Constance Hieatt

title.none: Santich, The Original Mediterranean Cuisine (Hieatt)

identifier.other: baj9928.9702.011 97.02.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Constance Hieatt, Yale University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Santich, Barbara. The Original Mediterranean Cuisine: Medieval Recipes for Today. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1996. Pp. ix, 178. $15.95. ISBN: ISBN 1-556-52272-X.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.02.11

Santich, Barbara. The Original Mediterranean Cuisine: Medieval Recipes for Today. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1996. Pp. ix, 178. $15.95. ISBN: ISBN 1-556-52272-X.

Reviewed by:

Constance Hieatt
Yale University

The Original Mediterranean Cuisine is not the book of choice for the "fun-and-games" school of interest in medieval food; it has nothing whatsoever to say about making a tabard, for example. Nor is it for purists: Barbara Santich does not hesitate to add, subtract, or substitute ingredients in her recipe adaptations, or even to change the method of cooking, and urges her readers to make whatever further adjustments may please their palates or suit local market conditions. Neither is this exactly a contribution to culinary history in the scholarly sense: a book with no notes whatsoever and a minimal bibliography cannot be of much help to those who wish to verify and/or follow up the author's findings.

It is, nevertheless, one of the best books yet to appear for cooks with an interest in early (and often distinctly different) recipes. Its subtitle puts the matter very well: Medieval Recipes for Today is exactly what it provides, seventy in number, with clear modern adaptations which cooks should find simple and rewarding to work with. And, to begin with, and throughout -- constituting about half of the book's material -- readers will find well-written, reliable information about just what the "original Mediterranean cuisine" was. That should be quite enough to satisfy a wide audience, and it is no wonder that it was favorably reviewed in Gourmet magazine. It is, indeed, an exemplary work for anyone primarily interested in "using" this distinguished culinary historian's findings.

For many years, most scholars in the field tended to emphasize the international nature of medieval "hautet cuisine," pointing to the universal preference of the nobility and prosperous bourgeoisie for expensive spices, and noting how many recipes seemed to be almost everywhere in western Europe: for example, "blanc manger" and "cameline sauce." More recently, however, we have come to realize that there are highly significant regional variations in this international cuisine; different spices were preferred in different regions, and dishes which may have had the same ultimate origin were often modified almost (or entirely) beyond recognition as they travelled from one place to another.

Dr. Santich's discussion of the food of the Mediterranean area -- by which she primarily means Italy, southern France, and Catalonia -- rightly insists that foods (and recipes) characteristic of this area were significantly different from those of more northerly areas, including all of the rest of France. She also makes an interesting case for the continuity of the cuisine of this area from ancient times to the present day -- allowing, of course, for continual adjustments as "new" ingredients (such as sugar in the Middle Ages and tomatoes in the Renaissance) and techniques (such as beating egg whites) were introduced.

Readers of this book are cautioned, thus, that when "medieval" recipes, food preferences, etc. are discussed here, they must bear in mind that, unless a larger context is clearly indicated, what are being discussed are Mediterranean medieval recipes and foods, not necessarily what was cooked or preferred in London or Paris. But it is not just "standard" dishes like "blanc manger" that we can find in versions here which are not very distant from what is found in English collections and the well-known northern French cookbooks. For example, the recipe for candied orange peel on p. 172 is almost identical to the "orengat" found in the Menagier de Paris.

However, in the case of London, and England in general, there seems to have been considerably more borrowing from Mediterranean sources and practices than Santich may have realized. One example I hadn't noticed before was the Italian cameline sauce on p. 61 here: it is identical to the English Forme of Cury's version of this sauce, except that the latter adds nuts and calls for vinegar rather than verjuice (an insignificant difference). No other cameline recipe I have seen calls for currants and supplements the basic spice, cinnamon, with cloves, and only cloves. The nuts in the English version may also point to a Mediterranean origin, since nuts, aside from ground almonds, seem to turn up more frequently in these recipes than they do in most other collections.

The recipes are all taken from Italian and Catalan sources; presumably the Occitan manuscript edited by Carole Lambert in her doctoral dissertation (referred to without specific identification on p. 41) could not be drawn upon for French examples because it has not yet been published. The format in which the recipes are presented is impeccable. The adaptation is given first, so that the cook who is simply interested in a usable recipe need go no further; for those interested in what the original recipe really said (or purists who wish to cook the recipe without any "adaptation"), the original follows, with a translation by its side. Further comments on the dish, including suggested variants, and, sometimes, explanations of why the original recipe was not followed more closely, come at the end. When the adaptation does not exactly match the base recipe, there is usually obvious justification: many of these recipes occur again and again in different collections, and variants from a different version are often preferred.

Some of the substitutions in the recipes here may result from market conditions peculiar to Australia. Salt pork, frequently called for in these recipes, is a commonplace staple in New England, but I'd be hard put to find the Italian "pancetta" which is here invariably substituted for it. A cook who lives in an area where there are Italian markets tells me she does not think pancetta could be used for frying in the same way as salt pork, but Santich must have found it satisfactory -- although she substitutes oil for salt pork in weveral recipes. It would also take some effort for me to locate pomegranate syrup -- Greek and Middle Eastern stores are hardly common in rural Connecticut; but we get lots of pomegranates, in season, and my husband and I found "Romania" made with fresh pomegranate juice, as the original recipe (p.70) suggests, delicious. It's one of our favorite recipes from this book.

As the author encourages other cooks to do, I naturally consulted my own preferences and convenience in trying out recipes. "Mig-raust" (74-75) means "half-roast," and we are told on p. 73 that half-roast "was probably not so much part- cooked as roasted but not browned," which, with a medieval spit, would have been accomplished by keeping the spit at some distance from the fire. I found this recipe a perfect candidate for cooking in the microwave -- a procedure Santich apparently does not approve of on general principles ("I have not gone to the extreme of suggesting the use of a microwave oven!"--p. 45). Why not, rather than abandoning the idea of "roasting" completely and frying the chicken in oil? The microwave is an obvious way of "roasting" without (adequate) browning, and here its drawback becomes an advantage.

Another recipe for which I found it advantageous to use the microwave was "Limonia," chicken first lightly fried, then cooked in an almond-milk sauce, with lemon juice added at the end. The sauce remains much smoother when the dish is finished in a microwave rather than on a burner. Incidentally, the method of making almond milk sauce given here is simpler than that Brenda Hosington and I recommend in the second edition of Pleyn Delit, and works splendidly when you have the very powdery ground almonds sold commercially in some places: I tried it with a supply sent from Canada of such ground almonds. But I cannot buy them locally, and find the Santich method does not work quite as well as ours when you have to deal with homeground almonds.

Some of the adaptations here seem to go too far. One which completely distorts the nature of the dish is the "stuffed aubergines" on page 110. Here, I am afraid Santich has mistranslated and misunderstood the original recipe (although she is far better qualified to deal with Catalan than I am), and then arbitrarily turned the recipe into something quite different. As I understand the Sent Sovi recipe, we are to peel the eggplants before parboiling them; then split them, gouge out their seeds, and put the prepared eggplants (not the "seeds," as Santich seems to assume) aside on a platter while we grind cheese and spices and mix these into a paste with egg. This paste is to be inserted into the eggplants in the gouges where the seeds were removed, and then the entire (probably small) eggplants are to be fried.

The adaptation found here, however, is a much more familiar treatment of eggplants. Santich tells us to cook the eggplants in their skins, then scrape out most of their flesh, mix in an egg and a very small amount of cheese, and stuff the eggplant shells with this mixture. Herbs (parsley, mint, and marjoram) and fried onions are substituted for spices. The eggplants are then sprinkled with olive oil and broiled. This sounds pleasant and familiar (to those of us who know Turkish cooking, anyway), but it isn't at all like the 14th-century Catalan dish. Perhaps Santich simply did not understand the concept of removing the seeds from an eggplant and thus assumed it meant also removing some of the flesh (as in a modern Turkish "karniyarik"); Elizabeth David once remarked, commenting on a 17th-century eggplant recipe, "I find...the removal of seeds...a refinement o have not even contemplated" ( Petits Propos Culinaires 12 (1982), p. 11o)

I wish I could say that The Original Mediterranean Cuisine bridges the uneasy chasm between the scholarly and the usable/popular. That is, however, not quite true. How are we to know whether Santich is justified in saying that the dried ginger used in medieval kitchens "came as dried slices or shavings" (p. 46)? Dried ginger in the U.S. and Canada generally comes in the form of entire roots. Without satisfactory documentation (which may, of course, be the fault of the publishers), we simply have to take her word for it. On the whole, I believe we can: her observations and claims are usually soundly based, although I did find a few dubious points. On page 33 she refers to grain of paradise as "probably a type of cardamom." Actually, it is nothing like cardamom: Amomum Melegueta is an aromatic peppery spice. Perhaps it is not easily available in Australia, but (like sumac, another seasoning here described as hard to find) it is available though a number of mail- order spice retailers in the U.S.

This is a fairly easy mistake to make, howe~er; I was similarly confused io the revised first edition (1979) of Pleyn Delit, which stated, "The 'grains of paradise' sometimes called for is particularly baffling. Information in dictionaries seems to indicate cardamom...." I suspect I had only looked at the O.E.D.'s entry on "cardamom," not the entry under "Malaguetta pepper," to which I would have been referred if I had checked "meleguet[t]a." Even in the 1996 second edition, where the spice is correctly identified, I said, "We use cardamom instead of 'grains of paradise,' but cannot judge whether the flavour is at all close." I have since learned better (thanks to Carole Lambert, who provided Brenda Hosington with some grain of paradise). We culinary historians are continually being educated by each other -- and by our audience, which sometimes discovers sources for obscure spices which had not occured to us "experts."

Another area in which neither of us may have been on rock- solid ground is the names of pasta types. On page 28 here we are told, "In medieval Florence, pasta-makers (lasagnai) had their own guild; their product came in sheets 3-4 cm (about 1-1/2 in) wide, with one edge crinkled," which sounds exactly like modern lasagna noodles. But how do we know this to be the case? Has Santich seen medieval pictures of sheets of pasta shaped this way? I have not. And she continues, "The term lasagna was applied principally to fresh pasta, whilo commercial pasta was known as vermicelli, macaroni,...and tria." The only picture know of medieval pasta is the one in the "House of Cerruti" version of the Tacuinum sanitatis, which shows what appears to be a housewife rolling pasta, which a younger woman (her daughter?) is arranging in long, thin noodles on a drying rack. The picture is captioned "Trij." So which was fresh, and was dried pasta made at home?

My own guess, appearing in the second edition of Pleyn Delit, was that the different types are named for their shapes. Lasagna, called "losyns" or "losenges" in Middle English, must have been cut in "lozenge" (rhombus) shapes (see the O.E.D.): some recipes say just that. I was urged to this conclusion by a wmll-known culinary historian. I presumed "makerouns" (macaroni) were, in contrast, cut into longer, thin noodles like those "trij," and named for their length: "macron" in the original Greek meant "long." But I admit I had no authority for coming to this conclusion.

On some points, Santich is in disagreement with one of the better known experts on medieval food, Professor Terence Scully. As it happens, I agree with the Santich stand on such matters as that "there is no evidence that respect for their dietetic and medicinal virtues in any way guided the use of spices in the kitchen" (p. 30), as against the Scully view. So, then, how is the reader who is not so widely read in this literature to know whether to take Santich's "word for it," on the whole? I can only say that the areas of controversy are relatively few, and that other experts in thisharea would have no quarrel at all with the vast majority of what we are told in this book. Perhaps readers of this review will be willing to take my word for it.