Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
 
 
May 26, 2018
Bookmark and Share

Mangia Bene

    In the Middle Ages, Venice feared the Ottoman Empire, but political and economic 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 protege 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 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 specialties of the cuisine of Dubrovnik to this day.