As a general rule, you can gain a decent understanding of any part of the world by eating its regional specialties. This holds especially true in a country like China, with its great size and deep history. Travel to the southeastern province of Fujian, for instance, and you’ve got to try guang bing or “shiny biscuit,” the Chinese equivalent of the bagel. “With flour, dietary alkali and salt, the cake, no bigger than a palm, can be simply cooked, and sells for about 1 yuan ($0.14) on the streets,” says China Daily. “Locals love it, not only because of the crispy and salty taste, but also because of a legendary story.”
The distinctive dishes of border or coastal areas always seem to have particularly intriguing histories, and so it is with the one behind Fujian’s guang bing. “During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), General Qi Jiguang brought an army to fight Japanese invaders in Fujian. Because of continuous rain, they could not cook for the soldiers, so Qi created a kind of cake with a small hole in the middle. Soldiers could string the cakes together and carry them while fighting the enemy.”
The result looks — and presumably tastes — like a necklace of bagels, the preparation of which could be accomplished in underground ovens that didn’t give away the soldiers’ position as clearly as open campfires would.
You can learn more about this bagel-powered victory of five centuries ago from the Great Big Story video at the top of the post, and more about the continued preparation and sale of guang bing by a few dedicated bakers in the Atlas Obscura video just above. Though plenty of Fujianese take them straight, “some like to add pork, or dried shrimp and Chinese chives in it; some fry it with chitterlings, duck’s gizzard or green been; and some break it into pieces and boil it with soup.” Written records of the bagel as Westerners know it date back to early seventeenth-century Poland, with apparent predecessors seen in that country as early as the late fourteenth century. It may naturally occur to an American traveler in China to unite these two long but distant culinary traditions, in which case he’d do well to pack his own with lox and cream cheese.
It costs roughly $20,000, weighs nearly 100 pounds, and looks like a high-end microscope. Handmade in Switzerland, the MANUMENT Leva Machine makes espresso. How well does it make espresso? How do the shots taste?: According to coffee expert James Hoffmann–he’s the author of The World Atlas of Coffee—the shots have a texture that is “very enjoyable.” The texture is “silky, buttery and soft.” That verdict is sandwiched in the middle of a 20-minute review of the machine, which you can watch above.
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Read a story set in the Middle Ages, Beowulf or anything more recently written, and you’re likely to run across a reference to mead, which seems often to have been imbibed heartily in halls dedicated to that very activity. The same goes for medieval-themed plays, movies, and even video games. Take Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, described by Max Miller, host of Youtube channel Tasting History, as “a history-based game of, like, my favorite time period — Saxons and Vikings, you know, fightin’ it out — so I’m assuming that there’s going to be mead in there somewhere.” He uploaded the video, below, in the fall of 2020, just before that game’s release, but according to the Assassin’s Creed Wiki, he was right: there is, indeed, mead in there.
Perhaps throwing back a digital horn of mead in a video game has its satisfactions, but surely it would only make us curious to taste the real thing. Hence Miller’s episode project of “making medieval mead like a viking,” which requires only three basic ingredients: water, honey, and ale dregs or dry ale yeast. (The set of required tools is a bit more complex, involving several different vessels and, ideally, a “bubbler” to let out the carbonation.)
In it he consults a thirteenth- or fourteenth-century manuscript (above) called the Tractatus de Magnetate et Operationibus eius, which includes not just a letter on the workings of magnets — and “a university handbook on the theory of numbers, proportions, and harmony” and “the seven signs of bad breeding; the seven signs of elegance” — but also “one of the oldest known surviving English mead recipes.”
“When you think of Saxons and Vikings, yes, you think of mead,” Miller says, “but mead actually got its start way before that,” evidenced in the alcohol-and-honey residue found on Chinese pottery dating to 7000 BC and a written mention in the Indian Rigveda. “I have tasted the sweet drink of life, knowing that it inspires good thoughts and joyous expansiveness to the extreme, that all the gods and all mortals seek it together,” says that sacred text. Even if Miller’s mead doesn’t make you feel like a god, it does have the virtue of requiring only a few days’ fermentation, as opposed to the traditional period of months. Toward the video’s end, he mentions having set one bottle aside to ripen further, and possibly to feature in a later episode. That was nearly three years ago; today, Tasting History fans can only speculate as to what alcoholic Valhalla that brew has so far ascended.
You can find the text of the medieval recipe below:
//ffor to make mede. Tak .i. galoun of fyne hony and to
þat .4. galouns of water and hete þat water til it be as
lengh þanne dissolue þe hony in þe water. thanne set hem
ouer þe fier & let hem boyle and ever scomme it as longe as
any filthe rysith þer on. and þanne tak it doun of þe fier
and let it kole in oþer vesselle til it be as kold as melk
whan it komith from þe koow. than tak drestis
of þe fynest ale or elles berme and kast in to þe water
& þe hony. and stere al wel to gedre but ferst loke er
þu put þy berme in. that þe water with þe hony be put
in a fayr stonde & þanne put in þy berme or elles þi
drestis for þat is best & stere wel to gedre/ and ley straw
or elles clothis a bowte þe vessel & a boue gif þe wedir
be kolde and so let it stande .3. dayes & .3. nygthis gif
þe wedir be kold And gif it be hoot wedir .i. day and
.1. nyght is a nogh at þe fulle But ever after .i. hour or
.2. at þe moste a say þer of and gif þu wilt have it swete
tak it þe sonere from þe drestis & gif þu wilt have it scharpe
let it stand þe lenger þer with. Thanne draw it from
þe drestis as cler as þu may in to an oþer vessel clene & let
it stonde .1. nyght or .2. & þanne draw it in to an
oþer clene vessel & serve it forth // And gif þu wilt
make mede eglyn. tak sauge .ysope. rosmaryne. Egre-
moyne./ saxefrage. betayne./ centorye. lunarie/ hert-
is tonge./ Tyme./ marubium album. herbe jon./ of eche of
an handful gif þu make .12. galouns and gif þu mak lesse
tak þe less of herbis. and to .4. galouns of þi mater .i. galoun of
It’s got coca in it, known for its psychoactive alkaloid, cocaine.
Corsican chemist Angelo Mariani came up with the restorative beverage, formally known as Vin Tonique Mariani à la Coca de Peroum, in 1863, inspired by physician and anthropologist Paolo Mantegazza who served as his own guinea pig after observing native use of coca leaves while on a trip to South America:
I sneered at the poor mortals condemned to live in this valley of tears while I, carried on the wings of two leaves of coca, went flying through the spaces of 77,438 words, each more splendid than the one before…An hour later, I was sufficiently calm to write these words in a steady hand: God is unjust because he made man incapable of sustaining the effect of coca all life long. I would rather have a life span of ten years with coca than one of 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 000 centuries without coca.
Mariani identified an untapped opportunity and added ground coca leaves to Bordeaux, at a ratio of 6 milligrams of coca to one ounce of wine.
Unsurprisingly, the resulting concoction not only took the edge off, it was accorded a number of healthful benefits in an age where general cure-alls were highly prized.
The recommended dosage for adults was two or three glasses a day, before or after meals. For kids, the amount could be divided in two.
Reigning masters of graphic design were enlisted to promote the miracle elixir.
Jules Chéret leaned into its energy boosting effects by depicting a comely young woman clad in skimpy, sheer yellow replenishing her glass mid-leap, while Alphonse Mucha went dark, claiming that “the mummies themselves stand up and walk after drinking Vin Mariani.”
While we’re on the subject of corpse revivers, 21st-century mixologists will please note that a cocktail of Vin Mariani, vermouth and bitters, served with a twist, was a particularly popular preparation, especially across the Atlantic, where Vin Mariani was exported in a more potent version containing 7.2 milligrams of coca.
Angelo Mariani’s innovations were not limited to the chemistry of alcoholic compounds.
He was also a marketing genius, who curried celebrity favor by sending a complimentary case of Vin Mariani to dozens of famous names, along with a humble request for an endorsement and photo, should the contents prove pleasing.
These accolades were collected and repurposed as advertisements that assured adoring fans and followers of the product’s quality.
Sarah Bernhardt conferred superstar status on the drink, and not so subtly shored up her own, grandly pronouncing the blend the “King of Tonics, Tonic of Kings:”
I have been delighted to find Vin Mariani in all the large cities of the United States, and it has, as always, largely helped to give me that strength so necessary in the performance of the arduous duties which I have imposed upon myself. I never fail to praise its virtues to all my friends and I heartily congratulate upon the success which you so well deserve.
Pope Leo XIII not only carried “a personal hip flask” of the stuff to “fortify himself in those moments when prayer was insufficient,” he invented and awarded a Vatican gold medal to Vin Mariani “in recognition of benefits received.”
Mariani eventually packaged the glowing endorsements he’d been squirreling away as Portraits from Album Mariani. It’s a compendium of famous artists, writers, actors, and musicians of the day, some remembered, mostly not…
At last! At last! It has been discovered – they hold it, that celebrated microbe so long sought after – the microbe of microbes that kills all other microbes. It is the great, the wonderful, the incomparable microbe of health! It is, it is Vin Mariani!
(We suspect Robida penned his entry after swallowing more than a few glasses… or he was of a mischievous nature and would’ve fit right in with the Surrealists, the Futurists, Fluxus, or any other movement that jabbed at the bourgeoisie with hyperbole and humor.
Mariani used the album to publish the Philadelphia Medical Times’ defense of celebrity endorsements:
The array of notable names is a strong one. Too strong in standing, as well as in numbers, to allow of the charge of interested motives.
Mariani also included an excerpt from the New York Medical Journal, denouncing the unscrupulous manufacturers of “rival preparations of coca” who pirated Vin Mariani’s glowing reviews, “craftily making those records appear to apply to their own preparations.”
Elsewhere in the album, medical authorities tout Vin Mariani’s success in combatting such maladies as headaches, heart strain, brain exhaustion, spasms, la grippe, laryngeal afflictions, influenza, inordinate irritability and worry.
They fail to mention that it could get you much higher than vins ordinaires, defined, for purposes of this post, as “wines lacking in coca.”
The psychoactive properties of coca definitely received a boost from the alcohol, a collision that gave rise to a third chemical compound, cocaethylene, a long-lasting intoxicant that produces intense euphoria, along with a heightened risk of cardiotoxicity and sudden death.
…some dead celebrities could likely tell us a thing or two about it.
“We lunched up-stairs at Botin’s,” writes Ernest Hemingway near the end of The Sun Also Rises (1926). “It is one of the best restaurants in the world. We had roast suckling pig and drank rioja alta.” You can do the very same thing today, a century after the period of that novel — and indeed, you also could’ve done it two centuries before the period of that novel, for Botin’s was established in 1725, and now stands as the oldest restaurant in continuous operation. Founded as Casa Botín by a Frenchman named Jean Botin, it passed in 1753 into the hands of one of his nephews, who re-christened it Sobrino de Botín. Whatever the place has been called over this whole time, its oven has never once gone cold.
“It is our jewel, our crown jewel,” Botín’s deputy manager Javier Sanchéz Álvarez says of that oven in the Great Big Story video above. “It needs to keep hot at night and be ready to roast in the morning.” What it has to roast is, of course, the restaurant’s signature cochinillo, or suckling pig, about which you can learn more from the Food Insider video just above.
“It’s exactly the same recipe and tradition,” says Sanchéz Álvarez. “Absolutely everything is done in the exact same way as in the old days,” down to the application of the spices, butter, wine, and salt to the raw pork before it enters the historic oven belly-up. “It’s very important that the skin of the cochinillo is very crunchy,” he adds. “If the skin isn’t crunchy, it’s not good.”
Needless to say, Botín is poorly placed to win the favor of the world’s vegetarians. But it does robust business nevertheless, having pulled through the COVID-19 pandemic (with, at the very least, its oven still lit), and more recently received a visit from superstar food vlogger Mark Wiens. Its enduring success surely owes to its more-than-proven ability to deliver on a simple promise: “We will serve you a hearty suckling pick with some good potatoes and a serving of good Spanish ham,” as Sanchéz Álvarez puts it. Working at the restaurant for more than 40 of its 298 years has made it “like home to me,” he says, employing the common Spanish expression of feeling como un pez en el agua — though, given the nature of Botín’s menu, a more terrestrial metaphor is surely in order.
The powerful amatoxin they harbor is behind 90 percent of mushroom-related fatalities worldwide. It causes severe liver damage, leading to bleeding disorders, brain swelling, and multi-organ failure in those who survive.
In Melbourne, a pot pie that tested positive for death caps resulted in the deaths of three adults, and sent a fourth to the hospital in critical condition.
As the animators feast on mushrooms’ limitless visual appeal in the above episode of The Atlantic’sLife Up Closeseries, author Craig Childs delivers some sobering news:
We did it to ourselves. Humans are the ones who’ve enabled death caps to spread so far beyond their native habitats in Scandinavia and parts of northern Europe, where the poisonous fungi feed on the root tips of deciduous trees, springing up around their hosts in tidy fairy rings.
When other countries import these trees to beautify their city streets, the death caps, whose fragile spores are incapable of traveling long distances when left to their own devices, tag along.
They have sprouted in the Pacific Northwest near imported sweet chestnuts, beeches, hornbeams, lindens, red oaks, and English oaks, and other host species.
Rather, they are settling into urban neighborhoods, frequently in the grass strips bordering sidewalks. When Childs accompanied Krueger on his rounds, the first of two dozen death caps discovered that day were found in front of a house festooned with Halloween decorations.
Now that they have established themselves, the death caps cannot be rousted. No longer mere tourists, they’ve been seen making the jump to native oaks in California and Western Canada.
Childs also notes that death caps are no longer a North American problem:
They have spread worldwide where foreign trees have been introduced into landscaping and forestry practices: North and South America, New Zealand, Australia, South and East Africa, and Madagascar. In Canberra, Australia, in 2012, an experienced Chinese-born chef and his assistant prepared a New Year’s Eve dinner that included, unbeknownst to them, locally gathered death caps. Both died within two days, waiting for liver transplants; a guest at the dinner also fell ill, but survived after a successful transplant.
A lesser advertised joy of working in food service is achieving command of the slang:
Deuces and four tops…
Fire, flash, kill…
As you may have noticed, we here at Open Culture have an insatiable hunger for vintage lingo and it doesn’t get much more vintage than The Boke of Kervynge (The Book of Carving).
This 1508 manual was published for the benefit of young noblemen who’d been placed in affluent households, to learn the ropes of high society by serving the sovereigns.
Few families could afford to serve meat, let alone whole animals, so understandably, the presentation and carving of these precious entrees was not a thing to be undertaken lightly.
The influential London-based publisher Wynkyn de Worde compiled step-by-step instructions for getting different types of meat, game and fish from kitchen to plate, as well as what to serve on seasonal menus and special occasions like Easter and the Feast of St. John the Baptist.
The book opens with the list of “goodly termes” above, essential vocab for any young man eager to prove his skills around the carcass of a deer, goose, or lobster.
There’s nothing here for vegetarians, obviously. And some 21st-century carnivores may find themselves blanching a bit at the thought of tearing into a heron or porpoise.
If, however, you’re a medieval lad tasked with “disfiguring” a peacock, closely observed by an entire dining table of la crème de la crème, The Boke of Kervyngeis a lifesaver.
In any event, let’s spice up our vocabulary while rescuing some aged culinary terms from obscurity.
Don’t be surprised if they work their way into an episode of The Bear next season, though you should also feel free to use them metaphorically.
And don’t lose heart if some of the terms are a bit befuddling to modern ears. Lists of Note’s Shaun Usher has taken a stab at truffling up some modern translations for a few of the less familiar sounding words, wisely refraining from hazarding a guess as to the meaning of “fruche that chekyn”.
(It’s not the “chekyn” part giving us pause…)
Termes of a keruer —Terms of a carver
Breke that dere — break that deer
lesche y brawne — leach the brawn
rere that goose — rear that goose
lyft that swanne — lift that swan
sauce that capon — sauce that capon
spoyle that henne — spoil that hen
fruche that chekyn — ? that chicken
vnbrace that malarde — unbrace that mallard
vnlace that cony — unlace that coney
dysmembre that heron — dismember that heron
dysplaye that crane — display that crane
dysfygure that pecocke —disfigure that peacock
vnioynt that bytture — unjoint that bittern
vntache that curlewe — untack that curlew
alaye that fesande — allay that pheasant
wynge that partryche — wing that partridge
wynge that quayle — wing that quail
mynce that plouer — mince that plover
thye that pegyon — thigh that pigeon
border that pasty — border that pasty
thye all maner of small byrdes — thigh all manner of small birds
tymbre that fyre — timber that fire
tyere that egge — tear that egg
chyne that samon — chinethat salmon
strynge that lampraye — string that lamprey
splatte that pyke — splat that pike
sauce that playce — sauce that plaice
sauce that tenche — sauce that tench
splaye that breme — splay that bream
syde that haddocke — side that haddock
tuske that barbell — tusk that barbel
culpon that troute — culponthat trout
fynne that cheuen — fin that cheven
trassene that ele — ? that eel
traunche that sturgyon — tranchethat sturgeon
vndertraunche yt purpos — undertranch that porpoise
Just last month, we featured here on Open Culture the discovery of a Pompeiian fresco purported to depict an ancient ancestor of pizza. For most of us pizza-loving millions — nay, billions — around the world, this was a notable curiosity but for Max Miller, it was clearly a challenge. As the creator of the hit Youtube channel Tasting History, each of whose episodes involves faithful re-creation of dishes from eras past, he couldn’t possibly have ignored this development. But it also poses even stiffer difficulties than most of his culinary projects, providing him not a recipe to work with but a picture, and not a particularly detailed picture at that.
The fresco’s genre is xenia, which, Miller explains in the video above, “comes from the Greek word that referred to a sort of social contract between hosts and guests.” The ancient Roman architect Vitruvius (he whose work inspired Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man) described how the Greeks, after becoming wealthy, “began providing dining rooms, chambers, and storerooms of provisions for their guests.”
The food and drink they brought out for their dinner parties became the subject of xenia artworks like this fresco from Pompeii, which happens to include a familiar-looking round bread. What’s more, “some scholars have suggested that one of the ingredients that probably is on this bread is sort of pizza-like, insofar as it is a kind of spreadable cheese.”
The quality of that ingredient, called moretum, seemingly makes or breaks this ancient pizza, and so Miller spends most of the video explaining its preparation, drawing details from a poem attributed to Virgil. Those following along in their own kitchens will need to gather a couple heads of garlic, large handfuls of parsley and cilantro, a small handful of rue, and ten ounces of white cheese. When you’ve made the moretum, you can bake the Roman bread, loaves of which were preserved by the explosion of Mount Vesuvius, then spread on the moretum and “top it with things like white cheese, dates, pomegranates, or whatever else you saw in the fresco.” Miller notes that actual Pompeiians probably wouldn’t have sliced the final product, but rather picked off and eaten its toppings one-by-one before getting around to the bread: a pizza consumption method practiced by more than a few of us moderns, at least in childhood.
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