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Flavouring the Garden: Plums Part 1 – Preserved Plums

It’s Mother’s Day and therefore the perfect day for what is in my mind the quintessential mother-daughter activity: preserving fruit. I have many fond memories of helping (and when I say helping, I mean giving the pot an occasional stir) my Mum make jam…or rather, pouring jam! It must be said, it took her a while to get the knack of it (and when I say a while, I mean years and not without the help of a Women’s Institute book on preserves) but she does make a very good jam, although I confess I was also rather fond of the pouring jam, which went marvelously with ice cream, and look forward to the day when it makes an impromptu return. However, I am not making plum jam today, but preserved whole plums that will be used in my next recipe (hence the ‘Part 1’ of this post) for plum torte.

Plum Tree (Prunus domestica)

Plum Tree (Prunus domestica)

There are so many varieties of plum in a myriad of bright, beautiful colours and flavours: tart, purply-blue damsons, rich and intense greengages, sunshine yellow, sweet mirabellles, rosy-red, juicy Victorias and many, many more. Plums have grown wild across northern Europe and were widely cultivated throughout ancient Greece and Rome – Pliny lists twelve varieties, including the damascenum ‘Damascus plum’ from  Syria, from which the damson (Prunus institata) grown today throughout northern Europe may have originated. 

The Romans recognised the medicinal uses of the plum tree: respiratory illnesses were treated with its leaves and the laxative effects of the fruit, especially in its dried form as prunes, were also utilised. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a burning branch pulled from a plum tree is used as a weapon in the Battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs (12.272) and the aforementioned Philemon and Baucis unknowingly serve plums to the gods when they visit them in the guise of mortals (8.675). It also appears that as well as the learned Pliny, the rustic cyclops Polyphemus was also acquainted with various types of plum as he promises the choicest of cultivars to the nymph Galatea in a vain attempt to woo her (see chestnut torte recipe for Polyphemus’ song). 

With your own fair hands you will pick the most delicious of strawberries growing under the trees,  the cornel berries in autumn, and juicy plums, not only the dark blue kind, but also the choicer sort with the golden colour of fresh-made wax.

– Metamorphoses 13.826

Plum Tree Detail, House of the Fruit Orchard, Pompeii

Plum Tree Detail, House of the Fruit Orchard, Pompeii

For Scappi’s preserved plums I shall be using the Victoria plum variety, which are just coming into season now that spring has begun.

To preserve fresh plums in syrup
Skin the plums with a knife. Have clarified sugar ready in a clean, well-tinned copper pot and, for every pound of sugar, six ounces of water. Boil it over a low fire with the plums in it, as many as can go into it without being too close together, until the plums are tender and the sugar has thickened. Then take that out of the pot, put it into dishes and let it cool.

The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, Book VI, Recipe 136


Plum IngredientsIngredients

200g preserving sugar
800g plums
400ml water

Method

  • Heat the oven to 130°C and sterilize a jar by washing them it hot, soapy water and then placing them on a baking tray in the pre-heated oven for 10 minutes (or if unlike me you have a dishwasher, just put them through a cycle and voilà), keeping them warm until filled
  • Fill a pan with 400ml water and preserving sugar, heat gently, stirring to dissolve the sugar
  • Add the plums and simmer for 5-7 minutes until the skins have come away from the fleshPreserving
  • Fill the jar with the plums and syrup, leaving about 2cm from the top and seal

Preserved PlumsAlthough these plums would be quite lovely to eat as they are, or with a scoop of ice cream, I will be saving them for the plum torte which will feature in next week’s blog post…

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The Hungry Historians: Apicius’ Boiled Eggs in Pine Nut Sauce

Today, we’re going savoury, with boiled eggs as you have never had them before – you may think that a boiled egg is quite sufficient on its own and have never felt the need to consume said egg with anything other than the obligatory toasted soldiers, let alone a fish sauce. Well let me tell you, Apicius would be turning in his grave if he knew the mighty boiled egg had been reduced to such humble fare and would deplore our lack of imagination/ garum-based sauce in its modern consumption! Clearly, it’s time to reunite egg and sauce after over two millennia of undeserved separation…

What on earth is garum you say? Why of course it’s the intestines of small fish gradually fermented in brine, and here is a place where you can discover how to make this tasty condiment.  Folically challenged wizard-chef Heston Blumenthal also tested out a recipe for garum on his series Roman Feasts a few years ago, and makes the process look and sound sufficiently unpleasant. As garum appears to be no longer a favourite flavouring, and the thought of fermenting fish in brine made us shudder (note, Carmen’s already had a go) we’re using the Thai sauce nam pla (Carmen) and anchovy paste (Mim) as alternatives.

Carmen is doing this recipe with chicken eggs and Mim is trying it with quail eggs, as her Mum keeps them and they are happy little layers, if a bit daft and rather flighty (hence my Mum holding on tightly to Isadora in the picture here!).

Quails

Mim’s Mum’s quails – kind provider’s of the eggs for this recipe

In obis hapalis. ‘For soft-boiled eggs’
Pepper, soaked pine nuts. Add honey and vinegar and mix with 
garum.
Apicius 329

Ingredients

Above: Carmen’s ingredients and soaking pine nuts
Below: Mim’s ingredients and pre-soaked pine nuts

Ingredients

2 small chicken eggs/ 4 quail eggs
100g pine nuts
1 teaspoons ground pepper
1 teaspoon honey
2 tablespoons garum (or anchovy paste/ nam pla)

Method

  • Soak the pine nuts for one hour
  • Drain and grind finely in the blender or in a large mortar
  • Add pepper, honey and fish paste
  • Gently heat the sauce in a pan
  • Whilst the sauce is heating, boil the chicken eggs for 3½ minutes or quail eggs for 1 minute, then place in a bowl of cold water
Cooking

Left: Carmen’s sauce and hen eggs cooking
Right: Mim’s sauce and quail eggs cooking

  • Once cool, gently peel the shell from the eggs
  • Place the eggs in a bowl and serve with sauce poured over

Carmen

Carmen eggs

One for the Welsh language speakers

I fully cannot understand why it was easier for me to find nam pla in a sleepy town in north Attica than it was to source goat’s milk for the previous Hungry Historians recipe. The mind boggles.

Perhaps it was the nam pla, perhaps it was the draw of soft-boiled eggs, or perhaps it was the fact that I made these at breakfast-time that meant I ate them all. The whole lot in one sitting. The sauce (seemingly in complete contrast to Mim’s, see below) was lovely and light, and the salty-fishiness of the nam pla nicely complimented the sweetness of the honey. As a little added extra I toasted the pine nuts that its served with, and I definitely think that was an added bonus.

I’m genuinely considering trying to knock this up into a more substantial recipe so that I can have it again. Perhaps a kedgeree style breakfast dish, with rice (or more ancient-world authentically) pearl barley. To be continued, Apicius!

Mim

EggsI am sorry to say that I just couldn’t stomach this, it was really grim, and I managed little more than a cowardly teaspoon-full of the sauce before deciding I would never again let this revolting taste taint my tastebuds!

It was a truly bizarre flavour – initially you get the sweetness of the honey bringing out the mild flavour of the slightly bitter pinenuts, but lurking in the background is the more sinister, salty taste of the fish sauce which suddenly becomes an overwhelming briny, fishy flavour which develops steadily until you feel like you’re eating something rotten. The slimy, grainy texture of the sauce only emphasised this and amidst it all the gentle flavour of the egg is completely lost. 

I’m fairly open-minded about food, willing to experiment and a big fan of fish, (in fact I eat fish far more often than meat) and having heard Carmen’s positive reaction to this dish, I’m going to put my thoroughly negative experience down to the anchovy paste and in future will definitely source nam pla as a substitute for garum in the hope that I will never again have to relive the taste of this sauce!


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Flavouring the Garden: Golden Apple Trees and Scappi’s Apple Crostata

During Carnival in Venice, on the last day of February, Scappi created a feast for 50 guests where over 50 varieties of apple, both cooked and raw, were served to guests. Scappi’s apple-centric feast is my idea of fine dining: I love apples of all shapes, sizes and varieties and I think one of the reasons I’ve stayed in Devon for so long is down to the abundance of orchards and the myriad of apple varieties available (you can check these out at www.devon-apples.co.uk!). So, in honour of Scappi’s banquet, I am making his Apple Crostata. 

Apples were something of a phenomenon in the ancient world, particularly the golden variety: the golden apples of the Hesperides were said to be guarded jealousy by the dragon Ladon, which only Hercules, as part of his twelve labours (Met. 9.190) and Eris, goddess of discord, succeed in stealing. Eris inscribed the stolen fruit with τῇ καλλίστῃ ‘for the most beautiful’, which Hera, Athena and Aphrodite each claimed as theirs. Paris, however, judged Aphrodite as the fairest, won over by her pledge to give him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta, wife of Menelaus – thus the wheels of the Trojan War were set in motion by a single golden apple.

Then, there is the golden tree sacred to Venus, the fruit of which she used to trick Atalanta, a young woman who desired to remain a virgin huntress and only agreed to marry the man who can outrun her in a race. Whilst unbeatable, she was outwitted by Hipponemes, who was given three golden apples by Venus, which he uses to distract Atalanta during the race, enabling him to win and claim her hand as victor:

‘…there gleams a golden tree with foliage of yellow and branches rustling with yellow gold. I chanced to be coming from there with three gold apples I’d plucked in my hand.’

– Metamorphoses 10. 646-50

Apple Tree  (Malus domestica)

Apple Tree (Malus domestica)

It would seem that the golden apples that graced that boughs of trees during the classical period perhaps also thrived during the Renaissance, as Italian nobleman Giacamo Castelvetro claimed the ‘paradise apple’ was among the greatest specialities Italy had to offer. According to Castelvetro, these were recognised by their golden yellow skin flecked with scarlet and were so aromatic that they were used to infuse linen with their scent and their skins were burned in fires to perfume rooms.

A visitor to the Villa d’Este, Cernobbio at Lake Como claimed that the  gardens had apple trees ‘whose fruits are fairer than the apples of the Hesperides‘. It is likely these were Annurca apples, cultivated throughout Italy and grown in numerous gardens, which is believed to date back to ancient times. Although the earliest documentation of this fruit is in 1876, depictions of this apple can be seen on frescos from Pompeii and Herculaneum (see below), where carbonized remains were found in the garden of the Villa Poppaea and it is believed to be the apple variety Pliny refer to as the mala orcula, which originated from Pozzuoli (ancient Pueteoli).

Apples in a Bowl of Fruit Fresco, House of Julia Felix, Pompeii

Apples in a Bowl of Fruit Fresco, House of Julia Felix, Pompeii

Glass Bowl with Apples and Pomegranate, Villa Poppea, Oplontis

Glass Bowl with Apples and Pomegranate, Villa Poppea, Oplontis

It is probable Scappi’s apple crostata would have been made from this variety, also…

To prepare an apple crostata.
Get apples, either pare them or roast them in the coals, and cut them into thin slices. Stew them a little in a earthenware or copper pot in fresh butter, sugar and a little malmsey or white wine. When they are done take them out and make a crostata with them, with slices of fresh provatura under and over them, sprinkling them with sugar and cinnamon. Put a few lumps of butter and seeded muscatel raisins in with that. Apples and muscatel pears can be put into a crostata raw as they are without being stewed if you have sliced them very thin.

– The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, Book V Recipe 61

Apple IngredientsIngredients

500g shortcrust pastry
2 cooking apples
150g mascarpone
25g butter
50g sugar
50g raisins
2 teaspoons cinnamon

Method

  • Pre-heat the oven to 180°C and line a tray with baking paper
  • Slice the apples thinly and to keep from browning  place in a bowl of water with a little lemon juiceSlicing

  • For the crostata shell, roll the pastry out to about 1cm thickness on a lightly floured surface
  • Spread the mascarpone evenly over the base of the pastry shell, leaving a 5cm border
  • Sprinkle the raisins, half the sugar and cinnamon over the mascarponeFilling

  • Transfer onto a baking tin and arrange apple slices overlapping each other from edge of the pastry and working your way into the centre in a spiral
  • Fold the edges of the pastry up over the apples, pleating it to encircle them and form a crust
  • Melt the butter and brush over the apples, then sprinkle with remaining sugar and cinnamonArranging SlicesArranging  Final

  • Bake for 30-35 minutes until the apples are tender, serve warmFinal Apple

So, we have had a tourte, now we’re having a crostata – the main differences being that the filling of a tourte is well-blended whereas the filling of a crostata is chunky and has more bite to it, making the latter my favourite of the two. In fact, this has been my favourite Renaissance recipe so far: it wasn’t fussy and had no overpowering flavours, (the conspicuous absence of rosewater in this recipe came as quite a relief in particular!) just simple, tasty and elegant in appearance. The crisp, sharpness of the apples was complimented beautifully with the juicy sweetness of the raisins and undercut perfectly with the mellow smoothness of the mascarpone. Its clean, no-nonsense flavours made a refreshing change from typical overly  sweet desserts we are so accustomed to nowadays and this is sure to remain a firm favourite for me, especially as it goes so well with a nice dollop of Greek yogurt!