Sunday 9 March 2008

Time Travel......

Much of the history of Food is one of change. Sometimes this has been merely the result of fashion - but often it is a function of the way markets work and of the sustainability of the supply. For example, some ingredients which are expensive today were dirt-cheap a hundred years ago. An American turn of the (last) century recipe for ketchup comes to mind, for example, which blithely called for the addition of a couple of lobsters as seasoning! Or Carème nonchalantly specified in one recipe Dover sole two feet in length ...'or thereabouts' (I can't remember when I last even saw a sole this size in the fishmongers, let alone decided the budget would stand the cost). Molinari, in his 'Grande Libro della Cucina Italiana' suggests using a couple of black truffles, just to add a bit of interest to a simple little braised pigeon dish!
Dream on......

Sadly we have already eaten many of these ingredients out of reach and into scarcity: who
knows how long it will be before they follow the fabled Sylphium - über spice of the Ancient Greeks and Romans - into a final oblivion? And as they disappear, so too do all the dishes that depend on them - or at least in their original versions - leaving us with a substitute which is apparently 'nearly as good'. Sure, you can substitute monkfish for lobster, truffle-flavouring for the real thing, flounder for sole......... but it is only ever going to be a thin echo of the glories of the original.

And it isn't only the grand ingredients which are under threat.

The other morning, at the Amantea Man's shop in Via San Francesco (so-called because once, years ago, he had a supply of the nearly unfindable Ovoli mushroom Amantea Caesarea - the mushroom of the King) the Technical Dept. spotted a large basket of bulbs which looked not unlike those of a narcissus. These things were labelled 'Lampicione'. Obviously nothing horticultural, since that isn't what the Amantea man sells, these things had to be something for the kitchen - but what? A search on Google - where would we be without Google? - drew a complete blank. Not a single mention in the Googlesphere....... zilch. I assumed the TD had remembered the name wrongly, and so went off to check. But, no: 'Lampicione' they definitely were. Further research in Molinari unlocked the puzzle. Either the Amantea Man can't spell, or else using his strangled and slurred Pisano Italian, one vowel sounds pretty much like any other, and so presumably might just as well be written that way. They are actually called LampAcione or Lampascione or Lampasciune or even Lampone (which unhelpfully, is also the word for raspberry. Go figure....).
In fact, they are the bulbs of the Grape Hyacinth,
Muscari Comosum.

Lampacione look similar to a small onion and are used in much the same way - more likely than not they pre-date the onion because, so I am told, onions in the wild do not form fat bulbs at all - this only occurs as a result of cultivation. The clincher on this is that in Greek and Latin lampac
ione are called simply Volvi (βολβοί ) and Bulbi - i.e. 'bulbs'. Since it's the first on the scene that gets to use the 'word' - shades here of the Sacher Torte dispute with Demel -. and the first plant to be called 'bulb' was this one, the word 'bulb' actually refers to this kind of foodstuff. All the rest - the tulip bulbs, the daffodil bulbs, the light bulbs and even the bulbous noses, are an echo of this simple ancient vegetable which could be gathered in the woods and kept well, if stored in a basket like that at the Amantea man's shop. For me, the etymological and historical connections in the whole subject are compellingly charming. Ovid, by the way, refers to them as an aphrodisiac...which suggests that what Catullus made of them is probably completely unprintable!

In Apicius, there are recipes for Bulbi which read exactly like Onions à la Grecque. And in fact it is not uncommon to find the Greek word Volvi used now for little pickling onions or in salads such as 'Volvi me Ladoxido', which are little onions in vinaigrette. Real Volvi look like onions, they are crunchy like onions, but they taste completely different - much earthier and more intensely bitter than the relative sweetness of cultivated onions.

While the Amantea Man still indulges in the occasional basket of Lampacione, the connection remains - but I'm afraid I don't hold out great hopes for the future.
So, yesterday - while it's still possible to do so - I bought a kilo of the things, and this evening we'll turn the clock back a few millennia and cook them in agrodolce. A recipe that even Homer might have recognised.....

Tonight's Dinner:

Tartes aux Moules

Spezzatino alla Fiorentina; Lampacione in agrodolce

Roast Pineapple and Vanilla, in a Banana Caramel Sauce


froginbritain said...

I absolutely need to know how your dish 'Lampacione in agrodolce' turned out.... pls give us some NB feedback in your next 'missive'. This note presents me with the chance to let you know how much a pleasure it is to read your blog every day (or so...). It is fascinating to hear about your travels and peregrinations - living proof that when one appreciates great food, one appreciates life itself. May you go on an on on the big wide web for all of us to share in your enjoyment.

Pomiane said...

Many thanks for the encouragement...

Just about to write up my 'practical notes' from Lampacione; I have to say I liked them, but I can imagine that some people might not. They're in the same flavour range as Chicory, Brussels Sprouts, Spinach, Asparagus...quite an assertive, mineral quality, that might be too abrasive for some palates. Châcun à son.....