The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy Paperback – April 15, 2000
by Odile Redon (Author), Françoise Sabban (Author), Silvano Serventi (Author), Edward Schneider (Translator), University of Chicago Press
The book is organized by chapters which are very similar to a contemporary cookbook, covering Soups and Pastas; Porees and Vegetables; Meats cooked in Sauces; Roasted Meats; Fish; Pies and Tarts; Sauces; Eggs; Fritters and Breads; and Sweetmeats. The selection of recipes is much more interesting than in `The Medieval Cookbook' and the `arrangement' is as good or better than `Pleyn Delit', with much more background given for each individual recipe than either of the other two books. See my review of `Pleyn Delit' for a complete list of interesting things to do with these books.
The most impressive contribution of `The Medieval Kitchen' is its generalizations about medieval cooking in 50 pages of introductory essays on aspects of these 600-year old French and Italian cuisines. The highlight of this overview is the observation that 14th and 15th century European cooking was in love with spices in general and the `cookie spices', cinnamon and cloves, in particular. One may think that this is due to the influence of contact with the Moslem world, especially as the use of these spices is still strong in Sicily and Spain, but the authors state that this influence is overstated. Interest in spices was home bred. My other reviewed works show the very common use of saffron in recipes, but does not explain the broad use of a very expensive ingredient. `The Medieval Kitchen' clearly explains that while little attention was paid to odors directly, the color of food was given an important place in the preparation of medieval recipes. One can almost predict the great interest Europeans would have in the bright red of tomatoes and chiles from the New World.
Unlike today, where so many provisions are prepared and prepackaged by national or international companies, it is surprising to see that the medieval city had lots of shops run by foodstuff specialists, the only trace in today's France may be the boulanger for bread, patisserie for pastries, and the chocolatier for chocolate candies. The spice merchant, in particular, was a very important food specialist. A pale shadow in Europe of this merchant's work is the quatre epices and herbes de Provence. In the last 10 years, there seems to be a great growth in prepared seasoning mixes. I wonder if Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse and McCormick's and Durkee are simply reviving a 600-year-old practice by bottling and marketing spice mixes.
While the authors do not elaborate on this point, as it deals with a period after their chosen subject, they state that the emphasis on spices was replaced (except for pepper) by an emphasis on the use of local herbs such as lavender, mint, thyme and marjoram and by use of a broader range of cooking fats and oils in the seventeenth century.
As the Medieval period is quite rightly pictured as a period when progress in science some fine arts may have slipped from highs achieved in the ancient Roman and Greek worlds, this does not mean medieval domestic arts and crafts were not unsophisticated. In fact, one may be impressed by exactly how sophisticated their cooking techniques were, especially in the absence of convection ovens and electric ranges. Their emphasis on constantly processing and straining to achieve an especially smooth preparation reminds me of a description of Thomas Keller's kitchen at the French Laundry. On top of routinely elaborate techniques performed by a great range of specialists rivaling Escoffier's famous brigade system, there are also the very special preparations headlined by the entirely historical feat of baking `four and 20 blackbirds' into a pie. Not only was this actually done, the book tells us that it was common for banquets of the nobility, and it tells us how it was done.
As readable and as informative this book is for the casual foodie, it is a very serious work of scholarship which gets everything right, even those things which my two previous subjects did poorly. The method for citing sources is much better and, even though the book as a whole is translated from the French, all the original recipes in their original Latin, Medieval French or Italian, or Old English are supplied, along with modern English translations of these texts, followed by modern culinary interpretations of the recipes. Even on so small a matter as the selection of color prints, this volume picks much more interesting plates than `The Medieval Cookbook'.
The translator, the authors, or the publisher (University of Chicago Press) also did an excellent job of making the work available to an American audience. All measurements are in both metric and English units and many solids amounts are given by both weight and volume. Culinary unit conversions are typically very gross, as, for example, it is much easier to measure 1 liter for 4 cups rather than 946 milliliters, which is a much more accurate conversion. Even the sources are up to date American companies such as Dean & Delucca, Penzey's Spices, D'Artagnan, and King Arthur Flour.
While this book is superior in every way to the other two works cited, they are not superseded by this work, as they concentrate on English dishes while `The Medieval Kitchen' concentrates on France and Italy. In fact, it is useful to compare recipes in the three books to see how much they had in common.
Highly recommended as a source for a medieval theme entertainment, historical interest, and an understanding of realities of medieval life.