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


The Byzantine physician Anthimus, in his letter written in the 6th century to king Theuderic and titled De Observatione Ciborum, provides not only recipes but first of all, the fundamental principles to prepare healthy dishes according to a series of dietetic precepts deeply related to ancient medicine, in particular Galen’s work. Starting from the ideas that the author explains very clearly in the text, not only we can prepare a series of recipes, but also apply these principles to making other dishes briefly mentioned by the author. The most important concept that we have to keep in mind is that food must be perfectly cooked to be healthy, an idea that Anthimus considers essential for a proper diet, and that by eating and drinking correctly and in moderation, one does not need other kinds of medicine. The fundamental relationship between food and health is one of the basic principles of Greek medicine, and as a consequence, one of the most important ideas of medieval and Renaissance physicians.
In the case of the recipe we are preparing today, the author describes in detail the method and ingredients, whereas the preparation of other main ingredients is generally shorter. This recipe is called a iuscellum, the diminutive form of Latin ius, which means juice, sauce, gravy, or even broth. It is difficult to explain, exactly, what Anthimus intends with this word: the preparation is a stew cooked with a series of vegetables and spices, with the addition of honey, wine, and vinegar.
Sometimes, in the text, Anthimus mentions a iuscellum simplex, a simple iuscellum, without adding further information about its preparation. We may infer that the iuscellum for beef that we prepare today is to be considered a complex iuscellum, and as a consequence, when we prepare dishes that require a simple one, we may choose to add just some of the ingredients listed here to prepare, indeed, a simpler sauce. This means that starting from this recipe, we may prepare plenty of dishes according to the same principles, and at the same time, follow our taste and choose the ingredients we have at our disposal in our pantry or garden.
We used lesser calamint instead of pennyroyal and shallot greens instead of head leek, a common leek grown in such a way it developed a big head according to Pliny, and chose fennel, the alternative recommended by the author instead of celery roots. Other two important ingredients for this recipe, that appear in both Byzantine and ancient Roman cooking, are costus and nardus. Costus is a very fragrant spice with an intense and delicious aroma. We bought the roots from India, but you may find it, already ground, in some Middle-Eastern grocery stores. Nardus is a name for a series of plants related to lavender, which was called in the Antiquity nardus Gallicus.
The alternatives to honey are sapa and carenum, in the peculiar spelling of this author, who was not a native speaker.
We did not add salt, because the author generally specifies when to use it, and he does that rarely, but you may add two pinches of salt or, even better, garum for an excellent outcome of this recipe.

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1 kg beef
fresh herbs (lesser calamint, fennel, shallot green, lavender)
spices (costus, pepper, cloves)

Simmer the meat in a bit of water for about one hour. In the meantime, mince the lesser calamint, fennel, and shallot greens and pound the spices in the mortar, adding the lavender and a bit of wine. Add the herbs to the meat with vinegar and honey, then cook the meat for another hour. When the meat is almost done, add the spices and cook for a couple of minutes more. Serve it hot.

Original text
De carnibus vero vaccinis vaporatas factas et in se tinga coctas utendum etiam et in iuscello, 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, et bene ius cum carne ipsa temperetur, et sic teri: piper grana L, costo et spicanardi per singula quantum medietatem solidi, et cariofili quantum pinsat tremissis. Ista omnia simul trita bene in mortario fictile addito vino modico, et cum bene tribulatum fuerit, mittis in olla et agetas bene ita, ut, antequam tollatur de foco, modicum sentiat et remittat in ius virtutem suam. Ubi tamen fuerit mel aut sapa vel carenum, unum de ipsis, sicut superius contenit, mittatur, et in bucculare non coquat, sed in olla fictile meliorem saporem facit.

Cow meat may be steamed and eaten, once cooked, dipped in its own juice, or stewed: [to stew it] first, 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 how 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. Then, grind fifty grains of pepper, the quantity of costus and lavender corresponding to the half, and cloves as much as you reckon it is necessary. Pound these ingredients well in a clay mortar and add a bit of wine. When they are well ground, add them in the pot and stir well in such a way that, before it is removed from the fire, you feel a bit their taste and they release their properties into the sauce. Then, add honey, or sapa, or carenum, one of them, and the quantity depends on how much [the cooking vessel] can be filled, but do not cook them in the bucculare, since it [this dish] has a better flavor cooked in a clay pot [olla fictilis].

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Early Italian Recipes. Vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers
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 1-6
De Observatione Ciborum by Anthimus (6th century)
Appendicula de Condituris Variis by Johannes Damascenus (8th-9th century)
De Flore Dietarum (11th century)
Tractatus de Modo Preparandi et Condiendi Omnia Cibaria (13th-14th century)
Opusculum de Saporibus by Mainus de Maineris (14th century)
Anonimo Toscano – first and second part (14th century)
Anonimo Veneziano (14th century)
Registrum Coquine by Johannes von Bockenheim (15th century)

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