- The Neapolitan Recipe Collection: Cuoco Napoletano by Terence Scully
While The Neapolitan Recipe Collection's target audience is food historians, particularly those of the late medieval period, this collection offers anyone interested in food many amuse-bouche about late medieval cookery and medieval society. This critical edition of an Italian manuscript (held in the Morgan Library) penned by an unknown cook of the late medieval period includes an astonishing array of scholarly apparatus including discussions of the manuscript, the textual questions, and the cookery of the period. Editor/translator Terence Scully demonstrates a wide range of scholarly skills: clearly, his passion is in the history of cuisine since his other works include The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages and Early French Cookery: Sources, History, Original Recipes and Modern Adaptations.
As an avid but amateur cook and a dabbler in things foodie, I was drawn to this volume because so few works on cooking of another period and in another country provide English translations of the recipes. Thus, I could dip into Cuoco Napoletano for delightful tidbits about medieval lore while theoretically enabling myself to reproduce a medieval Italian dish. Like a well-planned meal, the book had a depth of complexity and certain surprises. I had believed that the chefs of this period were unlettered since the skill of writing was limited to the upper reaches of society and the clergy; however, this manuscript was written by a cook who could not only write and read but was cognizant of, and working from, other sources about cookery. In fact, as Sculley tells us, knowledge of gastronomy is "most developed for the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries throughout Europe" where collections of recipes exist in "all of the major European languages." These collections, of course, were developed for the aristocracy and the upper bourgeoisie who had the capacity to employ both professional cooks and the battery of supporting workers. Sculley also describes four traditions of recipe collections in Italian: this one owes most of its formulations to the work of Maestro Martino, the greatest chef and cookbook author, called by many both the first modern and the first celebrity chef. Martino's Liber [End Page 230] de arte coquinaria is a standard of late medieval gastronomical literature. According to Scully, our unnamed author drew upon these recipes as well as on Catalan sources likely because of the influence in Naples of various portions of the Borgia family (whose origins were in Valencia) and secondarily because of the reign of Ferrante, the King of Naples and the son of Alfonso V of Aragon.
Like most of us, I do not have a very accurate historical sense in that I make assumptions about the past based on my experience of the present. This text disabused me of many. Vinegar is such a staple of the modern kitchen that any cook relies upon the quality of the product; however, vinegar was of variable quality in the early medieval period and the cook had to know how to judge it. Despite my assumptions, sugar rather than honey was the favored sweetener in the kitchens of the aristocracy. Snails were considered a dish for the well-to-do. Most chefs had to have a repertoire of dishes for the ill and sickly: the lack of a significant number in this manuscript is unusual and indicates the relative wealth of the cook's employers. While ravioli and macaroni were known in other parts of Europe at this time (even in England!), the eggplant was unknown beyond Italy and Spain. Our cook is aware of recipes that originate well beyond Naples: in addition to dishes originating in other parts of Italy ("Roman Macaroni,"[which is differentiated from Sicilian macaroni] and "Florentine-Style Goat Kid in a Baking Dish"), he records "French-Style Tremolette," "Aragonese Sops," "Slavic Cooking Sauce" and "German-Style Scrambled Eggs." While one thinks of the spectrum of color as a constant, there are colors that were particular to this period (and used as important achievements of the kitchen) including "gaudy-green...