Tastes of the Mediterranean: Italian food before Italy

Although many people know the Folger Shakespeare Library for its holdings in early modern English literature, the library also has an extensive collection of early modern Italian books, including some of the earliest cookbooks ever printed.

Italian food has evolved so much over the past 500 years that even so-called ‘classic’ Italian dishes—such as risotto alla milanese, pizza alla napoletana, bistecca alla fiorentina—would have been utterly foreign to early modern Italians in their current configurations. In fact, many of the ingredients we now most associate with Italian cooking, such as tomatoes, had only just been introduced to Europe by Spanish colonizers returning from North America during Shakespeare’s time.

Even the name “early modern Italian food” is a misnomer. In 1500, Italy didn’t exist as the boot-shaped country we know today: before Risorgimento (the process of unification) in the 19th century, Italy was composed of independent city-states, with constantly changing borders. Italian food was equally regional—and this regionality remains true today: there was and is no singular dish or ingredient that can represent the country. But the regions share a culinary history that is rooted in the ingredients, tastes, and techniques that came out of early-modern innovations, explorations, and cultural movements.

The dominant culinary influence on modern Western food culture has arguably been France. But before French food, Mediterranean—and specifically Italian—food was dominant. In Rome, in 1470—just a couple decades after the invention of the printing press—the very first printed cookbook, De honesta voluptate et valetudine [On Honorable Pleasure and Health], was produced by Bartolomeo Platina, a soldier-turned-gastronomer. This cookbook was influential in spreading around Europe the then-developing early-modern approach to food, which married classical theories of medicine (‘you are what you eat’) with the concept that the pleasures derived from consuming flavorful food could be healthy, if done thoughtfully and in moderation.

Image of a tripe seller
The tripe seller, with hungry cat following, is just one of dozens of Roman food sellers depicted in Ritratto di quelli che vanno vendendo e lauorando [Portrait of those selling and working in Rome] (1612, call number: ART 231-749 [Size L]), Folger Shakespeare Library
Italian authors aimed to provide not just flavorful and healthy recipes, but also instructions for curating a culinary experience. In 1570, Bartolomeo Scappi, private chef of Pope Pius V and possibly the first celebrity chef, published his monumental cookbook, L’arte et prudenza d’un maestro cuoco [The Art and Craft of a Master Cook]. The first cookbook to be written by a practicing chef, it included menus and instructions for everything from cooking techniques to how to carry food from the kitchen to the banquet hall, in addition to about one thousand carefully constructed recipes.

Woodblock print illustrating the serving of meals to the closed conclave of cardinals in an Italian cooking manual
Woodblock print illustrating the serving of meals to the closed conclave of cardinals electing Pope Julius III in Bartolomeo Scappi’s Opera di M. Bartolomeo Scappi, Cuoco Secreto di Papa Pio Quinto [Work of Bartolomeo Scappi, Private Cook to Pope Pius V] (1605, Call number: TX711 S4 1605 Cage), Folger Shakespeare Library. According to Scappi, the conclave had strict rules about food service, to restrict communication with the outside world and ensure the safety of the cardinals. Wine had to be served in clear glass, and foods had to be opened and examined. No sealed pastries or whole chickens were permitted.
Scappi’s instructions for proper serving etiquette were part of a series of works aimed at schooling chefs, housekeepers, and hosts in the performative aspects of cooking and eating. Early modern banquets were carefully scripted social occasions, not unlike immersive theatre performances. Vincenzo Cervio, a renowned carver, published Il trinciante [The Carver], his instruction manual on how to execute proper carving at the banquet table. That he dedicated his career to carving food artfully is an illustration of just how important the ceremonies and presentations of food were in upper-class early-modern food culture.

Cervio prescribes a method of carving that involves holding food (usually meat, which was central to the banquet menu) in the air on a fork, and then carving the food with a knife so that slivers of food fall onto a plate. This was known as the Italian method of carving and allows diners to observe the process of carving the meat. The German method involves cutting food while it is placed on a plate or table.

Woodblock print illustrating the proper set up of a kitchen in an Italian cooking manual
Woodblock print illustrating the proper set up of a kitchen in Bartolomeo Scappi’s Opera di M. Bartolomeo Scappi, Cuoco Secreto di Papa Pio Quinto [Work of Bartolomeo Scappi, Private Cook to Pope Pius V] (1605, Call number: TX711 S4 1605 Cage), Folger Shakespeare Library. In the center background, a boy turns a spit on the hearth, the part of the room where a domestic fire is kept. In the foreground, tables display various tools, including a rolling pasta cutter, a knife, and a pestle and mortar.
While some early modern Italian recipes and techniques were taken up almost immediately across Europe, Britain was particularly slow to adopt many recipes, possibly because of anxieties about foreign ingredients. Many (sometimes conflicting) theories about health, medicine, and social hierarchy were imposed on food. Some theories suggested that locally grown food was most suitable, because both people and food were designed for the local environment. In contrast, a new culture of consumerism, in which novelty was exciting, was flourishing, in part because of new Atlantic trade routes.

Broadly speaking, foreign food presented a contradiction: enticingly exotic and dangerously other. For instance, early-modern English writers present Italians’ consumption of raw fruits and vegetables, and especially salad, as dangerous. Some Mediterranean-inflected foods, such as chocolate, saffron, and lemons, were readily absorbed into the English diet, even if sparingly, due to cost and accessibility; but others, such as olive oil, eggplant, and figs, were treated with suspicion, due to fear of their sources and of their potential effects on English physiology.

Woodblock print of mala insana [mad apple, i.e. eggplant] in John Gerard’s Herball (1597, call number: STC 11750), Folger Shakespeare Library. One of the earliest depictions of eggplants in print in early-modern England. Gerard says of eggplants: “…I rather wish Englishmen to content themselves with the meat [i.e. food] and sauce of our own country…for doubtless these apples have a mischievous quality; the use thereof is utterly to be forsaken.” Eggplant is still called melanzana in contemporary Italian.
Etching of a lemon from an Italian garden cultivation manual
Etching of a lemon in Giovanni Battista Ferrari’s Flora overo cultura di Fiori [Flowers, or, On the Cultivation of Flower Gardens] (Rome, 1676, call number: SB369 .C6 1676 Cage copy 1 [folio]). Lemons were an exotic luxury in the early modern period and became increasingly valuable once it was discovered that they could cure scurvy, a painful disease resulting from vitamin C deficiency that was common in sailors making the long journey between Europe and the Americas.
In the Folger Shakespeare Library’s collection of early modern English manuscript recipe books, I have found evidence of Mediterranean influence beginning in the mid-seventeenth century. One of these recipes is for “chocolat,” an early modern recipe for hot chocolate, one of the most popular commodities brought from the Spanish West Indies to England, first through Spain and then through Italy.

⇒ Read: The “American Nectar”: William Hughes’s hot chocolate

Another is for a recipe for “Italian crust,” composed of flour, sugar, butter, eggs, and spices. The recipe calls for making them “into small roles as long as Your finger.” The shape of these “crusts” suggests this recipe might be an early version of what we now call “ladyfingers”—cookies that are still popular in Italy and the basis for one of Italy’s most successful recent culinary inventions and a dessert staple around the world: tiramisu alla veneta. So next time you’re enjoying tiramisu, you might think about the hundreds of years of culinary innovation and textual transmission that went into putting your pudding on your plate.

Manuscript recipe for Italian crust
Opening to the recipe “To Make Italian Crust,” found in Cook-book of Valert Payne (c. 18th century, call number: W.b.103), Folger Shakespeare Library

Modernized adaptation of recipe for early-modern ladyfingers

Mix together 16 ounces of flour, 8 ounces of granulated sugar, a grated nutmeg, a finely grated root of ginger, and a thimbleful of orange zest. Work these into a paste by adding 4 ounces of butter and 4 egg whites. Shape the dough into rolls about the size of your finger and lay them on parchment paper. Prick them with a needle and wash them with egg white. Finally, sprinkle them with sugared caraway seeds. Bake them in an oven at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes or until they are white.

Editor’s tip: the original recipe calls also for one grain of musk, but the modern chef can forego this expensive and difficult-to-find ingredient.

This blog post is based on a recent talk and pop-up exhibition produced in association with the Folger Institute, the Folger Consort’s concert Tastes of the Mediterranean: Music of 16th-Century Spain and Italy, and the Mellon-funded initiative in collaborative research, Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures.