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Medieval Tastes

Medieval Tastes: Food, Cooking, and the Table

Massimo Montanari
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    Medieval Tastes
    Book Description:

    In his new history of food, acclaimed historian Massimo Montanari traces the development of medieval tastes--both culinary and cultural--from raw materials to market and captures their reflections in today's food trends. Tying the ingredients of our diet evolution to the growth of human civilization, he immerses readers in the passionate debates and bold inventions that transformed food from a simple staple to a potent factor in health and a symbol of social and ideological standing.

    Montanari returns to the prestigious Salerno school of medicine, the "mother of all medical schools," to plot the theory of food that took shape in the twelfth century. He reviews the influence of the Near Eastern spice routes, which introduced new flavors and cooking techniques to European kitchens, and reads Europe's earliest cookbooks, which took cues from old Roman practices that valued artifice and mixed flavors. Dishes were largely low-fat, and meats and fish were seasoned with vinegar, citrus juices, and wine. He highlights other dishes, habits, and battles that mirror contemporary culinary identity, including the refinement of pasta, polenta, bread, and other flour-based foods; the transition to more advanced cooking tools and formal dining implements; the controversy over cooking with oil, lard, or butter; dietary regimens; and the consumption and cultural meaning of water and wine. As people became more cognizant of their physicality, individuality, and place in the cosmos, Montanari shows, they adopted a new attitude toward food, investing as much in its pleasure and possibilities as in its acquisition.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53908-1
    Subjects: History, Sociology, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Introduction Invitation to the Voyage
    (pp. 1-6)

    WHEN IT COMES to food and cooking, the Middle Ages often take the starring role. This is not only because medievalists, like all historians, devote much attention nowadays to this long neglected subject of history but also because marketing strategies for food production and catering were born in the Middle Ages. In truth,Middle Agesin most cases is no more than a generic term used to evoke an equally generic image. But that term and that image are evidently considered useful for selling and making more appealing commercial offerings. The termmedievalattributes an added value to products and...

  4. CHAPTER I Medieval Near, Medieval Far
    (pp. 7-16)

    “MEDIEVAL” COOKING has become fashionable today. But how can one presume to reconstruct the culinary taste of six, seven, or even ten centuries ago? The question, and consequently the answer, is, in fact, based on two different dimensions of taste. The first is that of taste asflavor—a particular sensation of the tongue and palate that is, by definition, a subjective, fleeting, incommunicable experience. In this regard, the historical experience of food is inevitably and irretrievably lost forever.

    But taste is alsoknowledge—the sensory evaluation of what is good or bad, of what pleases or displeases. It is...

  5. CHAPTER II Medieval Cookbooks
    (pp. 17-24)

    THE FIRST ITALIAN manuscripts containing recipes for cooking appeared in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the latter part of the Middle Ages. They reveal a culture already definable as Italian, while moving toward a broader European scope. The kind of cooking proposed by these texts is not local but rather international, a kind ofkoinéwith many common aspects and recipes that recur in various regions of Europe.¹ To go beyond the “territorial” (which only recently has become a requisite in gastronomic culture) represented a prestigious objective in the Middle Ages, and, for the upper classes (the direct or indirect...

  6. CHAPTER III The Grammar of Food
    (pp. 25-40)

    AN ONION is an onion. But when Rabano Mauro explains to us, in one of those symbolic, allegorical, and figurative interpretations that weave through his bookDe universo, that onions and garlic “signify the corruption of the mind and the bitterness of sin” because “the more one eats them, the greater the torment,” an onion has evidently become something other than an onion.¹

    Onions also became something else when Giovanni Italico, the biographer of Odo, abbot of Cluny, relates his encounter with an aged pilgrim during the return journey to Rome in the company of Odo. The old man had...

  7. CHAPTER IV The Times of Food
    (pp. 41-53)

    BECAUSE THERE IS no life without food, the theme of cooking plays an obviously central, and even strategic, role in defining the relationship between “natural” time and “human” time—that is, between nature and culture. These terms are symbolically contrasting but, in fact, are interwoven in a multiplicity of complex and ambiguous relationships, held together by the particular position of humankind in the world, in its double identity of object and subject of the action. Humankind, too, is an element of the natural world, affected by nature’s rhythms and laws, though to some degree the maker (or would-be maker) of...

  8. CHAPTER V The Aroma of Civilization Bread
    (pp. 54-61)

    IN THE LANGUAGE of Homer, “bread-eaters” (sitòfagoi) is synonymous with “men.” Eating this food is essential and sufficient to being man—not men in general but the men of Homer: the Greeks, the bearers of civilization. Those who do not eat bread are for that very reason “barbarians.”¹

    In point of fact, bread cannot be regarded as the “original” food of humanity. The ability to make it presupposes a series of complex techniques, not at all self-evident (growing grain, grinding it, turning it into dough, making it rise, baking it, and the like), that represent the fulfillment of a long...

  9. CHAPTER VI Hunger for Meat
    (pp. 62-71)

    IN THE MIDDLE AGES, meat became a primary food in terms of consumption—and even more so on a psychological level. The Roman era had not granted it similar importance with regard to choices of production or to dietary concerns and still less accorded it any ideological significance.

    To make this clearer, Roman alimentary ideology was built around a triad of products: bread, wine, and oil. Following the Greek tradition, these products symbolized a certain idea of civilization bound, in both the Greek and the Roman worlds, to agriculture as a means of production, which characterizes humans. Separating themselves from...

  10. CHAPTER VII The Ambiguous Position of Fish
    (pp. 72-78)

    IN THE EUROPEAN gastronomic system, fish long held a highly ambiguous position—or “status,” as Flandrin would have called it.¹

    What does this mean? It means that the experiences of our life are not merely what “is done” (or in this case, speaking of food, what “is eaten”); things have their own significance, a “meaning” within the system of values developed by each society. Foods, in short, have avalue—and related to it a potential for communication. If I say “sardine,” for example, I do not think only of a fish but also of a situation (in this specific...

  11. CHAPTER VIII From Milk to Cheeses
    (pp. 79-88)

    THE IMAGE OF MILK is naturally associated with infancy. It is a positive thing, a source of life and health. Ancient and medieval doctors defined it as a kind of whitened, purified blood.¹ And blood is the very essence of life. It is therefore not surprising that milk also holds a place in religious symbolism as an image of life and inner salvation. In early Christianity, the holy meal of believers consisted of milk (along with bread or honey) and only later moved toward the ritual consumption of bread and wine.² At a certain point, wine replaces milk in the...

  12. CHAPTER IX Condiment/Fundament The Battle of Oil, Lard, and Butter
    (pp. 89-106)

    EMPEROR FREDERICK II liked to say that in his realm culture was thecondimentumof power, represented by laws and weapons.¹ Scholars have pondered what meaning to attribute to this statement. Did Frederick see culture as a supplement, a kind of “feather in his cap,” to make the structure of power more pleasing and acceptable, or on the contrary, did he see it as the foundation of power:condimentumas “ condiment” in the first case (fromcondire) or as “fundament” in the second (fromcondere)? In the eyes of a historian of food, this is probably a nonproblem. It...

  13. CHAPTER X The Bread Tree
    (pp. 107-116)

    THE CHESTNUT, which grows spontaneously in a large area of the Mediterranean climate zone, remained outside the borders of commerce for a long time. At first, the Greeks did not even have a name to designate the chestnut, regarding it as a particular species of acorn or walnut.¹ Roman agronomists gave it little attention. Columella devotes a brief paragraph to the cultivation of the chestnut,² and Pliny the Elder makes note of “numerous varieties,”³ but dietary science continued to refer to the wild species: “among all wild fruit,” Galen wrote in the second century, “only chestnuts provide a significant amount...

  14. CHAPTER XI The Flavor of Water
    (pp. 117-129)

    WATER HAS NO flavor, but it is the element that carries all flavors, allowing them to exist. This notion, formulated by naturalists and philosophers in ancient Greece and taken as the basis of medieval scientific thought, contains in essence all the ambiguity of any discussion of water focused on the theme of flavor—or taste, which perceives and distinguishes flavors. If water has no flavor, then the two terms have no reason for standing together, and our discussion would end here. But flavors arise out of moisture, meaning water, and there is no discussion of taste that is not, by...

  15. CHAPTER XII The Civilization of Wine
    (pp. 130-148)

    “THE GRAPE HANGS from the vine like the olive from the tree . . . but the grape does not become wine, nor does the olive become oil before being pressed.”¹ Turning the image of the press into a metaphor that signifies the tribulations and spiritual perfection of man, Augustine also proposes the idea ofwork, which transforms and gives meaning to nature. Without the operation of the press, the grape would remain a grape and the olive an olive. This alone would not be insignificant, given that it was man himself who planted that vine and that olive tree....

  16. CHAPTER XIII Rich Food, Poor Food
    (pp. 149-157)

    THE HISTORY OF food has a powerful social meaning, which sources reveal with relative clarity. To recognize the differences and dynamics of class in the structure of production, the modality and contrasts of distribution, the typology of daily consumption, and the symbolic values attributed to foods and to eating habits is fairly easy for the most part because all this emerges from the documentation. However, this topic is more difficult to define on more strictly technical grounds—that is, to take into account the way cooking was practiced. The relation between poor food and rich food and the separation between...

  17. CHAPTER XIV Monastic Cooking
    (pp. 158-171)

    WAYS OF APPROACHING food play a central role in medieval monastic thinking, endowing the daily problem of nutrition with important cultural values and conferring on it a heavily ritualized character. A remarkable variety, in time and space, distinguishes the ideological and existential choices of individual groups and orders. There are, however, important common traits, mental and cultural attitudes, immediately recognizable as typical of the monastic experience.¹

    One aspect that is totally uniform is alimentarydeprivation, therenunciationof food as a means of mortifying the flesh. The practices of fasting (understood in a primarily quantitative sense: the elimination of the...

  18. CHAPTER XV The Pilgrim’s Food
    (pp. 172-176)

    A HAGIOGRAPHIC TEXT of the tenth century relates the pilgrimage made to Rome by Odo, abbot of Cluny, along with a young monk, Giovanni, who would later become his biographer. In a passage in theLife of Saínt Odo, we read that when the two were crossing the Alps on their return from Rome, an old peasant—pauper, in the Latin text—came alongside them, and on his back, he carried a sack containing food for his trip: bread, garlic, onions, and leeks. “Pious Odo,” Giovanni writes, “no sooner saw that man than he invited him to sit on his...

  19. CHAPTER XVI The Table as a Representation of the World
    (pp. 177-192)

    THAT THE DINING table is one of the best places for communication—perhaps the ideal place, where the desire to communicate with one’s familiars is expressed with ease and freedom—is so evident and so readily observable in daily life that there is no need for historical confirmation. We shall therefore concern ourselves with the table not as aplacebut rather as ameansof communication by analyzing some of the forms and modes with which this convivial ritual, this fundamental gesture that guarantees and celebrates daily survival, makes itself the bearer of all kinds of signs and meanings....

  20. CHAPTER XVII The Fork and the Hands
    (pp. 193-198)

    CUTLERY IS NOT a necessity. Many people in many parts of the world prefer taking food with their hands, thereby enjoying a more direct, immediate, physical rapport with it. During the Middle Ages, this was the custom in Europe as well, but a new table culture slowly grew, a new way of perceiving the relations between diners and food and between diners themselves.

    The first manuals of etiquette, which appeared in the thirteenth century in various European countries, took for granted that the only utensil available was the spoon, used for liquid foods. This was the only utensil deemed indispensable...

  21. CHAPTER XVIII The Taste of Knowledge
    (pp. 199-210)

    THE ORGAN OF taste is not the tongue but the brain. Better yet, it is the brain that directs and judges the sensations of the tongue. What the tongue perceives is flavors. In the nineteenth century, four fundamental flavors were codified: sweet, bitter, salty, and sour, each of which activates receptors located in specific zones of the tongue—sweet in the front, bitter in the back, salty on the right, and sour on the left.¹ But if the tongue perceives these flavors, it is the brain that recognizes them and judges them “good” or “bad” according to criteria of evaluation...

  22. Notes
    (pp. 211-244)
  23. Bibliography
    (pp. 245-256)
  24. Index
    (pp. 257-268)
  25. Back Matter
    (pp. 269-270)