So one of our readers asked us this question the other day, What is the earliest recipe we have that can be recreated today?
As far as I can make out, the oldest written recipe is for beer. It is contained in a Sumerian hymn to the goddess of beer, Ninkasi.
You can read the translation of the hymn here, at the Electronic Text Corpus.
I’ll copy the above translation here:
A hymn to Ninkasi (Ninkasi A)
1-4. Given birth by the flowing water ……, tenderly cared for by Ninḫursaĝa! Ninkasi, given birth by the flowing water ……, tenderly cared for by Ninḫursaĝa!
5-8. Having founded your town upon wax, she completed its great walls for you. Ninkasi, having founded your town upon wax, she completed its great walls for you.
9-12. Your father is Enki, Lord Nudimmud, and your mother is Ninti, the queen of the abzu. Ninkasi, your father is Enki, Lord Nudimmud, and your mother is Ninti, the queen of the abzu.
13-16. It is you who handle the …… and dough with a big shovel, mixing, in a pit, the beerbread with sweet aromatics. Ninkasi, it is you who handle the …… and dough with a big shovel, mixing, in a pit, the beerbread with sweet aromatics.
17-20. It is you who bake the beerbread in the big oven, and put in order the piles of hulled grain. Ninkasi, it is you who bake the beerbread in the big oven, and put in order the piles of hulled grain.
21-24. It is you who water the earth-covered malt; the noble dogs guard it even from the potentates (?). Ninkasi, it is you who water the earth-covered malt; the noble dogs guard it even from the potentates (?).
25-28. It is you who soak the malt in a jar; the waves rise, the waves fall. Ninkasi, it is you who soak the malt in a jar; the waves rise, the waves fall.
29-32. It is you who spread the cooked mash on large reed mats; coolness overcomes ……. Ninkasi, it is you who spread the cooked mash on large reed mats; coolness overcomes …….
33-36. It is you who hold with both hands the great sweetwort, brewing it with honey and wine. Ninkasi, it is you who hold with both hands the great sweetwort, brewing it with honey and wine.
37-40. 1 line fragmentary You …… the sweetwort to the vessel. Ninkasi, ……. You …… the sweetwort to the vessel.
41-44. You place the fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound, appropriately on top of a large collector vat. Ninkasi, you place the fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound, appropriately on top of a large collector vat.
45-48. It is you who pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Ninkasi, it is you who pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates.
The poem, as far as I can make out, is dated to ~1800 BC.
The beer would have been very different to what we would drink today, there would have been a lot of floaty things in there, and you would have drunk it with a straw to strain those out, as seen in the above cylinder seal impression from the Ur III period, which dates to roughly 2100 BC.
There have in fact been attempts to recreate this beer, as you can read in this article here, most notably by the Anchor Brewing Company. Unfortunately, the beer is unsuitable for bottling, as it is not designed to keep a long time, so you won’t find it in stores today.
There’s some very interesting stuff in “Uncorking The Past” by Professor Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania. McGovern works on chemical analysis of the residues left behind in ancient drink-containers – jugs, amphorae etc from the Neolithic onwards to the Bronze Age, with a particular focus on alcoholic drinks.
McGovern often collaborates with local microbreweries in Philadelphia to try and recreate ancient beers, wines and grogs (combinations of the two). So, for example, he worked on the bowls and jugs discovered in the Phrygian “Midas Tomb” (which many now think was the tomb of Midas’ father), which date from the 8th Century BC. Having worked out approximately what was in the containers from chemical/biological traces, he went to Dogfish Brewery and now they manufacture a recreation. It’s called Midas Touch beer. Necessarily, with these things, there’s some element of guesswork. I believe that in Midas Touch they couldn’t work out what the souring agent had been so they took an educated guess at saffron.
McGovern isn’t the only guy who does this, and “Uncorking the Past” has numerous examples of other academics in the field home-brewing a recreation of their discoveries.
Obviously none of this is working from written recipes. So I apologize for adding this.
If you are looking for the earliest recipe for a meal (soup, stew, etc.), the oldest European collection of recipes is De re coquinaria (“Of Culinary Things”), also known as Apicius, which was collated in the 4th/5th century CE and repeatedly reissued and translated and copied throughout the mediaeval period. You can read its translation here. There are tons of recipes in there, many of which seem palatable to us nowadays, and some which might not.
An example: A dish of Scallops (Isicia Ex Spondylis)[Lightly] cook scallops [or the firm part of oysters] remove the hard and objectionable parts, mince the meat very fine, mix this with cooked spelt and eggs, season with pepper, [shape into croquettes and wrap] in caul, fry, underlay a rich fish sauce and serve as a delicious entrée.
After Apicius, most of the stuff we have is from the late mediaeval period, for example the first known collection of recipes in English, The Forme of Cury (“The Way of Cookery”) compiled in late Middle English around 1390, reportedly by the cooks of Richard II. Again, some nice looking stuff, such as this French toast kind of thing: Toastie
Take wine and honey and mix them together and skim, and leave to sit for a long time before adding powdered ginger, pepper and salt. Toast bread and put the mixture on it. Grind pieces of ginger, cover the bread with it and serve.