Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
August 13, 2022
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Mangia Bene

The slow movement of people to the plains, down from the mountains, took hundreds of years. Eventually many made it to the sea and its ports, large and small, or became seamen themselves. In the Middle Ages, the Mediterranean was an immense sea and conquering one's own fear was the greatest obstacle faced by the sailor. Overcoming the fear of the unknown was known as taking the plunge-- s'engoulfer , as the French said. The sea had not been conquered (if it can ever be said to be conquered) in 1450, and sailors relied on a few coastal areas and tiny ports for their trade and fishing. Shipping was active only along the coast in a form of sailing called costeggiare , coast-running. Fishermen stayed close to shore, always in sight of land. Ships, whether merchantmen carrying pilgrims and merchandise or warships prowling for pirates, traveled from one seaport to the next, following the contours of the coastline. One could travel from one seaside inn to another, dining in one and supping in the next. This is how princes and nobles traveled, and it was called "tramping." The princely traveler would buy butter in Villefrance, vinegar and bacon in Toulon, olives in Gaeta, lemons in Salerno, and vermicelli in Trabia. As products were traded along the coast, they left their place of origin and became integrated in the cooking of neighboring regions.

     In the Mediterranean of 1450, "taking the plunge" meant, at its most extreme, going from Rhodes to Alexandria, a voyage of about four days on the open sea, out of sight of land, or from Marseilles to Barcelona. Keep this in mind when we consider the exploits of Columbus, or the Basque fishermen, Irish monks, or Vikings before him, who ventured into what the Arabs called the "Sea of Darkness," the forbidding expanse of the cruel Atlantic. It was truly heroic.

     The majority of ships plying the Mediterranean of the fifteenth and sixteenth century were not part of blue-water fleets on the high seas but were coast-hugging vessels, like the Genoese galleass , a light galley used for short runs to southern Italy and North Africa, and that pulled into ports like a traveling bazaar with goods exchanged. Small ports were meeting places that provided water, women, and a market, and small villages grew up around these watering-stations. They were not the destination-conscious ships of today, with their bills of lading.

     Although it flies in the face of popular belief, the Mediterranean is not inhabited by the kind of sailors and fishermen one finds in the northern Atlantic. Mediterranean waters are hardly more productive than the land. The Mediterranean is a deep sea with a limited continental shelf, which is where marine life thrives. Along the coasts are rocky ridges and sand bars leading to sharp drop-offs into the deep. Prevailing currents move newly born fish into the deep where they perish. Mediterranean fisheries provide only a modest yield, except in rare spots such as the lagoons of Comachio in Emilia, the coasts of Tunis, and Andalusia, and western Sicily, where there is tuna fishing. The French historian of the Mediterranean Fernand Braudel summed it up: "The scarcity of fish explains the scarcity of fisherman and consequently that of sailors. Between political dreams and reality there always lay this obstacle: the shortage of men capable of building, equipping and handling the fleets." It is also no mystery why the Arabs never had a great navy, although they did have their naval explorers, individuals setting out on their own: They lacked the manpower (not to mention regular access to nearby timber).

     Before the great Venetian or Turkish fleets could meet in sea battles, or the corsairs cruise the African coast, the manpower problem had to be solved. The sixteenth century offered its solution through prisoners of war, convicts, and slaves. We know criminals consigned to Spanish galleys were served mazzamora , or offal soup, and those on Sicilian vessels may have been given a kind of brined vegetable that their officers may have known as a proto-caponata.