Sunday, December 15, 2013

Carolingian Food

Fava beans!*
I recently acquired an SCA "Compleat Anachronist"  booklet called "Carolingian Foodways" by Volker Bach.  For $4.50 USD this booklet, which can be purchasede from,is an unbeatable way to satisfy one's curiosity about a period whose cuisine receives little attention, and a good start for anyone interested in undertaking more detailed research on the topic.

The best way to demonstrate why I respect this little booklet so much is by discussing the various things Bach has done right that the authors of many historical food treatises and cookbooks ignore, or get wrong.   "Carolingian Foodways" is immensely educational because Bach provides the reader not just with known facts, but with the following tools to assess them:

1.  A discussion of the limitations of available historical sources.  A historian researching the material culture of a place, time and period such as the Carolingian Empire must begin by realizing that there will be relatively few writings among the available sources of knowledge and the written sources that do exist must be evaluated and assessed with care to avoid misinterpretation.

Bach begins his work with a good primer that discusses the major written sources we have for Carolingian food, and their limitations.  Three sources of what we would think of as recipes existed in the Carolingian era:  Apicius's recipe collection; a manuscript called the Collation of Vinidarius, and the letter of Anthimus.  Apicius's work dates back to early Rome; the Vinidarius work is of disputed date, but its recipes likely date to several hundred years before Charlemagne, and Anthimus' work is not so much a cookbook as a letter of medical advice written for a king in the 6th century C.E.  More importantly, none of these works were written during the Carolingian period.

Of course, the lack of recipe books does not mean there was no cooking or cuisine, and Bach describes a number of other sources from which information about the foods of Charlemagne's day can be derived.  These include literature, law texts, and administrative documents.  Charlemagne himself composed a treatise, known as the capitulare de villis, which describes how he desired his estates should be run, which gives precious insight into what items were standard equipment for the operation of kitchens and gardens of a wealthy estate.  Surviving plans for the monastery of St. Gall give similar insight for how a large monastery operated to feed its brothers, as well as the wayfarers and noble guests who were often fed and given temporary housing at monasteries during the period.   Finally, archaeological evidence (animal bone finds, utensils, cooking containers, hearths, etc.) helps with the interpretation of the evidence from written sources.

In short, deducing the form and content of Carolingian cuisine is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle with an unknown number of pieces missing and without the picture from the lid of the puzzle box.  Reading Bach's description will help the history novice appreciate that the task of historians is often much more complicated than looking up information and transcribing it.

2. A discussion of the physical and cultural limitations that shaped cuisine.  Cuisines are shaped by a number of factors.  The most obvious of those factors are the foods available to cook and eat and the technologies available to use in cooking them. The available foods issue is more than just a question of what foods are native to the Old World, as opposed to the New World; it requires some consideration of what foods would be easy to obtain in the parts of Europe that Charlemagne incorporated into his empire and what foods would be hard to find. 

Although the written sources for Carolingian food are biased in favor of what the well-off might eat, Bach also attempts to deduce the basic diet of the common man, and concludes that it must have featured bread (typically made from barley and rye), porridges made from the same types of grains as the bread, fava beans, peas, cabbage, onions and leeks, butter and cheese, with beef and pork as an occasional meal and/or in small amounts for flavoring.  The picture for the rich is much the same, except the bread would be made from wheat, meat would be more common, and chickens and eggs make an appearance.  Fish would have been available and eaten by people of all classes who lived in areas close to rivers and coasts.   Both rich and ordinary folk could well have used herbs to flavor foods, with the common man limited to what could be gathered locally while the rich could import some items.   Mustard and garlic appear, as well as green onions and other familiar herbs (e.g., dill, thyme, sage, rosemary); some of the herbs were more likely to appear in the Mediterranean reaches of the Empire (e.g., rosemary) because they were native to those areas.

Available cooking technologies are in some ways easier to deduce, since whatever references appear in the written sources can be cross-checked against the types of cooking equipment found and dated by archaeologists.  Bach notes that the most common food preparation technique was boiling, and for most people food would have been boiled in a clay pot instead of a metal one.  Cooking in a clay pot is different from doing so in the metal pots and pans that are common for us because high temperature cooking is largely impossible, particularly since the heat source was an open fire.  According to Bach, "Cooking food at a rolling boil is almost impossible in them [clay pots], and their results are best replicated by gently baking a cooking container or cooking on a gentle heat.  You can fry foods in a clay pan, but you don't get the same sizzle as you would in metal."  (p. 26).  Metal containers were likely the province of kitchens that fed large houses, such as monasteries and the manors of the rich.

The other shaper of cuisine Bach discusses is the possible influence of Roman cuisine.  Did the Carolingians still use garum?  Did they retain the Roman enjoyment of green salads?  Bach argues that they probably did, based in part upon how contemporary figures referenced Roman examples in writing about their own food experiences.   To give Bach further credit, he does not simply fall back on the clichéd assumption that cultural trends did not change as rapidly in the distant historical past as they do now; instead, he attempts to base his inferences on written sources or known facts.

3. An explanation of intellectual biases that affect the author's treatment of his subject.  My estimation of Bach soared when I read the section in his booklet that discusses the two conflicting approaches to the recreation of Early Period material culture (including, of course,  food).  The two basic approaches are the minimalist and the maximalist approach.

Mustard! (seed and condiment)
The minimalist approach is more frequently taught to archaeology and history students, and colors most people's perception of earlier times.  Motion pictures, in particular, base their view of the past upon minimalist assumptions.  Under the minimalist view, everyone, including the rich, was extremely poor by modern standards; they were dirty and often starving, and all, even the rich, dressed in coarse, drab fabrics.  This view tends to prevail despite the fact that archaeology sometimes finds evidence that at least the rich wore finely woven cloth and  exquisitely crafted jewelry, and ate a varied diet, and that even the European peasant diet of the the Middle Ages was quite healthy by modern standards.

Maximalists, as one might deduce, take the opposite view of the known facts.  For example, they tend to assume that the jewels and the fine fabrics found by archaeologists were, if not common, at least normal for some people.  Bach gives this example:  "Their aristocrat would be dressed in silk and colorful woolens, with a carefully tooled and dyed leather belt holding up the polished sword and a warshield painted with Egyptian blue and Spanish cinnabar." (p. 25)  The problem with this picture, Bach observes, is that "None of this is impossible, but we also can't be sure it ever was combined this way."  (p. 25)

Bach describes himself as "a confessed maximalist, although a cautious one".   His interpretation, as I have sought to describe it above, is one where most people got enough to eat of simple foods (such as those shown in the photographs accompanying this post), and the rich enjoyed some additional luxuries.  That doesn't strike me as a maximal position, merely a sensible corrective to the assumption that a starving Europe managed to give birth to vigorous peoples who eventually created empires even larger than Rome.

4.  Plausible historical recipes that can be made by the interested.  No matter how sophisticated one's understanding of the difficulty of recreating the cuisine of a culture where there are few if any surviving cookbooks, it is still a disappointment to read a book about historical food that doesn't take the leap of faith and present at least a few recipes that seem plausible in light of the available foods and cooking techniques.

Given Bach's identification with the maximalist school of archaeological reconstruction, I was surprised to see how conservative his suggested recipes are.  One of them, a bean recipe that in its simplicity reminds me of ful medames, inspired me to conduct an informal experiment that I plan to write about in a later post.  Here is the recipe:
250 g/ 1/2 pound dried fava beans
50 g bacon
Optional:  Butter or other fat, vinegar, mustard

Wash the beans and soak them in cold water overnight.  The next day, heat plenty of unsalted water in a pot and cook the beans for 60-90 minutes until they are soft.  Cooking times can vary a great deal, so always make sure to test your beans.  If any float on top of the boiling water, discard them--they are probably wormy.  Once the beans are cooked, pour off the cooking water, add a little fresh water, salt and bacon and let the beans absorb the flavor at a gentle heat for 10-20 minutes, making sure they don't burn.  If you leave the bacon in, or the piece was on the fatty side, you won't need to add any butter, but a dab of it added before serving can improve very plain beans.  Vinegar or mustard can be added as seasonings.  (p. 47)
5.   Good endnotes and a full bibliography.  It is irresponsible for a historian to set forth the conclusions of his own research without including references to the sources upon which it is based.  Bach is not irresponsible; he provides his bibliography, which includes sources available on the Internet and extends into culinary history both from before and after Charlemagne's day.  The sources (some of which I recognize) make an excellent education in the cuisine period as well as providing some understanding of some of the history that shaped it.

There is so much information packed into "Carolingian Foodways" that as I write this I'm finding that I need to read the entire book again, to assess and consider details I have overlooked.  Fortunately, that's no hardship; the book is well-written and a pleasant read.   This short, crude summary of his work hardly does the book justice.  I urge interested readers of this blog to obtain a copy, peruse it for themselves, and think about how the shape of Carolingian life both enabled and limited the forms and flavors of its food.** 

*   All photographs in this article from Wikimedia Commons.

**  I apologize in advance for any errors I may have made in this summary, particularly any errors that may give an incorrect impression as to Volk's conclusions. 

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