Chrysocolla [Flaxseed Candy] (Greek, at least 7th century BCE)

“Bread sprinkled with poppy-seed is mentioned by Alcman in Book V as follows: ‘Couches seven, and as many tables laden with poppy-bread, and bread with flax and sesame-seed; and in cups…chrysocolla.’ This is a confection made of honey and flaxseeds.”
~ Athenaeus quoting Alcman, Deipnosophistae Book 3 (early 3rd century CE)

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Athenaeus of Naucratis is perhaps the greatest Ancient Greek food writer, though he lived and wrote in Rome at the height of its Empire. His masterwork Deipnosophistae (The Philosopher’s Dinner Party, among other possible translations) is an overview of Greek food culture that attempts to document just about every literary reference to food in Greek. In order to accomplish this ambitious objective, Athenaeus draws on a vast array of sources, not only food critics and chefs but poets and historians. He is nothing if not comprehensive: writing in the third century, Athenaeus recorded a reference to a sweet called chrysocólla (χρυσοκόλλα) in the work of Alcman, a poet who lived about a thousand years earlier, in the 7th century BCE.

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A papyrus fragment from Greek Egypt, now in the collection of the Louvre in Paris, with one of Alcman’s poems. Alcman’s Greek combines features from different dialects, possibly further evidence that he was not a native speaker. Public domain (2011).

Lighthearted and celebratory, Alcman writes often of the joys of food and his own great appetite, even calling himself in one poem ho panphágos Alkmán, “the all-devouring Alcman.” Yet we know that he lived in Sparta, that most austere of Greek cities, whose other poets are far more serious and grim. An ancient tradition maintains that there was good reason for Alcman’s un-Spartan ways: he wasn’t Spartan, or even Greek, by birth, but came from Lydia in modern Turkey. The poet himself seems to support this claim with a remark that he learned poetry from the chukar partridge, a Near Eastern bird that is not native to Greece. According to Aristotle, Alcman arrived in Sparta enslaved, but his master freed him because of his remarkable poetic ability. He would go on to be listed with literary rockstars like Sappho and Pindar among the Nine Lyric Poets, those deemed most worthy of study by later Greek scholars. Evidently, it pays to listen to partridges.

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Alcman called the chukar kakkabi, after its three-note call. It would probably enjoy this recipe (at least the flaxseeds). Photo from Wikimedia Commons (2004).

In Ancient Greek, chrysocolla means “gold glue.” Alcman’s confection shares the name with a striking blue mineral that was used as solder by ancient goldsmiths, gluing the precious metal together. From the name and ingredients, we can infer that Alcman’s chrysocolla was a crunchy hard candy, resembling the sesame pasteli of modern Greece, the amaranth tzoalli of the Aztecs, and similar seed and nut candies enjoyed around the world. Deipnosophistae itself contains a reference to another ancient version, a Cretan specialty with both sesame and nuts called koptoplakous, from a word meaning “cut off” or “broken” (compare English “brittle”).

Today this type of candy often contains sugar refined from sugarcane, a plant which was unknown in Greece until 326 BCE, when Alexander the Great’s men returned from India with stories of “the reed which gives honey without bees.” The genuine honey in this recipe is enough to bind the flaxseeds together. The added olive oil helps keep the gold glue from sticking to everything else.

THE RECIPE

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-1 cup honey
-1 cup whole flaxseeds
-Olive oil

First, toast the flaxseeds by placing them in a dry skillet over medium heat. Stir continually for 5-7 minutes, until the seeds are glistening and start to jump around in the skillet. Remove from the heat. Oil a glass or ceramic dish and set aside.

In a saucepan, bring the honey to a boil while stirring with a wooden spoon. Once the honey is boiling, lower the heat, stir in the toasted flaxseeds and cook for an additional 15 minutes, continuing to stir.

Remove from the heat and spread the mixture onto the dish, smoothing it as much as possible with the back of a spoon. Let cool for 1-2 hours in the fridge, until it has set into a hard, amber-like candy. Snap the chrysocolla into pieces and place in cups.

Alcman described himself as an indiscriminate eater, but it would be hard to find anyone who would turn up their nose at this sweet, crunchy treat made with just three ingredients. Sometimes the simplest recipe can bring the greatest joy, a principle of cookery which Alcman well understood.

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“And then I’ll give you a fine great cauldron, wherein you may gather food in heaps. It’s still unheated by fire yet, but soon it’ll be full of that thick stew that the all-devouring Alcman loves, piping hot when the days are past their shortest. For he eats not what is nicely prepared, but demands simple things like the common people.”
~ Alcman quoted in Deipnosophistae Book 10

Ancient Recipe: Mersu (Mesopotamian, ca. 1750 BCE)

“For me, let them bring in the man of my heart. Let them bring in to me my Ama-ushumgal-anna, the Power of the Date-Palm. Let them put his hand in my hand, let them put his heart by my heart. As hand is put to head, the sleep is so pleasant. As heart is pressed to heart, the pleasure is so sweet.” ~ kunĝar (Sumerian religious song) to Inanna IMG_4747

This recipe is inspired by the “cooking tablets” that form part of the Yale Babylonian Collection, one of the world’s most important and extensive collections of Mesopotamian literature. Sometimes called the earliest written cookbook, the three tablets date from around 1750 BCE, when Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) was ruled by the Old Babylonian Empire under Hammurabi, famous for his ancient law code. “Cookbook” might be something of a misnomer, because these texts were not widely circulated for the purpose of instruction like a modern cookbook. Though the Mesopotamians invented writing itself sometime around 3000 BCE, at no point during their long history could they be considered a literate society. It was only priests and scribes in the employ of kings who mastered the art of reading and writing. These literate elites created texts like the cooking tablets to record the practices of contemporary society for posterity (which worked, in a sense; after all, here I am writing about it almost four thousand years later).

There are only two ingredients in this recipe, and both have a very long history in the Middle East: dates and pistachio nuts. The earliest-known Mesopotamian culture, the Sumerians, were planting date orchards by 3000 BCE, around the same time that they developed writing. Pistachio nuts have been consumed far longer, since at least 6750 BCE, according to archaeological evidence found at Jarmo in northeastern Iraq. Despite its ancient history as a food source, the pistachio is poorly-attested in ancient literature, with only a handful of references, including a passing mention in the Book of Genesis. In comparison, much more was written about the date, perhaps because of its special role in the Mesopotamian diet as one of the few sources of concentrated sugar. Date syrup was used in cooking and to sweeten the sour barley beer that was the Mesopotamian staple. Dates were cheaper and available in larger quantities than honey, the other primary Mesopotamian sweetener.

The importance of dates to the Mesopotamian diet led to the date-palm being regarded as sacred from the earliest times. The Sumerians associated the tree with their fertility god Dumuzid, whose title Ama-ushumgal-anna means “The Power of the Date-Palm.” Dumuzid would be worshipped in this aspect in cities where the date was a major source of industry, while the people of other cities called him by other names reflecting their own economies: the Shepherd, the Rising Sap, the Good Son. Dumuzid’s marriage to the goddess Inanna symbolized the annual date-harvest and storage; Inanna was the date-cellar, Dumuzid the fruit. Their physical union was celebrated with raunchy love-songs like the one quoted above, as well as, according to some scholars, ritual sex (the hieros gamos or “sacred marriage”), with the high priestess of Inanna and the local king acting in place of the deities. Dumuzid’s subsequent death and rebirth represented the miraculous changing of the seasons, and was met with an annual cycle of lamentation and celebration that echoes the worship of many other Near Eastern deities, from Adonis and Attis to Persephone and Jesus.

We know from the Babylonian cooking tablets that there were professional pastry chefs dedicated to the production of mersu. Likely the word was a general term covering confections of varying degrees of complexity. My rendition is a simple one, focused on the nuts and dates themselves. The end result is essentially identical to its likely descendant, a modern Iraqi specialty called madgooga (مدقوقة), which literally means “pounded”, in reference to pounding the dates into paste. There are many variations of modern madgooga, containing both ingredients known to the ancient Mesopotamians (like sesame) and unknown to them (like coconut flakes, walnuts, and chocolate).

I can never eat dates without thinking of a peculiar incident from a Middle Eastern fairytale called The Merchant and the Genie (or Jinni), collected in Medieval times in the original Arabian Nights:

[The merchant] dismounted, fastened his horse to a branch of the tree, and sat by the fountain, after having taken from his wallet some of his dates and biscuits. When he had finished this frugal meal, he washed his face and hands in the fountain.

When he was thus employed he saw an enormous Genie, white with rage, coming towards him with a scimitar in his hand.

“Arise,” he cried in a terrible voice, “and let me kill you as you have killed my son!”

As he uttered these words he gave a frightful yell. The merchant, quite as much terrified at the hideous face of the monster as at his words, answered him tremblingly, “Alas, good sir, what can I have done to you to deserve death?”

“I shall kill you,” repeated the Genie, “as you have killed my son.”

“But,” said the merchant, “How can I have killed your son? I do not know him, and I have never even seen him.”

“When you arrived here did you not sit down on the ground?” asked the Genie, “and did you not take some dates from your wallet, and whilst eating them did not you throw the stones about?”

“Yes,” said the merchant, “I certainly did so.”

“Then,” said the Genie, “I tell you you have killed my son, for whilst you were throwing about the stones, my son passed by, and one of them struck him in the eye and killed him. So I shall kill you.”

Like any good fairytale, this one has a moral: don’t litter.

THE RECIPE 

2 cups of dates, pitted
2 cups of pistachio nuts, shelled

Mash the dates into a smooth paste. You can use a mortar and pestle, a food processor, or just chop them with a knife. Separately, grind or pound the pistachio nuts.

Combine half the ground pistachio nuts with the date paste and mix well. Roll the mixture into small, uniform balls (wet your fingers to make them easier to smooth and handle). Then, take the remaining pistachio nuts and spread them out on a dish or piece of wax paper. Roll each mersu in the ground nuts, patting gently all around to ensure the nuts stick.

THE VERDICT

Dates are good for you. Pistachio nuts are good for you. So even though this is dessert, it counts as a health food, right? Actually, while this recipe has a pleasant chewy texture, it’s nowhere near as sweet as most modern desserts (or some ancient ones; looking at you, Egyptian tiger nut cakes). It’s not my favorite ancient recipe, but it’s so easy I would probably make it again. V out of X.