Ancient Recipe: Snails with Pepper and Cumin (Roman, ca. 5th century CE)

“They need little food, and require no one to feed them…the cook usually doesn’t know whether they are alive or dead when he is cooking them.”
~ Marcus Terentius Varro, De re agricultura (On Matters of Agriculture)IMG_5532

If you’ve ever eaten land snails in the form of French escargots, rich with butter, parsley and garlic, I have upsetting news: depending on where you live, there’s a good chance those snails arrived at the restaurant dead, in a can.

There are a few reasons why. First, the importation of live land snails is highly regulated in many countries because the animals can become serious agricultural pests. As snails are hermaphrodites, just one escapee is enough for a population explosion. Another reason canned snails are commonly used in restaurants is that snail-farming is a daunting task, requiring a great deal of time, money, and space. Snails have a remarkable adaptation to prevent overpopulation: there are chemicals in their slime trails that inhibit reproduction in other snails. If one snail slimes across the trail of another, it becomes less likely to breed. The more snails sharing a tight space, the more likely they are to cross each other’s trails, meaning fewer baby snails and less profit for the aspiring heliciculturist (try saying that three times fast).

Despite the challenges of snail-farming, the Ancient Romans seem to have had it pretty well-figured out. The Roman snail-pen was called a cochleariumthe Latin word for snail being cochlea (a Greek loanword that can also mean “spiral”, hence the spiral cochlea in your inner ear). Cochlearia were a common sight on the grounds of Roman villas, alongside apiaria (beehives) and gliraria (dormouse hutches). The Roman scholar Varro, who lived in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE, describes how to set up your own snail farm, including a pre-Industrial sprinkler system to keep the little molluscs hydrated:

“You must take a place fitted for snails, in the open, and enclose it entirely with water…The best place is one which the sun does not parch, and where the dew falls. If there is no such natural place…you should make an artificially dewy one. This can be done if you run a pipe and attach to it small teats, to squirt out the water in such a way that it will strike a stone and be scattered widely in a mist.”

Romans fed snails on milk, bran, and bay leaves. One disturbing recipe in the Roman cookbook Apicius (which has a whole chapter on snails) describes the force-feeding of snails for the table. The chef is instructed to remove the operculum, the flat, hard “door” that snails use to seal their shells, before placing the snails in a shallow layer of milk. Without the operculum, the snail can no longer withdraw into its shell, and its body will hang outside and grow unnaturally fat.

IMG_5504The Romans ate many species of snail. Archaeologists have uncovered the shells of Otala lactea (the milk or Spanish snail) in the Roman city of Volubilis in modern Morocco. Helix pomatia, the snail most commonly served as escargots, is still known as the “Roman snail” in the UK because it was introduced there from mainland Europe during the Roman period (43-410 CE). Varro names others whose species is difficult to guess; the “small white snails” of Reate in central Italy, medium snails from Africa, large ones from the Balkan province of Illyricum. The very largest snail, which Varro calls the solitanna, also came from Africa. Varro claims that a shell from one of these whoppers had a volume of 80 quadrantes; around 2.5 gallons. This is almost certainly a member of the Achatinidae family, several African species known for being the largest land snails in the world, but no snail recorded in modern times matches the size of Varro’s solitanna. Perhaps a comparison can be made to another historical mollusc: the oysters of New York City. For centuries, humans scoured the East and Hudson Rivers for the largest oysters they could find, so that they gradually dwindled in size from dinner plates to pennies before disappearing altogether.

The recipe below is adapted from Apicius 324 (Book VII, Chapter XVI: Snails). As Apicius often lacks serving suggestions, I followed the example of Pliny the Younger, pairing the snails with bread and lettuce.

THE RECIPE

-1 can of land snails (mine contained 24, which is about two servings. I bought it at Hong Kong Supermarket in Manhattan’s Chinatown.)
-2 tablespoons olive oil
-2 tablespoons fish sauce (Asian fish sauce is a close substitute for Roman liquamen and garumThree Crabs is my favorite.)
-1 and 1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper
-2 teaspoons ground cumin
-crusty Italian or French bread, sliced
(whole wheat is more authentically Roman)
-butter lettuce

Remove snails from the can, rinse in cold water, and pat dry.

Heat the olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the snails and stir for 2-3 minutes.

Add fish sauce, pepper, and cumin. Mix thoroughly and cook a little longer (total cooking time should be 7-10 minutes; too long and the snails will get rubbery).

Serve hot, with sliced bread and lettuce.IMG_5541

THE VERDICT

The snails are tender, very flavorful and salty, and the bread and lettuce balance them out nicely. I’ve eaten French, Vietnamese, and Korean-style snails and whelks, and this is the first time I’ve had them without garlic. I feel like garlic might have taken this recipe to the next level, but I’m pleased with it overall. Try it at your next Roman dinner party! IX out of X.

Ancient Recipe: Eezgii [Roasted Cheese Curd] (Mongolian, at least 14th century CE)

“And I tell you also, that when necessary [the Mongols] ride full ten days without food, and without lighting a fire; but piercing a vein of their horse, they drink his blood. They have likewise their milk dried into a species of paste, which, when about to use, they stir till it becomes liquid, and can be drunk.” ~ Marco Polo via Rustichello da Pisa, The Travels of Marco Polo, ca. 1300

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Disclaimer: I’m a white American dude who has never lived in a yurt or even been to Mongolia. Hey, I tried.

The quote above tells us a number of things about the Medieval Mongols of Kubilai Khan’s Golden Horde, the first of which is: they were pretty fucking tough.

It also hints at the centrality of milk and meat to the traditional Mongolian diet. The domestication of goats and sheep circa 6000 BCE enabled human beings to survive for the first time on the steppes of Central Asia, despite freezing temperatures (Mongolia is still home to Earth’s coldest capital city) and a lack of arable land. The domestication of the horse around 2,000 years later further eased this precarious existence in an inhospitable environment. Since animals were more valuable alive than dead on the steppe, meat was reserved for special occasions and long winters, with milk being the food of daily sustenance. It was made into butter, cream, yogurt, cheese and even booze, and dried into “instant” forms for long journeys as in the example above. UNESCO’s History of Civilizations of Central Asia states that cheese curd in various forms “had the same importance in the life of the Mongol population as bread has in the lives of farming peoples.”

By the time Marco Polo visited the Great Khan in the 14th century, a nomad’s wealth was measured in his animals: not only goat and sheep but horse, yak and two-humped camel, known as “the Five Jewels” (or, less poetically, the Five Snouts). In good times, Mongols lived off their herds, riding some of their living jewels and following the rest from pasture to pasture, eating milk and meat and sleeping in tents made from hide and felted hair. In hard times, a desperate Mongol could live off the horse he rode, falling back on wilderness survival tricks. The 11th-century Secret History of the Mongols, which tells of Genghis Khan’s humble beginnings, uses the future Khan’s boyhood reliance on hunted game to illustrate his family’s poverty. Later in the Khan’s life, when he led his armies on far-ranging campaigns, they brought livestock with them instead of supply trains. When conquering settled peoples, the Mongols intentionally destroyed farmland to return the land to its natural state, the better for grazing their animals.

In the centuries after the conquests of Genghis Khan, his royal descendants (“the Golden Womb”) would keep an opulent court influenced by the Chinese, the Persians and other peoples they had conquered. Yet even the cosmopolitan Mongol nobility never lost their carnivorous tastes. Genghis Khan’s grandson Kubilai drank the finest-quality airag (fermented horse milk) from a special herd of white mares, and dined on delicacies like baked strips of mutton fat and fried bull’s testicles, prepared with costly imported spices, wine, and vegetables.

Meanwhile, the Great Khan’s subjects in the Mongolian heartland continued to follow nearly the same lifestyle and diet as their ancestors. For many in Mongolia today, this ancient way of life continues. Modern nomads may use cell phones to check the weather and advertise homestays in their ger (yurt) on AirBnB, but they still scatter spoons of sacred milk on the wind in offering to Munkh Khukh Tengri, the Eternal Blue Sky. And they still survive on the Five Jewels, creating a unique cuisine that varies widely in form and flavor, if not ingredients.

THE RECIPE

There are numerous varieties of Mongolian cheese, but none of them are aged in the manner of European cheeses. There are two practical reasons for this. 1) When you’re a nomad, you generally don’t feel like lugging around big wheels of aging cheese from camp to camp with you, and 2) lacking other food sources, you can’t afford to wait weeks or months to eat something that’s technically ready to eat, now.

Eezgii (ээзгий) is one such milk product. It’s traditionally made from the first milk of spring, richer and fattier than milk produced later in the year, and is further distinguished from other curd dishes by its being roasted. The application of heat caramelizes sugars in the cheese, turning it brown and giving it a unique flavor while also drying the outside for preservation. My version is adapted from this recipe, from a great website with instructions on how to make traditional Mongolian foods (even boodog, which I swear I will try one day; a whole animal cooked inside its own skin with hot rocks and a blowtorch).

Cheesemaking begins with curdling, separating boiling milk into solid curds and liquid whey. In most Western traditions this is accomplished by adding rennet, a complex of enzymes naturally found in the stomachs of animals. Other traditions curdle milk with an acid like vinegar or lemon juice, the method used to make the Indian fresh cheese paneer. Mongolian cheese is curdled with the acid in kefir, or sour yogurt. Go no further if you’re lactose intolerant; in this recipe, we will be combining two dairy products to start a chemical reaction that will produce a third dairy product. It doesn’t get more Mongolian than that.

– 1/2 a gallon of whole milk (Fresh, unpasteurized milk is the best, but grocery store milk works too.)
– 1/2 a cup kefir
(It can be hard to find a commercial yogurt sour enough to curdle milk. You can substitute full-fat yogurt and the juice of half a lemon. It’s not authentic, but it gets the job done, and you won’t taste the lemon in the end.)

  • In a large pot, bring the milk to a boil over medium heat. Stir frequently with a wooden spoon to prevent it boiling over.
  • When the milk is boiling, add the kefir.
  • Continue stirring until the milk is thoroughly curdled. You should see white clumps (curds) separated from translucent yellow liquid (whey).
  • Remove from heat and strain out the curds. Save the whey! It’s full of nutrients and low in fat, and once it cools down, you can drink it or use it in tons of other ways.
  • Return your solid curds to the pot. Stir them carefully over low heat until all the excess moisture has been cooked out and they start to look crumbly and very slightly yellow.
  • Transfer the curds to a pan and bake at 300 degrees F for three hours. Remove and stir every half hour to prevent the curds from sticking to the pan.
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Parrot mug and panda mug look on in approval as the milk begins to boil.

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Shortly after adding the yogurt, we start to see some curdling.

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Curdled af. The yellow stuff is whey, the white is the curds.

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I’ve transferred the curds back to the pot and am now cooking out the excess moisture.

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Before baking.

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After three hours of baking, stirring, and general checking up, our eezgii is complete!

THE VERDICT

You wouldn’t necessarily know that eezgii was dairy at all. It resembles granola and has a crunchy texture and a lightly sweet, caramel-like flavor. The taste reminds me of brunost or mysost, a Scandinavian dairy product made from caramelized whey often called “brown cheese.” Having tasted aaruul (another form of dried curd) brought from Mongolia, the intensity of flavor and smell just doesn’t compare to what I was able to produce here. But my watered-down imitation nomad curd isn’t so bad, in the humble opinion of a non-nomad.

Eezgii doesn’t have to be refrigerated and will keep for a long time. Mongolians eat it as a snack, but I’ve also found it to be an interesting addition to other recipes. Try it in a sandwich or soup, or just pack some in your saddlebag to nibble on next time your tumen rides against the KhwarezmiansV out of X.