Wednesday, September 1, 2010

“Servant of the Servants of God”: Saint Gregory the Great, September 3

On September 3 we remember Pope Gregory the Great, honored as one of the four major Fathers of the Western Church, along with saints Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome.

Gregory’s life is long and complex. (You can read all about him in Butler’s Lives of the Saints, as revised by Thurston and Attwater; this is a 4-volume work that anyone with a real interest in the saints should, if possible, have handy.

But three facts are key: Gregory was a great public servant. He was a monk. He was pope—and as pope, he combined, in extremely important ways, his roles as public servant and as monk.

A few details. He was born in 540 to a very distinguished Catholic family in Rome—one that had already given two popes to the Church; his mother, Silvia, is also considered a saint. Quite a family! We know little about his education, but by age 30 Gregory was already prefect--essentially, mayor--of Rome. And this was a terrible period: for centuries now, Rome had continued its decline, and the city had been sacked four times during the previous century. As Gregory once said in a letter: "Ruins everywhere!" The imperial authorities were increasingly weak, and Gregory himself had to negotiate with the new Lombard invaders.

But then he decided to leave the world and become a monk. He turned his beautiful Roman home into a monastery.

But he was called out of the monastery, first to ordination to the diaconate; then he was sent as the papal ambassador to the Byzantine court in Constantinople.

But let’s jump ahead. When Pope Pelagius died of the plague in 590, Gregory (who had at some point become a priest) reluctantly accepted election to the papacy, He was, in many respects, a great pope--one who combined a deep love for the monastic life with genuine concern for his people’s welfare and for pastoral care. He provided a new model for the papacy, one that lasted throughout the medieval period.

We can thank also Gregory for the conversion of England to Christianity: it is he who sent missionaries there.

Gregorian chant bears his name.

He died in 604. He wanted to be known as "Servant of the servants of God"--a great title!

So, to honor Saint Gregory the Great, perhaps we should serve some nice Italian food--indeed, it should be Roman cuisine: he was as Roman as they come. But, to be authentic, it will have to be Roman food from before the existence of tomatoes and pasta--not to mention coffee and chocolate! (It is before tea, as well, but then Italians aren’t so apt to miss that.)

What would this Roman food be like? What did those old Romans eat? (To know about late Roman cuisine, read the Cookery Book written by Apicius.

The Romans loved spices, and used them very generously. Favorites include many we enjoy today--coriander, cumin, dill, ginger, mint, oregano, parsley, pepper, saffron, savory, sesame, thyme, and others--but also some spices we aren’t very familiar with, such as rue, lovage, and asafoetida.

They enjoyed most of the meats we do today--but also stuffed dormice, and stuffed cow wombs and udders (these latter must have been a bit like the Scottish dish haggis; anyway, I think we’ll give those dishes a miss). They loved fish, crayfish, and octopus, oysters and mussels.

They loved sauces. Their favorite sauce, which they put into just about everything--the way people do chicken stock, or A1 or Worcestershire Sauce today--was a fish sauce called liquamen.

Here is the menu I propose--all tasty stuff, but nothing too fancy. Recipes are provided below.

The menu
Fava (or cannellini) bean salad with garlic, green onions, and mint.
Grilled fish steaks (tuna, ideally) or fillets, with a sauce of anchovy paste and pine nuts
A lettuce salad (the Romans loved their lettuces, and their cucumbers as well)
Flat bread
Black olives (they already loved olives)
Sheep or goat cheese (the Romans were specialists in the cultivation of cheese from an early period and, among others delighted in mozzarella and pecorino type cheeses. (Have a look at this history of cheese.
With this meal you can drink some Italian red wine--if possible, Castelli wine from the region of Rome itself. Check out Roman wines.
For dessert, fresh peaches or figs? (Do you want something fancier?- the Romans loved fruit stewed in honey, with nuts.)

There is another option--but I propose this only to those who will be celebrating this feast on their own, not to mothers feeding a family. This option is to fast in honor of that austere and serious monk, St. Gregory the Great.

Bean salad:

2 cups cooked beans
2 cloves garlic, chopped
3 green onions, chopped
2-3 Tablespoons olive oil
1 Tablespoon red wine vinegar
1/3 cup fresh mint, finely chopped


Drain the beans.
Mix with the garlic and green onions.
Add oil and vinegar.
Stir in the mint, and mix thoroughly.
Add salt and pepper to taste.
Serves 4 lightly

Grilled fish:

4 fish steaks or fillets
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon anchovy paste (this is the closest convenient equivalent we have today to the taste of liquamen, the fish sauce so prized by the ancient Romans).
1 Tablespoon wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/8 teaspoon ground coriander
3 Tablespoons pine nuts

Sauté the pine nuts until golden-brown in 1 Tablespoon of olive oil.
Mix the remaining oil, anchovy paste, wine vinegar, oregano and coriander
Brush the fish steaks or fillets generously with the mixture.
Grill or broil the fish, basting frequently.
Sprinkle the fish with the pine nuts.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, sounds really delicious - and interesting!