Food in 15th Century Florence
Alessandra Torrigiani d'Arezzo
This discussion covers mainly the food available in Quattrocento Italy to merchants and nobility. In particular, I have focused on the foods that would have been eaten by my persona and family, upwardly mobile silk merchants residing in Florence in 1455-1477. The availability of these foods is influenced by Florence's role as a fairly major trading city, and my family both having an estate outside of the city, and a garden attached to out city house.
Water was collected as it fell off gutters into a tank, or drawn from a well (private or communal)1, but was not often drunk on its own. Wine, both red and white, was a favourite drink of the upper classes and was often produced on family estates, otherwise bought at market. Hops were grown, and could be used by brewers to brew beer, which was then sold.
Fruit and Vegetables:
Gardens both at the estate and attached to the houses in cities and towns provided vegetables and fruits. The availability of these foods would be affected by seasons. The vegetables grown were garlic, onions, leeks, artichoke, asparagus, cabbages, celery, cucumbers, lettuce, parsnips, peas, rocket, shallots, spinach, and turnips. Fruit trees would supply apples, almonds, cherries (morello and sweet), figs, mulberries, peaches, plums, pears, and pomegranates.2
Milk, cream, butter, and cheese would have been supplied from cows kept on the estate. While hard cheese would keep well enough to warrant their transport to the city house, the other items would need to be purchased freshly in the city. Eggs were supplied by chickens, which would have been kept on the estate but not in the city house, which would mean that eggs would have been bought.
Grain and Cereals:
Bread was made at home, using a sourdough technique 3, with flour brought to the city house after wheat grown on the estate was ground at the local mill. Pulses such as broad beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, and lentils were also grown on the estate, dried and transported into the city. Pasta was made in flat sheets to use in lasagne 4. Rice had only just reached northern Italy in this century and so was not widely grown and still imported. It would therefore have been fairly expensive, though it was used 5.
Fish was a regular item on the menu, especially due to Church requirements of fasting days on which fish was the only meat allowed. Using natural water features like lakes, or installing ponds on the estate, would enable constant and fresh supplies of fish, while the city house would rely more on salted fish, or fish purchased at market. Game such as hare, rabbits, boar, geese, and other wild birds could be hunted on the estate, while more domesticated cattle, pigs, goats, and sheep were kept on the estate.
Spices and Condiments:
As a fairly major trading city, there would have been access to a range of imported spices in Florence. Saffron, cinnamon, cloves, vanilla 6, ginger, pepper, nutmeg, salt, sugar, and possibly others 7 could be brought. Honey could have been bought or produced at the family estate. Herbs were grown in gardens in both the city house and estate. Herbs that were grown were basil, bay, chamomile, comfrey, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel, fenugreek, hyssop, marjoram, mint, parsley, rosemary, sage, savoury, and thyme.
Olive oil for preserving and cooking should have been produced at the country estate and transferred to the city house, or lacking an estate bought at market.
Storage and Preparation
Part of the duties of a good wife was the supervision of storage and preservation of food supplies, aiming to supply the family year-round 8. Earthenware jars were used to store basic ingredients such as oil, vinegar, and flour 9. Salting was one method of preserving meat, while vegetables could be preserved as 'compost' in a mix of honey, wine, vinegar, and spices 10. Having a country estate from which fresh supplies of meat and other items could be procured was not merely a luxury holiday home, but a vital part in ensuring both an availability and variety in food.
Food preparation would have been carried out by servants, under the overall supervision of the wife. General types of dishes seem to be pottages, pies, and roasts though other types were also made. Kitchens of large houses would have had both a fireplace and an oven, while those living in smaller houses had only a fireplace and paid to use commercial ovens to bake their bread and pies. This picture of the kitchen of Pope Pius V (1570) 11 gives an idea of the layout and equipment that would have been used on a smaller scale in a merchant's kitchen.
Food Customs and Restrictions
Religion played a major role in regulating and restricting types of food used. On fasting days, which were every Friday, though also Wednesday and Saturday for the pious, as well as annual feasts such as Advent and the six weeks of Lent, meat could not be eaten, and strict observers would also not use eggs or dairy products 12. Thus fish and milk substitutes like almond milk were regularly used on these days.
The theory of 'humours' might also influence the types of food served, as types of food might have a particular nature (cold, wet, hot, or dry), which would influence the balance of these humours in the eater 13.
When eating, knives, spoons and two pronged forks would be used, as well as two napkins, one for the lap and one for wiping the mouth and hands. Plates ranged from wood to metal, pottery, or precious metals such as gold depending on wealth. Pottery plates would be used by my family. At feasts, men were seated along one side of the tables, and the women on the other side 14.
A Normal Day's Menu 15
Alberti insists on the importance of families eating together both at lunch and dinner 16, implying that breakfast was not a formally served meal, probably just a few pieces of bread to begin the day. For family meals, a good domestic spread was expected to be served, not including the delicacies served at feasts 17.
Lunch would be more formally served, assuming it to be a meat day a possible menu is:
Braised Spring Greens
Erbolata - a cheese and herb tart
Then for dinner:
Tart of Salmon with Dried Fruits and Spices
Golden Leeks and Onions
A Feast Menu 18
Three courses seems to be standard for a feast menu, though a separate two courses only for lesser people seems to also be used 19.
Grilled bream in a sauce of wine, verjuice, and ginger
Partridges stuffed with peppercorns
Rice with almond milk
Roasted mutton stewed with wines, spices, and onion
Broiled eels with creamed leeks
Capon in coloured almond cream
Golden leeks and onions
Goat's kid pie
A subtlety: A peacock in its feathers
Roast coney with a ginger and verjuice sauce
Cream custard tart
Alberti, Leon Battista translated as The Family in Renaissance Florence, trans Watkins, Renee Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1969
Renfrow, Cindy Take a Thousand Eggs or More: A Collection of 15th Century Recipes, Second Edition, Volume Two, Private Printing, 1997
http://www.nicomarin.com/rincette_e.htm Translated 15th Century Italian Recipes
Black, Maggie The Medieval Cookbook, London: British Museum Press, 1992
Hart, Roger English Life in Tudor Times London: Wayland, 1972
Harvey, John Medieval Gardens London: BT Batsford, 1981
Pierotti-Cei, Luisa Life in Italy During the Renaissance, trans Tallon, Peter J. Geneve: Liber, 1977
http://www.silk.net/sirene/medgerm.htm A Medieval and Renaissance German Spice Chest
1 Luisa Pierotti-Cei, Life in Italy During the Renaissance, trans Peter J Tallon (Geneve: Liber, 1977) p44
2 Plant lists from Crescentiis (1305) compiled in John Harvey Medieval Gardens (London: BT Batsford, 1981) pp168-180
3 Sourdough bread is made by reserving a part of the dough from each batch and then adding fresh ingredients to the reserved portion. Without the ability to produce yeast cultures, this method ensures a constant supply of the correct type of yeast.
4 Maggie Black The Medieval Cookbook (London: British Museum Press, 1992) pp90-91
5 Pierotti-Cei, p60, Also Translated 15th Century Italian Recipes <http://www.nicomarin.com/rincette_e.htm>
6 Pierotti-Cei, p60
7 A Medieval and Renaissance German Spice Chest http://www.silk.net/sirene/medgerm.htm
I've extrapolated from this list of spices, based on their use in German recipe books, figuring if it was available in Germany odds were it was available in Italy. The lack of translated Italian recipes is a problem in carrying out a similar survey.
8 Leon Battista Alberti The Family in Renaissance Florence, trans Renee Watkins (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1969) p187
9 Pierotti-Cei, p53
10 Black, pp80-82
11 Cindy Renfrow Take a Thousand Eggs or More: A Collection of 15th Century Recipes, Second Edition, Volume Two (Private Printing, 1997) p503
12 Black, p11
13 Roger Hart English Life in Tudor Times (London: Wayland, 1972) pp85-88 The theory of humours was used all over Western Europe, deriving from Ancient Greek and Arabic medical texts.
15 Items for these menus have been taken from Black, Renfrow, and the Translated 15th Century Italian Recipes site. Therefore, while incorporating the few translated period Italian recipes I have found, the menus do include English recipes as a guide to the method of cooking foods known to be available in Italy.
16 Alberti, p186
18 Again, the dilemma of including English recipes. However I have been guided by accounts of Italian feasts such as Pierotti-Cei, p62, where one feast included 200 capons, 1236 ducks, 500 geese, 1500 chickens, and 470 pigeons.
19 See Renfrow, pp581-593, for a sample of contemporary English feast menus.