About the Author
In other words
|Older than you think|
|Lately I've been doing quite a lot of ancient history. Now you might not think that's unusual because antiquity is my job. But there is a difference between ancient history and classical history, and classical history is where I spend most of my time. The classical era is usually reckoned to have begun around 800 BC with writers such as Homer and Hesiod. Ancient history begins around 5200 years before that.|
To put that into perspective, consider the Egyptian calendar. It had 365 days, but no leap year, so it lost a day every four years. (In modern parlance, Dec 31 became Dec 30 and another four years later it became Dec 29, and so on all the way back until the same day became January 1.) By the time of Julius Caesar, that lost day had cycled right through the calendar – twice.
It's odd to think that the Greeks and Romans – whom we think of as ancient – were actually part of a Mediterranean culture that was thousands of years old when Homer was still a baby. These days we remember almost nothing of the wars of the Akkadians and the Elamites, yet those civilizations lasted longer than the USA has existed. Sargon the Great developed the idea of a nation state where previously the largest governmental unit was the city. Hammurabi wrote one of the world's first law codes. Yet a recent internet poll of the '100 most important people in history' mentioned neither of these men. Justin Bieber was there though.
|The Milky Whey|
|Those who follow this blog – and a goodly number of you do, according to our server statistics – will know of my interest in cooking Roman-style. There's something about cooking from scratch that appeals to my primitivist instincts. |
I've acquired a cast-iron pot that handles most Roman 'dutch-oven' style recipes, and much of last year was spent on bread products. As well as Roman-style buns, breads and cakes, I started making homemade pasta and pizza just to keep my Italian up to date.
This year, I've added a cow to my virtual cornfield. That is, I'm seeing what a peasant can make from a gallon of fresh milk. So far I've discovered that making whole milk ricotta cheese is slightly easier than making toast. (Add lemon juice to milk and heat. Once the curds and whey separate, drain and store.) Likewise, if you don't make your own yoghurt, you should consider starting – it's straightforward and the results are delicious.
Mozzarella is more tricky, but apparently once you know what you're doing it takes just 30 minutes to go from a gallon of milk to a half-kilo of cheese. It takes me three times as long, but now when I make a pizza, I *make* a pizza, starting with just flour and milk. There's also a cheesecake in the fridge made from home-made cream cheese.
There's a cheddar at the drying stage, and provolone is the next project. However, my research already makes one thing abundantly clear. Left to themselves, Roman peasants with a decent bit of farmland could eat way better than the average takeaway-fuelled modern Brit.
|Quidquid Latine dictum sit altum videtur|
|'Well', says the doctor. 'My initial diagnosis is nullus concepto, with suspected involvement of the res rosata serpenta located by computerized axial tomography. For the moment we'll treat your condition as probabiliter innocens and medicate you for non-specific analgesia.'|
This sounds weighty and reassuring, unless the doctor has the misfortune to be treating a classicist. Translating as he goes along, the classicist hears the doctor saying, 'Right now I have no idea. It may be something to do with that wriggly pink thing on the pictures taken when the computer looked at you from various angles. I'll regard your condition as probably harmless, and give you a general painkiller.'
One of the reasons the classics are regarded with suspicion by members of the general public is because for centuries Latin and Greek have been used by professionals to intimidate the grex vulgus (the unwashed peasantry) by making rather mundane ideas and things seem profound and impressive. For example The Gluteus Maximus muscle upon which you are now sitting is the Latinized form of the Greek for 'Big Bum'.
It is not just the medical profession which is guilty here. The law and the church also have to plead nolo contendere (It's a fair cop), though to give credit, most Latin is now gone from even the rites of the deeply conservative Catholic church. These days we pray to 'Our Father' rather than 'Pater Noster'. Now we need the law to catch up. For example, a lawyer demanding his client be either released or charged will serve a writ of Habeas Corpus on the police. This stops people from just disappearing into police cells, because 'habeas corpus' means 'I know you've got him.'
With religion a touch of mystery might add to the experience. Lawyers and doctors have less excuse.
|Looking forward to 1819|
|Attraction to the past is one of the things that makes one a historian. Yet it is not nostalgia that drives my recent excursions to an earlier age. It's practicality, and a weakness for the good things in life. Take coffee. Did you know that, once roasted, coffee beans degrade rapidly towards flat and flavourless? It's best to drink coffee within a few days of roasting – or not, since once you have tried fresh roast and ground coffee, it's hard to go back to commercial stuff that might have been sitting on the shelf for months. So we roast at home, as did most people a century ago – though they did not have a huge selection of green beans a click away on the internet. |
Likewise Victorian-style cast iron cookware. After yet another pan developed a spherical bottom and lost its teflon – probably into the food I was frying – it was time to step into the past and come back with cast iron. Properly cured cast iron skillets are brilliantly non-stick, don't bend, and can be cleaned with steel wool, sandpaper, whatever it takes. (Just don't put 'em in the dishwasher). You buy cast-iron cookware once, use it daily and hand it to your grandkids decades later.
Or home-baking bread, pasta and cakes, and making your own chocolate. These are activities that people a century ago did without thinking. More recently large corporations have persuaded consumers that all these things need to be processed in large factories, and are only obtainable from supermarkets. That's just not so, and because supermarket stuff is made in the shortest time possible with the cheapest ingredients the customer will tolerate, it's often inferior – even before it is stuffed with preservatives to maintain shelf life.
Recently, and particularly with cookery, I look at 'progress' and wonder – 'progress in what direction'?
|The simple life|
|'Well, life was simpler then.' |
I often hear this comment about earlier eras, and I keep wondering, 'Simpler? How exactly?' Let us not forget how much trouble it once took to do stuff that's effortless to modern folk in the west. For us today, water comes at the turn of a tap, light at the flick of a switch, and heating happens automatically.
It was certainly not simpler to keep an eye on the supply of water needed for cooking, cleaning and washing, and to schlep down to the fountain whenever reserves got low. Likewise lighting meant that the oil lamps had to be cleaned, the wicks prepared and a suitable amount of olive oil kept on hand. Heating was fires that had to be tended, and firewood stocks which had to be painstakingly built up over the summer. It all took work and arrangement – on top of the same work and social issues we have today. Our modern society and economy are certainly a lot more complex, but for people at the everyday level this means a lot more simplicity and convenience, not less.
Yet, despite the convenience, I do feel that we might have lost something along the way. Those items supplied by large companies are of the cheapest materials that the public will tolerate for the price, and they tend to lack a certain warmth. For example, I've just been sitting beside a birch-wood fire sipping fresh-ground coffee from an antique china cup. If I wanted ultra-modern convenience and simplicity, I could have had instant coffee from a styrofoam mug while looking at a radiator.
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