Saturday, January 25, 2014

Making Early Medieval food

Those today who cook Medieval food typically, and logically enough, do so from cookbooks. But this, if it is the most obvious approach, has two disadvantages. One is that cookbooks in this period described the specialized food of an elite, not by any means what most people ate. The other is that these first appeared at the end of the thirteenth century, whereas the Medieval era began in the fifth – that is, “Medieval food” made from cookbooks omits not only some, but most, of the food of the overall period. (In fact, it might more properly be called "Pre-Renaissance" food, since it anticipates the food of that era.)

How, on the other hand, is one to cook food from an era when there were (virtually) no cookbooks? In fact, more information exists than one might imagine both on the food that was eaten in Early Medieval times and how it was made. Such information is dispersed across a variety of sources and rarely, even taken together, provides a complete picture. But then neither do the often-cursory cookbooks for the later period. With what information does exist, one can certainly assemble a number of credible, if not incontrovertibly “authentic”, Early Medieval dishes.

It helps in this that for several centuries not only did most of the south of Gaul retain its Roman culture, but well-off Franks made some effort to adopt it, notably in regard to luxuries. Roman cuisine itself remained the model for the best cuisine, however much the reality may have declined. We know this notably because garum – a distinctly Roman condiment – continues to be mentioned right up into Charlemagne's time, but also because certain spices remained important which had been prized by the Romans but which would essentially disappear from later Medieval cuisine.

On the other hand, Gaul's new rulers had simpler, and sometimes distinctly different, tastes and even their “Roman” food would have reflected that. They also had their own specialties and customs and archeaological evidence, such as the bones of slaughtered horses, shows that many retained them.

The imperfect image, then, that one can assemble of the food in this time reflects both Roman and Germanic elements, not to mention a greater variety of social strata, since much of what we know comes not from the records of the elite but from actual remains in a variety of contexts. One result, ironically, is that the food one can reconstruct from this era is probably less exotic to a modern Western palate than that based on the later cookbooks, which reflect more refined and often more ostentatious tastes.

Cookbooks mainly provide two classes of information: ingredients and the methods for preparing them. For this period, ample information exists on ingredients, both from documents and archeology. Information on methods is fitful, peeking through in pieces from a few documents and telling finds in archeology. But enough exists to apply these to the ingredients and create dishes which probably vary from period dishes most (as is also true of cookbook-based dishes) in the very different qualities of meats and other ingredients to be found today.

Before, after and even during

The under-documented cuisine of this era is book-ended by two better documented and certainly more sophisticated cuisines: Roman and Late Medieval. On the earlier side, it is also important to factor in the little that is known about Germanic cooking, even if Tacitus claimed the Germans ate “only to satisfy nature”. Earlier descriptions of the Gauls' meals also remain relevant in those areas – mainly the countryside – where shifts in sophistication had little effect. (Images on pottery show that Celtic culture survived under Roman rule, however surreptitiously.)

Roman cuisine was one of the most complex the world has ever known; even the royal meals of the Late Medieval and Renaissance period seem restrained by comparison. Unfortunately, we know it mainly through literary descriptions (which rarely give details on ingredients) and De Re Coquinaria, the cookbook credited (apparently in a kind of homage or convention) to the long-dead gourmet Apicius. If some of the recipes in this book might have been daily fare for those of means, most are very ornate and probably intended for more formal events. Many combine heterogeneous ingredients in a way that was rare even for the French court: bacon, brains and eggs with giblets, fish, brains and chicken liver, sow's udder with fish and chicken (this last in an “everyday dish”!). Spices and herbs too are used generously, even jarringly; one recipe for "salt fish balls" uses pepper, lovage, origany, parsley, coriander, cumin, rue seed and mint in the balls themselves, and then describes a sauce for them using pepper, lovage, savory, onions, wine AND vinegar – all this to be topped with thyme and pepper.

Compared to such exuberance, the relentlessly repeated Late Medieval combinations of clove, ginger, cinnamon, etc. seem downright plain.

More than one source claims that Pseudo-Apicius' recipes were still used under Charlemagne. The Belgian scholar Liliane Plouvier gives an overview of this question:
The oldest known manuscripts known of Apicius' Culinary Art go back to the ninth century.
Some claim that in this period it was a dead text, recopied only for its intellectual interest....
But if one examines The Culinary Art in the light of ninth century fashions, one sees surprising continuities.
An attentive rereading of it allows one even to extract a small corpus of recipes which show no anachronism and "fit" well to the Carolingian food model. They give a rather good idea of what one could eat at Charlemagne's table.
Plouvier then offers a number of recipes from Pseudo-Apicius as, essentially, Carolingian recipes. Other sources say plainly that these recipes were used under Charlemagne.

Even if one does not postulate that upscale Carolingian cooks were allowed to put their grease-stained hands on carefully copied manuscripts of preciously preserved documents, it is credible that whatever culinary knowledge had made its way (across three centuries) to them reflected some remnant of Roman cooking. There are reasons however to think that whatever versions they used of these preparations would have been far simpler. One is simply the reduced availability of ingredients; if trade flourished under Charlemagne, it was still a long way from being as integral to French society as it had been to the highly organized Roman. Another is simply the difference between Frankish and Roman culture, the first being hardier and more mobile, based on forests, whereas the second was more refined, even, at the end, decadent, and tended to be more stable and based around cities (which, if they never really disappeared in the Early Medieval period, had much declined).

There is also the pervasive influence of Christianity, which made simplicity a virtue and sensual indulgence a vice in ways unknown to most Imperial Romans. In one analysis, taste itself became suspect:
The Christian religion... by continuously recommending the elevation of the mind and detachment from all things material, ended up considering taste as too earthly and even useless to the development of thought. Before the advent of Christianity, those living in Antiquity were more inclined to value sensory and corporal pleasures.
(Geelkens, summarizing von Hoffmann)
Even if bishops were responsible for some of the worst excesses noted in this period, more than one noble took orders late in Life and Lent and other fast periods were a continual reminder of the need for even lay people to practice some degree of self-mortification. Too, the fact that Charlemagne himself, if he could put on a good feed when prestige required it, preferred simple foods, as he did simple Frankish dress, suggests some continuity of simpler Germanic values even as Roman ones had their influence.

As a practical matter, what this suggests for a modern cook is that, yes, one can use recipes from Pseudo-Apicius as a basis for dishes from this period, but in simplifying them, at the least taking into account what ingredients (see below) were known to be available and which appear to have fallen away.

This seems all the more likely from looking at two other sources: the dietetic letter (De Observatione Ciborum) written by Anthimus to a Frankish king and the various Late Medieval cookbooks.

For now, the simplest thing to say about Anthimus' work is that it too provides a glance at Roman cooking, but Roman cooking as actually practiced in a Frankish context. Anthimus mainly provides cursory instructions (as befits a medical work) for various dishes, but does offer enough actual recipes to give some idea of the basic cooking principles of the time. The very fact that he only briefly references (at the start) the health effects of mixing multiple meats and spices, but does not dwell on them in his specific comments, suggests that these were not a big issue at Theuderic's court. (Whereas, to the contrary, he writes at some length on the Franks' love of bacon.)

Turning to Late Medieval works, it is striking how much simpler the recipes – typically, for upscale food – were than those from Pseudo-Apicius. Here is the entry for veal from one of the earliest surviving cookbooks, the Enseignemenz:
Veal, roasted; the loin parboiled in water, then larded and roasted; and eat with green garlic, or with pepper. And if you want it shredded, parboil it in water, and then put into pieces in the pan, and then fry the pieces in lard or with fatty bacon, and then put beaten egg over it, and then sprinkle it with pepper. It will be shredded. And if anyone wants it in a pasty, parboil it in water, then lard it, chop it up into pieces, and put them in a pasty.
This uses one meat, prepared in a fairly simple way: par-boiled, roasted and eaten with one of two flavorings. The more ornate version (“shredded”) is to fry it (with lard or bacon for the fat, and no doubt for flavor as well), then pour egg over it and pepper it. Finally, the use of a pasty is more specifically Late Medieval, but would not have been completely foreign to the Romans, who also served food in pastry.
The entry for pork includes one (simple) sauce, but otherwise begins: “the loin roasted, in winter, and in summer, in green garlic” and ends: “the four feet and the ears and the snout, in a sauce of parsley and spices soaked in vinegar. Pork intestines in a good roast with garlic or verjuice.”
In fairness, more ornate recipes exist in the same document, and later works offer even more sophisticated recipes. But these show that at this point, as French cooks began to record their preparations, French cuisine had become far simpler than whatever Roman models had once guided it. It often came down to boiling or roasting, adding an herb or a spice and, with these or separately, a tart liquid such as vinegar or verjuice.
Consider too this more sophisticated recipe from one version of Taillevent's Viandier:
To Make White Brewet Of Capons
Or poultry or veal, it is best to boil it and take the broth, once it is cooked, and to put it aside. Blanch the almonds, and crush them, and soak them in the broth of the poultry, capons or veal, and then strain the almonds through a cheesecloth, and take a reasonable quantity of powdered white ginger, and infuse with verjuice and white wine, and put a large quantity of large lumps of sugar to boil. When it is boiled, put the broth separately in a nice pot and also the meats (that is, the poultry, capon or veal), and, when serving it, put your meats in a dish with your broth.
Taillevent combines cooking the meat and creating the broth in one step here, but the result is again meat cooked in liquid. He then creates a thickener and flavors it, then serves the meat in that broth. This is already more complex than the Enseignemenz's recipes, yet, compared to either Pseudo-Apicius' recipes or later French preparations, still not all that sophisticated.

Fundamentally, neither the Roman nor the Late Medieval methods are very sophisticated: the meat is cooked in liquid, a thickener is added, the spices are added (most often) at the end. The most striking difference when one looks through many recipes from both is the tendency of Pseudo-Apicius to use a lot of different main ingredients together. Late Medieval works will sometimes mix more than one, but typically a chicken dish is exactly that, a dish of kid the same, etc. Together these works offer signposts towards how food was cooked in the Early Medieval period, especially taken with what is known of the methods and ingredients actually used.


The basic cooking methods of the time are clear both from literature and archeology: boiling and roasting. Stewpots are mentioned in various texts; Charlemagne famously loved roasts; pots found with holes for hanging, pots showing signs of fire, at least one large spit found in a grave confirm that roasting and boiling were the two most common methods. Anthimus, whose sixth century work describes a largely Roman approach to cooking the food available to a Frankish king, mentions both these methods numerous times, but also refers to grilling, a technique that was very popular among the Romans (far more than spitting, which was more of a German method). The museum at St. Germain en Laye has a (very flimsy) grill left by one of Caesar's soldiers at Alesia; grills have also been found elsewhere. If grilling had faded by the end of the Medieval period, when it was mainly used for fish and toast, it probably endured for some time in the Gallo-Roman south and, as Anthimus shows, among affluent Franks eating approximately Roman food. Anthimus also mentions steaming, a method which would not be used in France again for cooking per se until the eighteenth century. In one case, too, he suggests slow-roasting the meat so that it is “as if steamed”.

Roman kitchens also had small ovens, as did some Germanic households. These too could be used to roast meat.

Variations are noted in these methods, as simple as they were. Several times, Anthimus mentions roasting meat at a distance from the fire, essentially to cook it more gently. In practice, in a Roman-style kitchen, this would have meant setting it at some distance from the grill and the fire beneath it; the typical Roman set-up looked very much like a stove-top with the grill either in the middle or set to one side, leaving space to set the meat near but not on the fire. He also mentions brushing roasting meat with brine or with salt and wine; other evidence exists of roasting in honey (see below). Even fruit was roasted, though (per Anthimus) under the coals. A monastery cook showed St. Paulin how to add oil to boiling water to improve the taste of food; this is a surprisingly detailed touch from the period and simultaneously shows that the method was known in the period, yet unfamiliar enough to surprise the saint.

The image of a stewpot simmering at the back of wood stove with random foods being thrown into it has endured into recent centuries. In a period where much cooking was done on a hearth – that is, essentially, a simple fire, crudely contained – efficient use of heat, not to mention limited equipment, would have led many to cook everything together. In more nuanced cooking, even without great means or skill, more controlled additions could be made. Legumes, which typically require long simmering, would have been one obvious choice and Gregory of Tours gives one specific example of adding chick peas to the water for boiling fowl. Anthimus provides other suggestions: “Mix celery [alternately, parsley], cilantro, and dill or leeks in while cooking all food, so long as the leeks are slightly parboiled.” These suggestions are simple enough to have been widely used, yet appear in one of Pseudo-Apicius' refined recipes as well:
Otherwise, take out the small bones of a chicken. Then put in a saucepan [with] leeks, dill and salt. When cooked add pepper and celery seed, then infuse rice [or another seed?] made fine, add garum or reduced wine or very reduced wine. Mix all this and serve with sausages.
At various points, Anthimus also mentions flavoring the water with salt, various spices, liquids such as vinegar, honey, cooked wine or olio gremiale (an oil from young olives), or other greens such as fennel and pennyroyal. He also (by one reading) mentions boiling peacocks in wine (with pepper).

Note that the Roman recipe here also includes something found in later medieval recipes but not mentioned by Anthimus: thickening (with the rice or other grain made fine and infused). That is exactly the kind of refinement which probably fell away with the decline of sophisticated cooking. Another would have been separate sauces.

Pseudo-Apicius describes a number of complex prepared sauces, but it is rare to see these mentioned in Early Medieval food. The one exception may be Fortunatus' complaints about a cook's sauces being more important than his own rights. Anthimus makes ambivalent references to what could be either the cooking juices of meat or prepared sauces (or gravies), but never cites any specific sauces. Compare this to Aldebrandino de Siena and Arnauld de Villeneuve, both of whom wrote similar, if much longer, medical works in the thirteenth century and included mentions of sauces. On the other hand he mentions preparations where the spices are simply added towards the end of cooking and this was probably a common method in a time when professional cooks with proper training would have been scarce.

When sauces did again become common, they were more modest than they had been and would become in later centuries. Consider this recipe for cameline sauce, one of the most common, from a late version of the Viandier:
To make a quart of cameline, brown bread in front of a good red fire, without burning it. Then soak it in very pure red Burgundy wine in a new pot, or a dish. Once it is soaked, strain through a cloth with red Burgundy wine. Then take a pint of vinegar and a quarter pound of true cinnamon, an ounce of ginger and a quarter of an ounce of assorted spices, and salt it well. Strain the bread and spices through the cloth, and put in a nice pot.
A thick base is made with toast and wine, then strained with more wine, and cinnamon, along with other spices is added, as well as salt. The result is strained. Compare this to a sauce for various birds from De Re Coquinaria:
Pepper, dry cumin, pounded. Lovage, mint, seedless raisins or Damascus plums, a little honey. Blend with myrtle wine, vinegar, garum, and oil. Heat and whip [with] celery and savory.
Far more varied ingredients are used, including fruit and myrtle wine, and it is heated and whisked afterward. The later recipe seems plodding by comparison. It is also true that one repeatedly finds the same spices in Late Medieval cuisine – ginger, cinnamon, clove, etc., ad nauseum – whereas these are more varied in the Roman sauces.

Another common method was frying. Anthimus mentions this several times (usually with disapproval). While this may have been done with olive oil in the South, in the north oil was rare and so pork fat was probably used. The degree to which pork fat replaced oil through this period may shock some modern eaters. The Church itself for a time allowed even monks who avoided meat to use pork fat on their greens, simply because oil was hard to come by. Anthimus says that it can be used on salads “where there is no oil.”

In regard to salads, note that (as seen in regard to food for saints), the standard dressing was oil and salt; as much as vinegar was used elsewhere, it did not yet appear in this context.

Anthimus refers to both soft-boiled and hard-boiled eggs, but does not mention frying them (though perhaps only because he disapproves of doing so.) He also mentions whipped egg whites, but in a recipe which is clearly flagged as Byzantine.

He refers to cooking shellfish in its shell, a method that probably seemed natural enough at the time. He disapproves of boiling or roasting cheese, but his very disapproval suggests that some already did this.

Three words in his text have never been satisfactorily translated, but may refer to a particular kind of Germanic pot (sodinga), a skewer (brido) and aging or marinating meat (caprientur). Depending on how one reads these, they may provide further hints about cooking methods.

One way to envision the methods used is to consider the available equipment. The list of kitchen equipment for Roman cuisine is dauntingly extensive and probably of limited use for the Early Medieval period. Archaeology provides a more useful glimpse of what was used. At one Gallo-Roman site, equipment included a deep dish, a pot for boiling meat, drinking cups, pitchers, small barrels, various storage containers and pounding stones or mortars for grinding grains and spices. (Toulouze) The mention of mortars is particularly significant; a large number of these have been found elsewhere as well (Pomarèdes/Barberan). Mortars are not necessary to basic cooking in the same way, say, as a stewpot. They are used for more refined preparations, in the same way that a modern cook who has (and actually uses) a blender or a food processor is probably doing something more than basic cooking. They may have been used for pounding grains, for instance, but were also necessary for grinding spices into powder. They are still sometimes found in Merovingian and Carolingian graves (Thouvenot, Horry). But such finds are rare, suggesting a corresponding decline in careful preparations (though not their complete disappearance).

A royal cook having requisitioned his boat, Fortunatus wrote bitterly:
A cook's sauces are worth more than my rights;
Law has less force than the stewpot.
Fortunatus emblematically refers to the cook's “frying pans, cauldrons, buckets, dishes, tripods”. The very fact that this list is probably incomplete suggests that the poet considered these the most salient items in the cook's battery. The “frying pans”, “cauldrons” and “dishes” are expected elements. The mention of “buckets” may seem banal enough, but it should be noted that buckets – in a time before cheap glass bottles and other vessels – had a particular importance. One bucket, found at Envermeu in 1854, gave off “a strong odor, like that of beer, or another fermented drink” and contained a cup in white glass. The glass continued a reddish residue, resembling the dregs of red wine (Cochet). (Whether a modern cook would want to go so far as to serve beer or wine in a wooden bucket is another question.) The “tripod” is worthy of note as a refinement a step above simply setting a pot on the coals.

It seems likely that this cook, though Merovingian, would have at least tried to cook Roman food. It would be interesting then to know if he had a grill as well, which simply did not fit the poet's line, or if the emphasis on equipment that would be used over a fire corresponded with what Fortunatus (who wrote a little after Anthimus) was used to seeing.

If the basic Germanic kit was simpler, it is worth considering closely. Merovingian pots typically are biconic; that is, they widen from a narrow base to a wide middle and then narrow again towards the opening. Many such pots have been found bearing marks of fire, suggesting they were used for cooking. The shape itself may have had some effect on some dishes made in these. On the other hand, despite this configuration, Merovingian pottery was often wide mouthed. In the Carolingian period, vessels in general became more closed, prompting this observation:
In regard to dishware, one can imagine that stews (of vegetables or meats, cooked étouffée on the hearth or in the ovens), accompanied with bread, became commonplace in Carolingian food to the detriment of gruels which could be prepared [under the Merovingians] in low open forms or of clear bouillons simmered in stewpots hung over the hearth. This morphological mutation is then representative of a true "revolution" in the culinary domain.
(Lefevre, Mahé)
(Etouffée in this case refers, not to the Cajun dish, but to “stifling” the cooking food; that is, forcing the steam back onto it.)

Overall, it is clear that the main methods in this period were roasting and boiling, with frying a likely option as well; baking was rarer, but used; grilling and steaming were also options earlier on. Boiled food was enhanced with simple additions, both liquid and solid. Spices were added most often right into the cooking liquid; separate sauces were probably very simple or even non-existent for much of the period. Later boiled dishes may have been made in a more close-mouthed vessel than in the first centuries of Frankish rule, with a corresponding impact on preparation. Meat could be roasted at different degrees and brushed or coated with brine, wine or honey, at the least. Fruit and cheese too could be roasted. Pork fat was often used in the north where southerners might have used oil; this included salads, which typically were served only with either fat or oil and salt.


It is not difficult to identify the key ingredients used in the time. Charlemagne's Capitulary de Villis, for instance, mentions a wide range of animals, plants and products that could be used for food: cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, bacon, smoked meats, sausages, chickens, eggs, geese, honey, bread, flour, millet, panic, cheese, butter, flour, vegetables, fish, dry or green herbs, radishes, and turnips. Of several birds mentioned "for ornament", most are also known to have been eaten: swans, peacocks, pheasants, ducks, pigeons, partridges and turtle doves. The drinks to be made include wine, mulberry wine, reduced wine, beer, mead, cider, perry "or any other suitable beverage". The document specifically references fish from the fish ponds (the issues with identifying exactly which were farmed have been previously been discussed.)

The plants listed include fenugreek, costus, sage, rue, southernwood, cucumbers, pumpkins, gourds, cumin, rosemary, caraway, chick-pea, squill, tarragon, anise, chicory, ammi, sesili, lettuce, 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, garden poppy, beets, hazelwort, marshmallows, mallows, carrots, parsnip, orach, kohlrabi, cabbages, onions, chives, leeks, radishes, shallots, garlic, broad beans, peas, coriander, chervil, capers, clary and house-leeks. The trees include several varieties of apple and pear, as well as plum, sorb, medlar, chestnut, peach, quince, hazel, almond, mulberry, laurel, pine, fig, nut and cherry trees of various kinds.

Any of these items could acceptably be included in modern versions of Early Medieval food. For a modern cook, however, it is probably more useful to narrow the possible options down to what was most commonly eaten. In this regard, archeology and the documentation dialogue in important ways.

The written record, for instance, shows a clear preference in the time for pork. Salic Law, right from the start, addresses various ages and genders of pig, showing the importance of, for instance, a suckling pig versus an older one. Carolingian records not only mention adult and suckling pigs, but friskinga, that is young but not suckling pigs (in most analyses; the question is debated). Archeology, on the other hand, shows that far more beef was actually eaten than was previously thought. Regional variations existed as well; mutton and goat notably seem to have been more popular in the south.

One can fine tune such information further by using information on butchering methods, for instance, to see what specific parts of large animals were eaten. Gallo-Roman butchers seem to have made special efforts to isolate ribs and beef ribs have been found in at least one grave. The Franks were more likely to simply split an animal into “quarters”, which are often referenced in documentation and even found in archeology. Split skulls show that brains were often favored.

A general idea of what meats and other foods were considered basics can be derived from an assortment of similar texts which define foods to be given to royal envoys or others. Some of these appear in laws, some in the tractoria. One of the latter has been referenced previously in discussing spices; the “fill in the amounts” form provided by Marculfe. Here is the complete form:
so many muids of white bread, wine and beer, pounds of bacon and meat, so many pigs and piglets, so many sheep and lambs, so many geese, pheasants, chickens and eggs, so many pounds of oil and garum, so many pounds of honey and vinegar, so many pounds of cumin, pepper, costus, clove, spikenard, cinnamon, mastic, dates, pistachios and almonds, candles weighing a pound each, pounds of cheese and salt, so many loads of herbs, vegetables [greens and legumes?] and wood, so many torches
The other list referenced, from a donation for the monastery of Corbie (confirmed in 716), provides similar details:
10 loaves of white bread and 20 of lesser quality, 1 muid of wine and 1 muid of beer, 10 pounds of bacon, 20 pounds of meat, 12 pounds of cheese, 20 pounds of peas, 1 kid, 2 chickens, 10 eggs, 2 pounds of oil and 1 pound of garum, 1 ounce of pepper and 2 ounces of cumin; salt, vinegar, vegetables and wood in sufficient quantity
A similar form from the time of Louis the Pious includes milk, cheese, mustard and mead, but no spices. Another lays out different rations for different ranks: a bishop was to get forty loaves of bread, three lambs, three measures of “fermented drink”, a young pig, three chickens, and fifteen eggs; an abbot or a count, thirty loaves, two lambs, two measures of drink, one young pig, three chickens and fifteen eggs; and a vassal (but hardly a peasant) seventeen loaves, one lamb, one young pig, one measure of drink, two chickens, and ten eggs.

Bear in mind that in each of these cases it was assumed that the envoys' cooks could create satisfactory meals from only these ingredients, even if some hosts may have (voluntarily or not) added to the required rations. This offers a corresponding challenge to the modern cook.

What were the basics then? “Meat”, typically pork (sometimes distinguished by the pig's age), both mutton and lamb, probably also beef where the term is general, but probably not goat (the reference to kid is exceptional), except perhaps in the south; bacon, always referenced as a separate option; always chickens and eggs, sometimes geese and/or pheasant; honey, vinegar and the Roman condiment garum; often cheese. If mustard is mentioned less here, its appearance elsewhere shows it was common; however, this may have referred, at least for some time, to the seed and not the preparation that was later standard. Beer and wine are most often mentioned for drink, less often mead.

Early on, such lists included spices, though these were omitted in later centuries. As has previously been seen, the main spices available across the period were pepper, cumin, clove, cinnamon, ginger, mastic, costus and spikenard. Vegetables (either green or legumes) were rarely specified and may in fact have not been available at all in some cases. But some might simply have been taken from local gardens (again, De Villis provides a rich idea of the possible options). As has also previously been noted, in terms of legumes, lentils were prized initially, but their use declined as broad beans and field peas, and, in the south, chick peas, became dominant. (The dominance of peas and beans through most of the Medieval period is really striking and should always be considered in making similar meals.)

Using only these ingredients, applying only the methods outlined above, one could cobble together a rich variety of dishes, flavored and cooked in various ways. But that is not the only option; in a few cases, specific information is actually available.

Actual meals and recipes

As under-documented as this period is, some very specific, if scattered, information survives. Some comes from documents, some from archeological finds.

Perhaps the most astounding example is also one of the earliest. It provides an example of specifically Frankish food, but tinged with Roman influence, and comes from high status tombs from the start of the fifth century found in Cologne under the church of St. Severin. The find, made towards 1940 by Fritz Fremersdorf, has been variously described and interpreted. In his work on the Merovingians, Salin describes one as holding two chicken eggs (in a Roman style bowl) and a bird of some sort (in a glass bowl) that had been roasted with honey – a simple but effective way to flavor roasted meat. The same tomb contained a biconic – that is, typically Merovingian – vase that held “a blackish and crumbly mass which must have been edible fat” and a pot with handles holding the remains of cooked fowl.

In the other, remains of animal fat with oats, sage and black mustard indicate either meat consumed with the last three elements as flavorings or a porridge flavored with fat and the two herbs. The same meal included a gruel of millet, flavored with honey. Remnants of birch pollen in a jug suggest some form of mead or birch beer. Delort adds the detail that this had been flavored with wild hops, which would be in keeping with other mentions of both hops and wormwood being added to drinks.

It is perfectly conceivable that Clovis himself, perhaps even his sons, ate similar food.

Salin mentions a number of other foods found as grave offerings, though few offer such intriguing details regarding preparation. (A number of these were in Germany, since the Merovingian culture spanned today's boundaries.) At Schretzheim, boiled quarters of pork, beef, deer and hare were found in bronze basins. Bird bones, eggs, hazelnuts, and fish remains were found at the same site. At Selzen, hazelnuts were found under coals in bronze basins, along with branches of hazel (these were probably offerings, though hazelnuts have been found widely enough to be confirmed as a common food). A ham bone was found near Namur; at Marchelepot (in Picardy), beef, pork, mutton, and a boar skull were found. In the Moselle, remnants of mussel shells, pheasant and other fowl were found. Wine was found at Imling-Xouaxange and Geispolsheim. In Burgundy, a chicken was found between two femurs (chicken was a fairly common grave offering, going back to the Gauls). At Ennery, quarters of meat were found (Delort, who published the original results in 1947, did not feel qualified to identify the exact animals). At Draveil, the remains were very varied: pork or boar, beef, mutton, dog, fowl, pike, shellfish (flat oyster and freshwater mussel; Ostrea edulis and Unio pictorum).

At Noiron-Sous-Gevrey, a number of pits held bones; these included mutton, beef, pork, dog, and fowl. Some bore signs of cooking. Two suckling pigs and a foal cut into quarters were present. A goat skull had been split (probably suggesting, as for similar dog and pig skulls in other finds, that the brains had been eaten). Some snails were also present; as noted in an earlier post, these are not unusual in early French graves. Salin also notes, in a general way, that some of these foods had been placed in honey. He emphasizes that the lack of any human bones in these pits excludes the possibility that these were funerary pits.

Finally, Salin himself found a glass vessel at Villey-Saint-Etienne which bore signs of what he believes to be blood, which would have been drunk (in a ritual) either alone or with beer. (He notes disagreements on this point.)

In discussing Merovingian phylacteries, Salin also notes that several were made from shellfish, which (though he does not say as much) presumably would have been consumed as well: periwinkles, limpets, cockles and cowries.

Salin is not the only one to identify such details; archaeologists continue to find remains of food. Among other things, peacock remains have been found at high-status sites, confirming that the bird so valued by both the Romans and the French kings continued to be eaten by the elite.

Nor is the sparse period documentation hopeless in this regard. While Anthimus' dietetic is a medical, not a culinary, work, it includes several actual recipes, as well more cursory remarks on preparation which can easily be developed into recipes. Two of the true recipes are especially useful in providing general details about the simpler, and probably more common, approach to Roman cuisine.

The first is for a kind of beef stew:
Regarding meat, use cow's flesh steamed or cooked in the sodinga. [You can] Also [cook it] in gravy; boil it once to disinfect it, and so put in as much fresh water as is needed to cook and do not add [any more] water, and when the meat has been cooked, put the strongest vinegar in the vessel up to the middle of the pot, and put in heads of leek and a moderate amount of pennyroyal, celery [alternately, parsley] or fennel roots, and cook for an hour, and so add honey, as much as half as of the vinegar, or to have it as sweet as you want it, and so cook slowly on the fire stirring the pot frequently by hand, and well season the meat with its own juices. And so pound together fifty peppercorns, costus and spikenard each as much as half a solidus, and a tremissis' worth of clove. Pound all these things well together in an earthen mortar, adding a little wine and when well pounded, put it into the pot and stir well, so that before taking it off the fire, it makes itself be tasted slightly and puts its essence into the gravy. If however you have honey or sapa or caroenum, put one of them in as above and do not cook in a metal, but in an earthen pot. This makes it taste better.
Note the use of vinegar in cooking; this continues in Late Medieval cooking, both literally and in the use of verjuice, another tart liquid. Anthimus uses it elsewhere as well:
Turnips are good. Eat them boiled in salt and oil, or cooked with meat or bacon, so long as vinegar is put in for flavor while cooking.
This is not presented as a full recipe, yet provides the basics for cooking a number of foods: vinegar in the water and often bacon for additional flavor.

In the first recipe, too, Anthimus again adds various greens to the basic preparation. The use of honey with vinegar is similar to the use in later recipes of sugar with verjuice; in general, sweet and sour preparations are a hallmark of Medieval cuisine across the centuries. Note too that the spices are prepared in a mortar and then added at the end; this is a good model for how to use spices elsewhere in period cooking. Finally, the honey here can be replaced with one of two varieties of cooked wine. The reduced wine Charlemagne had made on his estates probably served a similar purpose.

This one recipe then could be adapted to cooking almost any meat, with various possible substitutions at every step.

Another long recipe is for lentils:
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.
Again, vinegar is used for flavor (the olio gremiale would have had a similar effect). Sumac, which has a tart, citrusy flavor, helps sharpen the taste of this legume, but does not seem to have been common in Gaul in later centuries. In adapting this recipe, a modern cook might want to replace it with one of the spices found more often in the period. The “roots” of coriander probably refer to cilantro (typically the leaves) and this would be a rare case of using both the powder and plant together.

As noted above, lentils were a Roman favorite and remained popular early in this period, but ultimately broad beans and field peas became the most popular options. This recipe would work nicely with either, even if Anthimus offers separate recipes for the first and possibly for the second (though chick peas, popular in the south, are the more likely choice):
Whole broad beans, well cooked, either in gravy or in oil, with seasoning or salt, are more fit than these beans crushed because they weigh on the stomach.
Chick peas [alternately, peas] are good if well-boiled until completely liquified with oil and salt on them, and are also suitable for the kidneys.
For some idea of how much simpler the “Roman” food of early Merovingian times was than that defined in De Re Coquinara, consider this (one of several recipes for lentils in the latter work):
Put the lentils in a clean sauce pan and cook with salt. Beat in the mortar pepper, cumin, coriander seed, mint, rue, and flea-bane, moistened with vinegar. Add honey and broth and reduced must, vinegar to taste and put this in a sauce pan. Crush the cooked cow-parsnips, heat and mix with the lentils. When thoroughly cooked, tie, add green (fresh olive) oil and serve in an appropriate dish.
Anthimus says that several foods should be cooked in oil and salt, a simple combination that remained important through the period. He also mentions dipping meat in a simple version of oxymel (honey and vinegar); the combination, whatever the Franks called it, remained available afterward.

Other specifics are less extensive, but still informative. At the start of the period, Apollinaris gives a glimpse of the “fast food” served in Gallo-Roman inns: blood sausages, smelling of wild thyme. Roman “sausage” is not necessarily what we envision today, but combining one of the Pseudo-Apicius' recipes for it with a strong dose of thyme could be interesting. In another brief example from the seventh century, a deacon offered a duke the following: “unleavened bread and vessels of wine, oil and butter, and honey in a small vessel with roasted fish.” Though the bread, wine and roasted fish here are simple enough, the other three ingredients are somewhat more problematic. A modern diner would use the butter on the bread, but that custom is not mentioned in this period; it is more likely that the bread was dipped in the oil. The honey could easily have been used to flavor the fish; so could the oil. The butter might have been used for the same purpose, or it might have been eaten on its own. A modern cook would have to decide which applied and consider if the three ingredients were offered as options, or was it expected that all three would normally find their place in the meal?

Finally, Gregory of Tours references what was apparently a common dish among Gallo-Romans in his time: “a boiling pan in which appeared this dish made up of beaten eggs mixed with a little flour and which commonly is garnished with bits of dates and rounds of olive.” This brief description raises at the least the issue of how to boil beaten eggs without actually cooking them, but it does offer an intriguing opportunity to develop a modern recipe.

What's for dinner?

Having seen how food was cooked, what foods were available and what preparations have actually been found or were recorded, it should be possible to imagine a range of period-appropriate dishes by combining this data.

The foods from Cologne alone provide the elements for a substantial Frankish style feast: chicken roasted in honey, with possibly hard-boiled eggs and/or a millet gruel, flavored with honey, as a starter, then pork or beef cooked with sage and mustard (black mustard seed, most likely), perhaps with additional fat used as a flavoring; or, alternately, oats, sage and mustard mixed with fat to create a sauce. These days, for the drinks, one would probably have to make one's own mead and add the hops. Alternately, an alcoholic birch beer (that is, root beer, in its original form) might be suitable.

The Cologne meals show too that gruel, among the Franks, could be a high status food and so could appropriately be included in other upscale versions of period meals.

The recipes of Pseudo-Apicius can credibly be used, but greatly simplified. At the least, only the spices noted as available in this period should be included. It would also be more period-appropriate to reduce the number of meats or other main ingredients used in any one of these. Anthimus' recipes too provide enough information to assemble a Roman-inflected Merovingian meal and with little modification. (See the book for additional dishes.)

Beyond that, one can take any one of the standard meats – pork, beef, chicken, at the least –, roast it with honey or while basting it with wine and salt or brine, or boil it with leeks, parsley, fennel, etc., adding vinegar and honey to the cooking liquid and then a mixture of spices, perhaps blended with wine, at the end. When served, the cooked meat could then be dipped in honey, vinegar, a mixture of the two, salt or mustard. Not to mention Asian fish sauce, the usual substitute for garum, which, if it does not seem very Medieval, was in fact a common ingredient for much of this period.

Any of the same meats, or fish, could also be fried, or less often, baked, grilled, or even steamed.

The most obvious options for legumes – cooked with the meat or prepared separately – would be broad beans and field peas, though lentils and chick peas too are reasonable choices. These could be flavored with vinegar, honey, pork fat or mustard, and perhaps a spice like coriander.

At any step, too, bacon (thick and probably fatty bacon) could be added to any of these preparations for additional flavor.

For salads, one could choose any one of the various greens mentioned in De Villis and simply flavor them with oil (or pork fat) and salt. Monks also ate cooked greens, so the same thing could be done with vegetable stews.

Typically, one could also include bread with these meals, bearing in mind that even “white” bread was browner than it would be today and certainly coarser. In this period, it would have been leavened with sourdough and most often (though not always) in a round (or if larger) hemispherical loaf. Rye and maslin (wheat mixed with rye) were other common bread grains.

Mead, beer and wine, none very refined, are all good drink options; for a real period touch, serve these in a wooden bucket.

Cheese could not only be included, but for simpler meals may have been the main course (probably simple and fairly new cheese). It could even (per Anthimus' objections) be roast or boiled. Pastries may have survived from Roman cuisine but are little mentioned until the end of the period; to the degree that "dessert" existed at all, it would most often have consisted of fruit (probably raw, but as we have seen it could be roasted as well). Apples and pears were common enough; plums and even their smaller cousins, sloe, were also popular.

In regard to the serving sequence, the frankest answer is that very little information is available on courses between the Roman period and the (still fluid) Late Medieval period. But there is some evidence that a multi-course meal would have started with vegetables.

Otherwise, those accustomed to making “Medieval” food should note the elements that are not appropriate to this period, notably trenchers, pasties, and verjuice. Nor were almonds, often used as thickeners later on, at all prominent. If anything, the hazelnut probably was more common; pistachios and walnuts, as well, as dates, were also common.

Finally, if some game was eaten and ornate combinations probably existed, the most striking thing about this cuisine is probably how un-exotic it is in modern terms. It is not extravagant ingredients, but the very limited range of flavorings and condiments and the predominance of certain elements, such as peas and broad beans, or bacon and vinegar, which marks it as specific to its own era.


Plouvier, Liliane- L'EUROPE SE MET À TABLE - NOIREDENLIGNElth38 - recherche

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