I Tried Eating Like Leonardo Da Vinci

When I stumbled across some of da Vinci's favorite vegetarian recipes, I knew I had to try them. Here's how it went...

Plates of beans and almond pudding on a table.
Melissa Breyer

So, Leonardo da Vinci was, you know, pretty interesting. Not only did he like to paint, invent things, draw, sculpt, and indulge his interests in architecture, science, music, math, mountaineering, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, cartography, paleontology, and ichnology (see how much people did before they got lost in Internet rabbit holes all day?) – but by most accounts, he was also a vegetarian.

This bit of information has long been lodged in my brain and has often made me wonder this: What did a 15th-century vegetarian diet in Italy look like? Given that Treehugger is all about eating less meat for the sake of animals and the planet, this is the kind of question that sticks with me.

Well, as librarian extraordinaire Leonard Beck told The New York Times a few decades ago, the answer could be found in the 1487 edition of De Honesta Voluptate, a collection of recipes written by Bartolomeo Platina and generally considered the first cookbook. As curator of Special Collections for the Library of Congress Rare Book Room, and overseeing some 4,000 cookbooks, in particular, Beck would have known. Of the book – a copy of which was found in da Vinci's library – Beck said, ''Leonardo da Vinci didn't eat meat. He was a vegetarian. If you want to know what he ate, this is the book.''

Since I do not have a copy of that book, and I sadly can not translate Latin, I am lucky to have a copy of the next best thing: "Famous Vegetarians and their Favorite Recipes." In it, author Rynn Berry, who apparently has a knack for Latin, translated some of da Vinci's favorite recipes. Finally, my chance to eat like da Vinci!

Berry translated four recipes:

Faba in Frixorno: Literally "Beans in the Frying Pan," more poetically, Fried Figs with Beans.
Pisa in Ieiunio: Literally "Peas for a Fast," otherwise known as Peas Cooked in Almond Milk
Ius in Cicere Rubeo: Which translates to "Chick-Pea Soup"
Ferculum Amygdalinum: Literally "Almond Dish," which Berry translates to Almond Pudding.

So for my little adventure in la vida da Vinci, I decided to make Fried Figs with Beans and Almond Pudding. Doesn't that sound lovely?

Fried Figs and Beans

beans and figs

Melissa Breyer

So the instructions are a bit ... vague. Here is how Faba in Frixorno looks in Berry's book.

1 cup kidney beans
1 cup sun-dried figs
1 medium onion, chopped
Kitchen herbs (basil, thyme, rosemary)
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped fine

In a greased frying pan combine cooked beans with onions, figs, sage, garlic, and various kitchen-garden herbs. Fry well in oil, Sprinkle with aromatic herbs and serve. Serves 4.

The recipe is simple and I followed it closely, using two tablespoons of olive oil for the "grease"; and I can say that da Vinci must have been eating pretty well. Of course, my 21st-century ingredients were likely quite a bit different from his 15th-century ones – but beans, figs, and herbs are pretty straightforward. The beans give this a creamy savory base, the figs a sweet crunch, and the herbs make it all sing. (I used what we had in the garden, a lot of flowering dill, rosemary, basil, mint, and parsley.)

The nutrition details for the ingredients I used: 202 calories per serving; total fat 7 g; cholesterol 0 mg; potassium 370 mg; total carbohydrate 32 g; dietary fiber 7 g; sugars 20 g; protein 3 g; vitamin A 4% daily value; vitamin C 6% daily value; calcium 9% daily value; iron 8% daily value.

Would I make this again? Yes, I will definitely make this again, but probably use fewer figs – it was pretty sweet – and add some citrus and something spicy. I was surprised by how much I liked the kidney beans, but this would work with any number of bean varieties. I was left wondering, why isn't figs and beans more of a thing?

Next up, the pudding.

Almond Pudding

almond pudding

Melissa Breyer

Berry notes that he reduced the quantities to create six servings; as written, the recipe would have made enough for 20 servings, which would be a lot of pudding.

1 cup almonds (blanched)
3 cups soft bread cubes
1 cup sugar
4 cups water

Take a pound [the Roman pound equals twelve ounces] of blanched almonds with a loaf of bread that has had its crust removed, and pound them together in a mortar. Grind them up and blend them with fresh water and pour through a coarse-hair filter into a cooking pot. Cook in the manner directed above. Add a half-pound of sugar. This dish likes to be cooked just a little, but a thickness of the cooking liquids is indeed pleasing. Some cooks may like to add rosewater. Serves 6.

I admit that I didn't have the highest expectations for this – and I admit that I was wrong!

The instructions were not that instructive, and since out of context, the cooking "manner" remained mysterious – but I persevered.

I wasn't sure what kind of bread to use. While food historian Ken Albala once decided to grow the wheat and make his own medieval bread – which is just amazing – I just went to the bakery department at Whole Foods. I used a whole-grain boule-style loaf and removed the crust (which I turned into bread crumbs for another use).

I pestled the daylights out of the almonds and bread until it was pretty smooth. (A food processor would do wonders here – da Vinci must have had a strong pestling arm.) Alas, I do not own a coarse-hair filter; I considered a sieve, but decided I didn't want to waste all that good food pulp that would have been left behind. I knew that an unstrained mixture would make for a thicker pudding, but I have never been one to complain about thick puddings.

I tried to gauge somewhere in between "cooked just a little," and a pleasing "thickness of the cooking liquids," and simmered the mix for about 10 minutes, and then let it cool, at which point I added a splash of rosewater.

I am not sure if this is meant to be eaten warm or cold. When warm, it had kind of a porridge vibe that was OK. But after sitting in the fridge for a few hours, it was really pretty good. I mean, I wouldn't say it was like a mousse, but it set beautifully and was surprisingly, somehow, quite creamy. It was sweet, for sure; meanwhile, the flavor of the bread was quiet in the background, the almonds rose up in the middle, and the rosewater gave it purpose. It was lovely.

The nutrition details for the ingredients I used: 302 calories per serving; total fat 12 g; cholesterol 0; potassium 175 mg; total carbohydrate 45 g; dietary fiber 3 g; sugars 34 g; protein 6 g; calcium 64% daily value; iron 4% daily value.

Would I make this again? The dish may not feature prominently in my food-craving daydreams, but I would absolutely make it again, especially if I had old bread that needed to be used up. The large amount of sugar makes me cringe a bit; next time I will try less sweetening and some less refined options. Maple syrup, my go-to sweetener, might be at odds with the rosewater, but this pudding is definitely open to some experimentation.

beans and figs

Melissa Breyer

Along with the figgy beans and pudding, I also added some simple dressed greens and the rest of the fresh herbs to the meal. I am not sure if Leonardo would have, but I need leaves – and that was it! I finally got to experience an ersatz 15th-century vegetarian meal; and similar to that which da Vinci was known to enjoy, to boot. My body felt nourished, my spirit felt pleased, and for some reason, all of a sudden I wanted to start dabbling in cartography, paleontology, and ichnology...

To see more about the famous vegetarian set and their go-to meals, here's the book: "Famous Vegetarians and Their Favorite Recipes: Lives and Lore from Buddha to the Beatles"