Concerned with the health and well-being of his patients, Ububchasym de Baldach, also known as Ibn Butlân (died 1068), wrote a treatise that is, at least superficially, “a textbook of botanical specimens for medical practitioners.”(1) In Taqwin al-sihha, the Bagdad-born Christian physician reviewed the six elements he believed to be necessary for the maintenance of daily health and elimination of undue stress. This included the avoidance of certain foods, the imbibing of specific beverages, engaging in proper activities while making sure of adequate rest, attaining an equilibrium in mood (the 4 humours), etc.(2)
Having made its way by the mid-13th century to Palermo where it was translated into Latin, Ibn Butlân’s book, now titled Tacuinum Sanitatis, arrived in Lombardy in the 14th century. There, Ibn Butlân’s words were augmented with sumptuous illustrations that do far more than visualize the characteristic shapes and colors of an impressive variety of botanical specimens. In contrast to contemporaneous herbals, the Tacuinum presents us with images of various “methods of preparing, gathering, even stealing foods and the social class likely to use a particular object.”(3) Put simply, it affords us a window into the past, pictures of life in 14th century Northern Italy. We see butchers slaughtering boar and cattle, men harvesting garlic and gathering chestnuts, women making wheat soup and collecting eggs, couples working to strain milk for ricotta and bake loaves of brown bread.
Leafing through these early illustrated volumes – three dating to the second half of the 14th century and a fourth dating to the 15th century – one cannot help but take note of the range in leafy greens: watercress, arugula, spinach, parsley, sage, sweet flag (calamus), and the like.
But fragrant leaves and succulent shoots were not the only things gathered from fields and gardens. So, too, were delicate flowers: saffron, marjoram, lavender, violets, hyssop and borage. In various combinations, leaves and blossoms fed the taste for salad that began to burgeon in the 16th century, especially among Mediterranean populations!
“Salad,” according to the naturalist Costanzo Felici da Piobbico (1525? -1585), “is a name invented solely by Italians, and it comes from salt (sale) , a part of its dressing; thus every raw green or a mixture of raw greens or something else dressed with oil and salt is called salad.”(4) Addressing the Countess of Bedford several decades later, Giacomo Castelvetro seconded Felici’s definition of “salad” with a proverb – “Insalata ben salata, poco aceto e bene oliata (Salt the salad quite a lot, then generous oil put in the pot, and vinegar, but just a jot!). To this, Castelvetro added a recipe… and a bit of culinary counsel.
“Never do what the Germans and other uncouth nations do, [namely] pile the badly washed leaves… up in a mound like a pyramid, then throw on a little salt, not much oil and far too much vinegar!”
As for his recipe, its appeal has endured.
“Of all the salads we [Italians] eat in the spring, the mixed salads, which I am about to describe, are the best known and loved of them all. This is how we make them [in Italy]: take young leaves of mint, those of nasturtium, basil, salad burnet, tarragon, the flowers and most tender leaves of borage, the flowers of ‘herba stella’ [buck’s horn plantain, the newborn shoots of fennel, the leaves of rocket, or sorrel, of lemon balm, rosemary flowers, some sweet violets, and the most tender leaves or the hearts of lettuce. When these precious potherbs have been picked clean and washed in several waters, and dried a little with clean linen cloth, they are dressed as usual, with oil, salt and vinegar.”(5)
Castelvetro’s recipe bears practical witness to the list of herbs “necessary for a garden” compiled around 1525 by the Surrey landowner Thomas Fromond. ‘The Fromond List’ contains the names of 138 plants that are both useful and desirable for an estate garden. Some are ornamentals, others possess medicinal value and still others were perfect when cooked for pottage (stock enriched with vegetables) or raw when used in a salad. More than fifty of the greens and herbs on ‘The Fromond List’ appear in “The Feate of Gardening” of Mayster Jon Gardener, ca. 1350. Borage is among them.(6)
Borage (borago officinalis) is an annual herb native to the Mediterranean that was long valued for its medicinal value. Like bugloss (anchusa officinalis), it is a member of the boraginaceae, or borage, family, which is also known as the forget-me-not family. Worldwide it comprises somewhere around 2,000 species in 146 genera.
According to Jack Sanders’ Secrets of Wildflowers, there are several tales associating the forget-me-not – or borage plant – with the Paradise of Genesis. One relates how all the plants and animals in the Garden of Eden shied away from the fallen Adam and Eve as they departed Paradise… all that is except for one. Filled with shame and forced to leave God’s perfect world, the exiting couple heard a gentle voice. It came from a patch of delicate blue flowers and urged the pair to “forget me not,” a wistful call for remembrance. Another story associated with the flower, this one German in origin, claims it came to be called the ‘forget-me-not’ as God was naming all the things of this earth. Fearing it would be overlooked, the flower begged, “Forget me not!” And so God named it.
Perhaps, the aura of these stories stands behind Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s reference to the mnemonic flower in “Evangeline, A Tale of Arcadie,” 1847.
“Silently, one by one, in the infinite meadows of heaven,
Blossom the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels.”
More than five centuries before the great American poet was inspired to write – in dactylic hexameter – the epic love story of Evangeline’s quest to find her lost love, the delicate blue flower found its place in depictions of the Resurrected Christ’s encounter with Mary Magdalene, a scene commonly referred to by Jesus’s command to Mary that she not physically touch him. (John 20:17) The inclusion of forget-me-nots in paintings of the meeting known as “Noli me tangere” underscore the symbolism of resurrection as well as remembrance. Indeed, the flower’s strategic and prominent placement in images such as Giotto’s rendering of the theme in the Arena Chapel, Padua (consecrated 1305) and that by Lavinia Fontana dated 1581, which now hangs in the Uffizi, conveys in unequivocal terms the concept of renewal, regeneration and the promise of a return to paradisical life.
The plant enlivening an otherwise barren and jagged cliff in the fresco of St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata in the Upper Church of San Francesco, Assisi, painted in the final years of the 1200s, is also recognizable as a forget-me-not, or borage. As in paintings of the Noli me tangere, it underscores remembrance, the enduring presence of the absent.
Borage flowers, or forget-me-nots, have not lost their appeal as attested by the following recipes – one dating to the 15th century, the other to the 21st.
Mixed Herb Salad (La Salade de Plusieurs Herbes)
Adapted from a 16th century French translation of a book originally written in Latin in 1474.
2 heads lettuce
1 handful young, tender borage leaves
1 handful chopped fresh mint leaves
1 handful fresh lemon-balm leaves
1 handful tender fennel shoots and flowers
1 handful fresh chervil leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon oregano or marjoram flowers and leaves
1/3 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons wine vinegar
- Wash the lettuce and herbs well, dry them and place them in a large dish.
- Sprinkle with salt, add the oil and finally the vinegar.
- Let the salad stand a while before serving.
- Eat the salad heartily, crunching and chewing well.
To serve 6
Blue Blossom Salad: Blue Cheese, Borage & Grilled Chicken Salad
|Serves||2 to 3|
- 100g mixed salad leaves of your choice
- 1 large grilled or cooked chicken breast cut into cubes or small pieces (about 125g to 150g)
- 6 to 8 cherry tomatoes, halved
- 50g blue cheese of your choice (cubed or crumbled)
- 10 to 12 blue borage flowers
- 50g blue cheese of your choice (crumbled)
- 50mls low fat mayonnaise
- 100mls low fat crème fraiche
- 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar or cider apple vinegar
- salt and pepper to taste
A summery burst of blue on a plate, this salad takes full advantage of cooked chicken, which marries so well with blue cheese and dressing; the blue borage flowers add a subtle cucumber taste to the salad and makes it pretty as a picture!
|Step 1||Dressing: Put the crumbled blue cheese into a jar or bowl and add the remaining ingredients, shake or mix well and adjust seasoning to taste. Thin with a little milk if the dressing is too thick.|
|Step 2||Salad: Arrange the salad leaves in a serving bowl and then add the cherry tomatoes before adding the cooked chicken pieces and crumbled or cubed blue cheese.|
|Step 3||Pour or spoon the blue cheese dressing over the salad and then scatter the borage flowers over the top.|
|Step 4||Serve immediately with spare dressing on the side and crusty bread.|
- Brucia Witthoft, “The Tacuinum Sanitatis: A Lombard Panorama,” Gesta, vol. 17 (1978), page 50.
- Brucia Witthoft, “The Tacuinum Sanitatis: A Lombard Panorama,” Gesta, vol. 17 (1978), page 50.
- Costanza Felici da Piobbico, Lettera sulle insalate e piante che in qualunque modo vengono per cibo all’uomo, 1565, as translated in Laura Gianetti, “Italian Renaissance Food-Fashioning or the Triumph of Greens,” California Italian Studies, , vol. 1 (2010). http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/1n97s00d
- Giacomo Castelvetro, The Fruit, Herbs & Vegetables of Italy (1614), trans. Gillian Riley (Blackawton, Totnes: Prospect Books, 2012), pages 56-58.
- John H. Harvey, “Vegetables in the Middle Ages,” Garden History, vol. 12 (1984), pages 89-99. Also by Harvey, “”Garden Plants of around 1525: The Fromond List,” Garden History, vol. 17 (1989), pages 122-134.
- Jack Sanders, Secrets of Wildflowers: A Delightful Feast of Little-Known Facts, Folklore, and History (Washington, D.C.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2014), p. 121.