I was fascinated to find out that our English word ‘fenugreek’ is a legacy of the Romans. The word comes from the Latin fænum Græcum meaning ‘Greek hay’- because it was used extensively as fodder for animals.
Fenugreek is a leguminous plant with the botanical name is Trigonella fœnum græcum. It has been used by humans for at least six thousand years, and all parts of the plant have something to offer - it is both a herb and a spice. It is most familiar to us in the West as an ingredient in curry powders. You may be more familiar with it in Indian grocery shops as methi.
As we would expect, various medicinal properties are associated with fenugreek. If you need scientific proof for many of the claims, you will have to wait a while, for there is as yet no high-level evidence for its benefits. It is claimed to be good for arthritis and diabetes and poor libido, so if the proof comes in, and if drug companies manage to locate and extract its active molecules, they will be sure to have a steady and increasing market for their product.
Unlike many other ‘Indian’ spices, fenugreek never became indispensible in Western cuisine. It was difficult to find any examples of its use, other than in curry powder, except for a single recipe in one of the cookery books of the famous Victorian chef, Alexis Soyer. The book is Pantropheon: or, a history of food and its preparation(1853), and the recipe is for Noix de Veau à la Tarentaise. I give you the recipe with a ‘please explain’ plea, as I am quite puzzled by it. The dish appears to be Soyer’s interpretation of an ancient Roman dish, but the appellation ‘à la Tarentaise’ indicates it is in the style suggestive of food from the Vallée de la Tarentaise, a valley of the Isère River in the Savoy region of the French Alps.
Noix de Veau à a Tarentaise.
Take a noix de veau [nut of veal], cook it in a saucepan with pepper, alisander*, and fenugreek seed; add, later, some wild marjoram, pine nuts, and dates; then moisten with a mixture of honey, vinegar, garum**, mustard, and oil. When the cookery of these various substances shall have made an homogeneous whole, serve.
*alisander: ‘herb Alexander’, also known as Horse-parsley, Smyrnium, Black pot-herb; somewhat like celery; native to the Mediterranean, but widely naturalized in British coastal regions. Smyrnium olusatrum, Fam. Umbellliferae
*garum: a universal condiment made from fermented fish used by the Romans.
Quotation for the Day
The winter hours were long to him who had no spice-warmed cup.
Eliza Cook, Sunshine (1846)