TODAY'S QUOTATIONLiterary MenusAlphabet of RecipesHistorical PrescriberIFAQs
Bacchus ExtraDangerous Tastes ExtraDictionary of Languages ExtraFood in the Ancient World ExtraGuide to World Language Dictionaries ExtraNotes in the Margin Extra



Please tell me if you have evidence that corrects or adds to the answers given here


InFrequently Asked Questions (and some answers) on foods, words and languages

Saturday 5 November 2005

What are the saffron buns that Carrington had for lunch at Morwenstow?

This was my daily quotation for 24 October:
Such a lunch at the Bush Inn, Morwenstow, for 1/3: cream, saffron buns and black-a-berrie jam.
I didn't know what the saffron buns were, so I put the question to a forum at Wordwizard, where, as luck would have it, they have just been discussing cream teas. My thanks to Phil White, who replied immediately to say that they are traditionally baked in Cornwall, they include saffron (of course) and they are eaten on Good Friday with clotted cream. He pointed me to a recipe at Ruth Pretty, who contributed this recipe, wisely adds: 'Should you stumble upon some clotted cream, donít wait for Good Friday to try the combination.' Evidently the same decision was reached at Morwenstow in 1919. Phil also found a historic photograph of saffron buns at eaters at Real Cornwall. As Phil says, judging by the face of the little girl in the foreground, this may not have been the finest batch ever made.

Tuesday 1 November 2005

What is champ, and why is it so called?
This question arose when planning the dinner which will follow the Christmas market at Lezay, a dinner which is to have an Irish theme

The Oxford English Dictionary almost overlooks the food sense of champ, though one of its quotations (from a dialect dictionary of 1880) gives a clue. Mc Cionnaith's English-Irish dictionary (1935) and the Encarta World Dictionary (1999) are more helpful. Champ is a homely Irish dish of mashed potato blended with milk and with spring onions, leeks, chives or nettle-tops; the mash is served hot, formed into a mound with a central depression in which butter is allowed to melt. You eat it with a spoon, dipping each spoonful into the melted butter. Champ has now been taken up by fashionable chefs in Ireland and the US. For some reason they often call it champ potato. I hope they don't pronounce it à la française.

To champ, in Scottish English (and perhaps Irish English), means to bruise, pound or smash, which is what has to be done to the potato mixture -- traditionally it was done with a beetle, a heavy wooden implement. It is pretty certain that this is how the name of the dish originates, because its Irish equivalent is brúightín, which derives from a verb meaning to bruise or pound. Thus the usual English and Irish names for the dish, as well as the English alternatives pandy and poundies, all derive from verbs with similar senses: they are all calques or loan-translations of one another. According to Alan Davidson in The Oxford Companion to Food (1999) there is another alternative English name, bruisy. This looks like a loanword from Irish. What I don't yet know is which name came first, the Irish or one of the English ones.

Wednesday 26 October 2005

Byron liked to drink sherbet of pomegranate. How did he make it, and how did he pronounce it?

Pomegranate juice should be squeez'd through the rind, which makes it best for use; so he instructs his readers in Don Juan. Add sugar and a little mineral water; mix with crushed ice when serving.

For Byron, sherbét has the stress on the second syllable. Pomegránate is three syllables (not four, as we pronounce it now). The main stress is on the second syllable and a weaker stress on the first. If Byron had written a science fiction epic (which, sadly, he never had time to do) he would have rhymed pomegranate with lone planet. How can this be known? Because, in the literary menu from Don Juan which was this site's daily quotation on 18 October, Byron lists three fruit sherbets thus:

The beverage was various sherbets
Of raisin, orange, and pomegranate juice.

The rhythm only comes right if the words are pronounced in that way: sherbets, as is clear from the full quotation, has to rhyme with in nets.

Thursday 20 October 2005

Ovid (so he says in a poem) saw his mistress kissing another man, when all three were reclining at a dinner, adposito mero. But what does that Latin phrase mean?
I owe this question to David Drake, author of science fiction and fantasy. Here is Dave's website and here, modestly tucked away, his excellent translations from Ovid

It's a phrase that Ovid often uses and that no other Latin poet uses at all. There are several variants. Adposito ... mero (Ovid, Amores 2.5.14 [the case in point], 2.12.20) takes up one more syllable of verse than posito ... mero (Ovid, Heroides 16.220, 19.14, Art of Love 3.350) or posito ... vino. This last variant occurs once only, as follows:

desino mirari, posito quod candida vino
Atracis ambiguos traxit in arma viros

(Ovid, Amores 1.4.7, yes, I'll give a translation in a moment). It looks at first as though merum ('unmixed wine') and vinum ('wine') are being treated as synonyms, but it's not so: in this quoted passage, the ambiguos ... viros ('semi-human males') are centaurs, notoriously unfamiliar with wine in any form and liable to be driven mad at the first whiff of it, which was far from being the case with Ovid and his friends. Putting merum before Ovid and his rival evidently had roughly the same effect as putting wine of any kind before centaurs. Since positus can, among other things, mean 'put down' or 'put aside' one might think that the shorter phrases, posito mero/vino, mean 'when the [unmixed] wine was put aside' leaving the hands free for other activities, a translation that would work quite well for the couplet just quoted. We would get the translation 'I am not surprised that the fair maid of Atrax stirred the centaurs to fighting when the wine was put aside'. But that won't really do, because in another poem by Ovid a woman is observed to posito pervigilare mero (Ovid, Fasti2.740). This doesn't mean 'stay awake all night after putting the unmixed wine aside,' well though that might have worked; it certainly does mean 'stay awake all night with wine set before her', because, moving on to another example, Ovid tells us that the feasts of the gods were just like that:

nec licet et longum est epulas narrare deorum:
in multo nox est pervigilata mero,

(Ovid, Fasti 6.325), 'it would take a long time, even were it permitted, to tell of the feasts of the gods: the night is spent in wakefulness over plentiful unmixed wine'. So the correct translation of the first-quoted passage is 'I am not surprised that the fair maid of Atrax stirred the centaurs to fighting when the wine had been set before them', and finally, to get back to the original question, Ovid saw his mistress kissing his rival 'when the unmixed wine had been set before us'. Which, to judge by the contexts of the various passages already cited, happened -- in the circles in which Ovid moved -- after the meal and after a moderate amount of drinking (perhaps of wine mixed with water), about the time that older and more respectable guests had decided to leave. On this occasion Ovid, Corinna, her lover, and a few other young people, drank on into the night.

Friday 14 October 2005

Are there really two Italian words for cheese? Is there a difference in meaning between them?

There are two words, formaggio and cacio. As often happens in Italian, they tend to belong to northern and southern Italy respectively. For this reason -- and not because of the difference between the types of cheese -- a northern cheese like Parmesan is more likely to be called formaggio (see Boccaccio for an example), while cacio cavallo is a typical southern cheese. Both come ultimately from Latin (caseus cheese; formaticum made in a mould, though this Latin word is not actually recorded). You might think that the two words descend directly from the local Latin of Italy; and it wouldn't be surprising that north Italian should agree with French (fromage) and Occitan (fromatge), and south Italian with Romanian (cas,), because that's exactly what often happens. But the ending of Italian formaggio is hard to explain in terms of local sound changes, and the usual answer is that the word was borrowed in medieval times from Old French or Old Provençal. It would be nice to have proof of this, because it's not easy to see why north Italians would need to borrow a French word for a product they have always been pretty good at making.

Saturday 8 October 2005

Did Pliny the Younger's cook (in Rome in the 90s AD) often serve ice cream at his master's banquets?

Certainly not 'often' (as claimed by Nico Valerio in La tavola degli antichi [1989] p. 300). 'Never' would be more in accord with the evidence. The only evidence, in fact, is the menu for the meal that Pliny's friend Septicius Clarus missed, distracted as he was by the dancing girls from Cadiz who were entertaining at some rival banquet. Pliny, meanwhile, was serving emmer meal (or porridge), spiced wine and snow. Valerio boldly takes this as the recipe for a non-milk ice cream, to which he even more boldly adds milk to make a modern recipe. But the Latin text, which is today's quotation, makes it clear that the three items were separate. The snow was served not in a blend with other ingredients, but still identifiable -- as a garnish, I suppose -- with the result that it was seen to melt on the serving-dish.

Saturday 10 September 2005

Did Greek and Roman physicians prescribe human flesh, blood and viscera as remedies?

Some did. In Natural History Pliny says (see today's quotation) that epileptics (comitiales in Latin) drank the blood of gladiators 'as if from living cups', implying that the gladiators donated blood for this purpose and that this was believed to cure or alleviate the disease. With strongly expressed disapproval he mentions other medicinal uses of human material, and adds that Greek authors had described the taste of human flesh and viscera, presumably in the context of medicinal use. One Greek author roughly contemporary with Pliny had certainly conducted experiments in this field: for more information and references see the entry Cannibalism in my Food in the Ancient World from A to Z, and look forward to Christa Weil's forthcoming work on outlandish foods ...

Thursday 8 September 2005

Did people in early modern Europe think that tomatoes were poisonous?

Not for long; at least, not in southern Europe, where tomatoes were being grown by about AD 1550, their seeds having been brought across the Atlantic from their native Mexico. See today's quotation from Matthioli's commentary on Dioscorides. This is from the 1585 edition, incidentally: Matthioli was already at work in the 1540s and I don't yet know at what date he first made this comment on tomatoes. In northern Europe, however, where the skills of growing tomatoes took longer to learn, the few botanists who grew them were worried by the strong smell of the plant and reluctant to try eating the fruit. I'd like to know of the earliest author from England, France or Germany who says you could eat tomatoes.

Sunday 28 August 2005

Is Cheshire cheese mentioned in Domesday Book?

Many recent books and many websites say it is. It isn't, and I'd like to know how the mistake started. So far as I know, Cheshire cheese is first mentioned in 1586, as cited in the Oxford English Dictionary. It was said at that time to be the best cheese in England, and no doubt it took a long time for that reputation to be gained, but how long seems to be unknown. The twelfth century historian, William of Malmesbury, as a preface to his history of the bishopric of Chester, says that the people of Chester loved their milk and butter (see quotation), but, sadly for the cheese websites, he doesn't mention Chester cheese; nor does any other medieval source that I have yet found.

Sunday 21 August 2005

How do you spell Cornish?

You spell it in at least three ways depending on your orthography. In Common Cornish, Cornish is Kernewek while English (or Sassenach, if you prefer) is Sowsnek. In Unified Cornish (sadly a misnomer) Cornish is Kernowek and English is Sawsnek. In Late Cornish, Cornish is Kernuak and English is Sawsnak. This on the authority of the Cornish Branch of the European Bureau of Lesser Used Languages, whose brand new website you can choose to read in English or in these three different orthographies of Cornish. All this is not to say that you won't find other spellings, like Curnoack, elsewhere. The proponents of Cornish, now benefiting from a smallish government grant and from EU support, are meeting in at Falmouth on 17 September, hoping to agree on a single official spelling system. But will they?
Glance at the websites of Agan Tavas, the Society for the Promotion of the Cornish language, and the Cornish Language Fellowship.

Thursday 18 August 2005, revised 22 August

When were grains of paradise first imported to Europe? For how long did they compete with cardamom?

In the late fifteeenth and early sixteenth century, grains of paradise (Portuguese malagueta, modern botanical name Aframomum Melegueta), a spice resembling cardamom, was bought by Portuguese, French and English merchants on the so-called Grain Coast (now Sierra Leone and Liberia) and brought to Western Europe. Eventually it lost popularity; although still available, it is now little known. Grains of paradise and cardamom are both mentioned in French texts from about AD 1200, and in English sources from about 1300; apparently both were available from that period onwards.
Cardamom (Elettaria Cardamomum) comes from southern India and was already known in Roman Europe; although a rarity, it continued to be mentioned in medical texts in medieval times. Its identity seems secure. Rachel Wexelbaum is currently researching the knowledge, use and popularity of cardamom in early northern Europe.
It is usually assumed (1) that the 'grains of paradise' of medieval texts were the same as those of the sixteenth-century sailors. If so, they must have reached Europe by trans-Saharan trade, but there is, so far as I know, no positive evidence of this. An alternative hypothesis (2) is that 'grains of paradise' was originally an alternative name for the seeds of cardamom, a name used popularly and by cooks but not by apothecaries. When the merchants found a similar spice in West Africa, they naturally gave it this name, just as they gave the name 'pepper' to what we now call Benin pepper (Piper guineense).
Any medieval text that describes cardamom and grains of paradise/malagueta as different spices, or that makes it clear that grains of paradise were imported from Africa, will disprove (2) and help to prove (1). Does such a text exist?

Monday 15 August 2005

Which came first, the colour 'pink' or the flower 'pink'?

The colour got its name from the flower. There was no colour called pink till the 19th century, and the first known source text that mentions the colour (Webster's Dictionary of 1828, cited in the Oxford English dictionary) says specifically that it was named after the flower.
It has been guessed that the flowers called pink (Dianthus) are so named because of their ragged 'pinked' edges. This is wrong: it won't work historically because the verb 'to pink' didn't mean 'to make a ragged cut edge' until the 19th century, while the flower name goes back to the sixteenth century at the latest.
The flower may at first, in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, have been named pink-eye. This is guesswork also, but it has a good chance of being right. If so, the term meant 'little-eyed' (or, as people occasionally say now, piggy-eyed). There is no reference either to pigs or to the colour pink -- and definitely not to an inflammation of the eye, as has recently been claimed. 'Pink-eyed' meaning 'little-eyed' derives from Dutch pink which means 'little'; this is also the origin of American English pinkie 'little finger'.

These IFAQs are copyright, but you may quote them if you add 'copyright Andrew Dalby' and the site URL ''

TODAY'S QUOTATIONLiterary MenusAlphabet of RecipesHistorical PrescriberIFAQs
Bacchus ExtraDangerous Tastes ExtraDictionary of Languages ExtraFood in the Ancient World ExtraGuide to World Language Dictionaries ExtraNotes in the Margin Extra