Well. That was fun. I’ve heard Coriolanus described as ‘relentlessly political’, and it was certainly that. It does remind me a bit of Julius Caesar, with the easily-manipulated and vocal citizenry and the two conspiring tribunes muttering to each other in the background of all the Roman scenes.
Sadly, we had quite a few people get sick at the last minute, which meant that we wound up with nine people reading a play that has forty-seven speaking parts. Given that one of those speaking parts is talking for most of the play, and a lot of the others overlap this meant that most of us ended up with at least five parts to keep track of. Special mentions go to A, who wound up playing Second Everything (Citizen, Senator, Lord, Roman, Messenger, Watchman, Officer…) and H, who spent several scenes goading himself into rebellion.
It wasn’t quite Coriolanus – The Comedy!, but it certainly had its moments. Especially since none of us could refrain from seeing inappropriate romantic subtext (text, really) where Shakespeare probably didn’t intend it, and played it accordingly. Also, Coriolanus’s mother is positively terrifying. I suspect she was brought up in Sparta.
It’s been hot all weekend, but the thunderstorm hit about halfway through Act I of the play, upstaging everyone. Actually, every single change in the weather – we had thunder, hail, crazy winds, and heavy rain, for all that Melbourne is now sunny and beautiful and pretending it has never heard of storms *or* really hot days – distracted the entire cast thoroughly. None of us are fond of the heat, and I certainly wasn’t the only one plastering myself against the screen door whenever there was a scene that didn’t require me.
As for the food, I actually had a lot of fun with this one. I did keep my Raw and Roman theme, mostly, and certainly only had one cooked item on the dessert table, though I had a handful on the savoury set up. I got out both my Roman cookbooks for savoury inspiration, and wound up making a lot of herb, cheese, nut and vegetable purées, and things to go with them. All very healthy, if you don’t count the truly terrifying amounts of cheese…
One of the trickier things about Roman cookery is ingredients. A lot of ingredients used in modern Italian cookery come from the New World (hmm, if the Americas are the New World, what does that make Australia? The Post-Modern world?), and were not available to Roman kitchens, unless you want to start theorising about lost Roman colonies or Pompey in exile winding up in Australia by accident. And to make life even more fun, quite a few of the ingredients they do use have changed a bit over time. Or aren’t readily available in Australia.
The Romans were very fond, for example, of something called ‘cucurbit’, which translates to squash or pumpkin – but all the squashes and pumpkins used in modern cuisine are New World vegetables, which makes them a little tricky. A bit of (lazy internet) research suggested that the vegetable in question was in fact a gourd or kalabash, which is possibly my new favourite word. Sadly, my local greengrocers don’t do kalabashes (kalabashi?), so I decided to go with my Peter and Pompey nostalgia trip and use an Australian blue pumpkin instead of an American one. The result was quite nice, though I think I’d prefer this purée warm.
Another unusual purée was a lettuce purée, which is far nicer than it sounds when I tell you that it bears a strong resemblance to yesterday’s lettuce salad left in the fridge overnight. You basically cook a few bunches of lettuce and then purée them with olive oil, red wine vinegar, mint, lovage and celery seed, though lacking the latter two, I went with fennel seed instead. Also, since I am reliably informed (this is code for ‘I read this somewhere yesterday and now I can’t find where) that Roman lettuces had a stronger flavour than modern lettuces, I replaced half the lettuce with endive, for a more bitter flavour. The result was this deep green and surprisingly refreshing-tasting purée which is oddly addictive for something that smells a lot like a chlorinated swimming pool, at least to my nose.
I couldn’t resist the roasted garlic purée, even though garlic was considered terribly plebian (indeed, in Coriolanus the rebellious citizens of Rome are referred to disparagingly as ‘garlic eaters’) in Rome. I’m plebian, so that’s fine with me, though I would draw the line at following the original recipe which called for 4 bulbs of *raw* garlic!
And of course, I had to do my Ancient Roman standbys, pine-nut and herb purée and olive and celery paté.
And there was feta pickled in white wine vinegar and honey. This weekend would have been a great opportunity to test the theory that if you pickle cheese it will keep just fine in hot weather and you don’t need to store it in the un-Roman fridge, but I fear I wasn’t quite bold enough to make the experiment.
To go with these, we had bread, of course, and crudités (including proper Roman purple carrots), and a bit of salami and smoked salmon, because I felt as though there wasn’t much substance to this meal so far, and I also decided to make some ancient Roman bar snacks.
I made a basic ‘barley cake’ from barley flour, honey and water, that looked a lot like a water cracker but was rather harder and more wholemeal in taste, with a faint sweetness to it. It went amazingly well with the lettuce purée.
I also made a more exciting Roman snack-food – little cheese pastry balls which are fried in olive oil, dredged in warm honey and then rolled in poppy seeds. You can eat them hot or cold – I chose cold, under the circumstances – and they are surprisingly more-ish.
Then I had a terrible premonition that there wouldn’t be enough food (this was before four people cancelled), so I had to make more things…
I have this fatal fascination when it comes to stuffed vine leaves: I don’t like them. I have never liked them. A good half of the time, I fail dismally at them. And yet, I’ve never seen a stuffed vine leaf recipe I haven’t wanted to try… At our last Roman feast, I attempted vine leaves stuffed with smoked mackerel, and they were horrible. This time, I went for a more peasant-style filling of rice and goats’ cheese with a little egg to bind it. These vine leaves are then cooked in beef stock (actually, chicken stock, because that’s what I had in the freezer) and, like the cheese balls, dredged in honey. The Romans seem to have been rather big on the whole cheese and honey thing, and since I refused to indulge them on the garum side of the equation, I figured I should go along with them on the cheese and honey.
Actually, these weren’t bad. I almost liked them. If they hadn’t been stuffed into vine leaves, I probably would have liked them. Sigh.
Then, of course, the book said that the vine leaves should be served with something spicy, so naturally I had to make spicy lentils with sumac and coriander (leaf and seed) and pepper, which turned out to be absolutely amazing – lovely and sour and earthy and a little spicy – and possibly my favourite thing I cooked all weekend. Seriously, I’ll be making these again just as an everyday thing, because they were also really easy.
Yes, I really did overcater. And then there was dessert. Which was, on the whole, quite healthy.
I had planned to have just a couple of kinds of fruit, some fruit and nut balls, and a few other things, but I was utterly seduced by the tiny, perfect corella pears at my greengrocer and the sugarplums, and the black grapes and peaches which were on special… and then I wanted a few kinds of fruit and nut balls, and I had to make sure the nut ones were distinct from the others. So I decided to pair the little fruit and nut balls with the fruits.
I made fig and almond balls, and formed them into miniature pears to go with the pear platter.
My apricot and orange balls I made into rounds and gave a crease down one side, so that they would match the peaches.
My un-Roman cherry and cacao balls were small and dark enough to match the grapes and sugar plums. And, incidentally, they are still absolutely delicious.
I thought the effect was absolutely gorgeous, and will definitely do something similar any time I want to produce a healthy dessert platter in future.
I drained Greek yoghurt for 24 hours to make labneh, and served it with (slightly under-ripe) pomegranates and vincotto (made by my cousin!). This is not, perhaps, an entirely Roman dish, but curd cheese with honey and fruit certainly is, and I felt this was in much the same spirit.
Of course, this was all far too healthy, so I dug out Nigella Lawson’s gorgeous recipe for raspberries in chardonnay jelly, which is the most enticingly red dessert that never saw a lick of food colouring. It also didn’t want to set, and I wound up melting more gelatine and reheating the whole thing at midnight last night, in the hope of getting it to behave (I then discovered at bedtime that one of my feet was covered in half-set clear jelly and I have no idea how this happened! I know that jelly comes from cow’s feet, but I’m fairly certain one needs to do more to the foot in question than wander around the kitchen thinking about jelly…) Fortunately it did.
And then I decided that what we really needed here was cake, so I made a Sicilian-style apple cake with raisins and pine-nuts, and substituted half the flour for chestnut flour (mostly because I ran out of flour and didn’t want to go to the shops again). I think I was the only person who didn’t like this cake, but you win some and you lose some.
And that, as they say, is that. We are positively swimming in leftovers, even after sending care-packages home to one of the cancellees, who has a horrible virus and shouldn’t have to cook, but they are fairly healthy ones – I used less than two cups of sugar and 120g of butter in the whole meal, though I also used over a kilo of cheese and a whole jar of honey, which is not precisely the recommended daily dosage. Though very yummy.
I’m making a pasta bake out of the leftover veggies and one or two of the purées, as I write this and we will be having some very, very good sandwiches for lunch this week, with lots of good, fresh fruit. Or maybe I’ll just take in some bread and dips tomorrow and the rest of the lentils. Mmm, lentils…