Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 15, 2021

The Original Mediterranean Cuisine, Medieval Recipes for Today, by Barbara Santich

I like books about the history of food.  Readers may remember my adventures with Historic Heston, by Heston Blumenthal which was a book of recipes derived from his mission to rescue Britain’s melancholy reputation for awful food by exploring its grand old traditions using chef’s recipe books of the past.  That’s a book for an ambitious cook because the recipes are adapted from creations at his London restaurant Dinner. The book is suitably extravagant with stunning photography and illustrations and I liked it very much but I’ve only ever been tempted to try one of the recipes.

The Original Mediterranean Cuisine by Barbara Santich (whose books I’ve reviewed before) is a more approachable book.  The first part of the book is about the history of Mediterranean cuisine, starting with a chapter about the unity of Mediterranean Europe in this period, when Catalonia, southern France and Italy shared a common nature and a common culture, including language, that differed in many respects from the nature and culture of northern Europe.  Travellers in the period could see it for themselves in the abundance of wheat and wine, olive oil, dates, almonds, citrus fruits, and figs in the southern region often grown using irrigation because of the dry climate, while in the north it was apple-and pear trees, cider, beef, fish, milk and butter where summer rain enabled three-year crop rotation.

The diet common throughout medieval Italy, southern France and much of Spain, as well as North Africa was based on white wheaten bread, olive oil, eggs and fish when possible, an abundance of wine; a variety of vegetables; and meat in the form of mutton, lamb and kid.  There was only a little fresh pork , as pork was more commonly eaten salted. (p.3)

Not much in the way of recorded recipes exists until the 13th century, though some Roman manuscripts resurfaced in the 15th century.  It was the crusades that revitalised trade in the 11th century, and cities grew rich transporting and provisioning pilgrims and crusaders.  In this and other chapters there are charming reproductions of medieval pictures, and ‘The Medieval Culinary Revival’ shows the purchase of currants and other dried fruits.

‘The Hierarchy of Food’ reminds us that the hierarchy of food corresponded to the social hierarchy.  It’s no surprise to learn that the lower orders were thought to be unable to appreciate or digest elite foods, which were reserved for nobles and those who lead a contemplative life.  Not only was food for the poor less interesting and less nutritious, there was also less of it, though of course they were the ones doing the manual labour.  All this was divinely ordained, with everything graded from top to bottom with those nearest the earth ranked lowest. The foods described in the recipes are for the wealthy, as you’d expect. This applied to herbs and spices used for medicine too, so they also signalled wealth and status.

Interestingly, medieval account books don’t include vegetables because they were outside the money economy.  They came from the kitchen garden and/or were bartered.  So at least the poor folks could have vegetables!

As we know from exploring the origins of foods and their movements throughout the world in The Gourmet Atlas by Ward, Clifton and Stacey, the medieval diet lacked some of the ingredients that define it today: tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, corn, and zucchini did not come from the New World until later.  The recipes, however, don’t appear to be lacking in any way. They have all been cooked in a test kitchen and quantities derived from the approximations in the original recipes.  Like the best recipe books do, the collection is divided into sections:

  • Sauces (absolutely essential to the medieval table, apparently)
  • Meat and poultry
  • Fish and seafood
  • Vegetables and pulses
  • Pies and torte
  • Desserts and fritters
  • Preserves

You will be relieved to learn that Santich substitutes the blender for a mortar and pestle for pounding meat, and that she eschews the bland and mushy recipes for convalescents as well as certain kinds of offal and lampreys.  There are suggestions for alternatives to (Maggie Beer’s favourite ingredient) verjuice, and instructions for how to make almond milk.

So, what looks nice? Well, Basil and Verjuice Sauce sounds good as an accompaniment to chicken or quail, and then there’s the Peacock sauce, which contrary to expectation neither contains peacock nor is served with one, because peacocks are apparently gross, difficult to digest and promoting melancholy.  This sauce, made with ground almonds, a chicken liver, balsamic vinegar, honey, cinnamon, ginger and saffron, can be served instead with the more humble chicken, though because it’s so rich, just a spoonful is enough per serve.  If you don’t have a spit-roasted partridge, you could also try the Almond and Pomegranate sauce with your hen, but Santich sounds a bit dubious: the result is the consistency of mustard, rather than a pouring sauce, best used in small quantities; the combination of flavours is somewhat unusual.  You might be better off with Cameline sauce which was a staple in all the recipe books: it’s made with currants, bread, almonds and cinnamon or cloves, and you can serve it with almost any kind of roast.

Moving on: in the meat and poultry section there are heaps of chicken recipes because poultry was so commonly used as a prestige food to impress people.  There is chicken with lemon; or with pomegranates, or with saffron and spice sauce;  or with verjuice &c.  But there are a few recipes with veal and also some for lamb.  I don’t like lamb not even with the recommended quinces, and the same goes for pork, with or without a sweet-sour sauce.  But the fish and seafood section is much more appealing, whether floured and fried (small fish) or poached (large fish), or baked with herbs,  I like almost any kind of fish and the more simply cooked the better. I like the sound of squid with almonds, pine nuts and currants, but no, I could not be bothered stuffing a sardine even though there is an enchanting picture of some fisherman hauling them in with their nets.

Vegetables had an important place on the medieval table.  They were not accompaniments.  Many meals were of necessity meatless, but even wealthy people ate imaginatively created vegetable dishes as a main course.  The basic recipe was potage i.e. boiled with a piece of fresh or salted meat and served with bread and maybe some of the meat.  (Yes, I can see the vegetarians among us shuddering at the thought of it).  The vegetables could be enriched with eggs, cheese or meat, or almond milk in Lent.  Legumes, not as highly valued as vegetables, came into their own during Lent when religion forbad the eating of meat.

Santich has chosen recipes to appeal to modern tastes where the vegetable is the star of the show: fried asparagus,  stuffed eggplant, (or have them Moorish style with coriander and pecorino or parmesan).  (There’s an intriguing illustration for eggplants: there seems to be some kind of dalliance going on, but the eggplants are growing higher than the people.  I’ve never seen them growing to such a height and I’m not sure if this is just a medieval problem with perspective or a variety I’ve never yet seen.) There are plenty of recipes for broad beans because they were so very common on the medieval table, but I skipped the page about *ugh* cabbage and likewise the turnips.  (I note also that there are no recipes for zucchini muffins which are a staple at our place during the season.)  Spinach was often paired with currants, a bizarre combo but it’s suggested as an accompaniment to ham.

Pies were medieval street food, sold by hawkers in the towns, but torte were more elaborate.  There’s a quail pie with pine nuts and pancetta, and chicken and pork pies, plus a cheesecake and a ravioli.  Desserts, alas, were not part of the medieval menu; sweet things were served with other dishes, though marzipan, biscuits and wafers were usually served last with a sweet wine called hypocras. Most of these recipes are fritters or one sort or another, including one called ‘the Emperor’s fritters’, made with ricotta, egg whites, pine nuts and icing sugar.  The one that interests me is the recipe for marzipan because I’ve never come across that before, and it actually looks quite easy. There’s also an appealing recipe for Figs with Rose Petals, but alas, I can never bring myself to pick roses just to eat them so I’m pleased to see that you can just sprinkle the figs with rosewater instead.

Apart from its recipes being appealing to the modern palate and easy enough to make, this book is interesting in its own right.  The Mediterranean diet is commonly recommended as one of the healthiest ways to eat, and this book shows you its origins in recipes that are still being made today.

Author: Barbara Santich
Title: The Original Mediterranean Cuisine, Medieval Recipes for Today
Publisher: Second edition Wakefield Press, 2020, first published in 1995
ISBN: 9781743056424, hbk., 205 pages
Source: Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available from Fishpond: The Original Mediterranean Cuisine: Medieval recipes for today or direct from Wakefield Pressor your favourite indie bookshop.

 


Responses

  1. Good grief, Lisa, this and the Historic Heston sound totally fascinating! I’ve never heard of them before (missed the review of the Heston book) but I’m very interested in both cooking and history., I’m not a collector anymore but if I were I’d go ahead and get the Heston and the Santich even pricy as they are over here – but I don’t even have a home for them now. So all I can say is thank you for the review and enjoy!

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  2. yes always interesting to see what we eat has developed and changed over time lisa

    Liked by 1 person

    • Is the Mediterranean diet recommended by health experts in Britain too?

      Liked by 1 person

      • yes think since elizabeth david wrote about it since then i think most recent variations is an italian mountain village diet a small village where the people are long lived in italy

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        • Yes, that’s where it comes from, and they’ve done heaps of research that shows how healthy it is. A lot of what we eat at home is Mediterranean diet inspired, but we like Asian/Indian flavours as well, and Asian stir-fries are healthy too.

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  3. I reckon the case of cookbooks in my kitchen represents a reasonable chunk of cooking history and trends – some we’ve inherited date back to the 50s and beyond! :D

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    • Before my house fire I had cookbooks from WWII and the Great Depression – one had an appendix of how to cook with certain issues like ration coupons or shortages – how to make sugar stretch. And then they had advice for how to use servants or how to do without them or proper place settings for very formal occasions and the order of courses, There were a bunch of really old church cookbooks in this batch I got from my grandmother – there were family names as authors of some of the recipes in those,

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      • Replying here to your other comments above as well: I did not know you’d had a house fire, that must have been devastating, and (I’m guessing) amongst other treasures, what a thing to lose, a part of your family’s history.
        I have an two-volume American postwar cookbook which sounds a little like what you had: lots of advice on budgeting, service etiquette, making the most of produce and so on. I use it a lot because it has a really good section on simple ‘scratch’ puddings, you know, when someone turns up unexpected and says for dinner, and you have to make a pudding with what’s in the pantry.
        Mind you, I wouldn’t want my granny’s recipes. I have vivid memories of English cabbage…

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    • That sounds like treasure… tell you what I’ve noticed, modern cookbooks fall into two camps: easy (very limited number of ingredients, use of processed foods to supplment fresh &c) and what’s called food porn: breathtakingly sumptuous with restaurant-standard skills required even to approximate the recipes. Very few of the ones I’ve seen are actually like the cookbooks from my early days in the kitchen, that taught me basic recipes and basic skills and have served me well all my life. (Though *cough* TBH, I have never made my own puff pastry. There are limits.)

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      • I agree – the food porn ones tend to leave me a bit cold and I haven’t got the time or patience. I can do the basics (I’ve brought up three vegan kids so I had to I guess!) and I can knock up shortcrust pastry at the drop of a hat (though I alwas buy puff – made it once at school, never again…) The older books tend to cover some of the basics and then build on this to more elaborate stuff which is never too much to master. Modern life often seems to = style over substance wherever you look, doesn’t it?

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        • Yes…
          What’s been really interesting about the pandemic is the revival of cooking, because people were (reported to be) bored at home and had plenty of time to do it. There was a huge shortage of flour and yeast in supermarkets, not because the product wasn’t available, but because the factories were geared up to produce large quantities of huge packages for commercial baking and not able to produce enough domestic sized-packages to meet the unexpected demand.

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  4. I also love reading cookbooks and I read recipes online too. The best cookbook I’ve read in ages has been “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” ~ by Samin Nasrat (2017). This is much more than a mere recipe book – it’s a total “how to” manual like The James Beard Cookbook from back in my bride-hood. LOL! I did so love that book.

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    • I’ll check my library to see if they have that one. Libraries are great for cookbooks, because so often, there’s just one or two recipes or ideas that haven’t seen before…

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  5. I like books like this (and it reminded me I have one that’s been in the TBR stack for eons…).
    Perhaps it’s too early in the day for your review to make me feel hungry, or perhaps it was the mention of reasons why not to eat peacock… but if I come across this book, I have plenty of verjuice at hand (and I like cabbage and turnips, but not eggplant so much – it’s a texture thing).

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    • I have two recipes to change your mind about eggplant. One is ratatouille from Mastering the Art of French Cookery, which will teach you how to cook it properly so that it keeps its shape and flavour, and the other is a vegetarian lasagne from The 90s Vegetarian which is my go-to recipe when vegetarians come to lunch (and all the carnivores eat it too, instead of what I’ve cooked for them).
      Just let me know if you want them…

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      • Please please can I have both these recipes. I’ve tried so many variations of ratatouille and it always ends up as a mush. A veggie lasagne I make is OK but I’m open to trying a new version

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  6. I collect cookery books . Great social history . Speaking of odd recipes I bought a compilation of recipes from the old records of the Castle Howard kitchens . The best is a recipe for Humble Pie , made from the ‘umbles of a freshly killed deer . While the Lord’s family dined on venison , the servants and tenants were offered the offal, intestines etc cooked in pastry . They ate humble pie !

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    • So that’s where the expression comes from!

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  7. When you say stuffing a sardine I am picturing a tiny sardine, of the tinned variety! Definitely could not be bothered with that sort of precision.
    This review was an entertaining read, thanks.

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    • LOL, ah, yes, well, fresh sardines from a fishmonger are a fair bit bigger than that, but still, stuffing them? Madness. Dredge them in flour and fry, and serve with crunchy fresh bread and a good glass of wine. If feeling ambitious, add a sprig of parsley…

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      • I’ve actually only ever seen the canned ones!

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        • Years ago I was down at Campbell’s Cove near Werribee where the family had a fishing shack, and as we walked along the beach we came upon some men hauling in a catch of sardines. They sent us to get a bucket, and that day we had one of the best meals I’ve ever had, exactly as I’ve described cooking sardines above. Simple is best, when it comes to fish.
          Now you are living in ‘civilisation’, you should be able to find a fish supplier!

          Liked by 1 person

          • I love fish and I agree, I like to keep it simple with the cooking. If you have to hide the taste of fish with too many frills then it’s not good fish.

            Liked by 1 person

  8. I admire people who can write books such as this. Books and films/programs about food are always interesting though I will never follow trends when choosing my own food as some do. I find that quite comical. 🌳🐧🌳

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    • Yes, and those crazy fad diets… it slays me, it really does, that after years of free education which includes science and nutrition, people still fall for that rubbish.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Hm, I’ll skip those sauces and as a vegetarian the meat section wouldn’t be much use but the fish dishes and the vegetable ones sound promising.
    The trouble with most modern cookbooks is they assume you have a lot of kitchen skills so miss out vital steps…..

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    • Or, just as bad IMO, they assume you don’t have the skills and so they leave out ingredients or tell you to buy some horrible thing in a can instead.
      I will never forget the first time I tried fresh asparagus. I thought I didn’t like it because I’d only ever had the canned variety and I was just being polite. What a revelation!
      And then, when I got my preserving kit, I preserved my own asparagus and that was totally divine. It just shows, I think, how we are often short-changed in terms of flavour and texture by processed food.
      (Mind you, I cannot get home-made baked beans to taste as good as low-salt Heinz baked beans.)

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      • there’s a trend over here now for cook books which tell you dishes to make that just take 5 ingredients or 15 minutes to prepare. The latter should be taken to court for misrepresentation because they never include the preparation time – they just get their underlings to do that for them

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        • LOL It’s worse here, it’s just four ingredients…

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  10. I am so glad that the peacock sauce isn’t made with or served with peacock! My local Coles doesn’t get many of those in as far as I know!

    This sounds like such a fascinating book to read! Thanks for writing about it!

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    • Ha ha, Marg, I’ll check out my local Woollies and see if they have it.

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