Due to having some unexpected time off these last few weeks, I have decided to go back to do a bit of reading and dug out old classics from my collection. I don’t know about you but historical novels are a favourite of mine, right up there with fantasy and science-fiction. The reason for which I love historical fiction is not only delving in lost or less know periods of our history but mostly because I
like love to check and cross-check facts. How many novels have you read, set in a historical perspective, but without any notes or references at the end? So when I look for histories, I look for those who are well-written and referenced… so I always can go a little further in the reading experience. A wonderful example of this is the novel Secretum, by Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti published in 2009 (in English).
For those who don’t know that fabulous writer’s couple yet, maybe you have heard of a novel, Imprimatur, published in Italy in 2002. Here is an excerpt of the plot taken from Amazon Uk:
“11 September 1683, Rome. Rome is a city on a knife-edge. The citizens wait anxiously for news of the outcome of the Battle of Vienna, as the Islamic forces of the Ottoman Empire lay siege to the defenders of Catholic Europe. Meanwhile a suspected outbreak of plague causes a famous Roman tavern to be placed under quarantine. Among this detained in the Locanda Donzello is the mysterious Atto Melani, a spy in the service of the French king. With the help of the young serving boy, he discovers a secret passage leading to a network of tunnels under the city.Their nocturnal journeys into the Roman underworld lead them to some startling discoveries about the deadly enmity between Pope Innocent XI and Louis XIV, and a plot to unleash a weapon of mass destruction in the battle between Islam and the West.”
Yes, we are talking intelligent, dedicated and professional historical research, she is a philology graduate and a specialist in religious history, he is a musicologist passionate about the baroque period. Originally, they were published in their native italian language by Mondadori but this novel sparked so much controversy that :
“The couple say they were forced to flee Italy – although they now live in Rome. Mondadori (which is owned by PM Silvio Berlusconi) has never offered comment.”
I could write dozens of pages just on this subject but not today. Apart from their amazing storytelling talent, Monaldi et Sorti are even better at bringing to life pages and pages of mouth-watering 17th century food. In Secretum, their second novel, the setting is a roman palazzo in the Lazio region where a great wedding banquet is being held for the niece of an important cardinal. Being a food-lover myself, I really couldn’t resist reading these pages over and over again, then I got curious : I wanted to know where the authors got their inspiration to recreate meals like this.
So I started with a search in library collections like the Library of Congress, The British Library, Bibliotheque Nationale de France. I also launched a simple search in Google, using terms like “renaissance gastronomy OR medieval gastronomy OR italian renaissance gastronomy” (I didn’t restrict myself with a specific century because I wanted to find general resources about the history of gastronomy as well). The wonderful thing about random searches like this is not the quality of the first results but where they bring me. Of course, I could spend hours browsing, navigate by clicking on links but I was starting to feel that I was getting lost instead of truly finding treasures. So back to my findings :
The Barilla Academia has compiled a list of italian cookbooks, one hundred to be exact, a historical survey of what is to be considered as the founding texts of italian gastronomy. Most of the books can be accessed in digital format completed by excellent bibliographic information. Here is a very interesting example :
Libreto de lo excellentissimo physico maistro Michele Savonarola: de tutte le cose che se manzano comunamente, 1515
[Small book by great physician Michele Savonarola: on all things that one eats regularly]
Author : Giovanni Michele Savonarola
Now does that name ring a bell? This Savonarola was a great physician and humanist during the 15th century in Italy. He studied medecine extensively in Padua before becoming famous (in a sense) for giving specific instructions to doctors and priests during the bubonic plague onslaught of that time. He wrote tracts, dissertations… and cookbooks. His grandson, Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), was a Dominican priest leading the city of Florence to book burning and destruction of immoral works of art. Now I’m thinking that the grandson should have stuck to medecine like his forefather… but that is another story.
So, I leave Italy and turn my attention to the rest of Europe. Back to the search basics, or more specifically to my training, I started another search with the British Library. Bingo on the first hit: Books for Cooks. A superb digital collection of cookbooks compiled by the British Library, from medieval times right up until World War 2. I am interested in the 15th-17th century so:
In this 16th century book The Accomplisht Cook we find:
“The book was written in the year of the restoration, and May wrote that his recipes ‘were formerly the delights of the Nobility, before good housekeeping had left England .’ His books give directions for many extravagant dishes, including a pastry stag filled with blood-like claret, a tortoise stewed with eggs, nutmeg and sweet herbs, and a ‘pudding of swan’ made with rose water and lemon peel.”
Also have a look at a digitized page from the book on cheesecakes, with about seven different varieties of them!
Next, crossing the English Channel to France. The Bibliothèque Nationale de France had also something to offer, mostly in digital reproductions of illuminated manuscripts. This wonderful online exhibition intitled “Gastronomie Medievale” offers rich and detailed images about types of food, food rituals, ingredients, etc. According to this image in “Le Decameron” by Boccace in 1432, meals were had twice a day, completed by a dutiful kiss to the wife of the household it seems.
Apart from online exhibition and collections like the ones you just saw, there is also a plethora of individual websites compiled by enthusiastic amateurs & professionals all over the planet. Some of the more detailed one are great resources for medieval food lovers accompanied often with modern translation and original source text.
My first hit was Medieval Cookery, a excellent website to start with your research into medieval gastronomy. It features medieval menus, cookbooks and recipes by countries, category and type of meals. There are also translated in modern english for those of us who haven’t acquired a mastery of Old English, French or Latin.
So how about a modern twist on a chicken pasty? This recipe not only features in Le Menagier de Paris but also in Danish, Icelandic and northern German cookbooks of the 13th century.
Source [Libellus De Arte Coquinaria, Rudolf Grewe, Constance B. Hieatt (eds.)]: Recipe XXX. Quomodo condiatur pullus in pastello. Man skal et unct høns i tu skæræ oc swepæ thær um helæ salviæ blath, oc skær i spæk oc salt, oc hyli thæt hø mæth degh; oc latæ bakæ i en hogn swa sum brøth. Swa mughæ man gøræ allæ handæ fiskæ pastel, oc fughlæ oc annæt køt.
Recipe XXX. How to prepare a chicken pasty. One should cut a young chicken in two and cover it with whole leaves of sage, and add diced bacon and salt. And wrap this chicken with dough and bake it in an oven like bread. In the same way one can make all kinds of pasties: of fish, of fowl, and of other meats.
Another excellent resource is Gode Cookery, running since 1997. This website offers access to recipes, illustrations, glossaries of medieval terms, botanic plants directory, etc. Basically, everything you need to embark on a medieval gastronomy tour. So how about a Queen’s Potage?
“Take Almonds, beat them and boil them with good broth, a bundle of Herbs, and the inside of a Lemon, a few crums of Bread, then season them with Salt, stir them often and strain them. Then take your Bread and soak it with the best broth, which is thus to be made.
When you have boned a Capon or Partridge, take the bones and beat them in a Morter, then seethe these bones in strong both with Mushromes, and strain all through a linnen cloth, and with this broth soak your Bread, as it soaks, sprinkle it with Almond broth, then put unto it a little minced meat, either of Partridge or Capon, and still, as it soaks, put in more Almond-broth until it be full, then take the Fire-shovel red hot, and hold it over, garnish your Dish with Cocks-combs, Pistaches and Pome-granates.”
Gode Cookery also offers a rich section of weblinks and their online bookshop (in parternship with Amazon). You can purchase their modernized recipes book or browse through the selection of medieval cookbooks both new and old.
Talking about old books, I mean really old books, I remember years ago when I arrived in Geneva I stumbled in a antique bookshop near St-Pierre Cathedral. There I found a marvelous (and costly!) reproduction of the Tacuinum Sanitatis. For those who aren’t familiar with this work, it is based on an 11th century Arab medical treatise. It was then translated in Latin during the 13th century. The title can be translated to “Maintenance of Health“. Without it being a cookbook like we have come to know them, it was one of the first text describing beneficial and/or harmful effects of plants and common food ingredients. Although considered to be of therapeutic expertise, this codex offers incredibly detailed images (a lot of them!) and insights about food and agriculture in the 13th-14th century in Europe.
Honey making according to Tacuinum Sanitatis
Before ending this post, I would like also to share my two recent finds. Some background first : some of you may have read (or are reading) the excellent fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin. Without going into detail in the story, because it would take me ages and I don’t want to spoil it for you, let’s just say that Martin is a profilic food-lover and enthusiat. No matter where in his world the characters and story are set, you will always get the local flavour by reading about what people eat. So much is this passion for recipes in the book series that I have found two dedicated blogs. The first is : Inn at the Crossroads exploring the mouth-watering foods of the books by two passionate ladies.
How about Gulls Eggs and Seaweed Soup?
A more recent approach is Cooking Ice and Fire, started by Adam Bruski: attorney by day, food lover by night. Here is a little spoiler recipe from the latest Ice and Fire book (A Dance with Dragons) : A cold Egg Lime Soup