It’s hard to imagine Italian food without lemons. You get them with steak, with fish, in sparkling water, or as a light and icy sorbetto. Hey, head off to an Italian car dealership and you can get a lemon there as well!
So imagine my surprise when I was doing a spot of reading and discovered that lemons were actually a medieval immigrant to Europe, arriving from India around 1100AD.
What about the Romans? No lemons? I mean what did Emperor Claudius sprinkle on his Bistecca Florentina to cut through the fat?
Sumac. Ground sumac. Actually, he would have called it Syrian sumac, because that’s where the Romans found it. It’s a large tree related to both mangoes and poison ivy and it bears traffic-stopping berries in late summer, clustered in cone-shaped drupes.
We use both the berries and the leaves of the edible sumac trees, and they can be used in various forms. The berries are a bright reddish-purple about the size of a peppercorn. They are harvested covered in dense coarse hair, much like a kiwifruit. After sun-drying the berries are pulverised into a powder which is preserved by the addition of just a little salt.
It’s not just the characteristic show-off colour that marks out sumac. It’s flavour is kind of bizarre. Looking at it you expect it to be hot. This is partly a preconception based on our experience of other spices. But sumac is not hot at all. It’s pleasantly sour, with a kind of pomegranate-apple-lemon flavour. Sprinkled on raw meats the taste softens and caramelises during cooking. Alternately, if you sprinkle sumac on cooked fish and you’d swear someone had squeezed a lemon over the top.
You’ll find various species of sumac throughout the world, particularly in the northern hemisphere. As a rule of thumb, the higher the altitude at which it is grown the stronger the taste.
Sumac is an integral part of Middle Eastern cookery, and is also popular in Northern Africa. Sometimes it is used as a stand-alone flavouring, but the most popular way to use sumac is in za’atar, Lebanon’s number one spice mix. It is a blend of dried herbs like oregano, marjoram, thyme and hyssop, and spices like coriander seed, fennel seed and sumac. It is superb in so many ways, but it’s the sumac which really gives it personality.
Fattoush salad of crisp wafers tomatoes and sumac