The Mystery of Silphium, the Lost Roman Herb
September 8, 2017 1:30 PM   Subscribe

Allegedly, it could do just about anything. You could eat its stalks. You could dry its sap and sprinkle it on food. You could make perfume from its blossoms. You could feed it to sheep and make their meat "delectably tender." It was a medicine; it was an aphrodisiac; it was birth control. And it no longer can be found.

The BBC looks at this legendary plant, compares it to the American huckleberry*, another wild plant that has never been successfully domesticated, and reminds us that even if we could bring silphium back, we might not really enjoy it after all. (Then again, garum is making its own comeback.) (Previously, 2006)

*I'm yours.
posted by Guy Smiley (46 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
 
I bought a small bottle of something that claimed to be garum or its equivalent; actually it was anchovy juice. Not that anchovy juice isn't something worth having, but I think garum was more complicated than that.
posted by Segundus at 2:14 PM on September 8 [2 favorites]


I saw this article earlier today and I was kind of confused, because you can buy huckleberry plants easily enough and grow them. I had considered it for a while and kind of decided I don't have room. Maybe they have to be grown from cuttings but that's true of a lot of different things.
posted by dilettante at 2:15 PM on September 8 [1 favorite]


Then there were the medical applications. Silphium was a veritable wonder herb, a panacea for all manner of ailments, including growths of the anus (the Roman author Pliny the Elder recommends repeated fumigations with the root) and the bites of feral dogs (simply rub into the affected area, though Pliny warns his readers never, ever to try this with a tooth cavity, after a man who did so threw himself off a house).

Listeners of the Sawbones podcast might note that Pliny the Elder had lots of ideas, many of which were...not great to say the least.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 2:15 PM on September 8 [12 favorites]


its heart-shaped seeds are thought to be the reason we associate the symbol with romance to this day

No they aren't.
posted by Segundus at 2:19 PM on September 8 [16 favorites]


...compares it to the American huckleberry, another wild plant that has never been successfully domesticated

"The thing about huckleberries is, once you go fresh, you'll never go back to canned."
posted by leotrotsky at 2:36 PM on September 8 [4 favorites]


In Catullus' poem 7, he says he wants as many kisses from his lover Lesbia as there are grains of sand in Cyrene, which he describes as the source of silphium. It's a reference to geography and primary exports - think of sayings like "all the tea in China" or "taking coals to Newcastle" - except the export referred to is, at least in part, birth control.
posted by factory123 at 2:40 PM on September 8 [6 favorites]


“There’s a whole bunch of seasonings that the Romans used to use, like lovage, that today most people haven’t even heard of,”

Is lovage considered particularly exotic? It's just another of the many anise/celery flavored greens out there.
posted by leotrotsky at 2:41 PM on September 8 [5 favorites]


You can get lovage at the NYC Union Square greenmarket. Not terribly exotic.
posted by praemunire at 2:43 PM on September 8


It doesn't exactly say you can't grow huckleberry, it says it hasn't been commercially farmed. But then it says you can clear woods and grow them. It is indeed confusing.
posted by Bee'sWing at 2:47 PM on September 8


I was kind of confused, because you can buy huckleberry plants easily enough and grow them.

They're not particularly hard to grow (once you get past the issue of how cuttings don't work like many other plants); they just don't grow in ways that are commercially viable. They don't easily grow in neat rows, and the berries have to be hand-picked, and they haven't been bred for the sturdiness that would let them survive shipping. And mostly, this is because there just isn't that much demand - there's no huckleberry lobby throwing millions of dollars into research and breeding programs, hoping to make multiple millions in profits in a couple of decades.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 2:48 PM on September 8 [11 favorites]


Among my local group of herbalists, it's assumed that silphium was driven to extinction in large part because of its value as an aborticant. Our best hope for it not being gone-gone-gone extinct is finding a small jar of dried-but-viable seeds somewhere, and that's not remotely likley.

If it was related to asafoetida, then as the article says, it's not likely to be a much-loved spice today. When the article mentions "the notoriously stinky asafoetida," it's understating by a lot.

Asafoetida is traditionally used in exorcisms. We always assumed that was because even demons wouldn't hang out in a room that smelled like it.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 2:58 PM on September 8 [23 favorites]


Growing up in Europe lovage ("Lebstoeckel" n German) was super common. Was very surprised when I couldn't find it in the US when I moved here in the 90s. Even bought a huge dictionary that had it listed as a "weed" that's used as a spice in Europe. These days you can find it even in the US. Hard to make good ratatouille without it.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 3:04 PM on September 8 [2 favorites]


If it really grew only after the "black rain" in a very specific and small region, I wonder if it wasn't a hybrid or mutant of one of those other local Apiaceae specially adapted to the volcanic ash deposits or whatever it was. Kind of like plants that grow on mine tailings or serpentine soil.
posted by congen at 3:23 PM on September 8 [1 favorite]


Asafoetida does indeed smell terrible but it won't make your food smell that way and while it tastes very unpleasant on its own, it acts like magic on the taste of the right dishes. This should not be a surprise - you could say much the same of many things, e.g. vinegar or chilli or black pepper.

It's a great addition to many curries and worth keeping if only so you can make these: http://www.actionvillageindia.org.uk/onionbhajji - could hardly be easier or better :)

In conclusion, I don't like the assumption that silphium would not go down well today and I would welcome the opportunity to test that assumption.
posted by merlynkline at 3:37 PM on September 8 [17 favorites]


MetaFilter: a panacea for all manner of ailments, including growths of the anus.
posted by Wordshore at 3:46 PM on September 8 [12 favorites]


This should not be a surprise - you could say much the same of many things, e.g. vinegar or chilli or black pepper.

Malt vinegar: smells like feet, tastes like heaven.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:55 PM on September 8 [1 favorite]


Bought some Asafoetida once, double bagged it before putting it in the cupboard because jesus harold christ what a pong.

Week later, I realized that smell in the apartment is, welp, the Asafoetida. Stinking right through through the double bagging.

So I throw seven more bags around it, literally, and I sigh with relief because obviously nothing can stink through seven layers of carefully sealed plastic bag...

It actually took a month for me to ID the source of the smell the second time; I just couldn't believe that it was leaking out of it's petroleum-film prison, but: Asafoetida cares not for your ziplock efforts.

Threw that shit right in the dumpster. Wretched, awful product. Don't care if it makes every dish taste like ambrosia, it is not worth polluting your kitchen so bad that you can smell it an entire floor away from where it's stored.
posted by wires at 4:22 PM on September 8 [17 favorites]


on google, the query "Asafoetida smells like *" returns the following candidates:

rotting feet
rotting onions
old, stinky gym socks laced with garlic
fresh ground mustard seed mixed with cooked garlic and a morsel of rotting flesh
Garlic that has gone bad
rotten eggs
death in the package
death out of the bottle

and then there's one match that reports the Afrikaans word for it is duiwelsdrek, devil's dung.
posted by zippy at 4:33 PM on September 8 [7 favorites]


One interesting aspect of asafoetida is that it is not recommended to eat during pregnancy, as it may cause miscarraige. So maybe it's the storied herb after all! I love asafoetida, though it can be very strong. Buy the solid resin form, it's much less aromatic, and store it in a steel tin or foil. Plastic is slightly porous.
posted by wnissen at 4:44 PM on September 8 [7 favorites]


I keep my chunk of asafoetida in a ziplock bag stored within a mason jar. Never had any smell emerge. Granted it may look suspicious, but I sincerely pity anyone who investigates.
posted by ZaphodB at 4:52 PM on September 8 [6 favorites]


Are we just going to blithely carry on as if all here agree as to what Huckleberries In reality are, like?

So many arguments about huckleberry/blueberry/mountain blueberry/red huckleberry have I had.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 5:28 PM on September 8


Huckleberries are, like, fucking delicious!
posted by notsnot at 5:38 PM on September 8


I had asafoetida in a tightly sealed ball jar with a sealing lid on it and it still managed to stink up everything else in that cabinet.
posted by Ferreous at 6:23 PM on September 8


Re: huckleberries. Is the ice cream which claims to be huckleberry, as sold in tourist spots in the Rockies, actual huckleberry? Because it doesn't taste anything like the local huckleberries out here, which are much tarter.
posted by maxwelton at 6:44 PM on September 8


wait which kind of huckleberry there's like five different species spread across two genera
posted by ragtag at 7:02 PM on September 8 [1 favorite]


Huckleberries are overrated; salal berries are the bomb.
posted by The otter lady at 8:00 PM on September 8 [3 favorites]


I was struck by this throwaway bit:
Take poppies. A single plant can produce up to 60,000 seeds, which means that, assuming 90,000 plants, a single field may contain around 5.4 billion. But they must be exposed to light to grow. Without it, they’ll just sit there until they’re eaten or begin to rot. For this reason, poppies thrive on disturbed land where light can creep into gaps in the soil, such as the battlefields of World War One.
So that's why poppies are associated with Veteran's Day? As in, "In Flanders fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row"? http://www.reactiongifs.com/r/2013/10/tim-and-eric-mind-blown.gif
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:23 PM on September 8 [6 favorites]


Huckleberries are overrated; salal berries are the bomb.

That is the truth. Salal berries make better blueberry pancakes than blueberries do.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 10:37 PM on September 8 [3 favorites]


Growing up in Europe lovage ("Lebstoeckel" n German) was super common.

Liebstöckl's household name is Maggikraut, after the ubiquitous German condiment/spice. (Which is ironic, as it's not actually one of the ingredients.)
posted by progosk at 11:16 PM on September 8 [1 favorite]


> So that's why poppies are associated with Veteran's Day?

Precisely so. Just as in the years when I start out with good intentions strong enough to actually dig the vegetable bed over, some months later the inevitable emergence of bright red poppies from the bare earth is the glaring public advertisement of the shame of the desultory supermarket vegetables on my dinner plate.
posted by merlynkline at 12:20 AM on September 9 [3 favorites]


Lovage in ratatouille? Basil is what you need. Anyway, I google and find stuff people call ratatouille which isn't. The stuff with neatly sliced vegetables (eggplant, tomato, zucchini (same diameter as tomatoes which is far to large to use -- small zucchini are what you want), onions) is pretty, I guess, but ratatouille is stirred (cf. Fr. rater) and has garlic and lots more olive oil than any other dish I know. You cook slowly, stir once in a while, add oil whenever you think you need to, and serve in soup bowls with crusty bread to mop up the sauce and oil and... Lovage? No.
posted by CCBC at 2:24 AM on September 9 [1 favorite]


Liebstöckl's household name is Maggikraut, after the ubiquitous German condiment/spice.

Ah, that's how I know it in Dutch: maggiplant, because it smells and tastes the same as maggi.

Maggi of course is an essential condiment for soup, but also the one thing other than mayo to put on your fries, instead of salt.
posted by MartinWisse at 4:50 AM on September 9


"You put basil in the ratatouille?!!"
posted by Flashman at 5:46 AM on September 9 [5 favorites]


As for huckleberries, we were in Gifford Pinchot forest a few weeks ago, and the free berry-picking permits we got limited us to one gallon per day per person. Picking so many other berries as we do in the summer, I was disappointed because "surely we'll hit our limit" pretty fast. Oh, no -- those things are (mostly) tiny and take forever to pick in any real quantity. Delicious, sure, but really not unlike blueberries, and the quart I ended up with will just have to sit in the freezer until I manufacture some excitement about using them. Picking was fun, though!
posted by klausman at 7:14 AM on September 9


Asafoetida is traditionally used in exorcisms. We always assumed that was because even demons wouldn't hang out in a room that smelled like it.

Which is funny because the German word for asafoetida is Teufelsdreck, or literally "devil's mud". I always assumed that was a more polite word than the implied Tuefelsscheisse. Wikipedia offers "devil's dung" in English and "merde du Diable" in French.

It's never had much of a strong aroma to me. I've bought it several times, too, so I don't think it was just a stale supply.
posted by Nelson at 7:18 AM on September 9


The transformation of asafoetida is almost immediate if you use the south Indian method of cooking it off in hot oil at the start. In a few seconds the devil's gangrene gym socks becomes a deep, rich, cooked-garlicky, appetizing aroma. (Then throw in some turmeric, ground chile, salt, and cauliflower, stir and cover, and you've got one of the easiest vegetable dishes I know of.) You only need to open the jar of raw product long enough to scoop out a tiny bit and throw it directly in the oil.
posted by mubba at 8:26 AM on September 9 [10 favorites]


I needed a new thing to listen to, thanks for recommending Sawbones, MC!
posted by endotoxin at 1:54 PM on September 9 [1 favorite]


"Lovage? No."

Oooh... challenge accepted. Sounds like we need to have a BC vs LA ratatouille cook off with other MeFites as judges.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 7:13 PM on September 9


Awaiting the rules and conditions, Hairy Lobster.
(But, really, it must be basil.)
posted by CCBC at 3:54 AM on September 10 [1 favorite]


*sits bolt upright*

Maggi on fries?!?!!

Guys, I'll..., I'll, uh, I'll be back in a bit.

screeching tires
posted by hearthpig at 2:39 PM on September 10 [2 favorites]


This is cool. I've learned a lot about asafoetida and lovage, and some recipes I might try.
posted by nangar at 3:28 PM on September 10 [1 favorite]




Head of garlic, large bunch of basil, lots of olive oil... and vegetables. An eggplant/aubergine and a bunch of late summer stuff. This isn't hard. This "lovage" thing sounds like you made it up.
posted by Ella Fynoe at 6:12 PM on September 10 [1 favorite]


Asafoetida (aka hing) is IMO one of two important, definitive Indian/Pakistani restaurant scents, ones that we westerners might not be able to consciously identify but which without there would seem to be something missing as one walks into the restaurant.

The other scent is curry leaves (karri pattu). Raw they smell like automobile exhaust (I have no idea how some people get "citrus notes" off them) but fried in hot oil as part of a tarka over dal… ooh. So good.
posted by Lexica at 7:00 PM on September 10 [3 favorites]


> This "lovage" thing sounds like you made it up.

The English name is a bilingual Anglo-Norman eggcorn. It comes from misunderstanding the French word for lovage, livèche, as a compound of the English word "love" and ache, the French for celery. Lovage and celery are actually related plants, and stem and leaf parts of the plants taste similar. Another name for lovage in French is ache de montaigne, "mountain celery".
posted by nangar at 7:46 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]


we absolutely love asafoetida (which we call "hing") in our household. a critical part of many Indian dishes, and a wonderful replacement for alliums in recipes if you are avoiding them (garlic/onion/etc).

it does indeed smell but when cooked it's delicious. we keep ours triple-sealed in three airtight containers and that keeps it mostly in check. it's not rocket science, just need good containers :)
posted by EricGjerde at 7:11 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


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