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Stefano Manfredi's Italian Food
By Stefano Manfredi
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2013 Stefano Manfredi and John Newton
All rights reserved.
ITALY: A BRIEF CULINARY HISTORY
BY JOHN NEWTON
The first wave of migratory tribes to arrive on what is now known as the Italian peninsula, around the 12th century BCE (Before the Current Era) became known as Italici, from an ancient word meaning 'land of young cattle', or 'land of calves'. This was either descriptive – there were young calves – or a derogatory name used by the Etruscans (who arrived a little later) to disparage their less accomplished southern neighbours. Either way, it can be said that the very name of Italy has a culinary connection.
Little is known of the diet of these early peoples, but it is likely, as in the rest of Western Europe, that between 6000 and 3500 BCE they began to practise agriculture and herding. They domesticated wild herbs, grew crops, and grazed livestock (mainly goats and sheep) using the method known as transhumance (transumanza), which is herding the animals to warmer climes in the winter and into the mountains during summer.
Later, three races left indelible marks on the food of Italy: the Etruscans, the Greeks and the Arabs – or, as the latter were called at the time, Moors or Saracens. Three races and, later, one event – the arrival, in the mid-16th century, of the tomato from the lowlands of Peru – were pivotal to the country's cuisine.
The first inhabitants of whom we have some knowledge are the group of tribes called the Etruscans, who arrived in about the 11th century BCE and inhabited the area around what is known today as Toscana (Tuscany), then as Etruria.
The Etruscans had linguistic roots in Phoenicia, Turkey and Egypt, but their exact origins are a mystery. Their reputation in the ancient world was for decadence and excess. They ate two meals a day at a time when one was the norm, probably because they were successful farmers who most likely developed rotational cropping and thus grew more food, which had to be eaten. Another reason for their reputation was that, unlike the custom elsewhere, Etruscan women ate with the men at official banquets, and they were reputed to be excellent cooks.
The Etruscans' staples were barley and an ancient wheat called farro, which were ground into a gruel called puls, an ancestor of today's polenta. They grew hazelnuts, figs, peas, chickpeas, lentils, grapes and olives and were famed for the quality of their olive oil and wine. Their meat was mainly from pigs and chickens but occasionally sheep and cattle, although the cattle were more useful alive, working on the farms.
From the 6th century BCE, the Etruscans began trading and competing with the Greek colonies in southern Italy and with the Phoenicians. The latter would have introduced to the peninsula dates, almonds, pistachios, persimmons and scallions (scallions take their name from the Phoenician town of Ascalon).
Greek civilisation, which rose to power and prominence around the 8th century BCE, was based upon the city-state. So successful were many of these cities that their populations grew to the point where they ran out of land for the younger generation. The solution was to send the young out to find colonies elsewhere. And so, beginning with Pitecusa on the island of Ischia in 770 BCE, southern Italy became Magna Graecia, with Greek cities eventually spreading from Sicilia (Sicily) north to today's Puglia (Apulia) and across to Campania. There are villages in Puglia and Calabria where a dialect of ancient Greek is still spoken.
The Greeks arrived with olives, more grapes, cabbage and onions, plus the advanced agricultural techniques needed to grow them and to make wine and olive oil. For the Greeks, the cultivation of grain and the baking of bread were the distinctive signs of civilisation.
Greek influence can be seen today in Calabria, where orange and lemon blossoms are called by orchardists zàgara, a Greek word for flower, and where until recently fishers in Bagnara harpooned swordfish using techniques and tackle similar to those of the ancient Greeks. Greek Sicilia produced the first school for professional cooks, run by Labdacus in the 3rd century BCE. Later, when the Romans ruled Italy, the fame of Sicilian food had spread throughout the Mediterranean world; for the Romans, culinary perfection was Siculus coquus et Sicula mensa, meaning 'a Sicilian cook and a Sicilian table'.
The Greek city-states on the Italian peninsula had an unfortunate and ultimately fatal habit of squabbling with each other and their neighbours. While fighting the more powerful Phoenicians and Etruscans, the Greeks employed mercenaries from across the Alps – Celts whose territory spread from present-day Austria to southern Germany. This turned out to be a bad idea. The mercenaries went back home, spread the word on the wealth and timidity of the locals and their abundant lands and, from about the 5th century BCE, began to infiltrate the Po River plains. In the following decades, waves of Celts settled there, pushing the Etruscans back into Toscana.
The invasion did have some good results: the Celts brought with them their pigs as well as their skill at extracting salt and using it to preserve foods. The result was one of Italy's most treasured products, prosciutto, and some of today's best prosciutto is produced around the site of those early Celtic settlements, in Parma.
ROME AND THE ROMANS
While the Greeks and Etruscans had civilisations, they had no nations – only cities. This lack of cohesion was their weakness, and the Romans overran them easily. In a remarkably short time, Rome grew from a loose federation of villages on seven hills around the river Tiber to an empire that ruled most of the known world.
The early Roman diet was similar to that of the surrounding tribes, consisting primarily of farro and barley ground into puls. So central was it to their diet that all other foods were known as pulentarium, or accompaniments to puls. They also ate pulses, wild herbs, vegetables, cheese, honey, a little meat (mainly fowl, sheep and pig) and, after the 4th century, olives. Cattle were used mostly for agriculture and were sacrificed – and eaten – only for religious ceremonies or celebrations, weddings and births, and then only by the wealthy. Stored food, known as penus (which included cured meat), gave its name to the household gods: Penates.
The Romans ate a single main meal, coena at midday, and drank mulsum, wine mixed with water; the coena was often followed by 'desserts' of cheese and fruit called secundae mensae. Breakfast, ientaculum, added flatbread to the dessert menu. If there was an evening meal, vesperna, it was light and consumed just before going to bed. The people's habit of lying down at table – eating while reclining on their sides – came from Greece via the Etruscans.
After clashes with Carthage, from whose people they learnt new farming and herding techniques, and after establishing outposts on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean, the Romans conquered Spain, Greece, the Middle East, France and Egypt, all in less than two centuries. Such expansion had its problems. The estates – latifundia – owned by the richest Romans, which had expanded using slave power, meant that the poorer farmers were unable to compete. Many sold their properties and left for other provinces.
As the Roman Empire advanced and Rome became wealthier, so did Roman cuisine become more and more elaborate. While publicly extolling the virtues of frugality, passing laws aimed at curbing excessive eating, and attributing corruption to gluttony, the reality was that of a society wallowing in excess. (The English word frugality is derived from the Latin fruges, the name for the agriculture yield, which was considered the symbol of civilisation.)
In imperial times the midday meal became known as prandium and consisted of leftovers from the previous evening meal together with bread and cheese. The main meal, still the coena, moved to the evening. Exotic foods and spices, cooking techniques, and recipes from the far-flung corners of the empire converged on Rome. From Gaul, Germany, Iberia, the East and Africa came pepper and cloves, among other spices.
For the Romans, 'sour' meant vinegar, 'sweet' meant honey, and 'salt' meant garum, a fish sauce not unlike modern-day Asian fish sauces; sweet and salt flavours were habitually mixed together. Another common ingredient was silphium, a resin extract from a root that appears to have disappeared in the 1st century, when it was replaced by asafoetida, a gum derived from a Middle Eastern plant known to the Romans as laserpitium. During the time of Apicius, fish became fashionable and many of the villas of wealthy Romans incorporated fish ponds.
The urban poor lived in cramped quarters in large apartment blocks called insulae, where kitchens were rare for fear of fire. Many ate out in tabernae, shops that sold hot meals and wine, and gambling shops and brothels were common. Walking through this hugger-mugger of street life and, often, death, the wealthiest citizens would be followed by slaves carrying food that had been prepared in the homes of their owners.
Another example of the gap between rich and poor was flour. The best white flour, siligo, was reserved for the wealthy. Under the emperor Augustus (63–14 BCE), an office, the annona, was set up to stabilise grain prices and in times of hardship to distribute free grain.
Pompeii was destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79, but many of its people, buildings and artefacts were preserved under a layer of volcanic ash. What remains offers a valuable insight into ancient Roman life, including cooking. Kitchens in Pompeii were poorly lit rooms usually at the back of the house, most with only a masonry hearth with a tiled top and a storage area for fuel below. Some houses also had an oven resembling a small pizza oven, with a vent for the smoke to escape. There was usually a basin to hold water and supports for tables. Rich Pompeians often had a choice of dining room: a cold-weather room facing west or a warm-weather one facing east or north to remain in the shade. Many larger houses also had outside dining beneath a pergola, and the Pompeian equivalent of a barbecue: a craticula or grid.
The empire began to unravel around the 2nd century for myriad reasons, including two of its pillars: conquest and slavery. The spoils of war dried up, and the slave system inhibited technological progress. Combined with galloping inflation and the excesses already mentioned briefly, this meant that by 350 there had been waves of invasion by the Germans, plus famines and decreasing agricultural productivity. Before his death in 395 Emperor Theodosius split the empire between his two sons: the western empire, centred in Rome, under Honorius and the eastern capital, in Constantinople, under Arcadius.
After a turbulent period of attacks and retreats and short-lived reigns, in 475 Romulus Augustus was named emperor. However, he reigned only from 31 October to 4 September: Rome had a Romulus both at its beginning and at its end.
AFTER THE FALL
The Germans arrived and settled in the countryside, bringing with them rye and barley. They also brought a fermented drink called beer, but the locals did not like it at all and stuck to their wines. Some German nobles started their own latifundia (land ownership), and the Roman nobles were pleased to have the German soldiers as peacekeepers. With the collapse of the empire there was no central authority, and many local cultures that had been suppressed by Roman ideology flourished.
A culinary clash was evident between the Roman wine, oil and bread trinity and the German lard, beer and rye: there was some substitution and, no doubt, much rivalry. When Christianity arrived it adopted the Roman trinity: wine and bread in Holy Communion, oil for ritual.
Socially and politically it was an uneasy time. The German tribes never managed to subdue Constantinople, and in 535, after a 20-year battle, Emperor Justinian I conquered the Goths and also a large part of Italy. He called it Romania, which today's Romagna derives from. In 568, the Longobards or Lombards, another German tribe, captured most of Justinian's territory, leaving to the Byzantines Sicilia, Sardinia, Puglia, Calabria, and Ravenna and surrounds. For 200 years Italy was divided between Byzantine and Lombard culture.
In 751 the Lombards conquered Ravenna and the five cities to its south, from Rimini to Ancona, known as the Pentapolis. The pope seated in Rome called in another Germanic tribe, the Franks, to fight the Lombards, and they invaded northern Italy and conquered most Lombard possessions. In gratitude, and for protection, the pope named their king, Charles the Great (Charlemagne), emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
The Franks introduced feudalism, a hierarchical system that fixed roles and allegiances and led all the way up to the emperor. His closest allies governed the territories and the nobles owned the farms; the latifundia system was integrated, the peasants worked the land and a tithe was extracted from each area and sent to the emperor. The peasants were taxed by the noble whose farm they worked, and all were expected to fight in his armies. Such a system entrenched and amplified class and cultural distinctions. The mostly Germanic nobles ritualised hunting, and roast or grilled meat – the bounty of the hunt – was the core of their diet. As with the Romans, celebratory feasts and banquets were organised and conferred status on both the giver and the guests. Drinking – and wine was back in fashion – was a large part of these events, although the wine was not very well made and was diluted with water to mask the taste.
The peasants ate cereals, pulses, fruit and vegetables grown in their own orchards and market gardens on unclaimed land, and made soups of cabbage, beet, fennel, leek and onion in hearth pots that would simmer all day. Cured pork was common but beef was rare, as oxen were used to pull carts and cows were milked for cheese.
This feudal system was to last in northern and central Italy until the 11th century, when the Frank territories south of the Alps broke away from France and Germany and, in time, became local states in the modern sense of the word. In the south, the Byzantine empire struggled to remain in control – a struggle that would ultimately prove futile.
In the 8th century they swept out of Africa on horseback and rapidly conquered much of the Mediterranean world, these soldiers of the newly minted Muslim religion. They overcame resistance in northern Africa, central Asia, Corsica, Sardinia and Pantelleria; entered Spain in 711; and were only stopped at Poitiers by the Franks in 732. In 827 the Arab state based in today's Tunisia attacked Sicilia and other Mediterranean locations, and in 902 they occupied Sicilia for the first time (but not the last).
Palermo became the Arabs' capital in the western Mediterranean and was soon stuffed with spices. The island was rapidly planted with new crops made possible by the advanced agricultural techniques of the conquerors, who were known in the western Mediterranean as Saracens and in Spain as Moors. Two of the most important new crops were sugar cane and citrus fruit, which replaced the Roman honey and vinegar respectively. But the Arabs also brought with them pomegranates, eggplants (aubergines), rice, saffron, apricots – the list goes on. One import worth special mention in the Italian context is coffee. Its name is derived from the Arab qahwah and it was a substitute for those who were forbidden wine; indeed, it was known as "the wine of Arabia".
The Arab invasion of Sicilia and other parts of the south had the same positive social consequences as it did in the Arabs' first 300 years in Spain. The Muslims were at first wise and tolerant rulers: they reduced the heavy taxes charged by the Byzantines, Christians and Jews were free to practise their religions, many of the latifundia were broken up and handed to smaller landholders, and agricultural output increased because of improved techniques and technology – especially in irrigation, at which the desert- dwelling Arabs excelled. Sicilia thrived and became part of the extensive Arabic commercial network. Palermo became an important cultural centre.
The feel of Arab Sicilia lingers today, in Palermo especially and in its Capo and Ballaro markets with their overhead awnings and bargaining stallholders. The Arab presence is also still to be found and savoured in Sicilian cuisine: the lemon, almost a symbol of the island, was introduced by them, while the emblematic pasta con le sarde with its currants is generally thought to be Arabic in origin. Another influence of the Arabs is eggplant and the many dishes made from it on the island; the preferred variety is known as the Tunisian. It is round and fades from deep purple to lavender to white near the stem.
Excerpted from Stefano Manfredi's Italian Food by Stefano Manfredi. Copyright © 2013 Stefano Manfredi and John Newton. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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Table of Contents
ITALY: A BRIEF CULINARY HISTORY,
ITALIAN WINE GRAPE VARIETIES,
THE ITALIAN KITCHEN,
Abruzzo e Molise,