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Renaissance Food

Renaissance food was as refined and sophisticated as the era itself. The dishes (as today), were carefully prepared to please both the palate and the eye.

Renaissance Table:Ferrara-1549
The Issue de Table-Woodcut from Banchetti compositioni di Vivendi-Christoforo di Messisburgo-Ferrara, 1549




The soups were very rich, very expensive, several being served at the same time; and in order to please the eye as well as the taste they were generally made of various colors, sweetened with sugar, and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and aromatic herbs, such as marjoram, sage, thyme, sweet basil, and savoury. The soups were perfect luxuries, and were taken instead of sweets. As a proof of this we must refer to the famous "soupe dorée", the description of which is given by Taillevent, head cook of Charles VII., in the following words: "Toast slices of bread, throw them into a jelly made of sugar, white wine, yolk of egg, and rosewater; when they are well soaked fry them, then throw them again into the rosewater and sprinkle them with sugar and saffron." There were also the soups made with mustard, hemp-seed, millet, verjuice, and a number of others much in repute at that period; for we see in Rabelais that the French were the greatest soup-eaters in the world, and boasted to be the inventors of seventy sorts.

Characteristic for the Renaissance food were also the broths. "In the time of the great King Francis I.," says Noel du Fail, in his "Contes d’Eutrapel", "in many places the saucepan was put on to the table, on which there was only one other large dish, of beef, mutton, veal, and bacon, garnished with a large bunch of cooked herbs, the whole of which mixture composed a porridge, and a real restorer and elixir of life". From this came the adage, "The soup in the great pot and the dainties in the hotch-potch." Wheat made into gruel for a long time was an important ingredient of cooking, being the basis of a famous preparation called fromentée, which was a bouillie obtained by boiling of milk, made creamy by the addition of yolks of eggs, and which was served as a liquor in which to roast meats and fish. There were several sorts of fromentée, all equally esteemed, and Taillevent recommended the following receipt, which differs from the one above given :—" First boil your wheat in water, then put into it the juice or gravy of fat meat, or, if you like it better, milk of almonds, and by this means you will make a soup for fasts, because it dissolves slowly, is of slow digestion and nourishes much. In this way, too, you can make ordiat, or barley soup, which is more generally approved than the said fromentée."


An important part of the Renaissance food were the roasts, of which the sirloin of beef must have been one of the most common. The modes of preparing roasts, while resembling the present system, differed by first boiling the strong meats, and then the roast was thoroughly basted with orange juice and rose-water, and covered with sugar and powdered spices. We must also mention the broiled dishes, the invention of which was attributed to hunters, and which Rabelais continually refers to as acting as stimulants and irresistibly exciting the thirst for wine at the sumptuous feasts of those voracious heroes.


The custom of introducing salads after roasts was already established in the 15th Century. However, a salad, of whatever sort, was never brought to table in its natural state; for, besides the raw herbs, dressed in the same manner as in our days, it contained several mixtures, such as cooked vegetables, and the crests, livers, or brains of poultry. After the salads, fish was served, sometimes fried, sometimes sliced with eggs or reduced to a sort of pulp, which was called carpée or charpie, and sometimes it was boiled in water or vine, with strong seasoning. Near the salads, in the course of the dinner, dishes of eggs prepared in various ways were generally served.


In 1509, Platina, although an Italian, in speaking of good cheeses, mentions the French cheeses: those of Chauny, in Picardy, and of Brehemont, in Touraine. Charles Estienne praises those of Craponne, in Auvergne, the angelots of Normandy, and the cheeses made from fresh cream which the peasant-women of Montreuil and Vincennes brought to Paris in small wickerwork baskets, and which were eaten sprinkled with sugar. The same author names also the rougerets of Lyons, which were always much esteemed; but, above all the cheeses of Europe, he places the round or cylindrical ones of Auvergne, which were only made by very clean and healthy children of fourteen years of age. Olivier de Serres advises those who wish to have good cheeses to boil the milk before churning it, a plan which is in use at Lodi and Parma, "where cheeses are made which are acknowledged by all the world to be excellent." The parmesan, which this celebrated agriculturist cites as an example, only became the fashion in France on the return of Charles VIII. from his expedition to Naples.


The Renaissance is Italian in the first place. And, surely, there cannot be Renaissance food without semolina, vermicelli, and macaroni. They were called Italian because they originally came from that country, and have been in use in France longer than is generally supposed. They were first introduced after the expedition of Charles VIII. into Italy, and the conquest of the kingdom of Naples; that is, in the reign of Louis XII., or the first years of the 16th Century.


In France, the manufacture of sweet and savoury pastry was entrusted to the care of the good ménagiers of all ranks and conditions, and the corporation of pastry cooks, who obtained their statutes only in the middle of the 16th Century; the united skill of these, both in Paris and in the provinces, multiplied the different sorts of tarts and meat pies to a very great extent. So much was this the case that these ingenious productions became a crucial art, worthy of rivaling even cookery itself. Ancient pastries, owing to their shapes, received the name of tourte or tarte, from the Latin torta, a large hunch of bread. This name was afterwards exclusively used for hot pies, whether they contained vegetables, meat, or fish.

Renaissance Food:Italian Kitchen
Italian Kitchen-Woodcut from Banchetti compositioni di Vivendi-Christoforo di Messisburgo-Ferrara, 1549


Verjuice, or green juice, which, with vinegar, formed the essential basis of sauces, was originally the juice of sorrel.  Vinegar was originally merely soured wine, as the word vin-aigre denotes.  It is needless to state that it was scented by the infusion of herbs or flowers. Not much before the 16th Century it was used for pickling herbs or fruits and vegetables, such as gherkins, onions or cucumber.

Some of the condiments saw a huge increase in price during the Renaissance. Food could not be salted easily anymore, as salt, which from the remotest periods was the condiment par excellence, and the trade in which had been free up to the 14h Century, became, from that period, the subject of repeated taxation. The levying of these taxes was a frequent cause of tumult amongs the people, who saw with marked displeasure the exigencies of the excise gradually raising the price of an article of primary necessity. Thus, in France, under the reign of Francis I., salt was almost as dear as Indian spices.


The side-dishes added to the luxury of Renaissance food. They consisted mainly in a high variety of pastry; Rabelais names sixteen different sorts at one repast; Taillevent mentions pastry called covered pastry, Bourbonnaise pastry, double-faced pastry, pear pastry, and apple pastry; Platina speaks of the white pastry with quince, elder flowers, rice, roses or chestnuts.

The refinement of the Renaissance food reached his climax in Italy. Francisc I. , after his first war in Italy, imported the cookery and the gastronomic luxury of that country, where the art of good living, especially in Venice, Florence, and Rome, had reached the highest degree of magnificence.

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Alice the Cook
Alice the Cook, is a food historian who recreates recipes that have been used since the 1400s.