A Revolution in Taste by Susan Pinkard [Notes from chapters 1 and 2]

As a budding professional with a hectic worklife, I find generally little time to sit down undisturbed with a book from start to finish. However, there are many books which are worth perusing over and thought-provoking even in individual chapter format. For these books I shall post a precis of selected chapter with my comments. Think of it as liveblogging a book.

Blogs as soapbox. In recent years, bloggers like Nate Silver, Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald have popularized the idea of a blog being a op-ed column with minimal restraints, destined to be consumed by a wider audience. I remember the days, about a decade earlier, when blogs were still the wild-west, and the commonly held idea of a blog was a diary, for a select group of friends.

Blog as on-demand scrapbook. I think there is even more use for a blog. The world has a vested interest in never letting the internet die from bit rot (the tendency of older machines to not be read by younger machines), since a staggering amount of human effort has gone into developing it. As a corollary, personal notes uploaded to a blog are much less likely to be lost or misplaced, than if you were to put them on Scrivener, or Evernote, or Google Drive, or a hundred other solutions I have seen come and go.

Eating well in Medieval Europe: Complex sauces and meats. Today gastronomes believe that modern gastronomy in the last 50 years is as good as it has ever been, but reading Pinkard's book, I feel that medieval Europeans must have eaten equally well. The main difference seems to be that they prized a different aesthetic, a synthesis of flavors, like the rich and complex Mexican mole sauces, unlike today's analytic European cooking which prizes identifiable and distinct flavors. Some of their complex dishes sound intriguing, and I would love try them.

The unexpected upside of Plague. The second way in which Europeans ate well, is that between 1350-1550 the ordinary person could eat a great quantity of meat. I had previously imagined the Middle Ages as a period of unrelenting misery and serfdom, but the devastating black Plague which wiped out between 30-60% of Europe's population, allowed workers to bargain for better wages, end serfdom, and consequently spend more of their income on better food. A streetsweep could afford three pounds of boneless beef a week!

All page references are to Pinkard’s book, except otherwise noted.

Chapter 1 - The Ancient Roots of Medieval Cooking

  • The aesthetic of modern European ooking is analytic, because it “tends to distinguish between flavors (sweet, salty, tart, sour, or spicy) reserving a separate place for each, both in individual dishes and in the order of courses served at a meal.” Linked is notion that the “cook should respect the natural flavor of each food”, distinct and to be kept separate from other flavors. <Alberto Capatti, Massimo Montanari, Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History, p86>
  • The cuisine of the ancient Mediterranean involves a preference for “complex, multi-layered flavors” - aiming to transform raw materials into “confections unlike anything in nature) <p2>
    • Braudel’s theory is that the taste for spicy complexity is linked to the fact that most people have consumed calories in the form of cereals and legumes, quoting a Hindu poet as saying “When the palate revolts agains the insipidness of rice boiled with no other ingredients, we dream of fat, salt and spices.”
  • In medieval times, medicine was ruled by the theory of the humors (phlegm-water, blood-air, yellow bile-fire, and black bile-earth) (p8)
    • But excess of one humor (e.g. watery phlegm) could be cured by eating foods on other end of the spectrum (garlic soup, for instance, perceived to have strong heating and drying qualities)
    • This is the origin of the term “a surfeit of lampreys” that killed Henry I, since it exacerbated his watery humor.
  • Middles Ages cooking (401AD-1500AD) was a fusion of Germanic and Roman traditions
    • Romanic cooking was characterised by pungency (the fermented fish guts of garum, “directions for roasted beef called for a sauce spiced with cloves, costus, nard, and no fewer than fifty peppercorns) <p14>. However the interest in cooking vegetables declined and became associated with penance and the monastic way of life.
    • Germanic cooking was characterised by the high value-placed on eating meat, the “chewy meat of a middle aged ox” was preferred over the many years of service remaining as a draft animal.
  • The High Middle Ages (1001AD-1300AD) favored a second set of sweet flavors - honey, grape must, dried fruits, nuts, sugar
    • During 1200, cinnamon, cassia, and ginger also came into prominence
  • It is typical to attribute many of these new ingredients to trade with the Arab-Islamic world through Persia. Persia in particular was a major source of agriculture,  the cold north and the warm marshy south of Persia offered diverse growing conditions (banana, bitter orange, eggplant, lemon, rice, sorghum, spinach and sugarcane). The exact time of diffusion is unknown but ranges from 10th century to 13th century (901AD to 1300 AD)
    • Spinach, eggplant, rosewater and sugar were Persian ingredients
  • [The isfidbadj/blancmange was a light-colored meat poached in milk. Today, you can have it as “tavuk gogsu” in Turkey. You can see it in my Istanbul food blog post here, from a restaurant called Lades 2]
  • The myth of European Middle-Ages cooking is that liberal use of spices disguised rotting meat. This is untrue because spices were much more expensive than fresh meat.
  • Around 1300, the structure of a meal was 5-6 courses
    • Acidity, as a palate opener: with salads or seasonal fruits
    • Potage, Ingredients cooked in liquid/sauce: water, bouillon, water, vinegar, almond milk etc.
    • Rôt (Roast), the largest or most impressive pieces of fish or meat
    • Entremet,including the blancmange, cheese, ham, charcuterie, eggs, food in aspic jelly, pies and tarts
    • Dessert, Fresh fruits , dried fruits
    • Issue de table: Sweet meats, and light pastries

Chapter 2 - Opulence and Misery in the Renaissance

  • A large amount of what we think as European ingredients come from the New world - turkeys, green beans (haricot beans), chilli peppers, which were immediately accepted; and potatoes and tomatoes, which were not.
  • Vegetable cooking became seen as worthy of sophisticated treatment, making an increasing number of appearances in cookbook recipes (in medieval times they rarely made an appearance), and also more sophisticated recipes (not just boiled, mashed, or seasoned)
  • There were multiple instances Plague in 14th century Europe: 1346-1348 in France and Italy, 1353-55, 1377-78, 1385-86, 1403, 1419. In France as a whole the population fell between 33-50%. The long-term effect of the plague was to end serfdom, as peasants negotiated with their lords for better terms, and laborers, servants, urban artisans saw wage increases. Most of this surplus income was spent on better food (1350-1550 the era of “carnivorous Europe”, according to Braudel) .In Italian cities even street-sweeping boys and laundrywomen could afford three pounds of boneless beef a week, a record that would not be matched until after WWII. Cattle raisers from far off regions Denmark, Hungary, Tyrol and Moldavia would drive their cattle to markets in Germany, Northern Italy, Burgundy and the Low Countries (I.e. Benelux region) <p45>
  • However when the population recovered two centuries later in 1550, wages stagnated and fell in relation to cost of living. Bread became so expensive, that other food became unaffordable.
  • Cereals came to dominate the popular diet, and white bread got replaced with black bread. Meat rations decreased <p44-p47>, and famines returned because of overdependence of cereals by the majority of the population [Similar to the cause of the Irish potato famine]. Between 1480 and 1585, meat prices quadrupled, while wages only tripled <Le Roy Ladurie, The Peasants of Languedoc p42-44>
  • By the 17th century stock raisers focused on two things: value-added products such as sausages and ham, or higher-premium items such as veal, lamb and poultry.
  • In the 17th century, elite consumers bought these luxuries less frequently, and meat cookery featured use of cheaper cuts.