Cucumber salad

A familiar recipe with a twist

Long and curved cucumbers, Pietro Andrea Mattioli, 1563One of the first modern recipes I published in the Dutch section of this website was a cucumber salad. That was back in 2002. In the following years I kept adding recipes to this page, which now contains seven recipes for cucumber salad, from all over the world. This is the first historical recipe for cucumber salad. In Dutch you can make a silly joke with the word 'komkommersla' which I will not explain here. The title on the Dutch page for this recipe is the butt of the joke.

The Geoeffende Keuken-Meester
The historical cucumber salad was published in De geoeffende en ervaren Keuken-Meester, of de Verstandige Kok ('the practised kitchen-master, or sensible cook') from 1701, in the chapter 'Bereydinge van Salaaden' ('preparations of salads'). The book is a loose translation/adaptation of Le Cuisinier François by François Pierre La Varenne, first published in 1651. The author of the Keukenmeester does not mention La Varenne anywhere, nor does he provide us with his own name. He does describe himself as a 'zeekere Hofbediende van een Hoog Aanzienelijke Personagie' (a certain court servant of a high, distinguished personage').
In 1653, the original Cuisinier François was printed for the first time in Amsterdam, followed by six more editions that were printed in either Amsterdam or The Hague. The most recent edition dates from 1721. The Geoeffende Keuken-meester was not reprinted as often as its French counterpart. According to the Bibliotheca Gastronomica it was reprinted three times, with the final one occuring in 1760.

The Geoeffende Keuken-Meester's layout follows the courses of the meal  according to the service à la Française, just like the Cuisinier François. This arrangement of the meal was used from the seventeenth century up to a good part of the nineteenth century. Contrary to the French edition however, the Dutch author moved all 'catholic' recipes to a separate second volume.

The first volume of the Geoeffende Keuken-Meester opens with 'pottagien of potspijzen' (soups and stews), followed by 'eerste geregten' and 'tweede geregten' (dishes for the first and second course respectively). Next are the 'tussengeregten' (dishes for meat days), then 'salaaden' (salads), and finally 'pasteyen en taarten' (pasties and pies). There are no recipes for fish. Naturally, fish was also eaten by non-catholics, but the Keuken-Meester has placed all La Varenne's recipes for fish days, Lent and Good Friday in the separate second volume. The title page of that volume declares that it contains all 'catholic' recipes, and also recipes for ailing and ill people. The last page of the same volume however announces that these recipes will be released shortly. I have no idea whether this third part was ever published.

Salad is not always raw food
The cucumber salads of Le cuisinier François are part of the chapter 'ce qui se peut trouver dans les jardins' (those things you can find in kitchen gardens). The first recipe however, is for a warm dish of cucumbers, braised in butter with onions, followed by a recipe is for pickled cucumber with cloves. The third recipe finally describes a salad in the modern sense, with raw cucumbers and onions. The Keuken-Meester added the cloves from La Varenne's second recipe to the third, wich results in a subtly spicy salad.
From the description of cucumber salads above you'll have gathered that salads in the seventeenth and eighteenth century did not necessarily have to be uncooked at all, and they could even be served as a warm dish. Both La Varenne and the Keuken-Meester offer more recipes for cooked vegetables than for raw vegetables, but even the cooked dishes are often finished off with a dash of vinegar.

De titel van de uitgave van het Dictionnaire OEconomique uit 1732.Salad in the Dictionnaire OEconomique of Chomel
In order to determine whether the authors were negligent or whether it was common practice to consider warm dishes with vegetables as salads, I checked the Dictionnaire OEconomique of Noel Chomel (1633-1712). Chomel was a priest who was interested in agriculture and he published his Dictionnaire OEconomique in 1709. The complete title of his work from the edition of 1732 can be read if you click on the picture on the left. In 1725 an English edition was published, entitled the Family Dictionary. In this English version the definition of Sallet is as follows: "in general confits of certain esculent Plants and Herbs [...], to be eaten raw or green, blanched or candied, simple and by themselves, or intermingled with others, according to the season." The French edition from 1709 does not contain the lemma Salad, but at least the third edition from 1732 (revised by P. Danjou) and the edition from 1767, revised by M. de la Marre, offer the same information as the English edition. The Dutch editions on the other hand (1743 and 1768-78), only mention uncooked salad. 
For those interested in the first cucmber-recipe of La Varenne (which is the second recipe in the Keuken-Meester): this 'sallet' consists of sliced cucumber, broiled in butter or lard or suet. La Varenne adds an onion; the Keuken-Meester adds some vinegar.

Cucumber, where are you from?
Cucumber originates from India, just as eggplants. But contrary to eggplants, cucumbers were already known in Europe during Classical times. Pliny the Elder (23-79 aD) writes in his Historia Naturalis (XIX.23) that cucumbers were a favourite food of Roman emperor Tiberius loved. During the Middle Ages on the other hand, cucumbers were eaten with caution: according to the health theory of those days they were detrimental to your health. Because cucumbers need extra care in colder regions, they were a challenge for gardeners of the rich as they had to to experiment with hothouses and nurseries. Moreover, their employers did not have to be concerned with the nutritional value of the garden vegetable which consists almost 98% of water. They had plenty of other dishes to eat.

The picture at the top of this page shows cucumbers that you won't see at the greengrocer's or the supermarket often. These are a variety called snake cucumbers. The picture is taken from the New Kreuterbuch (1563), a (German translation of an) adaptation of the Materia medica of Dioscorides (40-90 aD) by the Italian physician and botanist Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501-1577).

Always sprinkle with salt
My mother and grandmother always sprinkled salt on sliced cucumbers, and left them for half an hour in a strainer. This was to remove the bitter taste. Today most cucumbers do not need this treatment, because there are no longer any bitter cucumbers in stores. People do not like bitter food anymore.
But I still routinely sprinkle my cucumbers with salt before using them in a salad. Because, let's be honest, these bags of water hardly have any taste at all otherwise...

The original recipe
The recipe is from De geoeffende en ervaren Keuken-Meester, of de Verstandige Kok (1701, vol 1, p.242). There is no modern edition or facsimile available of this book.

Zoekt de zagstste uyt eer dat de kernen beginnen hart te worden, schiltse, en doet van het witte veel weg: snijdse dan in dunnen schijven, strooyt 'er Zout over, laatse op een Uyen met Kruydnagelen bestooken, leggen, zoo omtrent twaalf uuren staan; somtijds eens omkeeren, dan afdroogen, en met Oly, Azijn en Peper voordissen.
Heeft men geen tijd, omse zoo lang te laaten weeken, en dat men die eerder behoeft, zoo moet men der selven Sap tussen twee Schotelen uytdrukken, wanneer goed van smaak zullen weezen.
Pick the softest, before the core hardens. Peel them, and discard a lot of the white (?). Then cut them into thin slices, sprinkle salt over them, and let them rest on an onion pricked with cloves for about twelve hours, tossing once in a while. Then dry them, and serve them with oil, vinegar and pepper.
If you lack the time to steep them this long, and you need them before that, squeeze the juice out between two plates. Then they will taste good.

Seventeenth-century cucumber salad
This cucumber salad is special because of the onion-with cloves. Squeeze the cucumber very well before serving; otherwise the salad will be very watered down.
The recipe mentions 'the white' of cucmbers. I think these are the seeds. Modern cucmbers are seedless.
Side dish for 3 to 4 persons; preparation in advance 10 minutes plus 12 hours in the refrigerator; preparation 8 minutes.

Komkommersalade uit de 17de eeuwIngredients
2 (large) cucumbers
1 tsp salt
1 onion, peeled and halved
8 to 16 cloves
3 Tbsp olive oil or half olive oil and half oil with neutral taste
1 Tbsp wine vinegar
freshly ground white pepper to taste

Preparation in advance
Prick the onion halves on the round side with cloves, and place them in a bowl, flat side down.
Peel the cucumbers and slice them very thinly. Sprinkle them with salt and mix well, then put them in the bowl on top of the onion Cover the bowl with plastic foil (or a lid) and put away for twelve hours, or as long as possible. When preparing the dish for supper, start in the morning.

Drain the cucumber slices  well, using your hands to squeeze out the remaining liquid. Pat the cucumber dry with absorbent paper towels or kitchen towels washed without detergent. Discard the onion.
Make the vinaigrette with oil and vinegar, beating it until it has thickened a little. For an authentic dish you should use more vinegar than is usual today. Modern taste generally leans to less acidic dishes.

To serve
Temper the cucumber with the vinaigrette just before serving. Use one dish, or serve in individual small bowls.

All descriptions of ingredients

ClovesClove - Cloves are the unopened flower buds of the Syzygium aromaticum, a plant that originally only grew on the Maluku Islands (the 'spice Islands, Indonesia). Their shape reminded the Dutch of nails, hence the name 'kruidnagel' (spice nail). A 'nail' from the 17th/18th century (source English clove, which does not seem to have any connection with nails, derived from the French clou (de girofle), which also means 'nail'.
The trade in cloves has been turbulent. During the Middle Ages, Arabs bought the spice from local producers and sold it in Europe. In 1514 the Portuguese conquered the Maluku Islands and they held the monopoly on cloves for as long as a century. The Dutch pinched the islands in the beginning of the seventeenth century and introduced draconic measures (death penalty to the smugglers of plants) in order to prevent the growing of cloves anywhere outside of Ambon. In 1770 the very aptly named Frenchman Pierre Poivre succeeded in breaking the monopoly on cloves (and nutmeg/mace) by stealing some plants and transferring them to Mauritius and later toMadagascar.

The editions below are in my possession. Links refer to available editions.
All books mentioned on this site (with short reviews)

  • De geoeffende en ervaren Keuken-Meester, of de Verstandige Kok [...], Leiden, 1701.
  • François Pierre La Varenne, Le cuisinier françois d'apres l'édition de 1651, Facsimile edition with preface by Philip and Mary Hyman. (Houilles, 2002)
  • François Pierre, Varenne's Cookery. The French Cook; The French Pastry Chef; The French Confectioner. A modern English translation and commentary by Terence Scully. (Prospect Books, 2006) Uses the second edition from 1652
  • Noel Chomel, Dictionnaire OEconomique [...]. First edition 1709, third edition 1732 (revised by P. Danjou), 'new' edition 1767 (revised by M. de la Marre).
  • Johannes van Dam and Joop Witteveen, Koks en Keukenmeiden. Amsterdamse kookboeken uit de Gastronomische Boibliotheek en de Bibliotheek van de Universiteit van Amsterdam. Nijgh & Van Ditmar, Amsterdam, 2006
  • Joop Witteveen and Bart Cuperus, Bibliotheca Gastronomica. Eten en drinken in Nederland en België 1474-1960. Amsterdam, 1998. (2 vols + cd-rom)