Book Review: Fruit from the Sands by Robert Spengler (2019)

Since my last post, I’m excited to announce that I’ve been working on a series of food history videos with my friend, nutritionist and food vlogger Fiorella DiCarlo. But in the meantime, University of California Press graciously asked me to review a newly-published book on food history. Check it out below, and stay tuned for updates!


“As American as apple pie,” runs the old adage, even though apple pie was first baked on the other side of the Atlantic, in countries like Sweden and the Netherlands. Food travels with the people who eat it, and apple pie has traveled far; though not so far as the apple itself. But the story of this ubiquitous fruit doesn’t start with Snow White, or with the golden grove of the Hesperides in Greek myth. It doesn’t even start with Adam and Eve (whose forbidden fruit, by the way, is never specified in the Bible and probably wasn’t an apple to begin with). The apple may be beloved across the world today, but it was born in Kazakhstan. Like many other plants with useful and pleasing qualities, it was dispersed in ancient times, bought and sold along the extensive trade routes that tied humanity together long before airplanes and express shipping.

Robert Spengler‘s Fruit from the Sands (2019) follows the ancient journeys of the apple and a variety of other important crops along the legendary Silk Road, overland trade routes that linked ancient Europe and Asia. As Spengler informs us early on, some historians prefer the plural Silk Roads as a more accurate reflection of the complexity of this commercial web. Most historians mark the beginning of the Silk Road as occurring during the second century BC, but Spengler draws on archaeological evidence indicating the movement of material culture as far back as the late 3rd millennium BC. 

Though the Silk Road(s) have no clear beginning or end, they do have a focal point: Central Asia, a region that gets precious little attention in modern times. I’ve long been interested in Central Asia, and I appreciated the spotlight it receives in this book. When most people think of Central Asia today (if they think of it at all!) they tend to picture empty plains where horse-mounted nomads roam, but Spengler demonstrates that there were already advanced, settled civilizations here more than two or even three thousand years ago, cultivating fruits, flowers, vegetables and grains and selling them to more famous peoples like the Persians, Arabs and Chinese.

Spengler is the Paleoethnobotany Lab Director at the Max Planck Institute in Jena, Germany, and the majority of the evidence he draws on is of the material, archaeobotanical sort: physical remains of plants that ancient peoples stored, discarded, or even placed in tombs to accompany the dead to the next world. Through this evidence he is able to trace the point or points of origin for each plant. For the most part, the names of individuals responsible for these ancient migrations are unknown, so it is the plants themselves who become the central characters in Spengler’s narrative. We meet major players like apple and barley as well as less-familiar faces, plants that have fallen into obscurity but were valuable to our ancestors: skirret, sea buckthorn, dragon’s head, gold-of-pleasure, and a type of millet called “panic” (ah, the endless possibilities for wordplay). Botanical genetics and morphology can get a little dry at times without cultural references to balance them, although this is more evident in some chapters than others. In particular, Spengler provides a lot of great literary and art historical references to two plant-based beverages that humans have never run out of words to describe: wine and tea.

Overall I really enjoyed this book and learned a lot from it, in particular about how humans influence the genetic development of our crops not only consciously, but unconsciously. For example, Spengler describes how differing grain-harvesting techniques in Asia and pre-Colombian North America produced differing evolutionary pressures on the grain, resulting in divergent development of the grain’s features. Some of the plants Spengler describes have been heavily modified by humans through selective breeding; others occupy a space somewhere between tame and wild, growing and presenting their useful features with minimal intervention.

The relationship between plant and animal, including the human animal, is a delicate balance of push and pull, adapt and adjust. Spengler identifies the direct human dispersal of plants via commercial activity with the inadvertent seed dispersal practiced by animals, who eat a tasty fruit and carry its seeds inside them to a new location. In this mutually beneficial relationship, one wonders which side is truly in control.

If you’ve ever been curious about the history of agriculture or the true origins of the fruits and vegetables at your local market, this is the book for you.

Ancient Recipe: Savillum (Cheesecake) (Roman, 1st century BCE)

“Make a savillum thus:  Mix half a libra* of flour and two and a half librae of cheese, as is done for libum [another kind of cheesecake].  Add 1/4 libra of honey and 1 egg.  Grease an earthenware bowl with oil.  When you have mixed the ingredients well, pour into the bowl and cover the bowl with an earthenware testo [lid].  See that you cook it well in the middle, where it is highest.  When it is cooked, remove the bowl, spread with honey, sprinkle with poppy, put it back beneath the testo for a moment, and then remove.  Serve it thus with a plate and spoon.” ~ From Cato’s De Agri Cultura (“Concerning Agriculture”), 160 BCE
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Savillum is a Roman recipe found in De Agri Cultura, the earliest-known work of Roman prose. It was written by the Roman politician Cato the Elder, a man noted for his devotion to simplicity and love of country life. Fitting its author’s lifestyle, De Agri Cultura is a straightforward instructional manual on farming. Those recipes which appear are just as simple and rustic as savillum.

This is one of several Roman dishes that could be called “cheesecake”, although it lacks a crust on the bottom. I frequently choose to make it for ancient food-themed events and parties because it’s an easy Roman dish to love, as it doesn’t deviate too far from a modern Western palate. It’s amazingly simple, with a batter made from just four ingredients: honey, fresh cheese (ricotta or a farmer’s cheese), flour and egg. After baking, the savillum is topped with a spice that was as well-known to the Romans as it is to us: poppy seeds (papaver). One time I ran out of poppy seeds and used black sesame seeds, and it was just as delicious.

Savillum would have been served at the end of a Roman meal, in keeping with the Roman dining customs that we follow to this day: appetizer, main course and dessert, called gustatio (tasting), prima mensa (first plate) and secunda mensa (second plate). Like many Roman desserts, this recipe makes extensive use of honey (mel), the favorite Roman sweetener. In fact, other than fruits like dates and figs, honey was the only Roman sweetener. Sugar was first refined from sugarcane in ancient India around 350 CE, centuries after this recipe was recorded. Even then, sugar did not penetrate far into the Roman world. Its faraway origin made it too expensive for daily use, and the Roman historian Pliny the Elder writes in the 1st century that sugar is to be used “only for medicinal purposes”, as it was said to soothe stomach pain and other ailments. Presumably if sugar had been more widely available to the Romans, they would have experimented enough to learn how to cook with it.

Honey, on the other hand, was widely available because it could be produced in so many places. The islands of Malta and Sicily were main centers of Roman beekeeping, with one Maltese apiary examined by archaeologists harboring over 100 hives. Romans were well-aware of regional differences creating unique flavors and qualities of honey. The Greek city of Cecropia and the island of Corsica were infamous for their inferior honey, while the Greek cities of Hybla and Hymettus were said to produce the best. In his Epigrams (86-103 CE), the poet Martial uses the reputations of these various honeys to make a metaphor about writing: don’t expect good poetry from lousy material, just as you wouldn’t expect Hymettian honey out of a Cecropian bee.

Romans preserved food in honey, used it in sauces for meat and delicate desserts like savillum, and mixed it with water and spices to make a refreshing non-alcoholic beverage called hydromel (honey-water), although they drew the line at fermenting honey into mead, regarded as the practice of foreign enemies. Like rock sugar, honey was believed to have medicinal properties, and the physician Galen wrote that it “warms and clears wounds and ulcers in any part of the body.” Despite this seeming honey obsession, the Roman diet was still low in sugar by modern standards, and Roman burial remains show strong, healthy teeth.

There are many modern recreations of this recipe, but I use Cathy Kaufman’s reconstruction in her book Cooking in Ancient Civilizations (2006).

THE RECIPE

The savillum will puff up into a golden brown mound as it cooks, which looks pretty cool but is unfortunately ruined by poking holes for extra honey to soak in. It’s mushy, so serve with a spoon, hot or room temperature.

3 1/2 cups ricotta or farmer’s cheese, drained and densely packed

3/8 of a cup honey, plus another 3/4 of a cup

1 1/4 cup flour, whole-wheat (more authentic) or white

1 beaten egg

poppyseeds

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, mix all the ingredients except the 3/4 cup honey and the poppyseeds. Pour into a deep pie dish or springform cake pan and cook for 1 hour and 40 minutes. When the cake is firm, poke some holes to allow the additional honey to seep in. Top with 3/4 cup of honey and the poppyseeds and bake for 10 minutes more.

THE VERDICT

This is one of my favorite Roman recipes I’ve tried. You could easily serve it at a modern dinner-party and none would be the wiser. X out of X.

*Sometimes called the “Roman pound”, one libra was actually only .72 of a pound, or 329 grams.