By Minjie Su
We are what we eat. This expression probably has had more of a ring of truth to those who lived in the Middle Ages, than to us. Hippocratic and Galenic medicine was still the norm, and humoral theory formed the foundation for the understanding of the human body and temperament. To stay in good health, it was essential to keep the four humors (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood) in balance.
Diet played an important part – it should not be hard to fathom the reasons why. After all, one cannot go to the doctor only after one is sick; precautions must be taken. Eating healthily helps maintain, or restore the humoral balance, thus keeping any disease at bay.
The following tips are taken from De observatione ciborum epistula, ‘The Letter on the Observation of Foods’. It was written by Anthimus, court physician to Theodoric the Great, to Theuderic I, King of the Franks around Metz between 511 and 534. In this culinary treatise, Anthimus discusses a wide range of food (and drink); under each entity, he delineates its nature and the best way to cook it, so its benefits may be explored to the fullest extent.
The right way to eat (and use) your bacon
Bacon is one of those foods that was as loved by the Franks and the Ostrogoths as by us today, but the recommended way to cook it was starkly different. Whereas hardly any of us would say no to pan-fried bacon, Anthimus fiercely opposed it. ‘Frying brings absolutely no benefit,’ he claims. This ‘Frankish delicacy’ is best eaten boiled and cooled. Otherwise, the meat will become dry, and anyone who eats it will be harmed rather than benefiting from it. Grilled or roasted bacon produced bad humors – presumably because it would have become too hot, having absorbed something from the fire – and this would cause indigestion. Bacon fat, on the other hand, is quite safe to use, especially when another oil is unavailable.
Although Anthimus disapproves of fried bacon, he has no qualms whatsoever with raw bacon (though, as a Byzantine physician, he carefully points out that this is something he ‘has heard’ of from some Franks). When eaten raw, bacon is no longer a delicacy but a medicine to be used both externally and internally. It is good for the intestines, for raw bacon regulates the bowels and makes the consumer healthier. Thick bacon can also be applied to all kinds of wounds; they will cleanse the putrefaction, and accelerate the healing process.
Oysters are a modern delicacy that are best served raw (with tequila and lime, perhaps), but this beloved shellfish is frowned upon by Anthimus. ‘Only eat it when your craving is too strong to resist’, he says, ‘for oysters are cold and phlegmatic’ (which, to be honest, does sound right). If you have to eat them at all, have them baked with the shells. Eating raw oysters is okay, though best avoided, as long as you make sure to only consume the clean flesh; the rest is just bad. To consume smelly oysters is no better than consuming poison. Other shellfish, such as scallops, are better consumed in similar ways, though scallops are much healthier and safer than oysters to eat – even the sick can have them.
Peacocks…If You Can Afford Them
In addition to everyday food, Anthimus also talks about rarities – let us not forget that he is writing for a Frankish king, and his treatise must be tailored to aristocratic tastes. One of the rare, expensive foods Anthimus mentions is the peacock, which would no doubt enhance the host’s status and reputation if he serves it on a banquet table. Peacock meat, however, is not meant to be eaten fresh: if the peacocks are older, they must be killed and hung for five or six days before they can be cooked; if they are younger, and the meat is, obviously, more tender, then you can reduce the waiting time to one or two days.
Anthimus does not explain the reason, but it seems to have something to do with the meat’s smell, rather than its quality; a little bit of patience will enrich the meat’s flavour. Nor does he specify how one should cook it, only that peacocks can be cooked either in pieces, or whole in a certain kind of sauce. Honey and pepper can be added later, but only a pinch is allowed.
Spumeum, a classical delicacy
Spumeum, derived from the Latin word for ‘foamy, frothy’, is a delicacy made from chicken and egg white. Presumably, it is very similar to what we normally get after beating the egg white, but Anthimus does not explain why and how chicken is involved in the process. The result is a sort of creamy sauce, which should be ‘arranged on a mound on a shallow casserole’ with previously prepared gravy and fish sauce underneath. Then the casserole is to be placed over burning charcoal, so spumeum may be cooked in the steam that rises from the gravy and fish sauce, taking on some of their flavours. Once it is done, it is put in a bowl in the middle of a serving dish, and spiced up with a little wine and honey, but it is not used as a dipping sauce, it is meant to be eaten with a spoon. Anthimus also recommends good fish and sea scallops to go with it, partly because they taste good, and partly because they are very easy to come by around the area he lives in. Pike, in particular, is an excellent choice, for the spumeum will soften the meat and makes the fish much healthier to eat.
Eat as many eggs as you want, but beware – although abundant egg white is needed to make the spumeum, Anthimus does not recommend eating egg white cooked otherwise. It becomes too hard when overheated; this will be bad for digestion and may even cause diarrhea.
Hens eggs should be cooked in water over a low flame, so that the eggs will still be runny, and both the yolk and the white can be cooked evenly. Unevenly cooked eggs could be very harmful. As long as hens’ eggs are cooked properly, they are extremely beneficial to both healthy and sick people.
The eggs of other birds are equally good, but sometimes they require extra caution. Goose eggs, for instance, must be served even runnier. If they are hard-boiled, the white is no better than poison. Pheasant eggs and fowl eggs are even better.
Dr. Minjie Su studies Old Norse (and some other old things), and researches werewolves in medieval Icelandic literature. She is a self-labelled artist of the Post-Pre-Raphaelites and is also a knower of cats. You can follow Minjie on Twitter @Aethelcat_su
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.