Medieval bling

spices 9In her introduction to La Serenissima, Venice: Recipes Lost and Found, Katie Caldesi writes, ‘The more I write about food, the more I find myself writing about history. The two are inseparable and although the end result of my research will be a recipe that I can share, it will inevitably be bound up with the past’. When I started my blog early this year, I set out to write about food in Italy. I don’t think the word ‘history’ featured at all in my original About Me page.  Like Caldesi, however, I’m increasingly finding myself writing about history.  I really should have foreseen it. History was my favourite subject at school and I have always been determined to scratch the surface of any topic that happens to interest me. It was only natural then that my love of food and history would come together at some point on this blog.

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I am currently fascinated by the use of spices in Medieval Italian cookery. These days, Italian dishes are more likely to be aromatised with garden herbs such as basil, parsley and sage. I was therefore surprised to learn that Italian aristocrats in the Middle Ages loved nothing more than feasting on dishes with flavours we would more readily associate with the Mughal court. Conventional wisdom has it that the abundance of spices used was because medieval cooks were trying to preserve or mask the taste of old meat and fish. The reality, however, is that the upper classes had access to fresh meat. They also happened to like the taste of spices and the prestige that eating these incredibly expensive commodities conferred.  Basically, spices were the nobility’s status symbol or ‘bling’ of choice.

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At the time, the Italian maritime republics enjoyed a trade monopoly with the Middle East. The Republic of Venice, in particular, had become incredibly wealthy thanks to the distribution of highly in-demand silks and spices by Venetian merchants across Europe. The 14th-century Venetian manuscript Libro per Cuoco (‘Book for Cook’) is testament to the medieval aristocracy’s addiction to spices. This anonymous publication includes 135 recipes that are light years away from our contemporary food sensibilities. There was no distinction made between sweet and savoury flavours and liberal amounts of spices and sugar (another precious and expensive commodity that the Republic of Venice was greedy for) are included in preparations such as panicata (a type of porridge made with millet) , agliata  (a garlic sauce served with meat dishes) and King Manfredi broad bean pie.

spices 3These days, people are most likely to associate the dishes risi e bisi, baccalà mantecato, fegato alla veneziana and sarde in saor with the city of Venice. Of these modern classics, only some variants of sarde in saor retain vestiges of Venice’s spice-laden and agrodolce (‘sweet-sour’) past. Venetian and Italian cookery gradually took on a distinctly less spicy note after Venice’s trading supremacy began to decline, first with the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottomans and then Vasco da Gama’s discovery of a sea route to India in 1499. A few Italian dishes, however, have survived to this day with their spiciness and/or sweet-sour combination intact. Stay tuned as I share some recipes for them in the next couple of months…

Is there a nutmeg in the house?

For further reading on this subject, I recommend:

  • Anonimo Veneziano – Libro per Cuoco
  • A. Capatti & M. Montanari – Italian cuisine: a cultural history
  • G & K. Caldesi – La Serenissima, Venice: Recipes Lost and Found
  • E. David – Italian Food
  • J.  Dickie – Delizia! The Epic Story of the Italians and their Food
  • O. Reddon, F. Sabban & S. Serventi – The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy

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    I always like your historical information before your recipes! I got into food by way of history and culture too. I loved learning about the Ancient Greeks and Galen + the Four Humors, the Ancient Romans, etc.

    Thanks Diana! It’s funny how you mention how you got into food. I was indifferent to food (I just took that my family made amazing food for granted) until my early 20s . Things obviously changed when I went to the south of Italy (where my family comes from), France and then Italy again! I started the blog wanting to write about food and then, I found myself drawing on my love of history from high school and university for it. It’s been so interesting to learn about Galen and the Four Humours. Would love to weave some information about this in a post one day… 🙂

    Rosemarie, it is indeed fascinating to learn about how cuisines evolve, thanks to greater world events. I’ll be curious to read about these old Italian recipes, offering a more unusual spicy side. Here in Malta, we’ve been enjoying the more diverse ranges of spices that seem to be pretty readily available, no doubt due to the country’s Italian and North African influences. On a side note, what camera and lens are you using for your food photography? I like the more shallow depth of field in these shots. 🙂

    Lovely to hear from you Tricia. I’ve been meaning to send you a line as I am fascinated by Malta and the Italian and North African influences that it shows in its language, culture and cuisine. I hope your relocation has gone well. With regards to my camera, I’ve adopted my father’s old Canon EOS 350D . I realised I would get much better effects with a DSLR than with a simple point and shoot which is what I was using until a couple of months ago. The lens is 28-80mm. I think it’s the one that came with the camera. Still got lots to learn!

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