The Diet of the Franks – 6th-century Pork Stew


De Observatione Ciborum (Italian edition here), dating to the 6th century, is not only one of the few sources of early-medieval recipes, but is unique for two main aspects: first, it is written in Latin by a Byzantine author, the physician Anthimus; second, it is addressed to Theuderic, the king of the Franks, with precious information about the alimentation of the so-called barbarian populations.
From this source, we learn more about a historical period scarcely known, the early Middle Ages, quite obscure in particular for what concerns cooking and food. However, thanks to Anthimus’ letter, we find the passage between two worlds apparently different, the moment of transition between ancient cooking and the traditions of the late Middle Ages, passing through the alimentary habits of a Germanic population, the Franks.
It is interesting to notice that Anthimus and Theuderic share a common language and a series of foods that belong to the ancient Mediterranean tradition, such as the melca or oxygala (a curdle or yogurt, depending on the recipe), as well as polenta (called in Gothic fenea), but also garum (from the text, clearly popular among the Franks), oxymeli (a sauce based on honey and vinegar), or laredum, pork fatback, used in a completely different way by the Franks and Greeks or Romans. Laredum, as Anthimus spells it (instead of the more common lardum or laridum), is eaten raw, not cooked, and works as a medicine among a population that, the author reckons, does not possess other kinds of medicaments, in the same way as medus (mead), known and used by Greeks and Romans, and cervisa (ale), considered a sort of substitute for tesana, an ancient medicinal remedy.
According to ancient dietetics, indeed, the proper alimentation depends not only on the complexion and individual characteristics, but also on the climate and place of the world in which one lives. As a consequence, the dietetics of Anthimus, who worked among the Franks as an ambassador, is both descriptive and prescriptive, and the medical recommendations want to explain the current uses he observes.
The alimentation of the Franks appears more oriented toward meat than fish, in the same way as late-medieval cooking will prefer it, using fish as a substitute in the lean days. The Franks eat all kinds of meat: mutton, beef, poultry, pork, buffalo, game meat, but also many kinds of birds, including doves and peacocks, appreciated in the Mediterranean world.

De Observatione Ciborum is halfway between a treatise on dietetics and a cookbook, with recommendations about how to prepare the various foods in the healthiest way. In this letter, there are some detailed recipes, but also general principles about how to cook the different aliments. Starting from these principles, we can prepare several dishes, briefly mentioned in the text.
The recipe we are preparing today is pork cooked in a iuscellum, one of the recommended methods to prepare this kind of meat, in particular suckling pig. Other methods include roasting or simmering it. It is essential to eat extremely fresh meat, and this is Anthimus’ general advice, because it is lighter and more digestible. Another recipe is the roasted pork with oxymeli that we prepared in the past.
Iuscellum is a word difficult to translate. It refers to a stew, a gravy, or a sauce. In the case of Anthimus, it is a specific preparation that may be simple or complex. The author provides a complete recipe for a complex iuscellum that requires vinegar, leek, pennyroyal, celery root or fennel, pepper, cloves, costus, and lavender.
We prepared our pork with a simple iuscellum following Anthimus’ directions and using some of these ingredients and celery leaves, being celery mentioned among a list of vegetables that can be added to whichever kind of food during the cooking, including leek, cilantro, and dill.
This is the text.

Apium vero, coriandrum et anetum vel porrionis in omni ciborum coctura miscuntur ita, ut porri modico perdurent.

Mix celery, cilantro, dill, and leek during the cooking with whichever foods. The leeks must be moderately pre-cooked.”

Anthimus, as Apicius and other ancient authors, uses porra capitata, leeks cultivated in such a way they grow a big head. If you use leeks as small as ours, minced, you do not need to pre-cook them.
Celery refers to celery leaves, used in ancient cooking in the same way as cilantro or parsley. If you prefer, use celery roots, like in the recipe for beef that you find below, but they must be cooked for a long time.
The method to prepare the meat requires long cooking, which we can reduce depending on the cut we are using. Anthimus recommends parboiling beef in water, then cooking it again with the other ingredients.

Ut prius expromatas una unda mittat, et sic in nitida aqua, quantum ratio poscit, coquantur, ut non addatur aqua, et cum cocta fuerit caro, mittis acetum acerrimum quantum media bucula, et mittis capita porrorum et puledium modicum, apii radicis vel finiculum, et coquat in una hora, et sic addis mel quantum medietatem de aceto vel quis dulcedinem habere voluerit, et sic coquat lento foco agetando ipsa olla frequenter manibus.

Place it, cleaned, in water, and it must be clean water, the necessary quantity. Cook it without further water and, when it is cooked, add very strong vinegar filling half the pot [bucculare], then leek heads, a bit of pennyroyal, and root of celery or fennel. Cook it for an hour. Then, add honey, half the quantity of vinegar, or depending on as much you want it sweet, and cook at low heat, shaking the pot with your hands frequently to mix well the sauce with the meat.”

After that, the author adds the spices diluted with a bit of wine and some sweetener: honey again or sapa or carenum, which are grape must boiled down until reduced by half or one-third. It is important to avoid garum to season whichever part of the pork, according to Anthimus’ dietetics: liquamen ex omni parte prohibimus, writes the author. However, if you want to use garum for this recipe, you will obtain an excellent dish.
Following Anthimus’ principles, we simplified the recipe to prepare a iuscellum simplex, using only a spice, pepper. Once learned the basic principles, however, we encourage you to experiment and try other kinds of meat (for example mutton, lamb, or chicken, suitable for this preparation according to the author), herbs, and spices, the best way to experience historical cooking.

If you want to know more about Anthimus, check out our new book, De Observatione Ciborum. Early-medieval recipes at the court of the Franks, available on Amazon in English and Italian. In the book, you find not only the translation of the text and a glossary, but also an introduction about the ingredients, methods, and cultural context that will help to recreate Anthimus’ recipes authentically. If you are interested in late-medieval cooking, check out our book Registrum Coquine. A medieval cookbook.
For more inf
ormation about ancient food, we recommend reading Ancient Roman Cooking. Ingredients, Recipes, Sources.
If you want to read further translations of historical sources and articles about ancient and medieval recipes and dietetics, check out our Patreon page.
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Iuscellum - Thumbnail

500 grams pork
celery leaves

Iuscellum - Pre 4yt

Cut the meat into chunks and cook it in a bit of plain water with a pinch of salt. Mince the leeks and celery leaves. Grind in the mortar the pepper. When the meat is almost cooked through, add vinegar, the minced leeks and celery, and honey with a pinch of pepper. Serve hot.

Iuscellum - Plate 1

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De Observatione Ciborum by Anthimus. Early-medieval recipes at the court of the Franks.
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 (14th century)
Registrum Coquine by Johannes von Bockenheim (15th century)

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