Discover the Basic Renaissance Food
“If you ask them [Italians cooks] ‘I would like to put this type of cheese with this type of bread’. They will go ‘no, no, no, that does not go’…There is a lot of pride that goes behind the food,” says Monika Duque, a professor of history of art as she reflects on some eateries in Florence and Italians’ relation to food. Food is a significant aspect of Italian culture. However, to really understand the Florentine gastronomy one has to look back in the history.
Throughout the middle-ages, Florence was one of the wealthiest cities in Europe boasting a vast variety of spices including ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon that transformed Florentine cuisine. “Renaissance food was sweet and sour. People would mix the fruits with honey and with these spices,” Monika said.
However, although seemingly paradoxical, this same region of Tuscany, home to the merchants that began importing spices that became so popular all over Europe was – and still is – known for its tasteless, saltless bread. Spices were very expensive and salt was heavily taxed. Since only the wealthy could afford to dust their foods with the exotic flavors, foreign spices quickly became a sign of prosperity. Most of the population, however, was riddled with poverty and so saltless bread.
The foods people ate were directly correlated with their social status. The upper class enjoyed meat and wine, fish and spices. After taking the good cuts, the wealthy Florentines passed what was left to the people of the lower classes who were only able to afford the inner organs such as tripe or giblets.
Today, purchasing a pack of cinnamon costs around one euro. Does this mean that modern-day Florentines eat like the nobles ate in the past? Monika claims that the present Florentine cuisine is relatively basic when compared to the meals of the Renaissance era. “It is poor man’s kitchen.” The elaborate Renaissance dishes would be hardly acceptable for today’s taste.
This said, what was once considered “fine dining” might be appalling to the wealthier population of today’s world. Fresh and local products, while once viewed as peasant foods, are now amongst the most expensive to buy at supermarkets. Throughout the Renaissance, people cooked beans and vegetables they could grow, make cheese (pecorino) from sheep’s milk that was accessible. Food was preserved with salt or sugar; soups were made to preserve the bread. Monika discussed that back in the days people used to cook everything and did not throw anything. The kitchen was very frugal.
“That art piece with the Bacco holding a glass of wine in his hand with the still light in front of him, with beautiful fruits, and he has this head piece of grape leaves, is representative of Italy when it comes to food … It is simplicity that makes it so great. The simplicity of the ingredients of the Italian food is what makes its food so great; the simplicity of Caravaggio’s Bacco is what makes his piece so great,” concludes Monika.
The food was not only represented in arts, it was itself an art form, practised by the main Renaissance painters, sculptors and architects. A group of twelve Renaissance geniuses, Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci included, turned the plates into the canvas. They created a club called La Compagnia del Paiolo, in which they would compete with each other, the goal being to design and prepare the most artistic meal.
It seems that the circle of dining is approaching a new beginning. In many parts of the world, the hands are fighting back their special position in the eating process. Cutlery, plates, table are becoming the optional dining attributes in the times of “take away” food. In Italy, the country that during the Renaissance also taught the rest of the Europe how to set the table, the table cloths, the forks and spoons are standing strong. All these attributes and special dining rules still preserved in Florence and Italy generally signifies the importance and respect that the food had in the region throughout the history.