Historical Lore and Food Facts
from the Mediterranean

By Clifford A. Wright

A Mediterranean Feast
  • The Dark Ages, the term used to describe that gloomy epoch after the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, is not entirely accurate. Although it may be applied to life in the European Mediterranean, the Islamic Mediterranean could hardly be called dark, between 632 and 1100, a young Muslim civilization was vibrant and growing.
  • Arab agronomists learned many techniques from the Romans but were far more sophisticated in their understanding of agriculture. They discovered or diffused an enormous variety of new crops, freed more land for cultivation, and created a whole new growing season. Land use became specialized, irrigation technology was invented or improved, crop rotation became more intensive, and techniques of farming more labor intensive.
  • During the same era, the European Mediterranean had a feudal economy. In the manor house, food was prepared over an open fire, boiled in cauldrons, or roasted on hooks hung from tripods. A cook of the twelfth century, for example, prepared huge cauldrons of stew or soup, which almost always contained cabbage as well as local game, maybe a rabbit or chicken, and certainly a piece of salt pork. Puddings or custards were also cooked in the cauldrons. Peasants ate more simply, most commonly millet, as their hovels did not usually have kitchens, cooking was done outdoors or in public ovens.
  • So many people died during the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century that there was no one left to care for farms, which were abandoned and reverted to meadow or forest. The number of husbanded animals, as well as game, increased and therefore more meat was eaten. Beginning in the mid-fifteenth century, as the population recovered and was able to bring more land under cultivation, the diet shifted to one predominantly of vegetables.
  • Grain, particularly in the form of bread, was long a staple in the Mediterranean diet. The distinctions among kinds of bread were essentially those between the city and the country. The socially inferior country people ate black bread or millet bread, or were bean bread eaters, while the city folk ate wheat bread. The subsequent invention of products such as macaroni, couscous, and hardtack, utilizing the unique properties of hard wheat, helped control and reduce the strain of perennial famines because they had very long shelf lives and could be warehoused for low-production years, they also allowed for longer sea voyages, opening up an age of exploration.
  • As capitalism came to replace feudalism during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a distinctive cuisine emerged in European court kitchens, and the first cookbooks, which derived much of their inspiration from Arab cooking, appeared. They were written for professional chefs who worked at the court, in the homes of the new bourgeois class, or in ecclesiastical residences.
  • Food might be grown in the countryside, but cuisine was an urban phenomenon, focused around the great cities of Venice, Genoa, and Istanbul during the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. Mercantile Venice was so fantastically rich that its citizens' pursuit of the good life led to the passage of sumptuary laws to limit the more flagrant excesses. The serving of more than three kinds of foods at banquets, besides sweets, was forbidden, and waiters were required to lead authorities on an inspection of the banquet hall. If anyone threw "bread or oranges" at the heads of the inspectors, the waiters were to refuse service to the banquet.
  • The Ottoman rulers in Istanbul had an elite guard, known as the Janissary Corps, organized on the model of a kitchen. The entire corps was known as the hearth, the sacred cauldron of soup was their emblem, and they wore headgear ornamented with a spoon. High-ranking officers were called soupmen, while other military ranks were designated by such culinary terms as chief cook, scullion, baker of round bread, and pancake maker. The Janissaries, who became quite powerful, would "overturn the cauldron" when displeased with the sultan, symbolizing a rejection of the sultan's food, and hence his policies, and signaling the beginning of a rebellion.
  • Growing world trade, especially in gold, funded the labor-intensive farming of olive orchards in Southern Europe. Olive production began to rise in the Mediterranean, leading to a change in Mediterranean cooking. Cabbage soup, the most common dish found on a sixteenth-century Mediterranean table, could now be laced with a fragrant olive oil, which could also alleviate the monotony of fast days, almost 150 a year.
  • Food determined everything. In the sixteenth century, yields were small and affected everything, food supply as well as politics. Without a good barley crop, for example, military strategists could assume that the Turks would not go to war that year because they could not feed their army and navy. On the other hand, one knew that robbery and piracy would increase because bandits and corsairs had to feed themselves.
  • Throughout much of history, the Mediterranean was a land in which the climate was cruel and scarcity ruled. Mediterranean peoples lived in a chronic state of malnourishment under a threatening cloud of starvation, which ultimately led to the growth of extraordinary religious passion. What distinguished the poor from the rich was not social position but food—the rich ate gargantuan meals and the poor starved. The contemporary Mediterranean lusciousness of cuisine is most likely a reaction against historic famine, poverty, and monotony of taste.

A Mediterranean Feast
The Story of the Birth of the Celebrated Cuisines
of the Mediterranean, from the Merchants of
Venice to the Barbary Corsairs,
with More Than 500 Recipes

By Clifford A. Wright
William Morrow & Co., November, 1999
Hardcover, $35.00
ISBN: 0-688-15305-5
Excerpt provided by the publisher.


A Mediterranean Feast


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