Experiments from de diaetis

Today, I had the opportunity to try out a few recipes from Constantinus Africanus’ translation of Isaac Iudaeus’ de diaetis, and they turned out quite good.

The meal was an unmitigated success. The choice of recipes started with a meat dish:

There are condiments that preserve the meats in their natural goodness and others that lead them away from their nature. For they are seasoned with water, salt, oil, coriander, onions and cumin, and also with vinegar, obsomagarum (probably murri, a fermented sauce), wine and sharp miripsium (spice mix) and also with juice of sour grapes, with the juice of lemons (pomi citrini) and pomegranates. Those that are seasoned with water, salt, oil, coriander, onions and cumin and boiled have their humidity conserved like boiled meats while those that are cooked with vinegar, obsomagarum, wine and sour miripsium are similar in heat and dryness to fried meats.

lamb cooked in a rich onion sauce

Diced lamb was first quickly sautéd in olive oil, then I added diced mild onion and water, simmering for two hours until the meat was very tender and the onions turned into an unctuous sauce. The whole was seasoned with cumin, coriander, and salt.

Cabbage was prepared as a side:

Cabbage with a slice of pork – likely an addition made in the course of translating the text for a Latin audience.

Cabbage is cold and dry in the first degree, it generates turbid and melancholy blood and gives a horrid odour. It is of two kinds: One that is similar to beets, one which is called canabit. Cabbages are also of two kinds, winter and summer cabbage. (…) Therefore so that their harm is removed, they are boiled and the first cooking water is discarded and they are cooked in another with the fattest meat of livestock (pecudis) or pigs and seasoned with coriander, pepper, cumin and garlic, and served. (…)

I sliced a small head of cabbage thinly, then cooked it in water until it was very soft. after discarding the first cooking water, I added finely diced garlic, chopped coriander, salt, water, and slices of pork belly and cooked the whole until the meat was done. It was very nice indeed.

The beans were basic, pre-cooked fava beans heated with mint, oregano and cumin.

Poached eggs rounded out the meal:

Eggs poached in a broth with oil, onions, pepper and cumin

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. (…)

I sautéd thinly sliced onions in olive oil and filled up the pot with water, then added salt, pepper, and cum,in, the eggs poached in that liquid turned out wonderfully flavourful and rich. The second method – in meat with a sauce – was also tried:

Eggs broken into the finished lamb dish shakshuka-style

An inoffensive flatbread – just flour, salt, oil, yeast and water – was served with the meal.

For dessert, I prepared roast apples:

Apple, cored and cooked in a pastry shell

(…) And thus it is good to eat the juice that is pressed from apples and the flesh discarded, or to find another way in which their hardness and sharpness is relieved. It is relieved in three ways, that is, by boiling in water because that way they acquire softness and humidity, or by suspending them above the steam of hot water, because that causes moistening and ripening, or by cutting them apart in the middle, removing the hard seeds inside them and in their place inserting sugar or honey, (…) and they must afterwards be wrapped in some kind of dough and then placed in the ashes or coals until the dough outside is cooked. Through this art, their softness and tastiness predominates, they are quickly digested, and the harm they do to the nerves is relieved. (…)

Halved, cored, filled with honey and put back together…

I filled the cored apples with honey and then wrapped them in a basic egg-and-water-crust. they were baked at 200°C for 45 minutes and served warm. Since a lot of juice and honey ran out, we spooned the liquid over the apples. Cooking the crust in the embers might have produced a better seal. Everything was satisfying, and especially the lamb was delightful.

Isaac Iudaeus de diaetis universalibus 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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