Posts Tagged ‘history’

Blessed are the Cheesemakers … and the Bakers

September 11, 2009
Mediterranean Grain Bread

Mediterranean Grain Bread

I am a Ricki Carroll fan. “Who is she?” you may ask. She is the cheese queen. For some thirty years she has been teaching cooks how to make cheese in their homes. And she has a supply company that sells everything anyone needs to make cheese. I found Ricki Carroll two years ago when Joel Pugh, my partner-in-cooking gave me a copy of Home Cheese Making, 3rd edition. Since then I have made fromage blanc, ricotta, yogurt, mozzarella, farmhouse cheddar, and queso fresco, a Mexican farmer’s cheese. It is a wonderful and tasty hobby.

In the first century, the average family had a few goats and sheep that they milked every day. The milk spoiled quickly and had to be transformed into a product that lasted longer. So most of the milk was converted to yogurt and cheese. By the time of Jesus, cheese making was quite advanced. In order to increase its life, some hard cheese was smoked and other types of cheese were stored in brine, like feta cheese is today.

My first century pantry needed some homemade cheese. I started with fromage blanc, a creamy soft cheese that is not quite as rich as cream cheese and has a very slight sharpness. It is an easy cheese to make, and I am relatively certain that a very similar cheese could have been made in the first century. One simply heats a gallon of milk to 86 degrees and then adds a packet of starter. The packet contains a chemical that ripens the milk and rennet that separates the milk into curds (solids) and whey (liquid). Usually an acid, such as vinegar, lemon juice, or citric acid serves as the ripening agent. The whole ripening and separating process takes twelve hours. The curds are then placed into cheese cloth or butter muslin and allowed to drip for another ten to twelve hours. The result is over two pounds of a delicious and versatile cheese. It can be used to make a variety of dips and spreads. I like to take it to parties with a little smoked salmon and dill mixed into a cup of the cheese. Chopped garlic and cilantro or chives with the fromage blanc also makes a delicious spread. This cheese is also wonderful with fresh fruit and pastries. My first century breakfast and lunch will often be a slice of bread with this cheese. Add a piece of fresh fruit, dried apricots and a hand full of olives and it is a simple first century feast.

Speaking of bread, I also did a little baking while making the cheese. I call this my Mediterranean Grain Bread. Joel developed the recipe and it is delicious and easy for cooks with a little baking experience to make. I will be making several different breads over the next six months, including pita bread and unleavened bread. By the first century, there were a wide variety of breads made in the Mediterranean region. Adding eggs, herbs and spices made breads special. So did the use of a more refined flour.


The First, First Supper

September 8, 2009
Our first, first century supper

Our first, first century supper

We prepared and ate our first, first century dinner. I use the plural tense because my wife and son shared the experience. While on the subject of my family, I have been asked several times if they are joining me in this experiment. No. Well, sort of. I am the cook in the family. This means that, at least for dinner, they eat what I prepare. It also means that, for breakfast and lunch, they will eat everything non-first century that they can touch or order. Burritos and potato chips will remain a staple of my son’s diet.

Back to the first supper. It was a tasty meal with a diversity of textures and flavors, and yet it remained true to the type of dinner that was served in the first century. A lentil stew was the centerpiece of the meal. Dinner also included cucumbers and yogurt, lettuce with a simple vinaigrette, Mediterranean-style olives and flat bread. I made a lot of the lentil stew, so we have dined on leftovers. It tastes better each time it is reheated.

Another rule for my diet: For the most part, I will be eating meals similar to those eaten by a first century farmer and his family. Well over fifty percent of the calories consumed came from whole grains and legumes. Average families also ate vegetables and fruits that were in season and dried fruit and pickled vegetables the rest of the year. By virtue of City Market, I will have access to fresh vegetables this winter. Eggs and milk products, such as yogurt and cheese, completed the average menu. Only at the Sabbath feast each Friday evening did they eat fish or poultry (doves, pigeons or chicken. The City Market in Pagosa Springs does not carry doves or pigeons, so I will eat chicken). Red meat was reserved for very special occasions, usually for a festival celebration like Passover or a banquet for honored guests. Goat meat and lamb were the usual fare, beef only when the cow was too old to pull a cart or plow.

You should know that a first century day laborer did not eat this well. Their dinners, when they had work, consisted of bread with beans or porridge and maybe an onion or a few leaves of wild lettuce and a glass of wine that tasted more like vinegar than a good Shiraz. The wealthiest people ate meat a little more often and had access to imported foods and a greater diversity of spices. Except for governors, emperors, and the wealthiest of the wealthy, the daily meals were vegetarian.

Enjoy the feast.