Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, Extreme Makeovers and Ancient Fish with Berry Sauce

Agamemnon Mask, Tomb V in Mycenae, 16th c BCE found by Schliemann, 1876

A dizzying array of gold, jewels, art, pottery, furniture –– the first stop on my whirlwind of a trip to England was the Ashmolean Museum –– at 330 years the oldest museum in Britain and the oldest university museum in the world (the oldest public museum in the world –– the Capitoline Museums in Rome on the Capitoline Hill was opened in 1471, predating the Ashmolean by 200-odd years).

Elias Ashmole  (1617-92)

In 1677, a celebrated antiquary named Elias Ashmole gave a his cabinet of curiosities, books (including a large section on Alchemy) and botanist John Tradescant’s famed collection to Oxford University on the condition that they give it a suitable home. As it turned out Tradescant’s collection was the larger part of the donation because a fire at the Middle Temple in 1679 destroyed a large part of Ashmole’s own collection.

John Tradescant the Younger,1608-62

The history of Ashmole’s acquisition of Tradescant’s collection is not pretty ––  he looks to have swindled Tradescant’s widow Ester out of her husband’s life’s work. She lost the fight to keep it and ended up drowned in a pond after much legal wrangling over ownership. 

Ester said Ashmole had gotten her husband to sign it over when he was in his cups in 1659.  Ashmole cultivated a close working relationship with Tradescant (or schemed as some have said) as he worked with him to catalogue his collection in 1652.  Ashmole even paid to publish a catalogue of the collection in 1656 and wooed Tradescant with a promise of immortality should he deed the collection to him –– a promise he actually kept. I'm sure her state of mind was not improved by the fact that her tormentor actually moved next door to her to be better able to remove Tradescant's collection.  This ruthlessness doesn't seem out of character, Ashmole set out to marry into money (his wives seemed no better than cash machines to him) and curried favor with those in power quite shamelessly.  

He got what he wanted.

The building of the Ashmolean Museum began in 1678 and was opened by James, Duke of York (later King) in 1683 at an enormous cost for the time,  £4,500.  It was the world's first building made just for the purpose of being a museum. It displayed coins, manuscripts and zoological specimens (including the famous Dodo that was so moth-eaten it was removed in 1755).  It became the Museum of the History of Science when the Ashmole collection was divided in 1894 and houses such wonders as Albert Einstein's blackboard as well as astrolabes, sundials, mathematical equipment and manuscripts.

The new Ashmolean building now houses the art and archaeology collections and was designed and built by architect and archaeologist Charles Cockerell  from 1839-45. In 1908 Oxford's collection of art was combined with the holdings of the Ashmolean.

The 19th century version of the Ashmolean Museum that I remembered was old fashioned with large, classical galleries, lovely wooden floors and thick moldings (you can see the old layout HERE).  Then in 2006, an extensive 3-year renovation took place undertaken by American architect, Rick Mather .  This was an extreme makeover.  All of the detail was stripped from the museum. 

So it went from this sort of thing

Old Ashmolean exhibit

To this, earning the 2010 RIBA award in the process for design.

Ceilings and walls disappeared and new staircases were built.  It now looks like any other museum but the reward for the modernization is that visitors are up exponentially and much more of the vast collection can be displayed instead of languishing in dusty storage rooms.  I do miss the quirk of the old place, but that’s progress.

The whole reason for going was to view the remarkable pottery and artifact collection for a project I’m working on.  It is a treasure trove.  If you read this blog, you know how I love ancient decorative objects and have written about them HERE   and HERE 

From that golden Mask of Agamemnon above...

to pottery of early Iran

Cyclades (3200-2100 BC)

Lovely Greece and Cyprus

You can see the piece in the background in the 'before' photo of the museum

The collection is staggering in its breadth and scope –– I just showed you a tiny taste of the ancient world –– the museum covers many lands and many stops in time. 

The Alfred Jewel inscribed 'Alfred ordered me made', 9th c. one of the most popular objects at the museum
I never cease to be amazed by the powerful shapes and patterns of these ancient artists.  It is more than worth a trip to see the collections if you are in Oxford –– it was the first British museum after all.

So, are you hungry yet?

I thought an ancient recipe would be appropriate and decided on one that I had waited a year to make until mulberries were in season again (don’t worry, blackberries or black raspberries or even blueberries would do).

The recipe is inspired by a few words of Sotades Comicus, quoted by Athenaeus (293AD), COOKS, 459,  THE DEIPNOSOPHISTS,  or Banquet of the Learned, VII:

 “A huge dog-fish is put in my class; I baked the middle slices, but the rest of the stuff I boiled, after making a mulberry sauce" [OR "I boil'd and stufi'd with half-ripe mulberries" in a different translation].

Athenaeus material is full of descriptions for fish preparations.  Although the mulberry fish is just a suggestion of a recipe, others are more involved.  The recipe borrows from various techniques in the work to make a completed dish that is authentic to the period with its use of wine, herbs and spice.

Dogfish or rock eel is in the shark family. I would say shark, mahi mahi, cod or most any light fish would be great with this sauce –– honestly, it would be good with mackerel!

I am using a recipe from my favorite ancient cooking source, The Classical Cookbook. I think the sauce would be great with grilled fish as well, just cook the wine with a bit of fish trimmings and strain for the sauce.

I think you could eat this at any restaurant today and never imagine it was cuisine of the ancient world –– how great is that?

Mahi Mahi with Berry Sauce serves 4

8 oz mulberries or blackberries, black raspberries or blueberries

2/3 c red wine

4 fish steaks (mahi mahi, cod, mako shark or what you will)

bouquet garni of oregano or marjoram and rue (rue is both delicious and beautiful if you can find the plant and grow it) or parsley

2/3 c white wine

2 T Honey

2 T Fish sauce (garum if you have it!)

1 T vinegar

½ t asafoetida powder

Put the fruit in a saucepan with the redwine and cook on medium low for a few minutes.

Poach the fish in the white wine and herbs on low for 10 minutes or until done. Remove.

OR take some trimmings from the fish and poach in the white wine. Remove the fish and add to the berry mixture. Grill the fish portions sprinkled with a bit of salt and olive oil.

Add the honey, fish sauce, vinegar and asafoetida to the poaching wine and add that to the berry mixture. Strain to remove the seeds and reduce a little. Serve with or over the fish.

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pam said...

Oh dear, I liked the old museum much better. But like you said, that's progress.

Frank said...

I find the flavor combinations favored by the ancients fascinating. Berries and fish, who would have thought? And yet, why not? And the look of it is positively gorgeous.

As for Ashmole, all I can say is that he was well named.

La Table De Nana said...

I echo Pam's words~
I see how many love sleek clean lines..but the charm of old..still remains dear to me.
It would be like seeing Downton Abbey modernized~
In looking at the collections..I was thinking that you would have loved to have a few of those pieces for your food presentations:)
I had to Google asafoetida powder to learn more..
I think berries and fish should work very well:)

Deana Sidney said...

Very astute, Monique! That is exactly why I went, to see the pots and perhaps make a copy for an article I am writing!!!

Also, I have used a blueberry sauce on grilled salmon for many years and loved it (the old Silver Palate blueberry got me started, first on chicken then fish).

Asafoetida is sort of murky smelling on its own but adds a lovely undertone when it's used in a sauce.

Sarah said...

Gorgeous artifacts. I would never have thought to use berries with fish except perhaps with salmon as you mentioned. Where do you find all these exotic ingredients?! I have never heard of asafoetida!

ArchitectDesign™ said...

Hmm -thats progress? it just makes me sad...they couldn't have put on an addition or excavated out a bigger space in the basement? Thats SO sad-making :-(

Marjie said...

Welcome back from your vacation! I'm afraid I much prefer the old museums with their character than the new, all-the-same varieties.

And I have mulberries on the tree in my courtyard; I might have to try your ancient fish: Imagine how my boys will howl about "ancient" fish! That alone would be worthwhile!

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

A friend loaned me a book that had all of these ancient recipes in it and it was quite hard to find something that I could cook. Everything was so different! And Asafoetida sounds so interesting!

Barbara said...

I always learn when I visit you, Deana. I, too, prefer the old museum and its charm, but certainly appreciate the space, convenience and the ease of browsing in the new space.
Oh my, that mask takes ones breath away! And unlike great paintings, you can take photographs of these fabulous pieces. Marvelous.
Love the idea of berries and fish....discovered how wonderful it was when I made the strawberry salsa for scallops. Definitely going to try the blueberry sauce now. The colors! Beautifully presented on that gorgeous plate, too.

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

I love the feel of an old museum but I can understand having more room to show these treasures. The museum itself must be quite an artifact! Ashmole was quite the scoundrel, it appears!

Fish with a berry sauce sounds perfect for a hot, summer night (which we are having in spades right now).

Ken Albala said...

Oh man, I liked the old Ashmolean so much more. Half the fun was seeing how people in the past wanted to show off the stuff. I guess this does make you focus on the objects, but somehow it all seems so stark and inelegant. And who needs bigger crowds!? Was it packed when you were there too? The Drawing Exhibit was a little nuts.

Ken Albala said...

WOW, your spam filter isn't that good. Usually it refuses whatever I write. But this time I swear I couldn't see the number even with glasses on, so I typed anything, and it posted!

Deana Sidney said...

Yes, well I agree with you about the changes. The old museum had personality... lots of personality. This is very cold. They can display more things which is good but I miss the character. Reminds me of that great Twilight Zone with model numbers and everyone looks the same. UGH. This place could be in Hong Kong or Pittsburgh.

PS happy about spam filter (although spam is sneaking through a little) I HATE having to write it, ruins the mood to have to do it. However, one day I got 500 spam posts and decided that had to change. it was gross.

Laura@Silkroadgourmet said...

Love this recipe! I used the cumin as called for along with rue and garum and just a nip of red wine. I use a lot of black raspberries and left a hint of sweetness to it.

I'm thinking I may have to revisit this soon using mulberries and my reformulated oenogarum. Will consider some of the herbal combinations you recommend as well . . .

I love meat and fruit in general and fish with fruit (as in the Bhutanese Fish and Mandarin Orange Curry in particular). lots of forgotten combinations out there. . .

tasteofbeirut said...


I am so interested in this, especially with all the mublerries we have here; don't know a single chef in Lebanon who has ever cooked them with fish! cant wait to try. Wish I can visit this museum too sometime!

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

That is an interesting transformation at the museum. I agree that the old fashioned look is appealing inside, but I suppose in some cases they had to modernize security, air, humidity control, etc., and the old buildings just never accounted for any of those issues. The fish and fruit sauce looks delightful - I'm surprised we don't serve fish with fruit more often.

Diane said...

I saw the museum from the outside some year back but I have never seen inside.

What an interesting recipe, must have a look and see if I can make this.

Have a good week, Diane