So the last few posts have been about my photography project for my mother’s cookbook. But that is a recent project. One that I have been working on for much longer is compiling a collection of medieval vegetarian recipes as a resource for SCA cooks. So far I have mostly been fishing them out of period cookbooks and getting them entered into my database. I thought I’d take a break from that and actually make one.
This comes from the 15th Century Italian cookbook Du Libre B. It is translated by Rebecca Friedman. I want to say up front that I have an immense amount of respect for the people who translate these recipe books from the medieval languages. Just a little bit of struggling with individual recipes is challenging enough, but to do an entire book… I can’t even begin to imagine. That being, said, I find it is always advisable to dig into the translation of the recipe you are working with if you have any language skills at all (and believe me, I have few enough). When translating a large work like this, with many archaic and provincial words it would be impossible to translate every one perfectly, so a little research can really help.
This recipe is an addendum to the recipe “Affare torteli de ola”, so it has no title of it’s own. I have it listed by the first line of its translation: to make green tortelli.
Se voy fare torta li samucati, tolli cascio frischo et clara de ova et tanta farina che annasse in uno guso de ovo, et iungere samuco et çuccaro, et volese frigere in tanto lardo che la frittella non tocche la padestia et burlare çuccaro sopra alli talgleri, et strigni lo cascio co una tovalglia bianca, perché l’acqua n’esca. Non ce mectere sale, che lardo l’avesse, sicomo troppo è salso.
Rebecca Friedman’s Translation
If you want to make green tortelli, take fresh cheese and egg whites and enough flour that it goes in an eggshell, and add sumac and sugar, and it should be fried in so much lard that the fritters don’t touch the frying pan and throw sugar on the squares, and bind the cheese with a white table-cloth so that the water doesn’t get out. Don’t put in salt, that lard you have, is like unto too much sauce.
Some notes on the translation:
According to her notes, Ms. Friedman’s translation focuses on the literal translation of the words, rather then on making them elegant. Since medieval authors frequently used metaphoric language there is additional difficulty in the translation.
She has taken samucati to be a misspelling of sambucati or “elder-tree color” or green. There is nothing green in the recipe though, so I think it more likely that the samucati is refering to the use of samuco or sumac in the recipe.
The last line doesn’t make much sense in the literal, but I think that it is saying that you should not add salt to the torta, since the bacon fat (that you will be frying it in) will already have enough salt.
The next to last line is instructions to drain the cheese on a white cloth. It comes in the directions after the frying, but I frequently get the impression when reading these recipes that they were dictated, and frequently the dictator would say things like, “oh, and [I forgot to add that] you should have done such and such [in the previous step]” but the transcriber doesn’t bother to put in the stuff in the brackets. I think it means that you should drain the cheese to get the water out before you mix it in with the other ingredients.
So much for the translation. Now onto the selection of the ingredients for my interpretation.
To make tortellini of sumac, take fresh cheese, the white of an egg, enough flour to fit in the shell of an egg, sumac and sugar and fry it in enough bacon fat that it does not touch the sides. Sprinkle sugar over it. (I think that here it is telling you to strain the cheese because it will have water in it. I suspect that this should go at the beginning of the recipe, but it could be telling you to to drain the oil out of the fritter.) Do not add salt since the bacon fat is salty enough.
The basic ingredients are cheese (amount undisclosed), an egg white, enough flour to fit in the shell of an egg (1/3 cup), sumac and sugar (amounts undisclosed). First, sumac is not a common ingredient in most American kitchens, but it can easily be found in most Middle Eastern or Asian markets. I happen to keep some in my kitchen because I found it in a large container and haven’t had much call for it. The powder is made from the fruit of the sumac plant, called drupes. It has a slightly sour taste.
Now the cheese. Cascio frisco probably means fresh cheese. The best recipe would have been to make some fresh cheese to use for the recipe but I didn’t. I used feta.
A quick aside to how I got there:
A search of Italian cheeses lists the only use of anything approaching the word cascio as casciotta which is thought to be a regional version of the word caciotta. Casciotta is native to Urbino. Casciotta di Urbino was said to be one of the favorite cheeses of Michelangelo, so definitely contemporary with this recipe. It is a sheep and cow’s milk cheese. It is very hard to find sheep cheese in the US, except feta (and Manchego). Feta will mix quite well into fritters. Hence feta. Feta also has a lot of salt in it, being a brined cheese. Since I am adapting this recipe to be vegetarian, I will not be using the bacon fat to fry it in so I won’t have the salt.
This is all wrong of course. Feta is a Greek cheese, and the texture is nothing like that described for Casciotta di Urbino, even if we assume that is what was meant rather than simply a fresh cheese. Still, it tasted quite good.
- 6 oz cheese (fresh or feta)
- 1 egg white
- 1/3 cup flour
- 1 tsp sumak
- 1 tsp sugar
Combine all ingredients into a bowl. The mixture will be a thick playdough-like texture. Form the dough into small balls and fry in oil heated to 350F. Make sure that they do not stick to the bottom. Fry until golden brown. Remove from oil and drain. Serve warm.
These were very tasty. I didn’t serve them with sugar over them as I think that would have been too much for modern palettes. They have an interesting purpleish color. I will have to play with sumac as a colorant for foods. It’s flavor is fairly mild.
I don’t think this would adapt well to feasts as great care has to be taken that they don’t stick to the bottom of the frying pan. More flour and egg might make that a little less of a problem, but it is also difficult to get fried food out hot to a large number of people. Some cooks could probably do it, but I think I will leave this out of my feast repertoire for now.