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Review of the book I read Tuesday, July 19th.

So apparently, although I didn't know this before reading the book, the Getty museum is set up as a replica of a Roman-era dwelling, complete with garden layout swiped from Pompeii. As a result, they've put out this book about the ancient associations and references of the herbs growing in their (extremely accurate) gardens.

This is a really good sourcebook for information about herbs in Greece and Rome. You get the name of each herb in Greek and Latin, the current taxonomy, the current English name, a lovely water-color showing any distinguishing features, and a list for each herb of references from classical texts, including medicinal, magical, honorific, and culinary uses. There are sections from stories and poems, discussion of which authorities believed what about which herb, analysis of the difference between Greek and Roman beliefs and usages, and a few recipes.

And there is stuff in here I've never seen anywhere else. Parsley apparently had an association with the underworld in Greece, for instance; it was supposed to descend to the underworld nine times before it sprouted, and may have had some use at the Eleusinian mysteries. Consequently it was not widely eaten. The Romans, on the other hand, though they also thought it was a little unworldly, appear to have eaten it with bread as a standard breakfast. Plautus hated garlic. And mustard. Knowing Plautus, somehow this does not surprise me. Garlic actually is an antiseptic, and its uses as one were known as far back as anyone can tell; Galen also suggests that it will keep off dangerous beasts if eaten (and possibly anyone else, too). There's an attempt to deduce the flavor profile of the now-extinct silphium from the things people compare its flavor to in cookery texts, and I conclude that I would have hated it, as the description they come up with is 'kind of like onions, only very bitter and with an aftertaste rather like mint'. Well, these are the people who put garum on everything (a strong fermented fish sauce-- you can kind of approximate it today with Vietnamese fish sauce, but garum was much stronger, smelled rather impressively, and was used about how people now use ketchup).

There's discussion about the immemorial confusion between oregano and marjoram, which apparently dates to before Hesiod and is not helped at all by the fact that the two crossbreed. There's mention of how the Greeks knew about ten species of thyme and had them in a hierarchy. It's interesting to see which names have come down: basil does come from basileus, which is ancient Greek for king, and it's yet another of the plants sometimes used as crowns for victors in battle. (They had what we would now call ordinary basil and what we would now call holy basil, but not any of the more esoteric ones.) You get things like a mention that asparagus water seethed with basil and garlic was meant to be an aphrodisiac. I doubt it.

In short, do not be put off by the museum-related nature of this book, because it's a very nice collation of material that one could otherwise go through an entire reference library to seek out. And a fine bibliography. And you don't have to read Greek or Latin, though it would help. I only wish it were longer, and maybe referred more to the Babylonians and Sumerians, because there are tiny smatterings of that material and it interests me, though I understand that that was not their focus.


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