|Loaves of Flatbread Fresh from the Oven|
Hello My Friend and Welcome.
Today we have another installment in the ongoing series, Foods of the First Century along with a couple of interesting recipes. There are a few clarifying points that need to be made before we step into our study of grains.
CORN IN THE BIBLE
First, some translations of the Bible mention corn. Corn, or more properly, zea mays, is a new world grain and definitely not known to First Century inhabitants of the Levant. In the Middle Ages, the word corn was a catch-all word for grain. It could mean oats, rye, barley, wheat, etc. Consequently, when the Pilgrims came to the United States and encountered the crop zea mays — the Indians’ staple grain — they referred to it as corn. Which is why what Americans call corn is known everywhere else as maize.
VARIETY NOT NECESSARY
Secondly, there isn’t nearly the variety among the grains as we found in other categories we’ve visited. This shouldn’t be surprising. Think for a moment about our present world. Though we have an unprecedented number of grains available to us, the demand for wheat products and wheat flour far and away exceeds the demand for all of the other grains combined. When it comes to grains, variety is nice, but certainly not necessary.
THE CEREAL GRAINS
The third, and last, point is that all cereal grain crops are grasses. Other than rice, corn, and grain sorghum, their growth habits are remarkably similar. By and large, the seeds themselves resemble each other. So much so that faced with a table full of bowls of grain, labeling them correctly could be a daunting task. (Trust me on this. As a final exam in an agronomy course, we once had to identify dishes of the common cereal grains as well as another set of dishes filled with common forage grass seeds. It’s not something you want to do.)
The very earliest grains known to archaeologists are einkorn and emmer. Einkorn was a tough grain grown in Europe since the Mesolithic era. There is evidence of einkorn farming in the Karacadag Mountains in southeast Turkey 11,000 years ago and also around Jericho about the same time. Its use decreased with the growing popularity of newer varieties of wheat and today it is grown only as a specialty crop. Einkorn gluten does not cause the allergic reactions of modern wheat gluten and is often beneficial for those suffering from celeriac disease.
As usual, we’ll base our list upon Biblical references.
|Barley Ripening in the Field|
Barley (Deuteronomy 8:8; Ezekiel 4:9) Hordeum valgar, more commonly known as barley is one of the most ancient of all types of crops. It was domesticated in Mesopotamia, from its wild relative Hordeum spontaneum. Barley flour, and therefore barley bread, was the poor man’s staple in the First Century. Recall John 6:9 “There is a boy with five small barley loaves…”
We must also remember that all bread would, by necessity, have been made from a starter. They ate what we commonly term sourdough breads. Packaged active dry yeast was not available commercially until the 1880’s.
Most whole barley sold today is de-hulled, that is, its indigestible outer seed coat has been removed. Many stores also carry pearled barley which is polished after the hull was removed. Its white kernels make it an attractive alternative to rice. Barley can be eaten as pilaf, or in soups and stews.
|Egyptian Wall Painting of Man Drinking Beer|
The Egyptians discovered that bread baked with malted (sprouted) barley remained fresh longer than the plain variety. Because the malting process converted many of the grains starches into sugars, it also was highly fermentable. A clay tablet dating to 1,800 BC known as the Hymn to Ninkasi (the Sumerian Goddess of Brewing) contains an ancient recipe for making beer. Loaves of bread made of malted barley flour were twice-baked then crumbled into a mixture of malted barley and water, and left to ferment. Sweet syrup was added to the final mash. Ancient beers contained no hops; the brewers added sycamores instead. Recall from our post on fruits and nuts that this would reference sycamore figs, which probably supplied the sweetness mentioned above.
With no disrespect intended, have you ever imagined Jesus and his disciples gathering for a glass of beer after a hard day’s work? Records indicate that they most likely did.
|A Field of Flax in Bloom|
Flax (Exodus 9:31) There are five references to flax in the Bible, but only one of these refers to the crop itself. The others are indirect references to linen. The flax plant is, of course, a dual crop. Its seeds are edible and the stems were beaten to free the fibers that were woven into linen. Linen was a premium fabric in the First Century.
Flaxseeds can be added to breads, muffins and cookies for their nutritional value. The following recipe for flaxseed crackers fit the needs of the Early Christians. They were quick, easy and tasty…plus they don’t even require a lot of modern equipment; they could be dried in the sun.
|Easy-to-Make Flaxseed Crackers|
Ingredients: 1 cup flax seeds, 1 cup water, 1/8 cup soy sauce, 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder, 1/4 teaspoon curry powder, salt and pepper to taste.
Process: Place the flax seeds and water in a medium bowl and mix. Let sit for 1-1/2 hours. The mixture will thicken. Preheat your oven to 300 degrees F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment. Mix in the soy sauce, garlic and curry powders, and salt, pepper. Pour mixture onto baking sheet, spread into a large rectangle about 1/8-inch thick. Bake for 40 minutes, then check for firmness. If it's firm, flip and continue baking for another 40 minutes or so. If not, keep baking a little longer. You'll want 'em crispy versus chewy for taste. Cool and cut or break your large cracker into bite-sized squares. [You can also make them in a dehydrator…use a tray designed for fruit leather.]
Millet (Ezekiel 4:9) Birdseed is the first thing most people think of when millet is mentioned, and rightly so. Millet is the primary food of most caged birds. However, millet is particularly suited to semi-arid conditions and it is grown and eaten by a substantial part of the population in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia. Millet flour is used to make flatbreads, muffins and cookies. Whole millet can be cooked into porridge and eaten for breakfast, or made into pilaf with herbs and vegetables. The people of Senegal make a stew of cooked millet, chickpeas, cabbage, onions, garlic, root vegetables and peanut butter. (Peanuts, by the way, are known as ground nuts in Africa.)Oats Though not specifically mentioned in the Bible, oats were domesticated in Europe about 1000 BC. They originated as weeds that grew within cultivated fields of various other crops. Even today, they can grow in ditch banks and other places there not wanted; hence the expression, “Sowing one’s wild oats."
Oats were slow to gain popularity because they did keep as well as other cereal grains. They have a tendency to go rancid very quickly, due to the presence of natural fats and a fat dissolving enzyme present in the grain. Greeks and Romans considered oats to be nothing more than a diseased version of wheat. Oats were a lowly horse food for the Romans. They scoffed at the Germanic tribes of Northern Europe, calling them oat-eating barbarians. So we can say with certainty that people of the First Century knew and had oats. What they did with them is another story. Even today, less than 5% of the oats grown commercially are for human consumption.
|Spelt Ripening in the Field|
Spelt (Ezekiel 4:9) Modern wheat traces its roots to three ancient grains: einkorn, emmer, and spelt. Spelt, which has a distinctly nutty flavor, has been cultivated in the Fertile Crescent for 9,000 years. Most of the spelt produced in the United States is grown in Ohio, which devotes between 100,000 and 200,000 acres to spelt production annually. Ground spelt is primarily used in animal feeds as an alternative to oats and barley. Its nutritional value is close to that of oats. After it is hulled, Spelt can also be used as a food grain for people. It is popular in Europe, particularly in Germany. Spelt can also be used in flour and baked goods to replace soft red winter wheat.
Wheat (Ezra 6:9; Deuteronomy 8:8)
Emmer, an original staple of farming in the Levant, has small grains and is related to modern durum wheat. Emmer was eaten by the ancient Egyptians and is still farmed there today. When wheat is mentioned, the first thing people think of is flour. Wheat flour is lighter and softer than barley flour and was used for bread by the upper classes. The Durum wheat mentioned above produces white flour known as semolina. Today, semolina is used primarily for the production of pasta.
Wheat also yielded two of the ancient world’s fast foods: Bulghur and Freekeh.
|A Dish of Tabouleh|
Bulghur is wheat that has been hulled, parboiled, dried and chopped. The parboiling precooks the grain allowing it to quickly reconstitute when soaked in water. Bulghur is served warm, or unheated as a salad. The most familiar form would be Tabbouleh, which consists of reconstituted bulghur, tomatoes, cucumbers, chopped parsley, sliced green onions, chopped mint, olive oil, lemon juice, salt, allspice, cinnamon and pepper. From earlier posts we can see that only the tomatoes present a problem for the First Century cook. They had it all, except the tomatoes.
|Frekeeh After Burning and Husked|
Though similar, Freekeh has its own unique character. Durum wheat is harvested green while the kernels are soft and full of moisture. Then it’s allowed to dry in the sun before being placed on an open fire. The straw and chaff burn away, turning the wheat a dark golden color. The grains are then polished and cracked. Freekeh is said to have a unique smoky aroma and a nutty, toasted taste. It is used to make savory pilafs and other Middle Eastern side dishes.
And now the second recipe— I looked for a Biblical reference to Bulghur and I believe it can be found in Samuel 17:17 in which Jesse tells David to take food to his brothers in Saul’s army. The NIV translation says, “Take this ephah of roasted grain.”The KJV says, “Take now for your brothers an ephah of this dried grain.” Then I checked the Douay Rheims, which follows the Latin Vulgate. It said, “Take for thy brethren an ephah of frumenty.” Frumenty is a thick porridge made from Bulghur. The oldest available recipe comes from the early Middle Ages.
Curye on Inglysch
To make frumente. Tak clene whete & braye yt wel in a morter tyl the holes gon of; sethe it til it breste in water. Nym it up & lat it cole. Tak good broth & sweet mylk of kyn or of almand & tempere it therwith. Nym yelkys of eyren rawe & saffroun & cast therto; salt it; lat it naught boyle after the eyren ben cast therinne. Messe if forth with venesoun or with fat motoun fresch.
Hmmm. Here’s a translation along with comments. Keep in mind I haven’t read Old English since my senior year in high school English when we read Chaucer in its original form.
A Recipe in English
To make frumenty. Take clean wheat and pound it well in a mortar until the hulls are off. Boil the hulled wheat in water until it cracks. Take it out and let it cool. [We have now made Bulgur wheat.] Combine a good broth and sweet almond milk, and bring them to a boil. Add the wheat and reduce heat. [Stirring so it doesn’t stick.] Take raw egg yolks and saffron and add them to the pot. Do not let it boil after the eggs are put in. [Remove from heat and let stand to thicken.] Serve with venison or fresh fat mutton.
So there you have it, the grains the early Christians had available and a few ways in which they might have prepared them. The more we learn about these earlier times, the more we can appreciate the diverse cuisine they enjoyed. Once we’ve covered the basics, we can turn our concentration to the dishes they prepared. One of our resources for recipes is an ancient Roman cookbook. Stay tuned.
On Wednesday we’ll study the phenomena of Shekers, or False Messiahs in ancient Israel.
Until then, we wish you Peace and Blessings.
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