Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
 
 
October 19, 2017
Bookmark and Share

Mangia Bene

Throughout the coastal Mediterranean, from Murcia in Spain to Provence, fish were fried in olive oil in the sixteenth century. There were two reasons for this. First, in Mediterranean France the population had been decimated during the Black Death (1349-50), and the plague was almost an annual occurrence in the Languedoc from 1481 to 1516. But by the sixteenth century the population’s recovery meant demands for more food and employment. As the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie showed in The Peasants of Languedoc, the classic Mediterranean response to a rise in population in terms of agriculture when soil nutrients are lacking is irrigation and assarting, the grubbing of forest land to make it arable. Therefore, the sixteenth century saw the growth of arborculture and viticulture. The population could have reclaimed vacant land or planted trees and vines on old and new assarts. The latter solution occurred in Provence and Languedoc, increasing the returns from agriculture through a more intensive form of land utilization. These were not regular olive orchards but the so-called camp enholieu or camp en olivas, that is, wheat fields planted with rows of olive trees. Olive oil production increased as a result. Second, the consumer was demanding a certain taste in his food, which was provided by olive oil. The frying of fish in olive oil is a method older than the sixteenth century, though, for we know that the Vatican Library and Bibliothèque Nationale manuscripts of the fourteenth-century French cookery work by Taillevent, the Viandier, instructs the cook to fry sole in olive oil.