Herb Soup for a Melancholy Temperament


Level of Authenticity: I made a tasty thing!

Why:  I’m going to start with this one this time.  I have often thought it would be cool to do an “Eat Right for your Humour” type period cooking project and this month I succeeded in convincing people to have this as one of the themes for Montengarde’s Culinary Night (the other theme was “Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice”).  The four humours theory of medicine that was dominant in the middle ages and renaissance focused not just on curing specific symptoms, as modern Western medicine does, but also on prescribing diet and exercises appropriate to keeping an individual’s humours in balance.  There are a variety of tests you can take online to determine what your medieval humour might be although I did not really need a test to tell me that I am of a melancholy humour.

Who/When/Where:  The author associated with the recipe I used as an inspiration was once again Maestro Martino of Como, author of Libro de arte coquinaria. Maestro Martino was a cook in 15th century Rome at the residence of the Patriarch of Aquileia.  I’ve been using the recipes collected in Redon et al’s “The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy”, but I’ve since discovered that there is a whole modern publication dedicated just to Maestro Martino and his work, “The Art of Cooking: The First Modern Cookery Book”.   This book is now on my “to buy” list because I suspect it might help me answer some of the more in-depth “who” questions I like to be able to answer, like “who could become a chef?” “who were the diners eating Maestro Martino’s dishes?” and “who was the intended audience for the book?”

For information on how to treat a melancholy temperament, I was limited this month for sundry weighty reasons to information I was able to find on the internet using my phone.  This result was sort of frustratingly inadequate and also, alarmingly, led me to the discovery that there are still branches of alternative medicine out there advocating the use of humour theory when determining what to eat.  I didn’t wind up coming up with any period sources, but I did come across this blog post, discussing diet suggestions made in “The Anatomy of Melancholy”, first published in 1621 by an English author named Robert Burton (1577-1640).  If I was going to do more research on this project, I’d want to ask questions like “who was Robert Burton and what training did he have that made him an appropriate authority on melancholy?” and “who was the intended audience for the book?”, although ideally I’d hope to find a source that dated before 1600 and ask the same questions about that source instead.

What:  My soup was based primarily on Maestro Martino’s “menestra d’herbette” (soup of greens).


Theoretical Underpinning: I was actually going to call this header “Science” but I didn’t want to go on a side track about why alchemy and astrology do properly belong to the History of Science because it is a subject I have an entire undergraduate degree in.  While I already know a fair amount about what kinds of theories and paradigms of knowledge about the natural world were in currency at what times, I know less about the contents of those theories than I’d like.  Sadly, I didn’t have time this month to go as far into this stuff as I would have liked.  From the blog post I linked above, I was able to determine a number of foods that were considered appropriate for treating melancholy.  Several of them fell outside of my self-selected parameters (gluten-free and vegan), but there was one recommendation I felt I could work with, which was “all manner of brothes [are best], and pottage, with borage, lettuce, and such wholesome hearbes are excellent good.”

Recipes:  Given the types of ingredients listed by Burton, I thought that I could probably improvise a green soup, but I wanted to check my sources to see if there was anything existing first.  It turned out that there was a recipe for almost the very thing I wanted to make in Redon et al.  Since last month, I actually discovered that the original recipes, untranslated, are in the back of the book, and I did look at the original, but the language is different enough from the form of the Italian language that I’ve been learning that it wasn’t much help.

In English translation, the recipe reads “Take Swiss chard leaves and a little borage; cook them in boiling clear water until the water comes back to the boil; then drain them and chop fine with a knife.  And take a little parsley and raw mint and chop them along with the greens.  Then pound everything in a mortar, and add to a pot with rich broth and boil briefly.  If you like, you can add a little pepper.”

Materials:  This recipe did not call for as many substitutions as I sometimes have to make.

  • rich broth – this particular term occurs frequently enough that I’m beginning to wonder if it means something specific that is different from, say, “meat broth”.  Tomas has alerted me to the existence of a medieval formula for making vegetable broth, although I haven’t looked at it yet.  I used to buy vegetable bouillon cubes, but since buying Mark Bittman’s excellent book How to Cook Everything Vegetarian I’ve switched to just making a quick veggie broth with water, vegetable offcuts, salt, a couple of bay leaves, and a handful of peppercorns.  Normally when I am chopping and peeling veggies I just save all of the bits in a bag in the freezer so I can toss a handful in when I’m simmering my veggie stock, and that is what I did here.  I didn’t really know what flavor the leafy greens were going to impart to the soup, and in the absence of further information about what “rich broth” might mean, it sort of suggests to me a thick meaty broth with a decent fat content and a very umami kind of flavor profile.  I didn’t want to use tomatoes or mushrooms (personal distaste) so I was a bit stuck, but I remembered that I had once made a vegan pho broth that called for anise stars in the broth.  I don’t know whether they are period for Western Europe or not, but I thought they might impart a slightly more complex flavour to the broth.
  • greens – Maestro Martino calls for Swiss chard (which I was reasonably sure I would be able to get) and borage.  Burton calls for lettuce (again, easy to source, though more research would be required to discover what kind of lettuce would be most like the one Burton knew) and borage.  I just looked borage up on Wikipedia to see what it is and I can now say for certain I’ve never seen it in a North American grocery store.  Knowing that I would be unlikely to be able to find borage, I decided to use chard and lettuce.  When I thought about common moderrn lettuces, I thought the one that would give the nicest flavor and color would be green leaf lettuce, and I assumed I would be getting the chard with the red stems.  I was able to get green leaf lettuce, but unfortunately the day I went to the grocery store the greens section had been really picked over and all of the available bunches of chard were already wilted.  Instead I wound up picking up a clamshell of prewashed baby greens, containing some ingredients that might have been available in some form in pre-modern Western Europe (arugula, baby green mustard, baby red mustard, cress, baby spinach, baby green chard, baby red chard) and some that almost definitely were not (baby green bok choy, baby red bok choy, mizuna, komatsuna).
  • herbs – Maestro Martino calls for parsley and mint, Burton merely calls for “wholesome hearbes”.  Because of time and tech constraints, I didn’t research what kinds of herbs Burton might have thought wholesome, though I would probably start by perusing Gerard’s Herbal (late sixteenth century).  Again because the greens section was really picked over in the store, I couldn’t get fresh parsley or mint, but I did have some mint in a package in my freezer that I was able to use.

Tools:  I do my cooking on a modern electric range, though some day I would really love to try cooking using period heat sources.  The other piece of modern equipment I used here was my immersion blender, which I used in place of the step that calls for pounding the cooked greens in a mortar.  I would also like to try doing this, but I need to get a much larger mortar and pestle first.

Processes:  In this case, I had few substitutions that called for a radically different treatment than what the original recipe called for, so I was able to follow it fairly closely.  I started a stock pot simmering for my vegetable stock fairly early in the day.  When it was time to cook the greens, I steamed them very quickly in about half an inch of water in a big skillet, then rinsed them immediately under cold water so they would stop cooking and keep their green color.  I strained the stock, then added some olive oil, the cooked greens and chopped fresh mint and used the immersion blender to puree.

Result: I was a bit skeptical about this recipe and I didn’t think it was going to taste very exciting.  Mainly what I had discovered in my research about melancholy was that foods that most people think of as delicious or comfort foods are not considered beneficial for a melancholy temperament, leading to a situation where the melancholic is stuck eating foods that are dull or even depressing, which seems to me like a bit of a vicious circle.  Nonetheless, people at culinary night did seem to genuinely enjoy the soup, so in the end I’d say it turned out better than I expected.

Next Steps:

  • I would really like to do more research on the content of pre-modern theories of food for balancing the humours.  I have a couple of books already sitting on my shelf that I think might be informative, “Cooking and Eating in Renaissance Italy” and “Eating Right in the Renaissance”
  • it’s been coincidence so far that I’ve been using Maestro Martino’s recipes, but I now feel like he is “my” medieval chef and I’d like to use more of his recipes and learn more about him
  • discover if “rich broth” means something specific, and implement using it, or a veganized version, when called for
  • get larger mortar and pestle to facilitate pounding/grinding ingredients instead of using immersion blender
  • do more work on what specific types of produce within broader categories like “greens”, “herbs”, “apples” etc. are appropriate for pre-modern recipes
  • try cooking with period heat sources!

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