Thursday, December 29, 2011

When an Apple is not an Apple.

The study of historical books and documents is full of traps for the unwary, and not the least of these is the language itself. I have always wondered about the biblical apple. The apple comes from temperate climates, and is an unlikely choice for the Middle Eastern writers of the Old Testament, who presumably sited the Garden of Eden in their own territory.

Over the years I have read opinions that the fruit of the biblical Tree of Knowledge was the quince, the banana, the date, the grape, the fig, the peach, the pomegranate – and even the staple cereal, wheat. Presumably a translation error of some type or intent is at the root of the conundrum.  Let us not also forget that those who originally translated the ancient documents which are the basis of the Old Testament into European languages had their own religious agendas too. Conversion of the pagans may have been assisted in a minor way if the tempting fruit was familiar – if the word or meaning in the ancient language was obscure, why not make it a simple apple?

Those who think that a real, actual, physical, specific fruit is intended rather than a symbolic one will no doubt continue to debate the topic for a few more millennia yet, but that is not (you will be relieved to know) our topic for today.

It is not just the translation of ancient ‘dead’ languages which causes the difficulty. An apple may seem like a simple and obvious thing today, but not so long ago an apple was more of a concept than an item. The Oxford English Dictionary explains that the word ‘apple’ came into English via the Old Icelandic epli, which refers to any fruit from a tree. Put into the evolving linguistic mix the Latin pomum for fruit (which became pomme, meaning apple, in French), and the English language ended up with some strange blends indeed. Frequently the word ‘apple’ appeared in conjunction with a qualifying word or in a phrase such as ‘apples call'd pompions’ or ‘the fruit or apples of palm-trees.’ Similarly, in the Latin/French form of the word ‘apple’, the prefix pome- could indicate one of many fruits, such as the pomegranate. Finally, we have arrived at our topic for the day.

The pomegranate is the fruit of the tree Punica granatum. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it thus: a large many-celled berry with a leathery yellow, orange, or red rind, a persistent calyx, and numerous seeds that are each surrounded by an acid-sweet pink or red pulp’. The OED goes on to indicate its figurative use as a symbol of resurrection, fertility, plenty, unity, and chastity, and its association in classical mythology with the goddess Persephone who returned to earth every spring.

The name ‘pomegranate’ is ultimately derived from the concept of a pomum granatum, that is, a pome (or apple) with many seeds or kernels. It was also called the Punic apple, or apple punicus (hence the first part of its botanical name) from the story (as explained by Pliny) that it was brought to Rome from the ancient North African city of Carthage, who citizens were known as the Punici. The intense colour of the fruit indicates one of its popular uses in ancient times – as a source of deep pink/light red dye (called puniceous.) As with many plants in ancient times, the pomegranate was used for medicinal purposes too: one author recommended the cut-up fruit be steeped in rain water for several days, and the resulting infusion be used for those with ‘weak habits.’

The pomegranate had brief mention in a previous post (here) as the source of inspiration for the word grenade (which has a culinary sense too), and the beverage called Grenadine. It may also lie behind the name of the city of Grenada in Spain, which has a pomegranate for its coat of arms. In the seventeenth century French cookery book by La Varenne, pomegranate seeds are suggested as an alternative for raspberries as the garnish for turkey (the recipe is here) – which you would think was a very innovative idea if you saw it on a modern menu. Today I give you a recipe from a French cookery book of the mid-nineteenth century which clearly shows an Arab influence, if you ignore the added bacon..

Ragout of Mutton, With Pomegranate Juice
Put into a stewpan some slices of a tender leg of mutton, upon some chopped fat bacon, small onions, salt, and pepper; add bouillon; when half stewed, add a puree of nuts grilled in the oven, and any spice you like. When the ragout is finished, squeeze in the juice of two to three pomegranates, and serve.
French Domestic Cookery, Louis Eustache Ude, 1846

Quotation for the Day.
Because normally with Western cuisine, you'll serve vegetables separate from the meat, so kids will eat the meat and never touch the vegetables.
Martin Yan


Catherine @ The Spring said...

Pomegranates are such a lovely thing to look at and use in cooking this time of year! I've been throwing them over all my salads, but putting them with a richer dish like this is tempting...

Such a pleasure to *meet* another Brisbane blogger! I'll be combing your back pages for more out-of-the-ordinary recipes.

- Catherine @ The Spring

The Old Foodie said...

Hi CAtherine - pleased to make the acquaintance of another Brisbane blogger! sorry to be late in replying - I had hand surgery just before Christmas and still have one hand in a spint, so am slow at everything.