copyright, 2009, Maria Liberati
Editor: Patrick Coyne
The Basic Art of Italian Cooking
Food, Art, Life…. all related topics..cooking is an art…the way we eat is an art , the way you present your food is an art..parmigiana-reggiano cheese is a work of art since it is made by an artisan process as are many other Italian cheeses and wines..all works of art.. Even freshly grown produce are works of art..think of a fresh San Marzano tomato or the blood red oranges of Sicily or the fresh lemons form Sorrento. These are things that can only be described as works of art.
But even more than this the masters of art Michelangelo and DaVinci made ‘living an art’. (DaVinci invented the table settings that we use today). DaVinci even influenced some of the Mediterranean diet.
To discover more about Michelangelo, one of my favorite books to read over and over is A Journey Into Michelangelo’s Rome by Angela K. Nickerson and published by Roaring Forties Press. I love the book because it not only discusses his works of art but also contains letters he wrote while creating his works of art and personal glimpses into his life-which was a work of art in itself. Michelangelo devoted his whole life to his art and sometimes was so intent on finishing up his masterpiece that he would go without eating. He often said “if people knew how hard I have had to work to gain my mastery it wouldn’t seem so wonderful”
The accomplishments of Leonardo DaVinci are great and many. His contributions to fields from art to aerodynamics is well documented and still felt 500 years after the Renaissance. The depth and brilliance of Da Vinci’s accomplishments has been thoroughly explored so instead I’d like to take a look at the dietary habits of this Renaissance man. Many factors play an integral part in the diet of Da Vinci, the new herbs and vegetables discovered, his strict vegetarianism, and the 16thCentury Italian recipes that are still used today. Undeniably, Leonardo Da Vinci was a genius but by exploring the day to day foods he ate, we can form a better understanding of the man rather than simply the historical figure.
One of the most surprising facts about DaVinci that was uncovered through my research is that he was a staunch vegetarian. There’s always an inclination to view vegetarianism as a relatively new or trendy movement and to find that a man who was alive nearly 500 years ago, speaks volumes about his genius.
Now that we know what Da Vinci did not eat, the question remains, what foods were a part of the Master’s diet? The Renaissance played a huge role in nearly every aspect of Italian life, their diets included. The discovery of the Americas in 1492 and Marco Polo’s exploration of Asia led to the trading of new crops, spices and herbs never before experienced in Italy. The potato and corn were quickly adopted and became staples of the Renaissance diet but the tomato surprisingly was met with avoidance and fear. Despite it’s prominence in so many modern Italian dishes, the veggie didn’t gain popularity until nearly two centuries later. The indigenous herbs and vegetables of foreign nations exposed the Italians to new tastes and sensual delights but techniques for food preparation were also discovered. It is said that the Chinese were the first to create “stews” but the Italians were the first to use fruit and wine, leading to many of the modern dishes we eat today and possibly the genesis of tomato gravy( or sauce, but that’s another article).
Despite the new experiences and schools of thought, money still dictated your meals. Pizza was generally peasant food in the 16thCentury. It was sold by street vendors and without tomato sauce. Pasta at the time was quickly becoming the main course of the Italian diet. Da Vinci was born a poor child but was apprenticed to a wealthy artist and from there became a revered and affluent artist in his lifetime. Leonardo was most likely given the chance to taste all the new and exciting feast influenced by the discovery of the New World. I suppose being one of the most intelligent and influential persons in human history does have a few perks.
Despite the seemingly endless contributions to humanity the Renaissance has afforded us, it’s interesting to explore the lesser discussed contributions taken from the era. One could argue that there are more important discoveries and ideas to be taken from the Renaissance but learning about something as seemingly mundane as the everyday foods eaten by 16th century Italians, can give us a better understanding of the influential period and a stronger connection to our modern dishes and their origins.
March 28th- I will be signing copies of my best selling book at Gourmet Women & Wine event at Citizens Bank Park from 11-2. Join us for panel discussions on wine, wine pairings and tastings and more!
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Mangia Bene, Vivi Bene,