This Alexandrine Gourd recipe is one which keeps catching my eye - it sounds both delicious, and exotic. Situated in Egypt, some 1200 miles from the city of Rome, Alexandria and its food had the same charm for the Romans as Asian food does for us. That alone makes this a dish I want to try.
There is, however, one big problem. The majority of gourds, squashes, and pumpkins are native to the Americas and were thus unknown to the Romans. Wanting to stay true to the original recipe, I set off on the hunt for the vegetable they might have used. I asked gardeners, asked farmers, and asked botanists, and the only thing that we could come up with was the Bottle Gourd, which I quickly set off to buy. I soon learned, however, that semi-rural Northern Ireland is not the ancient Mediterranean, and alas, I came back empty handed. My solution? I cheated.
To all who came here wanting nothing but authenticity, I apologise. We've had a good run, but I'm afraid now is the time to unsubscribe. To everybody else, I say the following:
- The draw of this dish is not the 'gourd', but the 'Alexandrine'. Most gourds are pretty tasteless, meaning that it is the seasoning and cooking methods which matter most - those we can stay true to. We can recreate that Alexandrine feel.
- If I struggled to find an authentic gourd, I imagine that most of you will too. The point of this blog is to make Roman cuisine accessible, and to inspire others to try it out. That's not possible if we stick to obscure ingredients which few can find.
- The dish sounds damned tasty and I want to try it.
In the end I came back from my shopping trip with both a pumpkin, and with what I think is an acorn squash. I didn't use the pumpkin in this recipe, but given that they are cheap and plentiful right now, anybody wanting to make this dish could use one. The presumed acorn squash, which I did use, is completely tasteless, meaning that I'll be experiencing the full effect of the 'Alexandrine' cooking method. So, without further ado, the original recipe:
Boil some gourd, squeeze the water out of it, and place in a baking dish. Sprinkle with salt, and ground pepper, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, mint, and asafoetida; season with vinegar. Now pour in the date wine, pine nuts ground with honey, more vinegar, and fish sauce. Measure out some condensed wine and olive oil, pour these over the pumpkin, and cook it all in an oven. Sprinkle with pepper before serving.- Apicius, 3.4.3
Let's preheat the oven to 180° Celsius and get going:
- 1 Small Gourd/Squash/Pumpkin
- A Pinch of Salt
- 1 tsp Black Peppercorns
- 1 tsp Cumin Seeds
- 1 tsp Coriander Seeds
- 1/2 tsp Asafoetida
- A Handfull of Pine Nuts
- A Small Bunch of Mint
- A Splash of Red-Wine Vinegar
- A Liberal Helping of Dessert Wine
- A Drizzle of Olive Oil
- 2 tbsp Runny Honey
- 1 tbsp Fish Sauce
- 1 tbsp Date Syrup
- Peel the gourd/squash/pumpkin, chop it up into bitesize bits, and boil in a saucepan. Add the pieces to an oven proof dish.
- Toast the pepper, cumin, and coriander before grinding it up in a mortar and pestle - this smells delicious! Sprinkle this heavenly mixture over the gourd along with a pinch of salt and the asafoetida.
- Remove the mint leaves from their stalks, give them a wash, chop them up, and add to the dish.
- Add a splash of red-wine vinegar. Drizzle the runny honey backwards and forwards over the gourd a few times. Do the same with the date syrup, the oil, and the fish sauce. Pour a good bit of dessert wine over the whole lot, and a bit into a glass if you fancy a drink.
- Finally, add the handful of pine nuts to the whole concoction and toss it all around.
- Bake in the oven for 30-40 minutes, and serve immediately.
- Apicius says to squeeze the water from the gourd - I only succeeded in scalding myself. If you work out a good way to do this, let me know.
If this is how they cooked in Alexandria then it's little wonder that the Romans wanted to eat the Alexandrine way. If you recall, in a previous post I said that a common criticism of ancient cuisine was that it is overseasoned. If this dish and the previous dishes I have cooked are anything to go by, then I would say that they are perfectly seasoned. No one flavour dominates here - the dish has a lovely minty undertone, the wine, honey, and date syrup add a delicious sweetness, the fish sauce and asafoetida work the savoury taste-buds, the crunch of the pine nuts compliments the softness of the squash, and the tingle of the vinegar reminds you that this is indeed an exotic meal. I can see why this recipe came to have a home in Roman cookbooks.