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This is our Second Post in our Series on Foods of the First Century. If you missed part 1, Spices and Herbs you can find it HERE. As before, we’ll start with a list from the Bible and add where necessary.
Apples (Song of Solomon 2:5) There’s nothing quite like starting out with a controversy, is there? While doing my research I came across an articles that stated, “…most experts agree that Biblical references to apples actually meant apricots.” Oh yeah? Now we just couldn’t fall in line on that one without a fight; so off we went on a hunt for the elusive appl-icot of the Bible.
Here are the facts: Remains of apples have been found in excavations at Jericho in the Jordan Valley in sites that are dated to 6,500 BC. (Are we wrong in believing 6,500 BC came a wee bit earlier than the 1st Century AD?) Dried apple slices were found on saucers in the tomb of Queen Pu-Abi in Ur at a site dated to 2,500 BC. Fast forward to 100 BC and the Roman poet Horace notes that Italy had nearly become one big fruit orchard and the perfect meal begins with eggs and ends with apples. In 50 BC, Cicero, author, statesman, and philosopher urges his Roman countrymen to save their apple seeds from dessert to develop new cultivars. And last, but not least, in 79 AD Pliny the Elder describes 20 varieties of apples in his Natural History. Case closed. The ancient Israelites had apples. Thus, they also had cider, cider vinegar, apple wine, apple sauce, dried apples, and apple peel tea, which Rivkah served in the first chapter of Disciple, Book Two of the Seeds of Christianity.
Apricots originated on the Russian-Chinese border about 3000 BC and were imported along with peach seed into Europe through the "Silk Road" that consisted of camel caravans traveling through the Mideast. Apricots were known in ancient Greece by at least 60 BC and were introduced into the Roman Empire. The fruit grows wild along roadsides in Turkey and Armenia today. It’s fair to say that, even though they didn’t merit a mention in the Bible, 1st Century Jews knew what an apricot was and they ate them fresh, dried or pounded and dried as sheets of fruit leather.
Almonds (Genesis 43:11; Numbers 17:8) In addition to being eaten out of hand, almonds were also used for their oil and were added to various sweetmeats — desserts and candies. Almond trees are commonly found in Galilee, the Golan, Carmel, Samaria and the Judean Hills.
|Dates Ripening on the Tree|
Dates (2 Samuel 6:19; 1 Chronicles 16:3) In a society that had no refined sugar, sweet, sugary fruits such as dates would have been prized. The date tree is a type of palm and its branches are blessed at the Feast of Succot. They were eaten fresh or dried and pressed into cakes for storage. In years past, I recall circular cakes of imported dates in the produce section around Christmas. In the crucifixion scene in my book, Witness, Rivkah offers the Centurion a cake of dates to allow her to approach the cross. The largest date tree plantation in Israel is located in the Bet Shean valley and numbers some 10,000 date trees.
Figs (Nehemiah 13:15; Jeremiah 24:1-3) You may recall Jesus calling Nathaniel, who was under the fig tree. (John 1:48) Figs were another sweet treat that would have been eaten fresh, used to make sweetmeats, and dried for storage.
Grapes (Leviticus 19:10; Deuteronomy 23:24) No dispute here. Grapes were widely cultivated. Crushed, their juice could be enjoyed fresh or allowed to ferment into wine. From the wine they produced wine vinegar. Fresh grape juice was also boiled into a thick, sweet syrup (debash, or grape honey). Grape leaves were used for cooking and added to pickles for crispness.
Melons (Numbers 11:5; Isaiah 1:8) A fresh and juicy treat. In the Middle Eastern climate, they would have had a long season.
Olives (Isaiah 17:6; Micah 6:15) Like grapes, olives were a prime staple. They could have been picked green and pickled for storage, or eaten ripe. They were also crushed for oil which they used for cooking, as a skin emollient, and in lamps for lighting. We also have a dedicated post to Olives, Olive Oil and Gethsemanes which you can see HERE.
Pine Nuts Pines are mentioned in Isaiah 44:14. Pine nuts are the edible seeds of pines (family Pinaceae, genus Pinus). About 20 species of pine produce seeds large enough to be worth harvesting; in other pines the seeds are also edible, but are too small to be of great value as a human food.
On Jewish holidays, dumplings are served with soup, such as the gondi (chickpea dumplings) of Iranian Jews, or kubbeh, a family of dumplings brought to Israel by Middle Eastern Jews. Especially popular are kubbeh prepared from bulgur and stuffed with ground lamb and pine nuts, and the soft semolina kubbeh cooked in soup, which Jews of Kurdish or Iraqi heritage habitually enjoy as a Friday lunchtime meal. We’ll take that as proof that ancient Israel as well as the Romans enjoyed pine nuts.
Pistachio Nuts (Genesis 43:11) Then their father Israel said to them, “If it must be so, then do this: take some of the best products of the land in your bags, and carry down to the man as a present, a little balm and a little honey, aromatic gum and myrrh, pistachio nuts and almonds." The pistachio grows on the terebinth, one of the four oak trees indigenous to Israel. The word pistachio is derived from the Greek word for pure, pistikos, which generally translates as exceptional quality.
|Pistachioes Ripening on the Tree|
Plums are another food not mentioned in the Bible. As evidence, consider the following facts: First, Alexander the Great introduced plums to the Mediterranean regions. Secondly, in 65 B.C., Pompey the Great introduced the plum to the orchards of Rome. In 65-62 Pompey conquered Antiochus, King of Syria and captured Jerusalem, subjecting the Hasmonean Dynasty to Roman influence. Plums would have been enjoyed fresh, and dried (prunes).Pomegranates (Numbers 20:5; Deuteronomy 8:8) Punica granatum is a fruit-bearing deciduous shrub or small tree. The fruit consists of arils (seed casings) which must be separated from the peel and pulpy membranes. The entire seed is consumed raw, though the watery, tasty aril is the desired part. Grenadine syrup is thickened and sweetened pomegranate juice used in many Middle Eastern dishes. There is also a pomegranate soup. The juice is used to marinate or glaze meat or drunk straight. Boiled to a thick molasses it is mixed into yogurt or spread on bread. It is also mixed with peppers, nuts and garlic to make a spicy spread. The seeds are often used as a garnish in salads and desserts. The Romans made Laganum Fructus, Fruit Cake, using pomegranates. You can see the recipe HERE.
Raisins (Numbers 6:3; 2 Samuel 6:19) Raisins are, of course, dried grapes. Grapes that were not eaten fresh would have been dried into raisins which were, like dates, pressed into cakes for storage.
Sycamore Fruit (Psalm 78:47; Amos 7:14) You may also recall the story of Zaccheus climbing a sycamore fig. (Luke 19:3) The tree we are talking about here is the Sycamore fig from Egypt, not to be confused with other trees called sycamore from northern Europe which are in the maple family. The sycamore fig tree (Ficus sycomorus sycomorus, and F. sycomorus gnaphalocarpa) belong to the fig family, which includes the common edible fig (Ficus carica), and the Banyan tree. The tree is evergreen, grows to 50 feet in height and 45 feet wide, and has large leaves that provide shade. The young fruit are nicked with a knife to encourage their ripening. The orange fruit grows in clusters, and has a distinctive, yet mild taste.
A FINAL NOTE
Modern Israel is a major producer of citrus fruits which are exported to Europe. This could lead one to believe that ancient Jews also had oranges, lemons and limes. Not so. The only citrus native to the Middle East is the citron. The citron is unlike the more common citrus species that are peeled to consume their pulpy, juicy segments; the citron's pulp is very dry, containing little juice. Moreover, the main content of a citron is the thick white rind, which adheres to the segments and cannot be separated from them easily.
From ancient times, the citron was used mainly for medical purposes. Citron juice with honey was considered an effective antidote to poison. The fragrant zest of its outer peel, flavedo, could be used for flavoring or cosmetics. For instance, in Disciple Channah uses citron scented water as a final rinse when washing her hair.
Diced and colored citron is that strange stuff you find in fruit cakes. The whole citron is used as an integral part of the celebration of the Jewish Feast of Sukkoth. Check out our post on Judaisms Feasts and Festivals HERE.
Next time we’ll look at vegetables.
Until then, we wish you Peace and Blessings.
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