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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, fd-Jewish-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


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.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



Medieval and Ancient History of the Cucumber

by Ian of Oertha


The cucumber (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 (ecballium elaterium).


According to 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?).


The Ancient 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).


The cucumber 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).


The cucumber 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).


In medieval 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.


In John 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.


Thomas 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.


Cucumbers 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)




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.]




In "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.


She also 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 your physician).





















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.


<the end>


Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org