Lessons in Crusader cuisine

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The “window” of the Apollonia Fortress’ dungeon affords a view of the kind of Mediterranean scene that is fast disappearing: gravel cliffs sloping sharply down to turquoise and pale green inlets, grouper fish darting around a reef, clearly visible in the transparent water, and one man sunbathing on the rocks, completely naked. The tourists standing at the spot where the magnificent tower once loomed gaze enchanted at the view – either at the sunbather’s exposed limbs, or, more likely, at the remnants of the Crusader port. This is a collection of boulders protruding from the water, what’s left of the towers that once stood by the entry of the ancient port before they grew weary and collapsed in the mid-20th century, several hundred years after they were built.

Crusader nobles awakened to this vista every morning, peering out at the European ships that anchored across from the port and the boats that made their way back and forth to fill the city’s storerooms with precious goods. The living quarters of the Crusader fortress, where the families of the knights who ruled the area resided, were located on the western side of the fortress, which faced the sea. This section eventually collapsed after ceaseless erosion by the waves of the gravel ridge.

Apollonia’s natural harbor never developed into a port as large as Acre, where dozens of ships would anchor in the 13th century, to be loaded with locally- produced sugar bound for Europe. But the ruins of Apollonia are enough to make one see that the constant movement of people, raw materials and cooking techniques was already occurring hundreds of years before the word “globalization” became part of the modern vocabulary.

Sugar cane, lemons, oranges, eggplant, bananas, rice and other agricultural products originally cultivated in the Far East were adopted by Western civilization via the Middle East. The legends that grew up around the West’s first encounters with these unfamiliar foods and the way they spread throughout Europe were largely connected to the Crusades and the knights who flooded the Middle East with blood on their way to the Holy Land. They hungrily gorged themselves on sugary sweets and almonds, it’s said, and brought these treats back with them to their native countries.

But the historic truth, as usual, is a bit more complex, since most of the knights who settled in the Crusader kingdom never returned to Europe. Today it is widely believed that the reconquest of Spain and Sicily from the Muslim Empire, rather than the Crusades, introduced the foods and flavors of classic Arabic cuisine into the lands of the Mediterranean and then to Western Europe.

Whatever the case, the West’s encounter in the Middle Ages with Arabic cuisine, which in many respects was more advanced than Western cooking of the time, was a source of great excitement among the Crusaders. This week, we returned to the cuisine of the Land of Israel in the 12th and 13th centuries – via a Crusader cooking workshop at Apollonia National Park.

Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are. In the Middle Ages, so we learned in the workshop, food defined a person’s identity and status in the world. This is true to a great extent today as well, but it was even truer when people believed that the nobleman’s physical build required him to eat the dainty flesh of fish, fragile, high-flying birds, and roast game. A peasant whose body was not designed to digest such foods and nevertheless sampled them, was liable to take sick, according to popular belief at the time, and so he was supposed to make do with simple, crude vegetables that grew close to the ground. Once in a while, the poor would season their bean and root vegetable stew with a paltry bit of fat from an animal’s less desirable parts.

Meanwhile, the upper middle class ate hardly any vegetables. And as for carbohydrates, white bread made from wheat was food for lords only. In Europe, the peasants ate black bread made from rye or oats, and delivered any wheat, a much rarer commodity, to whoever was above them in the social hierarchy. Thus, the Crusaders were quite surprised to find that in the Holy Land, everyone ate white bread and pita made of wheat.

In Europe, cooking employed mainly animal fat, usually lard, and food was so greasy that bumps were carved in bowls to keep it from slipping out of people’s hands. In the Middle East, the main sources of fat were olive oil and sesame oil.

Another surprise was the abundance of available spices and the broad use of herbs. In medieval Europe, food was seasoned primarily with black pepper and a little salt, which was also used to preserve, smoke and dry foods. In Arab cuisine, by comparison, seasoning was considered a real art. Extensive use was made of spices such as ginger, saffron, cinnamon and cloves, which the Arab traders brought from the spice lands of the East, and of seasonings produced from indigenous herbs.

The Crusaders appear to have internalized the principles of seasoning so well that if you tried to follow Crusader recipes exactly as written, you’d end up with dishes quite unappetizing to the modern palate. Seasoning in Crusader times was not just meant to improve the taste of the food, but had a host of other purposes as well. For one thing, it was a status symbol that reflected a person’s ability to purchase expensive spices from faraway markets. And the various colors that spices gave to food had mystical meanings – for example, the golden hue produced by yellow saffron was an allusion to the possibility of eternal life. The spices also had medicinal purposes.

But most often, the heavy seasoning was intended to cover up the awful taste and quality of the raw ingredients. At a time when there was no refrigeration, the meat was frequently in a bad state. Such dubious meat, buried under layers of spices to hide its flavor, gave the central bazaar that served the Crusaders in Jerusalem its name – the Rue de Malquisinat (“The Street of Bad Cooking”).

Na’ama Frustig and chef David Gol, the leaders of the workshop, chose dishes composed of ingredients that existed during the Crusader period here and adapted them to the modern palate – i.e., they reduced the cacophony of spices and flavors of the original recipes. The lamb packed into the browned meat pies is not soaked overnight in sour milk, as was customary back in the Crusader era, but chopped and fried with egg yolk (in the Middle Ages, eggs were rarely eaten on their own as a food, but were cooked with other ingredients), rosemary, parsley, oregano, thyme and a variety of other local herbs. Jacques de Vitry, the governor of Acre, wrote admiringly of the lemon trees, whose tangy fruits were ideal for making sauces for fish and fowl. So chicken thighs were brushed with a mixture of lemon, olive oil and sumac. While the lentil stew simmered over an open fire, workshop participants were taken on a tour of the fortress’ kitchens.

Here is an adaptation of a recipe that appears in different versions in cookbooks from the late Middle Ages. It is based on lemon, spices and wine (the Crusaders who settled in the Holy Land revived, at least for a while, the wine industry that had faded during the age of Muslim occupation) and is a good example of that era’s tendency to blend sweet, sour and salty tastes.

Lemon sauce for chicken and pheasant

Ingredients:

3 lemons

2 1/2 cups white wine

4 tbsp. sugar

1 tsp. cinnamon

1/2 tsp. salt

Peel the lemons and set aside the peel. Squeeze the lemons, keep the juice and the pulp and discard the white pith. Combine lemon peel, pulp and juice with the wine and cook over a low flame for four minutes. Add the sugar, cinnamon and salt and simmer for one more minute.

The main celebrity of Apollonia was King Richard the Lionheart. Since little Apollonia did not appear on the map of holy pilgrimage sites, not too many VIPs of the time stayed there, but the English king did spend at least one night. He had run into a unit of Saladin’s army near the city, and in the famous Battle of Arsuf, managed, despite the Crusader army’s inferior numbers, to achieve a great victory, which paved the way for the conquest of the Holy Land. This battle exacted a heavy price among the Crusaders, including the life of Richard’s friend, Sir Jacques, who as buried at the Church of the Holy Lady in Apollonia in the presence of the king himself. The church and the knight’s grave have yet to be found (take note, all you prospective writers of best-selling historic adventure tales).

The history of the Apollonia fortress, unlike that of the city itself, is very brief. It was built by the Crusader rulers of the city, but it wasn’t long before, in the face of the Mamluk threat, it passed into the hands of the Knights Hospitaller, who were thought to have a better chance of defending the city. As it happened, this strategy was not very successful. Nor was the digging of a wide, 17-meter deep moat that could only be crossed by a raised wooden bridge, or biological weapons in the form of animal carcasses that were hurled over the wall to spread disease among the enemy. Just 24 years after it was built, the Mamluks conquered the fortress after a siege that was anything but lengthy.

But before that happened, 200 Knights Hospitaller and their bearers used to dine at the large wooden table in the dining hall twice a day – most likely in shifts, given the tight space (during the siege, 2,000 people somehow squeezed into the fortress).

The Christian monastic communities, which set down in great detail the rules of eating – including what goes on the menu, seating arrangements and frequency of meals – had an especially important influence on lifestyles in the Middle Ages. Every knight had his own personal knife, there were no forks as yet, and spoons were a rare item. The soup and stew bowls found in excavations were designed to enable diners to drink from them directly.

In the five cooking and baking ovens found in the kitchen next to the dining hall, stews simmered and slabs of meat were roasted. The city’s knights went on hunting trips in pursuit of the fallow deer, wild boar, rabbits and bears that still populated those unsettled areas at the time. One of the city’s rulers died in a freak hunting accident when his hat became stuck on a tree branch, causing him to be strangled.

Tagliot – Archaeology 4 All offers cooking workshops in Philistine, Crusader and Ottoman cuisine. For more information, call 03-6423432 or visit http://www.tagliot.com