Kenneth Albala. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 2. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
The basic ingredients that have historically comprised the southern European diet are well known and have recently received much attention for their health-promoting benefits: These are bread, wine, olive oil, and a wide variety of fruits and vegetables supplemented by fish, dairy products, and a relatively small amount of animal flesh.
Less known, however, are the historical forces that shaped how southern Europeans think about food. Essentially, three rival systems have influenced the culture of food in southern Europe since late antiquity, and in various combinations these systems have informed eating patterns at all levels of society.
The most pervasive of these food systems might be called “Christian,” although its roots are not necessarily found in the teachings of Jesus and his disciples. It encompasses monastic asceticism as well as the calendar of fasts and feasts that have historically regulated food consumption. In all its manifestations, the ideal goal of Christian foodways has been spiritual purity through the control of bodily urges, though this can easily be lost sight of when rules are bent and holidays become occasions for excess.
The second major system is medical in origin and has gained and lost popularity in the past two millennia depending on the state of nutritional science, though it continues to influence common beliefs to this day. The object of this system of “humoral physiology,” of course, is the maintenance or recovery of health by means of dietary regimen.
Lastly, the “courtly” or gastronomic food culture has also profoundly influenced southern Europe, radiating from urban centers of power such as Rome, Naples, Venice, and the courts of Aragon, Castile, and Provence. Its goal is ostensibly pleasure, but this is usually mixed with motives of conscious ostentation in order to impress guests.
Whereas religious, medical, and gastronomic considerations shape the foodways of most cultures, it is their unique and often surprising combinations that make those of southern Europe especially fascinating. The gourmand monk, the duke surrounded by swarms of physicians, the parvenu townsman indulging his taste for spices—all reveal glimpses into the dynamics of society and the ways that individuals express themselves through food preferences, which in southern Europe are to a great extent informed by one or more of these fundamental systems.
Although “Quadragesima,” or Lent, was instituted in remembrance of Christ’s 40-day fast in the desert, there is little in the biblical account of Christ and his followers that would warrant either regular fasting or placing restrictions on which foods can be consumed. In fact, the Gospels consciously reject the dietary legalism of the Old Testament and assert that all foods are clean: “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man” (Matt. 15: 11). Furthermore, Christ celebrated numerous feasts—the marriage at Cana, supper at Emmaus, the “Last Supper.”
Fasting, or a denial of bodily urges to achieve spiritual purity, seems to be more directly rooted in Greek and Eastern ideas about the dualism of body and soul. If the body is merely a temporary corruptible prison for the eternal soul, then suppressing its sinful demands will cleanse the spirit in anticipation of its release from bodily constraint. Rejecting the appetites for food, sex, and sleep becomes a path to righteousness.
St. Anthony (c. 250-350) was the most popular of the early ascetics, and the example of his austerities in the Egyptian desert would inspire many future Christians. The church fathers also adopted a favorable stance toward fasting and abstinence. St. Augustine (354-430) recommended abstinence from meat and drink in an epistle to his sister’s nunnery, and both St. Ambrose (340?-397) and St. Jerome (340?-420) were influential in advocating an abstemious diet for monastics in Italy.
It was St. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-547) who would be most influential in framing a rule that would form the foundation for European monasticism. However, before we examine this specific institution, the more general topic of public fasts demands attention.
In the fourth and fifth centuries, the Christian church gradually defined the fast as an abstention from meat and animal products such as milk and eggs and a limitation of meals to one a day. The 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, as well as the 30 days of Advent preceding Christmas, were set aside as the most important fasts. Wednesdays and Fridays, and sometimes a third day of the week, were also designated as fast days, as were the evenings preceding holidays. Although originally proscribed, fish increasingly became the ideal food for these periods.
In principle, fasts were intended to be public expressions of self-denial in atonement for sins. Minor mortifications would presumably quell the passions and turn the mind to spiritual exercise in preparation for major holy celebrations. Depending on their budgets, people could, in practice, consume rare and expensive fish, dried fruits, and spiced confections, so Lent did not necessarily involve a sacrifice of luxury. Rather in wealthy households it could become the occasion for the ingenious invention of meatless dishes incorporating almond milk to replace cream. But for the majority of people a normally meager diet would now be limited to bread, legumes, and the often reviled stockfish.
The cyclical seasons of want were bracketed by festivals of plenty, and numerous saint’s days and local celebrations punctuated the medieval calendar. The festival of St. Iago in Spain and that of St. Joseph in Italy are two examples. Many of these feasts originated in pagan agricultural rites that were absorbed into the early church and transformed into holy days. Each town across southern Europe would also celebrate the feast of its own patron saint with specially prepared foods.
The most universal feast was held on the day before Ash Wednesday, Martedi Grasso or Mardi Gras, when all meat and eggs had to be consumed before Lent. This day of meat eating or “Carnevale” often became the occasion for gross indulgence. Drunkenness, flesh eating, violence, and sexual license were all associated with this binge preceding the rigors of abstinence.
By the late Middle Ages, mock battles would be held between personifications of Carnival and Lent, and the natural order of society would be subverted in mock trials, mock weddings, and even mock prayers. Indeed, the world was said to be turned upside down in this brief catharsis of revelry (Burke 1978). Gluttony was still considered among the seven deadly sins, though this rule, too, was momentarily suspended.
The most important “feast” in the Christian calendar, however, was of a more sacred nature. The sacrament of the Eucharist, in which bread or a thin wafer consecrated by a priest is placed in the mouth of each communicant, offers a form of spiritual nourishment. After the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, the official doctrine of transubstantiation held that the substance of the bread is transformed into the actual body of Christ while its “accidents” or shape still appear to be bread. Through this miracle, and the act of eating the bread, one receives merit, which aids in salvation. Drinking wine is also central to the sacrament, although it was customarily reserved only for priests. The wine becomes the blood of Christ in the same way that the bread becomes the body. Thus, the everyday acts of eating and drinking were transformed into one of the central mysteries of the Christian church.
Also central to the culture of food as influenced by Christianity was the development of monasticism. In his “Rule” for monks at Monte Cassino in the sixth century, St. Benedict laid down specific regulations for food consumption that spread across Europe. Two cooked dishes were to be offered at either the noontime (prandium) or late afternoon (cena) meal and a third dish of fresh fruit or vegetables when available. Each monk was to be given a pound of bread daily as well as a “hemina” of wine, which was roughly two glasses (St. Benedict 1981: chap. 40, n. 40.3).
St. Benedict noted that wine was hardly a proper drink for monks, but few could be convinced of that in his day. Benedict also carefully fit meals into the daily schedule of prayers, though over the years his original provisions were supplemented by snacks such as the “collation,” eaten while hearing readings from St. Cassian’s Collations. There might also have been extra portions of food, the “pittance” provided by pious benefactors, though this may not have amounted to much, considering what this word has come to mean.
Most important, in addition to the regular cycles of fasting, monks were expected to abstain entirely from meat, except perhaps on rare occasions, as when dining in private with the abbot or when ill. These rules were often observed only in the breach, especially as monasteries grew more wealthy and lax in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Cheese was eventually allowed, following the logic that it is no more flesh than olive oil is wood (Moulin 1978: 87). Other prohibitions were also avoided: St. Benedict cannot have been referring to fowl when demanding that monks abstain from the meat of quadrupeds (St. Benedict 1981: chap. 39).
Rather than models of austerity, many monasteries became gastronomic enclaves, and there is, no doubt, some truth to the complaints of St. Peter Damian and Dante Alighieri about portly Benedictines (Dante 1939: 130). In addition to preserving and spreading viticulture throughout Europe, the monks originated many renowned cheeses, pastries, and confections. From their medicinal gardens they also concocted many celebrated cordials, chartreuse, and vermouth—not to mention champagne (Dom Perignon in the seventeenth century).
It was precisely in reaction to this gastronomic luxury and laxity that many new and more rigorous orders were founded in successive waves of religious revival. In contrast to lavish Cluniac monasteries, Cistercian simplicity began to flourish in the late twelfth century, influenced by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Later came new austere mendicant orders such as the Franciscans, and following the advent of bubonic plague, a number of intensely penitential and flagellant orders flourished, such as the Gesuati. At any rate, the ascetic attitude toward food remained active in spite of the luxury of wealthier orders.
Many holy men and women so successfully mortified their flesh through abstinence that we can only conclude they deliberately starved themselves to death. This was precisely the goal of some Cathars in the South of France, who believed (heretically) that the world was created by the devil and that everything in it, the body as well as food, was evil. For the Cathars, starvation was a way to attain spiritual perfection. The Carthusians, an entirely different vegetarian order, had to go out of their way to assert the goodness of food to avoid being suspected of the Cathar heresy.
Self-starvation itself, however, was not necessarily considered heretical or demoniacal. St. Catherine of Siena, it has been suggested, suffered from a form of anorexia and subsequently became a model consciously imitated for centuries (Bell 1985). For many young women, conquering the self and hunger may have been the only outlet for expressing their pious urges in an entirely male-dominated society, the ideal of holiness being achieved only with the destruction of appetites and often the body itself.
Following the Counter Reformation, asceticism was gradually supplanted by activism as the ideal fruit of devotion. The Lenten fast, however, remained in force up until Vatican II, and to this day many Catholics continue the practice as an integral part of their food heritage.
Physicians promulgated another theoretical food system, humoral physiology, which had a profound impact on the culture of food in southern Europe. As a legacy of Greek science, nutritional theory survived in more or less threadbare form through the early Middle Ages. Among the Moors of Spain it did undergo a rich development, but its first major revival in the Latin West was within the walls of the earliest universities, most notably at Salerno, Montpellier, Bologna, and, later, at Padua and Valladolid.
Translating Galen and Hippocrates via Arabic sources and commentaries, Gerard of Cremona (1140-1187) and Arnald of Villanova (1235-1312) provided Europe with its first guides to nutrition. The popular Regimen Sanitatis (c. 1160) of Salerno was the most widely known of the early diet books, and works continued to be written through the Middle Ages by individuals such as Magninus of Milan and Ugo Benzo.
During the Renaissance, dozens of new works were printed throughout southern Europe, the most popular by Marsilio Ficino, Platina, and Girolamo Savonarola. A second major revival followed in the sixteenth century, as complete and accurate translations of ancient Greek texts became available. Despite extensive scientific research in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the old humoral system was fully abandoned only in the nineteenth century, and it still survives in the popular consciousness, most notably in Latin America.
Humoral physiology is based on the idea that four major f luids dominate the human body: blood, phlegm, choler, and black bile (or melancholy). Each “humor” is composed of two basic elements: Heat and moisture are the elements that make up blood; cold and moisture constitute phlegm; heat and dryness combine to form choler; and cold and dryness make up melancholy. When the body is in a state of health, the four humors were said to be balanced, or in the correct proportion of 16 parts to 4 parts to 1 part to 1/4 part. An imbalance of humors was seen as the origin of sickness and disease. Each individual, however, was also said to have his or her own natural “complexion” or constitution in which one humor dominated, and this distinctive makeup determined the nature of bodily functions, character, and intelligence.
That this system was well known is confirmed by frequent references to it in southern European art and literature from the High Middle Ages onward. But the system was not merely a philosophical abstraction or literary conceit. People did try to judge the state of their bodies’ vital signs and tried to correct imbalances through regulation of the “nonnaturals” or external influences, such as sleep, exercise, air quality, sexual activity, and—most important for this discussion—diet.
Essential to this system was the belief that each food also had its own complexion or dominant humor and would thus interact with the humoral balance of the individual who consumed it. Several signs revealed the qualities of a food: color, aroma, and, most notably, taste. Sweetness was evidence of heat and moisture. Spicy, salty, and bitter foods were all considered hot and dry in varying degrees; we still describe foods like chilli peppers as “hot.” Cold and dry foods tasted sour, styptic, or tannic (hence a “dry” wine). Lastly, insipid and watery foods were composed of cold and moist elements. Foods in each of these categories also promoted their own specific humor in the body when eaten. Cool and moist cucumbers supposedly converted into phlegm; hot and dry cinnamon became choler; and sugar made good blood.
As a rule, healthy individuals were advised to consume foods similar to their own natural complexions. When “distempered” or ill, one should consume the opposite foods to correct the imbalance. Medicines were prescribed following the same logic. A “cold” or phlegmatic imbalance might be corrected with hot and dry spices, or a more potent medicine if more serious. Tobacco was first taken for such conditions. When a person was overheated, a cold acidic drink was viewed as a good corrective.
By the mid-sixteenth century, physicians most frequently recommended nourishment opposite to the natural complexion, but such advice merely assumed that the patient was usually somewhat distempered, and the recommendation did not constitute a change in theory (Flandrin 1982, 1987: 295-6).
The complexion of each food also determined how it would best combine with other foods. An excessively cold and moist food, such as melon, was best corrected with salt or prosciutto. Fatty phlegmatic meats were more digestible with hot and dry spices. A food whose substance was difficult to “concoct” in the stomach, such as crass and gluey fish, would be improved by a cutting lemon juice or vinegar.
Indeed, humoral physiology is at the very heart of many culinary traditions that persist in southern Europe to this day. Salads are a perfect example. Cold and moist lettuce is combined with hot and dry herbs, both of whose humoral natures are counteracted by hot and dry salt and cold and dry vinegar, given further balance by hot and moist oil. Consider quail with grapes, strawberries with balsamic vinegar, or pork with mustard. All these combinations have their origin in humoral dietary theory.
According to dietary theorists, however, deciding exactly what to eat was a far more complicated affair than simply balancing flavors. Each meal also required consideration of the season, because the body was thought to respond to atmospheric conditions and air quality. The age and gender of the diner was also essential; young people were thought to have hotter systems, as were all males. This is why wine was considered harmful for boys but excellent for the aged (Vinum lac senum est). The amount of physical exercise people performed also helped determine the most healthful diet for them. According to the theory, laborers had hotter stomachs and could digest tougher, denser, and darker foods such as beans, sausages, coarse whole grain breads, and porridge, but the leisured required more subtle and rarefied foods such as chicken, eggs, white bread, light wines, and refined sweets. Clearly, social prejudice was built right into the system.
The amount of sexual activity also had to be taken into account, for this heated and dried the body, using up nutrients as blood was supposedly converted into semen. Hot foods could overheat the sexually active or actually incite lust. Conversely, a less nutritious diet was seen as an aid to celibacy; less blood, and ultimately less semen, would be produced. Cold foods, such as lettuce, became effective anaphrodisiacs recommended for priests and others with a need for them.
Mood was also directly related to diet. A diet of cold and dry foods, such as beef, could lead to depression, as could crass, indigestible foods, which clogged the body and permitted humors to accidentally corrupt. Laziness could be triggered by a debilitating “phlegmatic” humor, just as overly hot foods could provoke wrath. Equally, the emotional state of the individual determined which foods were corrective. Melancholic people, for example, were cheered up with aromatics, borage, hot (and moist) wines, and sweets.
Many popular dietary recommendations, however, appear to have derived from a source other than standard humoral physiology. Frequently, physicians mentioned that the character traits of a particular animal would produce similar traits in the person who ate it. Thus, the flesh of rabbits would make one timid, and it was often described as a melancholic food. But highly strung birds could make one nervous and edgy, even causing insomnia. The same elements that materially caused these characteristics in the animal were transferred into the consumer. In similar fashion, a light and subtle wine was thought to produce, in a process not unlike distillation, light “spirits” that flowed easily through the brain and instilled subtlety of thought. This process of direct transference was also applied to specific animal parts: Testicles promoted virility, brains gave rise to wit, blood (or milk, which was believed to be produced from blood in the mammary glands) fortified the weak and blood-deficient.
Direct transference began to be criticized in the mid-sixteenth century and was eventually banished from nutritional theory along with the doctrine of signatures, which posited that foods good for specific ailments would bear the marks of their potency in their outward form. That is, brain-shaped walnuts were good for the intellect; red wine was an analogue for blood. But by the mid-seventeenth century the entire system of humoral physiology had been called into question, particularly after systematic research had been conducted into the process of digestion. An entirely new system to replace humoral theory appeared in the nineteenth century with Justus von Liebig and the discovery of the role of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, and in the twentieth century with the discovery of vitamins.
The Courtly Aesthetic
The third major influence on the foodways of southern Europe derives from the social connotations of particular foods and methods of preparation. Historically, it was usually the court that set culinary trends, which then spread to lower ranks of society. But this was not simply a process of invention and imitation. Specific items could be devalued or revived, depending on which social class they were currently associated with.
In southern Europe it is particularly the proliferation of social strata and the specialization of the economy that have generated a wealth of food prejudices (Goody 1982). In a relatively unstratified society, where the majority of the population is involved in food production and eats essentially the same diet, few foods will be associated with particular classes. This was most likely the case in the early Middle Ages. But in many parts of southern Europe, particularly in trading and manufacturing centers, where there always have been both noble and impoverished classes, food prejudices become central, and this has been increasingly true from the High Middle Ages to the present.
Specific foods also rise and fall in popularity. For example, in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, saffron was a symbol of wealth and privilege because it was expensive and because it lent a dazzling effect to foods. The way to impress a guest was to present a saffron-daubed dish, sparkling like gold. Indeed, saffron became a symbol for gold, and to eat it represented a literal incorporation of wealth. However, enthusiasm for saffron abated during the sixteenth century, when for the first time it was cultivated on a large scale (Toussaint-Samat 1992: 522). As a consequence, it became far more affordable, less potent as a symbol of wealth, and at court it went out of fashion. Sugar had much the same history, beginning when it was first processed in Portuguese and Spanish colonies (Mintz 1985).
Economic factors can also influence the association of a particular food with a certain class. For example, in the sixteenth century, as populations grew and the living standard of the majority dropped, the price of meat rose considerably faster than that of grains. Thus, a greater proportion of expendable income had to be spent on the former, a process described as “depecoration.” Poorer people were forced to purchase less fresh meat, and what meat products they could afford would necessarily be long-lasting or preservable. Examples include sausages and smoked meats, as well as herring and salted codfish. As these items became identifiable as peasant food, they were increasingly reviled at court—and, it is interesting to note, condemned by dieticians.
Other foods readily identified with the peasantry—beans and onions and porridges of barley and millet (and later maize, as in polenta)—were stigmatized as southern European society was increasingly stratified. Particular foods became more obvious symbols of class. To consume something beyond one’s budget was an act of social climbing, just as eating “common” foods showed a lack of taste and breeding.
Oddly enough, though, peasant foods came back into fashion, particularly during periods of nostalgia for simplicity and earthiness, as in the Romantic movement or in recent decades. The most interesting and subtly malleable food prejudices always have and still do center around bread. Because it has been the staple of the West, bread preferences are almost always an encapsulation of social climate. In fact, at times, the whiteness and texture of bread have been arranged hierarchically and have matched precisely the structure of society.
Illustrative is fifteenth-century Ferrara, where an essentially two-tiered society was reflected in the distinction between fine white bread and all other types (Camporesi 1989). Seventeenth-century works depict each social level with its own proper type of bread, but in other periods, brown, whole wheat, and multigrained breads have gained popularity. When ethnic awareness is valued, rustic, homemade loaves reappear.
If we specifically examine courtly food fashions, a number of interesting patterns emerge. The oldest and most obvious symbols of nobility were large game animals, such as roast boar or venison, presented whole to a large hall of retainers. Such viands would be carved and apportioned according to rank, and naturally the most honored (and favored) guests would be seated closest to the lord (Visser 1991). This type of meal perfectly matched the feudal warrior society in which prowess on the hunt was valued as much as it was in battle.
Gradually, however, this rustic sort of meal was replaced on noble tables with meals of magnificence and sophistication. Perhaps originating in the Burgundian court, dishes including peacocks (resewn into their feathers), swans, baked porpoises, and sturgeons became fashionable and quickly spread to Italy and the rest of southern Europe. Exotic spices and sugar, liberally strewn over each dish, also became requisite symbols of wealth; even pearls, amber, and gold might be incorporated into elaborately prepared confections. Disguised foods and hybrid creations, such as half-pig and half-chicken, also became popular. These new foods signified aesthetically new symbols of power and new values of wealth, as well as new far-flung connections.
An entire literary genre flourished that described the proper way to throw a banquet, and by the time of the Renaissance, precise rules for carving and using newly introduced cutlery were elaborated (Rosselli 1516; Romoli 1560). This new “civilized” behavior at the table reflected a pacification of society as governments claimed a monopoly on violence (Elias 1982). A profusion of tastes and textures became the hallmark of sophistication. Cristophoro di Messisbugo described a Ferrarese banquet for 54 guests held during Lent in 1529. It included over a dozen courses that consisted of 15 to 54 individual servings of 140 separate foods and required over 2,500 plates. It is interesting to note that each course also contained savories, sweets, soups, and salads in no discernible order (Messisbugo 1549).
When lower social classes (such as wealthy merchants) began to imitate such ostentatious meals, however, once again courtly fashion shifted—this time toward simplicity and refinement. New American products made their appearance. Chocolate drinking spread quickly from Spain as the ideal drink for indolent aristocrats (Schivelbusch 1992). Italian chefs were lured to northern courts, and the French entirely transformed haute cuisine in the seventeenth century by increasingly abandoning spices and the juxtaposition of flavor and texture. The new culinary aesthetic became one of simple ingredients, delicacy of preparation, and careful ordering of courses (Revel 1982; Mennell 1985: 71). French classicism in art, absolutism in government, and courtly cuisine thereafter dominated in southern Europe, though regional variations did not disappear. The tomato, for example, caught on in the south much more than elsewhere in Europe.
The influence of the courtly aesthetic declined in nineteenth-century Europe in the wake of popular revolutions, and the democratization of governments ushered in a similarly leveling tendency in taste. A “bourgeois” cuisine introduced a greater simplicity that was, in part, a reaction against aristocratic refinement, and there eventually arose a new awareness and appreciation of folk recipes and traditional food-ways, especially with the growth of nationalism.
In the modern era in southern Europe an even greater splintering of society into various groups has resulted in further proliferation of eating styles and a greater need of individuals to be associated with a distinctive group on the basis of taste. Today, vegetarianism, fast food, health food, ethnic food, and nouvelle cuisine all vie for adherents with their own distinctive ideologies and approaches. The modern era in southern Europe can also be sharply contrasted with preceding centuries because of the advance of food technologies in areas such as scientific methods of farming, canning, refrigeration, and factory processing. Food industries are now entirely geared toward a consumer society and are firmly linked to global markets. Not only have subsistence crises and hunger become things of the past for most in the developed world, but they have been replaced with the problem of overeating.
To conclude, three ideologies of food—Christian, dietetic, and courtly—reveal some of the ways southern Europeans have thought about food and indicate the kinds of considerations that entered into their food choices. But little, thus far, has been mentioned of what they actually had to choose from, and thus, in closing, a very brief catalog of the most common ingredients and their particular social or medical associations is offered.
Wheat has always been southern Europe’s dominant grain, used primarily in leavened breads. Until recently, the whitest and most finely bolted flour was considered the most prestigious as well as the most healthful; flours containing bran were thought to be crass and fit only for laborers. Various pastries and cookies were praised by physicians for their restorative power and were certainly indulged in at court as well as within monasteries throughout the Middle Ages. Only in the early modern period were they judged to be unhealthy enticements, precisely at the time when sugar and spices became available to ordinary people.
Pasta made its appearance in the late Middle Ages, and from the start was condemned by physicians as difficult to digest. Although pasta was usually associated with common kitchens, courts did not entirely reject it, as is evidenced by Bartolomeo Scappi’s references to macaroni (Scappi 1570). Extruded pasta, usually made with semolina f lour, has come in dozens of sizes and shapes since the late nineteenth century.
Barley has also been popular since ancient times and was most frequently used in porridges and polenta, as were millets, although these were replaced entirely by maize, introduced in the sixteenth century. Rice had been an expensive luxury, usually served with milk and sweetened. It was first cultivated widely in the fifteenth century in Lombardy, and later in Spain, after which a stout variety (arborio) became the basis of risotto and paella.
Legumes, particularly fava beans, peas, and chick-peas, have flourished since Roman times. None were considered suitable for delicate constitutions, and since the late Renaissance were increasingly stigma-tized as peasant food. Nonetheless, beans were perhaps the quintessential Lenten fare for those with modest budgets, and new varieties of beans introduced from the Americas have also been popular.
As for vegetables, few were considered especially nutritious, but watery cucumbers, zucchini, and squashes, although frowned upon by physicians, were nonetheless cultivated and enjoyed at all levels of society. The vegetables particularly associated with southern Europe have been salad greens: lettuce, sorrel, endive, purslane, orache, radicchio, dandelion, spinach, and beet and turnip greens. In addition, all varieties of the Brassica family were consumed: cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, and kale, as well as such others as artichokes, cardoons, asparagus, and fennel. Eggplants were probably introduced by the Arabs, but they were considered very dangerous, along with other members of the Solanaceae. Tomatoes have been a staple of southern European cuisine for only the past few centuries; along with capsicum peppers, they were widely used after their introduction from the New World in the sixteenth century.
Onions and garlic, traditionally, have been indispensable flavorings, though the latter, in the past as now, has strong peasant associations. Truffles, particularly the white variety from Piedmont and the black from Perigord, have always been highly prized luxuries. But as with mushrooms, physicians usually considered them dangerous “excrements of the earth.”
The most distinctively southern European herbs are parsley, oregano, rosemary, thyme, sage, fennel, aniseed (the fruit of the anise plant), and mint—all praised as hot and dry “correctives.”Also widely used are bay laurel, myrtle, juniper, lovage, lemon balm, saffron, wormwood, borage, rue, savory, lavender, and, finally, basil, which had a mixed reception among physicians. Spices most frequently imported into Venice, Genoa, Marseilles, and, later, Lisbon and Seville include pepper, cinnamon and cassia, cloves, nutmeg and mace, grains of paradise (malagueta pepper), coriander and cumin, ginger, and galanga—although these have all waxed and waned in popularity on aristocratic tables.
Olives and olive oil have been traditional staple commodities, along with grapes, citrus fruits (since late antiquity), figs, and imported dates. Peaches and melons were wildly popular in early modern courts but were strongly denounced by dietary theorists as excessively cold, moist, and corruptible. Cherries, plums, strawberries, pomegranates, quinces, apples, and pears have also been popular—especially in art—as symbols for the Nativity. Among nuts, almonds, pistachios, pine nuts, walnuts, and hazelnuts take first place, and chestnuts, too, have been important, particularly in the Cévennes Mountains and around Rome. Chestnuts, however, were often described as peasant food.
Cheese from Piacenza seems to have been the first cheese to be universally praised in southern Europe. It was superseded, however, by parmigiano-reggiano and pecorino romano. Mozarella di bufala and ricotta are also renowned. The south of France boasts many incomparable cheeses as well, and Spain and Portugal both produce especially good cheeses made from the milk of goats and ewes.
Fowl, both domestic and wild, were credited by physicians with being the most tempered of foods and were lauded at court. They included chickens, pheasants, pigeons and partridges, and later guinea fowl and turkeys, as well as numerous tiny birds or “ucelli” (larks, thrushes, and sparrows). Ducks and geese were quite often associated with Jews, who salted and cured them. Eggs were esteemed as the ideal food for convalescents and as symbols of Christ’s resurrection.
With the coming of Lent, fish appeared on most tables, although for the poor it was usually dried cod. Sardines and anchovies, squid and octopus, crustaceans, and shellfish were all consumed, along with a wide variety of fresh fish from the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Adriatic, and from lakes and rivers. Among these were tuna, mackerel, mullet, bass, trout, perch, pike, carp, sole, and turbot—to name but a few. At court, mammoth sturgeons, newly born eels, turtles, snails, and even tender young frogs (eaten whole) were all fashionable at one time or another.
Among the meats consumed, veal and kid were considered the most healthful and the easiest to digest. Beef was to be reserved for robust laborers, as were innumerable varieties of pork sausage, blood sausage, organ meats, and other “salume”—though prosciutto was served on wealthy tables as well as poor. Lamb and rabbits generated a good deal of medical controversy, as did those game meats most readily associated with rural nobility.
Lastly, to do justice to the topic of wine would be impossible in this chapter. But in short, it is indispensable to Christianity, has been viewed as essential to a healthful diet in both past and very recent nutritional theories, and remains a principal object of gastronomic snobbery. Perhaps coffee has been its only serious rival in recent times.