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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.