Cabbage was a favorite vegetable of the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. The Romans introduced both red and green cabbage into Gaul as the Republic expanded.
The Greeks and Romans both believed that diet and health were intimately linked. The effect of different kinds food and drink on the prevention and treatment of specific diseases is the topic of much of Volume II of A. Cornelius Celsus’s 8-volume treatise on Roman medicine, which was written during the reign of Tiberius Caesar.
Cabbage was regarded as especially good for one’s health. Hippocrates prescribed boiled cabbage with salt as a treatment for colic. Chrysippus of Cnidus wrote a treatise on vegetables that described the health-promoting benefits of cabbage The women of Athens ate it after delivering a baby. Erasistratus believed it was an excellent remedy for treating paralysis. Marcus Porcius Cato (Cato the Elder) claimed it could cure most if not all diseases.
Cabbage was often served at the beginning of a meal because it was believed to protect the one who ate it from drunkeness.
There were three main kinds of cabbage in ancient times: silken-leaved, curled, and the round white cabbage. The leafy varieties, similar to kale, were called caulis in Latin. The headed varieties were brassica.
Cabbage heads were preserved for later use by pickling. The heads were divided into 6 to 8 parts, blanched by briefly placed in boiling water, and plunged into salted vinegar to rapidly quench the cooking process.
Cauliflower was preserved by drying. First the leaves were stripped and the cauliflower cut into slices. The slices were blanched (boiled for about two minutes in salted water). After draining, they were sun-dried for two or three days. This was followed by additional drying in a warm oven until the stalks were completely dry.
Apicius provides a number of ways to prepare cabbage. Here are two of them.
Caulis (Cabbage Stalks and Leaves)
Cut stalks in half and boil them.
Mash the leaves and season with coriander, onion, cumin, pepper, a little oil, and *raisin wine or **condensed wine.
Cymas et Cauliculos (“Spherical Layers” and Shoots)
Boil the young cabbage and sprouts and drain.
Season with cumin, salt, wine, and oil.
Pepper, lovage, mint, rue, and/or coriander may be added if desired.
Stew the tender leaves of the stalks in broth. Season with wine and oil.
* Raisins are just dehydrated grapes, so perhaps any red wine or red-wine substitute will be fine in this recipe. There were two special types of Roman wine that might be “raisin” wine since they were made from partly dehydrated grapes. Passum was made from grapes that were spread in the sun until they were reduced by half in weight. Dulce was made by drying the grapes in the sun for three days and crushing them with the feet on the fourth day.
For non-alcoholic substitutes, see this list of substitutes for wine.
**Condensed wine has been heated to reduce its volume.
Apicius. Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome. Edited and translated by Joseph Dommers Vehling. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1977.
Soyer, Alexis. Food, Cookery, and Dining in Ancient Times: Alexis Soyer’s Pantropheon. Mineola NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2004.