Rice Bread in Sixteenth-Century Italy

By Lena Breda

While scholars are broadening our understanding of food in early modern Italy, one curiously absent ingredient from such pictures is rice. Rice (or oryza sativa) is hypothesized to have been brought to Europe as early as 400 BCE [1], used more as medicine than as a culinary ingredient. The European consumption and cultivation of rice, however, increased rapidly in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as eastern trade networks faltered following the Ottoman Empire’s capture of Constantinople in 1453 [2]. Aided by contemporary improvements in irrigation, sixteenth-century Italian farmers from across the peninsula took to their soils to grow this increasingly popular grain.

Although there is much to be uncovered regarding the ‘Rice Renaissance’ of the sixteenth-century, one area for further research is its cause. While there may have been the necessary land and technology for rice cultivation, such features do not explain why Italians decided to start cultivating rice as opposed to any other crop.

One possible motivation yet unexplored by historians is the contemporary lack of wheat. Wheat—specifically wheat bread—was the cornerstone of pre-modern Italian diets; its absence was detrimental for urban society. Sixteenth-century Italy suffered a series of wheat shortages as a result of inclimate weather, forcing many to find suitable alternatives. Contemporary accounts praising the abundant harvest and agricultural fortitude of rice suggest these were considered important benefits, possibly indicating why rice’s cultivation grew in this period. Rice, resistant to soil erosion and cold weather, may have proved an appealing and reliable alternative to wheat during harvest crises.

Relatedly, grain fraud petrified sixteenth-century Italians during famines. As bread prices surged, fears that bakers substituted wheat with alternatives (but charged the same price) verged on paranoia. Many sixteenth-century Italians recount how contemporaries would make hybrid loaves during famines, combining numerous grains together including beans, millet, oats—and rice. Given the simultaneous shortage of wheat and increasing cultivation of rice, is it possible bakers made rice breads that would have passed as wheat?

Reading numerous such mentions of rice bread, I asked myself: is this even feasible? Would rice bread be a presentable or edible product? Could these accounts be merely impracticable exaggerations? Therefore, I conducted an experiment to see if rice bread could be crafted, and whether it would be aesthetically pleasing, delicious, and mistakable for a pure-wheat bread.

As other contributors have noted, it is impossible to recreate a historical recipe exactly given the difference in ingredients, tools, and training. Despite these deviations, my experiment would still allow me to observe whether rice bread could be executed in practice or whether such accounts were myth.

For this experiment, I based my recipe off of Giovanni Battista Segni’s Discorso sopra la carestia e fame (1591). In this text, Segni recounts famine in his life and in history, and describes various ingredients in terms of their role during food shortages. While he does not include a classic ‘recipe’ for rice bread, Segni describes the proportions people would use to increase the size of their bread loaves without more wheat flour. Segni writes that for every 30 pounds of “grain” (presumably wheat) flour, they would add three pounds of rice flour with hot water (41).

Based on this proportion, I modified a bread recipe to substitute 10% of the wheat flour with rice flour and see if that modified the final size, taste, and appearance of the bread loaf. For comparison, I also created a 100% wheat and 100% rice flour loaf.

Control Recipe

Segni-Hybrid Loaf

Pure Rice Loaf

      ●         200 g wheat

      ●         4 g salt (2%)

      ●         7 g yeast (2.5%)

      ●         120 g water (60%)

      ●         5 g sugar (.005)

      ●         Drizzle of oil

      ●         181 g wheat flour

      ●         18 g rice flour

      ●         4 g salt

      ●         7 g yeast

      ●         120 g water

      ●         5 g sugar

      ●         Drizzle of oil

      ●         200 g rice flour

      ●         4 g salt

      ●         7 g yeast

      ●         120 g water

      ●         5 g sugar

      ●         Drizzle of oil


While creating the loaves, I was forced to modify the base recipes due to the nature of the ingredients. While the control and hybrid loaves followed the planned recipes, the pure rice dough needed much more water. Likely due to the lack of gluten, the pure rice mixture was oilier and crumblier, creating a mass that felt more like wet sand than supple bread dough.

After letting the loaves rest, the two wheaten ones had risen nicely (the pure wheat somewhat more than the hybrid) while the rice loaf appeared the same after forty minutes. Once baked, the rice loaf was very white but very wrinkled, and had barely grown in size. The other two loaves, however, had risen, browned, and were nearly identical.

Upon tasting, it was clear that a 100% pure rice loaf would be unable to pass as wheat bread. The flavor was very bland, but the clearest problem was the texture. Incredibly hard and crumbly, the rice loaf was nearly impossible to slice. This result corroborates some sixteenth-century authors who remark on the heaviness of rice bread. Indeed, the rice bread was substantially heavier than the others: 318 grams while the wheat loaf was 306g and the hybrid was 304g. Its greater weight was likely caused by the additional water I added to form a workable dough. On the other hand, the hybrid was a near doppelganger of the wheat loaf. In fact, both were so identical I had to be attentive to not confuse them. Their interchangeability was underscored by the fact that there was no rice flavor in the hybrid loaf.

While my experiment was unable to corroborate Segni’s assertion that a 10% rice flour loaf would be larger or heavier, it did confirm that it would be possible to substitute without detection some rice flour for wheat in grain scarcity. This experiment also demonstrates that rice substitutions could not occur in a complete absence of wheat given the inability to create a successful 100% rice loaf. While these results do not prove conclusively that famines contributed to the rise in rice cultivation during the sixteenth-century, they do suggest that rice would have been an appealing alternative to wheat during such shortages. My experiment also confirms that rice flour substitutions could occur unbeknownst to the buyer, given that the hybrid and wheat loaves were near identical. Moreover, both findings present the value of remaking as a mode of historical analysis.

[1]: For more on rice’s history before its arrival to Europe, read: Chang, Te-Tzu, “Rice,” The Cambridge World History of Food (2000), 132-149.

[2]: For more on Italy’s historical relationship and cultivation of rice, consult: Bevilacqua, Piero, Tra natura e storia: ambiente, economie, risorse in Italia (Rome: Donzelli, 1996), 39-48.

A Snake Oil from Tenth Century al-Andalus

Illustrations of snakes in an Arabic version of Dioscorides' Materia medica (Kitāb al-Ḥašāʾiš). Leiden University Ms. Or. 289, fol. 60b, http://hdl.handle.net/1887.1/item:1578609
Illustrations of snakes in an Arabic version of Dioscorides’ Materia medica (Kitāb al-Ḥašāʾiš). Leiden University Ms. Or. 289, fol. 60b, http://hdl.handle.net/1887.1/item:1578609

Leonie Rau

Historians of medicine might know him as Abulcasis, the ‘Father of Surgery,’ but Andalusian physician Abū al-Qāsim Khalaf Ibn al-‘Abbās al-Zahrāwī (936–1013) wrote about much more than the inner workings of the human body. As Katarzyna Gromek has explored in her post on “Treating winter ailments – recreating three recipes from al-Andalus in the Iberian Peninsula,” al-Zahrāwī devoted parts of his famed Kitab al-Taṣrīf li-man ‘aǧiza ‘an al-ta’līf  (“The Book of Management for Those who are Unable to Compose”) to topics such as perfumes. At the time these were understood not necessarily as sensorially pleasing fragrances, but as remedies used to treat illnesses.

The book furthermore contains pharmaceutical chapters dealing with compound drugs such as stomachics, laxatives, eye-salves, and various oils. While most of his recipes for distilling and infusing oils call for ingredients like rose petals, bitter almonds, or basil, two of his formulas read as fairly peculiar to the modern eye.

The first of these is a literal snake oil, and al-Zahrāwī offers not one but two methods for its extraction, translated from the Arabic below:

Take three parts sesame oil and pour into a ceramic pot. Throw in five to ten black vipers, depending on their size. Close the pot’s lid and cook on a small flame. Take off the fire and leave to cool a little. Then open the lid, careful of the steam, and leave until it has cooled completely and the vapour is gone. Strain into a bottle and use as we have described by brushing it [onto the skin] with a brush. If you see that it causes harm, stop using it, then take it up again until it cures you, God willing.

Another method of extracting snake oil is to “cast [the vipers] into boiling water and to cook them until they fall apart. Then gather the oil from the water’s surface and store it. When it is needed, mix the oil with a bit of sesame oil and use, for it is stronger, God willing.[i]”

According to al-Zahrāwī, this snake oil is “useful against anything similar to leprosy when applied to [the skin].”

Viper flesh has a long history of being included in so-called theriacs—cure-alls and antidotes supposedly effective against all sorts of poisons, in use from antiquity up until the 19th century—because it was thought that viper flesh contained a cure to the snakes’ own poison. While there is no modern scientific basis for any of these claims, medical practitioners like Galen believed that theriacs containing viper flesh were effective against leprosy.

As if snake oil wasn’t odd enough, al-Zahrāwī immediately follows this recipe with an oil made from flying ants:

Take a thousand flying ants and soak in one pound of white lily oil. Leave in the hot sun for two weeks and use as an oil rub.[ii]

Some ant species do have medicinal properties, with one even being used to suture wounds, but otherwise most effects found through the medicinal use of ants are related to the insects’ venom. Even if al-Zahrāwī does not specify where exactly on the body this oil is to be rubbed, his indication that it is “useful for arousal” might give us a rough idea.

We luckily find clarification in a similar recipe, listed by Persian philosopher and scholar Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (1201–1274) in his Kitāb Albāb al-bāhīya wa-l-tarkīb al-sulṭānīya (translated by Daniel L. Newman as The Sultan’s Sex Potions), which assembles a variety of aphrodisiacs and sexual stimulants apparently in use in the medieval Arabic-speaking world.

Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī  directed the reader to use just a hundred regular black ants instead of al-Zahrāwī’s thousand flying ants, and calls for “blue liquorice oil” instead of lily oil, but otherwise describes a similar preparation. He does, however, explain that it is to be used “on your fingers, teeth, armpits and elbows,” so that, “[e]ven if you were to engage in coitus with ten women during the night, you would not be incapacitated.”[iii]

It can only be hoped that al-Zahrāwī’s readers were somehow aware of these directions for the administration of this oil, since we can (hopefully!) only speculate what a flying ant oil might feel like when applied to one’s private parts.


[i] I would like to thank Timo Blocksdorf for his help in deciphering the uses of viper flesh, and Nicolas Hintermann for his feedback on this text.
Hamarneh, Sami, and Glenn Sonnedecker, A Pharmaceutical View of Abulcasis Al-Zahrāwī in Moorish Spain. With Special Reference to the „Adhān“ (Leiden: Brill, 1963), p. 84, my translation.

[ii] Hamarneh, Sami, and Glenn Sonnedecker, A Pharmaceutical View of Abulcasis Al-Zahrāwī in Moorish Spain. With Special Reference to the „Adhān“ (Leiden: Brill, 1963), p. 84, my translation.

[iii] aṭ-Ṭūsī, Naṣīr al-Dīn, The Sultan’s Sex Potions. Arab Aphrodisiacs in the Middle Ages [Kitāb Albāb al-bāhīya wa-l-tarkīb al-sulṭānīya]. ed., tr., and introduced by Daniel L. Newman (London: Saqi Books, 2014), p. 118f.


Leonie Rau is a master’s student in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Tübingen, Germany. She is currently writing her thesis on a medieval Arabic pharmacological manuscript and plans to pursue a PhD after her graduation.She also writes and edits for ArabLit and ArabLit Quarterly and can be found on Twitter @Leonie_Rau_.

Treating winter ailments – recreating three recipes from al-Andalus in the Iberian Peninsula

Katarzyna Gromek

Winter in medieval al-Andalus varied from the rainy, foggy, and cool season in Córdoba to snowy freezing weather in regions at higher elevations. The winter dampness seemingly aggravated stomach ailments in the general population and caused excessive weakness among some of the elderly inhabitants.

Image 1. View of Old Town and the Mezquita de Cordoba, Córdoba Spain. Image credit – Julia Kostecka, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The famous physician from eleventh century Córdoba, Abū al-Qāsim Khalaf ibn al-‘Abbās al-Zahrāwī al-Ansari, also known as Al-Zahrawi or Abulcasis, included several recipes for fragrant remedies to treat winter ailments in his work on medicine, Kitāb al-Taṣrīf. The three recipes described below are included in volume nineteen, part one, which is dedicated to perfumery. There was little difference between fragrance and medication well into the early modern period, and pleasant odors were used both to treat diseases and to satisfy and stimulate the desire for luxury products.[1]

First, let us have a look at lakhlakhah, a moist compound paste used for rubbing on the body after bathing.[2] Abulcasis mentioned that this recipe was first recommended by Yuhanna ibn Masawaih (Mesue) for the treatment of patients suffering from a stomachache or from excessive cold in winter.

The ingredients, cloves, Ceylon cinnamon, nut grass, mastic resin, wormwood, Indian spikenard, agarwood, costus, sweet flag, and green cardamom, are crushed, ground to powder and sifted. Next, enough boiling water is poured over the aromatics to form a paste which is left to steep overnight. Then powdered saffron threads and lily ben (moringa) oil are mixed into the paste. The paste is worked into a flattened ball shape and fumigated with high-quality agarwood for several hours.

To scent the lakhlakhah paste, I set up an experimental apparatus for fumigation of compound fragrance ingredients, consisting of a pottery bowl, a pierced cast iron tray, a large ceramic pot that holds the aromatics for censing, and a source of heat. Apartment living requires some creative approach for the use of open fire, and the tea light candles with lead-free wicks are the best substitute for use of charcoal or hot ashes.

Image 2. Fumigation setup for the lakhlakhah paste.

I re-kneaded the paste every time I added fresh agarwood for fumigation. After twenty-four hours of censing, I formed smaller spheres from the paste, and continued fumigation for another twenty-four hours. [See: Video 1. Fumigation with agarwood]


This lakhlakhah is very soft and easy to rub on wet skin. I cannot vouch for its therapeutic properties, but the scent is definitively pleasant, very spicy and musky.

Image 3. Small lakhlakhah spheres after the fumigation process is finished.

Another concoction I attempted to recreate is muthallatheh, which reminds me of modern vapor rub.[3] First, I ground some saffron threads and soaked them overnight in musky rosewater which I distilled beforehand. The muskiness of the rosewater comes from the addition of crushed ambrette seeds (Abelmoschus moschatus), a plant-derived replacement for deer musk grains. Ground Borneo camphor from Dryobalanops aromatica was also added to the saffron soak. The next day, I crushed and ground costus, agarwood, and dark white sandalwood (sandalwood comes in several varieties of colors and odors depending on the tree types). These rare aromatics formed the base for muthallatheh. I mixed the prepared aromatics with the saffron and camphor infused rosewater and worked it into a paste which was spread in a thin layer on a ceramic plate. I dried it under the cover of loosely woven linen.

Image 4. Mixing the base aromatics with the rosewater infused with saffron and camphor, and the drying process.

Once dried, I ground the base again, mixed it with hot cooked honey (cooking honey removes water which prevents spoilage) and worked it into a thick paste. I shaped small spheres which were rolled in a mixture of ground saffron and camphor.

Image 5. Rolling the muthallatheh spheres in powdered saffron threads and Borneo camphor.

These fragrant spheres were used as a medicated incense preparation or smeared directly on the chest to aid breathing in case of congestion. They have a very pungent but pleasant odor, and it is easy to understand why they were used as a treatment for colds.

The third preparation is dharīrah, a scented powder that can be used as incense, sprinkled on the clothes and body, or kept in a sachet. This recipe is known as the recipe of Al-Jafarieh ( a place or personal name). Dharīrah was known to strengthen the body organs like the brain and heart.

I started by powdering, sieving, and mixing dried rose petals, agarwood, cloves, dark white sandalwood, Indian spikenard, nutmeg, and Borneo camphor. I sewed a bag from silk fabric (tightly woven Japanese silk works well for fine powders) and transferred the powder to it.

Image 6. Making the dharīrah powder bag.

The dharīrah needs to mature, and this is done by fumigation. The aromatic for censing in the summer was camphor, and in the winter it was deer musk grains. I splurged on this recipe and used a mixture of ambrette seeds and true deer musk grains (which are harvested from farmed male deer without killing the animals). Since the musk is quite sensitive to heat, it was placed on top of a little bowl placed upside down.

Image 7. Fumigation of the bag containing powdered aromatics.

I gently mixed the bag’s contents every three hours, for a total of twenty-four hours of fumigation. [See: Video 2. Fumigation of the dharīrah powder]

The odor is so intense that even if this silk bag is stored inside a closed plastic bag, it doesn’t prevent the scent from escaping. This scent brings me great joy, so most likely this was the beneficial property of dharīrah.

These fragrances were made as part of my ongoing project in experimental archaeology of fragrances, and as such, they have no known therapeutic properties. All effects as experienced by me and a group of my volunteer testers were subjective.

Katarzyna Gromek is a molecular biologist who studies bacterial proteins involved in regulation of cell cycle.

Her passion is experimental archaeology of beauty products. She is interested in how beauty products were made and used across time and cultures.  She recreates fragrances and cosmetics from Europe and Asia, from the Bronze Age to early seventeenth century. She sources her recipes from extant texts, ranging from materia medica works and cookbooks to “books of secrets” and analysis of bioorganic material from excavations.

[1] Hamerneh, Sami K. “The first known independent treatise on cosmetology in Spain.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 39(4) (1965):309-325.

[2] King, Anya. Scent from the Garden of Paradise: Musk and the Medieval Islamic World. Leiden Boston: Brill, 2017, 272-283.

[3] Khatib, Chadi. “Aromatherapy rules as mentioned in the ancient Arabic manuscripts (Albucasis as example).”  Journal of Pharmaceutical Toxicology 1(1) (2018):1.







From the Archive: A New Year’s Recipe from Old Prussia

As we prepare to enthusiastically welcome a new year (and say good riddance to 2020), I would love to revisit a wonderful recipe for celebratory cakes. In this piece that originally published in 2014, Molly Taylor-Poleskey notes that honey cakes commemorated the ending of the plague and the arrival of a new era. Let us all toast spiced cakes and lebkuchen to bring in the new year! –R.A. Kashanipour

by M. Taylor-Poleskey

Handschrift Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg Amb. 279.2°, Folio 11 verso (Landauer I)
The Lebküchner, Handschrift Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg Amb. 279.2°, Folio 11 verso (Landauer I).

By Molly Taylor-Polesky

In the winter of 1397, the effects of plague were finally beginning to lift in Königsberg, Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia). The citizens, grateful that the Lord’s wrath had been appeased through their suffering and prayer, made honey cakes. They formed the cakes into deer, rabbits and people and laid them on warm oven tiles to harden. In the afternoon of New Year’s Day they carried the cakes to their neighbors with the wish that God would bless them with long life and health.

This story is recounted by Lucas David in his Prussian Chronicle (Preußische Chronik) of 1575 (p. 25–7).  David, a Protestant convert, was employed by the Duke of Prussia to revise Prussian history without the Catholic slant. He used this story about local customs to jump into a diatribe against the 1564 ordinance by the Catholic French king Charles IX that the year begin on January 1, not on Christmas. (January 1 was later also confirmed as the first day of the year by Pope Gregory’s calendar of 1582.)

The traditional New Year’s cake survived dynastic changes at the court in Prussia and was still being made there in the seventeenth century, when the Hohenzollern were Dukes of Prussia. Palace kitchen accounts from the years 1631, 1646, 1651-2, and 1655 record as much as 24 quarts of honey being used specifically for “the New Year’s dough.”[1] The court was not in residence at the palace in Königsberg over New Years in all of these years, which suggests that the cakes were not for the court itself but rather were gifts either for remaining palace servants or citizens of the town.

Even when the old Julian calendar was abandoned in the Protestant lands of the Holy Roman Empire, the honey cake remained a New Year’s tradition in Prussia-it simply migrated to the new calendar date. The 18th-century lexicographer Johann Georg Krünitz described a “Leib=kuchen (a variant name of the aforementioned honey cake) that “in some regions, for example, Prussia, was a round bread of fine wheat flour that was baked for New Year’s and either sold or given as a gift.” Krünitz continued by relating a superstition associated with the bread in which the name of the intended recipient would be written on a slip of paper and placed atop the loaf before baking. If the loaf cracked, it was an omen that the named person would die in the coming year, which eerily harks back to the role of the cake during the uncertain time of the plague.

In Königsberg in the medieval and early modern period, the honey cake took on religious and communal meanings, which changed in conjunction with other historical shifts. Ultimately, it was not the date, or the religious conflict, or cake’s role in the thanksgiving ritual that mattered. The traditions varied, but the honey cake remained.

Today, the Nuremberg recipe for Lebkuchen is the most famous of this type of spice cake and it is undoubtedly associated with the Christmas holiday in Germany. The East Prussian honey cake is all but forgotten, but recipes can still found online–and perhaps among descendants of displaced Prussians.

[1] Geheimes Staatsarchiv, Preußische Kulturbesitz, XX. H.A. Ostpreuss. Folianten. Current-day measurements estimated for “24 Stof” of honey based on Wolfgang Heidecke. “Alte Maße Altpreußens.” Altpreußische Geschlechterkunde 13 (1939): 22–23, 53–54, and 92.

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