In 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.
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.
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.
These 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…
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