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.
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.