Sunday, June 2, 2013

Fast Food in Medieval Italian Cities

Summer banquet hop copy

Welcome to the Summer Banquet Blog Hop!  With 31 blogs involved, this gives readers 31 chances to read about food in different periods of history, and also to win prizes.  Enter here (details next) and then "hop" over to the others (listed below) and see what they have to offer, too. 

The prize on this blog is one of three things:
  1. A copy of my book A Thing Done, as either a Kindle or Nook gift from Amazon or Barnes & Noble, winner's choice.  
  2. A signed paperback copy, if that's the reader's preference and he/she is in the USA.
  3. If the winner already has my book or doesn't want a copy, I will substitute  Kindle or Nook copies of all four of the short stories I've published with Callihoo Publishing.
To enter, just leave me a comment here on the blog.  I'll draw a winner on Saturday, June 8  and post the name here.  (Becoming a follower of this blog, or already being one, will give you one extra chance to win.)  The winner will then need to provide me with a way to reach him or her, if I don't already have that information.

Onward to the food blog!

Medieval Cuisine Without Cooking:  Have It Your Way

Dante at McDonald's, deciding if he wants fries with that?  Beatrice off to Starbuck's for a mocha latte?  Farinata degli Uberti lunching at Burger King?  (Actually, Farinata might have done that just to get the little paper crown, now that I think about it.)

Well, maybe it wouldn't have been quite like that.  But Italian cities have a rich tradition of food-on-the go.  In ancient Rome, vendors hawked roasted chickpeas in the theatres, people sold pastries on the streets, and you were never far from a caupona like this one in Pompeii, where you can almost see those sunken pots filled with lentil stew and bubbling away over the hot coals below:

That tradition continues into the present.  If you walk down the street in Florence, you can fortify yourself with hot, juicy sandwiches of porchetta or tripe, or hot roasted chestnuts, purchased from vendors with little food stands.  Or you can duck into a shop and come out with a slice of pizza al taglio or a cup of gelato.  The possibilities are endless.

Hot chestnuts for sale

There's even this sort of thing (in the Palermo airport), turning out slices of hot pizza to order:

This tradition of already-cooked street food was not interrupted during the middle ages.  Cookshops, bakeries, taverns, street vendors, market stalls, and shops all catered to the shopper in search of ready-to-eat meals.  If guests arrived unexpectedly (which was likely, since they couldn't exactly text ahead to tell you their arrival time), a quick trip to a cookshop would take care of dinner for all.  There, you could purchase anything from a roast hare or a meat pie or a couple of pigeons to an entire meal, with side dishes and condiments. 

But in this post I don't want to talk about the prosperous host in search of convenience food, or a casual stroller in search of a snack.  I want to give some thought to history's forgotten poor, those people who rented a single room without a kitchen, or kitchen privileges.  How - and what - did they eat?

It depended, first of all, on exactly how constrained they were.  If they had a hearth, however modest, or even a brazier for heat, that plus a single small pot would enable at least some basic cookery.  Some things (onions, some vegetables, even eggs) could be cooked directly on the fire, but a pot would make many more things possible:

But many did not have even that limited access to fire.  What then?

The first thing our hypothetical poor guy (let's call him Guido) is going to need is bread.  A meal is not a meal without bread, to Guido and his contemporaries.  (In really harsh times, grain might be cooked in water into a sort of polenta, but really, a city guy like Guido wanted bread.  The lighter in color, the better.)

Bread, in Italian cities of this period, was seldom baked at home.  Even homes with fairly complete kitchens lacked ovens, and while some things could be baked in a covered container over coals, bread really needed an oven.

The people who had ovens were the fornari and the pistori.  In some European cities, laws kept these two kinds of bread providers separate, but it appears that there was considerable overlap in Italian cities.  The fornari were the oven-keepers; they accepted bread that had been kneaded at home, and they baked it for their customers, who often paid them in kind, by leaving some of the bread with them.  They then were able to sell those loaves of bread to other customers, people like Guido who were not equipped to prepare their bread at home (which turned the oven-keepers into pistori, or the people who sold finished bread).

Then, as now, the poorest of the poor were least able to take advantage of the thriftier options.  They paid full price for bread, though it would have been cheaper to purchase grain, have it milled, and prepare the bread at home.  But let's say Guido supports himself with the odd construction job, and doesn't have a lot of extra denari for buying in bulk.  Let's also say that he lives alone, so, given the difficulties of keeping foods fresh without refrigeration, there's no sense in his buying a lot of food ahead of time.

By the way, once those ovens were finished baking bread, they could be used for baking pies and other things - again, often prepared at home, but also prepared for purchase in the bakeshops and cookshops.  Small pies could be purchased from street vendors, too, and it's likely that Guido would buy one of those for his main (early) meal of the day, if he could afford it.  Many different things could be packed into a pie - it was portable and self-contained.  Guido could choose a pie containing fruit, chopped ham, chicken or eel, soft cheese, eggs, or some combination of these ingredients.

If he went to a cookshop to purchase a larger pie, that pie might have a crust that was never designed to be eaten:  a hard container made of flour and water, to serve as a vessel for cooking the contents and then be discarded.  Edible crusts were known and available at this time, though, for those who could afford them:
Si tu veux que du pâté tâte
Fais mettre des oeufs en la pâte.

--Gaces de la Bugne [d. ca. 1383].  As translated in The Medieval Kitchen:  Recipes from France and Italy, by Odile Redon, Françoise Sabban and Silvano Serventi:

If you want a pie that's tasty
Have eggs put into the pastry.

 If Guido couldn't afford a pie, perhaps he could manage a chunk of cheese, a handful of olives, and some fruit, and maybe even salad greens.

His second meal (supper) would be lighter, consisting of whatever was left over from the main meal.  The notary Lapo Mazzei, a close friend of wealthy Pratese merchant Francesco Datini, wrote in the late 14th century that he often took only a handful of olives and a bit of bread at night, and even today, if you've ever bought olives in an Italian street market, you'll understand the temptation to do just that - they are quite wonderful.

Before speculating on what else Guido might have purchased, we need to give a moment's thought to what sorts of things he could keep in his rented room.  Small supplies of wine, oil, and vinegar would keep; certain condiments, of the sort that almost everyone purchased ready-made, could keep, as well.  (Sauces tended to be lean and acidic, so they would last, properly stored.  Francesco Datini used to purchase his savore sanguino from an apothecary:  it was a sauce made of raisins, cinnamon, sandal, and sumach.  He also received an apothecary's bill for such comestibles as orange and citron juice, mustard, pounded almonds, rose-water, chamomile, raisins, spices, and a tart of marzipan.)

An apothecary's shop

 Hard cheese would last for a while, if it could be kept away from mice and rats.  Nuts, olives, many sweets (though these are probably out of Guido's price range), and some vegetables would keep, though most of those vegetables would have required cooking.  Sausage, if he could afford it, could be kept for a while.  Fruit would keep for a short while.  Beyond that, there was no point in buying ahead.

Food was not prepackaged, so Guido would have to find something to carry his purchases in - a basket, cloth bags, a towel, or whatever he could find to keep his purchases safe and separated.

Another thing that would have been easy to purchase from street vendors, shops, market stalls, or even a neighbor who kept chickens, was eggs.  Of course, without a way to cook them, Guido was at a disadvantage; yet his plight was so common that I can't believe some enterprising merchants didn't come up with the idea of selling hard-cooked eggs to customers like Guido.

Vendors might be women from the country, selling the produce of their gardens or the cheeses they had made; they might be cookshop apprentices, hawking single-serving versions of the foodstuffs available back in their masters' shops; they might, in fact, be anybody with something to sell.  A partial listing of what Guido would have found in their trays and baskets includes fresh vegetables;  fruits:  melons, apples, pears, peaches, cherries, plums; nuts; smoked herring; vinegar, verjuice, honey, walnut oil, yeast-water for making bread prepared garlic sauce, green sauce, mustard; cooked peas, fried peas, cooked beans; baked goods:  flans, wafers, cakes, bean cakes, pies, and rissoles.

Vendors sold milk (best to buy it early in the day) and cheese and fresh ricotta; they offered sweets such as quince and apple pastes, nougat, pinocchiato (a sweet made with pine nuts), candied citrus peel, candied spices, and dried fruits; and even wafers - though for these last, the statutes in Paris suggested that the art of making them was "very dangerous and difficult to learn."  Guild standards for journeyman status among the waferers stated that candidates had to be able to produce at least 500 large wafers, 300 supplications (a type of wafer often left as an offering on altars), and 200 étriers (stirrup-shaped cookies) in a day.

City laws governed all types of businesses offering edibles.  In Paris in 1268, for instance (yes, I know this is supposed to be about Italian cities, but surviving records are sparse, and we take what we can find), cooked meat could be kept for only three days before selling it or throwing it away.  Laws even governed shopkeepers' etiquette:  if a customer was in front of one cookshop, the owner of another was not permitted to call to him and try to entice him away.

Guido, if he could afford it, could bypass all of this and dine at a tavern.  There he would find a range of comestibles - bread and cheese at the least, with wine, and possibly much more elaborate fare.

Quality no doubt varied.  

But what if Guido had no money?  What if the harvest had been bad, prices were soaring, food was scarce, and the wealthier shoppers bought all that was to be had?  Had he no recourse?

Well, no, actually, not much.  But the cities tried.  They did set up a way to distribute the all-important bread, once things got bad enough.  Hospitals, parish churches, and religious confraternities distributed bread and set up soup kitchens.  But sometimes the problem dwarfed the solution, and the cities saw frightening bread riots, like this one in Siena in 1329:

The price of grain by the staio (unit of measurement, rather like a bushel, but the size of it could vary from city to city) was up to 1 florin, which put grain out of many people's reach.  The government of Florence sent to Sicily for grain and made it available to the public at half a florin per staio, though it was poor quality, mixed with barley.  An armed guard protected the grain, with an executioner's block and axe prominently displayed nearby.  Siena, too, set up an elaborate distribution system.

Bread distribution - not Siena and not 1329, but similarly chaotic

By April 1329, Siena had little grain left to purchase.  It had been a dry year, and people who would normally have sold off their surplus chose instead to keep it, to make sure they could feed their families.  Laws were passed forbidding anyone to leave the city with grain or bread, because people were coming into Siena from the countryside and from neighboring provinces in search of food.  Still, people tried to smuggle bread out.  Two men who were caught with bread in their pack-saddles were arrested, chained on top of a platform, and displayed to the crowd all day (though the chronicle tells us that many felt this was unfair, as the men acted only out of desperate need). 

The Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala had been in charge of bread distribution, but on 12 May the crowds became so desperate and so obstreperous that the hospital, fearing that the hungry crowd might force its way in and raid its stores, locked the doors.  The crowd then surged toward the Campo (Siena's city center), where they ransacked the city's tubs of grain, fighting off city officials with poles and stones as the owners of nearby shops frantically locked up their businesses.   Four of the city's men were killed, but the crowd was finally persuaded to return to the Hospital, where bread distribution resumed.  Later, six of the ringleaders of the crowd were hanged. 

By 20 June the crisis was easing, because Siena too sent to Sicily for grain, and on that day it at last arrived. 

 With that, let's leave Guido to his shopping, wishing him buon appetito and a steady supply of affordable bread. 

Photographic images in this post are our own, and we hold copyright; all other images are in the public domain.

Be sure to check out all the blogs participating in the Blog Hop:


Shauna Roberts said...

Excellent post, Tinney. I've always wondered how the poor without kitchens ate.

Helen Hollick said...

This article made me quite hungry - I fancy a pizza now! *laugh* Thanks for sharing - thoroughly enjoying all the contributions to the Banquet Blog Hop

Sophia Rose said...

Lots of good information here. I had no idea about the 'non' edible crust on the pies. And it was interesting to learn about the poor end of the population.

Thanks for sharing and for the giveaway opportunity.

Tinney Heath said...

Shauna - yes, I always find myself wondering about how life was for the people who didn't have much. We tend to hear so much less about them. Helen, yes, this hop is a lot of fun! I spent all morning reading about food! Sophia Rose, thank you. And I'd have to say, inedible crusts are a tradition that continues, when I try to bake a pie...

Regina Jeffers said...

Wow! I watched the rerun of Jeff Foxworthy's Great American Baking Challenge last evening. The contestants were having difficulties with creating the perfect pies. What if...

Anonymous said...

Loved this. Thinking of inviting Guido to dinner - he could do with some good food, couldn't he?

Tinney Heath said...

Regina, if even people who are willing to cook on television have problems with crusts, I feel better. My grandmothers could do it; my mother, not so much. Me? Not at all. I must be more of a medieval throwback than I'd realized. Anna - let me accept, on Guido's behalf! He'd love a good meal. Now if we could just get him a mini-refrigerator for his rented room...

Unknown said...

Great post, Tinney. I enjoyed following Guido on his quest for a meal. Thank you for the chance to win your book.

Anonymous said...

Ah, apartments without kitchens--I had one of those when I was in college! My food options were a bit different from Guido's, though ;-)

Julie K. Rose said...

Your posts are always so fascinating, and this one is *awesome*. I learned so much!

Denise said...

You have made me hungry! Must see what cheese I have to snack on.They had a way with making a feast from few ingredients even back then.Viva la cucina italiana! Thanks for the giveway!

Tinney Heath said...

Thanks, Marsha and Julie! Coralee - I lived in one of those, too. Requires a bit of ingenuity, doesn't it? Denise - the pictures made me want cheese, too. (But I think I'll pass on the tripe.)

Susan Heim said...

Thanks so much for the great info on Medieval cooking!
Susan Heim
smhparent [at] hotmail [dot] com

Susan Heim said...

Extra entry: I follow on GFC as ParentingAuthor.
Susan Heim
smhparent [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tinney Heath said...

Welcome, Susan!

Maria Grace said...

The more thins change,the more they stay the same.