Friday, 30 January 2015

Apicius' medicinal salts

This fortnight's historical food theme is Descriptive Foods.  Apicius' sales conditos ad multa  or "salts for many ailments" are more of a condiment than a food as such, but they have such a wonderfully descriptive name.  Apicius tells us this spicy salt mixture fights indigestion and colds, as well as all kinds of other illnesses.  And it keeps you regular.

The recipe says:

Sales conditos ad digestionem, ad ventrem movendum, et omnes morbos et pestilentiam et omnia frigora prohibent generari, sunt autem et suavissimi ultra quam speras. sales communes frictos lib. I, sales ammonicos frictos lib. II, piperis albi unc. III, gingiber unc. II, ammeos unc. I semis, thymi unc. I semis, apii seminis unc. I semis (si apii semen mittere nolueris, petroselini mittis unc. III), origani unc. III, erucae semen unc. I semis, piperis nigri unc. III, croci unc. I, hysopi Cretici unc. II, folium unc. II, petroselinum unc. II, anethi unc. II.

Here's a translation from the University of Chicago's website:

These spiced salts are used against indigestion, to move the bowels, against all illness, against pestilence as well as for the prevention of colds. They are very gentle indeed and more healthy than you would expect. Make them in this manner: 1 lb. of common salt ground, 2 lbs. of ammoniac salt, ground, 3 ounces white pepper, 2 ounces ginger, 1 ounce of Aminean bryony, 1 of thyme seed and 1 of celery seed . If you don't want to use celery seed take instead 3 ounces of parsley seed, 3 ounces of origany, 1 ounce of saffron, rocket, 3 ounces of black pepper, 1½ ounces rocket seed, 2 ounces of marjoram, Cretan hyssop, 2 ounces of nard leaves, 2 ounces of parsley seed and 2 ounces of anise seed.

Readers who speak Latin will notice the translation doesn't quite line up with the Latin text, as it has been put together from several sources.  I'm going off the Latin, and thus I get the following recipe:

1 pound salt
2 pounds ammoniac salt
3 ounces white pepper
2 ounces ginger
1 ounce God only knows (see below)
1 ounce thyme
1 ounce celery seed
3 ounces oregano
1 1/2 ounces rocket seed
3 ounces black pepper
1 ounce saffron
2 ounces Cretan hyssop (which likely means marjoram)
2 ounces cassia (see below)
2 ounces parsley seeds
2 ounces anise seeds

Ingredients and substitutions

I quickly discovered just how hard it is to be to get hold of some of the ingredients in this recipe, but I soldiered on anyway because I'm stubborn.  I couldn't get rocket seeds or bryony at all.  However, I found a different translation of this recipe that translates ammeos not as "Aminean bryony", but as "cumin".  I don't know why they say cumin, which is cuminum in Latin, but so far as I know bryony is bryonia so I have no clue what's going on here.

Nard is an interesting one.  There is a school of thought that says the plant known to the ancient world as nard was actually lavender.  See, for instance, Victoria Rumble's book Soup Through the Ages: A Culinary History with Period Recipes.  However, authorities such as Francis Adams say that Apicius' word folium means cassia.  Nard, whatever plant it came from, is spica nardi in Latin, so I'm inclined to think nard could be a mistranslation in this case.

The recipe suggests that the celery seeds and parsley seeds can be used interchangeably, so I used celery seeds only.  I like celery seeds and they are easier to get.

Another ingredient I couldn't get hold of was the ammoniac salt, but I'm not sure I want it anyway.  Ammoniac salt (better known to chemists as ammonium chloride) has some medicinal properties and is sometimes used in food as well, but only in very small quantities.  In large doses it is toxic.  I decided to forget about it and use regular salt instead.

Making the salts

The Roman ounce was a bit smaller than ours, and there were 12 of them in the pound.  I scaled down the ingredient quantities significantly seeing that I didn't really know what the result would be like, so where the recipe says an ounce I used a quarter teaspoon.  After that it was simply a case of mixing everything together.

The Challenge: Descriptive Foods.

The Recipe: Sales conditos ad multa from De Re Coquinaria by Apicius.

The Date/Year and Region: Fourth century AD Rome.

How Did You Make It: As described above.

Time to Complete: Just a few minutes.

Total Cost: I already most of the ingredients on hand.  I bought the rest from , a retailer I highly recommend if you're in New Zealand.  This cost $15, but I have plenty of the ingrdients left over for other recipes.

How Successful Was It? Honestly, I'm really skeptical of the recipe's ability to combat disease.  Yes, herbs can have medicinal properties, but I doubt sprinkling some on your dinner is going to achieve very much.  I suspect this stuff relied heavily on the placebo effect.  But more importantly, was it tasty?

Yes, it was.  The mixture has a distinct smell of aniseed and I wasn't sure aniseed salt would taste good, but as it turned out I couldn't really taste the aniseed.  It's basically a savoury herb salt similar to celery salt, but with subtle spicy notes.  It would probably work well in any context where you would normally use celery salt.

How Accurate Is It?  Between the ingredients I couldn't get and the fact that I actually left out the primary ingredient on the grounds that it is poisonous, not very.

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