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Cook like a Roman
The other day a friend came around and stayed for lunch. He asked where he could get the paneer that was diced into the salad. He was rather taken aback when told that, while it is not available in local shops, it takes just twenty minutes and 8 cups (about a litre) of milk to make. The visit was extended while I prepared another slab of the stuff right then and there.

Apart from ricotta, paneer is about the simplest and quickest cheese one can make, though queso fresco comes close and can also be made in a day. It's not hard – the hard bit is breaking the cast-iron conviction of modern consumers that food can only be obtained from the supermarket. This is not helped by modern TV cookery shows which give the impression that food preparation is a traumatic and complex business.

This is where my career as an ancient historian helps me. When I looked at the resources available to an Etruscan peasant and observed that he made a pretty good loaf of bread without the help of Groc-er-rama superstores, it seemed natural to have a crack at it myself. Likewise with cheese. In fact these days we buy milk by the bucketload and make not just paneer but a dozen other types of cheese (e.g. edam, cheddar, and exotic types like danbo and cotija). Also yoghurt, labneh and tzatziki.

My basic rule is that if something could be made 2000 years ago by peasants who had way busier lives than I do, then it can be made at home with minimal effort thanks to modern technology. Apicus did not own a stand mixer. It's a rare day that does begins without me preparing something while I write. At present there's dough rising in the oven that will become subs, and on the hob fresh strawberries reducing with cane sugar and lemon juice on the way to becoming jam. It's easy, healthier and saves a bunch on groceries. I've already made the dough that will go into tagliatelle con pesto genovese for supper tonight.

My friend's visit caused me to recall a comment that someone reported their kid making. 'We didn't have any french fries, so dad sliced up a potato and put it into a skillet. His fries tasted almost like the real thing!'
Punctuation on April the first
In ancient historiography there's a long tradition of fake stories popping up on April Fool's day. For example one that makes a return every year is of a stone tablet from Sumeria that allegedly contains the opening lines of Homer's Iliad, several thousand years before the genuine version was written. Then there was the article about the discovery of 'Asterix's village' in Gaul (that one had me fooled for a while, because I read it in an archive several months later). Or the discovery of a coin - bearing the date stamp 27 BC - that showed that Cleopatra was actually Gallic …. the list goes on.

However, my favourite remains an extensive article I read a while back in a newspaper. As I recall this described the invention of punctuation in the Hellenistic era by a Carthaginian called Perihard. He discovered that it was easier to read inscriptions and letters if the end of a sentence was marked by a small dot. The article described how Perihard travelled all over the Middle East and Asia promoting his discovery, and how work was continued after his death by his son Komah, who introduced a punctuation mark of his own.

(Later I discovered that this latter part is not far from the truth. The comma was indeed invented in the Hellenistic era, but by a grammarian called Aristophanes of Byzantium and the name comes from the Greek word for 'cut off'. )

The real Aristophanes of Byzantium worked at the Great Library of Byzantium, as did the next fake protagonist in our fanciful story, an Egyptian scribe called Apos-Trophe. He allegedly invented new uses for the comma, including quotation marks for speech and possessives, and was promptly lynched thereafter by members of the guild of stonemasons. They were exasperated by how hard all this made carving even a simple inscription into stone.

My own attempt at a joke this year was the faked discovery of a second century mosaic - showing a kangaroo - in a Roman villa at Skipjie (those of a certain age might remember a children's program on TV called 'Skippy, the Bush Kangaroo). Rather chillingly, I obtained the aforesaid mosaic by logging onto an AI graphics program called Dall-E and asking it to produce 'A picture of a kangaroo done as a Roman-Greek mosaic'. Less than a minute later I had my fake. These AI programs are only going to get better, and less light-hearted fakes much worse.

Waxing Lyrical
Ah, the lyre. The thing which people singing to gave us the words of a song, or 'lyric'. I've been playing my lyre for several years now, and constant practice has got me to the point where I am only slightly worse than Cacaphonix the Bard. However, the lyre itself is an under-appreciated instrument. Firstly, rather like the English language (which is another instrument in a way), the lyre is easy to learn for the basics but fiendishly difficult to use well. So one can twang out a decent tune after a few hours practise, and then spend a lifetime improving on that.

Fortunately there's more opportunity to practice than with most instruments, especially if you live in a place with a lot of outdoors. My lyre has travelled hundreds of kilometres in a backpack and been played on mountaintops, in forest clearings and on lakeshore campsites. Since there's only the occasional raccoon to complain about the racket (Orpheus I am not) the only issue with outdoor practice is getting the instrument to the practice site. Oh, and keeping fingers warm if the inspiring scenery is at -15c, as on a recent occasion. You can't play a lyre in gloves.

It's no wonder ancient shepherds liked the lyre. It's an any time, any place sort of instrument. A piano is rooted to the spot, a violin is sensitive to changes of temperature and pressure – and don't try playing it in the rain. Even the ubiquitous guitar is bulky and finikity in comparison. My one complaint is the same as that difficulty which ancient shepherds probably encountered millennia ago. Plucking the strings just right requires exactly shaped fingernails. I broke a thumbnail handling firewood this week and my middle notes have not sounded right since.
Settling into 2023 (AD & BC)
Winter has my corner of the mountains firmly in its grip. Among the snowy slopes I can traverse in snowshoes is the one in the front garden where it is now possible to walk right up on to the roof. (And the cat does that on occasion to supervise us as we shovel off the snow from there.)

However January is also that time when new projects are discussed and editors start getting militant about manuscripts due in the spring. At present it looks as though I'll be working on three books this year - my own oft-delayed biography of Medea, another visit to the city of ancient Rome (whose streets I literally know better than those of the small town in which I dwell), and another project still covered by an NDA of which more later. Overall then, just as well that icy roads and deep sub-zero temperatures keep me at the computer or doing research while sitting by the fire. Another benefit of winter is that several meters of snow on the lawn puts gardening out of the question.

Occasionally someone asks whether I am running out of things to write about in the ancient world. Just the opposite - the more time I spend there, the more fascinating stuff comes to light that just has to be shared. Right now indexing is under way of a follow-up book to the very successful Lost and Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World.

This one is Lost and Forgotten Cities of the Ancient World, and it has involved some fascinating reading on the origins of urbanization and the ingenious ways that archaeologists have developed to find and examine these lost cities. It's a fascinating mixture of science and romance, and it familiarized me with places that were barely names beforehand. Places like Mardaman, Glanum, Pavlopetri and the truly wonderful Catalhoyuk.

Thanks to the internet it's often possible to virtually wander the streets of these lost places and examine 3-D artifacts thousands of years old. I keep imagining what it must have been like to visit while those streets were bustling with life - and more frighteningly, what the streets of home might look like to archaeologists of millennia hence.
New Year? Where did the old one go?
And just like that … it's 2023. I'm still rather in shock about this sudden change of date, because mentally I'm still in mid-2022. They say that time flies when you are having fun, and it must be admitted that - while most of the world seems to have been going to hell in a handbasket -it's been a pretty good year in my corner of the woods.

For a start I've had some great projects to work on. The sequel to 'Lost and Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World' is 'Lost and Forgotten Cities of the Ancient World' and that one has been as challenging and as much fun as its predecessor. Then my account of the Cimbric invasion of Italy came out with Pen & Sword, and the second in that two-book contract 'Julius Caesar in Egypt' will be out this year. All this has pushed my pet project – a biography of Medea – rather to the side, though I have got her to Corinth where she is getting the divorce from hell with Jason.

At this point, it's also time to step back and salute you, the readers, who have once again made it possible for me to follow my passion and who have been exploring the ancient world with me. Thanks so much for the positive feedback all year on the books, and for the lively responses to postings on my Facebook page. As long as you keep enjoying what I write, I'm going to keep writing it.

Another reason for keeping the news turned off is because when some free time was available in 2022, we headed straight out into the wilderness. There's some backwoods trails I now know by heart, and we broke new ground on others. There's been a new kayak to test on local lakes, snowshoe routes to explore, and when it's been to wet or blizzardy outside, there's always the kitchen to play in. 2022 was the year I mastered the chipatti, and after getting a French bread pan for Christmas, I plan to spend January working on that. It will be 2024 long before I've got to grips with 2023.


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