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Classics Kitchen: Apicius’ Melon with Mint Dressing

At the moment I’m experimenting with a lot of Roman recipes in preparation for an upcoming event at University of Reading that the Classics Kitchen will be at on 19th November, where we’ll be giving food demos, sharing ancient recipes and serving Roman food. My good friend Stef (@stefanieindevon) over at Flavouring the Moment and I have been asked by Professor Eleanor Dickey (who taught us both Latin during our MA!) to participate in a project run by the Classics Department at Reading University ‘Experiencing Ancient Education‘, recreating a Roman classroom as part of the Being Human Festival of the Humanities. An ancient schoolroom will be recreated for one day and visitors will be invited to experience first-hand what education was like in the Roman empire. The Classics Kitchen will be offering a hands-on, interactive experience of ancient ingredients, food preparation and cooking methods with food demonstrations, as well as selling Roman food and recipe booklets so people can learn and eat like Romans for the day!

So from now until November I’ll be trying and testing recipes for the event. First up, Apicius’ melon with mint dressing…

Pepones et Melones. ‘Gourds & Melons’
Pepper, pennyroyal, honey or condensed must, broth and vinegar, once in a while one adds silphium
– Apicius
3.7

IngredientsIngredients

1 melon (honeydew or Galia)
2 tbsp mint
2 tbsp spoons honey
2 tbsp spoons white wine vinegar
1 tbsp spoon nam pla (or other fish sauce)
pepper

Method

  • Cut and chop the melon into small squares, set aside
  • Combine the mint, honey, vinegar, fish sauce and pepper
  • Pour the sauce over the melon pieces and leave to absorb the flavours for 15 mins before serving
  • Serve topped with a few mint leaves

Final

I learnt my lesson from the time I made Apicius’ Boiled Eggs in Pine Nut Sauce when I used anchovy paste (big mistake – it tasted awful!) so I used used nam pla fish sauce as a substitute for garum this time. The dressing was tangy and the infusion of aromatic mint made it distinctly refreshing, but I found the white wine vinegar made the sauce a little too acidic for my taste. However, the cool freshness of mint complimented the sweetness of the melon beautifully – it’s a great combination of flavours I intend to use again. The crisp, clean flavours of this dish make it a great starter, especially as its so quick and easy to make.

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Mint & Elderflower Fritters and the Misfortunes of Menthe

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Elderflowers from the European Black Elder (Sambucus nigra)

Late spring brings elderflower. Every year my Mum makes countless bottles of elderflower cordial, but the fact she is annoyingly generous with it and always giving away bottles to people combined with my family unrestrained greed for it means that our supplies rarely last until the autumn, but it does sustain us through the long and lazy hot summer days. Whilst elderflower is making a seasonal appearance in this post, it is mint that takes centre stage…Ovid reveals the origin of mint with a reference to the story of the nymph Menthe in the lamentation of Venus before she transforms her beloved dying Adonis into an anemone:

Persephone, you were allowed to alter a woman’s body, Menthe’s, into fragrant mint: shall the transformation of my hero, of the blood of Cinyrasbe grudged to me?

– Metamorphoses 10.728

Mint

Mint (gen. Mentha)

According to Strabo, Menthe was a Cocythian nymph who was seduced by Hades, only to be discovered by his wife, Persephone who trampled her underfoot as she transformed into the pungent herb, mint. As well as being used in funerary rites, mint was an essential element of kykeon, the drink used by initiates in the Eleusian Mysteries (you can pop over to Circe’s Kitchen for the kykeon recipe). Because of its numerous gastronomic and medicinal properties as well as its use in ritual, mint was a favourite herb in the Roman garden and remained a popular garden herb in the Italian Renaissance.

For Scappi, mint wasn’t just to be used as a flavouring or accompaniment to dishes, but as a food in its own right, the case for which is proved by his fritters recipe:

To prepare fritters.
Get a pound of fine flour, two ounces of cooled melted butter, two ounces of sugar, two ounces of rosewater, a little saffron, salt, eight eggs and a beaker of goat’s milk, with all that make up a batter like well beaten glue. Let it sit in the same pot in a warm place for a quarter of an hour. Beat it again. Make fritters of it in the way described above. In that mixture you can put elderflower or mint and marjoram.

– The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, Book V, Recipe 137

Ingredients Ingredients

100g flour
25g melted butter
25g sugar
1 egg
splash goat’s milk
drop rosewater
pinch saffron
5 elderflower heads*
5 mint stems
oil for frying

* elderflower usually blooms from the end of May to mid June (depending on the weather) – the flower heads should be collected fresh when the buds have just opened and no bitter smell can be detected

Method

  • Heat some oil in a frying pan
  • Rinse the elderflower heads and trim the stems, but leave them long enough to hold whilst frying
  • Combine the flour, melted butter, sugar, milk, rosewater and saffron and beat together until it forms a batter, then fold a beaten egg white into the mixture
  • Dip the elderflower heads one-by-one into the batter and hold by the stem in the oilFrying
  • Fry until the batter is crisp and golden, then immediately dip into caster sugar and place on a piece of kitchen rollFritters
  • Repeat with the mint leaves, leaving them on the stem and serve immediately for optimum crispiness!Final

I REALLY loved these, they were unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before and the only thing I can compare them with is the crispy fried texture of churros, but with a wonderfully aromatic hit. The cool, freshness of the mint worked so well in the warm, crunchy batter and the leaves darkened to a rich green as they fried and crystallized beautifully. I was worried the frying would cause the delicate taste of the elderflower to be lost, but if anything it preserved it and the gently floral, aromatic flavour complimented the crisp sweetness of the fried batter perfectly.

I really recommend people try these – they are so simple to make, plus they look and taste truly fantastic!