I’m convinced I’m one of the luckiest people at Yale, because every Monday and Wednesday from 2:30 to 3:45, I get to hang out with one of the funniest, most interesting and engaging professors, who also happens to be an expert in the field of food history and culture (he literally edited the book), and talk about the history of food and cuisine. I learn so much every class, and it has such a good atmosphere, I’m actually disappointed when class is over (ok I never said I’m not a nerd).
This class is blowing my mind. So I’ve decided create a mini-series called Palate Town, in which I highlight the most intriguing, obscure, and fascinating tidbits and vagaries I learn in this class throughout the semester. I hope you enjoy! Here are a few recent informational petit-fours that I think you’ll like:
Verjuice | A tart juice made from pressing unripe grapes. It was used extensively in Medieval cooking, but became much less widely used as wine and different types of vinegars became more accessible. Unlike vinegar, it is not aged, so while vinegar has a very sour and sharp flavour profile, verjuice is more tangy and citrusy in its acidity. Interestingly, cooks nowadays might use verjuice instead of vinegar in a salad dressing if the salad is to be served with wine, because the vinegar would change the flavour of the wine while the verjuice would not (something to keep in mind).
Ambergris | A “type of whale effluvia” (as Prof. Freedman so deliciously quipped) that has historically been used as a perfume fixative, but is also edible and has been used in cuisines for centuries. It is a hard, greyish substance, almost like pumice, that is produced in the whale’s digestive tract and then expelled via the bowels or the mouth. It is very aromatic, smelling “of the ocean, animal, and perfume, all very delicately”. Prof. Freedman was given a lump of ambergris by a perfumier friend, though it is now very rare and expensive, and he once made eggs with ambergris to recreate the supposed favourite dish of one of the Kings of England (Charles? I can’t remember). I am very curious about this – will have to make brunch plans with the professor and insist we try it together haha.
“Candy” | The word ‘candy’ comes from the Arabic kand, for sugar (along with many other culinary words borrowed from Arabic). Classical Arabian cuisine loved sweet flavours, and often included dried fruits, nuts, and spices in what we might consider strictly “savoury” dishes, like meat stews.
Silphium | A vegetable extremely popular in ancient Roman cuisine, to the point that it was made extinct despite extensive production. Emperor Nero was said to have received the last specimen to eat himself. It is related to our modern fennel, though larger, and apparently had the savoury flavour of garlic but completely without the aftertaste. It was used by the Roman cook and gastronome Apicius in his cookbook (the oldest surviving cookbook we have) De Re Coquinaria, or literally, ‘On Matters of Cookery’ (my rough translation). I’m writing my first paper on the aesthetic principles of Roman Cuisine as described in this cookbook, so I’ll let you know how that goes too!