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The First Cookbook - The Books of Apicius

The Books of Apicius is considered by many to be the first written cookbook, dated around 1st century AD.

Image taken from The Books of Apicius


I found the allegedly oldest cookbook, when I was wondering how or where the obsession for cookbooks ever came from. My search led me to this little gem. The cookbook section in bookstores seems to be expanding, with new books hitting shelves each week. The internet is awash with them too. Recently I ventured into a Dymocks where the cooking section covered over a quarter of the store. My curiosity got the better of me, and I began to research when our love of cookbooks began.

Turns out it's been a popular subject for a long time.

The Books of Apicius is divided into ten chapters, similar to our modern cookbooks. A chapter for fish, a chapter for fish sauces, poultry, legumes. My favorite would be the first chapter, The Careful Experienced Cook. It has guides for preserving food and some medicinal concoctions.

There are no chapters dedicated to bread or cakes. From what I have read, this is due to these chapters being lost or people bought bread and cakes as specialty items from bakers. I like the idea of the latter because I am struggling to get motivated to make my own sourdough bread and I barely make desserts now. I can't remember when I made anything sweet...I think a persimmon pudding at the start of winter or thereabouts. Gees, one dessert in the last 10 months! I used to make a dessert every fortnight...

While there is no dedicated section for desserts there are simple sweet meals in the book but not many. Fruit, honey and a type of wine reduction was used to add sweetness, since the cane sugar we know of today, was not yet known to Europe. Some sources note that the pepper would have been a spice blend of different varieties.  

The whole animal is consumed, from milk to cheese, and every organ in between. Fish liver pudding anyone? Stuffed dormouse? At first glance some of the recipes might cause an eyebrow raise, but really they are not that unfamiliar in essence. 

The best part of the book is that it really does encourage that every part of the animal is used. Nothing goes to waste something many modern cookbooks do not cover at all. Many recipes call for broth, meaning the bones were too cooked too. It's fair to say the diet was heavily meat and legume based...and might explain the inclusion of recipes to aid indigestion or move things along. 

It's interesting to read the same spices and herbs used continuously. Vegetable choice is limited as well. This book is written well before items like tomatoes or potatoes and a host of other vegetables made it to Europe. And since the text is translated, there are funny edits from around the 1920s, that either vouch for the dish, declare is not satisfactory or try to fill in the questionable words left during translation. 

Below are some of the recipes that intrigued me...

[10] TO KEEP MEATS FRESH WITHOUT SALT FOR ANY LENGTH OF TIME COVER FRESH MEAT WITH HONEY, SUSPEND IT IN A VESSEL. USE AS NEEDED; IN WINTER IT WILL KEEP BUT IN SUMMER IT WILL LAST ONLY A FEW DAYS. COOKED MEAT MAY BE TREATED LIKEWISE.

[22] TO PRESERVE FRESH FIGS, APPLES, PLUMS, PEARS AND CHERRIES SELECT THEM ALL VERY CAREFULLY WITH THE STEMS ON [1] AND PLACE THEM IN HONEY SO THEY DO NOT TOUCH EACH OTHER.

[82] CUCUMBERS [Stew the] PEELED CUCUMBERS EITHER IN BROTH [1] OR IN A WINE SAUCE; [and] YOU WILL FIND THEM TO BE TENDER AND NOT CAUSING INDIGESTION.

[184] LENTILS [1] AND CHESTNUTS [2]  TAKE A NEW SAUCE PAN, PLACE THEREIN THE CHESTNUTS CAREFULLY CLEANED [3] ADD WATER AND A LITTLE SODA AND PLACE ON THE FIRE TO BE COOKED. THIS DONE, CRUSH IN THE MORTAR PEPPER, CUMIN, CORIANDER SEED, MINT, RUE, LASER ROOT AND FLEA-BANE MOISTENED WITH VINEGAR, HONEY AND BROTH; ADD VINEGAR TO TASTE AND POUR THIS OVER THE COOKED CHESTNUTS, ADD OIL AND ALLOW TO BOIL. WHEN DONE CRUSH IT IN THE MORTAR [4]. TASTE TO SEE IF SOMETHING IS MISSING AND IF SO, PUT IT IN, AND AT LAST ADD GREEN [fresh virgin] OIL.

[202]  GREEN BEANS ARE COOKED IN BROTH, WITH OIL, GREEN CORIANDER, CUMIN AND CHOPPED LEEKS, AND SERVED.

[207] GREEN STRING BEANS AND CHICKPEAS SERVED WITH SALT, CUMIN, OIL, AND A LITTLE PURE WINE.

I like the look of the green string beans and just might surprise the Builder with it once the beans are ready this summer. 

The cookbook is available free via Project Gutenberg. All the recipes are plastic free and zero waste too ;)

Have you inherited or read an old cookbook? Is anyone else interested in the history of cooking? Do you think were has been an over abundance of cookbooks lately or is that just me?  

2 comments

  1. I binge-read Apicius when I realized that he was the first writer to ever refer to doughnuts (allegedly). And his recipe is really good too- fry them in a clay pot and drizzle with honey. Thanks for sharing, what a great resource!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I will have to look for the doughnut reference - I must have missed it.

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