In the medieval sources, beef is considered a meat suitable for people who make great physical efforts, not for nobles, according to a tradition that dates back to Galen. The more the animal is young, clearly, the more the meat is delicate, but adult beef is frowned upon by the physicians, since it causes melancholic humors, as we read in the 14th-century dietetic book by Michele Savonarola.
Some foods are apt for the nobles and rich who make a quiet existence (nobilibus et divitibus in quiete existentibus), others for strong people who live through labors (homini robusti et in labore existentibus), we read in the Tractatus De Modo Preparandi et Condiendi Omnia Cibaria, a fundamental treatise for medieval cooking written around the end of the 13th century. For the nobles, the recommended foods are partridge, pheasant, chicken, capon, hare, roe-deer, and rabbit; for the workers, instead, the proper aliments are beef and mutton, salted pork, deer, peas, fava beans, and bread made with barley or rye.
As a consequence, it is unsurprising to find beef in a recipe for servants (in the text, comune famiglia, which, like in Latin, includes the servants), like the one we are preparing today, as well as another typical food for peasants such as turnips, which, however, are common also in recipes for the nobles.
We prepared in the past another dish based on beef and intended for peasants, from the Registrum Coquine, which is available in translation for our Premium Patrons.
The dish we are preparing today is a very simple soup made with just four ingredients: beef, turnips (both the leaves and the tubers), pepper, and saffron. This recipe is part of a beautiful cookbook called Anonimo Toscano, which is mainly the translation of an older source written in Latin, the Liber de Coquina, with interesting variations and additions, among which the plate we are preparing today. You find the original text with our translation below.
The presence of spices in a recipe for commoners should not cause surprise, since there are plenty of similar examples in the medieval and Renaissance sources, first of all the Registrum Coquine, mentioned above. Indeed, the use of very small quantities of spices is inexpensive, back then as today, no matter the cost of them for a huge amount: the weight of a pinch of pepper and a few stems of saffron is almost negligible.
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200 gr beef
3 turnips with their leaves
Cut the beef into pieces and simmer it in salted water. In the meantime, cut the turnips and the leaves. Grind the pepper in the mortar and soak a few stems of saffron in warm water. When the beef is almost cooked through, add the turnips and after 10 minutes, the leaves. Cook for another ten minutes, then add a pinch of pepper and the saffron.
The cooking time may change depending on the size of the pieces of meat and the kind of turnips. We needed about one hour for the beef and 20 minutes for the turnips.
Note about the ingredients
If you are using turnips older and not tender as the one we chose for this recipe, simmer them in water and strain them before adding them to the beef. Some kinds of turnips may need a long cooking time, one hour or more. The double cooking, to which Anonimo Toscano is hinting writing to add simmered turnips to the meat, is the most common method to cook turnips in the Middle Ages, as we read for example in De Flore Dietarum and Savonarola’s book.
Togli rape bullite colle foglie, e polle a cocere con carne di bue, e pepe, e cruoco. E quando sono cotte, le poni in scudelle per la comune famiglia.
Take the turnips simmered with their leaves and cook them with beef, pepper, and saffron. When they are cooked, plate them for the servants.
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Ancient Roman Cooking. Ingredients, Sources, Recipes
Translations of Historical Sources
De Re Coquinaria by Apicius – books I-II
Appendicula de Condituris Variis by Johannes Damascenus (8-9th century)
De Flore Dietarum – first part (11th century)
Opusculum de Saporibus by Mainus de Maineris (14th century)
Anonimo Veneziano – first part (14th century)
Registrum Coquine by Johannes von Bockenheim (15th century)
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