Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
February 2, 2023
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Mangia Bene

Among Christians, the Lenten period is a time of penitential preparation for Easter beginning on Ash Wednesday, about six weeks before, and is part of a forty-day fast in imitation of Jesus Christ’s fasting in the wilderness. In the Middle Ages, fasting regulations were very strict in the Roman Catholic Church and still are in Eastern rite churches. In fourteenth-century Provence the number of church-imposed days of fasting without meat, including the period of Lent, reached about 150 days out of every year and important fishing communities sprouted along the coast to fulfill the demand for fish.

Marseilles remained the most important port and the Marseillais were consuming 473 tons of fresh fish in 1556, which sounds like a lot but was still only a quarter of the meat consumption. This was at a time when the population was about 30,000, nine times smaller than the Naples of the same day. In one day in 1551 the fishermen of Marseilles landed 8,000 tons of fish the sixteenth-century Provençal writer Quiqueran de Beaujeu tells us. If this figure is correct (and it’s a bit hard to reconcile with the figure in the first sentence of this paragraph) then most of this catch must have been salted and exported because it’s at variance with what we know about what was consumed. The fish regularly caught were the same as today, but they never were an overly important part of the diet. In 1560, the annual per capita rations of the Marseillais were 275 kilos of bread, 160 liters of wine, 45 kilos of meat (beef, mutton, pork) and only 10 kilos of fish.

In the brackish lagoon water of coastal Provence there were eels, carp, pike, tench, gudgeon (a small fish used for bait), and barbel (a freshwater mullet). In the Rhône river, the fishermen also found sturgeon; their eggs were not used for fresh caviar as far as we can tell, but rather were salted and dried, according to Quiqueran de Beaujeu. In the saltwater lagoons, the famous étangs, they caught gilt-head bream (daurade), sea bass (loup de mer), turbot, gray mullet, shrimp, and tuna. Tuna fishing was not as big an industry as it was in Sicily and Andalusia, but the Provençal liked to grill the steaks and we know that for Christmas 1515 the master sugarer Berthomeu Blanch prepared a very refined confit of tuna tongue preserved in sugar and stored in earthenware pots. The fish market of Grasse sold twenty-eight kinds of fish including cuttlefish, squid, octopus, and spiny lobsters, but the favorites were bream, sea bass, and gray mullet.

How were these fish cooked? The most romantic notion is that the anchovies and sardines were salted and the remaining, less commercially desirable fish were used for fish soups and bouillabaisse. In fact, there is no mention of fish soups, let alone bouillabaisse, in sixteenth-century Provençal documents, recipe books, and chronicles. The closest thing to a bouillabaisse that I have found in a medieval text is the brodecto de li dicti pisci that appears in the anonymous fifteenth-century Italian cookery book known as Libro A of the Anonimo Meridionale where sardines and anchovies are boiled in vino greco (a strong Neapolitan wine) with black pepper, saffron, and sugar with a little olive oil. A brodeto de pessi (fish broth) is found in the anonymous fourteenth-century Venetian cookery manuscript Libro per cuoco where we find the fish boiled and covered with ground nuts, parsley, bread crumbs, sweet and strong spices.

The invention of bouillabaisse, in particular, is often attributed to fishermen. I think this is unlikely for two reasons. First, the standard way of cooking fish in sixteenth-century Provence was to fry it in a pan in olive oil. The pan, poêle or sartago, appears in eighty-five percent of Provençal homes according to one contemporary study and is used ad decoquendum pisses (to cook fish).[1] The other major cooking utensil was the cauldron, and it was used for soups, mostly of meat or vegetables; fish soups do not appear to have been made in any regular way. Second, the famous fish soups, called soupes de poisson, as well as the magical bouillabaisse, have all the hallmarks of a nineteenth-century restaurant invention in their sophisticated use of saffron, orange zest, and liqueur. For more on this debate see the Bouillabaisse entry.

Scholars have pointed out the difficulty of grasping, from the extant documents, the nature of the fishing industry in Provence in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They do know that the best fishing places were called cales or calancae ad piscandum (fishing waters), and rights to fish them were hotly disputed, as we see from an arbitrage document of May 16, 1470 determining that the fishermen of Cannes and Antibes had to split the fishing grounds. Much of their catch was salted, especially anchovies and eels.

The Provençal fishermen used a variety of fishing methods. They had boats linked with nets, often close to shore, where the fish could be pulled onto the beach. There is also record of nets being used in conjunction with sluice gates to channel fish. A variation of the same method was used in the catching of tuna in Sicily. In local lagoons, where fish were more easily trapped, canes were stuck into the ground to form netting channels where fish could be more easily beached or boated. These areas were called bourdigues and the most famous were the ones of Martigues.[2] Another method used was called the palangre, nets roped together underwater and held stationary by floats and fitted with hooked lines. The biggest of the fish markets was the one at Marseilles, and merchants came from many surrounding towns to buy fish. They came mostly between January and April when the catch was good, and sometimes came from surprisingly distant places up the Rhône such as Romans, Valence, and Crest.

[1]. Stouff, Louis. La Table Provençale: Boire et manger en Provence à la fin du Moyen Âge. Avignon: A. BarthJlemy, 1996, p. 205.

[2]. Grava, Y. “Notes martégales sur le ravitaillement et la consommation du poisson à la cour pontificale d’Avignon au cours du XIVè siecle,” Manger et boire au Moyen Âge. Actes du Colloque de Nice, n. 27, vol. 1: Aliments et SociJtJ. Centre d’Études Médiévales de Nice: Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Les Belles Lettres, 1984, p. 155.