Purslane Salads – Two recipes between the Middle Ages and Renaissance


In the Antiquity, salads were usually eaten as appetizers with other foods, such as eggs or salted fish. We find lists of plates in literary sources, for example Martial’s Epigrams. In a poem, Martial writes about a dinner for seven people at his country house, in which he has served mallow (an appreciated food in Roman and Greek cuisine) and other vegetables, among which lettuce, leek, mint, arugula. The appetizers include Atlantic chub mackerel (lacertus) with eggs and rue and sow udder dressed with muria.
Salads, however, are not described exclusively in the poetry sources: they appear in the medical literature (for example, Galen’s De Facultatibus Alimentorum) as well as in De Re Coquinaria. In the 3rd book in particular, we find several recipes for vegetables and salads.
In the Middle Ages, salads become rare in the Italian cookbooks, despite they continue to be mentioned in literary sources, such as Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron. However, in the later medieval sources, for example Platina’s De Honesta Voluptate et Valetudine, there are many methods to prepare vegetables, probably due to an imitation of the classical texts typical of the humanistic culture.
Other books written in the 16th and 17th centuries dedicate wide space to salads. The second source we are using today is, indeed, Costanzo Felici’s letter about salads, addressed to the Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi. This source is essential to understanding the incredible variety of edible herbs known in Italy around the end of the Renaissance and their huge use in daily alimentation. In this book, we find an interesting definition of what can be considered a salad: not the use of herbs, fruits, and vegetables (which may be raw or cooked), but the typical condiments, which are salt, oil, and vinegar.
Salads, indeed, can be also prepared with meat or fish, and carne insalata, in the older medieval texts, refers to salted meat. Other typical condiments for salads are concentrated grape juice (sapa), sugar, and spices.
The most significant difference between medieval and ancient salads is the presence of garum, very common in Galen’s work, alternated with salt. In the Middle Age and Renaissance, we do not find garum, substituted with salt.
This week, we found a lot of purslane in the fields, so we decided to prepare two salads with this herb from Platina and Felici’s books. Purslane was also used in the Antiquity, as recalled by Columella and Pliny, for alimentary and medicinal purposes. It was harvested around the time of the grape harvest to be dried a little and preserved with salt, but also eaten in other ways, mentioned but not described by Pliny.
The two recipes are what Costanzo Felici calls misticanza, which means a mixture of various herbs, a term still used in Italy. For a better outcome, we recommend using extra virgin olive oil, the best kind to dress salads.
In the original text by Felici, the condiments are given for granted, but according to the author, the condiments are the essential element for a proper salad. In another passage, he writes that insalata derives its name from salt. It is essential to use a good amount of salt and oil and just a bit of vinegar, as the author reports: insalata ben salata, poco aceto e ben oliata.

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Ingredients for Platina’s salad
extra virgin olive oil
white wine vinegar
black pepper

Wash the purslane well and remove the hardest parts. Mince the onion finely and pound the spices in the mortar, then plate the purslane adding onion, two pinches of salt, olive oil, and vinegar, dusting with pepper and cinnamon.

Original text by Platina
Sit bene lota portulaca, secretaque a praeduro caule in patinam reposita, cum cepa minutatim concisa, sale, oleo, aceto condiantur. Sunt qui a comprimendam frigiditatem portulacae piper tritum ac cynnamomun inspargant.

Purslane must be well cleaned, cutting the hardest stems, and then placed on a plate with finely minced onion and dressed with salt, oil, and vinegar. There are some who, to reduce the coolness of purslane, sprinkle it with ground pepper and cinnamon.

Ingredients for Felici’s salad
extra virgin olive oil
white wine vinegar

Clean the purslane. Slice the onion and cucumbers finely, then plate them with the purslane and basil. Dress with salt, oil, and vinegar.

Original text by Felici
La porcellana o porcacchia […] l’estate con il basilico, cipolla e citronelli e con altre cose è insalata molto usitata, così la gentile e hortense, quale fa le foglie grande e rami grossi, como l’altra silvatica e minuta e sottile; nel resto poi tutte d’un sapore e virtù.

Porcellana or porcacchia in summer with basil, onion, cucumbers, and other herbs is a very common salad, both the gentle, cultivated one, which has big leaves and stems, and the other, wild, small, and thin. In all the other aspects, they have the same flavor and properties.

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De Observatione Ciborum by Anthimus. A 6th-century Byzantine text on dietetics
Registrum Coquine by Johannes Bockenheim. A medieval cookbook
Ancient Roman Cooking. Ingredients, Sources, Recipes

Translations of Historical Sources
De Re Coquinaria by Apicius – books 1-4
De Observatione Ciborum by Anthimus (6th century)
Appendicula de Condituris Variis by Johannes Damascenus (8-9th century)
De Flore Dietarum (11th century)
Opusculum de Saporibus by Mainus de Maineris (14th century)
Anonimo Veneziano – first and second part (14th century)
Registrum Coquine by Johannes von Bockenheim (15th century)

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