Vegetables in Medieval Europe

Text : Marie Josèphe Moncorgé. Translator: Jean-Marc Bulit

Fruits and vegetables might be acknowledged edible without ever being set on a dinner table. The chosen ones are chosen either for the sake of showing off a social status or because of the dietary views of the times. Muddy vegetables were left to the lower classes while the noble elite and the upper classes marked a preference for the more aerial fruit. According to Jean Louis Flandrin, recipes for vegetables accounted for only 9% in cookbooks of the 14th and 15th century against 21% for books written since the beginning of the 18th century. Also, more vegetable recipes are found in books from Mediterranean parts, notably Italy and Catalonia. Should we put it on the count of the survival of Roman traditions and Arabic influence for the southern countries, and on the count of the influence of German traditions for the northern ones.

Consumption of edible plants also depends on their growing in a certain place and at a certain time. Capitulary of Charlemagne de villis vel curtis imperii, (of imperial lands and imperial courts), which was written around AD 800, states a list of plants recommended for cultivation in chapter 70, from which interesting observations can be gathered:

Vegetables in Medieval Europe

Greens for porry:

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Artichokes and cardoons

Oldcook: Vegetables in Medieval Europe: Cardoon

Photo: Marie Josèphe Moncorgé
Artichoke: genus cynara scolymus
Cardoon: genus cynara cardunculus

Prickly thistles from the Mediterranean basin generated two edible plants first gathered from the wild then cultivated, which were often confused in the past, i.e. artichoke and cardoon. Both favour mild climates: artichoke is mainly grown in Italy, Spain, southern France and Brittany whilst cardoon is grown in the Rhône-Alps region (François Couplan considers it a forgotten vegetable).

Pline the Elder wrote of the growing of carduus in Carthage and Cordoba, and Columella cited cynara as grown in Andalusia, 1st century AD. Apicius gave us 7 recipes for sfondili and 3 recipes for cardui (books III, XIX and XX). Jacques André considers sfondili as cardoon hearts and cardui as cardoons in the 1987 edition of his translation. But Michel Pitrat and Claude Foury in History of vegetables, INRA, 2003, consider that a sfondilus is an artichoke and a carduus is a cardoon. Mosaics from Tunisia figure artichoke hearts, but a cardoon heart looks so much like that of an artichoke, so?

The word cynara was dropped early on in Latin while carduus which gave cardoon and chard stayed in use throughout the Middle Ages. Swiss chard though, with its large leaves, has nothing to do with cardoon and wasn’t known before the 17th century.

Artichoke, on the other hand, was already established for sure in the 10th century in Andalusia, under the name of harschaf. Artichoke reached Italy and Navarre in the 15th century. It was called carcioffola in Italian and cachofa in Spanish, carxofa in Catalan. It was grown in the Languedoc region of southern France in the 16th century. Rabelais and Ronsard wrote about artichokes in old French, spelling artichaulx or artichôs. Artichokes were reputed to be aphrodisiac then.

Olivier de Serres wrote about the cultivation of cardoons and artichokes in 1600 in the Vivarais Mountains West of the Rhone River and cardoons are still traditionally eaten for Christmas in Provence and in the Dauphine region.

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Aubergine or Eggplant

Oldcook: Vegetables in Medieval Europe - Aubergines Tacuinum sanitatis

Tacuinum sanitatis in medicina (extract)
Codex Vindobonensis series nova 2644 der Oesterreichischen Nationalbibliothek
Solanaceae family, genus Solanum

It is called vatin gana in Sanscrit, badindjan in Persian, al badin jan in Arabic and Alberginia in Catalan … for the eggplant comes from India. The oldest recipes for moussaka are found in Arabo-Persian cookery. It is the Arabs that introduced aubergine to Spain when it was under the rule of Islam. Many recipes for aubergine are found in Arabo-Persian and Arabo-Andalusian books, notably the Baghdad Cookery Book (1226) and the Anonymous Andalusian cookbook of the 13th century. There are 4 recipes for alberginia in the Sent Sovi, 1324, 3 recipes by Robert de Nola in Naples, beginning of the 15th century. The word aubergine does not appear in France before 1750 though, as in fact the eggplant was only eaten in Spain, Greece and southern Italy for several centuries. Aubergine was suspicious in the northern parts, just as for the not yet known tomatoes, so long mistrusted later on. Both plants are of the same family as the deadly nightshade, and German botanist of the 16th century Leonhart Fuchs said that the word aubergine alone should cause fright to those who care for their health.

Aubergines in the Sent Sovi are cooked au gratin with cheese:

Capitol CLI. Qui parla con se deuen coura albergines en casola
You take the aubergines and peel them and then cook them. And when they are cooked, soak them in the cold water and then press them between 2 platters. Take a terracotta dish and pour in the water with the spices, add some good [cottage] cheese and mix it all together. And then when the contents of the dish are well mixed, you take the aubergines and lay them in the dish and bring it to the furnace. And let it cook in the furnace like a tart. If you don’t want to bring it to the furnace, cook it with the embers on a trivet, and put a lid on the dish with embers on top of it.

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Oldcook: Vegetables in Medieval Europe - Vilmorin's Cabbage

Cabbage from Milan
Album Vilmorin - lithographie 1862
Cruciferae Family, Brassica oleracea species.

Origins: a wild perennial plant some 60 cm to 1 m high, which is usually found on rocky coasts and cliffs in Western Europe and around the Mediterranean Sea, reaching to the Near East. Cabbage has been cultivated for 5 or 6 thousand years. More than 400 varieties of cabbage have been identified as issuing from this wild cabbage plant: round red or green cabbage, kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprout, broccoli and many regional varieties in each of the European countries. The common round cabbage was already grown during the reign of Julius Cesar. Cauliflower, which comes from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, was called Syrian cabbage in Arabian Andalusia of the 12th century. Olivier de Serres, in 1600, in the Théâtre d’agriculture et mesnage des champs, speaks of cauli-fiori, as the Italians say, still little found in France.

Romans already ate the same kind of broccoli as nowadays: Apicius gives several recipes for cimas and coliclos (broccoli and cabbage sprouts). Brussels sprout appeared in the 16th century, but really developed into the present form, beginning only in the early 19th century.

In Hipocratism’s medieval classification, cabbage is a wet food. Poet of the 10th century Macer Floridus said: Though indeed a common plant of our kitchen gardens, cabbage keeps to having numerous healthy virtues. According to Cato the Elder, Romans used cabbage as a medicine for more than 600 years (related in Les Bonnes Herbes du Moyen Age by Laetitia Bourgeois-Cornu).

Cabbage was such a common lower classes’ vegetable that it usually wasn’t included in the recipes of medieval cookery for soup or porée. In the Ménagier de Paris (n°53), however, you can find a long description of 5 different kinds of cabbage, when to harvest each of them and how to prepare them: and you must know that the cabbages must be put on the fire very early in the morning and let to cook a very long time, longer than any other soup, with the fire hot and lively. They must soak in beef fat and no other, whether they are round cabbages or any other kind, apart from sprouting cabbages. You must also know that a beef or mutton fat broth is quite adequate, but that that of pork fat is good only for leek.

Cabbage for sauerkraut

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Apiaceae or Umbelliferae family – genus Daucus carota.

Wild carrots grow all over Europe, in parts of Asia and in northern Africa. But Philippe-André de Vilmorin showed, around 1830 (see Jardin des Hommes by J.B. de Vilmorin, 1991), that it was difficult to start over and breed a garden carrot from a wild plant. Carrots kept to being long yellow and ligneous roots for a long time. Apicius (Liber III – XXI – 1 to 3) gave 3 recipes for carotae: fried, with a garum fish sauce mixed with wine, with vinaigrette, or boiled and cooked with a cumin sauce. Carrots (carvitas) are found in the list of vegetables recommended for cultivation by Charlemagne in the Capitulare de villis vel curtis imperii (Of imperial lands and imperial courts). Ibn al-Awwam, in the Kitab al-Filahah – his book on Agriculture, 12th century – told of 2 kinds of carrots: the red carrot, already known in Syria in the 4th century, and a larger but less tasty variety of a green-yellow colour. Actually, it was a woody yellow or red carrot that was known in the West until a carrot called the long orange was invented in Holland in the 17th century and originated the orange carrots we eat today. Not until the beginning of the 19th century did the production of modern carrots start in France.

Carrots were often mixed-up with parsnips. Recipes by Apicius are entitled carotae sev pastinacae (carrots or parsnips). A carrot is called pastanaga in Catalan, which is close to the Spanish pastinaca for parsnip.

We find little carrots in the medieval recipes of the West, a bit more in the Baghdad Cookery Book or in Arabo-Andalusian cookery. There are 2 recipes with carrots in the Liber de Coquina (V, 11 and 12): the Lombard compound and the Teutonic compound. In the Sent Sovi there is a recipe for white carrots in almond milk (pastanagues blanques: qui parla con se ffa pastanagua ab let de amelles, CXIII). And carrots again are mentioned in the Ménagier de Paris, in the section dealing with Other small and unnecessary things, where it is advised to cook them like turnip, and where they are described as red roots, sold by the handful at the central market.

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Medieval European gourds

Oldcook: Vegetables in Medieval Europe - Gourd Tacuinum sanitatis

Tacuinum sanitatis in medicina (extract)
Codex Vindobonensis series nova 2644 der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek.
Family Cucurbitacea, species Cucurbita lagenaria vulgaris siceraria

Michel Chauvet – a researcher at INRA in Montpellier – says that you must positively put out of your mind the anachronical belief that the vegetables of today have always existed and are the same as those described by the Elders.

Squash – Courge in French – is a perfect example of this anachronism: How to grow squash is thoroughly explained the Ménagier de Paris (gardening II, ii – 19), which also contains a recipe for squash (other spiced soups, 63). A courge is a congorde in Taillevent and is eaten as a soup. As for Maestro Martino he called squash zucche and made pies with it, and the Sent Sovi has several recipes for carabaces.

But … squash was unknown in Europe during the Middle Ages since it comes from the American continent (as well as beans).

In fact, the Medieval European squash is not the pumpkin plant we know of nowadays (Cucurbita pepo), but the sort of gourd that is sometimes called calabash – not to mistake for the bottle gourd of Africa or for Calabaza, yet another kind. According to Michel Chauvet, the young fruit of gourd plants are as edible as zucchini – the Italian squash – also courgette. Seeds from the Lagenaria plant can still be found in specialized seed shops, by the way.

The gourd is known by the name of cucurbita since antiquity : A specific chapter (LIII-IV) with 8 recipes for Cucurbitas is found in Apicius, and the cucurbitas are on Charlemage’s list, in the Capitulare de villis vel curtis imperii.

From a linguistics point of view: cucurbita gave cohourge then shortened into courde which, sometime after 1200, gave both gourd(e) and courge. Both words were used for the same vegetable in the Middle Ages, and squash is a word of American Indian origin.

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Oldcook: Vegetables in Medieval Europe - Melons Tacuinum sanitatis

Sweet melons
Tacuinum sanitatis in medicina (extract)
Codex Vindobonensis series nova 2644 der Oesterreichischen Nationalbibliothek
Melon: Family Cucurbitacea, species Cucumis melo.

With origins in Asia or South Africa, present varieties of melon are supposedly from the Caucasus or Armenia. Melon was already eaten in Ancient Egypt, in Ancient Greece and by the Romans.

There are mix-ups in designations, sometimes, for the Cucumis melo species. Michel Chauvet – a researcher at INRA in Montpellier – says that you must positively put out of your mind the anachronical belief that the vegetables of today have always existed and are the same as those described by the Elders.

And as you can see, the picture above from the Tacuinum shows an oblong shaped melon, much different from any kind grown today, witnessing to the difficulties in identification met by researchers. There were also, in antiquity and in the Middle Ages, confusions of designation between cucumber, melon, watermelon and gourd.

Michel Chauvet explains that according to Pline (19,64-68), when the cucumbers had grown to a considerable size they were called pepones. The Greek melopepôn derived from it and in turn the Latin melopepo, which mean melon-apple, of which Pline says they are a new variety resembling a quince, growing to a round shape on the ground and of a golden colour …The only recipe given by Apicius (recipe 85) is called Pepones et melons, which translator Jacques André rendered watermelons and melons. [… ] But these might well have been two different kinds of melon – watermelon is citrullus lanatus not cucumis melo. In a note in the margin Jacques André specifies that the recipe is probably for cooked fruit (compote) and adds that we know that watermelon was cooked (Dioclès de Caryste ap. Athénée, 68th). We can therefore gather that watermelon was probably not of the red and watery kind we eat nowadays. If It were to have been a cultivar of the citrullus lanatus sort it would rather have been the type of white fleshed watermelon called citre or gigerine that is traditionally used to make jam in Provence, or one of a kind that was picked immature (why not?). But I think it was just a large tasteless ancestral species of melon.

In short, Apicius fixes Pepones and melons with pepper, pennyroyal, honey or vin de paille, garum, vinegar. Silphium was sometimes added (III-VII).

Italian monks cultivated and improved melon during the Renaissance, in a papal summer residence in Cantalupo. Cantaloupe was then introduced in Avignon (Cavaillon melon is a sort of Cantaloupe).

La Quintinie grew melon in a greenhouse in Versailles. In the 17th century in France, we found pompons – big tastless oblong fruits, and the sweet round melons. There were 65 varieties of melon at the end of the 19th century.

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Oldcook: Vegetables in Medieval Europe - Parsnips Tacuinum sanitatis

Photo: Jacques Bouchut
Apiaceae or Umbelliferae family – genus Pastinaca sativa.

Apicius has a same recipes for carotae sev pastinacae (carrots or parsnips).

The wild parsnip has a whitish and ligneous carrot-like root. It was already eaten 2000 BC and nobody knows for sure yet, whether the ancient texts refer to carrots or parsnips. Capitulary of Charlemagne however clearly distinguishes carvitas from pastenacas. Two recipes for parnsnips in pâté (escheroy) are found in the Ménagier de Paris (161 and 267).

A forgotten or depreciated vegetable in France, parsnip is still much eaten in Great Britain and in the Iberic peninsula. The fleshy root of a parsnip is thicker than that of a carrot. Parsnips are prepared the same way as carrots.

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Les légumes en Europe médiévale