Barbara Santich’s The Original Mediterranean Cuisine Medieval Recipes for Today (1996)

In this fascinating book, an author from South Australia examines what food was like in the Mediterranean areas of Spain and France, and Italy, before the arrival from the New World of the tomatoes, peppers and potatoes that characterize the cooking of that region now. Drawing on  books of recipes that were written in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that have yet to be translated into English, she suggests that they they take us close to what she calls an original Mediterranean cuisine, aspects of which have remained unchanged since ancient times. It would be possible to push the theory of continuity too far, as we learn from her own evidence of the vast changes brought about in western cooking during the middle ages by the influence of the Arabs, which is evident in such things as the use of spices, preeminent among them ginger, cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg and saffron; in other words, spices providing a range of tastes much gentler than the spices familiar from Indian cooking. But Barbara Santich teaches us some stunning things.

I have always thought of medieval cooking as utterly dreary. But she locates the medieval diet of southern Europe, a region she clearly loves and knows much about, against the old triad of Mediterranean foodstuffs, the bread, wine and (olive) oil that are so frequently placed together in the Old Testament and, according to the ancient Greeks, were the three foods the use of which was communicated to humanity by deities. A diet based on these pillars can’t have been bad, and the recipes she provides for dishes to work around them, translated by her from the medieval texts with very helpful comments and many of them entirely vegan, are well worth experimenting with. One for zucchini with fennel seeds is easy and the taste is both unexpected and satisfying.  This is a book to recommend in more ways than one!

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