Sicily’s “medieval” beef roll


Farsumagru image courtesy of anwarnieninqe on Flickr.

If you read my post about the 12th century Crusader king food challenge I am putting together for an SCA event in November, you’ll know that I am on the hunt for recipes. A post to the Known Worlde Cooks List, an e-mail list for SCA cooks all over the world, brought a slew of ideas and book and article links from Johnnae Ilyn Lewis. I also did more poking around in the resource treasure that is Stefan’s Florilegium. And I think I have come up with a dish that could work for Richard I’s table.

There is a traditional Sicilian beef recipe called “farsumagru,” The name translates as “false lean,” and could be a pun on the appearance of the dish – it looks like a simple beef roll, but when you slice into it, you’ll find a rich filling that includes hardboiled eggs, cheeses, and meats. This Website gives another interpretation of the name, and says the dish was “invented” in the 19th century by the French-trained “monsu” chefs in wealthy Palermitan households, or it was introduced by the Spanish in the 15th century. Traditionally, mortadella (Italian bologna) or pancetta (salted, but not smoked, bacon) are used, though one version by Mario Batali includes sausage. Many versions of the recipe include pine nuts and raisins, such as this one by food writer Clifford Wright, an expert on Mediterranean cuisine.

The egg yolks struck a particular chord of memory with me, so I went looking in the Florilegium to see if there were any discussions of beef roll recipes. And there they were, several citations of a 15th century English recipe called “Alows de beef.” A large, thin piece of beef is filled with chopped-up hard boiled egg yolks, marrow, onions, and a mixture of spices (ginger, saffron, salt, pepper, and cinnamon) and is rolled up and broiled, and served with a sauce of vinegar and hardboiled egg yolks.

Here is one version of the recipe,  from the “Two 15th Century Cookery Books” manuscript.

The many versions of the farsumagru recipes share some elements in common with the Alows de beef:  the breadcrumbs, parsley, onions, and hardboiled eggs as part of the filling. But instead of using marrow as the rich, fatty ingredient in the filling,it’s mortadella or pancetta. And Alows de beef do not include the grated cheeses, while no farsumagru recipe is complete without them.

Interestingly enough (at least to me), if you check out the spices used in the two versions of mortadella available in Italy, mortadella di Bologna and mortadella di Amatrice, the flavor palette is somewhat reminiscent of the spices found in Alows de beef and many recipes of  the medieval period (the mortadella di Amatrice does contain cinnamon).

Now, would a beef roll have been on Richard I’s Christmas table? It’s definitely a possibility. Beef rolls are certainly a way to eke out meat. It was wintertime, and Richard’s and Philip’s soldiers would have been eating everything in sight around Messina, so I bet older animals would have had to been used. Taking a piece of tough meat and pounding it out flat and tender would have been economical; and stuffing it with rich spices and marrow and eggs (the latter are scarce in the winter as the hens do not lay then) would have made it fit for a king.

Now, how did this beef roll get into Sicilian cuisine? Was it the 19th century French monsu? Something from the 15th century Aragonese kings? I don’t think it really matters. Medieval noble cuisine was “pan European;” the same recipes were copied from England to Spain to France to Southern Italy. There were regional twists; recipe collections differed. But Sicily, with its waves of “invaders” and settlers – Greek, Arab, Norman French, Lombard, Swabian German, Catalan, Genovese, Aragonese, etc. – was a perfect place for some of these recipes to find a new home. And the island’s isolation and poverty (especially from the 17th century onward) helped preserve the medieval traditions in peasant kitchens that died out elsewhere.

I’m looking forward to making my medieval farsumagru!


10 responses »

  1. I am cooking a feast for my Shire’s Event in late July the theme is a boar hunt. As my persona is also Sicilian could you possible point me to a source to find some period recipes?Also if possible how could i Join the known world cooks list you mentioned

    Many Thanks

    Petrus Malavolti shire of nant-y-derwiddon, Kingdom Merides

    • Petrus, one of the difficulties of trying to cook anything for 12th century Sicily is that there are no real extant recipe books. One has to infer from the Liber de Coquina (a 1300s text attributed to the Angevin Court of Naples but more likely derived from a text sponsored by Frederick II). The Arabic dietetics also had an influence on the cuisine. You might want to read Mary Taylor Simeti’s “Pomp and Sustenance: 2,500 Years of Sicilian Food” for additional insights.

      That being said, being that the event is a boar hunt theme, you can’t go amiss with a roast boar/pig centerpiece. The Norman kings did hunt boar in the Nebrodi Mountains. And they loved their roasted meats.

      The cooks’ list can be subscribed to at

  2. I agree with the roast boar, and this was my first plan however the autocrat nixed the idea. i am guessing they were nervous as to the possibllity of something going amiss and losing a major portion of feast as well as the expense. ( loss not particularly the cost) . many thanks for the book titles i will off in search for them very soon also than kyou for the link to the known world cooks list.

    P. Malavolti .

    • Petrus, I understand; one of the baronies around here has had pretty good success with roasting a pig, though. Here are some suggestions for other meat dishes: baked chickens with the sweet-and-sour dressing based on sarde beccafico (see my later post); or rabbit or chicken stewed in a sweet and sour sauce (rabbit in sweet and sour sauce is classically Sicilian but rabbit may turn off many feasters; in any case, chicken is an adequate substitute); or the alows de beef rolls, a truly medieval recipe (and an economic meat dish). Sicily has long had its own version of frumenty, called “cuccia.” Instead of cracked wheat, it is made with wheat berries (durum wheat berries called “grano”). There are sweet versions of cuccia (sweetened with ricotta cream) and also “cuccia salata,” a savory version (onions, oil, cheeses, salt, pepper). Furthermore, the Liber de coquina is being attributed by one scholar as having origins with Frederick II, grandson of Roger II and heavily indebted to the food traditions of Sicily and the Arabicized court of Palermo. You may be better off going with recipes from there – but do check out my pasticcio recipe!

  3. the long winding road to feast continues. The shire was gifted a goat so i was told the feast now required a goat dish as well .. after much thought i decided to go the kabab route with that. also i found a marsala wine custard recipe that is a bit more northern but should suffice well enough. I may take a page from your book however and submit some sicillian recipes as A&S pieces.
    If i recall correctly i believe our shire had rabbit for feast last may. it was an interesting experiance but somethign that may need to be revistied. i am now off to find your pasticco recipe 🙂

    P. Malavolti

    P.s Thanks again for the known world cooks list .. that is quite the nice resource

    • Petrus, I think the choice you made for the goat is a good one.

      As far as the custard goes – instead of a Marsala custard, try wheat berries mixed with strained, sweetened ricotta topped with something called “vin cotto.”

      Here’s a little more information about vin cotto:

      And here is an excellent Apulian version of the wheatberry pudding recipe:

      This is a high-class version of cuccia, a traditional Sicilian pudding served on the feast of Santa Lucia. Although the tendency to eat cuccia on this day is hooked to a 17th century miracle, it’s really just a form of frumenty, and I think it has Greek origins.

      You can probably make your own version of vin cotto from a good-quality grape juice.

      • Oh holy god!!! Just reiceved notice that royalty will be at our event . Might I go ahead and add that this is my first feast….. challenge accepted.

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