By Andrea Maraschi
It might surprise some readers to know that one of the oldest cookbooks from medieval Europe was written in Scandinavia.
Though Scandinavian cuisine has been growing more and more popular over the past few years, Scandinavians themselves would probably not suspect that they’ve played any major role in the culinary history of Europe until recently. This is not to say that our modern – instinctive – association of good cooking with Italy and France is ultimately inaccurate. On the contrary, the cornerstones of European recipe collections happen to have been composed in said countries: it suffices to mention the well-known De re coquinaria, attributed to the Roman chef Apicius but probably written in the fourth century; the Liber de coquina, composed in Southern Italy, and probably associated with the court of the Emperor Frederick II (1194– 1250; Le Viandier de Taillevent, written ca. 1300; Le Ménagier de Paris (ca. 1393); or Maestro Martino’s Libro de arte coquinaria (second half of the fifteenth century).
At the same time, other important cookbooks were being produced across the rest of Europe, most notably in Germany and England, and they all contributed to the development of a broadly European idea of cooking which was based on the basic principles of dietetics. These principles dated to Classical Greece and to the School of Hippocrates, via the later work of the Roman physician Galen.
The Revival of Cooking
But students of food history have to deal with a serious lack of sources for what concerns the entire early Middle Ages. As a matter of fact, no culinary treatises or collections of recipes from the sixth to the twelfth century have reached us, with the exception of Arab ones. This reticence may have been due to a number of reasons, which would be impossible to address here, but it is interesting to discuss what happens at the end of said time span.
At some point, in a renewed Western society – characterized by urbanization, population growth, economic boom, harsh contrasts between the Papacy and the Emperors – Europeans seem to have become suddenly interested in cooking. Almost out of the blue, the sources clearly suggest that they were busy preparing wonderful dishes for royal and noble courts, experimenting with new techniques, and concerned with both taste and aesthetic appeal.
Within this historical and cultural context, there surfaces another book on the art of cooking, not very originally known as Libellus de arte coquinaria. It is the end of the thirteenth century, that is, the moment when the southern Italian Liber de coquina has begun circulating. The oldest manuscript containing our Libellus dates to approximately 1300: it is Codex K, currently preserved in Copenhagen. At least three more important manuscripts survive, dating to a slightly later time: Codex Q (fourteenth century), also preserved in Copenhagen; Codex D, in Dublin, from the last quarter of the fifteenth century; and Codex W, from the fifteenth century (in Wolfenbüttel).
The Libellus features a total of thirty-five recipes written in three different Germanic vernacular languages: namely, Danish, Icelandic, and Low German. It then fills an important hole in European culinary tradition, and seems to be the first attested effort of Northern Europeans in the field of cooking.
Needless to say, we are talking about an essential source for food historians, but also for scholars interested in medieval Nordic culture. Indeed, cookbooks are not mere lists of recipes, but actually cast light on many aspects of the culture which produced them. First of all, the Libellus speaks about the equipment used in a typical cuisine of the élite: as the fire burns, the cooks are busy with griddles, spits, the oven, pots, pans, dishes, clothes, casks, mortars, and of course knives and spoons. But the focus of the collection is the food. Unsurprisingly, meat and fish are the protagonists in twenty-one recipes. Alongside bream, pike, eels and lamprey, we find recipes based on chickens, and others mentioning geese, ducks, beef, pork, bacon, sheep’s meat, harts and roe deer. Animals were not merely appreciated for their meat, though: giblets, livers, gizzard, bones, marrow, lard, pork fat, as well as milk, butter, and eggs are all important ingredients in the Libellus.
Meats are often accompanied by a key element in medieval cuisine: sauces. Ten different recipes for sauces are featured in the Libellus, attesting to their primary role. “One takes cloves and nutmeg, cardamom, pepper, cinnamon – that is canel – and ginger, all in equal amounts, except that there should be as much canel as all the other spices”, reads a recipe for a “lordly sauce” which can last half a year; “and add twice as much toasted bread as of everything else, and grind them all together, and blend with strong vinegar, and place it in a cask.” It also explains how roasts are dressed with the sauce, and how the latter can be used to preserve the meat:
… one shall boil it well in a pot over a very low fire. And one should take a joint of meat of hart or roe deer, well larded, and roast it well, and cut it in broad pieces. And when the sauce is cold, the game should then be added to it with a little salt. And it lasts for three weeks. In this manner one can preserve venison, geese, or ducks, if one cuts them in thick pieces. These are the best sauces that a nobleman can have.
Among the ingredients, the authors mention cereals, vegetables, and fruits such as wheat, fava beans, peas, onion, garlic, grapes, almonds, walnuts; herbs such as mint, parsley, saffron, thyme, sage; and seasonings such as mustard, vinegar, wine, verjuice, and salt.
As these ingredients suggest, and as has been shown by scholars, élite cuisine was not as distant from peasant cooking as one might suspect. Actually, recipes from many medieval cookbooks were blatantly based on dishes and products which were typical of poor cuisine. There is little doubt that the élite enjoyed peasant cooking. The problem was that, at the same time, they needed to mark their identity in some way, and turn peasant cooking into élite cuisine. But how?
From pauper to posh: making peasant dishes elite
The answer was spices. Indeed, the Libellus mentions typical ones such as anise, cardamom, cloves, ginger, cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, and pepper. Adding these to a peasants’ dish would have surely identified it as one for the rich. An example is a dish called kloten en honær, “chicken dumplings”:
One should take a whole old hen and boil it, and then dismember it. Then take a raw hen and chop the meat in small pieces, and add pork meat, diced as small as peas, and powder of cumin, and make from these small pieces. Place them in the broth of the boiled hen, and cumin, wine, saffron, lard to taste, and salt, and thicken it with egg yolks.
Except for cumin and saffron, one may well note that this dish may have appeared on any peasants’ table, and they would be right.
This does not mean that there were not simpler ways to cook a chicken: “take a young hen and boil it with bacon”, reads another one, “and cool it, and tear it apart, and cook it in a pan with lard, pepper, wine, and salt. These hens are good to eat while warm.” This reminds us of pseudo-Apicius’s De re coquinaria, way back in time, where pepper and wine are often used to accompany all sorts of dishes (along with honey). Many centuries separated Apicius from the cooks behind the northern Libellus, but some things never change: the idea that food identifies us. It is so true: as Feuerbach used to say, we are what we eat.
You can read a translation of this cookbook in Libellus de arte coquinaria: An Early Northern Cookery Book, edited by Rudolf Grewe and Constance B. Hieatt.
Andrea Maraschi is a Lecturer in Medieval History at Università degli Studi di Bari. He has taught courses on Food history in the Middle Ages and Anthropology of Food, and he has published on many aspects connected with food in medieval times such as banqueting, religious symbolism, and magic practice. Click here to see him on Academia.edu or follow him on Twitter @Andrea_Maraschi
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.
Top Image: Photo by Simone Letari / Wikimedia Commons