Coriander from a goat’s testicle and other farming lore
by Martin Rose
Last night I was walking along the Charing Cross Road and I saw in the window of a bookshop a little book I did not recognize, called A Moorish Calendar. I bought it, and it has proved quite enchanting. A tiny, beautifully illustrated, collection of extracts from the enormous Kitab el-Filaha of Yahya ibn al-‘Awwam al-Ishbili, much of this edition is an almanack, a catalogue of eloquent suggestions for farmers, divided by month. Yahya was a country squire, a gentleman farmer in the Wadi al-Kabir, today hispanicised as the Guadalquivir valley – al-Ishbili means ‘the Sevillean’. This is what he saw, looking out of his farmhouse window in the late twelfth century, in the present month of his own year, and how he reflected on the tasks his farm required of him and his men that long-ago Andalusian August:
In August the day’s heat declines, dews settle and in the depths of the night it is cold. On the twentieth day the Simoon wind ceases. Now people of the coast begin the pressing of grapes and the making of wine. The nectarine and the downy peach are eaten in this month, and the acorn and the melon of Constantinople mature; the date and the jujube begin to ripen, and by the raising of dust you help the ripening of grapes. Cut timber after the third day of August and it will never be hindered by worms. It is time for harvesting rice and carobs, safflower seed and cress, indigo and coriander, sesame, water-melon, basil, melon and gherkin. Now you should see to the vine-shoots and those which are best you tend with extra care and those which are weak you ply with manure and water so that they may be revived. In Seville they sow orach and late gherkins and the long radish and the round.
Actually of course, I don’t suppose that Yahya thought in terms of Roman months, and the texts are therefore adapted, just as the charming woodcuts at the head of each section with the month’s name are modern and English. Some of Yahya’s old wives’ tales are a particular delight, though it is not quite fair to laugh at him. He has a stern way with trees that don’t fruit: “you may cure it in the following manner: let two men, one of them carrying an axe, approach the tree and let the one say ‘This tree shall be cut down.’ At which the other should plead for it, saying ‘No.’ Then the first must say ‘But it bears no fruit.’ To which the other shall reply ‘It will do so this year – and if it does not then you will be free to do as you please.’ Abu Khair and other writers say that this method has generally been found effective.” A gullible sort of tree, not to mention a credulous Abu Khair.
More usefully perhaps, if you take a goat’s testicles, “and plant them in the earth and water them … you will see coriander grow where no seeds of it have been sown.” Now there’s a thing. And should you be troubled by camels grazing on crops, Yahya recommends that you “sprinkle the leaves with a liquor made of dog’s droppings or (which is even better, for it will not be so readily washed away by rain) an emulsion from water and fat from a goat’s head, or the fat of boiled puppies. Sometimes the addition of human urine will be beneficial. Rags soaked in this mixture and tied to the trees will repel animals.” So I should imagine.
He tells us how to make roses grow in different and unexpected colours “according to a method contrived by Haj of Granada” by grafting dyes into their roots – saffron for a yellow rose, and indigo for a blue one; and how to make them give off unnatural but no doubt charming smells, of camphor, sugar or cloves, by inserting pellets of the substance just as the sap descends. He explains how to write on apples so that they reveal the secret messages as they ripen, and how to jolly along fading orange trees, “so that those leaves which have become yellow are restored and a red tint is given to the fruit. Do this by pouring hot goat’s blood on the roots of the tree, or even human blood …” and he warns that to allow unseemliness anywhere near a violet is to court disaster. All this I have passed on to my daughter, who is about to become an under-gardener at an ancient Cambridge college where practical tips and bookishness, well mixed, will perhaps catch the flavour of the place. I have no doubt she will protect the violets of her college garden from unseemliness.
As for the book itself, it is a delight. Published by the Black Swan Press of Wantage in 1979, it it translated and illustrated by the printer and his brother, Philip and Peter Lord, and introduced by Glubb Pasha. Peter Lord, who cut the illustrations in wood and scraper-board has provided an enchanting (if not entirely Andalusian) series of vignettes of plants and animals and implements. All in all, well worth the £6 it cost me. And now, only three days until the Simoon ceases, and I have nectarines and downy peaches (albeit from Saffron Walden market) for my lunch.