It is easy to love good food, and we Italians know a couple of things about it. When you enjoy cooking, you become acquainted with ingredients and flavors with a pleasurable delight; you get to know how they mix with each other, which type of scent their fragrance produce and how they will taste once they touch your tongue. Ah… food: like poetry and painting, it’s impossible to resist the beauty in forms and colors it creates when it’s spread out on a table and, of course, it’s even harder to refrain from tasting it.
When you love food, there are two things you really want to do: eat it and make it. That’s why it’s nice to have a well furnished kitchen, and plenty of interesting recipes to try, as well as a gang of good friends to invite over to justify your spending every single weekend surrounded by pots and pans, making your best impression of a domestic goddess/god. But you know what, there’s something we barely stop thinking about when in the kitchen, the history behind what we’re making and eating. Have you ever thought of it? You guys, on the other side of the pond, are usually more aware of it, as your cuisine is a delicious melting pot of flavors and cultures hailing from every corner of the Earth, the heritage and history of which is usually well rooted into the community.
In Italy, things are a bit different: we usually care deeply and lovingly about our family’s cooking history: grandmas and moms’ recipes are passed on with care and pride, a symbol itself of one’s own heritage and roots. Some of us are more aware than others of regional characteristics typical of each dish, but it is not usual, when it comes to the kitchen, to look further back than a couple of generations: our knowledge of why we cook in a certain way and why we eat certain things is normally based on oral sources (our elders) and therefore have a limited timespan.
The history of Italian cuisine, however, is as long and rich as the country’s history itself, its origins laying deep into the ancenstral history of Rome, its people and its political, cultural and social power. Italian cuisine has evolved and changed following the evolution and the changes of Italy itself throughout centuries of wars, cultural mutations and contacts: it’s a history as rich, colorful and fascinating as the most amazing of recipes.
This is what we’re going to tell you today: a tale of food, traditions, kings and warriors, the centuries long tale of Italian kitchens.
Rome and the early Middle Ages
Our ancestors, the Romans, loved feasting on food: the banquet was not simply a moment of social conviviality, but also the place where new dishes were served and tried. The Empire embraced the flavors and ingredients of many of the lands it had conquered: spices from the Middle East, fish from the shores of the Mediterranea and cereals from the fertile plains of North Africa; Imperial Rome was the ultimate fusion cuisine hot spot. The Romans, though, contrarily to how we’re today, liked complex, intricated flavors and their dishes often required sofisticated preparation techniques. Ostrich meat, fish sauces, roasted game, all watered by litres of red wine mixed with honey and water, never failed to appear on the table of Rome’s rich and famous.
Of course: we’re talking about the jetset here, certainly not about the majority of people, who very much, on the other hand, based their diet on the simple union of three things (and the products made of them): the vine, the olive and cereals. This was called Mediterranean Triad and is still today considered central to the diet known worldwide as the Mediterranean diet. Wine, olive oil and bread, then, plus healthy helpings of vegetables, legumes and cheese: this is what the people of Rome would eat on daily basis.
The coming of the Barbarians in the peninsula didn’t only cause the end of the Roman Empire, but also that of such a tradition of, let us say, banqueting in style: these rugged looking, harsh-speaking people from central and northern Europe had very little in common with Romans and their lifestyle. As it always happens when cultures meet and clash, the two influenced each other, also in the kitchen: the Barbarians (who, as a matter of fact, ended up being the last straw needed to provoke the fatal collapse of the Empire, but who embraced with pure eagerness all that was Roman culturally, spiritually and socially) introduced the consumption of butter and beer, whereas the Romans passed on to them a taste for wine and olive oil.
Different was the culinary passage into the Middle Ages of Sicily which, since the 9th century, had become an Arabic colony: islanders embraced the exotic habits and tastes of their colonisers, a fact mirrored also in their cuisine. Spices and dried fruit became a common concoction and are still often found in Sicilian dishes. Many may not know that dried pasta, today a quintessentially Italian thing, was brought to the country, specifically to Sicily, by the Arabs, who appreciated the fact it was easy to carry and preserve, hence perfect for long sea trips and sieges. From the ports of Sicily, dried pasta made its way to those of Naples and Genoa, as well as France and Spain. So, contrarily to what we hear often when talking about the history of pasta, it wasn’t Marco Polo that brought noodles to Italian shores. This is how, we can truly say, an Italian legend was born.
It wasn’t only the influence of other populations to change and influence the Italian way of cooking and eating in the early centuries of the Middle Ages, but also that of religion. After Constantine declared Christianity a legal religion of the Empire and especially after it became the sole Imperial religion with the Edict of Thessalonica in 380, under the reign of emperor Theodosius I, Christianity began exercising heavy regulations upon people behaviors and habits, including the way they ate. Food and eating were strongly associated with sin and with sexuality: pride, of course, was Adam and Eve’s sin, but it did manifest itself through the acts of a woman, who ate the forbidden fruit. As a consequence, spiritual perfection could be obtained through abstinence and fasting and, in particular, through renunciation to meat consumption. Very much up to the year 1000, the monks of Italy (and of the whole of Europe, as a matter of fact) ate a strict diet of bread and legumes, with very spare additions of cheese and eggs on allowed days, along with some seasonal fruit. Meat was considered a dangerous aliment not only for its symbolic meaning: it was refused as a food both because its production involved an act of blatant violence, the killing of an animal, but also because it was considered an energetic food, which could provoke in its consumers unclean desires and passions. In other words, Medieval Christians thought, meat could make you loose your chastity more easily than salad.
Roman banquets and the Barbarians’ habit to eat meat continuously on one side, Christian restrain of the other: the duality came to an end when Charlemagne managed to reconcile the two by declaring righteous an alternation of ascetic fasting with days of pleasurable feasting, when even religious authorities and the faithful could give into the pleasures of the table and consider it an offering to the greatness and goodness of God. During these days of feast, food became one and only with celebrating and honoring the Lord, just as fasting and restrictions did during the rest of the week. Monasteries slowly but steadily abandoned those strict ascetic regulations that had characterized them up to that point and opened to the flavors and tastes of good food on special occasions, which also became moments of prayer and reflection.
And what about castles and their inhabitants? What did they eat in the early Middle Ages?
The social structure built around the castle and its lord had become, by the 11th century, organized in an autarchic economical system which allowed most of its members (craftsmen, members of the military, servants, peasants) to eat regularly and with relative ease. The lord of the castle, of course, was the one with the fuller stomach, but even to him and his family, food was far from being a gastronomic matter: up to when life in the cities flourished again, in Italy before than everywhere else, and people’s mores became, once again, more refined, medieval banqueting remained closer to barbaric food feasts than to old, lavish and harmonious Roman banquets.
The later Middle Ages and the Renaissance
In the later Middle Ages, town life blossomed again with the development of the comuni culture: this supported the inception of early productive cores upon which a whole new social class was to found its roots: the bourgeoisie. Craftsmen were hit by higher demands, dictated by the higher number of people living in urban areas, as well as by a steep increase in commerce, both within and without the borders of Italy as we know it today. The Crusades had opened up Europe to the idea of communicating with one’s neighbor and products began to circulate with much ease: a new social class, that of merchants was born. It is, then, among this crafts and commerce crowd that the pleasure of good food became, once again, symbol of social and economic status. Cooking returned to be a matter of enjoyment and refinement, a voyage among flavors and combinations. Meats and vegetables were once again roasted and braised, the old art of stewing and dressing dishes in rich, flavorsome sauces was rediscovered.
The lords of the castle were going that extra mile to make things even more flamboyant, and embraced with flair the old imperial habit to present food and dishes on the plate spectacularly: birds were served decorated with their own feathers, as if they were still living, pork was brought onto the table with its head still attached to the body, surrounded by pounds and pounds of sides. Such a rediscover of old, traditional ideas in the kitchen, coincided with the introduction of new culinary elements especially on the lords’ table: spices and cane sugar, introduced to Italy by the Arabs and grown in Sicily, substituted salt, pepper or honey in many a dish and helped to create new flavors and recipes. It is, for instance, during the 13th century that sugared almonds (called confetti in Italy) were created and usually served as a sign of culinary distinction at the end of very important dinners: of course, we’re talking about modern confetti, covered with a delicious sugar shell here, but the idea of having almonds or even aniseeds covered in a sweet shell was common already in Roman times. However, the Romans didn’t know sugar, so they would use a paste of honey and flour instead.
In general, almonds preparations became very popular, especially thanks to Sicilian cuisine and its love for Arabic flavors: it was in Sicily, for instance, that the Arabs introduced an ancestor of marzipan, which was to become a very popular medieval dessert. What many don’t know is that, very probably, the most famous of all Sicilian dessert, the cassata, may have Arabic origins, too. The cake, made with sheep ricotta mixed with sugar, sponge cake, royal paste (a sweet paste made of almond flour and sugar) and candied fruit, was created during the Arab domination of island, between the 9th and the 11th century. Arabs had introduced sugar cane, lemons and oranges to the coltures of Sicily and very soon they all became part of its cuisine: all these ingredients concurred, along with sheep ricotta, always produced in the South of Italy, and almonds, to create the cassata. Even its name may come from the Arabic word qas’at, which means “small basket,” and could indicate the container where the cake was made. However, other linguists think the name actually comes from the Latin caseum, which means “cheese.”
Either way, the roots of the dish itself are certainly Middle Eastern, even though it changed greatly throughout the centuries: for instance, the pasta di mandorle – a paste made with almond flour and sugar, which is an ingredient of marzipan – began to be used only during the Norman period to cover cassate. Before then, they were encased in shortbread.
Some place the origin of another delicious Italian sweet treat in the same period, and at the hand of the same people, the Arabs: it seems, in fact, that the history of gelato, the world famous Italian-style ice cream, is very much rooted on Sicilian soil and in Arabic culinary tradition. The Arabs commonly produced a sorbet-like concoction of sugar and fruit juices, turned into ice by keeping it immersed in a mixture of ice and salt. They exported the method in Sicily, where fruits were plenty, marine salt a local produce and ice came easily from the peaks of Mount Etna. Even though gelato as we know it became a fixture of European tables only in the 1600s, thanks to the popularity it reached in France, Arabic Sicily wins the medal for having been the first place in the western world where its ancestor was produced.
The history of Italian cuisine and food is still long and fascinating. Get to learn more about what Italy inherited from the New World and the evolution of the Italian way of cooking up to modern times in the second part of our adventure in the history of Italian food.