How To Cook an Early French Peacock:
DE OBSERVATIONE CIBORUM
Roman Food for a Frankish King
How To Cook a Peacock, Jim Chevallier's translation of Taillevent's fourteenth century Le Viandier has been joined by How to Cook an Early French Peacock, a translation from the Latin of Anthimus' De Observatione Ciborum, a sixth century dietetic written in a letter to a Frankish king - now in a third bilingual edition:
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"No cook book has survived from the first centuries of France's existence; that is, after Clovis I led the Merovingian Franks, in the fifth century, to defeat their former Roman allies and overrun what had been part of the Roman empire. But in the nineteenth century, copies were found of a medical text from the sixth century, when what was still Gaul was already divided among several Frankish kings, all sons of Clovis I. One of these kings was Theuderic I (c. 485-533/4; reigned 511-534). The Ostrogoth king Theodoric the Great (454-526) sent, as an ambassador, a Greek physician to Theuderic's court. This physician, Anthimus, had been exiled in 478 from Byzantium and found a refuge at Theodoric's court in Ravenna before being sent north to Metz, Theuderic's capital. While there, he wrote a long letter on diet – a dietetic – to his host, taking into account local ingredients and mentioning local practices..."
"This is a work written by a Byzantine Greek sent by an Ostrogoth to the court of a Frank who had largely adopted Roman ways. Echoes of all these cultures can be found in it. For a food historian, a key question is: which of these cultures' cuisines does it describe? In just a few cases, the answer is clear. Afrutum is a Greek dish and Anthimus even references how it was eaten in Byzantium, where seafood was common. He discusses bacon specifically in terms of the Franks' customs and preferences. Most of the foods he discusses could be found in Gaul (including several expensive imported spices). More than once, he mentions a food as not being available "here". A number of the foods he mentions, such as peacock and the womb of a sow, were Roman delicacies; he also refers to a number of Roman condiments. This combination of local ingredients, Frankish specialties and a Roman approach to the more sophisticated foods probably reflects exactly what a Frankish king steeped in Gallo-Roman culture ate. It is certainly not pure Frankish cuisine, which may not have gone much beyond meat (largely pork), dairy products, beer, bread and gruel. But the upper class Franks of the sixth century were already as Roman as they were Frank..."
Anthimus and other dietetics
"Anthimus' work is in a long tradition of medical texts which address the effects of different foods on health. In the early centuries of medical thought, the distinction between food and medicine was far more fluid than it has been in modern times. Even when medical writers did not enumerate the qualities of specific foods, they often suggested foods as cures. Anthimus refers in general to “authors” without naming them and it is usually difficult, even impossible, to trace his advice back to known authors. He must certainly have known the work of Hippocrates and Galen, the two most influential medical writers for centuries. The Latin writer Celsus was almost as famous, but Anthimus' poor Latin suggests he had little literary experience of classical Latin and he may not have known this writer's work. Anthimus probably knew the De Materia Medica of Pedanius Dioscorides (c. 40-90) as well, which passes various foods in review and includes detailed comments on the medical use of these. One would also expect that he knew the work of Oribasius (c. 320-400) who wrote in Greek and compiled information from earlier works..."
Table of Contents
Roman rice pudding
[Anthimus' instructions, redacted]
Anthimus did not intend this as a dessert; in fact it appears to have a medical, not culinary, purpose. Still it is virtually a rice pudding, making it very tempting to add some of his period spices – coriander, ginger, and clove (but not cinnamon or nutmeg) – and a little honey. (If “rice pudding” for you specifically implies a dish bound with the help of an egg; feel free to call this “Roman Arroz Con Leche”.) Raisins would not be inauthentic here, but adding chopped figs instead makes this more specifically Roman (as would adding some chopped stewed quinces as well). The result may not appear in any Roman or Frankish cookbook, but it would fairly suit the period. If you prefer to stay closer to the original, simply omit the figs, spices and honey. In this case, the dish might make a reasonable accompaniment to a main course.
Here begins the letter of Anthimus, Illustrious Man, Count, and Legate to the most glorious Theuderic king of the Franks, regarding the use of food.
Observing to Your Piety notions, according to the precepts of medical authors, of how to eat all food and digest it well and so that it must provide health, not sickness in the stomach nor anxiety of the human heart, so that I might explain to you in general how its benefits might be procured in the future. For the health of men consists first in the appropriate food.....
But some may say to me: how is it that other barbarian peoples eat undercooked and bloody meat and are healthy? And yet they may not be entirely well, for they make medicines for themselves. When they feel ill, they use fire on their stomach or belly or other places, as is done with maddened horses. And also by this means: that they eat like wolves. For they do not have many [foods], but only meat and milk and they eat [only] what they have. And they seem to be healthy from the small number of their foods....
Regarding meat, use cow's flesh steamed or cooked in the sodinga. [You can] Also [cook it] in gravy; boil it once to disinfect it, and so put in as much fresh water as is needed to cook and do not add [any more] water, and when the meat has been cooked, put the strongest vinegar in the vessel up to the middle of the pot, and put in heads of leek and a moderate amount of pennyroyal, parsley or fennel roots, and cook for an hour, and so add honey, as much as half as of the vinegar, or to have it as sweet as you want it, and so cook slowly on the fire stirring the pot frequently by hand, and well season the meat with its own juices. And so pound together fifty peppercorns, costus and spikenard each as much as half a solidus, and a tremissis' worth of clove. Pound all these things well together....
As for raw bacon which as I hear the Franks are wont to eat, I am surprised they find such a medicine sufficient, and that those who eat it so, raw, need no other medicine....
Domestic birdsRegarding birds, that is barnyard pheasants and geese, because they are pasture fed, their breast is quite suitable, because it has white flesh. This is the more recommended. For do not take their hindquarters because...
Sausage, afrutum and eggs
Greek afrutum, which in Latin is called spumeum [“foaming”], is made of chicken and egg white. But put in a great deal of egg white, so that it becomes like foam - the dish afrutem – ; thus pour over it prepared gravy and oenogarum in a bowl mixing it so that it makes a little mound. And place the bowl on the coals so that the liquids steam and cook the afrutem. And put this bowl in the middle of a platter and spread over it some unmixed wine and honey, and eat it with a spoon or a tender new growth [sic]...
In regard to the fish in these parts, trout and perch are more appropriate than other fish.
Pike is good. A dish is made of this of egg white in foam mixed so that it...
Of vegetables mallow, beet, leek are fit in both winter and summer, but cabbage [only] in the winter time. For in summer days it is melancholic...
Regarding legumes, infusions made of barley by those who know how to make them are good for both the healthy and the feverish. Another good preparation is made from barley which we Greeks call alfita, Latin speakers polenta, the Goths, in the barbarian way, fenea, a great remedy with moderately hot wine. Take a spoonful of this and...
Regarding milk, for dysenterics, goat's [milk]. Heat round stones red hot in the fire and so put them in the milk, without fire. As it boils remove them with a small cup, put in sops of white bread, well baked and leavened and in small pieces in this milk, cooked slowly over the coals in a pot, however not of copper. And boiled this way, eat these sops with a spoon...
Of fruits, quinces are good, and the very best for dysenterics who have discharged blood for a long time. Cut them crossways and boil them well in sweet pure water in an earthen vessel...
All translations copyright 2012, 2013 Jim Chevallier.
Please do not reproduce or post elsewhere without prior permission.
Updated November, 2020