Wanda Oram Miles

title.none: Redon, et al., Medieval Kitchen (Miles)

identifier.other: baj9928.9903.017 99.03.17

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Wanda Oram Miles, Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Redon, Odile, Francoise Sabban, Silvano Serventi. The Medieval Kitchen: Recepies from France and Italy. Chicago: Uni versity of Chicago Press, 1998. Pp. xvii, 285. $32.50. ISBN: 0-226-70684-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.03.17

Redon, Odile, Francoise Sabban, Silvano Serventi. The Medieval Kitchen: Recepies from France and Italy. Chicago: Uni versity of Chicago Press, 1998. Pp. xvii, 285. $32.50. ISBN: 0-226-70684-2.

Reviewed by:

Wanda Oram Miles
Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service

Food is important for life, but few historical works explore the preparation of food in a particular historical period. In most historical work food is mentioned only in the context of the setting or the action of eating, rather than the joy and technicalities of preparation and consumption. Redon, Sabban and Serventi provide not only a recipe book but a historical guide to all aspects of cooking and culinary arts in medieval France and Italy.

I heartily enjoyed reading and working from this book, so much so that my analysis cannot be objective. The work unashamedly encourages the reader to indulge in the practice of medieval food preparation as it is discussed and presented in the text.

The authors' love of food and approach to the topic inspires readers to gorge themselves on reading about the delights of the kitchen. The translation by Edward Schneider is sensitive and conveys the vivacity of the writing style. This is a book designed to be used, rather than placed on a bookshelf; the recipes are adapted to suit four or six people, and the style makes for easy use by novices or by those experienced in the medieval style of food preparation.

The quality of the document is astounding -- one becomes immersed in a detailed account of all things culinary from medieval France and Italy; from the advice of a husband to his inexperienced wife, to the intricate recipes of a master chef to the king of France.

The foreword by Georges Duby gives a warning of the treats to come, his first sentence "To open this book is to set your mouth watering" is proven very true. He then tempts us forward into the book by setting the medieval scene, calling up visual and auditory imagery.

Modern readers with access to a wide variety of ingredients, many introduced to Europe only within the last four hundred years, are reminded in the Preface of the ingredients available to a medieval cook and the spices used to impart different, if subtle, flavours. The second person grammatical style of the Preface immerses the reader within the sensual aspects of cooking from the beginning of the book. Further descriptions of "clouded in the scent of rose water" and "showering a chicken with sugar" assist in evoking a very real atmosphere for the work.

The first quarter of the book is presented as an easy to read historical text. Use of contemporary anecdote, gleaned by the authors from manuscripts and recipe books of the period, serves to make this section enlightening and entertaining.

The first chapter, "Histories and Tales from the Kitchen," acquaints the reader with a background to medieval cooking gleaned from 17 manuscripts. Setting out the cultural landmarks invoked in the text to understand the recipes, the chapter delves into the society of the middle ages; cooking being a cultural activity, the chapter compares the differences between dishes served on normal days and feast days, the table of a peasant and a lord, of clergy and laity. The manners of a medieval meal are made clear in the discussion of a determination of seating position, order of the meal, sharing a "taillor" and eating delicately with the fingers.

The technicalities of some preparation practices similarly need the detailed explanation given. Although chopping, grinding, filtering, straining and cooking are all common practices in the modern kitchen, in the medieval kitchen multiple practices were often used for one dish; the reason for using such practices in medieval cooking is discussed in such a way that the reader gains from the first-hand experience of the authors.

The aesthetics of cooking are combined with evocative descriptions, further tempting the reader to try out the recipes.

The chapter, "Medieval Cooking Today" is reassuring to the modern novice without being at all patronizing. The language is that of the modern cookbook; the medieval terminology which litters other such cookbooks is missing here, replaced by solid practical advice on use of modern kitchen equipment and available ingredients.

The technicalities of reading and using the recipes selected by the authors is discussed, however specifics are confined to the recipe section itself. This chapter is a direct communication from the authors to the reader about the use of the book and the recipes contained in it. The chapter goes on to give detailed advice about selection of ingredients and brief advice on menu planning for a medieval meal with example menus.

The book is well cross-referenced throughout and moving from section to section, dipping into or hopping about in the book is not problematic, although the authors recommend reading the first chapters before embarking on the recipes.

The 153 recipes, some with variations, take up two thirds of the book. Each recipe is presented as a translation of the medieval text, followed by the authors' comments, which are very detailed and helpful, then by a rendering of the recipe for the modern cook. A separate chapter presents the numbered medieval texts in their original language at the back of the book. This format is very user friendly.

The recipes retain the detail of advice laid down by the original authors of the medieval versions. Some of the most entertaining are those containing advice and instructions to the medieval cook on purchasing ingredients or on alternative cooking practices. These anecdotes within the recipes maintain the cultural context of the recipes and keep what could be a banal recipe book as a lively guide to the period.

Colour plates in the centre of the book add to the context of the historical work, and line drawings throughout complete the feel, but as a cook I would have liked some colour plates of the dishes themselves as in a modern cook book, especially some of the more spectacular ones such as baked rabbit in pastry or the various blancs-mangers.

The recipes I have tried from this book not only work but are acceptable to the modern palate. The authors' comments on delicacy of flavours and interpretations make the recipes easy to choose and prepare.

The appendices include the medieval texts of the recipes, a list of recipes by manuscript source and a list of mailorder addresses. These last, although in France and the USA, included web sites, indicating that worldwide advice is available for those of us in the antipodes who are interested in medieval cooking.

This book is a delight. It is not often that one has the privilege of working from a text this detailed and easy to use. It is living history, able to be practiced by novice and master alike, practical history which can be carried out in our own homes by those of us living in modern times. The grammatical style of this book and recipe formatting would lend itself to publication in the format of a modern recipe book for the masses.