Thousands of tasty and exciting recipes of the past are completely forgotten. They are recorded in ancient cookbooks that are kept in archives and libraries but are rarely used in contemporary kitchens. This is a shame, because we have a lot to learn from these historical recipes.
Indulging the taste of the past implies putting aside our contemporary food framework. Nowadays, even the biggest gourmet pathfinders are defined by the culinary framework of the culture they grew up in. We are used to a set of fixed combinations. However, just sink your teeth in a medieval lasagna flavoured with saffron and cloves or an early modern fish sauce with strawberries, it’s absolutely delicious! I’ve read hundreds of cookbooks from classical antiquity up to now and have discovered surprising and mouth-watering combinations!
“As innovative and exciting these dishes sound to a contemporary reader, they used to be part of the daily menu.”
Blowing the dust of hundreds of old cookbooks from 2000 BC to present time
My fascination for the history of food started while visiting Hadrian’s wall, an ancient Roman fortification. I was searching for a new and refreshing research topic, and I guess I must have been hungry that day. I soon started dreaming of Roman grilled fish with raisins and oregano and game stews with cilantro and mint.
During my journey through ancient cookbooks I’ve tasted a luscious Roman chicken-and-peach stew, a medieval pizza with bacon and apple, a 17th century stuffed turkey with raspberry sauce, to name just a few.
Weaponed with the cookbook of Apicius (1st century AD), I started cooking Roman food! I was struggling at first with these concisely written recipes that contained rare and uncommon ingredients like asafoetida, mallow and rue.
“I’ve overseasoned some dishes, undercooked a few others, but soon enough, I started to appreciate the oriental flavors of these two thousand year old dishes.”
Later, I plunged myself into medieval, early modern and 19th century cuisine. I discovered a vast amount of tasty and unfamiliar dishes, from cinnamon flavored soles to pigeons stuffed with basil. When I met the Foodpairing team, we soon enough discovered our shared interest in unusual yet tasty combinations, and I’ve scanned my corpus of ancient cookbooks in search for unfamiliar recipes with matching ingredients.
Bringing exciting flavours of the past back to live
More often than not, ancient chefs used ingredients that share aromatic compounds; Roman cuisine frequently combines cilantro with parsley and mint, and almost every medieval dish is seasoned with matching spices like cinnamon, cloves and saffron. These ancient cookbooks also offer quite a lot of less familiar combinations, like an eighteenth century combination of salmon and cherries or a Akkadian venison stew seasoned with cumin and leek.
After searching and selecting some delightful dishes, we actually recreated them in the foodpairing studio! In the next few months, I will showcase and contextualize these unusual historical pairings and illustrate our rich culinary history from the ancient Near East until the first half of the 20th century. I hope these flavors and combinations – some of them quite literally fit for a king – will excite and inspire.
So let’s begin our journey trough the history of taste with this flavoursome Babylonian venison stew found on clay tablets dating back to 1700 BC.