A Medieval Breakfast. Wine, Carbonata, and Millet Bread


Literary medieval sources contain sometimes interesting information about food and daily life. We used poetry sources in the past to recreate a farmer’s meal and Horace’s dinner. Clearly, it is important not to take them literally, in particular, if the intent of the author is amusing the reader with absurd situations, as Boccaccio does in his Decameron. Anyway, they are important to understand better the way people lived in the past without the oversimplification that sometimes comes from school memories and to remember that the medieval world was more complex than we sometimes think. This week we are preparing a breakfast described in a 14th-century book of tales, called Trecentonovelle, written by Franco Sacchetti, in which the author treats food and dinners frequently. Here you find the original Italian version of the tale. The story tells about Testa (head in Italian) di Todi, a provost lived under Pope Urban V (who was elected in 1362) who habitually began his day drinking wine. One day, to prevent wine from giving him some annoyance and clearly to drink more, he takes a slice of salted meat and a loaf of bread and goes to his kitchen, then roasts the meat on charcoals for a while. As soon as the meat is warmed, he is summoned by Guglielmo, a deputy for the pope. Testa, who does not want to waste his arrosticciana or carbonata, stuffs the bread with this meat and squeezes the sandwich in his pocket. But Guglielmo has a dog who smells the meat and continues to move around him, sniffing his pocket insistently, placing his muzzle under Testa’s cloak, and howling. Testa, not able to take anymore, toss the sandwich to the dog saying him to have it in the name of the Devil. So, Messer Guglielmo praises him for his love for the church: Testa is not kind to him or the pope himself, instead, he offered such a nice breakfast to his humble mutt (in the text, it is used a pejorative and belittling form: vile cagnucciuolo). Clearly, drinking wine at breakfast is not common and the author blames this habit, associated with a laughable character. His intent is satire and irony, yet, drinking a small quantity of wine at breakfast is not an idea foreign to medieval medical advice. In the Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum (11th century), indeed, we find the curious suggestion to drink wine in the morning as a medicine in case, taken in the evening, it causes harm. In this case, the food is just a way to help our Testa to drink more, and it has nothing to do with healthy habits. The characteristic of salted meat as a stimulant for thirst is mentioned also by Platina in his De Honesta Voluptate et Valetudine, written in the 15th century, one of the sources we are using to prepare the carbonata described in the tale alongside with Maestro Martino’s Libro De Arte Coquinaria, dating back to the same period. Maestro Martino too suggests drinking while eating it. We paired this very simple dish with a millet bread described in many medical handbooks, in particular the book about foods by Michele Savonarola (14th century). Below, you find the original recipe of carbonata by Maestro Martino with our translation, a few notes about millet bread, and the video of the recipe with subtitles in English and Italian.


Ingredients guanciale or pancetta brown cane sugar cinnamon parsley vinegar

Method Slice the guanciale and mince a few leaves of parsley. Grind sugar and cinnamon in the mortar. Cook for a short time the sliced meat with a bit of vinegar on charcoals or in a pan, then plate stuff a millet bread, dusting with cinnamon and sugar, and adding the minced parsley on the top.

Medieval Breakfast Carbonata - Piatto

Original text Togli la carne salata che [sia] vergellata di grasso et magro inseme, et tagliala in fette, et ponile accocere ne la padella et non le lassare troppo cocere. Dapoi mittele in un piattello et gettavi sopra un pocho di zuccharo, un pocha di cannella, et un pocho di petrosello tagliato menuto. Et similemente poi fare de summata o presutto, giongendoli in scambio d’aceto del sucho d’aranci, o limoni, quel che più ti piacesse, et farratte meglio bevere.

Translation Take salted meat with lean and fat parts and slice it. Cook the meat in a pan for a short time. Then, plate it sprinkling sugar, cinnamon, and a bit of minced parsley. You may prepare in a similar way summata [cured pork breast, a kind of historical cured meat no more produced in Italy] or ham, adding orange or lemon juice instead of vinegar, the one you prefer, and it will be better to drink.

Medieval Breakfast Carbonata - Preview


Ingredients 500 gr white wheat flour 500 gr millet flour sourdough salt

Method Knead the wheat and millet flour with sourdough, a couple of pinches of salt, and warm water until you reach a smooth consistency. Let the dough rest overnight. Shape three loaves and let them rest for a while, then bake them in the oven for about half an hour. It is better to eat millet bread still hot, as suggested by Columella and other authors.

Medieval Breakfast Carbonata - Preview 2

Note about millet bread Panis miliaceum is among the kinds of bread described by Pliny in the 1st century and appears in the medical medieval books as well as in the pictures of the various Tacuina Sanitatis. As for the most part of basic methods, there is not a precise recipe, given for granted. However, throughout the centuries, the method continues to be the same described by Cato in his De Agri Cultura, with the directions provided by Galen in his De Facultatibus Alimentorum: a temperate bread is well-kneaded, salted, and leavened, cooked for a long time at low heat, not excessively big nor too little. We reduced the size to adapt it for the carbonata recipe. Despite his work was not known directly by the medieval Italian authors, Galen’s medicine is fundamental in all the Middle Ages thanks to the influence of Byzantine and Arabic books. Michele Savonarola writes that millet is scarcely nutritious, hard to digest, and produces scant blood. If someone wants to lose weight and has a strong stomach, should eat millet bread. Bread made with half millet and half wheat flour (the author always means white wheat flour, considered the best quality), instead, provides good nourishment. The ratio between the cereals may change depending on the complexion. For this recipe, we used sourdough, considered the best leavener for bread. We wrote more about it in this article.

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