Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Original Mediterranean Cuisine

The Original Mediterranean Cuisine |Medieval recipes for today by Barbara Santich

$9.95 PB 240 PP 1862543313 Food and Wine APN 9781862543317 Wakefield Press

In Sicily you can eat a puree of broad beans which is essentially the same as would have been eaten centuries ago. In Barcelona you might sample a dish of fried fish in a vinegary sauce, which goes back to the time of Apicus and the Roman empire. This is the original Mediterranean cuisine. In this book culinary historian Barbara Santich describes how it evolved and offers a selection of recipes from medieval Italian and Catalan manuscripts.

The Origins and Antecedents of
Italian Renaissance Cuisine
by Minowara Kiritsubo
The trumpets sound, the guests take their places and the feast begins. As it is spring, the host has chosen an area of his house for the feast that opens onto his gardens, allowing the fragrance of the flowers to perfume the air. This is augmented by the fresh willow branches which have been strewn about on the floor. The diners are seated along a narrow trestle table which has been covered with a white cloth and a decorative center runner of a handsome brocaded fabric. As the host is quite wealthy, the diners are seated on chairs rather than the stools or benches found in most homes. Each has been provided with a napkin, although a supplementary tablecloth can also be used for wiping hands or mouths. Bread has been placed on the table, as have silver salt cellars so that the guests may season their food to their own individual tastes. They have also been provided with a dish of glazed majolica emblazoned with the host’s coat of arms. Wine will be served from earthenware pitchers, which keep the beverage cool, into glass goblets. Additionally the table setting would include knives and spoons. For this particular feast, the host has also provided that new invention, the fork, which he has recently acquired from a supplier in southern Italy.

The balance and content of dishes served in each course are different from those to which we have become accustomed and would reflect the wealth and position of the host. If this were a simple, everyday meal, it might consist of a one-pot dish of meat and vegetables and a roast. As this is a very special occasion, the menu is quite extravagant. One source, the Cuoco Napolitano, describes a feast consisting of 23 courses!1 The first courses consist of appetizers of various types, designed to whet the appetites of the diners for the courses to follow. Boiled meat courses precede roasted meats, smaller roasts preceding larger ones. In other words, the order in which the dishes are served follows a well-defined code, progressing to a high point of the fanciest and most impressive of the roasts, a whole roasted peacock, complete in its feathers, with various accompaniments. The end of the feast is heralded by the appearance of sweet dishes such as fruits cooked in honey and wine, preserves of various types and "tortes."2

The cuisine of Renaissance Italy developed over many centuries and drew upon many different influences. The first, and most obvious, of these was that of ancient Rome. Anyone who has investigated the history of food and its preparation, even in a cursory manner, has encountered the works of Marcus Gavius Apicius, a Roman who dabbled in cooking, specializing in the grandiose and unusual. He delighted in preparing elaborate feasts for his friends from the upper social echelons, and his exploits are generally legendary. It is said that he once bid an exorbitant sum for a giant mullet, but was outbid by another who was willing to pay 5000 sesterces for the fish, a sum unheard of at the time.3 His creations utilized ingredients that were both rare and costly, and very complex in nature, often featuring sauces that contained numerous herbs, spices and condiments such as wine and liquamen. He collected his recipes along with his favorites from his friends' kitchens into a work called De re Coquinaria, which gives us a really good idea of the cuisine of the upper classes. The following recipe for roast boar is an example (Apicius 333):

"Prepare a heated sauce for roasted boar thus: Pepper, fried cumin, celery seed, mint, thyme, savory, safflower, roasted pine nuts or roasted almonds, honey, wine, an acetabulum of garum, and a bit of oil."4
You will note that this recipe is only for the sauce and gives no instruction for actually preparing the roast. It was assumed that the cook using the recipe already knew how to do this. Other Roman writers also provided a glimpse of what their cuisine was like. References may be found in the work, Appendix Vergiliana, which contains a poem about a farmer, describing his diet.5 The foods mentioned here are peasant foods, and therefore much simpler than the extravagant feast dishes of Apicius. However, it is surprising that many of these dishes have survived all sorts of mayhem to be part of our modern cuisine. Consider the following description for a cheese spread (Appendix Vergiliana, Moretum):6

Four garlic cloves, celery, rue, coriander, salt grains, and cheese.
A delicious spread can be made by simply blending these ingredients, using ricotta cheese. For modern taste, I recommend cutting back on the amount of garlic as this tends to be VERY strong.

Another very well-known Roman, Cato the Censor, wrote a treatise, de Agricultura, which contained a number of classic dishes, again from the simpler peasant diet.7 Included in his work is a recipe for an early version of a cheese cake (Cato 84):

Make a savillum thus: Mix 1/2 libra of flour and 2 1/2 librae of cheese, as is done for libum. Add 1/4 libra of honey and 1 egg. Grease an earthenware bowl with oil. When you have mixed the ingredients well, pour into the bowl and cover the bowl with an earthenware testo. See that you cook it well in the middle where it is highest. When it is cooked, remove the bowl, spread with honey, sprinkle with poppy, put it back underneath the testo for a moment, and then remove. Serve it thus with a plate and spoon.8
After the fall of Rome, many of the manuscripts containing information about Roman cuisine were lost, as was the case with other writings as well, though much of the Graeco-Roman culture, including many recipes, continued to be used in Constantinople. People in western Europe at this time were more concerned with mere survival than elaborate ways to prepare their food. Some remnants of the Roman ways were preserved in southern France and Spain, as well as Italy, mainly because they shared not only a common climate and a common language base, Latin, but access to trade via the old Roman roads, as well as the sea lanes between major ports. This would serve as the foundation for the trade routes to the East.

Beginning in the 11th century, however, a new interest in cookery began to evolve, spawned by new ideas and products from the Middle East which were brought back by the Crusaders. As Italy was the path of choice for many returning from the Crusades, the first and strongest influences were felt there. During the 13th century, southern Europe developed a class system that was not based solely on the feudal system. Often merchants and professional people were as wealthy if not more so than the nobility. In some cases, a wealthy merchant might purchase lands and titles from an impoverished noble. Because wealth was not tied solely to the land, payment for services and goods was made in money rather than by barter. All of this led to a greater variety of choices available. The wealthy individual could show off his often newly-acquired wealth through his home, furnishings, clothing and cuisine. This was true not only of the newly rich, but of hereditary Great Lords as well. Scully, in his The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages, points out that a substantial portion of the financial resources of great households was invested in culinary endeavors.9

The quality and quantity of foods which the individual served to guests demonstrated the wealth and status of the host. This would include not only the kinds of meats and other foods served, but how they were seasoned, presented and what condiments and sauces were served with them. The upper echelons of society dined on capon, pheasant, kid and lamb, whereas the lower classes had to make do with salt pork and beef. Generally, most of the records from this time are of the extravagant feasts served by the wealthy. We do not have much to base our knowledge of the food consumed by the lower classes.

One influence on the revival of interest in cookery came from the Arab cultures which somewhat surrounded southern Europe, from Tyre and Alexandria in the east to Cordoba in the west. There were a number of Arabic tracts on cooking, the most familiar of which is the translation we call The Baghdad Cookery Book. These books were written by people from all facets of society, including poets, scholars and court officials. Scholars in Europe began to recognize the importance of Arabic writings, but concentrated mainly on those related to medicine and health. Even these books contained references to foods, including which ones were appropriate to certain climates, etc. Often these references would give rise to an interpretation as a recipe. So, while there were few actual Arabic recipes that found their way into the kitchens of Western Europe, adaptations of some references in other treatises inspired the creation of new dishes.

One possible reason for this interest in the medical tracts of Arabic scholars was a concern with eating foods which would engender good health. There had been, from the time of the Greeks, a concept that all things were made up of a combination of two pairs of elements: warm and cold, wet and dry. These were present in humans as blood, choler, phlegm and melancholy. In a healthy individual, these elements should be balanced. It was believed that a food possessing a unbalanced amount of one of these elements could be made more efficacious by preparing it in a manner designed to restore the balance. For example, a lamprey was considered to be cold and wet, in an extreme degree. Therefore, the recommended manner of preparation began with the way in which the lamprey was killed. It was a long-established practice to drown the lamprey in wine (thought to be warm and dry) so that the fluid would impregnate all of the lamprey’s flesh and therefore render it healthful.10

Frequently, physicians would, in their medical treatises, include instructions for the preparation of food, as they considered that it had a great influence on the overall health of the individual. An example of this would be the Regimen sanitatis of Maino de’ Maineri, a health handbook composed for his patron, the Bishop of Arras, in the 1330’s. So much of the book was dedicated to the analysis of foodstuffs that a part of the book has since been published as A Medieval Sauce Book!11 One has only to read the recipes contained in De honesta voluptate by Platina (Bartolomeo Sacchi di Cremona) to see how important the properties of foods and their influence on health was to both those who prepared and those who consumed the cuisine of the period. An example of this is from the very familiar recipe for “Armored Turnips” (Rapum Armatum).

Those who have a fortified gullet are pleased to call turnips armored when they have rolled in cheese, covered, as it were, with breastplate and cuirass, as if their descent into the lower regions would not seem safe without arms. But what good does this protection do the turnips, since it turns against them to their total ruin, since the very strong gluttons in the cookshops of athletes prefer their enemy armored and eat them, defenseless as they are ... This dish is quickly cooked and should be eaten quickly, too. But since it is ruinous, it should be served to Domitianus, who is very greedy.12
Merchants returning from the spice markets had tried Arabic dishes and sought to recreate them when they returned home. Some of the new ideas that found their way into European cooking included the use of nuts to thicken sauces, the use of sugar and citrus fruits to enhance the Graeco-Roman idea of sweet-sour dishes, and sugar as an ingredient for desserts, including marzipan. An example would be the little Sugar Pies from Mestre Roberto, in his Libre del Coch:

Take a pound of almonds and blanch them. And grind them without adding either water or stock, so that they become very oily, and the oilier they are, the better. And take one and a half pounds of white sugar, well pounded, and mix it with the almonds. And when these are mixed, if it is a bit stiff, add a little rosewater. And season it with a little ginger to your taste. Then take pastry made with flour and eggs and sweet oil and fill the pastry with the sugar and the almonds. Then take oil and put it on the fire in a frying pan. And when it boils, put in the little pies and cook them until they take on the color of gold. And when you take them from the fire, pour over melted honey. And then sprinkle them with sugar and powdered cinnamon.13
During the later Middle Ages, there were a number of collections of recipes written. These have survived over time mainly because they were kept in the libraries of the well-to-do. In fact, there is an on-going dispute over whether cooks actually used these recipes or whether they were kept so that meals could be planned and supplies ordered. The main argument against this is that the author often addressed remarks directly to the cook: "If you want to make ... ", "Make sure that ... ", and the ever-present, "... and serve it forth." In fact, the word "recipe" itself comes from the beginning of many Latin recipes, and means "take."

There seem to be four collections from the Mediterranean area which have survived to the present, along with various smaller collections which are in libraries and have yet to be translated/published. The earliest of these is a Catalan collection called Libre del Sent Sovi, the earliest extant manuscript of which dates to 1324, though it is unlikely that this is the first edition. These recipes had a great influence on Mediterranean cooking in general, the most direct of which being on the great cook, Mestre Robert, who wrote the Libre del Coch, the first published version of which appeared in 1520, though it is certain that they were compiled at an earlier date. Mestre Robert was cook to Fernando, King of Naples. As Naples was under Catalan control in the latter part of the fifteenth century, most of these recipes are Catalan in origin. However, many of his recipes do have Italian antecedents.14

Another great cook, Maestro Martino, compiled another cookbook, Libro de Arte Coquinaria, in the mid fifteenth century. Maestro Martino described himself as cook to "Reverendissimo Monsignor Camorlengo." This, according to most authorities, is the most complete of the medieval manuscripts, especially among those from Italy. This work has yet to be translated into English. However, one Bartolomeo Sacchi di Cremona, also known as Platina, produced a cookery book, De honesta voluptate (Of Honest Indulgence), which became the first widely published collection. Platina did not just publish recipes, as noted earlier, but tried to make his book a design for living. Most of his recipes (240 of 250) were directly adapted from Maestro Martino, the remainder having come from Apicius (see above). This is entirely plausible as there were copies of Apician manuscripts in existence at the time. Platina’s book was published in Italy possibly as early as 1472 (one citation shows a version printed in Rome at that time). The manuscript itself, according to Santich, is dated 1468. This was, in all likelihood, the first of the internationally published cookbooks.15 In Savoring the Past, we are told that it was translated into French as Platine en francoys by Desdier Christol, prior of St. Maurice, the site of France’s most important medical school. It was printed in Lyons in 1505.16 There are also translations in German and in English. One book, Epulario, or The Italian Feast, contains recipes which are so similar to those in De honesta voluptate that, at the very least, they had a common source. Compare the following:

Stuffed Eggs
Cook fresh eggs for a long time so that they are hard. Then take the egg from the shell and split it through the middle, so as not to lose any of the white. After you have taken out the yolk, grind up part of it with good cheese, aged as well as fresh, and raisins; save the other part to color the dish. Likewise add a little finely chopped parsley, marjoram and mint. There are those who put in two or more egg whites, along with some spices. With this mixture, fill the whites of the eggs, and when they are stuffed, fry them over a gentle flame, in oil. When they are fried, make a sauce from the rest of the yolks and raisins ground together, and when you have moistened them in verjuice and must, add ginger, clove, and cinnamon and pour over the eggs and let them boil a little together.17

To dresse and fill Egges
(Epulario or, The Italian Feast)
Seeth new Egs in water untill they be hard, then peele them and cut them in the middle, and take out the yolks, and doe not break the white, and stampe some part of those yolks with a few currans, Parsley, Margerum and Mint, chopped very small, with two or three whites of Egs, with what spice you thinke good. And when they are mixed together colour it with Saffron, and fill the Egges therewith, and frie them in oyle; and with a few of those yolkes which remain unstamped with a few Currans, and stampe them well together, and thereto Sugar, Cloues, and good store of Sinamon, let this sauce boyle a little, and when you will send the Egges to the Table, put this sauce upon them.18
The publisher of Epulario has not provided any information about the origin of the manuscript. The only documentation is provided on the title page, where it states that it was translated out of the Italian into English and printed in London in 1598. Santich does not mention an English translation, but if it was translated into both French and German, it seems logical that there would have been and English translation as well. If you compare the two recipes above, the first from Platina and the second from Epulario, allowing for differences in expression, they are almost identical. Epulario does not contain all of the recipes from Platina’s collection, but rather a subset of them, many of which have been adapted and/or rephrased for the English audience. This author does not have any proof or documentation to prove that Epulario is a translation of Platina, but ample evidence exists to indicate that, at the very least, they share a common antecedent.

In this study we have traced the development of Italian Renaissance cuisine from its various sources, including recipes from Imperial Rome, from both the upper class and the peasantry, to the various collections of recipes that give a glimpse into the cuisine of southern Europe. Many of these writings contain not only recipes but information about the environment in which the food was cooked and served and the effect that particular dishes would have on the health and well-being of the diner. This concern, along with the strictures of the Church regarding feast and lean days were the main forces governing the diet of the latter Middle Ages.

Note from author, June, 2000: Further discussions with other cooks, etc., have led me to believe that Epulario, rather than being a translation of parts of Platina, is probably rather a translation of some of Maestro Martino’s recipes instead.

Epulario, or The Italian Feast, London: "Printed by A.I. for William Barley, and are to bee sold at his shop in Gratio Street neere Ieaderi-hall." 1598. Reprinted by Falconwood Press, New York: 1990.

Giacosa, Ilaria Gozzini, A Taste of Ancient Rome. Translated by Anna Herklotz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Platina: Bartolomeo Sacci di Cremona, known as Platina. On Honest Indulgence. "Printed in Venice with the Work and Care of Father Laurentius of Aquila and Also Sibyllius Umber for the Distinguished Duke Peter Mocenicus. On the Ides of June, 1475." Reprinted by Falconwood Press, New York: 1989. (There is no information as to who did the translation, as the original manuscript was in classical Latin).

Santich, Barbara. The Original Mediterranean Cuisine. Totnes, Devon, England: Prospect Books, 1995.

Scully, Terrence. The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge, Suffolk, England: The Boydell Press, 1995.

Wheaton, Barbara Ketcham. Savoring the Past. Pennsylvania: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.

Barbara Santich, The Original Mediterranean Cuisine. Totnes, Devon, England: Prospect Books, 1995, p. 37.


Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa, A Taste of Ancient Rome. Translated by Anna Herklotz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, p. 7.

Ibid., p. 110.

Ibid., p. 54.


Ibid., p. 6.

Ibid., p. 163.

Terrence Scully, The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge, Suffolk, England: The Boydell Press, 1995, p. 245.

Ibid., p. 44.

Ibid., p. 43.

Platina: Bartolomeo Sacci di Cremona, known as Platina. On Honest Indulgence. New York: Falconwood Press, New York: 1989. (There is no information as to who did the translation, as the original manuscript was in classical Latin), p. 72.

Santich, p. 157.

Ibid., pp. 41-42.

Ibid., p. 43.

Wheaton, Barbara Ketcham. Savoring the Past. Pennsylvania: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983, p. 34.

Platina, p. ?? (nb: I no longer have the version of Platina that I used for this article. However, in the Milham translation, the recipe can be found on page 405. It’s from Book IX, #28.)

Epulario, or The Italian Feast, New York: Falconwood Press, 1990, p. 65.

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