“What are you doing,” my wife asked me.
“Making myself a coffee,” I responded, stirring the briki vigorously and with a debonair flourish.
“That’s the fifth one you’ve made today,” she observed.”
“This one is different,” I riposted. “I’ve made it with ground pistachio and cardamom infused sugar.”
It was the beginning of week three of the lockdown and I had exhausted all combinations and permutations of the brewing of Greek coffee. Venturing out of the house for my allotted single shopping trip, I determined, though I seldom imbibe anything else except the Greek version of the beverage, to support my local barrista, by ordering a latte. As the waitress carefully handed me the coffee, I was slipped a small, coloured parchment, covered in ornate script, entitled “Cupping Notes”.
While reading it, I was astounded to discover that the beverage I was consuming was a generous, almost whimsical, full flavoured, ethically cultivated, minimal carbon-footprinted, Guatemalan single origin bean, with overtones of chocolate and afterthoughts of vanilla.
All I could taste on the other hand, was bitterness and burn.
“Cupping notes?” I asked the waitress, eyebrows raised.
“Yeah I know right?” she responded. “At first I thought it had something to do with bra sizes.”
My next port of call was the hot bread shop, or as I like to call it, the purveyor of cold tasteless parody of bread that exudes no smell and tastes like grated cardboard. Standing in line at the demarcated, appropriately socially distant interval, I observed a dishevelled man in what appeared to be a state of intoxication, approach the counter and slur:
“Have youse got any f…n breadsticks?”
“No,” we are all out of breadsticks,” the young lady at the cash register remarked nonchalantly.
“Well you can shove them old breadsticks up ya….” the man shouted and lurched off.
Reflecting upon breadsticks of yore and how the inebriated gentleman envisaged their use, I recalled the ὀλισβοκόλλιξ, reputedly an object of sensory pleasure prepared using bread, allegedly made in the Greco-Roman era around 2,000 years ago, which may or may not actually be a metaphorical joke based on the shape of a breadstick, because none of the said articles have survived. A compound word, the olisbokollix, who was a candidate for inclusion as a character in “Asterix and the Olympic Games,” is comprised of the ancient Greek term kollix referring to bread, and olisbos referring to the article of gratification. The olisbokollix is found as a hapax legomenon, that is, only ever mentioned once, in the ancient Greek lexicon of Hesychius written in the fifth century. We are able to envisage what the said comestible may have looked like, because of the existence of an amphora painting by the so-called Flying Angel Painter, depicting a woman holding a “phallos-bird” and uncovering a jar or basket of phalli, which, scholars contend, are actually cunningly fashioned of bread.
Lugging my wholemeal loaf back to the car, I considered that say what you will about our glorious ancient ancestors, they truly were good at multi-tasking, albeit in ways that, considering that even the thought of edible underwear makes me gag, are eminently emetic. For as Bias of Priene may have said,”One must never mix their pleasures,” even as his students debated his level of bias.
Working from home whilst home-schooling and entertaining three young children is a task that would confound even the most ambidextrous of olisbokollic ancient Greek philosophers, which is why every so often, my stomach begins to rumble and I venture down to the kitchen and ask my wife: “What do you think we should cook today?”
“You just asked me that an hour ago,” she whispers, covering her microphone, as she is convening an inordinately important Zoom meeting.
“How about I try to make that Byzantine soufflé I am always going on about?” I mumble in plagal undertones, hoping that her auditory nerves will not be attuned to the frequency of my voice and thus she will make no attempt to hinder me in my chosen task.
The Byzantine food writer Anthemius, in his “Letter on Diet,” provides the following recipe for soufflé: “In Greek the name ἀφράτον is used to describe that which is called spueum in latin. It is made from chicken and white of egg. You must take a lot of egg-white so that your aphraton becomes foamy. It should be arranged in a mound on a shallow casserole with a previously prepared sauce, based on fish sauce, underneath. Then the casserole is set over the coals and the aphraton is cooked in the steam of the sauce. The casserole is then placed in the middle of a serving tray, and a little wine or honey poured over it. It is eaten with a spoon or small ladle. We often add fine fish or scallops to this dish, because they are very good and also common at home.”
It is at the point where, having boiled the chicken, I have enthusiastically whipped the egg whites to the consistency of a meringue, which is surprising given that they have curdled, as the pungent aroma of the heated Chinese fish sauce wafts from a pan below, that I feel an iron grip arresting my stirring hand. Holding her nose, a pained expression engraved on her face, my wife gasps: “I’m not going to eat that. I don’t feel so well. You really need to open a window now.”
Whenever I am confined for a period of time, for reasons that are not immediately apparent, I invariably begin salivating over thoughts of roast pork. Having prepared roast pork in various ways, usually in the Italian or Serbian styles, my thoughts turned the other day to Byzantine pork.
On this delectable subject, the inimitable Anthemius, opines:
“Sucking pigs are very good and suitable stewed. Or, served in sauce after roasting in an oven (so long as the heat is not high enough to burn them: they should be as if baked); the sauce is a simple honey vinegar, made on the spot, two parts honey to one-part vinegar. Or, cooked in an earthenware pot; in that case, meat is dipped in this sauce as it is eaten…”
The honey vinegar creates a most piquant sweet and sour taste that is quite breathtaking, though my earthernware pots, souvenirs purchased by an aged relative on a trip to Greece in the eighties, prove unequal to the task of withstanding the heat of the oven and emerge, cleft in twain, the sauce dripping ponderously within the stove’s interior.
Defeated at pork, I try my hand at game. After mastering λαγό στιφάδο, I turn once more to Anthemius for guidance:
“Hares, if they are quite young, can be taken with a sweet sauce including pepper, a little cloves and ginger, seasoned with putchuk and spikenard or tejpat leaf. Hare is an excellent food, good in cases of dysentery, and its bile can be taken, mixed with pepper, for earache.”
Having removed every single spice bottle from the cupboard, and discovering several displaying livid shades of colours hitherto unknown to the spectrum, I ask of my wife:
“Where is the putchuk?”
“What did you just call me?”
“Tejpat leaf. Is that near the bay leaves?”
“Tell me in Greek.”
“Ok, no need to swear. Seriously….”
Exhausted after my intricate endeavours, I resolve to make a light salad for dinner. As we consume it, I regale my spouse with tales of Simeon Seth, the eleventh century Byzantine doctor, scholar, and grand Chamberlain under Emperor Michael VII Doukas, a noted foodie. In revising scholar Michael Psellos’s “On the properties of foods”, Seth wrote that lettuce was soporific and an aphrodisiac. Munching on mixed greens, I inform her that Seth held celery to be “useful”, because it made women more uninhibited in their sexual behaviour, even though it was to be avoided by nursing mothers. Turning to the subject of rocket, I quoted Seth’s opinion that it: “Is very heating. It produces semen and awakens the appetite for sex. It causes headache.” My impromptu lecture being met with studied silence, I proceed to wash the dishes.
A few hours later, as I prepare for my evening ablutions, I find this handwritten message on my bedside table:
“A recipe by Hierophilus the Sophist:
Four baths in the course of the month; soap with sodium carbonate diluted in wine. Make a compound skin lotion by mixing 3 lb. weight aloes, I lb. myrrh, 2 egg yolks; combine these and apply to the skin. This is the quantity per person. Apply it before you enter the bath and have three bucketfuls of water poured over you, then sweat, then go into the open air and sponge the ointment off thoroughly. After washing the ointment off, rub down with cooling wine and egg yolks mixed with hot rose oil, then make love.”
And that doctor, explains why I display the flu-like symptoms that are definitely not coronavirus, but which have caused me to self- isolate, for the past week.