The enormous turnip

A few weeks ago, I presented to you some ancient recipes for cracked heels and chilblains. One of them caught my attention. It was recorded in the medical compilation of Paul of Aegina (seventh century CE), whose aim was to provide his readers with remedies that would be relatively easy to prepare. Here is the recipe in question:

‘Marcellion’ against chilblains: hollow out the root of a turnip and fill it with wax, 2 ounces, and mastic oil. Boil in the double-boiler and pour this either in sea water, or brine or decoction of lupine. And let the melted cerate cool down in the turnip and apply. (Paul 3.79)

Fill the swede with wax and oil

Fill the swede with wax and oil

I was really intrigued. How would this work? There was only one way to find out: experiment. It was not easy. It took two swedes and quite a lot of oil to manage anything looking like a cerate. But here is what I did.

Ingredients:

  • 1 large swede. Swedes and turnips are of the same botanical genus (raphanus)
  • 2 ounces of wax
  • approximately 2 ounces of carrier oil (I used apricot kernel). Paul’s recipe specifies mastic oil, but what is now sold as mastic oil is mastic essential oil, obtained by distillation, a process that did not exist in the ancient world.
  • brine. To make brine, bring to the boil two cups of water to which you have added 4 tablespoons of salt. Let the preparation boil until the salt has dissolved. Let the preparation cool down.
Bring a pan of water to a simmer and placed the filled swede in it

Bring a pan of water to a simmer and placed the filled swede in it

Equipment:

  • Knife to hollow out the swede
  • Electronic scales
  • A cooking pan
  • Mortar and pestle

1) Hollow out the swede. Be careful: this is much harder than hollowing out a pumpkin.

2) Place the wax and the oil in the swede. Place the swede in a saucepan filled with simmering water. I tried to place the swede in a double-boiler, but the wax would simply not melt fast enough. The swede became porous and all the oil came out. It was rather messy. The swede placed directly in the simmering water will still become porous, and oil will still escape, but wax will melt much faster, resulting in a smaller oil loss. However, be careful when you lift the swede out of the water.

Pour brine onto the melted wax/oil

Pour brine onto the melted wax/oil

3) Take the swede out of the water and empty its contents in a mortar. Quickly add some brine. The wax-oil mixture will coagulate very fast. Pour out the brine. Then slowly add new brine while pounding the mixture. Note that this step is not explained in Paul’s recipe,  but as I found out in the past, this is the only way to get a cerate that remains moist.

4) Put the mixture back into the swede and let it cool down.

Interestingly the wax took on the smell of the swede. This was actually, and perhaps surprisingly, rather pleasant. But why do this? While I was waiting for my swede to ‘cook’, I did some online reading. Apparently, scientists are currently looking into the properties of raphanus oil for dermatological issues. Perhaps this strange method for preparing a cerate allows the swede/turnip to release its oils in a gentle manner? The raphanus oil thus released combines with mastic oil (which has antibacterial and antifungal properties) and the wax to create a healing balm. The brine/sea water used to cool the preparation down and to make it smoother also adds to the restorative properties of the cerate.

Incidentally, I also found other versions of this recipe in other authors. Some of these versions recommended the turnip be put in ashes. I think this would probably work better than the boiling method, which renders the root so porous. One could for instance wrap the filled swede in foil and place it in warm ashes, as one does with jacket potatoes. Of course, caution would then be needed to unwrap the swede.

The cerate in its swede container. Sorry for the quality of the photograph

The cerate in its swede container. Sorry for the quality of the photograph

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3 Responses to The enormous turnip

  1. garethhevans says:

    You are much more adventurous than me in your recipes. Where did you get your mastic oil?

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    • Thanks! I didn’t use mastic oil unfortunately (which I replaced with apricot kernel, as I had some and it is relatively cheap). The mastic oil that you find on the market is essential oil rather than oily sap, which is most probably what is meant in the recipe. The Chios mastiha growers association has a very useful webpage: http://www.gummastic.gr/index.php?contentid=78&langflag=_en. I would need to go to Chios to investigate further…

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      • garethhevans says:

        Sorry I misread your post, you posts deserve to be read more carefully by me! I saw some of the Chios Mastiha products on another Greek isle some years ago, of course one is so intrigued, given the history. All the resins are intriguing, labdanum etc. I have some frankincense and myrrh a friend brought back from Oman but have prized it too much to make anything out of it yet – but I will one! Good luck with your forthcoming BSHP talk.

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