Ancient Roman Gourds – Gustum de Cucurbitis


The gourd, called zucca in Italian and cucurbita in Latin, is among the most common vegetables in ancient and medieval cooking. Starting from the Renaissance, we find the distinction between varieties of zucca native to the Old World and others imported from the New World. For instance, Bartolomeo Scappi in his Opera specifies whether we have to use zucche nostrali (local gourds) or zucche turchesche (pumpkin and squash, coming from Americas). Before the Renaissance, the term zucca refers to two varieties belonging to the genus Lagenaria, long gourd (lagenaria longissima) and bottle gourd (lagenaria siceraria), both cultivated in the Antiquity. According to Theophrastus, the best cooking method for long gourd (called by Athenaeus sikya or Indian gourd) is simmering it, whereas bottle gourd (kolokynte, round gourd) is better roasted.
Pliny describes the cultivation of gourds thoroughly, distinguishing between cucurbita camararia (which grows on frameworks and hangs from vaults) and cucurbita plebeia (which, instead, creeps on the soil). According to the ancient authors, including Pliny, Palladius, and Columella, they are the same plant, which grows more or less long depending on from which part of the fruit the seeds are harvested: if you collect them from the extremities, you will obtain long gourds; from the middle, you will grow bottle gourds. If you take them from the sides, instead, you will have short and round gourds. This mistake is easy to understand because the seeds of the two kinds of lagenaria are identical, as well as the leaves and the general aspect of the plants.
The better gourds to eat, according to Pliny, are the ones long and thin, like the ones we harvested for our recipe, selected from the 3rd book of De Re Coquinaria. There are many recipes for gourds, not only in this part of the text, prepared on their own or with hen, chicken, duck, and crane.
The dish we are preparing today is called gustum de cucurbitis, which means that it is considered an appetizer. In the Antiquity, dishes based on vegetables, but also olives, eggs, and cheese were generally served as first courses before the main plates, which included meat, fish, and other more complex preparations.
This gustum is complex and full of flavor thanks to a refined combination of spices (pepper, cumin, silphium), mixed with the pungent flavor of rue, the sweetness of defritum, the sapidity of garum, and the sourness of wine vinegar. Balance is essential to make a perfect dish. We recommend a part each of pepper and cumin (for example, a pinch, depending on how much you want it spicy), just a bit of grated asafoetida, a few leaves of rue, a tablespoon of garum, and two tablespoons each of vinegar and defritum.
Rue may be substituted with another aromatic herb used in the Antiquity, such as mint, parsley, or dill leaves, and garum with a South-East Asian fish sauce, colatura di alici, ancient muria, or salt. Defritum is concentrated grape juice boiled down until it reduces by half, used in historical cuisine as a mild sweetener. Sometimes it is made with quinces and figs. You find descriptions of its preparation not only in De Re Coquinaria, but also in Pliny, Palladius, and Columella’s books.
Asafoetida corresponds to the cheapest kind of silphium, called silphium Parthicum, according to the descriptions provided by Theophrastus and Dioscorides. In this case, the author suggests using root of laser, the Latin name for silphium. We may substitute it with the resin, which we recommend instead of the powder, easier to find but less flavorful.

For more information about ancient cuisine, we suggest reading our book Ancient Roman Cooking. Ingredients, Recipes, Sources. You find further recipes for vegetables from the Antiquity to the beginning of the Modern Era in Early Italian Recipes. Vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers available in English and Italian. Moreover, the first nine books of De Re Coquinaria are available on Patreon, with further translations of ancient and medieval sources.
To know more about the passage between ancient and medieval cooking, check out our 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; if you are interested in late-medieval cuisine, we recommend Libro de la Cocina. Medieval Tuscan Recipes and Registrum Coquine. A medieval cookbook.
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spices (black pepper, cumin, asafoetida)

Peel and slice the gourds, simmer them for five minutes, then discard the water. To prepare the defritum, destem and pound the grapes in the mortar paying attention not to break the seeds to prevent it from becoming bitter. Strain the juice and cook it at low heat until it reduces by half.
Mince the rue and pound the black pepper and cumin in the mortar, then add the rue, defritum, garum, and vinegar. Cook the gourds with this sauce for a few minutes, then serve dusting with black pepper.

Original text
Cucurbitas coctas expressas in patinam compones. Adicies in mortarium piper, cuminum, silfi modice, id est laseris radicem, rutae modicum, liquamine et aceto temperabis mittes defritum modicum ut coloretur, ius exinanies in patinam. Cum ferbuerint iterum ac tertio, depones et piper minutum asparges.

Squeeze the cooked gourds and arrange them in the pan. Add in the mortar pepper, cumin, and a bit of silphium or root of laser, a bit of rue, mixing with garum and vinegar. Add a bit of defritum to color the sauce and pour it in the pan. When it boils for the second or third time, remove it from the fire and sprinkle with ground pepper.

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Libro de la Cocina by Anonimo Toscano. Medieval Tuscan Recipes
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 1-9
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)
Enseignemenz (14th century)
Opusculum de Saporibus by Mainus de Maineris (14th century)
Libro de la Cocina by Anonimo Toscano (14th century)
Anonimo Veneziano (14th century)
Registrum Coquine by Johannes von Bockenheim (15th century)
Libro de Arte Coquinaria by Maestro Martino – first and second part (15th century)

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