COOKING UP A STORY In Tre-mang, this almond cake with rose icing was traditionally served at funerals.
One of the lesser-known tragedies in European history was the volcanic demise of the North Atlantic island nation of Tre-mang, colonized by the Portuguese in 1457, with Spanish, Dutch and Austrian overlords at one time or another. The island, and Tre-manner culture, was lost in the cataclysm in July 1913.
The catastrophe went virtually unnoticed in Europe, on the eve of World War I, and around the globe. But some deep research and scholarship on the part of Santa Rosa author Eli Brown, 40, has kept the culture of Tre-mang alive.
Tragic, but Tre-mang never existed. It's a fictional island existing in the crafty mind of Brown, whose imagination ran so wild with the idea of creating a cookbook that he invented a culture and a people to go with it. Brown is the author of three books, including Cinnamon and Gunpowder, a swashbuckling story about a pirate queen and the chef she takes hostage to literally cook for his life.
In his new book, The Feasts of Tre-mang, Brown cooks up new, deliciously rich recipes and a tongue-in-cheek history, complete with cultural notes in a tale of the lost heritage of an island that seems real enough to taste.
"I love to eat," Brown says from his home tucked against Annadel State Park, where he lives with his partner and one-year-old. "I'm always thinking about food. Food is one of the biggest pleasures in life." He's a self-taught chef and former vegan who loves "strong, curious flavors."
The original recipes in Feasts of Tre-mang feature traditional European foods: duck, flaky pastry, figs, goat meat . . . You'd be forgiven for mistaking Tre-mang's cuisine for Spanish or Portuguese. That's a win for Brown's lore-making. "Maintaining authenticity about who would have colonized the island gave [me] carte blanche on European flavors," he says.
I'm not sure I'm deft enough to cook these recipes, but I'd certainly eat them. Dishes include kerkestle tuff, an almond cake with rose icing, made especially for funerals; azis, lavender-salted broccoli; kemmerling, a pistachio and red wine pâté; wit wat, black-tea candy; and perferlum kiz, roasted duck with wheat berries and dried figs. Even if you don't fall for the flimflammery of Brown's imagined culture, you could easily get lost in the sophisticated spectrum of his flavors.
Recipes aside, the book is a delight. Brown's pseudo-cultural treatise reads like a stuffier version of Rick Steves' Back Door series: "In the morning, the proper way to hail a fellow was: 'Ho! Are your goats eating?' In the evening one asked: 'Have your ducks roosted?' These were the polite ways to ask how things were at home."
The island folklore has just enough sense to ring true, and just enough nonsense to cause a smile. "Goat herding was such an integral part of Tre-manner culture that, in their mythology, even Death himself kept enough to provide plenty of milk." Goats need to be trained to stay with the herd, near home, in a process called boozling. Trying to spook Tre-manner goats into running away was called bam-boozling, and by the time you read that sentence, you know you've been had.
Brown, who studied visual arts at UC Santa Cruz before getting his MFA in writing from Mills College in Oakland, had a ball with Photoshop. All but one of the images in the book are altered, notwithstanding the food photos. The food photos, he says, are all real. The one "true" Tre-mang photo comes courtesy of some friends who kindly dressed themselves and their children in supposed Tre-manner attire. The remaining photos look like vintage shots from an elderly relative's album, featuring goats, peculiar headgear and lots of baskets, along with classic botanicals, currency, postcards and maps.
Brown and his family moved to Santa Rosa from the East Bay about a year ago, leaving behind an established garden on their suburban farm; they managed to get a garden into the ground at their new place this year and also have chickens. Seasonal produce and the local environment inspire his recipes as well as his imagination. "I get a huge inspiration from the oak forest that we have in our backyard. I write upstairs when I can," to get the best view, he says.
Brown and family have also become devotees of Sonoma County culture. "We take advantage of the vibe," says the author, who, with his family, frequents farmers markets and West County towns in search of bounty that is not imagined and very real.
From the Feasts of Tre-mang:
Pear Juice Marinated Goat Kebabs
1 1/4 lbs de-boned goat leg, or other goat meat
2 sprigs of fresh rosemary, 4 inch lengths, or ½ cup dried rosemary
1 cup pear juice, nectar, or cider
1 tbsp tahini
1 tsp ground black pepper
2 tsp salt
Cut goat meat into 1 1/2 inch cubes.
In a glass or Pyrex bowl mix all ingredients. Cover and refrigerate for 1-2 days.
Preheat barbecue grill to medium high heat.
Skewer goat meat onto metal shish kebab skewers. (If using wooden skewers, be sure to soak them in water for at least a half hour prior to use.)
Grill meat over medium high heat, covered for 20-25 minutes.
Use remaining marinade to baste periodically. (For safety be sure to cook well after last basting.) Overcooking will make the meat tough. For added smoky flavor, place fresh sprigs of rosemary on hot coals and cover.
Serve with focaccia bread and fennel rosemary sauerkraut.