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The History of Italian Cuisine II

History of Italian Food
History of Italian Food

 

In History of Italian Cuisine I, we have begun a tale of food, wars, invasions and great men that brought us from the dawn of Roman civilization to the very beginning of the Renaissance. We saw how influences from the Germanic people who conquered areas of the peninsula, but especially those from the Arabs of Sicily, helped creating some of Italy's best known dishes: marzipan, cassata, even gelato have roots in Arabic culinary tradition.

 

In this section, we'll take a closer look at the Renaissance courts of the most beautiful cities of Italy, at what was popular on their tables and why. We'll also find out the discovery of America truly changed the shape of things in Italy, also when it comes to food: our best ally in the kitchen, the tomato, entered our homes in the 16th century, after Cortèz brought some seeds back from the Americas and drastically modified the way we eat.

 

 

The Later Middle Ages and the Renaissance in Tuscany

 

Just as in art and literature, Tuscany was to have an essential role for the birth, or better, the renaissance of modern Italian cuisine. This happened especially in the 14th century, when all major signorie in the region began to look with a renewed interest to gastronomical experimentation: it was once again the newly formed commerce, craftmanship and banking-based high bourgeosie to call for such a change, because food and its refinement was seen as symbolic of their own achieved social and cultural status. Little accepted, when not scorned, by old and traditional noble families, it was also through their culinary knowledge and refined tastes that Italy's medieval nouveaux riches tried to make themselves respected. 

 

Tuscany was the perfect location to experiment in the kitchen, because all type of produce was available in situ, just as it still is today. Matilde of Canossa first, the comuni and signorie after, had strongly recommended and supported the terracing of great part of Tuscany's incredibly fertile hills, and had taken control of the region's water supplies. The hills of Siena and Florence became known for their olive oil, peas and cabbage of the highest quality were produced in great quantity in Scandicci and Lastra a Signa, near Florence. Lambs came from the Casentino area and bovines from the Val di Chiana: the famous Chianina breed of calves is still one of the best in the country today. Mullets came aplenty from the Tyrrhenian coast and pikes from the Chiusi lake. Everything was available in Florence's Mercato Vecchio, where also plenty of local sellers would converge to propose their own farm products such as milk, eggs and cheeses. The Chianti area was already known for its red wine, just as were Montepulciano and Montalcino. The Isola d'Elba produced a popular Aleatico, too.

 

The bread made in Prato was particularly sought after: sweetened with honey and flavored with spices, dried figs and sultanas, it was the ancestor of Siena's panforte and Milan's panettone, both typical Christmas time cakes. Almond confetti were popular in Tuscany, too, where they were used only for special occasions because of their production costs. Wine was consumed in large quantities, also as antidocte and as a narcotic: in a period of devastating epidemics, a glass of wine, often, was seen more as a medicine than a vice. 

 

When we speak about Tuscany in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, in any case, it is to one city and one family most of us think: Florence and the Medicis. The family did not only bring Florence to the apex of the cultural and artistic world and made it an example of beauty and perfection to the entirety of Europe, but also set the pace in the kitchen. Fond of understated luxury, the Medici family never overdid it, but rather demanded of its cooks quality and purity of taste: traditional Tuscan recipes, often inspired by popular flavors and dishes, were served in season, during banquets of the uttermost class, where cleanliness and manners were paramount. Far from the excesses shown by the Romans 1000 years earlier, the Medicis loved simple, wholesome recipes, often centered on game and home crafted cheeses: let's say they were ante-litteram estimators of today's cucina povera and local produce trends!

 

They may have liked traditional cuisine, but the Medicis were certainly gourmets. Caterina de Medici, daughter of Lorenzo II De Medici and great grand-daughter of Lorenzo "il Magnifico" (on a side note: she was also Queen of France) is a great example of that. Caterina was a true food lover and when she married, at the age of 14, Henry II Orléans and moved to Paris, she brought with her from Italy an ice cream maker from Urbino, three chefs and, just in case, a bunch of pastry chefs. So great was her influence on the French court's culinary habits that many consider her years in France as fundamental for the development of our neighbors' national cuisine, to the point that quintessential French dishes, such as their famous onion soup, are in fact Tuscan in origin and were brought to Paris by Caterina's chefs.

The young Queen, apparently was very fond of artichokes stewed with chicken livers, herbs, butter and olive oil, to the point she once got food poisoning from it. Even béchamel sauce was elaborated by her chefs when still in Italy, and was then adopted by French experts. 

 


A bust of Lorenzo de' Medici, the best known of all the Medici's family (by Jim Forest at flickr.com)

 

The Later Middle Ages and the Renaissance in Rome and the Papal Court

 

Rome was the seat of one of the wealthiest, most luxurious of all courts, that of the Pope. The tendency we mentioned of honoring the Lord at the table was embraced with joy by the papal entourage: greed didn't seem so much of a sin anymore to the eye of the rich and powerful of the eternal city. 16th and 17th century sources speak of luscious banquets, with hundreds of different dishes served. Music, dances and singing were common entertainment during such feasts. The luxury and, let's face it, e

xcesses of Rome were common to other cities of the peninsula: the SerenissimaVenice, the Ferrara of the Este family, Milan and the Sforzas, all fought to achieve the highest levels of luxury and grandeur when it came to entertain and, well, feed the rich and powerful of Europe, sometimes getting pretty ingenious and creative while doing it. 

 

In 1513, for instance, Pope Leo X (of the Medici family) organized a banquet to celebrate his nephew Giuliano's nomination to Roman patrician. The table, set for twenty, selected guests, was placed on a stage in the very middle of the Campidoglio's square. The stage was surrounded by rows of seats for people to come and watch the show.

 

More of it in 1595, when Cardinal Grimani offered a banquet to representants of the city of Venice in Palazzo Venezia: guests were welcomed by the outlandish sounds of fifes and drums, which also accompanied the coming to the dining room of each dish and side: trumpets introduced preserves and jams, while gold and silver plates covered in cookies and pinenuts made their appearance on the delicate notes of harps. The meal continued with a milk soup and dozens of roasted roes, served on enormous trays. The majestic sounds of tubas followed an overwhelming display of 74 (yup, seventy-four!) large plates of chicken in Catalan sauce, whereas it was the mellow, refined harmonies of violas to create the chosen backdrop to roasted pheasants. Dessert was a concoction of whipped cream and marzipan, accompanied by performances by an exotic belly dancer, followed by a children choir. No mention of how long guests spent at the dinner table is made in official documents...

 

History of Italian Cuisine
An Italian kitchen, as depicted on the frontespice of Cristoforo da Messisbugo's book
(photo by Paul Lacroix at wikimedia.org)

 

The Later Middle Ages and the Renaissance in the Cities of the North 

 

Florence and Rome, of course, but we'd be mistaken to think that the towns and cities of the northern regions of Italy didn't love their culinary excesses in the late Middle Ages and during the Renaissance. 

Cristoforo da Messisbugo, for instance, borne witness to the gastronomic adventures of the Estense court in Ferrara in a text called Banchetti, Composizione di Vivande et Apparecchio Generale (which roughly translates as "Banquets, the composition of dishes and a general view of the banquet's setting"). Messisbugo is, in fact, a valuable witness, as he was a well-learned humanist and of a certain lineage, too, beside having been steward and chef in the Estes' home. Thanks to his works, the court of Ferrara gained notoriety all over Europe as an artistic centre, supported by the magnamity of the Estes' patronage. 

 

Fulfilling their role of protectors and supporters of the arts, the Es

tes' banquets had nothing to envy to an actual vernissage: when Ercole d'Este married the daughter of the King of France, in 1529, the climax of the celebrations was nothing less than a representation of Ludovico Ariosto's Cassaria. In case you forgot, good, old Ludovico is one of Italy's most iconic and respected poets, known in particular for the epic poem La Gerusalemme Liberata. But Messisbugo's importance doesn't only lie in having kept detailed track of the Estes' banquets, but also of what was happening in their kitchen: as a chef, he described the typically northern Italian use of butter, as opposed to the olive oil-based recipes of Tuscany and the South. He's been, moreover, one of the first chefs to pay visible attention to raw vegetables and delicatessen, and proved to be a connoisseur of both meats and fish, used equally in his recipes. Messisbugo was a pro also when it came to cooking methods: from frying to pickling, from stewing to grilling, there wasn't a way to bake, cook and preserve he didn't experiment with. He's also one of the first to introduce heavily the use of filled pasta in his recipes. 

Among his favorite ingredients we find sugar, cinnamon, pinenuts and raisins, a bow to a wholly Renaissance-like love for sweet and sour: let's not forget sugar, at that time, was only for the wealthy and so were recipes and dishes where it figured heavily. 

 

If we speak of sugar, spices and Renaissance cuisine, we must speak of VeniceLa Serenissima had been holding the monopoly of sugar import and production since the age of the Crusades. The same could be said of oriental spices, of which Venice was importer for the whole of Europe. Naturally, Venetian cuisine of the period was to be influenced by the city's contacts with the East and its commercial role. A curiosity: so much was the name of Venice associated with sugar, that its use became a symbol of the city's wealth. In 1574, in occasion of Henry III's visit, the king of France was welcomed by two hundred of the most beautiful noblewomen of Venice, all dressed in white and covered in jewels. The tables of the banquet organized in his honor were adorned with sugar sculptures created by Sansovino, a well known architect and sculptor of the time: two lions, a queen upon her horse with a tiger on each side, David and Saint Mark, patron of the city, surrounded by Popes, animals and trees. All cutlery was made of sugar, just as of sugar were tablecloth and napkins, bread and plates. 

Renaissance chefs loved sugar, so. It's no suprise, then, to discover that candied fruit –which is basically sliced or chopped fruit or fruit peel cooked in sugar syrup– became very popular in the Renaissance and became pretty much a staple for all the trendiest desserts or the time. Panettone and panforte, both rich in candied fruit and, today, symbols of traditional Italian baking, are children of the Renaissance just as Leonardo's Mona Lisa. 

 

The 16th century, we can really say, was a time of culinary excesses in large parts of Italy, exception made, maybe, for Florence and the Medici, who favored a relatively sober display of wealth. However, it is easy to see how such a desire to impress and display large quantities of food came from a more or less unconscious need to exorcise the fear – always present and always real – of famines, epidemics, wars and tragedies, which would have had hunger as their first result.

 

 

New flavors from the New World 

 

history italian cuisine
An 18th century map of the New World, by Homanns Heirs (uploaded by Rosario Fiore at
flickr.com flic.kr/p/bHh1in)

 

The Discovery of America in 1492 marked an essential historical and cultural moment for Europe. Even though it didn't happen straight away, it was also to influence profoundly the way we cooked and our tastes. New ingredients ended up on the table of the rich and poweful of Italy with relative ease, however, it was to take a much longer time for all people to enjoy the novelties and delicacies of the New World. One of the first New World's things to appear on Italian "noble" tables was turkey. Apparently, the bird became so popular that even the Estes had a turkey breeding farm; they were also considered a particularly welcome wedding gift. 

 

Turkeys aside, the first product to make it across the Atlantic ocean chronologically was sweetcorn. Cristoforo Colombo himself was said to have carried a handful of seeds in his pockets when he travelled back to Europe in 1493. About 40 years later, sweetcorn (called mais in Italy) was already one of the main coltures of Veneto, South Lombardia and, more in general, of the Po's fertile plains, from where it reached the South. Sweetcorn's, as well as American beans' coltures, were used when soil needed to "rest" in between others, and helped to ameliorate its fertility. They both required little to grow and could be produced in large quantities, greatly helping to reduce the fear and incidence of famine in Europe. Interestingly enough, however, their diffusion halted after the first years of popularity: Europeans were reluctant to fully embrace the new produce, and only in the 17th century both sweetcorn and beans finally entered at full speed the kitchens of Italy and Europe. 

 

The same happened with another famous import from the Americas: the potato. Studied as a curiosity for years by botanists, it was adopted straight away in Spain and Italy, but it would become a staple of European cuisine only in the 1600s. 

A different story is that of the ubiquitous tomato. Imported quickly from South America, some say it was quickly adopted by the Spaniards and, indeed, the Italians. It's pretty safe to assume this is true for our Spanish cousins, to the point one of the earliest Italian recipes including tomatoes, dating from 1692, is for a sauce called pomodoro alla spagnola, that is, spanish style tomatoes, which seems to point to an already well established presence of the fruit on Spanish tables at that stage. In Italy, tomatoes were considered more of a curiosity or a sort of magical ingredient for a pretty long time: in the 17th century, it was believed to be an aphrodisiac, so it was often used in love potions. Otherwise, for decades tomato plants were used only as a decoration. In Italy, so the story says, it entered the kitchens of the poor first, and that of the rest of the country only after Queen Margherita gave the thumbs up to a dish named after her, a dish that made our cuisine even more famous around the world, pizza...

 

history italian cuisine
Aaaaah... tomatoes! (by Susy Morris at flickr.com: flic.kr/p/6RFrVE)

 

The story of Italian cuisine and its most amazing dishes still has secrets to be discovered. In the third part of our tale, we'll get closer to our times and will find out more about the most prestigious traditional Italian gastronomic publications, as well as take a look at the culinary events that characterized the 20th century. 

 

See also History of Italian food part 1History of Italian food part 3 and History of Italian food part 4

 

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albornoz orvieto
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Itri - Upper Town - Photo courtesy of MM/Wikimedia Sant'Andrea fort was built during the first century AD on the ruins of an ancient Roman villa. It is located in the direction of Fondi along the Old Via. In 1798 Fra Diavolo used this fort for the defensive operations against French. Itri is a town and comune in the Latium region and in the Latina Province.    History of the Fortress The St. Andrea Fortress is located on the border between Itri and Fondi, the ancient Via Appia track is
Friday, June 1st, 2012
  Tolfa - Panorama - Photo courtesy of Pippo-b/Wikimedia   The city of Tolfa, which has a history that dates back to the Bronze Age and is known for its well preserved medieval and Renaissance architecture, is also famous for the nearby Castle of Rota. Situated 195 meters above sea level it can be found off one of the branches of the Via Claudia Braccianese, near the Verginese Migone river. Not far from Rome it is often a place where city dwellers go to escape the stifling heat of summer for
Friday, June 1st, 2012
Ladispoli, aerial view of the Tyrrenian coast and the Palo-Odescalchi Castle (1500AD ) The Castle of Palo or the Castello di Palo is a medieval fort located in Palo in the Ladispoli municipality. The castle is today owned by the Odescalchi family. The castle stands overlooking the sea where in the ancient time the Etruscan town Alsuim had once stood. The castle had originally been built for defense and the manor is the only structure which is fortified along with the Flavia tower which had
Friday, June 1st, 2012
castelvecchio verona
  Castelvecchio in Verona Ph. depositphotos/Snake81   If you make it to the medieval city of Verona in northern Italy be sure to make a stop at the Castelvecchio ("old castle"), a fortress built by Cangrande II ("big dog") of the Della Scala family in 1354–1356. While the castle itself has very little ornamental decoration it is an important structure and also offers the opportunity to tour some beautiful art as today it is home to the Castelvecchio Museum. The museum can
Friday, June 1st, 2012
Castellaccio dei Monteroni Castellaccio of Monteroni is one of the most important historical monuments of the town of Ladispoli. The castle is actually a fortified farmhouse built during the Middle Ages close to the ancient route of Via Aurelia. The castle is located in the heart of the Monteroni archeological area, which has several large Etruscan mounds. The castle is a very rare example of a fortified farmhouse. Located 35 km from Rome, many tourists from all over the world visit it
Friday, June 1st, 2012
View of the city of Perugia   If visiting Perugia be sure to visit Rocca Paolina, which may not be the first castle to be built in the city, but is certainly one of the most important. Built in 1373 after Cardinal Aegidius Albornoz wrested control of Umbria and Tuscia from Pope Innocent VI, it was meant as a testament to the cardinal's prowess and power. The plans for the original castle were drawn up by Gattapone Gubbio and it was the largest in the area at the time. Only three years after
Friday, June 1st, 2012
Nepi, Borgia castle and Farnese fortification - Photo courtesy of GDelhey/Wikimedia The Borgia Castle is located in Nepi which is in the province of Viterbo in the Latium region. Nepi is located 40 km from Viterbo and close to lake that gets its name from the town. The Borgia castle is a reconstruction of an older feudal manor that dates back to the 15th century. The castle has large walls and four towers, out of which one is open to visitors.   History of the Castle The Borgia castle is
Friday, June 1st, 2012
royal palace caserta
  Reggia di Caserta: the Royal Palace   This stunning architectural complex at Caserta – which includes the Royal Palace, its magnificent gardens, the San Leucio complex, and the Aqueduct of Vanvitelli –  is a true wonder. The large palace, often compared to luxurious buildings like Versailles and the Royal Palace in Madrid, is  a UNESCO's World Heritage Site.     The Royal Nativity Scene -- Royal Palace, Caserta, Italy.
Friday, June 1st, 2012
Orsini Cesi Castle from Afar - Photo courtesy of orsinicesi.it In the heart of the lush Lucertili Mountains, in the small town of San Polo dei Cavalieri, about 30km from Rome, is the Castello Orsini Cesi Borghese. Centuries ago the castle was built as a strategic defence fortress and today it is a monument to the area's long and rich history. If you are staying in the area or taking a day trip from Rome keep a look out for the castle, which is hard to miss from its perch atop a high
Friday, June 1st, 2012
Palombara Sabina - Aerial View - Photo courtesy of Cyhawk/Wikimedia The Borgo Castello di Castiglione or the castle town of Castiglione is located one km away from the town of Palombara Sabina. The castle is quite magnificent and is known to be one of the best examples of medieval structure. The building of the castle itself dates back to the later half of the 13th century and stands dominating the entire territory due to its location at a high altitude. The construction of the castle was
Friday, June 1st, 2012
castel sant'angelo rome
  Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome Ph. depositphotos/GekaSkr   If you are visiting the ancient city of Rome why not stop to see the Castel Sant'Angelo, the mausoleum of the Emperor Hadrian? Named for the gorgeous statue of the Archangel Michael on the roof, today the building is the home of the Museo Nazionale de Castel Sant'Angeo. Erected on the shores of the Tiber the structure is located close to the Vatican and was once used as a military fortress.   The Tomb The Castel
Friday, June 1st, 2012
Castel del Monte Ph. depositphoto.com/stefyblue   Castel del Monte is a unique castle built in the 13th century by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, in the Apulia region. When the Emperor had the castle built, he created a symbol which was of much significance, reflected in the layout, shape and the location of the castle. Castel del Monte is located on a small hill close to the Santa Maria del Monte monastery, near the town of Andria.   Castel del Monte is a perfect example
Friday, June 1st, 2012
    Narni - Panorama - Photo courtesy of Croberto68/Wikimedia   The town of Narni is a part of the Umbria region and is located on a stunning limestone cliff overlooking the Black River. Rocca Albornoz is one of the town's most notable landmarks. Built in the 14th century the Rocca Albornoz was originally a military structure meant to protect the territory from invasions and is now used for various exhibitions and for various conferences.    History of the Castle The castle was built in
Friday, June 1st, 2012
Rocca Pia: The Pride of Tivoli Castle of Rocca Pia in the hilltop town of TivoliRocca Pia is an ancient castle located in the historic city of Tivoli. The castle replaced the earlier Callisto II Borgia and derives its name from Pio II Piccolomini, the Humanist Pope who had ordered that the castle be built in Tivoli. Niccolo and Varrone were the two architects entrusted with the construction of the castle. The castle took one year to build and its main purpose was to control the city and to
Friday, June 1st, 2012
Castello Boncompagni is the ducal castle on the beautiful Isola del Liri. The palace is an ancient fortified castle full of history and located close to the island’s old town, where the two branches of the Liri River form the island mass. Two beautiful waterfalls, Valcatoio and the Great Falls, complete the gorgeous picture, which would charm any visitor. The castle has been important to the region ever since it had been built in the 12th century. The beautiful architecture of the castle, as
Friday, June 1st, 2012
  Castello Papi della Magliana - Entrance - Photo courtesy of castellidelazio.com   In the past, when popes wanted to escape the stifling summer heat in Rome, one of their preferred destinations was Castello della Magliana. Located near the Tiber in the old Magliano area outside Rome, the castle is first found in written history when mentioned in an 11th century document as being in the possession of the Santa Cecilia Monastery in Trastevere. The castle's hey day was during the reign of Pope
Friday, June 1st, 2012
Bracciano - Panorama - Photo courtesy of Mac9/Wikimedia The Orsini Odescalchi Castle is located on the shores of the Bracciano lake, around 20 miles from the city of Rome. Common agreement is that this structure is one of the most beautiful castles in Europe, due to its elegant mansion and its elegant but effective military architecture. The rooms are beautifully furnished and decorated with a number of valuable paintings and frescoes. Over the centuries, the castle had been home to several
Friday, June 1st, 2012
rocca maggiore assisi
An old postcard of the Rocca Maggiore Ph. flickr/Miss Shari   The historic city of Assisi is dominated by two large medieval castles. The larger castle is known as Rocca Maggiore which is an imposing bastion that looms over the hill town, intimidating potential invaders. The castle as seen today is mainly the work of Cardinal Albornoz, with several later additions by Popes Pius II and Paul III.   Assisi's Rocca Maggiore dominates the entire skyline with its impressive
Friday, June 1st, 2012
Castel Massimo over the town of Arsoli Castello Massimo is located in the town of Arsoli, in the province of Rome. The castle rises from the top of a steep rock outcrop, which partly overlooks Arsoli. The castle's other side overlooks a beautiful park and the castle's formal gardens. There is a tree-lined avenue from the castle gate that leads to the town, wandering through the castle gardens then down to the town square. The Castle A large part of the beautiful piano nobile is available for
Friday, June 1st, 2012
Castelvecchio di Rocca Barbena Castelvecchio di Rocca Barbena is a small comune located in the Liguria region of Italy in the province of Savona. The village is located close to the cities of Savona and Genoa. The village is spread over an area of 16 sq km and has a small population of only 197. Castelvecchio dates back to the 11th century and it still has an old town that clings to the mountain with its characteristic stone houses. The main highlight of the village is its ancient castle that
Friday, June 1st, 2012
  Gualdo Tadino - Rocca Flea (Flea Fortress) - Photo courtesy of Simonecappellini/Wikimedia Rocca Flea, or the Flea Fortress, is a fortified castle located in the town of Gualdo Tadino in the region of Umbria in central Italy. The castle is located on the upper part of the same hill as the town itself. The castle dates back to the reconstruction of the town in 1237 and is thought to have been built during the Lombard times. In the year 1242 the castle was rebuilt by Frederick II and over
Friday, June 1st, 2012
Rome - Castello di Lunghezza - The Portal - Photo courtesy of castellodilunghezza.it The Castello di Lunghezza is a medieval fortification that is located around twenty kilometers from the city of Rome. The castle is located in the province of Rome and according to various historians, it is located at the site of the ancient city of Colliata.   History of the Castle It is not known exactly when the castle had been built but according to scholars, the oldest manor in the location had been
Friday, June 1st, 2012
  Upper Albisola and Savona as seen from The Castellaro - Photo courtesy of Gancjo/Flickr Il Castellaro is a small castle located on a hill in the cozy town of Albisola Superiore, in the province of Savona in Liguria. The remains of the castle can be found in the area where the Sansobbia and Riobasco Valleys meet, very close to the famous church of San Nicola. The mild climate and charm of Albisola, along with its impressive architecture and ancient ruins like Il Castellaro, make it
Friday, June 1st, 2012
  Nerola - Castello Orsini, Avezzano Earthquake, 1915 - Photo courtesy of Tabularius/Wikimedia   We've all read fairytales where the castle in the story played almost as big a role as the characters themselves. Who hasn't dreamt of being the princess sleeping in a castle's fluffy bed or a prince storming the walls to save his beloved? As you grow older you begin to wonder if such fanciful places even exist. Well, they do, and one of these castles is situated only a few kilometers from Rome,