Saturday, January 14, 2012

Verjuice, agresta, omphacium and oleo gremiale

It's not often you see verjuice in the popular press:

The best substitute is probably the sour grape juice sold in Persian markets, which I suspect is basically the same thing. Otherwise, modern cooks typically use lemon juice or vinegar in its place.

Le Grand claims that it was originally made from the juice of sorrel,

but in fact there are earlier references to a specific grape called "verjus" and to rents paid in it. The Romans had a similar product called "omphacium" (though that could also refer to a kind of oil made from underripe olives). But this did not seem to be the ancestor of verjuice - Charlemagne, who had his stewards keep garum on hand, says nothing about either omphacium or verjuice. Verjuice does not seem to appear (like trenchers) until about the 12th century.

Though when I first translated my own version of the Viandier I thought of it as an archaic ingredient, in fact it has never fully disappeared. It's mentioned fairly frequently in 18th century cookbooks and still, if more sparingly, in the nineteenth century.

I'm probably not the only one (with Le Grand) to be frustrated by trying to puzzle out what "verjus de grain" referred to. In fact, it appears to be an equivalent to the grape version, but made with beer, as "verjus de pomme" was made with cider. [UPDATE 8/23/13 : Terence Scully says this was probably a kind of jam made with preserves of the same kind of tart young grape used to make the juice; that's a creditable explanation, especially since the one early source for "verjus de grain" itself seems to be period guesswork.]

The word "agresta" is more or less contemporary with verjus and was the southern French or Italian (as well as Latin) word for it; omphacium is the Roman word for something similar, but from an earlier period.

For those who care to puzzle through the Latin, Du Cange cites an author who specifically distinguishes between agresta and omphacium:

As I understand, this comes down to using verjuice as opposed to omphacium, depending on the species being cooked.

The Romans also had a kind of olive oil equivalent - oleo gremiali - made from very young grapes. Further research may yet uncover other liquids made from young, tart fruits (yes, the olive is a fruit).

From the 16th century Yiddish - food for a pregnant woman

Did you even know Yiddish was spoken in the 16th century? And in Venice?
I did not.

"There she lies, for four whole weeks, on her back, hidden behind the curtain, and eats nothing else, evening or morning, but good capons and plump hens, [with] the yellow broths they distill from saffron.
Poor woman! How else could she have gained this? Should she not care for herself a little?
She eats rich apple purées that help her move her bowels. She stuff herself with heaps of goat’ rue,comfits, and treggéa. [-55b-]
Nutmeg blossom, which helps her move her bowels and feel comfortable. All the dainties that her heart desires.
She and her nurse feel like a bird in a birdcage!
Every day, something unusual and something new. [She has] requested greens cooked with sugar and with wine—that is not forbidden to her. Almond rice sprinkled with sugar and with currants—that is another one of the foods that give her pleasure.It is as black with currants as flies.
How else could she [lie] for four weeks?"

From a delightful Yiddish manuscript from northern Italy, probably Venice, c. 1535.

This text is now in print in the original early Yiddish and English translation, with introductory essays and annotations by Justin Lewis and Harry Fox (University of Toronto):

Courtesy of the MEDMED list:

Harissa history

Harissa, the Moroccan sauce made with various peppers, spices and oil, probably evolved over a long period of time, so its origin is unlikely to be discovered. But it seems to first have been mentioned in European texts in 1881 in Our mission to the court of Marocco in 1880: under Sir John Drummond Hay ...  by Philip Durham Trotter: "harissa, a mixture of crushed wheat, meat, and marrow"

It is clear from this description that it has already changed in the century since.

While it might seem unlikely one could go back further, a much earlier reference to the word at least is found in the Kitab al tabikh fi-l-Maghrib wa-l-Andalus fi `asr al-Muwahhidin, limu'allif majhul. (The Book of Cooking in Maghreb and Andalus in the era of Almohads, by an unknown author) which has been made available by Candida Martinelli's as a 13th Century Al-Andalus Cookbook ( from "a translation by Charles Perry, working from the original Arabic, a printed copy of the Arabic and its translation into Spanish, and assisted by an English translation by various persons translating collaboratively the text from Spanish to English."

There one finds, first:
Information about Harîsa According to its Kinds [savory meat puddings] Harisa is heating, moist, very nutritious, strengthening and fertilizing for dry, thin bodies. It increases blood and sperm, with increased ability in coitus, but makes digestion and good bowel elimination difficult. .....
(The entry is long), then:
The Method of Making It [savory wheat, meat mush]
Take good wheat and soak it in water. Then pound it in a wooden or stone mortar until it is free from husks. Then shake it and put the clean wheat [its marrow] in a pot with clean red meat and cover it with a lot of fresh water. Put it on a strong fire until it falls apart.
Then stir it very forcefully until it becomes blended and one part blends into the other. Then pour on enough melted fresh fat to cover it and beat it together until it is mixed. When it seems that the fat begins to separate and remain on top, turn it onto a platter andcover it with salted fat. Sprinkle it with ground cinnamon and use it as you please.
This sounds nothing like today's harissa, but it does sound more like that described in 1881.

And is there more to be found? Perhaps. The above already goes surprisingly far, but, somewhere in untranslated records, still more information may yet lurk.


This is to be a very occasional blog, intended for what its title suggests: leftovers; items that is that for whatever reason have not ended up elsewhere. For the most part, items about food, hence also its name.

About myself: I am (among a few things) a food historian. My first foray into this area was in writing an essay on breakfast in eighteenth century France for the collection Consuming Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century: Narratives of Consumption, 1700-1900

This in turn led to my self-publishing a book (August Zang and the French Croissant) on the history of the croissant which in turn prompted my interest in the French baguette and an on-line paper on its origin which caught the attention of the editor preparing the Dictionnaire Universel du Pain

for which I ended up writing nine articles.

Meanwhile, my independent work has continued, resulting in two volumes of eighteenth century recipes, a translation of  the Viandier (How to Cook a Peacock) and, most recently, a translation from the Latin of Anthimus' 6th century dietetic, De Observatione Ciborum (How to Cook an Early French Peacock). I also am proceeding on some other research, as well as responding to queries from others and the items here will probably result primarily from these efforts.