Ancient Roman Puls Fabacia – A Religious Offering to Carna


Common and simple foods are generally a fundamental part of the sacrifices that ancient Romans offered to their gods, as we saw in the past preparing millet libum for Baccus and moretum for Cybele, in the same way as kykeon for the Greek goddess Demeter. Honey, wine, cereals are among the offerings that we find described in some of the most important sources on ancient religion, for instance Ovid’s Fasti and Macrobius’ Saturnalia, the two texts we are using today for our recipe.
This time, we chose a puls fabacia for Carna, the goddess of the flesh who, according to Macrobius (1st book), is believed to preside over the vital organs, and the sacrifices are meant to ask her to keep the liver, heart, and guts healthy (hanc deam vitalibus humanis praeesse credunt. Ab ea denique petitur ut iecinora et corda quaeque sunt intrinsecus viscera salva conservet). To this goddess, people offer puls fabacia and laridum, since they are the foods that most increase the strength in the body (cui pulte fabacia et larido sacrificatur, quod his maxime rebus vires corporis roborentur).
The term puls fabacia may be interpreted in two ways: first, as a puls (a typical Roman mash made with cereals or legumes) made with fava beans; second, as a cereal puls dressed with fava beans cooked with laridum, which is cured pork fatback. We chose this second option, since Ovid, in the 6th book of the Fasti, seems to hint at this kind of preparation writing that in this occasion, people eat fat lardum (a spelling variant for laridum) and fava beans mixed with hot spelt (pinguia cur illis gustentur larda […] mixtaque cum calido sit faba farre).
This description seems very similar to the simple dinner described by Horace in a satire, in which he longs for a life in the countryside, when he can finally eat a plate of fava beans and a bit of vegetables dressed with fat lardum (faba […] uncta satis pingui ponentur oluscula lardo). Pale fava beans dressed with reddish lardum (pallens faba cum rubente lardo) also appear in an epigram by Martial as a typical countryside food.
Besides, according to Ovid, Carna is an ancient goddess and relishes the food to which she is accustomed, not the refined dishes typical of the poet’s decadent times. Once, writes Ovid, people did not eat oysters, fish, peacocks, or cranes: the food for the festive days was pork, and back then, the earth produced only spelt and fava beans. It is clearly a past nearer than the one celebrated in Cybele’s festival, a goddess who pre-dates agriculture: Carna’s cult refers instead to a culture already based on the products of the soil, indeed some of the foods considered more archaic by Romans, fava beans and spelt. Puls, in addition, is considered the most ancient staple foods by Pliny, who believes that it was used for a long time before bread.
Lardum continued to be a food for plebeians and peasants (or for legionaries) throughout the history of the Roman diet, becoming only in the Middle Ages the most appreciated cooking fat for high-end cuisine, starting from the uses of the Franks reported in Anthimus’ De Observatione Ciborum. In De Re Coquinaria, it appears in just one recipe.
In the Edict of Maximum Prices issued by Emperor Diocletian, we find out that laridum optimum, excellent cured pork fatback, costs 16 denarii per pondus (about 330 grams), the same price as butter, another cooking fat absent in high-end cuisine, whereas olive oil, depending on the quality, costs between the 40 and 24 denarii per sextarium (about half a liter).
For this recipe, we substituted pork fatback with pork jowl, guanciale in Italian.
To prepare the puls, we followed the recipe described by Cato for the puls granea triticea, a puls based on wheat, using spelt instead. If you use dry fava beans, remember to steep them in water overnight before preparing them. The cooking time will be longer, about an hour.

For more information about ancient cuisine, we suggest reading our book Ancient Roman Cooking. Ingredients, Recipes, Sources. Moreover, the first eight 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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150 grams spelt
200 grams fresh fava beans
150 grams cured pork jowl
1 cup milk

Coarsely crush the spelt in the mortar, then cook it with water and two pinches of salt for about 40 minutes. When it is completely cooked, add the milk a bit at a time, mashing the spelt with the spoon until it is reduced to a cream. Cook for another 20 minutes.
Mince the pork jowl and shell the fava beans. Melt the pork jowl in a pan and add the fava beans with a bit of water. Cook for about 15-20 minutes, until the fava beans are tender. Plate the puls with the fava beans, serving this plate sill hot.

Original text
Graneam triticeam sic facito. Selibram tritici puri in mortarium purum indat, lavet bene corticemque deterat bene eluatque bene. Postea in aulam indat et aquam puram cocatque. Ubi coctum erit, lacte addat paulatim usque adeo, donec cremor crassus erit factus.

Prepare in this way a wheat puls. Put half a pound of clean wheat in a clean mortar, wash well and remove the husks, cleaning well. Then pour in a pot and boil with clean water. Once it is cooked, add milk a little at a time until it thickens in a cream.

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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 1-8
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 – first and second part (14th century)
Anonimo Veneziano (14th century)
Registrum Coquine by Johannes von Bockenheim (15th century)

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