Interview with Ursula Janssen
Author of GARUM: Recipes from the Past
Ursula Janssen, born 1978, is an archeologist and freelance author and now lives with her husband and daughter in southern Italy, after spending several years living and working in various countries in Africa and the Middle East. She writes mostly historic novels but has also published a novel for young readers.
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How would you describe GARUM to a new reader?
- GARUM is a cookbook that brings history into your kitchen and onto your table.
Humans have cooked food since they discovered how to control fire, always aiming at using available ingredients to make the most of it. The result is a rich and long history of recipes, tasty and resourceful. This beautifully illustrated cookbook presents a selection of historical recipes from Ancient Mesopotamia, Ancient Rome, the European and Middle Eastern Middle Ages and the Renaissance that can be reproduced at home, in a normal household kitchen, with available ingredients. The broad time frame chosen for this book allows a glimpse of traditions, transitions as well as innovations in historical cooking. You will discover that it is easy to recreate historical dishes at home, to incorporate them into your everyday cooking, or even to organize a lavish theme party.
What was the inspiration behind GARUM ?
- As an archaeologist and a passionate cook I have been combining the two since years. My friends have been urging me to publish a cookbook with some of those recipes, so I used the time of the Corona lockdown to produce the book together with my husband and photographer Manoocher Deghati. Since I live with my family on a small subsistence farm in Italy, I have the ideal conditions for experimenting.
How did you choose the recipes in the book? There must be many more...
- From Roman antiquity onwards, there is a large number of recipes that has been handed down to us. (For Mesopotamia it looks a bit more meagre - there I based myself exclusively on the "Yale Babylonian Tablets" - a small collection of cuneiform tablets from southern Mesopotamia). It was important to me that the dishes could be recooked in a modern kitchen and with easily available ingredients and that they could be brought in line with today's eating habits.
Taste is also acquired. How has taste changed with regard to the four epochs and today?
- Many of the taste combinations seem strange at first glance, but if we look beyond the European horizon, we find many culinary traditions in which sweet-sour-salty are combined with great gusto.
Each recipe is accompanied by a photo. Who is the photographer?
- Manoocher Deghati has been photographing news and other stories around the globe since 1978 for major international agencies and magazines. He worked for publications such as: Time, Life, Newsweek, GEO, and National Geographic.
What's your writing process?
- As an archaeologist, I attach great importance to research, both in fiction and in non-fiction.
Ingredients that are unusual today or no longer exist have been replaced. How did you proceed?
- Since I am of the opinion that authenticity should be subordinated to the joy of experimentation and the pleasure of cooking, I am happy to suggest alternative ingredients, which nevertheless do not spoil the concept of the dish.
How can readers get to know more historical recipes?
- I also have a YouTube channel: Ursula's historical recipes, at https://www.youtube.com/user/ursulajanssen/
How have readers responded to GARUM?
- GARUM has even been extensively featured on the website of the widely published German STERN magazine, as well as in several other magazines, which is a great honour. I regularly see readers posting the results of their cooking on social media, and the response has been completely positive.
Where next? What are you working on now?
- It will be a historical fiction novel again. I haven't made my newest project public yet but I can say as much that it again requires a lot of research, this time even more in the line of my original profession as an archaeologist, but will be of great actuality nevertheless.
In this richly illustrated cookbook, archaeologist and culinary historian Ursula Janssen presents a selection of historical recipes from Ancient Mesopotamia, Ancient Rome, the European and Middle Eastern Middle Ages and the Renaissance that are adapted to contemporary cooking and can be reproduced in a normal household kitchen, with available ingredients. The broad time frame chosen for this book allows a glimpse of traditions, transitions as well as innovations in historical cooking. Internationally renowned photographer Manoocher Deghati took the photos. Each recipe is accompanied by a photograph.