We don’t know much about what French people ate in the early Middle Ages. The main source is a 6th century Greek doctor named Anthimus, who had been exiled from Constantinople to the court of Theodoric, the king of the tattered Western Roman Empire. Theodoric in turn sent Doc Anthimus as his ambassador to another barbarian ruler, a Frankish prince confusingly named Theuderic.
For Theuderic, Anthimus wrote a dietary manual in a sort of overripe colloquial Latin that was rapidly turning into Old French. Printed editions (including the latest, “Anthimus: On the Observance of Foods,” translated by Mark Grant, Prospect Books, 1996) always polish up his grammar and correct his spelling mistakes.
The book makes it clear that cooking had changed a lot since the days of the Caesars. Butter, which the Romans had despised as anything but a medicine or an athlete’s rubdown, was a major food and cooking fat. He doesn’t mention bitter spices the Romans admired, such as asafoetida and cumin, but he does call for some of the sweet spices, such as clove and ginger, that were to be so popular in the later Middle Ages.
He gave only a few recipes, but here’s one: Simmer cooked beef an hour with vinegar, leeks, pennyroyal (a loud member of the mint family) and celery root or fennel root. Then add honey and cook until it reduces. Finally, season with cloves, the herbs costmary and spikenard and 50 peppercorns.
Most of the book is the sort of be-cautious, nothing-in-excess advice doctors have always given. Some of the suggestions are practical (meat of older animals should be roasted farther from the fire--that is, at a lower temperature). On the other hand, Doc, the fact that melted cheese hardens as it cools doesn’t mean that it causes kidney stones. Take our word.