Ancient Soups

Chances are if your fantasy characters are in a pseudo-medieval setting that they’ll be eating soup.  The term soup derives from an post-classical Latin verb suppare (“soak”), which was borrowed from the German root “sup,” from which we get the modern English words sup and supper. This Latin term gave us the noun suppa, which passed into Old French as soupe, Italian as zuppa, and German and Danish as suppe. The terms sop or sup, which evolved into the word soup, refer to ancient practice of pouring broth over bread or toast, which is where the modern idea of croutons comes from.  This piece of bread was what was used to eat the soup by sopping it up, rather than using a spoon.  Before the term soup came along, it was more commonly known as pottage or broth, an example being pease pottage, which I will further describe for you later in this post. In the Middle Ages the meal at the end of a typical day was the lighter of the two meals of the day, and was often soup.  “In fact it was precisely because of the normal inclusion of a sop in this end-of-the-day meal that it became called ‘souper’ or ‘supper.’”[1]

The practice of combining various ingredients in a large pot to create a simple, nutricious, filing food is very ancient.  Soup, stews, pottages, porridges, and gruels evolved according to local ingredients and tastes.  Here is an ancient Egyptian recipe for ful medames, a soup that dates back to the Pharaonic ages:[2]

1 ½ lb dried ful, fava or broad beans

2 – 4 crushed cloves of garlic

Soak beans for 12 hours. Put in a saucepan, cover with water, and bring to a boil.  Simmer until tender.  Drain and add crushed garlic.  Season and serve hot.

Plants or meat could be added to soups like this. Such gruels or porridges are still staple foods in many parts of the world.  Here is an ancient Mesopotamian recipe for goat soup:

“Head, legs, and tail should be singed before putting [them in] the pot to boil. Bring water to a boil.  Add fat, onions, samidu, leeks, garlic, some blood [from the goat], some fresh cheese.  Beat the whole together.”[3] 

“Pease pottage can be traced back to recipes brought to Britain by the ancient Romans. Here is an ancient Roman recipe for dried peas with leaks:

“Soak and boil the peas. When the froth has been skimmed off, put in leeks, coriander and cumin. Pound pepper, lovage, caraway, dill, fresh basil, moisten with liquamen, blend with wine and liquamen (add to the peas) bring to a boil. When it boils, stir. If something is wanted add and then serve.” [5] Liquamen was a favorite Roman sauce, made from fermented anchovies.

Pease pottage was one of many Medieval dishes based on cereals, which were mainstays for many people for many centuries.  Pottage comes from the French “potage” (“something cooked in a pot”), and is the word from which the English word “porridge” comes. In Roman times, Apicius gave a recipe for a pottage called tisana, made of barley with 3 kinds of pulses, 8 kinds of leafy vegetables, 4 flavoring herbs, liquamen (the anchovy sauce mentioned earlier), and garnished with chopped cabbage leaves.  Poor people in ancient Roman Britain would have lived mostly on coarse, unleavened flat bread and bean or pea pottage with the occasional additon of meat. In the Middle Ages, and especially in Britain, pottages were eaten by everyone. The simplest kinds were cereal pottages: oatmeal in the north, barley, rye or wheat frumenty in the south.  To the rich these dishes were an accompaniment to meat.  To the poor they were complete meals. Pease pottage reflects the British preference for pease over other pulses.  The French called it “potage in the English style,” and it was extremely popular in Tudor and Stuart England. Pease pottage is a thick porridge originally made from the dried mealy pease that were a staple food. For poor people, pease pottage was combined with a small lump of bacon, when available, to make a simple country meal.  This was sometimes thickened with oatmeal, bread crumbs or flour.  This bacon was heavily salted and the pease pottage, made without salt, was improved by the flavor of the bacon. Wealthier people would cook young green pease in beef broth with parsley, sage, savory and hyssop.  At Lent, white pease were used, flavored with minced onions, sugar or honey and sometimes colored with saffron. 

At the beginning of the 17th century, the introduction of the pudding cloth allowed pease pudding to be made. Pease pudding was made from pease flavored with a little sugar, pepper, and sometimes mint, cooked in a pudding cloth in a simmering liquid, sometimes alongside a piece of bacon. This is the pudding referred to in the old nursery rhyme:

“Pease pudding hot.  Pease pudding cold.  Pease pudding in the pot, nine days old.”

This is my modern version of Pease Pottage:

 1 lb green and yellow split peas

1 large onion chopped

2 medium carrots peeled and chopped

1 ½ lb ham hocks, ham bone (or even a turkey leg)

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

2 teaspoons dried marjoram

1 ½ teaspoons dried thyme

½ cup fresh chopped parsley or ¼ cup dried parsley

2 bay leaves

5 cups chicken broth

6 cups water

salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot, melt the butter over a low heat.  Add the chopped onion, chopped carrots, marjoram, thyme and bay leaves.  Cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add the dried peas, chicken broth, water, Worcestershire sauce and ham hocks.  Slowly bring to a boil and simmer for 2 – 3 hours, stirring occasionally.  Take out the ham hocks or ham bone and cut the meat into small pieces, placing these pieces back in the pot.  Discard the bone and fat.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Discard the bay leaves and stir the parsley into the pot.  Pease pudding should have a puree consistency and if too sloppy raise the heat quickly to reduce the moisture.

[1] Early French Cookery, D. Eleanor Scully & Terence Scully [University of Michigan Press:Ann Arbor] 1995 (p. 102)

[2] Ancient Egyptian Recipes.

[3] Clues From The Past:  Ancient Recipes.

[4] The Complete Guide to the Art of Modern Cookery, A. Escoffier, first translation of Le Guide Culinaire [1903] by H.L. Cracknell and R.J. Kaufmann [John Wiley & Sons:New York] 1979 (p. 65)


About cuhulain

Kerr Cuhulain has been a Wiccan for 49 years and has been involved in anti-defamation activism and hate crimes investigation for the Pagan community from 1986 to 2005. Kerr was awarded the Shield of Valor by the Witches League for Public Awareness. Kerr is the author of the Law Enforcement Guide to Wicca, Witch Hunts, Wiccan Warrior, Full Contact Magick and Magickal Self Defense. Kerr has a column with 182 articles on anti-defamation issues and hate crimes on The Witches’ Voice web site called Witch Hunts. Kerr is the former Preceptor General of Officers of Avalon, an organization representing Neo-Pagan professionals in the emergency services (police, firefighters, emergency medical technicians). Kerr retired from the Vancouver Police Department in November 2005 after serving 29 years with them. He was awarded the Governor General’s Exemplary Service Medal. Kerr's past job assignments within the VPD include the Emergency Response Team, Hostage Negotiator, Child Abuse Investigator, Gang Crime Unit, and the Mental Health Emergency Services Unit. Kerr went on to be a police dispatcher and trainer for ECOMM for Southwestern BC. Kerr retired from law enforcement work in April 2013. Kerr is the founder of a Wiccan order of Knighthood called the Order of Paladins in November 2007. The Order embraces the Warrior philosophies, precepts and code of chivalry outlined in Kerr’s books. The Order of Paladins is a study group for people interested in Wiccan magick, energy work and rituals related to the Warrior path, focusing on empowerment, personal development and creative expression. The training focuses on the effective use of magickal energy and developing psychic skills. Courses are taught on line through the Ardantane School of Magick, where Kerr is on faculty. The Order of Paladins is constantly developing new rituals, and magick and studying our Warrior philosophy. Our members are spread across the globe and connect through local preceptories and on line. All members are expected to participate and contribute. Kerr is now the National Secretary of the Royal Astrononomical Society of Canada.
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5 Responses to Ancient Soups

  1. Janus says:

    I first learned about liquamen (sometimes called garum) a couple of years ago when I was looking up the origins of — of all things — ketchup, which started out in China as a fish sauce! I think the closest thing to liquamen on the market today is probably Worcestershire sauce. Unless there’s a European maker of the original recipe, somewhere. More on garum/liquamen:

  2. cuhulain says:

    And you’re right, liquamen was the precursor of Worcestershire sauce. Regards, Kerr

  3. Mar-Garet says:

    Very informative. I like this Italian saying:

    There is a saying about soups in Southern Italy that states, “Sette cose fa la zuppa,” which translates to “Soup does seven things. It relieves your hunger, quenches your thirst, fills your stomach, cleans your teeth, makes you sleep, helps you digest and colors your cheeks.” 🙂

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