Welcome! You are the guest at a lovely dinner in Alexandria. The lamps are lit and the dining room is ready.
In Charmian's Alexandria people might eat sitting up for lunch at a streetside stand, but a nice meal involved couches. Visualize wooden couches something like a modern lawn chaise, or a fainting couch with less upholstery. The left end of the couch is raised, or there is a pile of pillows to lean on. Styles and fashion vary greatly in dining equipment, just as furniture does today. In Caesar's house in Rome in Hand of Isis the couches are dark wood with red cushions, all matching. Dion's couches are more eclectic. He has three but none of them match since he bought them at different times from different craftsmen. The pillows are all different shapes and sizes, most made of bright colored cotton printed or stamped in a variety of designs. Cleopatra's couches for the dinner on the ship at Tarsus don't match either, but the pillows coordinate -- some in sea blue, some in gold, and some in purple so that they go with the themes of the banquet.
Two or three people share a couch. If a couple has come together, he reclines on his left side, propped up on his left elbow on the cushions. The lady then reclines in front of him, spooning, also on her left side. Or, alternately, she can sit on the end of the couch. This is often done if you don't know someone well enought to want to spoon them! For example, at the banquet where Charmian meets Agrippa, she's looking around for an unoccupied place to eat, and since she's just met him she's sitting rather than reclining.
Again, custom varies widely from place to place and time to time, just as our modern dining customs do. What was proper at an English dinner party in 1950 is not the same as what's proper at an Australian dinner party today. What's "done" in Miami isn't the same as what's "done" in Washington DC! In Hand of Isis, I've tried to use these customs as another point of characterization, another way to contrast people and cultures.
Wine will not be served with the first course, the Propomata. Only barbarians and Macedonians drink wine with the Propomata! So no cocktails with the appetizers! For our propomata we will be enjoying three dishes, olive relish on fresh Persian bread, Egyptian melon salad, and savory eggs. The Propomata are little appetizer dishes, like tapas or cocktail appetizers today.
1 cup kalamata olives, pitted
2 tbs olive oil
2 tbs balsamic vinegar
¾ tsp coriander seed
½ tsp cumin
½ tsp dried rosemary
1 tsp fresh mint, chopped fine
Chop the olives finely. Mix together and add additional olive oil as needed.
Chopping the olives and mixing the relish.
As you can see, it's coarse chopped and much like a tapenade. This recipe is very Greek, but since Greek cooking carried the same cachet in Charmian's world as French cooking in ours, it's entirely appropriate.
The Melon Salad is, in contrast, very Egyptian. Melons have been raised in the Black Land since Neolithic times, as have onions. Canteloupe is a more modern hybrid, but quite reasonable to use in this recipe. It may seem at first that this would be odd, but we all found it refreshing rather than strange. It made a nice side dish with contrasting flavors to the other dishes.
Egyptian Melon Salad
2 ½ tbs chopped cilantro
½ red onion, thinly sliced
1 tsp sesame seeds
Cut the melon into bite sized pieces. Toss with the other ingredients and serve.
The third dish is very characteristic of the flavors of the Hellenistic world. I have used anchovies for the small salted fish from the Black Sea that Charmian would have used, and I think they worked well. No, the anchovies aren't overpowering in this dish! This is the one that got very mixed reviews when we made it -- some of us didn't like it much, and some of us loved it! (I loved it!)
3 anchovy fillets, oil packed
1 tsp capers, chopped
1 sprig dill
1 ½ tbs olive oil
Hardboil the eggs and allow to cool. Peel and cut in half lengthwise, as for deviled eggs. Scoop out the egg yolk. Mince together the anchovies, capers and dill. Stir the mince into the egg yolks with the olive oil. Refill the egg halves with the mixture.
I'm on the left, mixing the yolks in to the mixture, while Courtney is on the right, peeling the last hardboiled egg.
Lastly, the propomata would not be complete without fresh bread! In Alexandria, most city dwellers didn't have an oven, so pan bread recipes were very popular. This is originally a Persian recipe, but Pliny says in the next century that it's becoming popular in Rome. It makes sense to me that it would have come by way of Alexandria, a city known for its international eating.
In place of stoneground emmer flour I have used rye flour, as that's possible to get in the grocery store! This bread was surprisingly easy. I think this is going to become a regular at our house.
½ tsp yeast
1 ½ cup all purpose flour
1 cup rye flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp honey
1 cup lukewarm water
Olive oil for frying
Combine yeast, flours and salt in a bowl. Make a well in the center. Combine honey and water and slowly stir in to make a dough. Knead on lightly floured surface until smooth and elastic. Transfer to lightly oiled bowl, cover, let rise 1 hour.
Deflate the dough and let rest 10 minutes. Divide into six pieces. Roll each into a six inch circle. Then roll each into a 9 inch circle.
Fry in olive oil 30 seconds per side, turning twice.
Courtney rolling out the dough into nine inch rounds.
Frying the bread in olive oil on the stove. It cooked very quickly, and came out something like enjerra or naan. The bread got two thumbs up from each and every one of us!
Here is our Propomata all prepared, the melon salad front and center next to a Ptolemaic statue of Isis with Horus. The bread and olive relish are behind, with the eggs on the left.
I would like to thank the wonderful friends who helped cook, photograph and eat, Amy, Courtney, Katy, and Lawrence.
All of these recipes are modified from one of my favorite source books on cooking in this period, Cooking in Ancient Civilizations by Cathy Kaufman Definitely a book I heartily recommend!
Next up: The Fish Course!