Medieval Peasant’s Beef Stew


Beef is quite rare in the late medieval cookbooks. Considered by the physician suited for manual workers and people with a strong complexion, it was unfrequent on the richest tables. We find information about this in many books, both culinary and medical, for example, Liber de Coquina (13th century) and the various Tacuina Sanitatis. Other later authors give the same suggestion, for example, Michele Savonarola (15th century). De Flore Dietarum, a medical book of the 11th century, reports that beef is very nutritious and heavy; difficult to digest, it produces melancholy.
This is one of the cases in which beef is the main ingredient, and without surprises, being this recipe suggested for peasants and rustic. It is interesting to notice that also in the manuscript called Anonimo Toscano (14th century) we find a stew with beef and turnips, suggested for the comune famiglia (in this case, famiglia includes the same meaning of Latin familia: common people and servants). We prepared another dish from the same cookbook we are using today, Registrum Coquine, a few weeks ago, a leek soup intended for peasants during the lean days. This time we chose a recipe for the fat days, simple but incredibly tasty. Registrum Coquine is an interesting 15th-century cookbook written by the German cook Johannes von Bockenheim, who worked at the court of Pope Martin V. In this source, the author suggests which social classes his recipes are suitable for. We find a similar tendency in other cookbooks, for example, the Liber de Coquina.
Though this recipe is meant for peasants, the cook uses just one spice, saffron, which other authors (Savonarola and Mattioli, a 16th-century physician) report being particularly costly. Saffron was one of the most common spices in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, appreciated not only for its aroma but also for its color, a fundamental element in the cuisine of these periods. It was cultivated in Sicily since the Antiquity, as Pliny reports.
Many authors write about the cultivation of saffron in northern Italy, for example Bonvesin della Riva and Aldobrandine of Siena (end of the XIII century). In the Tacuinum Sanitatis, a medical handbook, we find out that the author considers better the eastern variety. In the late medieval cookbook there are two words for saffron, one of Arabic origin (safranum/safrano/zaffarano etc) and the other Latin (crocus/croco): probably, the cooks are suggesting for a specific recipe whether using the eastern or the local variety. In any case, during the Renaissance, the production in Italy grows, according to Mattioli.
Below, you will find the original Latin text with our English translation, the method, and the video with captions in English and Italian. Enjoy!

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white wine vinegar

Simmer the meat in water for about an hour. In the meantime, soak the saffron stigmas in hot water and cut the onions. Add saffron, onions, two pinches of salt, and a little white wine vinegar to the meat, and let it cook for at least another hour. The cooking time changes depending on the cut of beef you are using and the size.

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Note about the ingredients
We chose here the version with onion instead of dill, because in the late autumn we do not have dill in our aromatic garden. Probably, the choice between the two ingredients suggested by the author depends on the season. We used two onions for one and half a kilo of beef.
For a better outcome of the recipe, we suggest using a cut of beef quite fat.
The author writes nothing about the kind of vinegar, but the presence of saffron suggests that the plate is meant to be yellow. As a consequence, white vinegar is the best choice.

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Original text
Pro civibus rusticis et villanis. Sic prepara carnes vaccinas et bovinas. Recipe eas et lava bene in aqua. Et fac illas bene bullire. Post hoc mitte superius annetum aut cepas cum sale et croco et modico aceto et erit bonum pro ciuibus rusticis et villanis.

For citizens, rustics, and peasants. Prepare this way cow and beef meat. Take them and wash well in water, and boil them well. Then add either dill or onion with salt, saffron [in this case, crocus], and a little vinegar. It will be good for citizens, rustics, and peasants.

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