Jul 28

Silphium

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.

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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.