Why 10th Century and Fermentation of Cabbage?

Why 10th Century? Well, longish story. I used to bake. My beloved husband does not like baked goods. I needed an episodic kitchen thing so I thought about how great grandma made kraut and that tasted way better than the junk that comes in the jar and don’t even mention the canned version!  Anyway, I was asked in a fermentation group why the historical focus on the 10th century, and as my explanation was much too long for a post there, I decided to carry it over here and blog on it.

In my family of origin, I was taught to bake cookies and then later to expand that out into pies. These were the delights I made whenever I had the urge to be creative in the kitchen. Then I fell in love with a whole foods healthy eating focused man who took over the general cooking and anytime I mentioned baking a pie would tell me he would rather eat the berries straight than be presented with them in a pie.  He also considered cookies an entry food to bad eating practices. So what is a girl to do when her ONE creative food outlet is unwanted and even deemed wasteful? In my case, I went looking for something else creative and interesting to make my contribution to the table.

Anyway, I started learning about how to make Sauerkraut, finding first the book WILD FERMENTATION, and later other books on the subject.  Somewhere along the way an author, it may have been the first author, mentioned in passing that Pliny wrote about lactic acid fermentation. Another author mentioned in passing that the ancient Roman legions, when they traveled by land or by sea, always brought with them fermented cabbage because the use of it with every meal resulted in a more stable digestive system when dealing with ever changing food and water sources. They especially wanted the fermented cabbage when heading into the middle east, for apparently the foods going that direction were harder for them to digest.

All this meant that my interest in an episodic cooking project had cross-over with my Society for Creative Anachronism interest in all things 10th Century Byzantine.  It also meant it crossed over into my research for my Historical novel.  Thus was born a passionate pursuit of the history of Brassicas and anything else the Byzantines grew or fermented in the 10th Century.

And the best part?

I have only just begun the journey.

Researching Cabbage

The process of properly preparing an Arts and Sciences (A&S) Project has interested me from my first days in the SCA, but up until recently nothing caught my interested thoroughly enough to keep me focused. My topic came along by way of the kitchen, and my mundane one at that!  Enter salt brine fermentation, sauerkraut, and the history of cabbage.

As I began to explore sauerkraut for my fun contribution to the table, Sandar Katz’s books (WILD FERMENTATION & THE ART OF FERMENTATION) gave me the technique and hinted at a very long history behind the practice.


Intrigued, I began to explore sauerkraut for 10th century Byzantium.

I no longer recall the titles of the earlier books I explored. The search was tantalizing and confusing. One author mentioned Pliny, but gave no footnote to aid in finding the quote. Another hinted at differences between cabbage varieties over time, but gave little detail except to say that modern tight heads were a late Medieval development, so while OK for some portions of the SCA period, they are not correct for my 10th century Byzantine. Still another commented, without footnote, that the ancient Roman Army always carried fermenting cabbage when traveling. Oh, the frustrations of finding hints of what I longed to find—without attribution!

My first exciting breakthrough came with a Horticulture textbook by Geoffrey R. Dixon. Bibliography for it can be found at the bottom of this article.

Vegetables from the Brassicas family go back to the Neolithic period. According to Dixon there are quite a few references to these plants in the extant literature. Three plant families are the roots of all the brassicas: Brassica nigra (grows on rocky Mediterranean coasts), Brassica oleracea (coastal throughout Europe) and Brassica rapa (from the high plateauxs of Iran, Iraq and Turkey). [Dixon, pp 1-3]

“[A]ncient Sanskrit literature UPANISHADS and BRAHAMANAS, originating around 1500 BC. Mention brassicus, and the Chinese SHIH CHING, possibly edited by Confucius (511-479 BC), refers to the turnip….”

“Aristotle (384-322 BC), Theophrastus (371-286 BC), Cato (234-149 BC), Columella (1st century AD), and Pliny (23-79 AD) all mention the importance of brassicus.”[Dixon p. 1]

As always, the quotes are not given. But with the names of the authors, I am further along in my search for documentation than I was before. Theophrastus’ writing INQUIREY INTO PLANTS is sitting on the pile waiting with Apicius.

Meanwhile my kitchen counter looks like this: IMG_1229

The next step, in my research for documentation, will be to dig around in the original works cited by G. R. Dixon and gather up the quotes. Future articles will be about the versions I selected to grow because they most resemble the descriptions from the ancient texts, containers I am using for the fermentation process and what was likely used in 10th Century, and a how-to article so you can make your own. The next root veggie ferment will be 3 weeks March 19, and I do my next taste check on the cabbage March 22.

In conclusion, long before SCA time, these plants were cultivated, traded, crossed with each other, and spread throughout Europe and Asia. This makes my efforts to use the ancient practice of salt brine fermentation on vegetables in 10th Century Byzantium all the more interesting!

Today’s article takes heavily from:
Dixon, Geoffrey R., VEGETABLE BRASSICAS AND RELATED CRUCIFERS, Crop Production Science In Horticulture #14, CABI North American Office, Cambridge MA, copyright 2007 G. R. Dixon, ISBN:978 0 85199 395 9.