According to Pliny, the Greeks distinguish two main kinds of chard, considered a very delicate vegetable (levissima), one white and the other black. The favorite variety is the white, which has little seeds and is called Sicilian chard. The Romans, instead, distinguish between spring and autumn beet, according to the period in which they are sown, despite some kinds being sown in June. There are two main ways to cook chard: one with lentils and fava beans, the other in the same way as cabbage, especially with mustard, which gives flavor to a vegetable considered bland by the Romans. Both preparations appear in Galen’s De Facultatibus Alimentorum, and this shows that chard was cooked more or less in the same way by Greeks and Romans.
Pliny calls the chard lenis, whereas Martial, in an epigram, defines it as fatua, a meal for manual workers, and the two Latin authors mean the same thing: chard is bland, insipid, and needs a strong condiment to become pleasant. Martial suggests a preparation based on pepper and wine; we, instead, followed Pliny’s directions and used Palladius’ recipe for a strong and sweet mustard in addition to a simple recipe from De Re Coquinaria for this kind of preparation.
Using Palladius’ ratio among the ingredients, we obtain an intense sauce, very spicy and sweet. We suggest changing the quantities according to your taste. We prepared more mustard than the quantity we needed for dressing the chard, because it is meant to be further diluted according to the directions of De Re Coquinaria.
We cooked the chard with a pinch of saltpeter, which is completely optional, in such a way the chard keeps a bright green color during the cooking, a method very common according to Pliny (who calls it Apiciana coctura, Apicius’ method to cook cabbage) and Martial, who writes in an epigram that to keep the green color of the cabbage (viridis brassica), one must cook it in aqua nitrata, water and saltpeter. In De Re Coquinaria, we read that it is the method to make whichever kind of leaf vegetable (omne holus) emerald colored.
You may serve the chard hot or cool. One of the best pairings is with sausages, lucanica or farcimina, or with a meat dish with an intense flavor, for instance veal with allec sauce or pork collar.
For more information about ancient cuisine, we suggest reading our book Ancient Roman Cooking. Ingredients, Recipes, Sources. Moreover, the first seven books of De Re Coquinaria are available on Patreon, with other translations of ancient and medieval sources in addition to several articles on historical food.
In addition, our new book Early Italian Recipes. Vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers is available on Amazon, in English and Italian. The text collects many recipes from the Antiquity to early Modern Era, accompanied by an introduction about vegetables in the historical Italian cookbooks and their relationship with dietetic, philosophical, and religious practices.
To know more about the passage between ancient and medieval cooking, check out our book with the translation, commentary, and glossary of a beautiful 6th-century source, De Observatione Ciborum, written by the physician Anthimus to the king of the Franks Theuderic. This book contains some of the earliest medieval recipes, in addition to information about the diet of the Franks and the differences between their food habits and the alimentation of the Mediterranean populations, showing the passage between ancient and late-medieval cooking.
If you are interested in late-medieval cuisine, we recommend Registrum Coquine. A medieval cookbook.
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400 grams chard
Wash the chard and simmer it for a short time in a bit of water with a pinch of saltpeter. The cooking time depends on the variety you are using and can range between 30 seconds and a few minutes. In the meantime, grind two tablespoons of mustard seeds in the mortar diluting with two tablespoons of vinegar, and a tablespoon of honey and olive oil. Dilute two tablespoons of mustard with one of vinegar and olive oil. Serve the chard with the mustard on top.
Original recipe for chard (De Re Coquinaria)
Betas elixas: ex sinapi, oleo modico et aceto bene inferuntur.
Simmered chard: serve with mustard, a bit of oil, and vinegar.
Original recipe for mustard (Palladius’ Opus Agriculturae)
Senapis semen ad modam sextarii unius et semis redigere curabis in pulverem, cui mellis pondo quinque, olei hispani unam libram, aceti acris unum sextarium miscebis et tritis omnibus diligenter uteris.
Grind one sextarium [about half a liter] of mustard seeds with five pondi [a pondus corresponds to about 330 grams] of honey and one of Hispanic oil, diluting with one sextarium of strong vinegar. Grind everything together diligently and use it.
Early Italian Recipes. Vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers
De Observatione Ciborum by Anthimus. Early-medieval recipes at the court of the Franks.
Registrum Coquine by Johannes Bockenheim. A medieval cookbook
Ancient Roman Cooking. Ingredients, Sources, Recipes
Translations of Historical Sources
De Re Coquinaria by Apicius – books 1-7
De Observatione Ciborum by Anthimus (6th century)
Appendicula de Condituris Variis by Johannes Damascenus (8th-9th century)
De Flore Dietarum (11th century)
Tractatus de Modo Preparandi et Condiendi Omnia Cibaria (13th-14th century)
Opusculum de Saporibus by Mainus de Maineris (14th century)
Libro de la Cocina by Anonimo Toscano – parts 1-3 (14th century)
Anonimo Veneziano (14th century)
Registrum Coquine by Johannes von Bockenheim (15th century)
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Aristophanes’ Roasted Birds
Pork Roast with Myrtle Berries
Chicken with Taro
Honey and Millet Libum
Ham in Crust
The diet of the ancient Germans
The diet of the Franks
Oysters and Clams
Ancient Sicilian Sea Bass
Pork Roast and Lentils with Sumac
Cuttlefish and Eggs
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Columella’s Moretum and Hapalos Artos
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Muria – Ancestor of Colatura di Alici
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The Diet of the Roman Legionaries – Buccellatum, Lardum, and Posca
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Pasta and Meatballs – Minutal Terentinum
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Veal with Allec Sauce – Ius in Elixam Allecatum
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Placenta – Honey Cheesecake
Pork Laureate – Porcellum Laureatum
Poppy Seed Bread with Ancient Dry Yeast
Cured Olives and Epityrum