A trail from the past

Licorice sticks

I think Italians inevitably have a strongly felt relationship with the past. We see traces of it everywhere. Our particularly grand past left  not only works of arts: it is quite common to walk on carriage tracks on a stone paved Roman highway, or that the basis of our modern water system actually follows a Roman aqueduct. These traces don’t have much to do with the hours of history at school, although an illuminated teacher may bring you to see otherwise. When I was a child I loved reading about the past, about archeology and lost civilizations; what I hated were the hours of memorizing dates and  names of kings and generals and battles. I just could not see what a devastating impact those now boring and sterile events had had on the daily lives of those who lived at that time, how they had changed their world, as well as, in the end, shaped mine.

Now I am a little wiser  but not much more learned, unfortunately. At least, I do recognize the vital role of kings and battles, and anyway this is often all we know. Normal people, people like us, just don’t leave a trail that will be visible after more than a few generations.  Do you have an idea of many generations it is, 5000 years? I certainly don’t. I can’t imagine such a remote past, beyond the few facts historians are able to tell us.

And yet. Laura Kelley, the talented author and learned scholar behind The Silk Road Gourmet, is challenging everyone to get in touch quite intimately with possibly one of the first civilizations in history, the one on chapter 1 of book 1 of a history manual: the Mesopotamians. She has selected a number of recipes of Mesopotamian origin, adding new interpretations to the difficult and controversial translations. Of course the recipes are sketchy at best – but anyway, did you ever try to ask an Italian nonna for a recipe? I gave a try to ‘Meat with licorice’, one of the oldest recipes in the challenge and probably also in history,  which I translated into a fancy looking  gastro-pub style pork tendeloin with licorice sauce. It was delicious. If you have never thought of using licorice with savoury dishes, you should give it a try (I’m not talking about licorice candy, the black sweet strings or rolls, I’m talking about licorice root here – I’ve seen recipes using the black industrial stuff when researching this dish, but the idea really freaks me out). There are already many more interpretations of other dishes there if you want to have a look, from stews to pilafs to dessert, even. And even more dishes waiting for a modern eye revision. Head over to Laura’s and see if anything inspires you. There is a lot to discover.


8 Comments to “A trail from the past”

  1. This is very interesting indeed! There is something alluring about recipes from the past… I’m certainly inspired.

  2. Hi Caffettiera:

    Many thanks for such lovely words. I’m glad the Mesopotamian Cookoff could help strengthen your connection with an ancient civilization. Its a shame you are in the throes of moving, I would have loved to have another dish from you. Perhaps another time I will have another cookoff – Ancient Greece or Rome or perhaps Egypt. . .


  3. Very nice and interesting. Licorice is another thing I took for granted until I move to the US: no real licorice here, unless it is imported from Italy and sold in specialty shops and even that is not easy because people don’t have a palate for the strong tasting real stuff (no sugar added). You can imagine my face the first time my (now) husband showed me a string of sugar dyed red and called it licorice. Fortunately, I straightened him out quickly. Now licorice is another item I buy in Italy and bring back: fortunately it does not take a lot of space. Having said all that, I have never cooked with licorice and the idea sounds intriguing. You prepared a beautiful dish.

    • Simona, a tip that may help you if you run out of imported licorice: I’ve heard some people used licorice tea bags from Whole Food for their dishes – it is the same stuff, just roughly grounded. They were complaining though that it was a bit bland. The one I bring from Calabria is actually particularly tasty and sweet. so maybe also that made the dish so interesting.

  4. Very interesting combination. I love history and imagining life in the past. But I agree, a list on names and dates means nothing to me…

  5. Interesting indeed! I miss that link with the past here in Switzerland. In England everything is old and you are reminded of history all the time…



  6. This dish with licorice sounds very interesting; I have stayed away from licorice because I heard or read that it causes the blood pressure to shoot up. Still, this is a wonderful idea and I love to make dishes that have many centuries behind them!

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