Today, April 27th …
The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam is a collection of about a thousand poems written about a thousand years ago by a Persian astronomer. Most of us don’t read medieval Arabic, so have to appreciate it via translations, and the best known English translation is that by the wealthy, learned, and eccentric English writer Edward FitzGerald. He was referring to this work in the letter he wrote on this day in 1859 to his friend Edward Byles Cowell: “I hardly know why I print any of these things which nobody buys, and I scarce now see the few I gave them to”.
Many of the phrases from his translation of the Rubáiyát have entered our everyday language, and one of the best known is this quatrain (from the 5th edition)
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread - and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness -
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
FitzGerald’s work has been criticised as being more of a free interpretation than a straight translation, although he himself referred to it as a ‘transmogrification’. He was said to be indifferent about food himself, but nevertheless he has managed one of the most poetic and beautiful evocations of a simple meal in a simple setting in the history of literature.
Transmogrification is something that cooks do very well, and those delightful ladies Mrs Leyel and Miss Hartley in their very delightful book The Gentle Art of Cookery (1925) seem to have provided us with a good example in their chapter on Dishes from the Arabian Nights. They do not source the recipes from that other famous Eastern tale, but tell us that:
‘The people of the Arabian Nights are gourmets; the stories are full of expatiations of the luscious things they had to eat. Food is treated as a fit subject for poetic ecstasy…. The following recipes are for some of the real “Arabian Nights” dishes, as delectable today as hundreds of years ago.’
They proceed to give a number of recipes which may or may not be a long way from authentic, but nevertheless sound delicious. Firstly, a dish that would be excellent for a picnic, if you felt you needed a little more than just wine and bread:
Cold Chicken Stuffed with Pistachio Nuts
Make a stuffing of two ounces of minced cold veal freed from fat and gristle and skin, the same quantity of suet or butter, half an ounce of minced apple, half an ounce of powdered almonds, a little coriander seed, two ounces of pistachio nuts chopped finely, a little sugar and a pinch of salt, a little lemon peel, and half a drachm of mace or allspice.
Pound all these together, adding the pistachio nuts last, and mix it with the beaten yolk and white of one egg.
Stuff the chicken with this and boil it whole with vegetables in the French way.
Serve it cold with a thick poulette sauce, to which some of the liquor in which the fowl was boiled has been added, poured over it.
Decorate it with chopped pistachio nuts, and serve it with a dish of cold well-seasoned rice.
And I cannot resist also giving you this recipe, in spite of its unpronounceable name, which is quite different from the standard hard-boiled picnic eggs.
Oeufs à la Constantinopolitaine.
Mix in equal proportions olive oil and Turkish coffee. Put into this mixture as many eggs as are required, in their shells, and cook them very slowly for twelve hours at least. After a long time the mixture penetrates the shells, makes the whites of the eggs amber colour, and the yolks the colour of saffron, and gives to them a flavour of chestnuts. Serve.
Monday’s Story …
Murder in the Kitchen.
This Day, Last Year.
Anne Frank, in the ‘Secret Annexe’ in Amsterdam where she and her family hid during WW II, discussed coffee substitutes.
Quotation for the Day …
There are only three things which make life worth living: to be writing a tolerably good book, to be in a dinner party of six, and to be travelling south with someone whom your conscience permits you to love. Cyril Connolly