, we set about pitching a tent and setting up our cooking equipment to rustle up iscia omentata - Roman burgers to you and I - for a press call on behalf of English Heritage.

Why you might ask?  Well, on Saturday May 23rd if you visit Birdoswald Roman Fort between 11 am and 3 pm then, courtesy of English Heritage, you can sample a Roman burger cooked for you by Tastes Of History.  You could even add Roman mustard for an extra zing or perhaps, If you're feeling brave, go for the cheese burger with our much loved moretum, or garlic cheese!

Today, however, was Jill's chance to educate and entertain in an interview for BBC Radio Cumbria and a filmed sequence for ITV Borders (as pictured).  Hats off to Joe Jackson of Cumbria Heritage, pictured on the left, who had to eat several burgers at various locations for the assembled newspaper photographers.  If you're interested, the recipe is relatively simple to reproduce and can be found on our website  For us, it was telling that all who tried the burgers came to the same conclusion: the Roman version is definitely tastier than the ones you get in today's fast food outlets.  But would you agree?  Why not come and find out.

For more information on the events taking place at Birdoswald from May 23rd until May 31st, why not visit

Monday, May 18, 2015

Roman Cooking al Fresco

The Latin term "craticula" is a diminutive form of "crates" used to mean a gridiron (Martial, 14.221)[1], the bars of which give it the appearance of wickerwork. The model reproduced below right, found at Pompeii, is of iron with a suspension ring (some have a handle) and parallel bars only, i.e. no crossbars; others have crossbars as well.  Early examples were found in Pompeii and now reside the Naples Museum.  The term "craticula" could equally refer to a griddle or grill, but should the term be applied to the combination of boiler and stove shown below left.  Also found in Pompeii, the roughness of the surface of this object has been caused by corrosion and volcanic ash adhering to its metal frame. For those interested the original can be seen in the National Museum Naples.

Applying the term “craticula” to this object somehow does not seem appropriate even though the rods that slide on the curved side-rails are reminiscent of a gridiron.  So, what should we call it and, perhaps more importantly, what was it used for?

While we cannot be absolutely certain that it is indeed a cooker, it is certainly more than a simple gridiron.  Reproductions based on the original can provide useful insights as to how such an object from antiquity may have functioned. Tastes Of History’s bespoke version, shown opposite, is a case in point.

The design is actually rather ingenious.  The firebox is supported on braced metal legs.  Above the firebox are two curved side-rails to which horizontal sliding rods are fitted.  These rods can be adjusted along the length of the rails such that different pots and pans can be used.  Variously sized frying pans or cooking pots can be set on equally spaced rods, while separating two rods allows a pot to be lowered closer to the fire’s heat.  Indeed, the raising or lowering of pots in this manner moderates cooking temperature and time.

In the rear there are two openings to hold a caccabus, or stewpot, of which there are four different surviving illustrations.  Heat from the fire is drawn and funnelled beneath such pots to warm, simmer or boil the content.  A fire, or sometimes more than one, set in the firebox can be manipulated to control the available heat.  By placing the fire further back into the recess beneath the funnel(s) the cooking temperature can be raised.  Conversely, drawing a fire away from the openings quickly lowers the temperature. Simple.

With a lack of space, and in the absence of an alternative, for several years we used the cooker with it placed on the floor.  Apart from the back ache caused by tending to such a low-level fire, this position severely hampered airflow and required almost continual attention to keep the fire burning.  Yet it is believed that
 such cookers usually rested on top of a brick oven or range.  So, having constructed a plinth for this purpose, the effect on the fire’s draw was almost immediate.  Improved airflow led to a significantly better burn and the need to continually monitor the fire was much reduced.

Being a movable object suggests that this cooker may have been equally at home on a kitchen range or perhaps it could have been moved to and used in an outdoor triclinium (dining area).  Indeed it is thought that the original example was found in the garden of a Pompeian house.  As such it is tempting to speculate on how it might have been used.  Perhaps it was used to showcase and cook certain dishes before they were served to watching diners.  May be it was simply employed to warm drinks, or could it have been just an outdoor brazier - the Roman equivalent of a space heater.  The balance of probability, however, allied to the experience of several years, provides very strong 
evidence for such objects being innovative and versatile cookers.  Barbecue anyone?

[1] A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890) William Smith, LLD, William Wayte, G. E. Marindin, Ed. The term is used as the base for the term graticule, passing through French.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Edible Dormouse anyone?

All Romans ate dormice didn't they?  You may have been told that in school, and it's still a popular and persistent belief, but it's simply not true.  Although wealthy Romans might have dined on them - as a culinary delicacy - edible Dormice were not widely eaten by ordinary Romans who simply could not afford such expensive luxuries.
Moreover, Edible, or Fat, Dormice (Glis Glis) were certainly not native to Britain, and the evidence for their introduction to these shores by the Romans is sadly lacking.  As for Romano-Britons eating them, there is even less proof!
Edible Dormice were, however, farmed and eaten (as a snack), even though they were expensive to breed and raise.  According to the Roman scholar and writer Marcus Terentius Varro (116 BC – 27 BC), dormice were kept in pens enclosed by walls that were polished to prevent them from escaping and filled with trees whose fruit they like: beechnuts, acorns, chestnuts. When the trees were not bearing fruit, acorns and chestnuts would be thrown inside the walls for the dormice to glut themselves on.  Only a small amount of water was provided since Dormice use little and prefer to live in a dry place.  Roomy hollows or burrows would have been available where they might give birth.
It was noted that dormice get fat in winter as they sleep in the hollows of trees.  Consequently, in less spacious urban surroundings, such as the villas or town houses of the wealthy, potters made distinctive terracotta jars or containers known as "gliraria".   The fine example shown opposite was made for Tastes Of History by Graham Taylor of Potted History.

The inner sides of these gliraria had ribs for the dormice to walk on and holes for them to deposit their food. Jars of this kind can be seen in the museum in Naples where the examples have ribs forming three to five stories and little openings traversing the walls.  Such jars were stocked with sufficient supplies of acorns, walnuts or chestnuts before the dormice were placed inside.  With the jars covered, the dormice would eat, sleep and grow fat in the dark.   The fatter the dormice were, the more they were esteemed.

Edible Dormice are less like mice and more like squirrels, being silver grey in colour, with white or yellow undersides.  They have large round ears, black areas around small eyes and long bushy tails.  Typical examples are between 14 to 19 cm long, with a tail a further 11 to 13 cm long.  They are found throughout much of mainland western Europe and on a number of Mediterranean and Baltic islands, including Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily, and Crete.

Although not native to the United Kingdom, dormice were accidentally introduced to the town of Tring in Hertfordshire after escaping from the private collection of Lionel Walter Rothschild (the second Baron Rothschild) in 1902.  As a result, the edible dormouse population in Britain, now 30,000 strong, is concentrated in a 200 square mile (520 km2) triangle between Beaconsfield, Aylesbury and Luton, around the south east side of the Chiltern Hills.

They have adapted well to the presence of man and will now frequently hibernate in insulated attics and even dark shelves in cupboards, particularly if there are soft materials to make a nest.  Dormice can be regarded as a pest in such circumstances, however, due to faecal fouling and the fire risk resulting from their gnawing of electrical cables.  Despite this the UK's Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 prohibits certain methods of killing them, and the removing of dormice may require a licence.