Cereals cooked with milk are quite common in ancient and medieval cuisine. In the past, for example, we prepared a medieval foxtail-millet polenta paired with roast goose, a medieval blancmange, and an ancient Roman puls with venison. This habit is strictly connected with the directions provided by the physicians, as we will see about the recipe we are preparing today, selected from a 14th-century manuscript conventionally called Anonimo Fiorentino. It is a recipe very simple, prepared with just three ingredients: rice, almonds, and sugar. You can pair it with meat, for example roast beef with arugula sauce or quails with coconut, or eat this dish as a dessert.
Rice, milk (or almond milk: many authors consider the two ingredients equivalent), and sugar is considered a healthy combination of ingredients, suggested in many medical handbooks. These are the directions provided by the Tacuinum Sanitatis, an Arabic 13th-century manuscript very popular in Italy thanks to the Latin translation. Rice, writes the author, helps the burning stomach and cures dysentery. Cooking it with milk, sugar, and oil, one can remove the potential harm (specifically, rice may harm people with colic and constipation). The best ways to cook rice, Michele Savonarola (14th century) and Pietro Andrea Mattioli (16th century) agree, is with milk, almond milk, or fat broth. Almond milk with the addition of sugar is good for the stomach and provides good nourishment, writes Mattioli, whereas the recipe provided by Savonarola for cooking rice is identical to the one we are making today. The only difference is that Savonarola suggests using just a bit of sugar.
Below, you find a short note about sugar and almonds, the original text with our translation, and the video of the recipe with subtitles in English and Italian. Enjoy!
100 gr rice
100 gr peeled almonds
25 gr white cane sugar
To make the almond milk, grind the almonds in the mortar, then dilute with a glass of water and sift the liquids.
Boil the rice in abundant water. When it boils and foams well, discard the water and add the almond milk, cooking the rice at low heat. Stir frequently to prevent the rice from sticking and breaking, adding a bit almond milk each time it starts to dry up. Cook the rice for about 15 minutes.
In the meantime, grind the sugar. When the rice is almost cooked through, add a part of sugar and mix. Plate the rice adding sugar on top.
Note about the ingredients
The author suggests using a ratio of two parts rice, two almonds, and half sugar. Sugar is one of the most important ingredients starting from the Middle Ages, but it was known since the Antiquity. We find it mentioned in Pliny, Dioscorides, and Galen’s works. Galen, in his De Simplicium Medicamentorum Temperamentis ac Facultatibus, describes sugar as a sort of honey found in some kinds of reeds, in India and Arabia. Its faculties are similar to honey. Renaissance authors, for example Costanzo Felici, extensively describe the various kinds of sugar at disposal of the physicians and cooks, coming from various regions of the world. The best quality, anyway, is the white one without impurities, the kind of sugar Anonimo Fiorentino means for this plate, which has to be white and thick according to his description.
Almonds are another fundamental ingredient in medieval cooking. According to Michele Savonarola, the most used as food are the sweet ones, and they have extraordinary properties: not only they are good and nutritious, in particular with sugar, but they help the digestion and sleep, increase the brain and sperm, and clean the urinary tract. We find them frequently in the recipes, sometimes used to make almond milk.
Se vuoli fare riso nella miglore maniera che fare si puote per XII persone, togli due libre di riso e due libre di mandorle, e meça libra di çucchero. E togli il riso bene mondo e bene lavato, e togli le mandorle bene monde e bene lavate e bene macinate e bene colate con istamigna. Togli il riso, e metti a fuoco in acqua chiara, e quando è levato buono bollore e bene schiumato, colane di fuori l’acqua incontanente, e mettivi suso quantitade di latte di mandorle; e fallo cuocere in sulla brascia da la lunge, e mestalo spesso intorno che non si rompa. E quando s’asciuga, arrogivi suso del latte delle mandorle; e quando è presso che cotto, mettivi suso quantità di çucchero. Questa vivanda vuol esser biancha e molto spessa. E quando è cotta, poni çucchero sopra le scodelle. E se vuoli fare per più persone o per meno, togli le cose a questa ragione.
If you want to prepare the rice in the best way one can make, take two pounds [one libra weights more or less 330 grams] of rice, two of almonds, and half of sugar. Take rice well hulled and well washed, and almonds well peeled and well washed and well ground and well sifted. Cook the rice in clear water. When it boils and foams well, strain the water immediately and pour almond milk. Cook the rice keeping it distant from the charcoal, and stir frequently keeping attention that it does not break. Each time it dries up, add more almond milk. When it is almost cooked, add sugar. This plate has to be white and very thick. Once it is cooked, plate dusting with sugar. If you want to prepare it for more or fewer people, keep this ratio.
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