Monday, November 25, 2013

Dubious liquids of questionable origin, or, adventures in Sumerian ale!

Apparently I'm all about the historical cookery lately. This surprises me as much as anyone as I am neither a historian nor a cook, but the results are right before me every way I turn. The other week I made a slipcoat cheese; this week, a failed attempt to make another cheese with fig sap instead of rennet instead left me with a very passable bowl of creamy cottage cheese. Yesterday I had a go at a variation on a traditional syllabub recipe: all things are relative, mind, as these days "a traditional syllabub recipe" could in fact mean a recipe I found yesterday on the internet, which, coincidentally, is exactly how it happened. And then, of course, there has been the odd Sumerian ale or two. Sumerian ale? Sure, and if you don't mention it, I won't.

Anyway, this whole historical cookery lark is great. It's a good way to make people sound incredibly impressed by relatively simple cooking procedures. (People may not actually be impressed, but people are generally wonderfully polite and nice and will take care to sound impressed, which is as much as anyone can hope for these days). For instance: let's say you've been cooking a stew for guests, but it's become burnt: well, simply throw in some oats and perhaps a little dust for added verisimilitude, announce "I was making a rudimentary Irish gruel such as the peasantry used to dine upon", and watch everyone compliment you through forced grins. Also, when you make something like a Sumerian ale (and, by the way, did I say that I'm making some?) you're really entering into an area of the culinary arts so fraught with uncertainty and dubious evidence and fragmentary records and lost traditions that not only do you not know what it's all about, but no-one else does either. Indeed in some cases, a la Donald Rumsfeld, you find yourself dealing with a subject in which you do not know what you do not know. This is wonderfully to the purpose, since in most cases you can simply make shit up and your guests will have to be polite to you about it. What's that, Ruprecht? The ale taste like pig vomit? Success!

Here's what we do know about Sumerian ale: it was made from barley, the first proper beer. The Sumerian method was to make cakes called bappir, which may have also contained grains other than barley; the cakes possibly were mixed with water, possibly with honey; possibly with a combination of both. They might have had other ingredients added as well: dates, spices like coriander and cardamom, pepper. The cakes could be stored for a long time, but sooner or later they'd be added to water - could be hot water, might be boiling - to make a kind of soup. You'll notice there's three "possiblys", one "might have", two "could bes", and one "might be" in this paragraph already: but besides that, we don't have many certainties about Sumerian brewing at all.

For my purposes, I tried  two recipes. The first was a variation on a recipe on the Maltose Falcons website, using barley that had already been malted (malted essentially means sprouted and baked to get the sugars that will convert into beer). For the second, I sprouted some barley grain myself and made the bappir cakes when they were sprouted. I omitted the customary invocations to the Goddess Ninkasi, since to work properly that may have involved customary sacrifices of sheep or something, and if we had a sheep or something, before it got time to sacrifice it we'd have given it a name, have knitted it clothes for Christmas, it would be sleeping on the bed with us at night, and the Baron would be looking at me very strangely if I tried any such customary customs. Besides which we don't have a sheep or something.

So I cooked the first on the stove on Thursday with the vague intention of making a one to two litre batch of ale. The soup soon took on a gooey browny black colour; its aroma, rich with coriander and honey and dates, was amazing. The bappir cakes seemed to soak up a lot of the water, and so in the end I added more water and drained off the cakes through cheesecloth into the pot. The result was a sticky, viscous, treacle like, rather warm liquid in the pot, which I supplemented with even more water because I didn't have the patience to wait for it to cool down and I'm a brewer I can do whatever I want and to hell with it. When it was cool enough, I scooped the top of another still-fermenting brew, stirred it in to the Sumerian ale with a my yeast stick (yes, I have a yeast stick, I bet you're jealous), and let the yeast and the brew get to know one another; by the morning it was bubbling away. On Saturday I did more or less the same with the second bunch of bappir that I'd made, though I stirred in some extra honey when I was making the soup, to give an added sweetness; and when the mixture was cool enough, I took a scoop of yeast from the top of the previous batch of ale.

So yeah, I made some Sumerian ale. No big deal, and it's not like I'm going to mention it anyway. Don't mention it.

Basically, when the ale is done, the plan is to share it with others while it's still fresh. In this way, a happy meeting of comrades drinking dubious liquids of questionable origin and making insincere compliments through forced grins will ensue, which will save me the trouble of having to do it all myself (giving yourself an insincere compliment is always awkward, and best avoided). And as we all know, dubious liquids of questionable origin and insincere compliments through forced grins are what civilisation is all about.

Yeah, okay, I probably will be drinking it alone.

Fig one: wild scenes anticipated at my house when the Sumerian ale is ready.

UPDATE!- Sumerians had fun while drinking. Sometimes too much fun.

1 comment:

Baron von Harlot said...

The chosen sheep would be something like the condition of these goats.

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