Art at the table

Food in the Renaissance

The origins of modern cuisine go back to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when popular traditions were changed and enriched by the novelties arriving from the New World. It was in this period that the taste for the presentation of the dishes emerged. On the tables of the most affluent families there appeared soups made with stock or milk, rice and cereals, while the most prized meat dishes were game and poultry.

Dating to the same century was the practice of wrapping the meat in a crust of bread dough. Then, at the end of the fifteenth century, “Italian style” pasta emerged: macaroni and vermicelli garnished with raisins or with butter and salt, as well as the first filled pasta, the forerunners of tortellini. Chocolate also made its appearance, albeit only in the homes of the nobles.

As always, even in the Renaissance, the daily round of the humbler folk was regulated by sunlight; the men would rise early, being woken by their wives or mothers who had already been up for some time. In the evening when the sun went down, the day would end at the table, differently laden depending on the income of the family gathered around it. Before leaving home to go to work, the recommended breakfast was a slice of bread accompanied by half a glass of wine.

This was the rule of the poor people who, in the course of the day, would eat another two meals: lunch, or commestio, around eleven o’clock in the morning, and supper, or prandium, just after sunset. The supper was generally the longer meal, because once their day’s work was done people were freer to spend longer at the table with their families.

At that time the supper of the poor was very austere, consisting of bread, vegetables, jam and fruit, in addition to broad beans and gruel made of millet and chestnuts. The herbs used by the poor were often also used as preservatives, since they made it possible to prepare foods that lasted more than one day.

The supper was sometimes enriched by a couple of eggs, although when fried these were a meal in themselves. The bread was always unsalted, because salt was expensive and hard to get hold of, especially if you were poor. Bread was the staple foodstuff of the poor and was eaten on its own, while the rich used it as a base or trencher to place their roasted meat on.

Some people made their own bread, but it always had to be baked in the public ovens; this was because in this way the authorities were able to monitor the consumption of each family, and hence their wealth, and to proceed to the appropriate taxation.

All this also served to keep the price of bread fair, avoiding fraud and speculation. Unfortunately, though, frequently there was no bread, so that it tended to be offered only on special occasions and weddings. When an illustrious person died, it was the practice to distribute bread to the poor, so that they would retain a fond memory of him.

When the bread became hard, it was the practice to use it to make a panata, a type of soup based on the grated crumbs of the hard bread, eggs, parmesan cheese, nutmeg and salt. Soup and pasta were also very common, including macaroni; on special occasions meat was eaten, and chicken, and when the pig was killed it was the custom to offer sanguinaccio, blood sausage or black pudding, to the neighbours.

Spices were hardly ever used by the poor because they were extremely expensive. When they were used, it was not merely to flavour the food, but also to conceal the strong smell of the meat, which was rarely fresh in view of the lack of systems for preserving food. In this period the soups were frequently based on fragrant herbs, which could even be bulbs, for example onions that were used to made the meals tastier.

The onion soup, which is still a great favourite, is not in fact of French origin – as many people believe – but comes from Florence.

Art at the table