Roman authors wrote extensively not only about their culture, but also about other populations’, clearly, from a specific point of view that not necessarily represents the whole truth about the others, especially if barbarians. This limitation, in addition to a series of cultural biases, must always be considered when we examine the Roman sources that, however, contain interesting and important information about other cultures.
This time, we will write about how Romans looked at the German populations, in particular, their food, recreating what could be an ancient German meal according to the descriptions provided by Julius Caesar’s De Bello Gallico and Tacitus’ Germania, with the addition of a recipe from Pliny’s Naturalis Historia. These three sources date back to different periods (Caesar wrote his book between 58 and 50 BCE, whereas Pliny published his work around 77 CE and Tacitus in 98), and this maybe is the reason why there are a few inconsistencies that we will examine.
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The diet of the Germans
According to Caesar, the diet of the Germans was mainly based on milk, cheese, and meat, being they completely uninterested in the cultivation of the fields. The scarcity of wheat is a reason for concern since Caesar needs provisions for his army, but this seems inconsistent with the statement by Tacitus, after about one and a half century, who writes that the Germans prepare ale with wheat and barley, which they drunk in abundance. Another beverage common among the Germans who live near the river (Tacitus is referring to the Rhine) is wine, which they buy, possibly from the Gauls.
Pliny too seems to contradict Caesar, since he attributes to the Germans the preparation of an oat puls as a staple food, the one we are preparing today.
Tacitus then describes the foods of the Germans, pointing out that they are simple and quite plain: fruit from the field, fresh game, curdled milk. They are as much moderate in eating as they are excessive in drinking, writes the author.
From Tacitus’ work, moreover, we learn that the Germans bred various kinds of animals, surely horses and cows, and others generically called armenti (which refers to big animals) and pecus (which refers to any domestic breed, included sheep and goats).
Julius Caesar, among the wild animals present in Germany, focuses on three of them, which he did not see elsewhere: auroch, moose, and a third that he does not name. About the auroch, Caesar writes that it is a huge animal, similar to the cow, which the youths hunt and catch digging pits. Then they collect their horns and decorate them with silver, using them to drink during the richest banquets.
An ancient German meal
From the series of foods described by the authors, we chose to prepare oat puls, curdled milk, and beef roast.
We made the meat in a very plain way, just roasting a slice of meat with a good amount of fat on charcoal for a long time. In the meantime, we prepared the other dishes, after soaking in water overnight the coarsely-crushed oats. Following Tacitus’ description, we did not use any kind of condiment for the meat.
You may choose other meats or different cuts according to your taste.
100 gr oats
500 ml milk
Pound the oats in the mortar coarsely, then steep them in water overnight. Overcook them in water with a pinch of salt until they absorb all the liquid, then finish the cooking with milk.
Note about the method
Pliny does not provide directions about how to make this puls: he writes that Germans cultivated oats and do not make puls with any other cereals (Germaniae populi serant eam [avenam] neque alia pulte vivant).
We followed the methods described by Cato for the puls Punica and granea triticea, the same later described in some medieval sources for a similar plate based on oats, in which however it is used almond milk instead of the milk added by Cato.
In the medieval recipes, there are two options, similar to the mentioned recipes by Cato: one consists in cooking the husked grains and then pound them in the mortar; the second, instead, in grinding the oats and then cooking them.
Pietro Andrea Mattioli, in his commentary to Dioscorides’s work written in the 16th century, recalls that the Germans, at his time, continue to make puls with coarsely ground oats, adding milk and butter.
500 ml milk
Warm the milk near the fire until it reaches 35-40 Celsius degrees. Add the rennet and let it rest for at least half an hour. Break the curdle, mix it without separating it from the whey, and serve. If you want, add a pinch of salt.
Note about the ingredients and method
Germans, probably, would use a rennet obtained from one of the animals they bred. Romans instead, in addition to animal rennet, used fig sap, carthamus, thyme juice, and other ingredients to curdle milk. You find further information about rennet on our Patreon page.
If you prefer not to use rennet, you may add a bit of vinegar to curdle the milk. The thickness of it depends on the quantity and quality of the rennet, as well as the time you will let it rest and how you break the curdle. As a consequence, it could turn out rather liquid or more solid.
Translations of Historical Sources
Opusculum de Saporibus by Mainus de Maineris (14th century)
Registrum Coquine (first part) by Johannes von Bockenheim (15th century)
Appendicula de Condituris Varis by Johannes Damascenus (8-9th century)
Index of Recipes
Kykeon – Ancient Greek Ritual Drink – Eleusinian Mysteries
Gastris – Ancient Greek Sweet
Artolaganon Bread with Ancient Sourdough
Afrutum or Spumeum – 6th-century Byzantine recipeFig Sweet
Ofella – Ancient Roman Steak
Fruit salads – Melon and Peaches
Isicia Marina – Shrimp Cakes and Cucumber Salad
Sala Cattabia – Snow and Posca
Copadia – Beef Stew
Puls Punica – Phoenician Dessert
Farcimina – Spelt and Meat Sausages
Ova Spongia ex Lacte – Sweet Omelettes
Flatbread and Chickpea Soup
Salted Fish with Arugula Sauce
Savillum – Cheesecake
Pasta and Meatballs – Minutal Terentinum
Venison Stew with Spelt Puls
Veal with Allec Sauce – Ius in Elixam Allecatum
Isicia Omentata – Meatballs Wrapped in Caul Fat
Placenta – Honey Cheesecake
Pork Laureate – Porcellum Laureatum
Poppy Seed Bread with Ancient Dry Yeast
Cured Olives and Epityrum
Mustacei – Grape-Must Bread
Libum – Ancient Cheesecake