Cabbage, native to the crags of Europe’s Atlantic coast, has been cultivated into almost a dozen varieties. Here, a short history of the brassica family and of the avid cabbage-eater Cato the Elder, with a recipe for you to try.
A photo I took of the broccoli with leeks and olives on a plate.
Cato the Elder, a Roman writer and politician, may be famously remembered for his ardent patriotism — he was known to exclaim “Carthago delenda est!” in Senate meetings before the Third Punic War. Renowned as a statesman, Cato was also a farmer.
Born in the Latin town of Tusculum, situated in the Alban Hills of western Italy, Cato came from a plebeian family known for their military service. His father died when Cato (not yet the Elder) was a boy, and young Cato inherited an expanse of farmland in the Sabine country.
In his youth, Cato learned to conduct business and oversee the property. Though he went on to serve a distinguished career in the Roman army, Cato would regularly return to his childhood farm. In time, he compiled a manual on how to run a farm — meant to be read aloud to farmhands.
This work, titled De agri cultura (On Agriculture), is written simply but it addresses many aspects of ancient rural life. Among the book’s many sections are writings on viticulture, weather, feeding cattle… and cabbage. Here’s a quote from the section on cabbage:
It is the cabbage which surpasses all other vegetables.
We might wonder why the cabbage was so special to Cato. It’s a versatile vegetable, fitting equally well into simple stews and sumptuous salad spreads in opulent cenae (dinners). Cato writes in his paean to the vegetable that cabbage could be taken raw or with a dash of vinegar to help promote digestion before big meals.
But much of what Cato the Elder wrote is on the many medicinal properties of the cabbage. A poultice of cabbage leaves could cleanse sores and heal wounds; bruised cabbage restores bruised skin.
What’s more, chopped cabbage soaked in vinegar and honey and eaten with rue, dried coriander, asafoetida, and salt remedies any form of joint pain. (As a disclaimer, not all of these are proven to work.)
This all may seem very ordinary if you’ve read some of the other posts on this blog: the Romans reckoned lots of food plants had curative value. But there’s something interesting about the cabbage’s lineage that I think is worth looking into.
Linnaeus gave cabbage the name Brassica oleracea. As it so happens, that’s also the taxonomic name of kale… and broccoli, cauliflower, savoy, and Brussels sprouts. But how is that?
All of these vegetables happen to be cultivated varieties of the same species. B. oleracea grows in its natural state along the rugged limestone cliffs of southern and western Europe. Over the years, people living in these parts of the world farmed the wild cabbage, producing a number of specifically bred domesticated versions.
The cabbage, with its large, round head, was selectively bred for just that. Kale, which looks utterly different, was grown to bear broad, crinkly leaves. Ancient Germans, it’s thought, bred wild cabbage for a thick stem. After many centuries, we now have kohlrabi. And medieval Italians cultivated geometrically appealing fractal-shaped buds of romanesco.
We can see how this process, where farmers have selected for specific traits in Brassica species, produces wildly different results. All of these vegetables, though, can be classified into one related group: the brassicas, or the crucifers (so named for their four crosswise petals).
When Cato professes his admiration for the humble cabbage, he uses the word brassica in Latin. This word doesn’t, however, reveal to us what variety of brassica Cato was referring to: in Latin, as in English, “brassica” refers to the cabbage and its kin.
Could Cato be referring to what we now call cabbage? Was he referencing kale or cauliflower? Or did he mean to praise the species as a whole, with all of its varieties? With some investigation, we’re able to see that the Romans had other words to call these cruciferous vegetables.
The first word, caulis, seems to refer broadly to a plant’s stalk. The agricultural author Columella mentions caulis cepae (“stem of an onion”), and Pliny caulis fabarum (“stem of beans”). But, for some reason or another, it also referred to the standard round-headed cabbage we know today.
There’s a series of recipes in Apicius, the jam-packed ancient cookbook, that involves brassicas. I’ve included the texts of two recipes a bit further down, but it’s important to note that the vegetables in these dishes are called cauliculi.
That’s another name for a brassica in Latin — cauliculus, or coliculus. With its diminutive suffix (-ulus), this word means “little stem” — essentially a smaller version of a caulis.
So if it’s cabbage stems we’re talking about here, I think we may have a solid candidate for the cauliculus of Apicius — a relative of Cato’s beloved brassica.
Many varieties of brassicas are eaten for their leaves, but broccoli seemed to fit the bill as its shoots are edible. Besides, though we don’t have any hard and fast dates for broccoli cultivation, I’ve found in my reading that the vegetable was grown in its early form during Roman rule.
Without further ado, here are the cauliculus recipes from Apicius, in Latin and English:
Aliter: coliculi elixati in patina compositi condiuntur liquamine, oleo, mero, cumino. piper asparges, porrum, cuminum, coriandrum viridem super concides.
Another: the boiled stalks are placed in a patina; season with liquamen, oil, pure wine, and cumin. Sprinkle over pepper, leeks, cumin, and chopped green coriander.
Below this recipe is another that adds to the first dish:
Aliter: coliculos condies ut supra, admisces olivas virides et simul ferveant.
Another: season the stalks as above, add green olives, and heat likewise.
The second recipe mentions that the cook ought to season the brassica “as above,” referring to the first recipe. It also tells us to cook the vegetables in the same way, by boiling them. So the only difference in the second recipe is the addition of olives.
I’ve created a modern rendition of the second recipe just below, following Apicius‘s description. Give it a whirl!
2-3 large stalks of broccoli
1/4 cup of green olives
1 leek, sliced
8-10 sprigs of cilantro
1/4 cup of white wine
2 tbsp of olive oil
1 tbsp of garum
1/4 tsp of cumin
Pepper, to taste
Rinse the broccoli, then cut off the florets. Add these to a pot of cold salted water, and bring the water to a boil. After about three minutes, drain the broccoli and leave it to cool. Mince the cilantro, then mix it with the wine, oil, garum, cumin, and pepper to form a light dressing. Toss the cooked broccoli with the olives and sliced leek, then dress with the wine sauce. Enjoy!
Photos of the ingredients (cilantro not shown); the cooked broccoli; and a wild cabbage growing on the Little Orme, an outcrop along the northern Welsh coast.
This recipe is a fairly simple medley of vegetables, but I think it’s pretty tasty. Olives are salty, and the leek adds a strong onion flavor. And the dressing kicks up the lot with sweet wine, pepper, and cumin.
It may not seem like much, but I could imagine this dish presented among plates of sausage, veal, and tuna in a dinner spread on a Roman table. In fact, the poet Martial references the same word used in the Apicius recipe, cauliculus, as he describes the menu for a cena he hosts.
However it was served in antiquity, I’d encourage you to test this dish yourself — for a taste of history and of Cato’s favorite type of vegetable.