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
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Mangia Bene

    Winter is cold in the Mediterranean and in the Middle Ages filling the cellars and granaries meant working in haste through a succession of harvests: wheat in June, figs in August, grapes in September, olives in the fall. Shepherds would sell their fleeces in advance to creditors in September for May delivery, allowing them economic survival through the winter. Shipping came to a near halt in the winter because the seas were simply too treacherous.

   Summer brought a new enemy--heat--along with the usual scourges of pirate and brigand raids. Shipping became active again in the summer not only because of favorable weather but also because the harvest increased trading. Summer in the Mediterranean was the time for the grape harvest and merrymaking, “a time of madness,” as Braudel captured it. Northern boats came to Andalusia for wine as often as they did for olive oil and salt. New wines were an occasion for trading and at Seville la vendeja was a kind of wine fair that occurred at the same time each year. Summer was the time for activity on the sea, and it brought the fishermen good catches, especially tuna, which run seasonally. The weather determined entirely how long it took a boat to sail from one port to another. While today the weather is an inconvenience for the most part, in the sixteenth century it was all important. The Messina to Alexandria voyage could take nine days in 1560, while the Leghorn (Livorno) to Alexandria would average thirty-three days.

   Summer also brought epidemic diseases. In 1656-57 forty-five thousand people died of plague in Genoa. Sister Maria Francesca, who was living in Genoa at the time, wrote on June 27, 1657: “It is a miracle that I am still able to write. Everyone has died. The city is ruined and destroyed, the nobility dies without number, all of the Palazzo Ducale is infected, the Archbishopric sick, the senate too, almost all the first, second and third ministers are dead, and if they don’t die of the pestilence they die of starvation without any hope of relief.” The sick and starving could only dream of food.