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 8, 2022
Bookmark and Share

Mangia Bene

    The fanciful world of food that the characters in Cervantes's novel dreamed about was just that– a dream. The real world of food in pre-industrial Europe was brilliantly portrayed in a book called Bread of Dreams by the contemporary Italian historian Piero Camporesi. Camporesi made the claim that ordinary people lived in an imaginative world of a near permanent state of hallucination owing to their daily intake of toxic plants, rotted food, and bread laced with hallucinogenic herbs, their bodies hosts to scabs and worms. The Mediterranean world was a world of hunger, a Brueghelian hell where everyday folk lived fantastic drug induced day-dreams guided by popular superstitions, herbalists, exorcists, and magicians.

    By a seemingly Sisyphean effort did Mediterranean peoples feed themselves and overcome their abject misery. They were confronted by great tracts of land that remain uncultivated or lacking in productivity. Although we hear so much about wheat in the Mediterranean, it was not always abundant nor found everywhere. For example, in the Maghrib poor people may have dreamed of eating mash (or m'ash), a coarse couscous made from a leguminous plant or a hard wheat couscous, but they rarely did. Too often it was rather the rough cake of coarsely ground grain, the primitive kissira, made with barley and very rarely with wheat.

    The Mediterranean world defined by hunger and poverty was noticed by the Flemish traveler Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, a linguist, diplomat, antiquarian, zoologist, and botanist, who wrote in 1555:

The Turks are so frugal and think so little of the pleasures of eating that if they have bread, salt and some garlic or an onion and a kind of sour milk which they call 'yoghoort,' they ask nothing more. They dilute this milk with very cold water and crumble bread into it and take it when they are hot and thirsty. It is not only palatable and digestible, but it also possesses an extraordinary power of quenching the thirst....At the caravanserais [inns] it is sold along with other relishes. When the Turks are traveling they do not require hot food or meat. Their relishes are sour milk, cheese, prunes, pears, peaches, quinces, figs, raisins, and cornel-cherries all of which are boiled in clean water and set out on large earthenware trays. They eat the fruit relish with bread.

    What is so wrong with this diet? It is a subsistence diet, including only a small amount of protein and complex carbohydrates. It is not balanced and the total intake is minimal. Were you to eat nothing but a slice of bread and a pear and drink a glass of buttermilk for weeks on end, the effect would be unpleasant.

    Frugality also played a role on the battlefield. The Turkish soldier was a sober soldier content with a little rice, powdered sun-dried meat, and coarse bread cooked in the ashes of the campfire. Busbecq described how Turkish soldiers brought with them a leather sack of the finest flour, a small jar of butter, spices, and salt. This was their nourishment. They would place a few spoonfuls of flour in some water to make a batter and flavor it with salt and spices. The batter was placed in a vessel that was set over an open fire. As the batter boiled, it swelled up and was spooned into a large bowl. They ate this batter two times a day without bread for a month or longer. When a horse died, they would eat it.

    The frugality of the Turkish soldier and, in fact, all Mediterranean soldiers, such as the Spaniards, Greeks, and Italians, can be contrasted with the northern soldiers like the Germans or Swiss mercenaries, who demanded better food, otherwise they wouldn't fight. In the latter part of the sixteenth century the Grand Duke of Tuscany supplied food to the Spanish and German soldiers of Philip II's Spanish army as they crossed from Italy to Spain. He kept an inadequate supply of salt meat for the Germans while the Spaniards were happy with a little rice and biscuit. The bread issued to the Spanish soldiers sometimes would contain "offal, broken biscuits and lumps of plaster."* Greeks and Italians could be fed the same. The Mediterranean soldiers might be fed plain watery soups.

* Geoffrey Parker, The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972, pp. 163-64.