Blog: Chef Jemichel ~ The Chef-Doctor
by chef jem

Nourishing Traditional Roots of Italian Cuisine

What did the traditional diet actually consist of for the Italian people during the Italian Renaissance and especially in Tuscany?

Date:   11/24/2014 11:00:04 PM   ( 7 y ) ... viewed 916 times

Within the last couple weeks I have been suddenly inspired with identifying what the everyday diet may have been throughout the Renaissance.(1) To make a long (but truly synchronistic) story short I got a used copy of "The Food Of Italy" by Waverly Root and I'm in second chapter on Tuscany.

(BTW if Italy is perceived as a "boot" then the boot must be a full length boot that reaches right up to the highest high and if so then Tuscany would be located right above the knee.)

Now that I have this food spirit in me the geography of Italy has suddenly become of greater interest to me! I imagine that a general interest in "foreign" cultures and places can be stimulated in people through their interest in food. To the extent that this may be true could be something for Waldorf and similar schools to consider!

In any case the American commercial version of "Italian" was the first cuisine I began cooking as of age 12! Now I am enjoying discovering the roots of Italian cuisine and that the real roots are not "pizza" (or even the many other dishes that were developed with marinara or any other of the many different kinds of tomato sauce) because the whole tomato thing was something that evolved after tomatoes were introduced to Italy, apparently after the "new world" had opened to them! Nevertheless the Italians definitely developed some great tomato-based sauces (especially all sauces that include bones)! It is only a certain distinction that I am in the process of making now between what is generally thought of (at least in American commerce) as "Italian" and what Italians actually ate on a day-to-day basis particularly during the Renaissance. This is a discovery process! (And one very right use of the mind is research! ; ~ )

I love learning about the historical native foods of Italy (Tuscany) and especially knowing about the mind-set of the Tuscany people's relationship with food (that Root presents) in terms of its simplicity plus the people's emphasis on the nourishment quality of food (apparently more than anything else)!

However, (and this aspect was in my psyche way before I started pursuing this as of a couple weeks ago) - their use of sugar now is turned into a bit of a new mystery for me because I had previously thought that the average consumption of sugar during the Renaissance was about ONE TEASPOON per year! I have already blogged this: "The Glories of The Renaissance Were Created With An Average Intake Of One Teaspoon of Sugar Per Head Per Year.":

What Waverly Root presents includes foods the Italians loved apparently during the Renaissance that had sugar added (more than what I think would average "one teaspoon ... per head per year") turning pasta into deserts that were included along with their main course/s IN ADDITION to their deserts!

I shared all of this with a friend (whom I know has a deep appreciation and activism for preserving local cultures) and she mentioned Marco Polo as having introduced Italy to pasta/noodles upon return from his travels through China. However – I’m not willing make any assumptions about this and therefore was compelled to research this. Here is the first article that I have just found on this idea:

Here’s what I find most interesting in this research!:
"There is a legend of Marco Polo importing pasta from China which originated with the Macaroni Journal, published by an association of food industries with the goal of promoting the use of pasta in the United States. Rustichello da Pisa writes in his Travels that Marco Polo described a food similar to 'lagana'. Jeffrey Steingarten asserts that Arabs introduced pasta in the Emirate of Sicily in the ninth century, mentioning also that traces of pasta have been found in ancient Greece and that Jane Grigson believed the Marco Polo story to have originated in the 1920s or 30s in an advertisement for a Canadian Spaghetti company.":

I smile over these tactics and over the length that food industries go to in order to promote their foods of commerce. However I also I feel deeply about the impact and consequences of all of the manufactured imagery that gets implanted in the people's psyche - creating an illusionary connection to culture and veiling what once were our nourishing traditions and to such an extent that when the true culture is revealed it can be unbelievable and somewhat shocking to the consumer! Our modern day grocery stores are showcases for these cultural illusions. Before children ever enter their official 12-year educational indoctrination they are "educated" from the imagery on packaging. But the deepest programming is in the contents of those packages!

Here's a very mild example that shows a simple contrast between what modern day consumers are led to believe and what actually happened.:

"It is to be noted that the idea of using tomato sauce to give pasta its flavour was revolutionary since it was originally eaten plain. It was eaten with the hands as only the wealthy could afford eating utensils. The consumption of pasta has changed over time; it was once a small, simple item, but it is now often eaten in much larger portions and as part of complex, sophisticated dishes. Factors such as low prices and ease of cooking contribute to the growing popularity of this staple item."

I do not have any pasta in my diet now and I haven't for more years than I can remember. I simply haven't thought of it as a nutrient-dense food. My foundation for eating is predominantly if not exclusively for nourishment. (What a concept! ; ~ ) However, I realize that there is a big world of pasta-lovers and in my dream restaurant (that would include some Renaissance Italian cuisine) I would include pasta - that is freshly prepared on the day of the pasta course. Here is a reference toward the direction I am envisioning:

"Fresh egg pasta is well known in the Piedmont area near the border of France. In this area, dough is only made out of egg yolk and flour resulting in a very refined flavour and texture. This pasta is often served simply with butter sauce and thinly sliced truffles that are native to this region.";

Imagine in this "Renaissance kitchen" there is an assortment of several different kinds of traditional grains that are firstly sprouted, then gently dried and finally freshly ground into the flour that is used for the freshest prepared pasta dough East of Italy! Imagine local farms with green salad-bar pasture-feeding chickens eating their most nourishing diet and producing legendary "golden eggs" especially (if not excluisively) for this kitchen! Now imagine the pasta chef cracking open one of these eggs and revealing the true "gold" - the "golden" egg yolk - actually it is the most orange-looking yolk that you have ever seen! Imagine seeing the chef blending the egg yolks into a large bowl of the freshly-ground sprouted flour. This is a tiny picture of the kind of quality, connectedness and highly conscious preparation that this Renaissance kitchen would have on a daily basis!

Dear readers - Have you or do you know someone who has gotten into the foods of the Renaissance? If so I am inviting comments on this and which I would like to add to this blog.

(1) "... the fifteenth century is considered as the Renaissance in Italy, but is the high middle ages in England.":

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