18.06.14, McIver, Kitchens, Cooking, and Eating in Medieval Italy

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Paul Freedman

The Medieval Review 18.06.14

McIver, Katherine A. . Kitchens, Cooking, and Eating in Medieval Italy. Historic Kitchens Series. London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2017. pp. 138. ISBN: 978-1-4422-4894-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Paul Freedman
Yale University

This book is part of a series on "Historic Kitchens" edited by Ken Albala. Although it includes material on the ceremonies of serving meals, Kitchens, Cooking and Eating in Medieval Italy is primarily about how meals for the affluent were prepared. Sources include accounts of banquets and festivals, such as a celebration in 1388 for Giovanni Novello Panciatichi's designation as a cavaliere of Florence, cookbooks, family letters and literature. Stories and didactic fiction are used effectively, not just as descriptions of imaginary dining but as moral examples. One of the novelle of Gentile Sermini gives a bitterly comic recipe for a grandly inappropriate meal. A parish priest of a village near Siena is gluttonous to the point that he is in the habit of folding a cookbook into his breviary so that his apparently pious meditations are more immediately gratifying. Having preached the virtues of pious donations, he receives the gift of an immense eel. His servant is unsure how to prepare it and rushes to the parish church where he signals to the priest, who is performing the mass, the nature of the problem. The priest uses the sermon to give elaborate cooking instructions, recounting a miracle involving the presumably abstemious San Vincenzo. In addition to the eel, the meal was to include eggs, tench (a brackish-water fish) with white sauce, and a sweet layered pastry (torta) with candied anise.

As the title indicates, the book confines itself to Italy. There is nothing in the way of comparison with other culinary regions, so it is impossible to assess what is unique or unusual about Italy. The descriptions of cooking methods and equipment, staff, and hierarchy could apply anywhere in Europe. The most interesting and specific observations come from the Datini archive because of the detail and intimacy of Francesco and Margherita Datini's exchanges of letters about recipes, purchases, entertaining, supplying the kitchen and creating meals. The Datini represent wealthy but not princely dining and hospitality. Both of them knew a lot about cooking and wrote back and forth with reminders and instructions, along with presents of frogs, spinach, mushrooms and the like. The letters provide a record of the planning and construction of the Datini palace in Prato which included two kitchens, a large ground-floor room and a smaller space upstairs to prepare less formal meals. Problems of entertaining include fish being off but served anyway, not knowing the exact time of the arrival of a distinguished guest and entourage, and having to coordinate plans at a distance. Incidents related to meals tested the ties between this apparently well-matched couple.

It is difficult to tell who is the intended audience for Kitchens, Cooking, and Eating in Medieval Italy. It is not an exhaustive or systematic study of medieval Italian dining or recipes, but neither is it an introduction to medieval cuisine. The reader would have to know about the aesthetic and basic principles of medieval taste in order to appreciate the detailed account of methods of preparation. The result is more charming and suggestive than informative.

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