By Aylin Şen
People living thousands of years ago on this soil produced from grapes the first beverage or liquor of history. Dried grapes, raisins were their first snack food. But first and foremost, they used grapes instead of sugar, along with honey which was playing the leading part, until sugar made its apparition!
Visiting the archaeological museums, you will have noticed that the grapevine leaves pattern is a very common design found on the most various artefacts of the Antique Age, from all sorts of pottery to sarcophagi. This is certainly not a coincidence. Grapes are amongst the oldest fruits cultivated by mankind. The oldest known vine leave fossil is dated back to 130 million years. The cultivation of that once wild plant by humans started approximately 6 thousand years ago.
Archaeological evidence support the fact that Anatolia and the Caucasus are the homelands of the grapevine. Excavations estab-lished that vine cultivation existed already 3500BC in Anatolia, with around one thousand different sorts of grapes and a vast variety of derived products… An exquisite episode in the history of taste and flavour… Speaking of derived products, we have to understand grape-juice and a slightly fermented grape juice, a sort of wine probably. People living thousands of years ago on this soil produced from grapes the first beverage or liquor of history. Dried grapes, raisins were their first snack food. But first and foremost, they used grapes instead of sugar, along with honey which was playing the leading part, until sugar made its apparition on the stage of our Mediterranean basin’s history.
Honey playing the leading role
In the Antique Age, honey was indeed an indispensable food product. According to available data to us on that era, honey was an ingredi-ent added to almost all food and drinks. Particularly in the meals of wealthy people… Ample details on the luxurious Roman dinner tables, table manners, interesting episodes on extravagant dining styles and refined dishes are provided in a book attributed to the Roman gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius who presumably lived between 14 BC and 37 AD. A cookbook is also attributed to him, in which are presented succulent recipes apparently enjoyed by Roman emperors and senators, among other the famous pâté de foie gras (duck liver paste) and the grilled flamingo’s tongue of superb flavour.
However, the most important notes in the history of taste and flavour concern the first “sweet desserts”. And honey plays the lead in those desserts.
Sugar: Trophy of War
Honey and sweet grapes would continue their exclusive reign on dinner tables for many centuries to come. The reign of sugar had to wait until sugar’s arrival in the Middle East and from there in Europe, following the Arab invasion of Persian landsin the seventh century starting from 642 AD. The raw material of sugar is sugar cane… Sugar cane’s homeland is India…Sugar cane, in Sanskrit language sarkara and Pali language sakkhara was known in India already 5 thousand years ago. As the Persians finally reached India in 510 BC, they discovered numerous new products ranging from various spices to gems and precious stones. Among these new discoveries, sugar cane was presented to Persian King Darius the Great as the “cane produc-ing honey without the bees”. This was such a precious gift that the Persian court kept it as a secret for centuries, even away from its own people reserving it to the use of the royal palace. Therefore, sugar was not revealed to other civilizations, until the Arab conquest of Persian territories.
Tables of conquest!
The historical journey of taste and flavour is in a sense the history of mankind. Indeed, basic elements of our current cuisine, products ranging from pepper to sugar, from tomatoes to paprika came to be known to our ancestors on the occasion of some military campaigns.The various dishes on the dinner table of Roman emperors constituted a reflection of their domain of sovereignty, the geographic extent of their power.Similarly, multiple food products stemming from all the lands reached by the con-quests of the powerful Ottoman Empire were served on silver plates at the dinner tables of the Ottoman Court. Sugar reached the Middle East as a result of the Arab military campaigns in Asia and it was introduced to Europe only following the Crusades. Next time you visit the Archaeological Museums of İstanbul, examine the various objects under the angle of the culture of food. On which marble object or ceramics will you find grapevine leaves…
What sort of trophies did the proud war hero represented by that big statue bring back home from his victory? Which new tastes and flavours were added to the dinner table of that king following his military campaigns in foreign lands?
A RECIPE BY MARCUS GAVIUS APICIUS SAVILLUM
700-750 grammes of soft cheese, 3-4 tablespoons of whole-wheat flour,half a coffee cup of flower honey, stirred with two egg yolks on a plate. The egg whites stirred on a separate plate. Place a layer of the cheese mixture and a layer of the egg white foam in a terra cotta plate after coating the inside with oil. Cook the whole in a hot oven. After taking it out of the oven, pour over a little honey and spread a few poppy seeds on it. It is ready to be served.
Note: The above quantities are adapted to present-day measures and standards; oven temperature should be slightly over 150 degrees and recommended time of cooking is approximately 40-45 minutes.
This article has originally appeared in “Müze” Magazine, published quarterly with the contributions of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. We would like to thank TÜRSAB Museum Enterprises for sharing this piece with Istanbul Digital Platform followers.