Friday, December 13, 2013

Of peas, beans, monks and kings

Charlemagne's Capitulary De Villis includes a long list of salads, herbs and vegetables that are to be grown on his estates: 
lily, roses, fenugreek, costmary, sage, rue, southernwood, cucumbers, pumpkins, gourds, [some kind of bean], cumin, rosemary, caraway, chick-pea, squill, gladiolus, tarragon, anise, colocynth, chicory, ammi, sesili, lettuces, spider’s foot, rocket salad, garden cress, burdock, penny-royal, hemlock, parsley, celery, lovage, juniper, dill, sweet fennel, endive, dittany, white mustard, summer savory, water mint, garden mint, wild mint, tansy, catnip, centaury, garden poppy, beets, hazelwort, marshmallows, mallows, carrots, parsnip, orach, [amaranth], kohlrabi, cabbages, onions, chives, leeks, radishes, shallots, cibols, garlic, madder, teazles, broad beans, peas, coriander, chervil, capers, clary.
Extensive as it, this list (which can be variously translated) includes only four legumes: fasiolus (sometimes translated as “kidney bean”), chick peas, broad beans and peas. (Note that peas at this point were “field peas”; that is, white and mature, not green and young.)

De Villis was a theoretical document, but luckily a few inventories of actual estates have survived. Legumes are listed for only two of these. At Annapes, the king's agents found: “one modius of beans, 12 modii of peas.” Strangely, at Staffelsee, “one sextarius of lentils” is inventoried, even though De Villis does not specify that item.

An earlier document, from 716, confirms a previous one, specifying what monks from Corbie (in Picardy) were to be given when they traveled to Fos (near Marseille) to pick up various imported goods. Along with various meats, chickens, eggs, etc. they were allotted one legume; the pea. A list of rents for several domains of the monastery at Saint-Maur-des-Fosses mainly lists various animals, wine and wheat etc. but the rent for one domain includes another: the broad bean.

Mentions of specific legumes are rare in early documents, but these mentions of, above all, peas (Pisum sativum) and broad beans (Vicia faba) echo what is found in archaeology – with the one wrinkle that often, instead of true broad beans, what has actually been found is its smaller cousin, the horse-bean (Vicia faba var. minor), (raising the question of whether written references to the “broad bean” may sometimes actually be to the smaller bean). At a Carolingian site in Auvergne, peas and horse beans were the only legumes found. Both peas and broad beans (and possibly horse beans) have been found at Dury, a site in Picardy, from between the IXth and XIIth centuries. Marie-Pierre Ruas highlights what is also apparent in written records: the dominance of these two legumes (taking broad beans and horse beans as variants of one type) grew under the Franks:
These two legumes are regularly identified in sites from the historic epoch. Their frequency clearly increases after the Gallo-Roman centuries. By the farinaceous nature of their grains and the possibility of storing them for a long time, they constitute along with cereals the populations' basic vegetable food.

They were certainly not unknown before that. At a number of prehistoric sites, peas, broad beans and horse beans have been found and all three can be considered ancient in France. But already under the Gauls, another pulse was found: the lentil. At a Gallic oppidum, for instance, lentils were found together with peas.

With Roman domination, lentils became commonplace. Lentils, peas and broad beans have all been found in a Gallo-Roman site in the north of France. Says Ruas: "Lentil is the pulse of the Gallo-Roman world (present in 83% of the sites)... it is often associated with Pisum sativum.” 

The three legumes were still found together at the start of the Medieval period; Salic law addresses theft from bean, pea or lentil fields. Writing in the sixth century, Anthimus does not (in most copies) mention peas at all. He does comment on broad beans: “Whole broad beans, well cooked, either in gravy or in seasoned oil or salt, are more fit than these beans crushed because they weigh on the stomach.” But he pays most attention to lentils, for which he provides one of the few actual recipes in his medical text:
Lentils are good washed and well boiled in pure water, so that their first hot water is poured out and a reasonable amount more of hot water put in, not too much, and so cook it slowly on the coals, so that when it has been almost cooked, add a little vinegar for flavor. And add the spice called Syrian sumac, a spoonful in powder, and sprinkle it on the lentils while on the fire and mix well. Take it off the fire and eat it. However, for flavor, you should add oleo gremiale while cooking in the second water; put in one good spoonful of coriander or two of its roots, not in pieces, but whole, and a little salt for taste.
But as we have seen, lentils are absent from many digs for later centuries. Ruas: “Lens culinaris appears to become of less importance from the Early Middle Ages onwards, [but] the frequency of Pisum increases up to the Late Middle Ages, both in rural and urban sites." The same was true of the horse bean, of which she writes:
Horse bean is moderately frequent during the Roman period, but its cultivation increases undeniably during the Middle Ages. Eventually, it becomes the principal pulse.... The success of this pulse could [in part] be derived from its more rigid stalks, which allow weeding, and a better adaptation to low temperatures than Lens. Vicia faba is also able to deal with a broader variety of soils.
The German influence probably also played a part; in Germany itself, writes Malcolm Todd, “barley, wheat, flax, peas and beans" were the main crops. (In Southwestern Germany, the Alamanni did grow both peas and lentils, but they already were in close relations with Romans at the end of the Empire.) If early aristocratic Franks, like Theuderic, might have retained some Roman taste for lentils, over time they seem to have preferred what was culturally familiar; as we have seen, Charlemagne (or his close advisers) did not even think to include lentils in De Villis, even if one estate (apparently on its own) grew them.

The lentil did not completely disappear in France. Storehouses from the start of the seventh century found in the Meuse had held lentils along with peas and horse beans. At a Carolingian site in Calvados, horse beans and lentils were the only pulses found. But such finds are rare; and by the late Medieval period, when cookbooks start to appear, no recipe appears for lentils.

Chick peas
In the South, another legume co-existed with beans and peas: the chick pea. “In Mediterranean France Pisum is replaced by Cicer arietinum, though there are records of pea from Montaigut." In looking at southern foods in the Middle Ages, Ruas writes: “The bean dominates in the South-West context, the Pyrenees included. While the pea is more frequent in this same area as also in Provence-Corsica, the chick pea appears as much as the bean in eastern Languedoc.” Overall: “Chickpea is sporadically found during all the periods except the High Middle Ages, but only in Southern France. This could mean that there was no transport of Cicer to the northern districts, as there had been during Roman times.” (One documented exception, from the eighth century, is that of the cellerar of Corbie, who took delivery of 150 pounds of cicer near Marseille to transport back to Picardy.)

They were unlikely to have been grown as far north as Metz, where Anthimus visited Theuderic. But they may still have been transported north at this early point. Whether he saw them there or not, it is not surprising that Anthimus, with his Graeco-Roman background, included them in his review: “Chick peas are good if well-boiled until completely liquified with oil and salt on them, and are also suitable for the kidneys. However they strictly cannot be recommended for the healthy to eat raw, because they can cause serious flatulence and bad indigestion and corruption of the stomach.” Some versions of his manuscript also contain this: “Softened black and white chick peas promote urine and certainly nourish. That in them which is fleshy when truly sweet promotes urine and voiding.”

Monks and cooks
Otherwise, of the dominant pair, the broad bean was somewhat more successful, especially as Christian fasting became more restrictive. When St. Bernard of Clairvaux founded the abbey of Cluny in the twelfth centuries, broad beans were so central to his monks' diet that he referenced them in several sermons. In one, he says that “greens, broad beans, gruel, a coarse bread with water disgust those at rest, but are delights to those who take great exercise”; in another, he mocks those who bellies were filled with beans looking down on more luxurious eaters, saying that it was better to use a little fat on one's food than to stuff oneself with “windy beans”.

The rules for the order also include what may be the first detailed recipe since Anthimus: for broad beans.

The monks are told to wash the beans carefully three times in water, then soak them overnight in a well-covered cauldron. The next morning they are to wash them three times again and then put them on the fire. While these cook, they are to skin off the froth which rises while boiling (using a slotted spoon to avoid accidentally gathering any beans in the process) and stir the beans to avoid their burning on the bottom. The beans are ready when their skins begin to burst, at which point the monks are to take them off the fire and cool them with three rinses of cold water, then stir them again and put them in a tightly covered pot. After their meeting, they are to reheat the beans, cooking a bit of thick bacon with them and later squeezing the fat from it to pour over the vegetables (an indulgence granted monks because olive oil was hard to obtain in many parts of France).

No other food is singled out this way in the rule.

Ecclesiastics were certainly not unaware of the side effects of eating beans. When Hincmar of Reims was sick, his fellow bishop Pardulus of Laon sent him medical advice, including the direction to “before rising from the table, take a measure of well-purged broad beans cooked with very pure fat.” This was intended to drive out Hincmar's phlegm and stir up the foods he had previously eaten, “not without noise”.

In the late twelfth century, broad beans were basic enough to be set as part of the payment for the carpenter at St. Germain des Près, who, on ordinary days, got two white and two dark loaves, a half sexter of wine, and a generale with broad beans. (The “general” probably consisted only of the beans themselves, though it may also have included cheese or thick bacon.)

Even as food became frankly luxurious (for some), these two legumes remained the main ones in France. In his Viandier, Taillevent offers several recipes for both peas and beans, including one that can be made with either. In several recipes, he also recommends puréed peas as a thickener. 

The author of the Menagier de Paris also offers several recipes for both. Intriguingly, he makes a distinction between old and new peas, which in effect means he may have been using green peas well before they become an Early Modern innovation. Also intriguing is the fact that he emphasizes the importance of the kind of water used: “usually peas do not cook well in well water: and in some places they cook well in water from fountains and river water, as in Paris, and in others, they only cook in water from fountains.” This kind of distinction was very important to Old Regime French bakers, but it is very rare to see it applied to cooking food, and in fact the author here only mentions it again in regard to... hazelnuts. He also provides a number of recipes for beans, again distinguishing between old and new (a distinction which did not have the same success as for peas). Strangely, though peas and beans are treated similarly in a number of ways, he makes no distinction in the water used for cooking beans.

The Latin Tractatus de modo preparandi et condiendi omnia cibaria, a lesser-known cookbook from the same century, also includes several recipes for both.

Again, none of these works mention lentils at all. By the eighteenth century, these had long fallen into frank disrepute, as Diderot's Encyclopédie noted: "Doctors have always regarded lentils as the worst of all vegetables... More modern authors have not in truth said as much ill of lentils, but they all agree in viewing them as a rather bad food."

As it turns out, broad beans may have offered more cause for worry. Daniel Gourevitch is only one of several authors to address the subject of favism, and its implications:
The broad bean... consumed in large quantities during a period of several months, can be dangerous, responsible for cases of favism...
This... illness puts into play "nature and nurture", genetics and culture, in a way too complex to examine here. One must say nonetheless that the broad bean.. constitutes an important source of protein.... [The research of Mirko Grmek has shown that] favism, induced by the ingestion of broad beans (or even, among the most sensitive subjects, by simply inhaling their pollen), particularly common in the Mediterranean region, is characterized by anemia, indicated by colorless urines, jaundice, nauseas, dizzy spells, vomiting... This predisposition goes together with an enzyme defect (G6PD). Well then the bean has on the affected individuals the same effect as an antimalarial: from which comes the hypothesis that the bean itself might have anti-malarial properties... an exemplary case of a relationship between culture and genetics.

Though the Romans did eat broad beans, they, like others from the Mediterranean region, had their doubts about doing so; says Pliny:
It is generally thought that they dull the senses, and cause sleepless nights attended with dreams. Hence it is that the bean has been condemned by Pythagoras; though, according to some, the reason for this denunciation was the belief which he entertained that the souls of the dead are enclosed in the bean: it is for this reason, too, that beans are used in the funereal banquets of the Parentalia. According to Varro, it is for a similar cause that the Flamen abstains from eating beans: in addition to which, on the blossom of the bean, there are certain letters of ill omen to be found.
Albeit intuitively then, they and others from the Mediterranean region saw good reason to, if not avoid broad beans, not eat great quantities of them. Conversely, the Franks had no such vulnerability; seen in this light, the bean's later success makes all the more sense.


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