As our fair Shire moves into the heat of summer, perhaps you may like to consider a dish which is simple, tasty and authentic to bring to pot-luck meals: the salad. This may seem like an obviously modern dish, but raw vegetables have been eaten since the time of the ancient Romans, with many writers extolling the healthful virtues of salad. Recipes for salads are found throughout the cookbooks of our historical period and beyond, from Apicius to the Elizabethans. Ingredients, preparation and dressings in many ways resemble the modern salad, and recipes are often unspecific, allowing the use of a wide range of ingredients. Below are some guidelines for constructing a salad which will not be jarringly out of place at a medieval feast, together with some original recipes with which you may like to experiment.

Things to avoid

For a start, you can make your salads appear more authentic simply by leaving out certain ingredients which were not eaten in our period. Most of these are New World species which, while they may have been brought back to Europe during the Elizabethan era, were not commonly eaten until much later. A period salad should NOT include the following:

  • Potatoes
  • Tomatoes
  • Any of the peppers - green pepper, red pepper, chilli, etc.
  • Iceberg lettuce (this is a recent species). Use an open-leafed variety like cos or butter lettuce instead.
I have found no evidence to suggest that any kind of cold rice salad or pasta salad was eaten, either, so perhaps it’s safest to avoid these.

Things to include

Lettuce is perfectly period, although iceburg is not, as I suggested above; however, several varieties were known, including the loose-leaved cos lettuce. Platina, the author of a 16th century Italian treatise on cooking, says of lettuce that “... There are several varieties of this vegetable. Lacticaulis, sessilis, and crispa are praised above all others..... There is serralia lettuce, which is wild, named from the saw, because on its back it is serrated.” (De Honesta Voluptua, 1475). John Gerard's Herball or General Historie of Plantes (1633) tells us that “Lettuce maketh a pleasant sallad, being eaten raw with vineger, oyle, and a little salt: ... for being taken before meat it doth many times stir vp appetite: and eaten after supper it keepeth away drunkennesse which commeth by the wine; and that is by reason that it stayeth the vapors from rising vp into the head." You could, therefore, provide a perfectly period salad consisting simply of lettuce in a basic oil and vinegar dressing.

Herbs are a common medieval salad ingredient; they are often described as “potherbs” or “greens”, and the term includes a wide range of possible types. To his discussion of lettuce, above, Platina adds a recommendation that lettuce can be eaten alone, with a simple oil and vinegar dressing, but that “There are those who add a little mint and parsley to this preparation, so that it does not seem too bland” (De Honesta Voluptua, 1475). Several medieval recipes give a suggestion as to the possible herbs to include, and I have given a few examples below.

Dressings for salad seem to be universally simple. The typical mayonnaise dressing, with an egg and oil base whipped to a creamy consistency, is unknown to medieval cookery. Both medieval and Elizabethan salads are served with a standard dressing of oil, vinegar, salt and, in later period, sugar. You could use the standard 3:1 oil to vinegar ratio of the basic French dressing, or vary to taste.

It may be worth noting Castelvetro’s comments on dressing: after careful washing and drying between linen cloths, the herbs are placed into a bowl which has some salt in it. The herbs and salt are then thoroughly stirred together and oil is added "with a generous hand" and again stirred "so that each leaf is properly coated with oil". Then vinegar is added last of all, but just a bit to provide a good flavor. "The secret to a good salad is plenty of salt, generous oil and little vinegar". He also states that his experiences in other countries show that Germans take poorly washed leaves and without draining or drying will put on just a little salt, too much oil and far too much vinegar, generally producing a more decorative effect to the detriment of the flavor of the salad.

Note that medieval cookbook writers seldom, if ever, give quantities for their ingredients; it’s up to you to experiment, perhaps using a modern salad recipe as a guideline, and adjusting according to taste.

The classical salad: the Romans and Apicius

Simple herb salads, according to Edwards, were generally eaten during the “gustatio”, the light first course of the formal Roman meal; more elaborate recipes are also available. I have included several salad recipes from De Re Coquinaria (On Cookery), a Roman cookbook from two manuscripts of the late 4th and early 5th centuries A.D., attributed to Apicius, who could have been one of several figures of that name in Roman history.

The Roman recipes often include garum, or fish-pickle, a strong fermented sauce, with their salad dressings. I don’t think there is any readily available modern equivalent to a sauce made from the entrails of fish left in the sun to ferment and liquefy - perhaps it’s wiser not to try to substitute!

HERBAE RUSTICAE Country Herbs. Country herbs should be eaten as they come to hand as a salad in a dressing of fish-pickle, olive oil and vinegar...
(Edwards gives a modernised version of this recipe which uses water-cress, but I should think a mixture of green leafy herbs would also be appropriate).

Endive is served with a dressing of fish-pickle, a little oil, and chopped onion. Endive may be used in place of lettuce in winter, in a dressing or with honey and sharp vinegar.

Lettuce. Serve lettuce in a dressing of “oxyporum,” vinegar and a little oil.
(I have no idea what “oxyporum” may be - Edwards declines to gloss it.

Apicius gives several recipes for “Potted Salad”, complex confections of layered bread, vegetables and herbs which are served chilled. I’ve included one example of this; Edwards suggests that you may wish to omit the soaked, pressed bread and serve the rest of the salad on rolls, but the effect will naturally be fairly different to the intention of the original.

ALITER SALA CATTABIA APICIANA Potted Salad Apicius. In a mortar, mix celery seed, dried pennyroyal, dried mint, ginger, green coriander, seedless raisins, honey, vinegar, olive oil and wine. In the salad bowl, strew pieces of Picentian bread. Arrange the bread in alternate layers with pieces of chicken, goat-kid’s glandules (Edwards translates these as sweetbreads), Vestinian cheese, pine nuts, cucumbers and dried onions chopped very finely. Pour the dressing made above over the potted salad. Strew snow around it until the dinner hour and serve.

Plain green salads: the medieval period

Salads in the earlier medieval period seem to have been quite simple: mixtures of herbs served with a dressing. Bear in mind that these recipes obviously call for fresh herbs; dried herbs will not give the desired effect.

Take persel, sawge, grene garlec, chibolles, oynouns, leek, borage, myntes, porrettes, fennel, and toun cressis, rew, rosemarye, purslarye: laue and waische hem clene. Pike hem. Pluk hem small wi* *yn honde, and myng hem wel with rawe oile; lay on vyneger and salt, and serue it forth.
Form of Cury (14th century English manuscript, Middle English)
Translation: take parsley, sage, green garlic, spring onions, onions, leek, borage, mint, young leeks or green onions, fennel, garden cress, rue, rosemary, purslane; wash them clean (in water). Pick them (I think this means to pick over them to remove large pieces of stem, foreign matter, etc). Pluck them small with your hand, and mix them well with raw oil; add vinegar and salt, and serve it forth.

In her commentary on this recipe in her book Pleyn Delit, Constance Hieatt warns that “grene garlic” would be wild garlic, much milder than the modern variety, and she also suggests that some versions of this recipe in other manuscripts also call for the leaves of spinach (I’d suggest baby spinach, myself).

On preparing a salad of several greens.
A preparation of several greens is made with lettuce, bugloss, mint, catmint, fennel, parsley, sisymbrium, origan, chervil, cicerbita which doctors call teraxicon, plantain, morella, and several other fragrant greens, well washed and pressed and put in a large dish. Sprinkle them with a good deal of salt and blend with oil, then pour vinegar over it all when it has sat a little; it should be eaten and well chewed because wild greens are tough. This sort of salad needs a little more oil than vinegar. It is more suitable in winter than in summer, because it requires much digestion and this is stronger in winter. Platina, De Honesta Volupta, 1475 (original in Latin).

Fancy salads: the Elizabethans

In the 16th and 17th centuries, medieval cooking underwent a change in character. Cooking methods were simplified - early medieval recipes tended to boil, then fry meat, where Elizabethan cooking simply roasts it - but at the same time, presentation became more elaborate. In the preparation of salads, the changes can be seen mostly in the choice of ingredients, with a far wider range of vegetables and other ingredients being used in salads, in a more innovative mixture of flavours. Of course, the simple green salad continues to be made, as is seen in the Castelvetro recipe below; but often additional ingredients are added, such as Dawson’s salad of herbs and periwinkles. Compare the simplicity of arrangement of the green salads above, with the elaborate presentation of some of the later medieval salads. In many ways, Elizabethan salads are very similar to salads we are used to eating today.

Of all the salads we eat in the spring, the mixed salad is the best and most wonderful of all. Take young leaves of mint, those of garden cress, basil, lemon balm, the tips of salad burnet, tarragon, the flowers and tenderest leaves of borage, the flowers of swine cress, the young shoots of fennel, leaves of rocket, of sorrel, rosemary flowers, some sweet violets, and the tenderest leaves or the hearts of lettuce. When these precious herbs have been picked clean and washed in several waters, and dried a little with a clean linen cloth, they are dressed as usual, with oil, salt and vinegar.
The Fruit, Herbs & Vegetables of Italy. An offering to Lucy, Countess of Bedford, by Giacomo Castelvetro. The original is in Italian and written in 1614

The other sources I have for later salads are all English. The first few recipes are from Thomas Dawson’s The Good Huswife’s Jewel (1597).

Sallet for Fish Daies. First a sallet of green fine hearbs, putting Perriwincles among them with oyle and vinegar.

Another. Olives and Capers in one dish, with vinegar and oyle.

Another. Carret roots being minced, and then made in the dish, after the proportion of a Flowerdeluce, then picke shrimps and lay upon it with oyle and vinegar.
(I would interpret this to mean arranging the minced carrot in the shape of a flower (a lily).

Another. Onion in flakes laid round about the dishe, with minced carrets laid in the middle of the dish, with boyled Hippes in five partes like an Oken leafe, made and garnished with tawney long cut with oile and vinegar.
(Hippes are presumably cooked rose hips; Beebe, the editor of a book on Elizabethan cookery, suggests that “tawney” is the herb tansy, cut longways.)

Another. Salmon cut long waies, with slices of onion laid upon it, and upon that to cast violets, oyle and vinegar.

From Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook (1660):

A grand sallet of beets, currants and greens.
Take the youngest and smallest leaves of spinage, the smalest also of sorrel, well washed currans, and red beets round thecentre being finely carved, oyl and vinegar, and the dish garnished with lemon and beets.
(Madge Lorwin’s version of this recipe uses boiled, peeled beets, sliced thinly).

The next few recipes are from Gervase Markham’s The English Huswife (1615); the latter of these is a grand and complicated show-piece.

Your simple sallets are Chibols pilled, washt clean, and halfe of the green tops cut away, so served on a fruit dishe, or Chines, Scallions, radish-roots, boyled Carrots, skirrets, and Turneps, with such like served up simply; also, all young Lettice, Cabage lettice, Purslan, and divers other hearbes which may bee served simply without anything, but a little Vinegar, Sallet oyle, and Suger.
(Chibols are a kind of spring onion, a cross between an onion and a leek. Skirrets are a kind of water-parsnip, no longer grown, as is the problem with purslan, a kind of herb).

To compound an excellent Sallet, and which indeed is usuall at great Feasts, and upon Princes Tables.
Take a good quantity of blaunch’t Almonds, and with your Shredding knife cut them grosly; then take as manie Raisyns of the sunne cleane washt, and the stones pick’tout, as many Figges shred like the Almonds, as many Capers, twice so many Olives, and as many Currants as of all the rest clene washt: a good handful of the small tender leaves of red Sage and Spinage; mix all these well together with a good store of Sugar and lay them in the bottome of a great dish, then put unto them Vinegar and Oyle, then scrape more Sugar over all; then take Orenges and Lemmons, and paring away the outward pills, cut them into thinne slices, then with those slices cover the sallet all over; which done, take the thin leafe of the red Coleflowre, and with them cover the Orenges and Lemmons all over, then over those red leaves lay another course of old Olives, and the slices of wel pickled Coucumbers, together with the very inward hart of your Cabbage lettice cut into slices, then adorne the sides of the dish and the top of the Sallet with more slices of Lemons and Orenges and so serve it up.

German salads

Marx Rumpolt, the 16th-century German cookbook author, has a whole section on salads, including some familiar ingredients: cucumbers, boiled eggs, radishes, beetroot, red and white lettuce, etc. Useful man.

7. Green salad/ that is small and young/ red beets cut small/ and tossed thereover/ when the salad is prepared/ and the red beets are cooked and cooled.
In another recipe he gives directions for pickling beets in wine and vinegar with spices and horseradish, so you could probably use commercial pickled beets with this.

9. Watercress salad/ created in a garden/ or grown near a running creek/ is not bad either.

15. Asparagus salad/ that is also poached/ and cut small/ or prepared whole/ is in both ways good. You can make it with Peabroth/ with a little butter/ pepper and vinegar/ served warm to the table.

20. Peel the Cucumbers/ and cut them broad and thin/ season them with oil/ pepper and salt.

23. Take hard boiled eggs/ serve them especially beside the salad/ sprinkle them with green parsley and salt/ and pour vinegar over.

38. Curley salad/ that is nicely green.

41. Take roman beans/ poach and cool them/ prepare them with oil/ vinegar and salt.

42. Take borage, parsley, pimpernel/ lemon balm and hyssop/ astragalus and tarragon/ so it is a combined salad of welltasting herbs/ with borage flowers tossed over/ it is pretty and decorative.

45. Or take a radish/ cut in small and thin/ or fine diced/ season it with vinegar/ oil and salt/ so it is good too.

46. You can also arrange a salad in a bowl/ green white and red/ nicely made like a rose/ so it is decorative/ good and welltasting.


Ruth Anne Beebe. Sallet, Humbles and Shrewsbury Cakes. 1976. Boston: David R. Godine.
John Edwards. The Roman Cookery of Apicius, Translated and Adapted for the Modern Kitchen. 1984. London: Rider and Company
Constance B. Hieatt and Sharon Butler. Curye on Inglysch.1985. London: Oxford University Press.
Constance B. Hieatt, Brenda Hosington, and Sharon Butler. Pleyn Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks. 1996. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Madge Lorwin. Dining with William Shakespeare. 1996. New York: Athaneum.
Marx Rumpolt, Ein New Kochbuch (1581), tr. M. Grasse.

I am also indebted to the SCA Cooks mailing list for the Platina and Castelvetro recipes, for help with identification of some recipes, and for general background information.

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