5,000-Year-Old Beer Comes Alive

How would you like to make beer and get college credit for it? Students at Stanford got to do just that. Their final project for Professor Li Liu’s course Archaeology of Food: Production, Consumption and Ritual involved practical experiments with ancient brewing techniques and materials. The oldest “recipe” they tried is 5,000 years old:

“Liu, together with doctoral candidate Jiajing Wang and a group of other experts, discovered the 5,000-year-old beer recipe by studying the residue on the inner walls of pottery vessels found in an excavated site in northeast China. The research, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provided the earliest evidence of beer production in China so far.”

The materials for the ancient Chinese beer contained millet, barley, Job’s tears (Chinese pearl barley), and traces of yam and lily root parts. The students tried other combinations as well. Watch a short video explaining the experiments:

Stanford students recreate 5,000-year-old Chinese beer recipe by Stanford

Professor Liu’s research also shows it’s possible that barley (a very popular beer grain even today) may have been introduced to China from western Asia hundreds of years before previously thought and specifically for brewing instead of a food crop.

Fascinating! It shows that as long as we have records—or material remnants, not just written word—there have been people interested in the minutiae of food and food production. I for one am grateful to be able to enjoy the fruits of such a long history of delicious experiments.

This post has been edited.

Geeks eat, too! Second Breakfast is an occasional feature in which we talk about food with geeky connections and maybe make some of our own. Yum!

Making A Proper 1420

Here’s a look at how we made yesterday’s A Proper 1420.

The menu

  • Boiled chicken dinner
  • Poppy seed-cakes

erikchef1There’s few ways of cooking more traditional than boiling. You can put vegetables and meat all in one big pot and boil until cooked through. Everything comes out piping hot and full of flavor. It’s simple and satisfying.

Dinner12

Our dinner this month is based on an old staple of New England cookery, the boiled dinner of corned beef or ham and root vegetables. I’ve substituted chicken for the meat and used what seemed like suitably Hobbitish vegetables: onions, potatoes, carrots, and cabbage.

We can be certain that Hobbits have chickens, since there’s no end of eggs in Bilbo’s kitchen. (H1) Pippin also complains about Gandalf guarding the palantir “like a hen on an egg.” (3.11) Potatoes, carrots, and onions are all on Sam’s wish list for a good stew (4.4) and the Gaffer scolds his son for dreaming of elves and dragons instead of cabbages and potatoes. (1.1) These ingredients all seem pretty solidly attested.

“Seed-cake” can mean any of a variety of cakes flavored with seeds, but I picked an old poppy seed-cake recipe that sounded like something Bilbo would enjoy. (H1) Poppies have long been cultivated in western Europe and elsewhere for their seeds and oil; they seem like they would be at home in the Shire.

Continue reading

Dining in Middle Earth: A Proper 1420

“Altogether 1420 in the Shire was a marvellous year. […] In the Southfarthing the vines were laden, and the yield of ‘leaf’ was astonishing; and everywhere there was so much corn that at Harvest every barn was stuffed. The Northfarthing barley was so fine that the beer of 1420 malt was long remembered and became a byword. Indeed a generation later one might hear an old gaffer at an inn, after a good pint of well-earned ale, put down his mug with a sigh: ‘Ah! That was a proper fourteen-twenty, that was!’”

LotR Dinner12

We come back, at last, to the Shire, to end our year of dining in Middle Earth with a humble Hobbit dinner such as Frodo and his friends might have enjoyed after returning home from their adventures. A boiled chicken dinner makes a warm, homey meal for cold winter nights, and of course there’s beer to go with it. For dessert we have seed-cakes, an old favorite of Bilbo’s.

LotR Dinner12 Main

The table setting is sunny and cheerful, decorated with the Hobbits’ favorite colors. An unbleached linen table runner with green and yellow stripes sits over a dark green tablecloth. Green also comes on the napkins and plant pot with an ivy motif. The dinner is served on one large, hefty platter. A cloth-lined bread basket holds the small dessert seed-cakes. Fancy water glasses add another pop of greenish hues to the table.

LotR Dinner12 Dessert

Check out what’s it about in the introduction, or read the how-to!

Images by Eppu Jensen

Geeks eat, too! Second Breakfast is an occasional feature in which we talk about food with geeky connections and maybe make some of our own. Yum!

Ancient Nubian Antibiotic Beer

161128shabtiNo, that’s not not the name of my new band. It’s the answer to a mystery in the bones of ancient Nubians.

You see, strains of bacteria that live in the soil of Nubia—the middle region of the Nile, south of Egypt—naturally produce tetracycline, an antibiotic that the bacteria use to kill off competing bacteria. During the fourth and fifth centuries CE, the people of Nubia stored their grain underground and some of it got contaminated. The result was that the things they then made with that grain, like bread and beer, contained tetracycline. Eating and drinking these products gave the Nubians a dose of antibiotics, which probably helped them resist diseases and infections.

The traces of these antibiotics turned up in the bones of Nubian mummies. We don’t know to what extent the ancient Nubians were aware of the effect their beer was having on them. No one in the ancient world had the medical knowledge to understand antibiotics, but even without understanding causes, people can be very observant of effects. They may well have known that their beer helped keep them healthy, even if they didn’t know why.

Beer. It’s good for you.

Image: Ancient Egyptian shabti statuette of a woman making beer, photograph by yov dothan via Wikimedia (Currently Israel Museum, Jerusalem; c. 2000 BCE; painted wood)

Geeks eat, too! Second Breakfast is an occasional feature in which we talk about food with geeky connections and maybe make some of our own. Yum!

Making The Return of the King

Here’s a look at how we made yesterday’s The Return of the King.

Dinner11

The menu

  • Saffron seafood soup
  • Roasted pork with olives and dates
  • Sauteed spinach
  • Almond pastries

erikchef1Since we really only see Gondor in a time of war and Tolkien gives us very little detail about what daily life was like after the defeat of Sauron, it takes some imagination to come up with a proper meal for such an occasion. In creating this month’s menu, I had a specific idea in mind: a feast that would represent all the people of Gondor. Aragorn’s coronation meant a new beginning for a kingdom that had been in a long decline. It touched all of Gondor’s people and it made sense that they would all contribute something to the table.

From the fishing folk of Ethir Anduin, we get a seafood soup. This recipe uses a variety of different seafoods combined with carrots and onions. It is, at heart, food for a hardworking family making a living from the sea and small coastal gardens, but the addition of cream and saffron makes it richer, sweeter, and more luxuriant. (5.1)

From the small farmers and herders of the hill country, we have a haunch of roast pork. To reflect the southern climes of Gondor, the pork is stuffed with herbs, olives and dates. This, too, is simple food, but presented in royal style.

From the fields and gardens of Pelennor, we get sauteed spinach, flavored with garlic and ginger. This recipe is inspired by a medieval dish from the middle east which seems appropriate for the Mediterranean-ish setting of Gondor.

Finally, from the sophisticated city-dwellers of Minas Tirith itself, we end with an artful set of almond pastries representing the white tree and seven stars of Gondor.

Continue reading

Dining in Middle Earth: The Return of the King

“Frodo gave way; and Gandalf, as if he were their esquire, knelt and girt the sword-belts about them, and then rising he circlets of silver upon their heads. And when they were arrayed they went to the great feast; and they sat at the King’s table with Gandalf, and King Eomer of Rohan […]”

LotR Dinner11

This month, we try to imagine a celebratory feast in Minas Tirith for the coronation of Aragorn. The people of Gondor had lived through war and privation, but they would surely have laid on the best they could for their new king and the return of peace. Our feast includes saffron seafood soup, roasted pork with olives and dates, sauteed spinach, and almond pastries for dessert.

LotR Dinner11 Main

Our table setting is based on a contrast of primarily white dishware and the dark tabletop. Most of the color comes from the food. The shapes of the dishware are simple, with no patterns or surface decorations. Silver cutlery, silvery candlesticks, and a white, shimmery table runner introduce a touch of luxury. A pewter cup holds mint sprigs for additional color and flavoring.

LotR Dinner11 Dessert

LotR Dinner11 Drink

Check out what’s it about in the introduction, or read the how-to!

Images by Eppu Jensen

Geeks eat, too! Second Breakfast is an occasional feature in which we talk about food with geeky connections and maybe make some of our own. Yum!

Making Flotsam and Jetsam

Here’s a look at how we made yesterday’s Flotsam and Jetsam.

The menu

  • Roasted ham
  • Sliced apples
  • Toast
  • Honey
  • Wine

erikchef1Merry describes the available food pretty clearly and we have stayed close to it. (3.9) The only substitution we have made is ham for salted pork. The two meats are similar, but salt pork is fattier and closer to (what Americans call) bacon. Ham is meatier and more satisfying for a meal. We added fresh sliced apples to go with the ham, reasoning that if Minas Tirith has apples in storage, Isengard’s storerooms probably had the same. (5.1) Our toast was made with bakery bread a few days old, like the Isengard bread that was “three or four days old.” (3.9)

Dinner10 w Props2

Recipes

Roasted ham with apple slices

Our ham was a small portion from a local farm and was not pre-cooked. Roasting times will depend on the size of your ham, so use a thermometer to make sure that the meat reaches a temperature of 160 F / 70 C.

Ingredients

  • Small, uncooked ham
  • 2 firm apples

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 325 F / 160 C.
  2. Wash and trim the ham.
  3. Lay the ham in a roasting pan with a meat thermometer stuck into the thickest portion.
  4. Roast until the temperature reaches 160 F / 70 C. Small hams may take only an hour; larger hams may require up to three hours.
  5. Core and slice the apples thin. Serve as garnish to thick slices of ham.

Dinner10 Ham Apple

 

Setting

eppucamera1 Unlike Peter Jackson’s movie, Tolkien’s version of the Isengard sequence actually includes a meal shared between the two Hobbits and Aragorn et al. It takes place indoors in a guard-house hewn out of stone. Other than the presence of “a hearth and chimney,” “a long table,” and “dishes, bowls, cups, knives and food of various sorts,” we hear few details. (3.9)

Dinner10 Toast

Finding a location for our photoshoot was a bit of a problem. You may have noticed that after the first four dinners, we’ve moved away from our initial spot; the desk we used was too narrow and too close to the wall for a good variety of setups. Since then I’ve tried several different areas of the house and even outdoors, but haven’t landed on a single place that has everything I want. Anyway. 🙂

We don’t have access to a stone structure that sounds suitably like Saruman’s guardroom. We do, however, have a room with wooden walls and a built-in bench that could stand in for a table: our sauna. We decided it was non-typical enough of an indoor space for our purposes. In the end, I decided to add two old table leaves on top of the built-in bench because I quite liked their worn surface for this purpose.

The setting in the ruins of Isengard sounds quite bare, but not ascetic. I chose therefore not to have a tablecloth, but added a simple unbleached linen napkin. In addition, I selected simple ceramic and wood dishes like the oval plate and the turned wooden tumbler. There’s a plain wooden knife for spreading butter and honey on toast, and an iron eating stick for spearing the ham and apple. On the side, one of our sushi sauce bowls masquerades as a honey dish.

LotR Dinner10

Finally, purely for mood purposes, there is a stack of extra plates in one corner and two candlesticks in the other. I used candle stubs, for Saruman doesn’t strike me as the kind of leader who makes sure their underlings have sufficient supplies handy at all times.

If I were to do this dinner setup again, I don’t think I’d have large changes to make. (Unless I could find a fancy stone room like Tolkien’s text describes.) Perhaps I’d consider adding a butter dish, but that’s about it.

Check out the introduction for more!

Images by Eppu and Erik Jensen

Geeks eat, too! Second Breakfast is an occasional feature in which we talk about food with geeky connections and maybe make some of our own. Yum!

Dining in Middle Earth: Flotsam and Jetsam

“’I will make you some toast. The bread is three or four days old, I am afraid.’

“Aragorn and his companions sat themselves down at one end of a long table, and the hobbits disappeared through one of the inner doors. […]

“’And you need not turn up your nose at the provender, Master Gimli,’ said Merry. ‘This is not orc-stuff, but man-food, as Treebeard calls it. Will you have wine or beer? There’s a barrel inside there – very passable. And this is first-rate salted pork. Or I can cut you some rashers of bacon and broil them, if you like. I am sorry there is no green stuff: the deliveries have been rather interrupted in the last few days! I cannot offer you anything to follow but butter and honey for your bread. Are you content?’”

 

LotR Dinner10

The Hobbits and their friends make a decent meal out of the remains of Saruman’s stocks after the destruction of Isengard. This month, we dine along with them on roasted ham with sliced apples, bread with honey, and a cup of wine.

LotR Dinner10 Plate

A simple oval plate and a turned wooden tumbler are set on a worn wood surface (old table leaves). There’s a plain wooden knife for spreading butter and honey on toast, and an iron eating stick for spearing the ham and apple. On the side, one of our sushi sauce bowls masquerades as a honey dish. A stack of extra plates in one corner and two candlesticks with candle stubs in the other help with the mood.

LotR Dinner10 w Props

Check out what’s it about in the introduction, or read the how-to!

Images by Eppu Jensen
Geeks eat, too! Second Breakfast is an occasional feature in which we talk about food with geeky connections and maybe make some of our own. Yum!

Making The Courtesy of the Golden Hall

Here’s a look at how we made yesterdays The Courtesy of the Golden Hall.

The menu

  • Rye porridge
  • Braised beef
  • Roasted vegetables
  • Saffron and cream pancake
  • Apple compote

erikchef1Tolkien gives us only a few hints about the food of Rohan, but they are enough for us to flesh out the picture.

Dinner9 Main2

There are several references to meal, in the sense of coarsely ground flour. Éomer mocks Wormtongue by questioning whether anyone would trust him with a sack of meal (3.6) and Théoden warns the herald of Minas Tirith to have supplies ready for the Rohirrim when they ride to Gondor’s aid, for to travel light and fast they can carry only meal and water enough to last until they reach the battlefield. (5.3) Coarse flour makes poor bread and, significantly, bread is never mentioned in Rohan. Every other people in Middle Earth, from Hobbits to Orcs, has some kind of bread, but not the Rohirrim, which suggests they are making something else with their grain: porridge. Porridge is a staple of many northern European cultures like those that inspired the Rohirrim. The deep, earthy flavors of rye make for a very satisfying porridge to start our dinner.

The herds of Rohan are prominently mentioned, although what exactly they are herds of is never specified. (2.9, 3.2) Since cattle were highly prized across ancient northern Europe, beef seems like the right meat to serve at the royal table. Braising is an excellent way to cook large joints of meat and could be done in a cauldron over a low fire in a mead hall. Root vegetables are also a staple of northern European cuisines and make an good accompaniment to braised beef.

The saffron and cream pancake recipe comes from a Viking source and shows the extent of the trading networks the Vikings were engaged in, connecting them with the distant shores of the Mediterranean where saffron was harvested. It seems an appropriate way to honor the friendship between Rohan and Gondor to suggest that the Rohirrim had access to a few southern luxuries as well. The apple compote we serve with it is based on Anglo-Saxon recipes.

Continue reading

Dining in Middle Earth: The Courtesy of the Golden Hall

“At the King’s board sat Éomer and the four guests, and there also waiting upon the king was the lady Éowyn. They ate and drank swiftly.”

LotR Dinner9 Main

This month we visit the Golden Hall of Meduseld in Rohan. Our food reflects the northern roots of Tolkien’s Rohirrim, drawing on Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon traditions.

LotR Dinner9 Starter

We start with a hearty rye porridge, followed by braised beef and roasted vegetables. For dessert, a rich saffron and cream pancake served with apple compote.

LotR Dinner9 Dessert

The table setting is built with multiple colors, layers, and lush textiles. The colors refer to the expansive grasslands of Rohan, and gold-colored or metallic-sheen details add opulence. The dishware turns showier as the meal progresses, moving from a plain white bowl to a plate with brown and green glazing, and ends with a pale teal handblown glass plate on a gold-rimmed white charger.

Dinner9 Runner and Ribbons2

Check out what’s it about in the introduction, or read the how-to!

Images by Eppu Jensen

Geeks eat, too! Second Breakfast is an occasional feature in which we talk about food with geeky connections and maybe make some of our own. Yum!