Sunday 24 January 2016

A BIT OF A MISH-MASH By Elizabeth Chadwick

My current work in progress, TEMPLAR SILKS is the story of the three years that the English knight and future regent of England, William Marshal, spent on pilgrimage to the Holy Land in order to lay the cloak of his deceased lord Henry the Young King on Christ's tomb in the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and to atone for his own sins in the process.
As such, I have to bring him from Angevin England, via Rome, Sicily and Constantinople to Jerusalem (one historian has William making the journey very swiftly by ship but I entirely disagree with him and suspect that his own assessment is born of a need to get William there as quickly as possible in order to give him a chance to do the swords and fightery thing with Saladin and is not reliable, but that's for another time).

Part of my research is absorbing the sensual material involved with the areas and cultures through which William passes and resides. The sights, sounds, tastes, smells and feels of other lands. While for example, silks, spices, jewels and glassware were available to the northern aristocracy, they came at a premium.  In the Middle East the access to such luxury materials was much closer and the area stood at the trading crossroads between all points of the compass.  The port of Acre dealt (among other things)  in spices, jewels, sugar, slaves, saffron, indigo, alum from Asia Minor, silks, and cotton, the latter going to Messina in Sicily for processing.

 The port of Tyre was famous for its purple dye.  Tyrian purple was made from the shells of a particular kind of sea snail. The dye extracted was more valuable than gold and the perogative of emperors.  There's a reason it was called Royal Purple.  You can see an example of the dye on the silk coronation tunicella of Roger II of Sicily.

The above also displays the type of embroidery and the sort of very high status garment being worn in the mid 12th century. The silk workshops of Sicily were renowned at this time.
The port of Tyre was also famous for its glassware, the production of which seems to have been the specific talent of Jewish craftsmen.

William would have found a different lifestyle in the Middle East, where the European settlers, known as Franks by the native population, swiftly adapted to lighter more relaxed ways of dressing, and took to bathing and depilatory practices - all of which was frowned on by pilgrims and newcomers.  An entertaining story is told by a Syrian Muslim gentleman called Usamah Ibn-Munqidh born circa 1095 and dying circa 1188.  A curious, garrulous, courageous warrior of noble descent, he wrote his memoirs.  They're a wonderful glimpse into the world of 12th century Palestine.  Usama does take liberties with his tales and they have to be read with a good pinch of salt, but even so, as a broad brushstroke of attitudes in Outremer, they're invaluable.  He tells one particular tale against the Franks which illustrates the detail that while the chaps might have kept the beards on their faces, they were all for experimentation elsewhere!

A tale told to Usamah by Salim, a bath keeper.

"I once opened a bath in al-Marrah in order to earn my living.  To this bath there came a Frankish knight.  The Franks disapprove of girding a cover around one's waist while in the bath.  So this Frank stretched out his arm and pulled off my cover from my waist and threw it away.  He looked and saw I had recently shaved off my pubes.  So he shouted. "Salim!"
As I drew near him he stretched his hand over my pubes and said  "Salim, good!  By the truth of my religion, do the same for me." Saying this he lay on his back and I found that in that place his hair was like his beard.  So I shaved it off.  Then he passed his hand over the place and, finding it smooth, he said, "Salim, by the truth of my religion, do the same to madame, referring to his wife.  He then said to a servant of his, "Tell madame to come here."
Accordingly the servant went and brought her and made her enter the bath. She also lay on her back.  The knight repeated, "Do what thou hast done to me."
So I shaved all that hair while her husband was sitting looking at me.  At last he thanked me and handed me the pay for my service."

'Consider now this great contradiction!  They have neither jealousy nor zeal but they have great courage although courage is nothing but the product of zeal and of ambition to be above all repute.'

Jerusalem has a street known as the 'Malquisnet Street' meaning 'The street of Bad Cookery'. It was a street named in the Crusader period and was a place where pilgrims could obtain streetfood of varying quality!  Perhaps some traders catered to those with a longing for homecooked dishes in a similar vein to chipshops in Benidorm!
Leaving aside any nasty experiences, what was the cuisine of the Middle East like?  Very generally speaking, if William Marshal had gone out for a meal in one of the towns or villages, what might he have sampled?
I have a book of Medieval Arabic recipes.  It has to be read with caution.  Fellow History Girl Gillian Polack who is a food historian with one of her hats, tells me that there are a lot of influences at work in these recipe books - Spanish, North African, Jewish, Muslim.  But as I said to her, I was after a flavour rather than an absolute pin-down.

I cooked this recipe last night for my evening meal and even with a couple of omissions because I didn't have the ingredients, it was still wonderful.  I am having the leftovers for lunch.  I served mine with flat bread and wild rice.

It's called 'Mishmishya, the Arabic word for Apricot and comes from the 10th century Baghdad Cookery Book.
It's very much a taste and see recipe.  I can't give you quantities beyond a very rough guide.

I used about 12oz of lamb shoulder fillet.
Other ingredients required.
Salt, pepper, coriander (I didn't have any but it was still lovely without) cumin, mastic (ditto I didn't have any), cinnamon, ginger, dried apricots, rose water (didn't have any, but have cooked this with rose water before and it's excellent too).

Cut the lamb into small dice  (this is only one version of the recipe. Others make it meatball style) and put in a saucepan with a little salt.  I used an old cast iron cooking pot. Cover with water and bring to the boil.   A brownish scum will form on the top. Skim it off.

Dice the onions - about as much as you'd put in a normal casserole.  I used about one and half medium to large onions and diced them quite finely but not tiny.  Stir the onions into the pot, then add the seasonings.  I used about 2 teaspoons of ground cumin from crushed cumin seeds, a good teaspoon of cinnamon from a ground cinnamon stick (good workout with my pestle and mortar!) about 10 grinds of pepper from my mill, and two heaped teaspoons from a jar of minced ginger.  I stirred it all together, turned down the heat and let it begin to bubble.  While that was going on, I put some dried apricots in another pan with some hot water to cover and simmered gently until they were soft. After that I was supposed to rub them through a sieve and make a puree, but cheated and used a blender!
I then stirred about 3 heaped tablespoons of apricot puree into the mixture and let it simmer, tasting after about 20 minutes when the flavours had had time to develop.  I didn't feel I needed any more apricot, the balance was excellent as it was (doesn't always happen but the force was with me!).  I let it bubble away with a tight lid on for about another hour and then tested again, by which time the meat was meltingly tender.  I added a tablespoon of ground almonds to thicken, cooked gently for another 15 minutes and then it was ready to serve.  In the meantime I'd made some flatbreads to a Nigel Slater recipe (not exactly authentic but this was about gist), and served up with some wild rice and a sprinkle of toasted flaked almonds.
Though I say it myself it was extremely delicious and even if not 100% authentic, still gave me the ballpark taste.

William Marshal was known as 'Gaste Viande' as a young man and renowned for his appetite.  There are also a few hints in his early 13thc biography that he loved his food.  I hope he tasted something like this on his travels in the Holy Land, and I certainly thought of him as I enjoyed my own taste of the Medieval Middle East!  Next time I shall make it with coriander and rosewater which I now have in my store cupboard.


Gillian Polack said...

Reading this, I can't help thinking that some of the work on the Cairo Genizah might be useful. A bunch of medieval material was found in it.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Thank you Gillian - will investigate

Janie Hampton said...

As a dress maker I love the idea of an embroidered silk 'tunicella'.
And the recipe looks delicious - I shall try it.

Carol Drinkwater said...

I have that Medieval Arab Cookery book. It is amazing. Terrific recipes.

Unknown said...

Fabulous and informative post. Thank you, Elizabeth.

Sarah said...

Made my mouth water.

Also reminded me of my favourite Arab proverb 'fil meshmesh' - there will be apricots. Or as we say 'jam tomorrow, (but never jam today).'