I started with what I thought would help: a pomegranate, a candle, something in which to place the candle which would hold up the rind, and something to warm, butter (bile was commonly warmed like this, but that isn't something you can by from the supermarket).
First job was to empty my pomegranate. I'd never had anything to do with this fruit prior to this, so that was an education. I had imagined a thicker rind, with more white pith, a bit like an overgrown passionfruit. Well, that was wrong.
The fibres holding the seeds together aren't the easiest things to break through either, but I managed to empty half the fruit. This was how it looked after I had rinsed out the left over juice.
I'd set up my candle holder, and placed my rind above the flame like so:
And the damn flame went out! I was going to have to hold it up. So I added my knob of butter:
And proceeded to hold it over the flame. First, it never surprises me how much heat a tea candle can generate, but it surprised me how much heat the pomegranate rind conducts. Also as the rind heats it became softer and gives way under your hands. At some points I was holding the rind well above the candle and my fingers were getting uncomfortably warm. Even at this height:
My brother Rick was kind enough to assist me in this and is holding the ruler for this shot.
In very little time, my butter was melting and was definitely warmed through. This photo was taken less than 10 minutes after I began this.
I chose to melt butter for a specific reason. I wanted to know why people were directed to warm medicaments in this manner. Warming material was common in ancient medical texts. It was even said that all medicaments dripped into ears had to be warmed. But warming could take place in a variety of ways. Some directions called for liquids to be warmed in a strigil (the device used to scrape oil from the body at the baths), or in cups or pots. Warming was sometimes not even directed, just expected. So warming in a pomegranate rind suggests that this method does something to the medicaments. By warming butter, I could tell what kind of a difference it made by safely comparing the taste. It should be noted that numerous materials used medicinally in the ancient world are poisonous, and you shouldn't just taste things without giving consideration to safety.
I had been told by a colleague that pomegranate rind is incredibly bitter, and it was used as a curdling agent in antiquity, so I had expected the butter to become bitter. It didn't. It had taken up some of the flavour of the fruit, but it wasn't bitter. In any event, warming material in the rind of a pomegranate definitely would have affected the medicaments, and as such this method was certainly an important element of the preparation.
But this still left me with another half of a pomegranate with which to experiment.
I have only just finished writing a commentary on ear treatments, and Celsus described the creation of a medicament which used the pomegranate heating method. Celsus wrote:
"If again the ears have pus in them as well, it is proper to pour in ... the juice of a sweet warmed in its , to which a little myrrh is added."(6.7.2A)
And I have some myrrh. And its incredible how much juice come out of a pomegranate. So I started my second experiment.
I hadn't expected the myrrh to float.
For some reason this time I was able to hold the rind closer to the candle. For the majority of time I managed to hold it around an inch above the flame. This was somewhat different to the first experiment. Unfortunately I did spill some of the juice at one point when I tried to look at the bottom of the rind.
All up, I held the rind over the candle for twenty minutes, and in less than half that time I could see whisps of steam rising from the surface of the liquid. That steam had the smell of myrrh. Not long after that, all the myrrh which had been floating had fallen to the bottom of the rind. At around 15 minutes in there were even some tiny (1-2mm in diameter) bubbles. The steam become more obvious after that, and it could be smelled from further away.
While it doesn't photograph well, the steam was still rising after I placed the rind down on the table at the end of the heating. The lighter patch I've circled here was steam.
At the end I tipped the remaining juice out:
The dark spots that you can see in the bottom of the rind are what remains of the myrrh. I fished some pieces out, and they have a soft crumbly texture which myrrh does not normally have.
My brother and I tasted the juice. Yuck, doesn't even begin to cover it. It is horribly bitter, and likely tasted worse as a result of my tasting the non-heated juice immediately prior to tasting the doctored juice. I think the bitterness must be the result of the myrrh, but the slight bubbling of the juice might suggest that the more bitter elements of the rind had released into the juice. I would like to conduct this experiment once more without the myrrh to see what difference that might have made. No I didn't pour any of it into my ear. That would not only be gross, but my ear is not currently purulent and my GP would pitch a fit.
So at the end I have a pomegranate rind containing butter (it has started to congeal as I've been writing this blog), and a pomegranate rind with a significantly blackened skin. At no point did the fruit touch the flame, so that is likely the result of candle smoke.
I now know that this was a reasonably simple thing to do. While I used a candle, I imagine that an oil lamp would work just as easily. Yes, the rind gets a bit hot, but at no time unreasonably. The rind also gets softer, but that was not the cause of my spill; I'm just a klutz. All up, despite what I might do different in the future, what I sought more than anything else was to see how easy it was to warm something this way. Very easy would be the answer. It might have taken longer in antiquity because I do not know if modern hybridisation has made the rind thinner, but even if that was the case, I don't imagine it would have made it all that much more problematic. I also know now that when doctors recommended this, they did so for a reason, and that swapping heating methods would have compromised the treatment. All in all it was a successful experiment.
Now I have to figure out what to do with my pomegranate seeds and remaining juice.