Sometimes things just float into place. We’ve had Indian tejpat in stock for months – I bought some when trying to put a more complex and authentic taste into home-cooked curries. A subtle bay-like leaf, it has been lending a cinnamon warmth to many a dahl and sauce in our house this autumn. And at some point I clocked that this was the stuff -Malabathrum – that Apicius uses over and over again in his cookery book of ancient Rome. I hadn’t found much reference to its use in modern western cooking but had resolved to experiment anyway.
Making rich, smokey venison stew for Boxing Day this morning, the time came. Looking through the cupboard for suitable seasoning…marjoram, juniper, clove, black pepper, parsley, bay leaf…I came face to face with cinnamon. We have German relatives staying for Christmas and it would not be unusual to find this type of goulash being laced with cinnamon in Germany but cinnamon in savoury dishes has never strongly appealed to me, except for in Eastern food. With that thought in mind, the bay leaves sailed down to lick the bubbling surface of the stew…and were joined moments later by their stripy-veined eastern cousins. The result: Truly perfect and suited to all tastes of the household.
Food ingredients are fascinating. Here’s an enigma: What was silphium and does it still exist? In the culinary world, silphium is a mystery worthy of Indiana Jones.
It was traded across the known world and commanded high prices. Prized in ancient cooking it had a status perhaps even higher than luxury foodstuffs of today like saffron and vanilla. But the plant that gave it up – probably a type of giant fennel – was only known in Cyrene (now part of Libya) and was never successfully domesticated.
Although guarded jealously, in the end supply was exhausted and the species is generally thought to have been extinct from some time in the first century. Trade switched to an inferior alternative from the east, asafoetida – still commonly used in India. (Both products were a dried gum tapped from the root)
But could it be that the silphium plant survives today? Some people would like to think that it does. Although the Roman emperor Nero was reportedly presented with the last known stem, there are tantalizing suggestions in letters written much later of cuttings being sent to friends as gifts. Wouldn’t it be fun to go searching for it? People have. Some think that growth recovered but its production and use simply never returned. A plant still rampant in certain valleys in Libya (cachrys ferulacea) might just be it. Or it might not.
But if this stuff was that great, surely we’d know it if we found it? Perhaps, but there are many ancient food ingredients that have waned from popular taste or at least narrowed in their geography. Look at garum, for example, or verjus, or common wild herbs like meadowsweet and mallow.
All food ingredients have history and culture that can amaze as much as their flavour and artful uses. The most familiar ingredients to some may be less so to others or familiar in different forms and combinations. There is an almost limitless range of food ingredients around the world. What ingredients or delightful combinations have you “discovered” recently? What gets used unusually frequently in your kitchen? What do you grow or make yourself because you can’t buy it in the shops?
As I get interested in particular ingredients, I increasingly want to research their history and explore their uses.