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NPR Arts & Life

University Of Cambridge Professor Cooks Up Ancient Dishes During Quarantine

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Staying at home, staying safe, keeping social distance - necessity has led many people to cook for themselves even more and to take some adventures from their own kitchens. Bill Sutherland of Cambridge, England, has been baking sourdough bread almost every day for his family.

BILL SUTHERLAND: So we had lemon yesterday, which is a bit peculiar, but then thyme two days before that. And it's sort of fun to experiment.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's also been busy with some really, really old recipes - old like from Mesopotamia. We're talking 1750 BCE.

SUTHERLAND: There's this wonderful book - the Yale Babylonian Collection - including a lot of cuneiform tablets. And there's one tablet that has 25 recipes on, most of which you can't read, but four which are in quite good condition. And I thought it would be quite fun to try them out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: On the menu - stew of lamb, Elamite broth, barley cakes and a dish enticingly called unwinding.

SUTHERLAND: So that was OK. It was sort of a - a sort of leek-y (ph), oniony, garlicy mix with a crumble on top, which was interesting to taste, but I wouldn't strongly recommend it. It's a bit boring.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, well, there's always a dud in any cookbook, as Bill Sutherland well knows. He's in charge of cooking at home. He found the Mesopotamian instructions for stew of lamb a bit spartan.

SUTHERLAND: Meat is used, and that's all the description there is for cooking the meat. And then it says - and all of them say this - it says you prepare water. But does that mean you make a stock or - we don't know. We don't know what that means.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So Sutherland had to improvise, especially on the recipe for Elamite broth.

SUTHERLAND: Well, sheep's blood is quite difficult to get hold of, so I'm sure I could have done, but I decided to make life easier. I used tomato sauce, which is a massive difference.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Overall, Sutherland says his ancient feast turned out to be surprisingly suited to modern tastes.

SUTHERLAND: If you went out for a meal and someone presented those - you with these meals, you wouldn't think, that's a really peculiar set of dishes. So, you know, it shows that they lived well in those times.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sutherland teaches conservation biology at the University of Cambridge. And in these times, he's also researching how to prevent future pandemics - important but heavy stuff. Making this meal at home and sharing it on Twitter gave him and his followers a welcome diversion. Plus, he's now a big fan of the stew of lamb. He's looking forward to making it for future dinner guests. Barley cakes, yes. The unwinding, maybe not. And the Elamite broth...

SUTHERLAND: If someone offered me some sheep's blood, I might well give it a go. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.