Escabeche, Scapece, Ceviche?

Dear imaginary readers,

I have always believed that food and cuisine are a unifier, bringing together everyone around a table, sharing something that is fundamental for our subsistence, but important in the building our social relations too.

Cooking for someone, or someone cooking for me has always meant an exchange of love.

My passion about food didn’t start with my PhD on medieval Sicilian diet. It has always been something that I was striving to learn about, and experiment myself,  because the more I learnt the more I could see that what we call traditional regional cuisine is something that has similar variations across Italy, and if you dig just a little bit deeper you will find out it has so many influences from outside the peninsula, that they are actually not influences anymore and they become core aspects of our culinary tradition.

I know this wouldn’t sit well with many of my compatriots ( I am not even sure I like this terminology), nevertheless there are signs of these creative food contamination everywhere in the world, and I understood this even more since I moved to UK, a place where curry is considered a national British dish.

A lovely example of this constant exchange of food recipes, ingredients, techniques (and love) is found  in one of the way meat, fish or vegetables may be cured with vinegar, or citrus juice that can be find in the Arab, Italian and South American (Chile, Peru and Mexico for example) culinary tradition and also in today kitchens.

While I was researching about the Arab Green Revolution I discovered that the Arabs brought to Sicily a new way of cultivation but also new products and new ways of cooking, like the Persian al-sikbaj or scapece in Sicilian. There is not complete historic agreement on this fact and some authors think that it was already known by Roman, or more likely by the Byzantine (and the name deriving from Escha Apicii, “Apicio’s sauce”), others argue that it was first introduced by Arabs in Spain, called escabeche here, and later in Sicily (even though some food expert say it was a much loved dish of Frederick the 2nd of Swabia).

It may be difficult to separate urban legends from reality based on history only, but we do know that a very similar technique it is used in many central and south America areas, and it is more widely known as cheviche.

In general it refers a dish of meat, fish or vegetables marinated and cooked in an acidic mixture, sometimes  with the addition of saffron or other colourful spicies. The wide spread of this technique across the seven seas it is probably due to the fact that the dish achieve a pH of around 4, lowering the putrefaction processes, representing an effective conservation method.

Scapece has a version pretty much everywere: Greece (savoro), North Africa (scabetche), Philippines (Kinilaw, it doesn’t sound similar but the recipe does), and even Jamaica (escoveitch or escoveech).

The moral of this post is that we should travel, be curious, eat good food and love as much as we can, in order to (re)connect with our (lost?) humanity.

It is also a tip on a recipe you may like to try in every version, as it is always delicious!

 

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Alici (anchovies) alla Scapece
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Who is coming for dinner?

Dear imaginary readers,

everything is (more or less) ready for our bioarchaeological medieval Sicily game!

We are looking forward to see you, next Saturday the 15th of June in  King’s Manor between 10 am to 1 pm as part of the York Festival of Ideas.

Use paleobotany, zooarchaelogy, chemistry and genetics to discover the identities of the people who lived in Sicily between the 6th and the 13th centuries AD.

There will also be some snacks inspired by the historical research carried out by the team.

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About us:

Léa Drieu is a post doctoral researcher in biochemistry at the University of York investigating what was carried in amphorae.

Jasmine Lundy, Alice Ughi and Aurore Monnereau are second year PhD students at the University of York examining pots and people in BioArCh.

Veronica Aniceti is a third year PhD student at the University of Sheffield, pioneering the study of animals in early medieval Sicily.

More information about the project can be found in the Sictransit website.

For food tasting and talk please booking is required.

The Sicilian cannoli philosophy

Dear imaginary readers,

yesterday I was asked to advise a chef about what to cook for an outreach event we are going to do as part of our project Sicily in transition (I will post about this event soon, so watch this space).

After going through the amazing unique mixture of cultures that Sicilian culinary tradition brings together, and proposing different dishes like arancini (or arancine, not to offend any gender), sea food cous cous and many other savory plates, it was the turn of the dessert.

The PI of the project stated “it MUST be cannoli!“.

But how to explain what Sicilian cannoli are? The long sophisticated procedure, the carefully selected ingredients, the care, love and patience put in every aspect of their making.

The Sicilian cannoli are the representation of a state of mind and philosophy of life that is disappearing little by little, not only in the island but everywhere. The ethic behind is to take care, respect and value what nature and the work of other people give you.  Food is a second way of communicating in this culture.

The only way I found to describe what I just said was to send to the chef a video made by the amazing Don Pasta (an eclectic chef/dj/warrior), where signora Clara explains perfectly what the cannolo concept is all about.

Ode to the lab technicians

Dear imaginary readers,

there is a category of workers in secondary schools, further and higher education that is vital, but doesn’t seem to get the recognition it deserves. I am talking about the technicians.

I have been one myself, first in a high school, and later in a university. However I fully realized how much technicians are important, when I became a student myself.

Technicians do not only carry out practical chores like maintaining labs, monitoring stock, running, troubleshooting and repairing complicated pieces of equipment. They also have an invaluable amount of hands on knowledge that they share with students without competition and pressure. They are always there for you, and they listen to your problems, sometimes even when they are not directly related to lab-work. They are less intimidating than most supervisors and they usually offer practical solutions.

Many people think that the role of a technician has nothing to do with teaching. Well, that is a wrong notion. The lab has been recognized as a very important  learning environment. In fact it is the place where students put into practice the scientific method, through planning, running, and analyzing the results of an experiment.

In the science laboratory students learn to work cooperatively in small groups to investigate scientific phenomena, share spaces and equipment, have their first experience of practical failure, despite what the theory states would work.

Learners have the opportunity to enhance their procedural knowledge and skills, as they don’t just watch demonstration in a passive way but they are involved in hands-on activities which reflect the theory of experiential learning.

In general it is proved that critical thinking is an important skill to develop, especially as part of reflective practice, and the lab experience encourage the students to:

  • Offer explanations of the difficulties experienced
  • Recount what it has been done
  • Plan some changes in the procedure
  • Attempt the activity again, and report what it has been noticed, thought or perceived has changed
  • Discuss together, draw conclusions and plan new actions

Technicians accompany and support the research student through all these phases.

For all the reasons stated above, and many more, I like to place myself in the technician category. I would like to thank all the technicians I have being lucky to work with, first as colleagues and now as a student. What I am doing now would have not being possible without them.

How can technicians (in higher education) get recognised for their contribution to teaching and student support? HEA Fellowship is one of the way and a number of institutions have already encouraged technicians to gain HEA Fellowship, at a relevant category.

If Technicians are involved in at least two of the following activities they can consider applying for a category of HEA Fellowship:

  • Design and plan learning activities and/or programmes of study,
  • Teach and/or support learning,
  • Assess and give feedback to learners,
  • Develop effective learning environments and approaches to student support and guidance,
  • Engage in continuing professional development in subjects/disciplines and their pedagogy, incorporating research, scholarship and the evaluation of professional practices.

For more information about HEA Fellowships go to:   https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/individuals/fellowship

If you are interested in this subject you may want to read:

Boersma A. et al., (2016) Designing innovative learning environments to foster communities of learners for students in initial vocational education. Springer, Learning Environments Research, Volume 19, Issue 1,pp 107–131.

Danczak S.M., Thompson C. D., Overton T.L., (2016) What does the term critical thinking mean to you? A qualitative analysis of chemistry undergraduate, teaching staff and employers’ views of critical thinking, Chemistry Education Research and Practice, Royal Society of Chemistry.

Sellitto C., (2011) Capabilities Associated with University Group-work Activities: Experiential Benefits, Personal Attributes and Practically-acquired Skills, International Journal of Learning . 2011, Vol. 18 Issue 1, p401-410. 10p.

Zeniuk K. et al. (2001), Project-Based Learning: Building Communities of Reflective Practitioners, Management Learning Vol 32, Issue 1, pp. 61 – 76

 

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From Archaeological Digs to Modern Crime Scenes

Dear imaginary readers,

before Christmas break I was talking to some high school students about how to narrow the research question you want to address in a writing piece, an essay for example. That made me think about how much we tend to specialize in academia at the expenses of an holistic interdisciplinary approach.

We tend to forget that knowledge and its application don’t have clear iron cast borders and that virtually all disciplines have areas that overlap and integrate.

An example is forensics sciences and archaeology/anthropology. The identification and provenancing of human remains in areas of conflict and/or from mass graves is an important area of forensics science and it has benefited of the application of techniques used in the first place by archaeologists.

In modern contexts the identification of a body it is important from a forensics, legal and human point of view, bringing closure to the relatives of the dead person.

The process of assigning an identity to the scattered bones found in a mass grave is complicated by different variables, like cause of death, number of bodies present, lack of records, disturbance of the grave, environmental conditions, time of burial.

One of the technique used is the measurement of stable isotopes ratio of human tissues in order to define the area of origin of a deceased person, that was applied in the first instance to archaeological contexts.

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Medieval bodies found in Spitafields (London). Source: current archaeology 2012.

Without going into a deep description of stable isotope analysis principles you may know from school that isotopes of an element have the same number of protons but a different number of neutrons. Therefore they have different masses, reacting at different rates in chemical reactions, and they will be preferentially selected  (fractionated) from food ingested via metabolic processes. In general more of the light isotope would be found in the products rather than in the reactant, and we use the ratio of the heavy isotope to the light in relation to a known standard in order to track these changes, and we call it delta.

In archaeology the main elements we use are: carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) to reconstruct what a person had eaten, oxygen (O) and sulfur (S) to reconstruct the mobility.

The carbon isotope ratios of biological materials are ultimately related to plant photosynthesis and the movement of carbon from the atmosphere to the terrestrial environment. On a very basic level plants can be classified depending on the metabolic pathway used to live. C3 plants ( discriminate more against 13C than do C4 plants during photosynthesis, and therefore have lower δ13C values than C4 plants, with an average δ13C value of −26.7 ± 2.7 permil.

Carbon isotope ratios of bone reflect the relative consumption of C3 versus C4 resources (i.e., plants and the animals that consume them) by an organism, whilst other dietary resources, such as seafood and CAM plants show elevated δ13C values that overlap with C4 plant values.

Nitrogen has two stable isotopes, 15N and 14N, which are incorporated into plants from N2 in the atmosphere. Stable nitrogen isotopes of bone collagen can be used to track consumption of marine and terrestrial resources in an ecosystem because δ15N values typically increase 2 to 4 permil for each level in the food web.

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Delta 15N-delta 13C plot used to used to assess diet

Global differences in the δ13C and δ15N values of diet—and thus human tissues—can be useful for distinguishing the origin of individuals and classifying an individual of unknown origin as a local, a traveler or recent arrival to a particular location to help assign identity.

There are two more useful elements used to track the movement of a person from his/her remains, and they are oxygen and strontium.

Going back to the mass graves context and to importance of interdisciplinarity in order to pursuit a common task. We need to use all the tools and information we can obtain, put everything together and try to look at it as a whole instead of keep zooming in our restricted field, as we risk to loose the sense of the whole picture.

In the next posts I will talk more about stable isotopes techniques and their principles and  introduce application of these techniques to historical cases of study.

The message I want to leave with this post is: interdisciplinarity is a must if we want to cross ‘traditional boundaries’.

A Sicilian poet abroad

Dear imaginary readers,

today I want to talk to you about a poet and his relationship with his homeland.

Ibn Ḥamdīs al-ʾAzdī al-Ṣīqillī (c. 1056 – c. 1133), was born in Syracuse, a city in the South-East of Sicily, from a wealthy family who settled in the Val di Noto after the Arab conquest of the island in the 9th century AD.

When the Normans conquered Sicily in the 11th century Ibn decided to first move to North Africa, and then to al-Andalus (South of Spain) where the Almoravids were in power and were not so keen on sponsoring art, literature and poetry, so he had to move back to North Africa, at the Zirid court of Mahdiya, in modern-day Tunis.

 

Portrait of a Muslim poet in the Cappella Palatina, 12th century AD. Source: wikipedia

 

He died in Andalusia or in Majorca, depending on the sources, however he never forgot Sicily and dedicated to the island some of his finest diwan.

As William Granara says:  “The theme of al-hanin ila l-awtan, nostalgia for one’s homeland, dominates many of the siqilliyyas of Ibn Hamdis. Ibn Hamdis’s use of universal themes of the classical qasida enables his Arab audience to share emotionally and poetically in his own personal experience.”

Home is where your hearth is and in the case of Ibn Ḥamdīs, it was in Sicily, as we can guess from the following lines he wrote.

 

For them my heart harbors a burning fire

bringing chronic ailment to my body.

There stand abodes where cruel twists of fate

prowl like wild wolves,

where I used to accompany the lions in their thickets

and the gazelles in their coverts.

Beyond you, O sea, I have my paradise

where I donned the robes of blessing, not of despair.

Whenever I seek a morning there,

you grant me instead only an evening.

If I could be given my desire –

since the sea stands in the way of reunion –

I would sail the sea with the moon as my boat

until in it I would embrace the sun

 

And also

 

Oh my Sicily. In memory

A desperate longing for you and

For the follies of my youth returns. Again I see

The lost happinesses and the splendid friends,

Oh Paradise from which I was expelled!

What is the point of recalling your splendour?

 

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A Medieval “green revolution”

Dear imaginary readers,

It is very likely that if you hear the term “green” revolution you would think of the action we need to take in order to reverse the fate of the planet we live on. Instead for me it relates to a theory that has been developed by Andrew Watson and it is about how agriculture in the Mediterranean would have been completely re-shaped, circa  seventh-century AD onwards, by the Arabs’ (comprising a lot of different populations) conquests of the Middle East, North Africa, South of Italy and South of Spain.

Agricultural scene from a mediaeval Arabic manuscript from Al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) c. 1200 AD. Source: Wikipedia

The terms used by Watson are “the Arab agricultural revolution” or “A medieval Green Revolution”, meaning a sudden change in land management with the introduction of new crops coupled with a new irrigation system (qanats), reshaping the way agriculture was carried out and leading to a complete different way of cultivating the land.

 

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Cross-section of a Kanat. Source Wikipedia

 

Kanat system circa 1050.
Map of the kanats system underneath Arab Palermo (Bal’harm). Source http://www.bestofsicily.com
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Inside a Palermo’s kanat. Source: http://www.sicilyuncovered.com

Other than the famous citrus fruits (sour orange, lemon, lime and shaddock), coconut, banana, watermelon and eggplants, the new crops introduced, which may be detectable via C and N stable isotopes analysis of collagen, according to Watson were:

Sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum L., Arabic: qasab al-sukkar, qasab farisi, qasab hulw, qasab hindi)

In Sicily it became an important industry and according to Watson it has been introduced into the island in the 10th century or possibly earlier. The product was widely use in North Africa during the early years of the Fatimid period (909-1171 AD). Watson states that wild sugarcane plants from India and Southeast Asia were hybridized and domesticated in New Guinea but, the original area of sugar cane production is Mesopotamia where it was likely to be brought in around the seventh century, expanding towards west in the following centuries, especially in Lower Egypt. In line with this theory the sugarcane industry in Sicily was flourishing and the product was exported to North Africa. Even though after the Norman conquest the sugar plantations started to be neglected. According to other sources it seems like it wasn’t until the eleventh-twelfth centuries that sugarcane plantation started to spread in the Mediterranean, reaching Sicily and Andalusia. To grow and treat sugar required advanced farming techniques and technology to refine the raw product, needing a stable economic and social background. In Sicily sugar cane was grown near Palermo in the village of Aqbat, that means Copts, who were Egyptian Christians possibly brought purposely to the island to grow it, as the Egyptians were among the earliest cultivators of this plant.

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Sugarcane plant depicted in a Medieval Arab manuscript

Asiatic Rice (Oryza sativa L., Arabic: ruzz, aruzz, uruzz)

Rice cultivation started somewhere in the East, possibly in different regions of India, Thailand and China and then spread from there reaching the Mesopotamia around the 2nd century BC as mentioned by Strabo and Diodurus. In Sicily it was grown in the marshes near the mouth of rivers and remained in use in everyday meals since today, as noted by the geographer Al-Idrisi in his 12th century AD in his “Description of Africa and Spain”.

A typical Spanish “paella”. However in many places, especially in the South, it has different versions and it is called with the arabic name of arroz.

Sorghum, great millet (Sorghum bicolor . Arabic: dhurra, jawars hindi, jawarsh)

Sorghum is part of the Poaceae, and is present in different types, even though we are interested in particular in one specie, Sorghum bicolor, that is native to Africa and was and it is used as food (sorghum syrup and sorghum molasses), animal fodder, and to make alcoholic beverages. It is a self-pollinating plant, grown from seed, adapted to the hot, semiarid and dry temperate areas, so it perfectly fits Sicily’s environmental conditions. There seems to be agreement in the fact that this plant has African origins, and was cultivated before the Christian era, with later domestication, maybe happening somewhere else in Asia.  It was used raw or cooked in the form of cous-cous, porridges, soups and cakes. Arabs used it mixed with other flours for the production of bread for low social classes. The seeds and cores were used to feed cattle and poultry.

Hard wheat (Triticum durum. Arabic: qamh, hinta, burr)

Because of its high gluten content and the hardness of its grain, hard wheat has special uses. It provides the most common semoules for the cous-cous of North Africa and some other parts of the Arab world, as well as the burghul for pilafs and for Levantine dishes such as tabbula, kishk, kibba and bitfin. In Arab cooking, these semoules are also the basis of many soups, gruels, stuffings, puddings and pastries, and of preparations resembling the European gnocchi. It was an important industry for Sicily and it was fully established during the Muslim period, according to Watson. By the middle of 12th century, the geography al-Idrisi records that the town of al-Tarbi’ah (Trabia) was manufacturing and exporting itriyah (tria in Sicilian stays for vermicelli, which is a particular shape of pasta similar to spaghetti, but hollow inside) to Calabria and to other countries.

“Blood” Sicilian oranges, (c) https://journeythroughitaly.com/sicilian-markets/

The overall picture of the Sicily’s agriculture production under Byzantines shows mainly a monoculture (wheat) coupled with a decrease in population.

As the Arabs started settling into the island, there was a reversal in this demographic decline trend, and the numbers of inhabitants on the cost and in the mainland increased. The demographic increment caused a greater demand of food that stimulated agricultural advance and investments in land property. New industries connected to the new plants, such as sugar cane and cotton, start to proliferate, pushing forward new non-agricultural sectors.

The subject of my study is whether and how the diet of the inhabitants of Sicily evolved through subsequent changes of regime (Byzantine, Arabs, Norman and Swabian). I am further trying to assess if the changes in agriculture introduced by the Arabs are detectable via stable isotopes analysis and/or if they were so radical as to shift habits during the course of one century rather than it being a gradual occurrence.

For more information about the project I am involved in check Sicily in transition.

"The fate of wine is to be drunk, and the fate of glucose is to be oxidized." Primo Levi, Carbon, The periodic system.