Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Yeast Paradox

In bread history, this note from Pliny the Elder has a particular importance: "In Gaul and Spain, where they make a drink by steeping corn... - they employ the foam which thickens upon the surface as a leaven : hence it is that the bread in those countries is lighter than that made elsewhere."

The drink was cervisia, the Gaul's primitive beer. Since beer was already known to the Egyptians and (at least by reputation) to the Greeks, it is already a mystery why a long list of writers in Latin - as late as Gregory de Tours - found it necessary to describe the drink, as though it were a novelty. But in terms of bread, a more relevant mystery is: why did the Romans never adopt this leavening method?

It is unlikely that even all Gauls used it since, both Pliny and Strabo write of many using millet, a grain which does not leaven well, if at all, and so could barely have produced bread, much less light bread. Still, Pliny mentions their spelt, which is a form of bread wheat and the Romans greatly increased the use of bread wheat (triticum aestivum) in the region. Either of these would have produced a lighter bread when leavened with yeast.

As it happens, Pliny lists the Roman methods for leavening bread, one of which involved millet, which, if kneaded with must, could be kept for a year; the same was true of wheat-bran. "When required for making bread, these cakes are first soaked in water, and then boiled with the finest spelt flour; and it is generally thought that this is the best method for making bread." He describes another made with barley and water, before going on:

At the present day, however, the leaven is prepared from the meal that is used for making the bread. For this purpose, some of the meal is kneaded before adding the salt, and is then boiled to the consistency of porridge, and left till it begins to turn sour. In most cases, however, they do not warm it at all, but only make use of a little of the dough that has been kept from the day before.

In other words, the Romans used sourdough to leaven their bread. Leaving one to wonder why, if they knew that bread from Gaul and Spain was lighter, did they not make at least some bread with the same method? This is all the more striking given the Roman love of luxury and variety.

Whatever the case, sourdough also became the main leavening agent in France and would remain so for over a millennium. This had one advantage, certainly: bread made with sourdough lasts far longer than bread made with yeast. In medieval times, rents were often paid in bread, something which would have been hard to do with yeast-leavened bread and its short shelf life.

Probably for most of the Middle Ages even scholars had long forgotten that the Gauls had leavened their bread with the foam from beer. This is ironic, given that beer itself quickly became a standard drink under the Franks and was even made by monks. But in 1560, Bruyerin, having cited Pliny's earlier statement, wrote that the custom endured among the Flemish "which is why theirs is lighter than other bread." And so, in the sixteenth century, at least some of the French knew that one obtained a lighter bread by using yeast.

And yet, not only did French bakers not adopt this method, some actually fought it.

Marie de Medici (Henri IV's Italian queen) is thought to have introduced rolls made with both milk and yeast, rolls which as a result were known as "the queen's bread"; as a class such bread was known as "softish bread" - pain mollet. Others imitated this, to the irritation of ordinary bakers, who put it out that using yeast in bread was actually harmful. In March 1668, the Faculty of Medecine decided to examine the question; the result was that they banned its use. The question then went before the French Parlement (more of a supreme court than a judicial body) which first sought the lieutenant of police's opinion. He too condemned its use, along with that of milk (which had already been used in bread in the fourteenth century). Nonetheless the Parlement decided on March 21, 1670, that yeast could be used in bread (though only that of Paris).

If this quarrel sounds comic, it also seemed so to La Condamine, who later immortalized it in a long poem on "Pain Mollet". Speaking of Guy Patin, a famous doctor, he wrote:

He concluded that Death flew
On the wings of pain mollet

As a practical matter, the use of yeast became standard in luxury breads, but would not, for a long time, be so in the more common breads.

In the latter half of the eighteenth century, Dr. Malouin, one of the great French experts on bread, wrote: "The discovery of the use of yeast in making dough is a remarkable epoch in baking, in facilitating the making of bread, because it makes the dough rise faster, and because one is less obliged to work it, if one has put in yeast." As discoveries go, this one might have been considered a long time in coming, especially since Malouin himself cites Pliny's text.

Nor was this the end of the story. All the way into the nineteenth century, yeast was referred to in French as "artificial leavening", despite being as natural in origin as sour dough. And today? It is not rare to find French artisan bakers who consider sourdough the true traditional leavening agent, and yeast a foreign innovation, still to be regarded with suspicion.


The Natural History of Pliny, Bohn, 1856 Volume 4

Jean-Baptiste Bruyerin, De re cibaria: libri XXII.

Charles-Marie de La Condamine"Le Pain Mollet", Choix des poésies de Pezai: Saint Péravi et La Condamine 1810

Malouin, Descriptions des arts et métiers: XIX, 673, [1 bl.] p., 10 f. de pl, 1771 ed, Jean-Elie Bertrand

Anne Claude Philippe Caylus (comte de, Correspondance inedite du comte de Caylus avec le P. Paciaudi, theatin (1757 ...

Friday, September 20, 2013

The funereal snails

On March 26, 1872, Emile Rivière discovered a complete skeleton in the grotto of Cavillon, near Menton. This was not the first prehistoric skeleton found in the area, but this one had a particular importance: the way in which it had been buried was sufficiently sophisticated to answer a much-disputed question: did intentional burial already exist in the Paleolithic period? Notably, the skull was covered with over two hundred pierced sea-snails (Nassa neritea) which, along with stag canines, had been part of a fishnet-style headdress. An ankle bracelet of forty-one sea-snails was also found on a tibia bone. 

A few years later two children's bodies were found in the same area with almost a thousand of these same sea-snails, again pierced and probably used for the children's loincloths.

Sea-snails are not the same as the familiar culinary snail, which is a land mollusk  Nor is their presence here very mysterious, especially since it has been discovered that Rivière's find, long known as “the man of Menton”, was in fact a woman; shells were among the earliest form of jewelry.

More mysterious, however, are land snails found in various later tombs. Three dozen snail shells were found in a Gallo-Roman tomb at Pardines in Auvergne. Edouard Salin, the great researcher on the Merovingians, found three shells under the pelvis of a late Gallo-Roman skeleton under the St. Denis Basilica. Snails were found in twenty-six early Christian (II-Vth century) tombs at Beaulieu-sur-Mer; one tightly sealed tomb contained a “veritable deposit of helix aspera (garden snails)”. (The fact that these were Christian tombs may mean that the mollusk had a particular meaning in early Christian iconography; but pagan practices also survived even among some Christians.)

Early medieval pits at Carvin, in the Nord department, have been tentatively identified as funeral pits and include snails with the remains of shellfish and small rodents. At Noiron-sur-Gevrey, Salin noted numerous shells of varied types of snails found mixed with bones of small animals and frogs in funerary pits; in this case, these may have been the remains of funerary meals. But in the same area, a ring of snail shells set fifteen to twenty centimeters apart formed a ring around a Merovingian skeleton. Similar rings have been found in Merovingian tombs at Lorleau, Villey-Saint-Etienne, Bertheleming, Templeux-la-Fosse and Hardenthum.In the Ardennes, “veritable beds of snails” were found in Merovingian tombs; there and in the Aisne, about thirty snails surrounded some skulls.

Most touchingly, in one of six Gallo-Roman tombs of newborns at Lyons-la-Foret (in Normandy), Guyot and Dollfus found, on and beside one child's body, “nine snail shells... Two shells were found at neck level, at the base of the skull, the other six essentially symmetrical to either side of the thorax and pelvis and one between the lower limbs.” About thirty centimeters to the north of this tomb was a pile of almost one hundred shells in a pile about 20 centimeters in diameter. “These were no doubt brought intentionally, in relation to a funerary rite.” But what rite? And what was the significance of the various snails placed so carefully around certain skeletons? Or of those simply piled into mounds or beds?
This rite of the presence of snails may be related, either to a funereal meal, or to a symbolic significance: the abbé Martigny, following Salin, thinks it concerns a symbol of the Resurrection, the shell being the tomb which Man must one day leave.
One thing is certain: the parents who carefully placed – or had placed – nine snail shells at specific points around their newborn's body had, in their grief, a clear and heartfelt intention, expressed, in its way, as eloquently as the poignant epitaphs found on later graves. But we may never know what that was.


The "man" of Menton
Prehistoric ornament (in French)
Marc Groenen - Pour une histoire de la préhistoire: le Paléolithique

A. Guyot , M.A. Dollfus-Sépultures de nouveau-nés dans les fouilles gallo-romaines de Fleurheim à Lyons-la-Forêt (Eure) 

Friday, September 13, 2013

The luxury of butter

By the end of the Middle Ages, the Burgundian court was one of the most elegant in Europe. But the first Burgundians were among the Germanic groups that took over Gaul from the Romans, and somewhat less than couth.

In a famous passage, Sidonis Apollinaris, a fourth century bishop and poet, made it clear that, invasions aside, these were not Our Sort of People: "I am forced to listen to the barbarous German language and to applaud, despite myself, what a drunken Burgundian sings, his head perfumed with rancid butter" - not to mention that his odor of garlic and onion. The poor giant of a Burgundian, had he been able to read, might have been wounded by Sidonis' lack of appreciation for his vocal talents. But this Gallo-Roman's dislike of his hair dressing would simply have left him perplexed. Just as rough characters of a later time would take pride in their Brylcreem and Brut, he no doubt thought his rancid butter the height of fashion and refinement.

Pliny the Elder wrote of butter that it was "held as the most delicate of food among barbarous nations, and one which distinguishes the wealthy from the multitude at large." As for its odor: "The more rank it is in smell, the more highly it is esteemed." One reason for its value may have been that, as historian Kathy Pearson notes, it is "an expensive fat to produce, as between 18.9 and 35 liters of milk are required to produce 1 kilogram of butter." Compare this to the 8.36 liters she estimates would be used for a similar quantity of artisanal cheese.

Butter was not new in Pliny's time; in Ireland, butter has been found in bogs that is at least three thousand years old. But the Romans associated it with the Germans. Pliny, in fact, thought that they did not know how to make cheese, only butter and whey: "It is a remarkable circumstance, that the barbarous nations which subsist on milk have been for so many ages either ignorant of the merits of cheese, or else have totally disregarded it; and yet they understand how to thicken milk and form therefrom an acrid kind of liquid with a pleasant flavour, as well as a rich butter: this last is the foam of milk, and is of a thicker consistency than the part which is known as the "serum."

But not only did Caesar mention the Germans making cheese, cheese presses have been found in digs in Germany itself.

He was on surer ground in describing the substance:
It is mostly made from cows' milk, and hence its name [butyrum or bouturon, from bos or bous, beef] ; but the richest butter is that made from ewes' milk. There is a butter made also from goats' milk; but previously to making it, the milk should first be warmed, in winter. In summer it is extracted from the milk by merely shaking it to and fro in a tall vessel, with a small orifice at the mouth to admit the air, but otherwise closely stopped, a little water being added to make it curdle the sooner. The milk that curdles the most, floats upon the surface; this they remove, and, adding salt to it, give it the name of "oxygala." They then take the remaining part and boil it down in pots, and that portion of it which floats on the surface is butter, a substance of an oily nature. When old, it forms an ingredient in numerous compositions. It is of an astringent, emollient, repletive, and purgative nature.
The Romans never seem to have developed a taste for butter, but they did find medical uses for it. As Pliny writes: "butter has certain of the properties of oil, is used for an ointment among all barbarous nations, and among ourselves as well, for infants." He lists a number of medical uses for it, including these: "in cases where a leech has been swallowed, butter is the usual remedy, with vinegar heated with a red-hot iron. Indeed, butter employed by itself is a good remedy for poisons, for where oil is not to be procured, it is an excellent substitute for it. Used with honey, butter heals injuries inflicted by millepedes."; "For other kinds of ulcers butter is used, as a detergent, and as tending to make new flesh."

It may come as a surprise that the great medical authority Galen mentioned its use for washing - but no more of a surprise than to know it was used in place of olive oil: "Furthermore, people in many cold regions where they lack olive oil use butter for washing themselves."

The French quickly enough adopted this "Germanic" food, which was a standard one in medieval France. Today we think of butter as a spread, but in defining a medicinal use for it, Anthimus makes it clear (in the sixth century) that it could be consumed on its own: “Fresh butter is taken for consumption. But butter completely without salt, for if it has salt, it does not cure it as well. If it is pure and fresh with a little honey mixed in, lick it at intervals while laying down.”  (Note too that it was already sometimes salted.) Fortunatus, from about the same period, speaks of butter being served together with milk, from whose fat it was made (recalling, in a roundabout way, Paul Simon's "Mother and Child Reunion", said to have been inspired by seeing chicken and an egg on the same plate).

As late as the sixteenth century, nuns at Beaumont-lez-Tours were allowed a special ration which could consist of "fruit, cheese, or some slice of butter, with bread and wine." About the same time, says Le Grand d'Aussy, [Bruyerin-]Champier wrote that the Flemish were those who consumed the most butter and so their country was known as "the butterer": "Not a day, not a meal gone by without eating it and I am surprised they have not yet had to put it in their drink. And... when someone must travel in that country, it is recommended that he take a knife, if he wants to try good mounds of butter.” But he says of the French too that they served fresh butter on their tables, especially in May, and that the common people ate it "in the morning with garlic in order to drive out what they call bad air and kill any worms they might have in their guts.” 

If the idea of eating butter directly strikes you as strange, you might consider if you've ever tasted really, really fresh butter - butter so good you could eat it as food, perhaps with some honey or garlic; maybe even a glass of milk on the side.


Oeuvres de C. Sollius Apollinaris Sidonius

Pliny - The Natural History

Kathy L. Pearson, "Nutrition and the Early-Medieval Diet", Speculum, Vol. 72, No. 1 (Jan., 1997), pp. 1-32, Medieval Academy of America

‘Bog butter’ from 3,000 BC found in ancient underground store

Galen On the Properties of Foodstuffs

Anthimus-Anthimi De observatione ciborum: epistula ad Theudericum

Venance Fortunat, Poésies mêlées

Mémoires de la Société archéologique de Touraine, Volume 26

Pierre Jean-Baptiste Legrand d'Aussy- Histoire de la vie privée des Français, v2

Available in my own translations:

Anthimus' De Observatione Ciborum

Le Grand's chapter on eggs, butter and cheese

Friday, September 6, 2013

A soup for the Bishop of Tours

A number of writers cite a brief passage from the work of Gregory de Tours, the Gallo-Roman bishop whose history of the Franks remains the prime source for their early history. It concerns an attempt by Chilperic, one of the earliest French kings, to get on Gregory's good side with a soup:
Then he, to calm me, and thinking that I did not see that he was acting out of artifice, showed me a soup placed before him and said, "I have had prepared for you a soup in which there is nothing but fowl and some chick peas." And I, knowing that he sought to flatter me, replied: "Our food must be to do God's will, and not to indulge in pleasures."
One reason writers cite this passage is that it is demonstrates a peculiarity of Catholic abstinence in the early centuries of France. If Chilperic was specifically concerned with Gregory's dietary strictures, it was no doubt because as a clergyman in this early period (when many of the Church's rules were more austere), he was meant to abstain from meat. And yet, Chilperic served him a bird. More than one text shows that in this period birds - created in Genesis on the same day as fish - were considered acceptable as fast-day food. Some early monastic orders did indeed forbid monks their meat, but then some also banned, or limited, fish. In general, there was nothing shocking about a priest of the time, sworn to abstinence, eating fowl.

One corollary to this state of affairs is that fish, for a long time, had no special association with fasting. If, by the end of the medieval period, "fish-day" was virtually a synonym for "fast-day", no such concept is referenced in the first centuries under the Franks.

Note too Gregory's diplomatic demurral on the grounds that this (apparently modest) dish could be considered a "pleasure". Here one has to consider, first of all, that Gregory disliked, and distrusted, Chilperic.

How much did he dislike him?

In describing the king's death, Gregory calls him "the Nero and the Herod of our time". He follows that terse but eloquent description with a long tirade undiluted by any fear of speaking ill of the dead:
He was given to gluttony and made a god of his belly.... He composed two books,... whose verses clank, without being able to stand on their feet; because, out of ignorance, he put short syllables for long and long for short.... He hated everything to do with the poor... and found no subject so fertile for his mockery and witticisms as the bishops of the Church... As for acts of debauchery and indulgence, one can imagine none that he did not commit in reality.... As he had never truly loved anyone, he was loved of no one....
In Chilperic's defense, some have suggested that Gregory's dislike of him was due to his efforts to prevent the Church from gathering all riches to itself. Whatever the case, Gregory's demurral certainly reflected his desire not to accept Chilperic's hospitality.

At the same time, his refusal to accept the dish, even though it respected the letter of the Church's law, raises another question: was it more important to observe abstinence strictly in terms of specific foods or was the key principle to avoid over-indulgence? As Theodulf of Orleans put it several centuries later, “What is forbidden, is drunkenness and wantonness and not milk and eggs, because the Apostle does not say: abstain from eggs and milk, but he says, do not get drunk with wine which produces wantonness."

Ultimately, the most legalistic approach would triumph; many later fast-day meals, if they contained nothing the Church considered meat, were nonetheless shamelessly luxurious.

The passage is important too for one surprisingly simple fact: it mentions soup. In later medieval times, soup would be a key component in most meals. As a practical matter, it must already have been eaten in the early medieval period, when so many foods were boiled. The fact that many bowls have been found from the period also shows that something more than a plate was needed for meals. Yet, for whatever reason, the word itself barely appears in texts from this period. Gregory's mention is precious not only because it is specific, but also because it is general; that is, it makes it plain that a soup was an ordinary enough dish.

Finally, those with an interest in period food might wonder: just how would one prepare such a soup? That is, how literally should one take Gregory's very minimal description? It is true that Chilperic went out of his way to say that "nothing else" had been put in the soup but the two ingredients named. On the other hand, Gregory's first concern was not food history and he might well have used a kind of shorthand for a more refined dish. The very fact that he pronounced it too luxurious suggests that the royal cook had made it, as one might expect, with some finesse.

If Gregory provides no further details on its composition, Anthimus, in his work for Chilperic's uncle Theuderic, points out that several greens could be added to cooking liquid, among them leeks, celery and cilantro (that is, the greens of coriander). He also names a handful of spices then available in Gaul, including pepper, cumin, ginger and clove. And of course powdered coriander. Other common flavorings of the time were oil, vinegar and honey - not to mention garum, the Roman fish sauce which is thought to be very like today's Asian fish sauce (a royal cook of the time might especially have been inclined to use what was then considered an elite ingredient).

Add some cilantro and ginger to the basic ingredients named, and you would get something very Asian; all the more so if you add a few drops of fish sauce. Use cumin with some leek, and maybe some oil and vinegar, and the effect would be far more European. Vinegar and honey would create a sweet and sour effect not unfamiliar in Roman cooking. One can, in fact, play with numerous combinations of ingredients and still stay within the period.

What about the "fowl" (literally, "flying creature")? By far the most common bird consumed at the time was chicken; goose typically came second, and duck far behind that. At this point, too, a king might still have followed the Roman taste for pheasant, which is mentioned in earlier centuries, but rarely later.

Otherwise, there are a variety of birds that were eaten commonly enough in the time: partridge, pigeon, turtledove... So was peacock, in elite circles, but it was unlikely to be boiled with chickpeas.

For a modern cook, chicken will probably be the simplest choice. Chicken, chickpeas, and a handful of readily available seasonings; put them together and you can have a reasonable approximation of a Merovingian soup. A soup fit for a king - or a bishop.


 Grégoire de Tours, Guadet - Histoire ecclésiastique des francs

Wikipedia on Chilperic I

Pierre Jean-Baptiste Legrand d'Aussy-Histoire De La Vie Privée Des Français, Volume 1, Issue 2

Anthimi De observatione ciborum epistula ad Theudericum, regem Francorum (1877)

My own translations are available of:

Le Grand d'Aussy's texts on fasting
Anthimus' De Observatione Ciborum
An ornate eighteenth century fast day meal (hard copy)
An ornate eighteenth century fast day meal (ebook)