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Cucumbers-Hst-art - 10/16/09
"Medieval and Ancient History of the Cucumber"
by Ian of Oertha.
NOTE: See also the files: cucumbers-msg,
pickled-foods-msg, pickled-meats-msg, Vinegar-art, vinegar-msg, fd-Romans-msg,
This article was submitted to me by the author for
inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's
These files are available on the Internet at:
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the
author or translator.
While the author will likely give permission for this work
to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or
check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
Medieval and Ancient History of the Cucumber
by Ian of Oertha
(or cowcumber) has a long and glorious history. The type familiar to North
Americans (cucumis sativus) is only one of several varieties which have been
eaten or used in medicine: other types include what Pliny called the
"wild" cucumber (usually believed to be cucumis silvestris asininus),
the Egyptian hairy cucumber (cucumis sate), and another variety, referred to by
Pliny (the Elder) as the "Anguine or Erratic Cucumber" (I'm guessing;
maybe the West India Cucumber, Cucumis Anguria?), the Sikkim cucumber (cucumis
sativus var. sikkimensis, a Himalayan plant), and the squirting cucumber
Alphonse de Candolle (in "Origin of Cultivated Plants"), a 19th
Century botanist of some repute, the cucumber originated in India at least
3,000 years ago this morning (heh heh). Since pickling food has been around
that long, it is possible people enjoyed pickled cucumbers in ancient times (a
relief; how could they do without?).
Greeks and Romans spread the vegetable westward, and the Chinese spread the
vegetable eastward. Tiberius Caesar was particularly fond of the cucumber,
eating one every day of his life (in order to accomplish this, they were grown
on carts, which could be kept inside when days were cool during the winter, and
wheeled out into the sun; an early mobile greenhouse).
is mentioned in Torah; one of the the oldest books in the Bible (Numbers 11:5)
and in the book of Isaiah (1:8). This probably refers to the hairy cucumber;
the Numbers reference complains that they are no longer available for
consumption (they had just fled Egypt), the Isaiah reference includes a
description of cultivation (so, by that point, they were available).
is mentioned in Sumerian writings, including certain proverbs ("Let
Ishkur, god, king, split the fertile ground like a cucumber."), The Debate
between Summer and Winter, and so on.
Pliny the Elder
(an ancient Roman historian and naturalist) wrote of several remedies using
cucumbers of various types in Book XX. These include the Wild Cucumber (26
remedies, including one called "elaterium"), the Cultivated Cucumber
(9), and the Anguine or Erratic (5 remedies). Palladius, a Greek writer,
included a flea-killing recipe that included cucumber seed (along with water,
cumin, and psilotre or lupine). Both Theophrastus and Apicius mention
cucumbers, Theophrastus describing 3 varieties, and Apicius being more
concerned with the eating (and usage).
period manuscripts, you can find the cucumber mentioned in an herbal by Apuleis
(MS Ashmole 1431, Bodleian Library, Oxford), apparently written between 1070
and 1100. The cucumber is mentioned (along with a method to keep "greene
Cucumbers all the yeare") in Murrel's Two Books of Cookerie, 1638. It
appears to be a method for pickling. It is also mentioned in "The Cooks
Guide: Or Rare Receipts for Cookery, 1654" (another pickling reference).
Sir Kenelm Digby (born 1603) writes of two recipes with cucumbers; the first, a
veal-chicken-vegetable potage (Potage de Sante'), the second, a beef potage
with either herbs or veggies.
There is a
recipe for cucumber salad in "Recipes Tried and True," a document from
Marion, Ohio, dated 1894.
Gerard's Herball, 1597, cucumber "taken in meats, is good for the stomack
and other parts troubled with heat..." He also writes of a recipe with
mutton, oatmeal and herbs (and cucumbers) to "cure all manner of sawce-flegme
and copper faces." This to be eaten 3 meals a day. He writes of more
curious uses for the cucumber, as well.
Dawson, in "The Good Huswife's Jewell", 1596, has a recipe for a
"sallet" of herbes (by which I take it he meant leafy vegetables), cucumbers
or lemons (at least, he writes "lemmans"), sugar, vinegar, oil,
flowers, and hard-boiled eggs.
were grown in India 3,000 years ago, in Sumeria, Ancient Greece, the Roman
Empire, 9th Century France (Charlemagne was a cucumber eater), early 1300's
England (though they were later lost, and re-introduced in the mid-1500s),
Spain at least by 1494 (the Spaniards transported them to Haiti that year via
Chris Columbus), 1535 Montreal (according to Jacques Cartier), South Dakota by
1500 or so, New England at least by 1630, and reportedly in Ancient Thrace.
Tzatziki was eaten by the Turks in the 1500s, and passed along to the Greeks;
add that to your period cucumber dishes.
In all, a
number of peoples have eaten cucumbers during periods covered by re-enactors;
it is conceivable that this popular item might be eaten anywhere, since Jewish
people have been eating them since Ancient Egypt, and as a student of history
knows, they've been everywhere. Not to mention the world-spanning empires which
grew them (Greek, Roman, Ottoman) would have spread their use, as well.
An Examination of the Cucumber by Region
(non-exhaustive, limited by my resources)
- Stewed in wine or
other sauces (Apicius 4th or 5th C. A.D.): (trans. Joseph Dommers Vehling,
Apicius 82 Stew the peeled cucumbers either in broth or in a
wine sauce; and you will find them to be tender and not causing indigestion.
Apicius 83 Peeled cucumbers are stewed with boiled brains,
cumin and a little honey. Add some celery seed, stock and oil, bind the gravy
with eggs sprinkle with pepper and serve.
Apicius 84 Cucumbers, pepper, pennyroyal, honey or condensed
must, broth and vinegar; once in a while one adds silphium. [Editor's note:
Silphium is generally considered extinct, having been related to fennel,
parsley and/or wild carrot. Asafoetida is considered by some an inferior
substitute for silphium.]
- The Cucumber boiled, or
cooked in syrup: Athenaeus of Naucratis (2nd Century, A.D.),
"The Old English Herbals," by Eleanor Sinclair Rohde, I find
reference to a recipe in "Mary Doggett: Her Book of Receipts" for
pickling cucumbers. I was unable to find an original of this manuscript, or
any source with this recipe.
includes the recipe for a vapor bath using cucumbers from Apuleis (written
somewhere between 1070 and 1100) using bramble rind and elm rind, ash rind,
sloethorn, rind of apple tree and ivy, all these from the nether part of the
trees, and cucumber, smear wort, everfern, helenium, enchanters nightshade,
betony, marrubium, radish, agrimony, alder ashes, an emmet bed, butter. It
also includes a prescription for bleeding, which I don't recommend (consult
- Pickled: Murrell's (or Murrel's) Two Books of
Cookerie, 1638: To keep greene
Cucumbers all the yeare - Cut the Cucumbers in pieces, boyle them in
spring-water, Sugar, and Dill, a walme or two. Take them up and let your
pickle stand untill it be cold.
- Pickled: The Cooks Guide: Or Rare Receipts for
Cookery, 1664: To pickle Cucumbers to
look very green. Take those that you mean to pickle, and lay them in
water and salt three or four daies; then take a good many great Cucumbers
and cut the outsides of them into water, for the insides will be too
pappy, then boyle them in that water with Dill seeds and Fennel seeds, and
when it is cold put to it some salt and as much vinegar as weill make it a
strong pickle, then take them out of that water and salt and pour that
over them in your vessel, then let them stand close covered for a
fortnight or three weeks, then pour the liquor from them and new boyle it,
putting in some whole pepper, cloves and mace, and when it is cold adde to
it some vinegar, and a little salt, then pour it on them again, then let
them stand a longer time, and as you see occasion boyle it over again, and
alwaies put your seeds and pieces of Cucumber on the top; be sure your
pickle be cold when you pour it over.
- As a potherb: The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby
Opened, 1669: POTAGE DE SANTÉ
Mounsieur De S. Euremont makes thus his potage de santé and boiled meat
for dinner, being very Valetudinary. Put a knuckle of Veal and a Hen into
an earthen Pipkin with a Gallon of water (about nine of the Clock
forenoon) and boil it gently till you have skimmed it well. When no more
scum riseth (which will be in about a quarter of an hour), take out the
Hen (which else would be too much boiled,) and continue boiling gently
till about half an hour past ten. Then put in the Hen again, and a handful
of white Endive uncut at length, which requireth more boiling then
tenderer herbs. Near half hour after eleven, put in two good handfuls of
tender Sorrel, Borage, Bugloss, Lettice, Purslane (these two come later
then the others, therefore are not to be had all the winter) a handful a
piece, a little Cersevil, and a little Beet-leaves. When he is in pretty
good health, that he may venture upon more savoury hotter things, he puts
in a large Onion stuck round with Cloves, and sometimes a little bundle of
Thyme and other hot savoury herbs; which let boil a good half hour or
better, and take them out, and throw them away, when you put in the tender
herbs. About three quarters after eleven, have your slice dried bread
ready in a dish, and pour a ladleful of the broth upon it. Let it stew
covered upon a Chafing-dish. When that is soaked in, put on more. So
continue till it be well mittonée, and the bread grown
spungy, and like a gelly. Then fill up the dish with broth, and put the
Hen and Veal upon it, and cover them over with herbs, and so serve it in.
He keeps of this broth to drink at night, or make a Pan-cotto, as also for next morning. I like to adde to
this, a rand of tender brisket Beef, and the Cragg-end of a neck of
Mutton. But the Beef must have six hours boiling. So put it on with all
the rest at six a Clock. When it is well scummed, take out all the rest.
At nine, put in the Veal and Mutton, and thenceforwards, as is said above.
But to so much meat, and for so long boiling, you must have at least three
Gallons of water. Either way you must boil always but leisurely, and the
pot covered as much as is convenient, and season it in due time with a
little salt, as also with Pepper, if you like it; and if you be in
vigorous health, you may put a greater store of Onions quartered. The
beets have no very good taste, peradventure it were best leave them out.
In health you may season the potage with a little juyce of Orange. In
season green Pease are good, also Cucumbers. In winter, Roots, Cabbage,
Poix chiches, Vermicelli at any time. You may use yolks of Eggs beaten
with some of the broth and juyce of Oranges or Verjuyce, then poured upon
the whole quantity.
- As a potherb, also from Digby: But for Potage, put at first a good piece of
fleshy young Beef with the rest of the meat. And put not in your herbs
till half an hour before you take off the Pot. When you use not herbs, but
Carrots and Turneps, put in a little Peny-royal and a sprig of Thyme. Vary
in the season with Green-pease, or Cucumber quartered longwise, or Green
sower Verjuyce Grapes; always well-seasoned with Pepper and Salt and
Cloves. You pour some of the broth upon the sliced-bread by little and
little, stewing it, before you put the Herbs upon the Potage
- Pickled, from Delights for Ladies, Sir Hugh Platt,
1609: To preserve cowcumbers all the
yeere: Take a gallon of faire water and a pottle of verjuice, and a pint
of bay salt, and a handful of greene fennel or Dill; boile it a little,
and when it is cold put it into a barrel, and then put your cowcumbers
into that pickle, and you shall keep all the yeere.
- Pickled, from A choice manual of rare and select
secrets in physick and chyrurgery collected and practised by the Right
Honorable, the Countesse of Kent, late deceased ; as also most exquisite
ways of preserving, conserving, candying, &c. ; published by W.I., Gent.
by Elizabeth Grey, Countess of Kent (1581-1651). and W. J., 1653: Take the Cowcombers, and wash them clean, and
dry them clean in a cloth, then take some Water, and Vinegar, and Salt,
and some Dill tops, and some Fennel tops, and a little Mace, make it fast
enough, and sharp enough to the taste, then boyle it a while, and then
take it off, and let it stand and be cold, and then put in the Cowcombers,
and lay a board on the top to keep them down, and tye them close, and
within a week they will be fit to eat.
- In Salad, from The English Housewife, by Gervase
Markham, 1615: First then to speak of
sallats, there be some simple, and some compounded, some only to furnish
out the table, and some both for use and adornation: your simple sallats
are chibols peeled, washed clean, and half of the green tops cut clean
away, so served on a fruit dish; or chives, scallions, radish roots,
boiled carrots, skirrets, and turnips, with such like served up simply;
also, all young lettuce, purslane, and divers other herbs which may be
served simply without anything but a little vinegar, sallat oil, and
sugar; onions boiled, and stripped from their rind and served up with
vinegar, oil and peppar is a good simple sallat, so is samphire, bean
cods, asparagus, and cucumbers, served in likewise with oil, vinegar, and
peppar, with a world of others, too tedious to nominate.
- In a Pickled Salad, from The English Housewife, by
Gervase Markham, 1615: Your preserved
sallats are of two kinds, either pickled, as are cucumbers, samphire,
purslane, broom and such like, or preserved with vinegar, as violets,
primrose, cowslips, gillyflowers of all kinds, broom flowers, and for the
most part any wholesome flower whatsoever. / Now for pickling of sallats,
the are only boiled, and then drained from the water, spread opon a table,
and a good store of salt thrown over them, then when they are thorough
cold, make a pickle with water, salt and a little vinegar, and with the
same pot them up in close earthen pots and serve them forth as occasion shall
- Pickled or salted, from Ein
New Kochbuch, Marx Rumpolt, 1581: 20.
Peel the Cucumbers/ and cut them broad and thin/ season them with oil/
pepper and salt. But if they are salt-preserved/ they are also not bad/
are better than raw/ because one can salt it with Fennel and with caraway/
that both can be kept over one year. And near the Rhine-stream one calls
- Used in salads, Opera dell'arte del cucinare,
Bartolomeo Scappi, 1570: In order
that cucumbers more easily pass the stomach eat them with the peel rather
than without. Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise and make of them pieces
moderately thin and dress them with oil, vinegar and salt like other
salads. But the custom one has learned is to add several pieces of raw
onion and the leaves or sprouts of green basil. This is not without
foundation in art, perhaps it counteracts the natural coldness of moisture
of it and makes the juice less large and less slow. (Scappi also
mentions "mixed salad" in which he says "it is possible to
add other herbs than these which have been written by us before," so
one could use this as justification for adding cucumber to other salads.)
- (All Andalusian dishes quoted from David
Friedman's website translation) Seeds used in medicinal syrup, An
Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook, Translated by Charles Perry, 13th Century: Take an uqiya of hyssop and two of fennel and
anise, and an uqiya each of jujubes, watermelon seeds and cucumber seeds,
and a handful of cleaned figs, two handfuls each of lavender and cilantro
of the spring, and two uqiyas each of the skin of the fennel stalk and the
skin of the celery stalk. Cook all this in water to cover until its
substance comes out; then take the clean part of it and add it to two
ratls of sugar, and cook all this until it takes the consistency of syrup.
Drink an uqiya and a half of this in three of hot water when fasting. It
benefits moist coughs, and stops abscesses of the brain; it dissilves
phlegm from the other parts of the body and causes urine and menstrual
fluid to flow, it fortifies the stomach, and it is admirable.
- In Vegetable Soup, "From the Cook Book of
Ibrahim b. Al-Mahdi" in An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook, Translated
by Charles Perry, 13th Century: Take
boiled peeled lentils and wash in hot water several times; put in the pot
and add water without covering them; cook and then throw in pieces of
gourd, or the stems of Swiss chard, or of lettuce and its tender sprigs,
or the flesh of cucumber or melon, and vinegar, coriander seed, a little
cumin, Chinese cinnamon, saffron and two uqiyas of fresh oil; balance with
a little salt and cook. Taste, and if its flavor is pleasingly balanced
between sweet and sour, and if not, reinforce until it is equalized,
according to taste, and leave it to lose its heat until it is cold and
- Jannaniyya (a sort of vegetable egg dish),
"From the Cook Book of Ibrahim b. Al-Mahdi" in An Anonymous Andalusian
Cookbook, Translated by Charles Perry, 13th Century: It was the custom among us to make this in the
flower and vegetable gardens. If you make it in summer or fall, take
saltwort, Swiss chard, gourd, small eggplants, "eyes" of fennel,
fox-grapes, the best parts of tender gourd and flesh of ribbed cucumber
and smooth cucumber; chop all this very small, as vegetables are chopped,
and cook with water and salt; then drain off the water. Take a clean pot
and in it pour a little water and a lot of oil, pounded onion, garlic,
pepper, coriander seed and caraway; put on a moderate fire and when it has
boiled, put in the boiled vegetables. When it has finished cooking, add
grated or pounded bread and dissolved [sour] dough, and break over it as
many eggs as you are able, and squeeze [p. 54, verso] in the juice of
tender coriander and of mint, and leave on the hearthstone until the eggs
set. If you make it in spring, then [use] lettuce, fennel, peeled fresh
fava beans, spinach, Swiss chard, carrots, fresh cilantro and so on, cook
it all and add the spices already indicated, plenty of oil, cheese,
dissolved [sour] dough and eggs.
Copyright 2007 Ian Kusz
<deepkneads at comcast.net>, updated 2009. Permission is granted for
republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited.
Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the
author receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would
appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the
Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track
which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.