January 17th: St Anthony The Great

…..Hermits upon Mount Meru or Everest,

Caverned in night under the drifted snow,

Or where that snow and winter's dreadful blast
Beat down upon their naked bodies, know

That day brings round the night, that before dawn

His glory and his monuments are gone.

From ‘Meru’ by W.B Yeats (1865-1939)

A long time ago I went to Egypt and actually I had very mixed feelings about it. It's a country of uncomfortable contrasts. On the last day back in Cairo, we went to visit three Coptic Churches - some of the most ancient places of worship in Christendom. What I mostly remember is their atmosphere; after nearly two thousand years it felt as though the bricks themselves had taken on an aura of wise contemplation.

St Anthony the Great was a Coptic Monk who was born about 250 AD in Egypt and is regarded as the founder of ‘desert monasticism’. This is a branch of Christianity that is extremely ascetic and rooted in the hermit tradition. The Desert Fathers practiced what came to be known as ‘hesychasm’ a Greek word meaning stillness, rest, quiet and silence. After fighting my way through the crowds of Cairo I found that very appealing.

There was (and is) a tradition that Coptic contemplative life be open to men and women who were not intellectual and did not necessarily come from the upper classes. One tradition has St Anthony as having spent time as a swineherd and his symbols of the pig and the bell reflect this and his life as a monk. Here he is with his little pig.

What St Anthony is mostly associated with though is the disease erysipelas, more commonly known as St Anthony’s Fire. Erysipelas is a nasty bacterial infection that makes the skin go red. The monks of St Anthony’s Monastery were particularly skilled in its cure; I suspect that they had developed an early form of antibiotic.

One of the most distinguishing features of the Coptic Church is its fasting tradition. Orthodox Copts fast for about 200 days a year: weekly almost every Wednesday and Friday, for long periods at Advent and Lent and during something called the 'Jonah Fast' - which represents Jonah's time in the whale. Their diet at this time is very simple – a little rice, a few pulses, vegetables, maybe a little spice.

I really liked Egyptian food, I was a veggie at the time and contrary to all the advice we ate lots of salad and street food. The dreaded gippy tummy didn’t affect us anything like at much as it did the rest of the party. Here’s a dish of really typical Egyptian street food, there are loads of versions – this is mine.

Kosheri (for 3-4)

200g rice – weigh in a measuring jug
100g lentils – brown, green or puy
1 large onion
Olive oil
¼tsp ground nutmeg, 1 teaspoon cinnamon and ½ teaspoon ground coriander, salt
A few toasted almonds or pine nuts
Chopped parsley

A spicy tomato sauce made by simmering a tin of chopped tomatoes with two crushed cloves of garlic, a splash of wine vinegar, dried chilli flakes and 1-2 tsps ground cumin.

Cook the lentils until soft but not mushy.

Warm a tablespoonful of olive oil in a pan and add the spices - heat them gently, you don’t want to scorch them. Add the rice and turn it until coated with oil, now add double the volume of water to rice, season and put on the lid. Simmer until the rice is cooked and all the water absorbed. ( I usually make this with a mix of rices - basmati, wild and red, if you do you may need to cook them separately)

Finely slice the onion and fry until dark golden brown – a few caramelised bits are nice.
Gently mix the cooked rice with the lentils and put onto a warm dish, tip the onions over the top and sprinkle with the nuts and parsley. Serve the tomato sauce on the side.

I think this is deeply comforting food – and good for you!

I couldn't resist giving you the whole of this poem by the Armenian poet Zahrad (1924-2007)

A Woman Cleaning Lentils

A lentil, a lentil, a lentil, a stone.
A lentil, a lentil, a lentil, a stone.
A green one, a black one, a green one, a black. A stone.
A lentil, a lentil, a stone, a lentil, a lentil, a word.
Suddenly a word. A lentil.
A lentil, a word, a word next to another word. A sentence.
A word, a word, a word, a nonsense speech.
Then an old song.
Then an old dream.
A life, another, a hard life. A lentil. A life.
An easy life. A hard life, Why easy? Why hard?
Lives next to each other. A life. A word. A lentil.
A green one, a black one, a green one, a black one, pain.
A green song, a green lentil, a black one, a stone.
A lentil, a stone, a stone, a lentil.


Brownieville Girl said...

Love that recipe Liz.

This is obviously not the St Anthony who helps you find things (I'm his biggest fan!) but he sounds very interesting all the same.

Liz said...

That's St Anthony of Padua- wish I'd had him this morning when I couldn't find my credit card after I'd filled up with petrol....v embarassing

Choclette said...

Lovely lentil poem. This was one of my favourite "eating out" dishes when I was in Egypt, I lived in Alex for 6 months when I was a student. Loved the food, loved the people, loved Egypt, but comfortable it was not. My first run in with real poverty and deprivation and it was truly shocking.

So when is the lovely St Anthony of Padua's feast day? I'm also a great fan of his, though I didn't know he was from Padua!

Liz said...

St Anthony of lost things is on the 13th June - now there's a challenge - what to cook for him?