According to Pliny, before the introduction of bread, Italic populations fed on a thick porridge called puls, from which comes the word pulmentaria: the filling for the puls. While polenta (made with milled barley, sometimes adding other cereals and seeds) was originally Greek, puls was typically Italic and prepared with spelt, wheat, and millet. The main difference between polenta and puls is the way the cereals are cooked: in the case of polenta, they are milled and cooked in water until they thicken; puls instead is prepared overcooking the whole grains until they break, adding then other ingredients. You find in this article the method to prepare polenta and the original recipe by Pliny.
There are a few recipes of puls survived, thanks to Apicius, Cato, and Pliny. We prepared a different kind of puls a few months ago, a sweet made with overcooked spelt. You find here the recipe. Today we prepare a puls with spelt following the method described by Cato in his De Agri Cultura to accompany a great venison stew from the cookbook attributed to Apicius, in a similar way as in Italy we usually pair venison with polenta still today. You can pair this puls also with other meat dishes, for example pork stew, lucanica or isicia omentata.
Game meat appears in many Apicius’ recipes, mainly venison (eight recipes) and wild boar (ten). Ancient Romans not only hunted, but also bred wild animals in their leporaria, according to Varro and Pliny, a term that derives from lepus (hare): enclosures in which they kept many other animals, for example wild boar, deer, fallow deer, rabbit, and dormouse.
Below, you will find the original recipes, a note about method and ingredients, and the video of the recipe with captions in English and Italian. Enjoy!
500 gr venison
ancient Roman mustard
Grind in the mortar long pepper and lovage, then add the pine nuts. Pit one or two dates and mince them with the onion. Pound them in the mortar adding the oregano. Add a bit of mustard, honey, vinegar, garum, and olive oil, mixing all the ingredients together. Cook the sauce diluted with water until it boils. Stew the venison in the sauce for a couple of hours, adding a little water if it thickens too much.
Note about method and ingredients
Apicius, in this case, does not specify how to cook the venison. We chose to prepare a stew basing on other recipes presented in a similar way, in which the copadia (meat cut in little pieces) is cooked with its sauce. Different methods the author suggests for other venison recipes are parboiling and roasting, or just simmering the meat coating it with the sauce before serving.
Mustard was a very common sauce in ancient Rome. Cooks usually bought it already prepared. We find a few recipes in Palladius and Columella’s agricultural books. For this recipe, we used Palladius’ method, described here with Columella’s. This mustard is sweet, so we used a little quantity of honey for the sauce and just one date. If you choose Columella’s recipe, add a little more honey or a couple of dates to balance well the sauce.
According to Pliny and Dioscorides, Romans and Greeks imported from India white, black, and long pepper. Apicius does not specify which kind of pepper to use, so we suggest choosing the one you prefer.
Garum was a fish sauce widely used by ancient Mediterranean populations, prepared with fish fermented with salt, sometimes adding aromatic herbs and spices. We wrote something more about its production process in this article. The basic recipes are identical to the method still today used to produce South-East Asian fish sauces. If you do not have garum, you can substitute it with a fish sauce or just a couple of pinches of salt.
We used dry oregano, but you can use it also fresh.
Ius in cervo: piper, ligusticum, cepulam, origanum, nucleos, caryotas, mel, liquamen, sinape, acetum, oleum.
Sauce for venison: pepper, lovage, onion, oregano, pine nuts, dates, honey, garum, mustard, vinegar, olive oil.
200 gr spelt
600 ml milk
coarse sea salt
Boil the spelt in abundant water for at least one hour, adding two pinches of salt. The grains have to start breaking. Add the hot milk a little at a time stirring frequently, and continue to add milk any time the puls begin to dry. Cook for about 45 minutes, then plate and serve with the venison stew.
Note about the ingredients
You can prepare this recipe with both spelt and wheat, the cereal suggested by Cato. Both these cereals were widely used to prepare pultes, but spelt seems to be more common, as reported by Pliny. There are many recipes of spelt puls in Apicius’ cookbook. In any case, for a good outcome of the recipe, the cereal needs to be overcooked. The more you cook it, the better will be the puls.
The recipe is very simple, but it is important paying attention to stir frequently to prevent the spelt from sticking to the pot and burn.
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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