Flemish historian translates thousands of years of recipes


Annelies Van Wittenberghe’s collection of 120 recipes from ancient Mesopotamia through to modern times is a tribute to her two greatest passions: history and cooking

A taste of the past

You never know what might spark the next big project or invention. Flemish historian Annelies Van Wittenberghe was walking along Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England when, feeling peckish, she wondered: “What did those poor Roman soldiers eat here in these barbarian countries?”

Her research led her to a handful of ancient tablets that listed the legionaries’ food supplies. To her surprise, the soldiers had access to typical Mediterranean fare, including olive oil, wine and pepper, even though they were stationed on the northern outskirts of the Roman Empire, thousands of miles away from the capital.

The rest, as they say, is history – or in this case Smaak!: Een geschiedenis in 120 recepten  (Taste!: A History in 120 Recipes). The book, in Dutch, is divided into six parts – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, hearty and spicy – and covers 4,000 years of European and Middle Eastern cuisine. 

The oldest recipe comes from the Akkadian Empire, part of ancient Mesopotamia, and dates from somewhere around 2,200 BC. It was originally written on clay tablets, Van Wittenberghe (pictured) explains, “which hold about three dozen more recipes, all of which are tasty”.

All of the recipes come from original sources. “I wanted to read everything in its original form, so I learned Portuguese and ancient Swedish,” Van Wittenberghe says. Though she did have to get creative. Ancient recipes are usually nothing more than a list of ingredients. It’s up to the culinary historian to write the recipe in a way that present-day cooks can follow.”

Flamingo, anyone?

Van Wittenberghe, a lecturer at Ghent University, insists that modern eaters will not be intimidated by the recipes. “These are my favourites from hundreds of years of history. I’ve cooked all the meals from the book. There is venison stew with coriander and lamb stew with beets and rocket.”

In some cases, however, she had to relent. “There is a Roman flamingo recipe I wanted to try, but it’s really hard to get hold of the meat,” she says. “Some ingredients have also been found to be more or less poisonous, so I left them out.”

Some ingredients have been found to be more or less poisonous, so I left them out

- Annelies Van Wittenberghe

A recipe for cumin dipping sauce for oysters comes from a first-century Roman known as Apicius. “It’s one of the most subtle and tasty Roman recipes,” Van Wittenberghe says. “Roman recipes tend to be rather Asian and rely heavily on cumin, ginger, coriander, mint and parsley.”

Roman cuisine has been said to include many extravagant courses, including a plate of lark tongues and roasted wild boar with live birds trapped inside. None of the cookbooks Van Wittenberghe came upon mention them. Her explanation is that such recipes were fictitious, written to cast the imperial class in bad light.

Smaak! focuses on how taste preferences have changed over time. Today, for instance, we treat sweet dishes as desert, but in ancient and medieval times, this wasn’t always the case. “You often find sweet starters and main courses like the honey-and-date flavoured wild boar stew or the spicy scallops with sugar.”

Belgian exception

Belgian cuisine is a bit of an exception, she adds, since recipes from the Burgundian empire are still used. This sort of cooking is based on balancing sweet and sour flavours, such as rabbit with prunes.

Though even in Belgian cuisine, much has changed. The Dukes of Burgundy liked to show off their wealth and power, and food was no exception. “Feasts were almost like a play for them,” says Van Wittenberghe. “Since sugar was prohibitively expensive, they would demand large quantities of it in their food. Food coloured by saffron and the heavy scent of cinnamon made guests fully aware of their hosts’ wealth. The Burgundians also ordered constructions made of sugar just to show off.”

Historical cooking is like going on a holiday and tasting all the local specialties

- Annelies Van Wittenberghe

By the 16th-century and the dawn of exploration, culinary trends changed yet again as new products like turkey, tomatoes, peppers and potatoes became widely available. Sugar and spices lost their luxury status, and the focus switched to herbs, including tarragon, chervil and chives.

“Some intriguing combinations of the time include fish with blueberries and cherries, and turkey and fennel croquettes,” Van Wittenberghe says.

Not all foods gained admirers right away. “Turkey found its way to the table because it looked like a peacock, which was a staple of medieval cuisine,” Van Wittenberghe explains. “Tomatoes took much longer, since the plant resembles nightshade, which is poisonous. You don’t find many recipes with them until the second half of the 18th century. Potatoes, too, weren’t used widely until the grain infestations of the 18th century.”

In a cookbook-crazed culture such as this one, Smaak! is certainly unique in the pack. “I like to step out of my culinary comfort zone, and historical cooking is a great way of achieving that,” says Van Wittenberghe. “It’s like going on a holiday and tasting all the local specialties.”

For her next book, she’s considering the influence of European cuisine on other parts of the world, including South Africa and Cuba, or a book of recipes for children.

Smaak!: Een geschiedenis in 120 recepten is published in Dutch by Davidsfonds

Photo: Kim Van Liefferinge