Cabbages (or Colewort)

Middle Ages Food – Cabbages
colewartCabbages date from the remotest times. There were several types of cabbage available during the Middle Ages called the apple-headed, the Roman, the white, the common white head and the Easter cabbage. The cabbage held in the highest estimation was the famous cabbage of Senlis, whose leaves, says an ancient author, when opened, exhaled a smell more agreeable than musk or amber. This species no doubt fell into disuse when aromatic herbs started to be used in cooking and was abandoned.

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Cabbages and kales have been eaten, improved, and eaten some more for centuries. The medieval cabbage, or colewort, (see the first image for the etymology of “colewort”) was one of the mainstays of the medieval diet, at least for those ordinary mortals outside courtly circles, whose more refined cuisine has been preserved in cookbooks—such as the famous Forme of Cury—of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The greens were cooked and eaten alone, or were included in pottage—sometimes spelled “potage”—a kind of thick soup or porridge made from vegetables boiled with grain. (For a recipe for “Caboches in Pottage,” visit the Gode Cookery website.) It was not necessary to harvest the whole plant; leaves could be plucked from the stem and used as needed; coleworts remained viable well into the winter months.

Bitter and unpalatable in its wild form, cabbage was brought under cultivation in antiquity. In addition to their place in ancient and medieval nutrition, cabbages and kales were valued medicinal plants. Cabbage was said to sharpen the sight, relieve palsy, ease gout, and cleanse ulcers. (For an article on the recent recovery of pills made from common vegetables such as carrots and cabbage from a Roman shipwreck, visit the website of The Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions.) The Greek tradition that the cabbage was inimical to the grapevine and provided an antidote for drunkenness also survived into the Middle Ages.

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