Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
November 27, 2022
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Mangia Bene

    Venice was the queen of the Mediterranean for several centuries. Venetian power regulated traffic according to what it judged to be its interests, to defend its fiscal system, its markets, its export outlets, its artisans, and its shipping. The Signoria, the inner court of the doge and his advisors, could grant exemptions--for example, permission to load and transport directly through the Adriatic to Ragusa or to Alexandria oils, almonds, walnuts, and chestnuts. In the sixteenth century, the Spanish complained about Venetian hegemony in the Adriatic, but the Venetians responded that the sea was bought not with gold but with their blood “spilt so generously.”

    Venice was linked to the Ottoman Empire through trade and war. Although Venice feared the Ottomans, competition also came from other quarters, especially the city-state of Ragusa, modern Dubrovnik. Ragusa had its own fleet of merchantmen and competed vigorously with Venice. In fact, shipping was the major industry until the 1950s, when tourism took over. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Turks, the Ragusans had the foresight to understand that their days were numbered if they didn’t establish good relations with the Ottoman Empire, which they promptly did. By 1465, Turkish troops had taken Bosnia and Herzegovina and were at Ragusa’s doorstep. Ragusa played its neutrality brilliantly, as a protégé of the Pope and a vassal to the sultan, in a hostile Mediterranean where its ships could sail unharmed. By the sixteenth century, Ragusan influence on Mediterranean trade was nothing short of amazing, helped by the fact that it had trading colonies throughout the Balkans linked by a network of roads to Sarajevo and Üskub (Skopje), the gateway to the East.

    Ragusa was built on extremely poor and barren land that yielded no food. Food, and especially cereals, had to be imported and so Ragusa maintained good relations with southern Italy, Sicily, and, for that matter, anyone supplying food. Wheat was the primary grain.

    The organization of food supply in Ragusa was such that good relations were maintained not only with suppliers but also with the Ottoman Turks, who controlled so many trading routes. Cereal traders and shipowners were strictly controlled by the governing council of the Ragusan Republic and notified a year ahead of time when their turn would come to carry grains to the city.

    The purpose of these food regulations is evident when we are told that Ragusa experienced only eight famines in five hundred years, a very un-Mediterranean story. Ragusa had a vast cereal warehousing system. It was supplemented in the beginning of the fifteenth century with the digging of huge pits with a twelve hundred ton capacity for storing grain. These pits grew in size, and eventually became the enormous edifice called Rupe even today. Rupe means “holes” and above these fifteen holes cut into the rock is a huge three story building, part of the Municipal Museum.

    Through the efforts of the Ragusan government, the city, which had a population of 6,000 in the late fifteenth century, always had a sufficient supply of fresh vegetables, especially cabbage and broccoli, which are specialities of the cuisine of Dubrovnik to this day.

    The cuisine of Ragusa was based on olive oil, both locally produced and imported from Apulia. Meat came from the hinterland--small cattle that were consumed fresh, salted, or smoked. An unusual portrait of Ragusa is drawn by the Italian Dominican monk Serafino Razzi who published his year-by-year account of life in the city in 1595. He tells us that the wine of Ragusa was very good, especially Malvasia; that the weather was perfect, and the markets were filled with fruits such as pears, apples, plums, figs, watermelons, oranges, citrons, and lemons, and lots of fish.

    Wine was considered nutritious by the general population and consumed in great quantity. It was imported from Italy as well as the local Ragusan islands of Peljesac or Konvali. Wine from Apulia, with high-alcoholic content, was traded with Dalmatia without going through Venice. A popular wine was the famous Malvasia or Malmsey wine. Malvasia wine is a sweet dark wine with an unusually high alcoholic content made with a special kind of grape that grew, originally, in Cyprus and the Morea. Northern Europeans loved this wine and in England it came to be known as Malmsey. Malvasia wine was prized and often sent as a gift to Italian cardinals, Venetian doges, or some prince. The development of the wine trade was intimately linked with Malvasia wine and the trade in wool and woolen textiles. Italian merchants brought barrels of Malvasia to England in exchange for the very high-quality English wool. The Italians brought the raw wool to Flanders and Italy where skilled artisans finished it into fine goods, which were in turn sold all over Europe and the Levant. Once port and Madeira became available in the northern markets beginning in the late fourteenth century, the demand for malvasia wine began to die out, disappearing entirely by the seventeenth century.

    The city of Ragusa was like the rich merchant ships that pulled into port laden with food. In fact, the very word argosy, meaning both a large merchantman or a rich supply, comes from “Ragusa.” This idyllic-sounding Mediterranean port with its mild climate and sunny days drew all kinds of people to it. There were Croatians, who were seamen, captains, and merchants; Slavs who were couriers; Italians from Venice and Apulia; Tuscans representing the Florentine family firms; Saxon miners; Jewish docters; and Catalan wool merchants. If famine struck elsewhere, as it often did, the hungry masses would flock to the city, as they did when Ragusa was at war in 1453-54 with Stephan Vukcic-Kosaca, a Herzeg whose camp followers roamed around looking for food, putting great strain on the city, which eventually tried to expel them.

    Ragusa was also unique in being one of the first European cities to understand the importance of sanitation in fighting infection and disease like the plague. The first municipal garbage collection in Europe began in 1415, when the city hired four street sweepers, although the first sanitation official had been appointed as early as 1388. Life was concentrated in the street, squares, and harbor front. Unlike so many cities, Ragusa paved its streets and squares, and installed drainage and sewer systems by the fifteenth century. Garbage, and its awful stink, which is rarely captured or mentioned by writers, was removed regularly. As the city became richer, it also became more aesthetically pleasing, with bigger and more beautiful stone houses, churches, and palaces. Ragusa was a fascinating place to live and a central meeting place of people from all parts of the Mediterranean.

    As in Seville, the arrival and departure of ships was always an event of interest, not only to merchants, captains, and sailors directly involved but also to the population as a whole who had their men as crew members. Foreign ships interested the populace not only because of the goods they carried or took away, but also because of the income their crews brought to taverns. All the taverns selling wine in Ragusa were managed by women, reflecting the absence of men who played a role in the shipping industry.

    The abundance of Adriatic trade made the seas dangerous. Ragusa traded with Corfu, Santa Maura (Levkás), and Zante (Zákinthos), from where Greek ships brought fat, lard, ham, salted meat, cheese, oranges, honey, barley, and chickens. There were vast amounts of Apulian and Egyptian wheat, olive oil from Romagna and Apulia, and meat and cheese from Dalmatia going through Ragusa, all of which were enticements to assorted smugglers, local corsairs, and Catalan privateers based in Sicily in the 1400s. The Venetians and Ragusa solved the problem with big armed merchantmen, the argosies.

    The normal voyage from Venice or Ragusa to Alexandria, Syria, or Istanbul was not direct. Boats followed the Adriatic coast, stopping in the Peloponnesus, Crete, and Rhodes, not only for rest and commerce but also for safety. Ragusa was ideally located in the Adriatic between Venice and her eastern destinations. Ragusa had the Ottoman Empire to her south and east, Italy to her west, and the Austrian Hapsburg Empire to her north. Ragusa was at the interstices of a number of powerful influences that also affected the history of its cuisine, reflected in contemporary recipes that appear to bridge the meeting of Turks, Italians, and Austro-Hungarians. Only a few miles to the east of Ragusa was Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Dinaric Alps, running north and south, being the natural dividing line. By 1463, the greater part of Bosnia and Herzegovina was under Ottoman rule, many Christian refugees finding their way to Rome, Sicily, Venice, and Ragusa. Although the governor of these territories was usually Turkish, the newly converted aristocracy was Bosnian. Below this feudal nobility and their soldiers the tillers of the soil were Christian serfs, whose sons were frequently pressed into the service of the Janissary Corps.