It may surprise you to learn that people in the Middle Ages ate salad. And they ate it often.
Unlike today, salads weren’t for calorie-conscious women on diets. Salads were very common meal starters and were loaded full of herbs and aromatic vegetables found in every household garden.
Salads were not only genuinely enjoyed by people of all social classes, but were also considered important dishes that served a very functional medicinal purpose. A typical salad included leafy greens, a variety of herbs, loads of allium vegetables (leeks, onions, garlic, etc.), an occasional fruit like wild strawberries, and edible flowers.
Today’s recipe comes from a manuscript called The Forme of Cury, which is a collection of recipes written by King Richard II’s Master chef in 1390. Most of the ingredients will be familiar to you, but others will probably only be accessible if you grow them yourself.
Take parsel, sawge, garlec, chybollus, oynons, lek, borage, myntes, porrettes, fenels and towne cressis, rewe, rosmarye, purslary, lauen and waische hem clene pyke hem pluk hem small with thyne hond and mynge hem wel with rawe oyle. lay on vyneger and salt and surve hem forth.
Take parsley, sage, garlic, chives, onions, leek, borage, mint, scallions, fennel, garden cress, rue, rosemary, purslane, rinse and wash them clean, pick them pluck them small with thine hand and mix them well with raw oil. Lay on vinegar and salt and serve them forth.
As is usually the case with 14th century recipes, there are no measurements. Because these ingredients will be eaten raw we can safely assume that “garlic” means garlic greens and “fennel” is referring to the bulb and not the seeds. It is also worth mentioning that there is another version of this same recipe in the manuscript that also calls for spinoches, violettes, and prymos (spinach, violets and primrose). My replication of this recipe will be a combination of the two.
- Arugula or Spring Mix
- 1 small onion or 2-3 shallots
- 1 scallion/green onion
- 1 fennel bulb
- 1 leek
- Garden cress or watercress
- Edible flowers
- Vinegar or verjuice
- Olive oil
- Salt to taste
*Additional ingredients for the avid gardener/advanced forager:
- Garlic scapes
*These ingredients are difficult, perhaps even impossible, to find in U.S. grocery stores. Out of necessity I substituted arugula for purslane (a similar leafy green) and chose shallots over onions to make up for the missing garlic scapes. Borage and rue were left out, which most likely had little to no effect on the flavor.
Step ONE: Rinse and Prep
“Take parsley, sage, garlic, chives, onions, leek, borage, mint, scallions, fennel, garden cress, rue, rosemary, purslane, rinse and wash them clean…”
I started by rinsing all of the ingredients and patting them dry. If you’re like me and you have never worked with leek or fennel before now, check out the following links:
How to Clean and Slice Leeks
How to Cut Fennel
I thinly sliced all of the alliums- leek, shallots, scallions and fennel- and set them aside.
“Pick them pluck them small with thine hand…”
I then chopped up a few sprigs of the rosemary and chives and a generous bunch of parsley. As for the sage and mint, I just plucked a handful of leaves and removed the stems. I strongly suggest chopping these up as well. Only use fresh herbs.
- If you have managed to find borage (also sometimes called Bugloss or Starflower) or you grow it in your garden, you can use the leaves or the flowers. Borage was used medicinally as an anti-inflammatory, among other things. Its seeds are still used to make borage oil, which is found in health food stores.
- Rue is probably better left out even if you do know where to find it. It was used medicinally for stomach problems, flatulence and coughs. Rue is actually a very effective bug repellant and has also been known to induce labor so it is probably best to avoid ingesting it entirely.
For the greens I used a package of arugula and a bag of “Cress,” which is a combination of garden cress and watercress or other closely related plant. “Towne Cressis” in the recipe is likely referring specifically to garden cress, but watercress is so similar that it won’t make much of a difference flavor-wise. Spinach would also be an acceptable addition.
Step TWO: Mix
I started by mixing the arugula, watercress and parsley in a big bowl. Once thoroughly combined, I added the vegetables and herbs. Mix them well to distribute the flavors evenly.
Finally, I topped the salad with some beautiful little edible flowers.
Flowers were a very common salad ingredient in the Middle Ages. The flowers suggested by the Master chefs for this particular salad are primrose and violets. Many grocery stores do sell packs of edible flowers alongside packs of fresh herbs. The box I found was a blend of nasturtium, pansies, marigolds and hibiscus. Nasturtiums and marigolds were actually very popular salad flowers.
Step THREE: The Dressing
“Mix them well with raw oil. Lay on vinegar and salt and serve them forth.”
Once everything seemed pretty evenly distributed, I drizzled some olive oil over the top and tossed it all together. “Raw oil” refers to an oil that hasn’t yet been used for cooking. It was common practice to save and re-use cooking oil, especially for those without extra money to burn.
For the dressing I poured some verjuice into the bowl, being very mindful of just how much I was using. It took tossing and tasting the salad to get the right amount of acidity without making the flavor too strong. Wine vinegar is also acceptable here; verjuice and vinegar were used pretty interchangeably back in the 14th century.
Finally, season with salt to bring out all those flavors!
This salad was surprisingly refreshing and would have paired perfectly with Egredouncye! The pot-herbs and vegetables really blended well with the peppery flavor of the greens. The fennel, in my opinion, was the highlight of the dish. I will definitely be eating more raw fennel! My biggest regret was not chopping everything into smaller pieces, particularly the sage and mint. It is a necessary step to ensure all those strong herbs are distributed evenly.
If you want to make your own simplified, medieval-inspired salad at home, don’t be intimidated by the long list of ingredients written above! All you really need at the end of the day is a peppery green, some vegetables from the allium family, some chopped fresh herbs, an optional fruit (apple or strawberry) and/or edible flowers. Never use Iceburg lettuce, sweet peppers, potatoes or tomatoes- they did not exist in Europe until after the 16th century. Top it with salt, oil and vinegar and…voila!
Photography by Nathan Berry
8 Comments Add yours
Purslane grows wild here, a fun fact I stumbled onto. I always pulled it up with all the other weeds. 🤷♀️
Oh it does?! How does its flavor compare with arugula? Assuming you’ve tasted it…
I hate to admit this, but I have never tasted arugula. I’ve always heard it described as peppery, and in my experience purslane isn’t. I did taste it once I learned what it was but I have never made a dish with it. To me it was a little sour but not in an unpleasant way. Oddly I thought it tasted a bit like star fruit or green grapes, if that makes sense?
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Oh how interesting!! One of these days I need to compare the two just for fun.
Arugula salads are a frequent favorite of mine. Yes, the initial bite is sour, but it has a strong pinchy aftertaste on the tongue. Not quite like red pepper, but more like horseradish, mustard or wasabi. I prefer it over the relatively mild spinach or iceberg lettuce.
Excellent, and historic recipes like these are useful to me as an aspiring writer as well.
It looks to me from your recipe as if in medieval times, the focus of a salad was the peppery flavor of the herbs, along with flowers.
I am guessing this was considered medicinal or digestive, since people took the concept of humors seriously.
Yes, this salad definitely had medicinal purposes!