A History of Cooking and Eating; The Culture of Food; & Exotic Brew

Published in History Today
  • The Art of Dining: A History of Cooking and Eating
    by Sara Paston-Williams - The National Trust, 1993 - 348. pp. - £29.95
  • The Culture of Food
    by Massimo Montenari (translated by Carl Ipsen) - Blackwell - 214 pp. - £19.99
  • Exotic Brew
    by Piero Camporesi (translated by Christopher Woodall) - Polity Press, 1994 - 193 pp. - £29.50

The three books treated here are complementary although they cover different (if partly overlapping) periods and give them markedly dissimilar treatment.

The first is the easiest to assess. Sara Paston-Wiiliams has divided her material, which deals with certain distinct periods between 1200 and 1910, into five chapters. Each covers three aspects of her subject, namely the foods available, the way in which they were processed in the service areas and how they were then presented at table.

The first and longest section of the first chapter, which deals with medieval and early Tudor foodstuffs, seems at first to lack confidence, but the author offers a sensible breakdown of food materials with some interesting, seldom-recorded quotations, unusual photographs and records of, for instance, pigeon and fish culture. The passages on vegetables, medicinal plants and spices arc clear and informative.

The description of medieval kitchens lose definition by being photographed as ruins or as reconstructions, but one cannot fault their presentation. This section contains ten modernised recipes of the period under review, including a tri-coloured chicken dish, a rich custard pie and pears in the syrup (sadly, illustrated by the most miserable-looking family at dinner in all medieval literature!)

Luckily, this is retrieved by the skilfully written third section on the dining habits of the aristocracy, with the settings in which they were served, even to the tablecloths and trenchers. Poor men's meals and monastic styles of living are also noted.

The next chapter begins with a trenchant statement that Elizabethan England was beset by two problems familiar today: inflation and unemployment. The same was true of Stuart England but both high prices and idle hands were then hidden by a great increase in imported goods and by war and pestilence. In both chapters, we find good coverage of new 'sallets' (salads) in market and private gardens, and recipes for gilded marchpanes, kissing comfits and marigold tarts among other dishes.

New mechanisms for early-modern cookery included a mechanical jack for the spits and well-planned ovens. English chefs were now fast learning French cooking methods, especially pastry-making for grandiose pies and tarts. In the stillroom, ladies made distilled ‘waters’, perfumes and preserves for eating with the novel frivolity of table forks.

Georgian food was also rich in new pleasures for the affluent. In describing the period the author sketches the processes of enclosure and urbanisation, which created a 'gentrified' style of living for the upwardly mobile. It was a period of lavish entertaining. One of the best Paston-Williams descriptions is of the dining rooms and tables in fine National Trust properties with their glossy napery and porcelain, and the tea-table where the gentlemen joined the ladies after dinner.

In high society, much of this hardly changed under Queen Victoria's rule and that of her portly son except that dinner tables, food and decor became more opulent. But the choice of materials for lower-grade meals was a sad contrast. The dreadful condition of town dairies, the diseased meat and poisonous adulterants were a public scandal. Some of these were almost certainly used for the vivid colourings in the book's 'Mrs Beeton-like' illustrations.

With its bibliography Sara Paston-Williams' text provides a good, fully illustrated background to more specialist reading and a useful aide-memoire.

Massimo Montanari's latest book aspires to present the whole history of European man's many-faceted civilisation insofar as it is tied to food production and consumption. It points out that food represents pleasure as well as just survival, and thus reflects the social inequalities which various types of food create through the different values put on them. Through this, Professor Montanari suggests in his foreword, the study of food history is of central importance but the usual chronological categories are not. He has, therefore, reassembled those categories into time-based sections relating to the essential characteristics of food's past culture.

He discusses first an 'age of famine' in Europe from the third to the end of the sixth century. Ten generations suffered conflict, hunger and epidemics which challenged them to find new food sources. Some horrifyingly unclean ones were tried, but on the whole people learned to survive 'normally' on a low nutritional level, living with chronic fear of famine as a matter of course. The still surviving 'Mediterranean diet' based on wheat, vines and olive oil developed in the south. Further north the Germanic peoples fed on meat, fish, butter and ale, and Celtic culture revered the pig and cow. All protected their own nutritional identity throughout long confrontation between the worshippers of the earth's fruits and those who considered flesh their life-source.

Confrontation took a new turn when barbarian rulers remodelled the land valuation system on meat. Professor Montanari’s cleverly translated examples of how they eventually blended respect for grain foods, wine and oil into their preferred meat diet for ‘top people’ are richly ironic; the newly shared power, was, of course, supported by calculated Christianisation which made bread, wine and oil the central pivot of the new faith.

The author then describes the expansion of agriculture in the following centuries accompanied by the restriction of rights to 'forest' that is 'wild land' and pasture, increasingly reserved to the more powerful social strata. A town-country division emerged which would last for centuries, punctuated especially in the eleventh and eighteenth centuries by famines and revolts when expanding populations ravaged an insufficient food supply. In the eighteenth century ‘new social groups, new ideologies and new fashions came to the fore. A vigorous appetite and an abundance of meat were no longer objects of universal social approval’.

With time’s passage, bread of some kind had become the essential component of a peasant diet. In times of dearth it might include anything – for instance grasses, maize or potatoes – a change which 'enlightened' eighteenth and early-nineteenth century writers used to make foods into labels of social status. Most implied that if the peasant’s diet made him ill, it was his own fault.

Finally, the author returns to the 'meat versus grain' discourse, pointing out that we now fear plenty rather than poverty, and under-eat as self- punishment. As he says, 'The irresistible allure of excess has begun to shock us now that abundance has become a daily reality ... and a new and unprecedented fear, which Americans call fear of obesity, has inverted the ancient fear of famine so that a 'friendly and intelligent relationship with food seems still out of reach'. Whether it will continue to be so, he leaves to us to decide.

In contrast to Montanari's large canvas Professor Piero Camporesi takes only a thin strip of chronological history in which he deals laterally with the gestation, birth and growth of the Enlightenment eating.

First, he treats Louis XIV's old age as a time of revolution in late Renaissance dining when the cultural axis shifted to the north, eclipsing the pioneer Italian contribution. Seventeenth century epicurean sensualism was ousted by contemporary 'healthy eating' based on such foods as oysters, white meats and English desserts. Even a certain degree of Anglomania was visible. Camporesi then dwells on the use of American exotica such as ginseng, tobacco and chocolate, and spends some time on the acquired taste of viper meat, which was believed to promote longevity. Jasmine-flavoured chocolate proved, however, a more seemly favourite, even a delicacy, fit to drink to the glory of God.

It was admitted, however, that France still excelled in oven and casserole dishes and that Italian ice-creams, liqueurs and dessert delicacies were unsurpassed. Chocolate, tea and sorbets were the emblems of this new society, together with 'a sophisticated arsenal of elegant utensils' and sugared flowers, fruit and sweetmeats of many kinds. He highlights the art and ostentation of the period by describing a sugar-plate centrepiece shaped like a temple, built to melt at table.

But the pleasures proved ephemeral, even though some princely northern Italian households still lived in a grand neo-classical style. Christopher Woodall's supple translation ends by comparing the pomp and ceremony of French food with the 'balance' of Bolognese cuisine and its icing sugar an. But eventually, his source admitted, the sugar-work crumbled, and flies annoyed the diners – and so 'the fabulous 1780s faded and were forgotten'.

  • Maggie Black is the editor of A Taste of History (British Museum Press, 1994).

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