A Renaissance in the Kitchen

Food: A Cultural Culinary History—Episode 15

Hello, Great Courses fans. This audio-podcast has been cooked, removed from the oven, and is being lovingly delivered to a new audio-platform. In its absence, please enjoy the video series that it was based off, streaming now Wondrium. Click here to watch it now.

The following episode transcript and images will remain for posterity. Enjoy!

The Italian Renaissance brought a new aesthetic approach to cookery, featuring great complexity of presentation. In this podcast we’re going to uncover some of the era’s extremes in books by Renaissance food writers. We’ll study menus and recipes from the staggeringly elaborate banquets of the court of Ferrara.

Images for this Episode:

Culinary Activities for this Episode:

• Christoforo di Messisbugo (1549): To Make Ten Plates of Maccheroni 

In the Renaissance, macaroni was a generic name for all kinds of pasta—either what we would today call gnocchi, tubular pasta, or even noodles. This version is more of a dumpling but was still labor intensive enough to be considered elegant and worthy of noble tables. Of course, it does not yet contain potato, though those were known to botanists in this century. Bread crumbs serve the same purpose. Notice also the intriguing flavorings, which are actually delicious. Feel free to cut down the recipe in any way you like. Messisbugo gives us measurements, so that is possible, but do note that a pound at this time was 12 ounces rather than 16.

Take five pounds of white flour and two of grated white bread, and mix well with the flour, and then take boiling water and three eggs to make the dough, which should be neither too tough nor too light. Let it cool a little. Then cut into pieces about the size of a chestnut, and roll your macaroni across the holes of a grater and put them into boiling water to cook. When they’re cooked, add a little salt, then take two and a half pounds of grated hard cheese with an ounce and a half of ground pepper mixed in, then toss so the cheese is above and below, along with a pound and a half of butter on top, then cover with another plate, placing it in a hot place until you’re ready to bring it to the table, and sprinkle if you like with a little sugar and cinnamon on top and it will be better.

• Christoforo di Messisbugo: Puff-Pastry Pizzas

The following recipe from Messisbugo’s cookbook is particularly interesting not only because of the bizarre method of making a puff pastry, but also because it is called “pizza.” It bears practically no relation to what we now know by that name. The puffs, incidentally, were one of the more common tidbits placed on the credenza before guests arrived and were, thus, eaten as a starter. Presumably, his audience knows exactly what these were supposed to look like, because he merely instructs: “make your puff pizzas.” This also where butter appears and plays a major role in the cuisine.

To make 10 puff-pastry pizzas (notice there’s a total of six-and-a half pounds of butter):

Pull the soft interior out of four white breads and soak it in tepid water. Take three pounds of the finest wheat flour, ten egg yolks and a pound of fresh butter, three ounces of rose water, and seven ounces of sugar. Mix everything together with the bread, making a dough.

Roll it out into a sheet as you would a lasagna dough, and make it as light as you can. Then, take a pound and a half of fresh butter, heated, and pour it over the sheet. Let it cool. Then, roll a spiral pastry cutter the length of the sheet and cut it into 10 pieces. Next, make your puff pizzas. Have a pan ready with four pounds of fresh butter, and fry your puff pizzas in it. When they are fried, sprinkle a half pound of sugar over them.

Suggested Reading:

Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste.

Capatti, Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History.

David, Harvest of the Cold Months: The Social History of Ice and Ices.

Jeanneret, Feast of Words: Banquets and Table Talk in the Renaissance.

Martino of Como, The Art of Cooking.

Platina, On Right Pleasure and Good Health.

Riley, The Oxford Companion to Italian Food.

Serventi, Pasta: The Story of a Universal Food.

Unger, Beer in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Images courtesy of:

• Florence: Bas van Hout (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
• Renaissance scholars: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
• Apicus Frontispiece: By http://www.lib.k-state.edu/ [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Platina: Melozzo da Forlì [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Printing press: Jost Amman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
De honesta voluptate: By Il Platina [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Sugarcane: Shutterstock

• Marsilio Ficino: Domenico Ghirlandaio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
De Vita Triplici: By Ficino, Marsilio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Primavera: Sandro Botticelli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• The Birth of Venus: Sandro Botticelli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Ferrara: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons 
• Ercole d’Este: Dosso Dossi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Banchetti woodcut: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
• Mannerist painting: Pontormo [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons