A Meal for the Ages


After Rome fell in the fifth century, the empire’s eastern half thrived along the Mediterranean for nearly a millennium longer.  As Byzantium, it brandished civilization’s torch, which kept the Dark Ages at bay until the Renaissance got its footing. Though the Byzantines faded into our collective past centuries ago, they left a record of what they ate, of what kept the fires burning for so long.

On the table in Justinian and Theodora’s Byzantium one would’ve found Chicken in Lemon Sauce, Carrots and Parsnips in Wine Sauce, and Salad Oxogarita.  What’s surprising is that these are recipes presented by…re-enactors?  Specifically, Australians  involved in something called the NVG, or New Varangian Guard.

Serious scholarship buttresses the organization, as the accompanying website is dense with references to original source material, as well as to the intricacies of Latin and Greek, and of medieval Arabic’s nuances.

Yeah, great, but what does the food taste like?  Well, the Chicken in Lemon Sauce tastes like…chicken, though with sweet, nutty traces of almond to balance the lemon’s tartness.  This brightens things nicely, and the citrus suggests the yellow hue saffron broth imparts.

The carrots and parsnips are pan-seared long enough to tenderize them, and to let the wine sauce evaporate into the vegetables.  This gives them a mildly sweet transcendence that matches similar notes in the poultry.

Salads may have changed over a thousand years, though the oxogarita is simple, featuring only romaine, endive, basil and cucumbers.  Of greater note is the dressing, a combination of garum (fish sauce being the closest modern counterpart)  and squill vinegar.

Squill, closely related to shallots, isn’t used nowadays, as it mildly exacerbates heart conditions.  Nonetheless, culinary curiosity persisted, and produced shallot vinegar:'Squill' Vinegar

In two weeks, the shallots infused the vinegar enough to give it a bright pink blush and an intriguing taste.

Three preparations that fueled culture for a millennium.  The Sultan eventually smothered the Byzantine flame, but not before it had spread to Europe and, from there, to the New World, and to all of us.

A final view of a trio that may have appreciated today’s dishes, Theodora and two other Byzantines:

Mosaic

*****

Chicken in Lemon Sauce

  • 2 pounds chicken drumsticks
  • 2 chopped onions (*1)
  • 2 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 cup blanched almonds
  • 2 cups chicken stock, divided
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • salt and freshly-ground pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
  • juice of 1 large lemon

Put the saffron in a glass holding 1/4 cup of the chicken stock and set it aside.

Pour the remaining stock in a food processor and add the almonds.  Blend for a couple minutes, until the mixture is well-incorporated and milky.

Meanwhile. place a large skillet (one big enough to fit all the chicken in a single layer) over a medium flame.  When the skillet is heated, pour in the oil.  When it shimmers, add the onions and fry them lightly, stirring occasionally, until they’re softened but haven’t taken on much color, about two minutes.

Lay over the onions the drumsticks in a single layer.  Allow them to roast for a couple minutes until the “skillet” side just begins to lighten.  As with the onions, don’t let them color. Rotate the drumstick to an uncooked side.  Repeat until the drumsticks are uniformly and very lightly browned.

Pour the almond mixtire, through a fine-mesh sieve or through a colander lined with cheesecloth, over the chicken.  Squeeze the cheesecloth or press down on the sieve with the back of a spoon, to extract all the ‘juice.”

Add the ginger and steeped saffron and stir to incorporate.  Grind pepper over the chicken.  Cover and simmer for 30 minutes.  Remove the lid and increase flame sufficiently to bring the sauce to a boil.

Add the lemon juice and stir to combine.  Season with salt and serve.

NOTES:

1 – It pains me to contradict centuries of culinary wisdom, though two large shallots work better here.

*****

Carotae and Pastinacae

(Carrots and Parsnips in Wine Sauce)

  • 6 carrots, peeled and sliced on the diagonal
  • 2 parsnips, peeled, quartered lengthwise, and sliced on the diagonal
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup chicken broth
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly-ground pepper
  • 1/4 cup sherry
  • bread crumbs, optional (*2)

Put all the ingredients except the bread crumbs in a large skillet.  Place skillet over a medium flame, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes.

Thicken sauce with bread crumbs if necessary (*2) and serve.

NOTES:

2 –  There’s no use for the bread crumbs, as their only purpose is to firm up sauce that’s too watery.  To the contrary, the sauce evaporated or was absorbed into the vegetables about five minutes before they were ready, making it necessary to add a bit more chicken stock and sherry, actually.

*****

Salad Oxogarita

  • 1 head of romaine lettuce
  • 1 head of endive
  • 8 leaves of basil
  • 1/2 cucumber
  • 3/4 cup squill vinegar (*3)
  • 1 tablespoon garum (*4)

Slice the cucumber thinly and place it in a small bowl.  Cover with 1/4 cup of the vinegar and set it aside.

Tear the lettuce and the endive into pieces about a third the size of your hand.  Place them in a serving bowl and lay on the basil and the cucumber.

Mix together well the remaining vinegar and the garum.  Pour over the salad and toss well to combine ingredients.

NOTES:

3 – Again, squill is used only rarely today, and medicinally at that, due to its unfortunate side effects.  If you have the time, steep a quartered shallot in vinegar for a week or two.  I suspect the result is somewhat close to the original.  Lacking the time, or desiring a quicker result, you always can use “plain” vinegar, to nearly as good an effect.

4 –  Garum was a fish sauce popular in ancient Roman and Byzantine kitchens.  It has no exact equivalent in modern cooking, so I “deputized” some Vietnamese fish sauce.  Traveling across a continent and through the centuries, from Saigon to Byzantium.

 

 

 

 

 

 

31 thoughts on “A Meal for the Ages

    1. Just wait until the internet sends not just sights and words, Tamara, but also scents and tastes. Can that be far behind?

      It’s nearly 2020 after all, and those movies promised us Mars colonies, flying cars and robot maids by now. Aromatic transmitters are almost here too. Like today’s recipe? OK, hold on, I’ll teleport it to you.

      What, you got a tire iron? Stupid glitches!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. And so you say, Rachel. So you say.

      Can’t you see what’s happened here? The seal was broken the moment you crossed the threshold. “Wait, what? When did I walk fifteen miles?”

      Someday soon, you’ll tell someone who doesn’t think she cooks, “Actually, that’s what I thought too.”

      Too late, Rachel, you’re among us now. That revelation will burst upon you in four…three…two…one…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My, someone’s awfully loud in her denials. Who’s she trying to convince? Has to be herself.

        Patience is the way to go. Start with a picture or two. A story here, a call to the kitchen there.

        “Couldn’t hurt,” she tells herself.

        We’ll make a foodie of you yet, Rachel.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. appreciate the history lesson about the dish and that shallot looks interesting … some lengthy preparation 🙂

    Wish we could resolve the problem with your comments as I totally enjoy our chats … WP gremlins take a running jump!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not as much as I appreciate the commentary, Kate. More than just preparation, the whole vinegar venture required lots of research too. Until I committing to the recipe, I had no idea what “squill” was. When I first jarred the shallot, what would emerge later? What poison, what imp, awaited popping the cork?

      Your compatriots are responsible for this, Kate. If the NVG hadn’t been so blasted scholarly, who knows if I ever would’ve encountered Byzantine recipes? Who knew re-enactors were given to discussing the finer points of Latin? Who, besides Australians, that is.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Not just Latin, Kate, but Greek, medieval Arabic, etc.

        Imagine my surprise seeing guys who only that afternoon picked up shields and flew Byzantine banners, retire that evening to tell me exactly what “cubeb” is, or how much honey is in a “rastl.”

        Unlike re-enactors here in the US, that’s for sure.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Much appreciated, JoAnn. So, that $60,000 I spent on tuition wasn’t wasted?

      Good, and that also provides “many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.”

      Annoying, and irrelevant, Gilbert & Sullivan quotes too!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. haha you made me smile BIG with your “Well, the Chicken in Lemon Sauce tastes like…chicken” 🙂 but the chicken that tastes like chicken has ALMONDS. So that’s a Xhicken. Never enough almonds though right? I love to pan-seared carrots and parsnips because the crust it creates is caramelized 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Byzantines, in common with most of those living along the Mediterranean, loved their almonds.

      Plus, there’s something so cool about savoring the exact meal that delighted Theodora nearly 1,500 years ago, back when the sun still rose on Byzantium, keeping the Dark Ages at bay, and preserving the civilization we enjoy today.

      Like

      1. Thank you, Daniela! Always fascinating to see how people managed with far less than have today. Can you imagine cooking over a live fire, or having no refrigerator?

        Of course, lest smugness overwhelm us, someday our descendants will wonder how we made anything work, because it all was so…primitive…back in 2019. Shudder – can you even imagine?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Every generation fancies itself as being at the height of achievement. If society is functioning as it should, indeed, each successive group does look down from the pinnacle.

        Still, society advances, and eventually passes by those who once though they were the latest and greatest. Today’s cutting edge is tomorrow’s hopelessly old fashioned. How long, Daniela, before either one of us observes, “They never would have allowed that in my day.”

        Our turn is coming, just as it will for those who will scoff at us!

        Liked by 1 person

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