How to cook eggs in Norman Sicily

Today, I am starting on a new source: Constantinus Africanus’ 11th-century Salernitan translation of Ishaq b. Sulaiman al-Israili’s dietetics. This is not without its problems. I do not really know how much the translator changed and how much later copyists did, or to what extent this ever reflected actual practice in the Christian West. However, I have seen similar advice and recipes surface in later sources, so will go out on a limb and say we can use it for a speculative reconstruction of how the wealthy ate in Norman Sicily and in other places around the Western Mediterranean in the 11th and 12th centuries. Most of the text deals with the humoral qualities of foods and their implications for health. but every now and then, there are descriptions of cooking techniques or combinations of ingredients. Those are what I picked out. Today, on preparing eggs:

(…) some object that their fumosity is prevented from exiting, but when they are placed over the coals (super carbones), they release (emittunt) their fumosity and become clean. They are better boiled in water than roasted (assa), for the humidity of the water opposes the heat of the fire in drying; hence they are less drying and cool the heat more. They are boiled in two ways: either with their shells on, or broken into the water. Those that are boiled with their shells are worse because their shells oppose the dissolution of their fumosity and grossness that follows from it to the outside. Hence those who frequently eat eggs cooked this way suffer from inflating winds and heaviness of the stomach and the entire belly. Those that are cooked broken into the water are more laudable because the heat penetrates them and refines their grossness and relieves the heaviness of their odour. Only the yolks dry out more and firm up less. But with the whites, they dry out less and firm up more. Eggs boiled or roasted much in any way become hard. Sometimes then even heat (burn?) a little from the fire (a foco caleficant). When they are hard, they slowly pass through the stomach and slowly penetrate the veins and pass towards the members because they stick together and dissolve slowly. Those that are only little coagulated (parum sunt coagulata) dry out less, are digested faster, penetrate the veins and moisten the chest, but they give less strength to the members. Those that are in the middle between hard and soft are middling in their actions and effects.

(…)

Fried eggs are thus worse, as are other dishes like that. Eggs cooked in sauces (in iusculis cocta) and in the middle between those that are roasted and those broken into water, if they dissolve the heaviness of their odour in the sauce and weigh down (gravent) the condiments. As Galen says, those that are heated in the ashes are heavier than those that are boiled in water. Fried ones generate worse humours. Those boiled middling (mediocriter i.e. not fully hard) in water are more laudable. But among those that are cooked, those that are roasted alter their nature and must not be served unless it is with things that help their digestion such as obsomagarum, oil, or strong wine.

p. 237 f. (on the nature of eggs)

The diversity of eggs according to their preparation is multiple. There are those which are roasted, be it in the ashes or in the coals. And some are boiled in water. Others are fried in the pan in oil or in other fat. And some are cooked in water and oil with various condiments such as onion, pepper, cumin and similar. Others are cooked with meat and herbs in sauces. (…)

But those that are cooked in water and oil and condiments are most easily digested, aid coitus and multiply sperm, especially if they are cooked with roasted meat and with hot and aromatic condiments such as pepper, cinnamon, sugar, and similar.

p. 544 of the preparation of eggs

This is clearly no recipe, but it is still interesting for a lot of my friends whose reenactment interests lie earlier than the 15th and 16th century. First of all, it makes it clear that this is no primitive cuisine (there is, in my opinion, no reason to think any culinary culture ever was unsophisticated – humans care about food). Secondly, I am fascinated by the preparation in iusculis – literally in little broths. that probably means cooking sauces, and there is no classical word for it. As we go along with these translations, we will come across this quite frequently.

And of course there is obsomagarum. The sixteenth-century printer who gratefully produced a version of this text in crisp Italica clearly had no idea what to do with this. He regularly mangles the word. My suspicion is that it refers to an ingredient familiar in contemporary Middle Eastern cuisine, but somewhat obscure to Latins, a fermented condiment like murri. However, I will not exclude the possibility that the ending –garum was not chosen merely for analogy’s sake. The word garum shows up somewhat regularly all the way to the eleventh century, and regular attempts to explain it as something other than fermented fish sauce become somewhat repetitive. It might still have been around. It could well still have been popular, not just on the northern shiore of the Mediterranean, but also in the Maghreb, where Constantinus came from. And it would be supremely ironic for a generation of scholars invested in the image of carnivorous barbarity of our ancestors if the liegemen of the Hauteville had turned to garum to copy Arabic recipes that called for a murri naqi they could not get in Palermo.

Isaac Iudaeus de diaetis univeralibus et particularibus, originally written in Arabic in the late ninth or early tenth century, was translated and adapted by Constantinus Africanus in the late 11th century and circulated widely in Italy and beyond soon afterwards. While the original applies to a different context, it is still reasonable to use it as a guide to the advice that Siculo-Normans would have found useful. It is an open question how much the original was altered in translation – I cannot say since I read no Arabic. However, the extensive reference to eating pork suggests that some alterations took place.

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