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

    The greatest factor in the fluctuation of grain prices in the Middle Ages was the distance between the fields where the grain was grown and the ports from which it was shipped. In Italy, the grain trade was hindered by poor roads between Apulia and Naples. Yet grain was shipped everywhere, and both merchants and the middlemen and entrepreneurs made money. It was cheaper and easier to send grain by sea rather than by land. Little ports in the proximity of grain growing areas acted as chief markets. An example of a little port grown wealthy is Lentini in Sicily, which also took advantage of the fact that grain-laden ships from Italy preferred crossing to Spain from Sicily than from Tuscany owing to the shorter distance, encouraging cities with direct sea links to grow.

    The main concern of the Spanish viceroys of Sicily was the grain trade. Sicily, with its huge supplies, was a grain supplier since antiquity almost without interruption. In the Middle Ages, Sicilian grain was stored in enormous caricatori, warehouses, near the ports. Throughout the sixteenth century, Sicily was exporting at the level of 150,000 to 200,000 salme (33,000 to 44,000 tons) a year, with Genoa taking a huge proportion of that amount. But the latter part of the sixteenth century saw a dramatic drop from 144,000 salme in 1572 to 41,000 in 1603, marking the rise of Sicilian pauperism, still evident today. The causes for this decrease in production were plagues, government regulation, taxes, and the climate.

    The West and the Barbary coast needed Sicilian grain. They found it in the longstanding commercial center of Palermo, which didn’t handle transport or loading but rather the negozio frumentario (the wheat deal). The landowners lived in Palermo and so did the agents for the wealthy Genoese and Florentine merchants. If you were hungry, you were at their mercy. The famous chronicler Leo Africanus (Hasan al-Wazan, c. 1465-1550) relates that the Arabs handed over their children as pledges to obtain Sicilian wheat during times of famine.

    Grain merchants took huge risks, and the whole enterprise was speculative. Rains could affect the harvest, gales at sea could sink a ship, and there was always the risk of pirates, not to mention a world of rapacious middlemen. A grain merchant usually had multiple occupations. For example, the Florentine merchants Jacopo and Bardo Corsi were not only lending money to Galileo and selling silk and pepper on credit but also handling massive wheat purchases at Palermo on behalf of the grand duke of Tuscany. The Mediterranean grain trade was so important that the nineteenth-century Italian historian Lodovico Bianchini claimed that grain was responsible for more espionage than the Inquisition.

    The grain trade had been important as far back as the classical era. Egypt had been a granary to Rome and its merchants still supplied the Hijaz in Arabia a thousand years later. In Egypt, the Nile carried huge quantities of wheat, rice, beans, and chickpeas. Egyptian grain showed up as far away as Valencia. Indeed, wheeling and dealing in grain was a pan-Mediterranean activity. The marauding light Greek vessels called caramusalis brought black-market grain from the mainland to Venetian islands like Crete to Corfu. Besides the inherent risks of marauding, there were the Turkish galleys patrolling the sea.

    The lessons of the grain trade were simple for merchants and illustrate the political economy of the Mediterranean: grain was cheap in the East and expensive in the West. When scarcity appeared in one place, the price of grain rose. Merchants rushed to this area with their cargoes of grain, and the influx brought prices down again. And so it went.

(Right: Venetian galley)

    But merchants could not always meet the needs of the population, as Italy’s terrible famine in 1554 showed. Toward the end of the sixteenth century, the food scarcity grew steadily more alarming as wars, plagues, and political machinations interfered with daily life. This, of course, affected the agricultural workers, namely the peasants, who abandoned their farms and flocked to the cities, creating conditions ripe for future plagues and famine. But famines had always been a part of the Mediterranean landscape.

    The economic historian Carlo Cipolla expressed the dilemma for the poor in the maxim, “The lower the disposable income is, the higher the proportion spent on food.” He argued that people cannot cut down on their food consumption when their income drops, nor can they increase their eating beyond a certain point when their income grows. The poorer the country, the greater the proportionate expenditure on food. A similar argument can be made for the expenditure on bread as a proportion of total expenditure for food. That is, the lower one’s income, the more bread and other starchy foods are bought. No doubt we can agree with the French historian Fernand Braudel’s assessment that bread was the “least expensive foodstuff in relation to its caloric content.” Grain in the form of bread was the staff of Mediterranean life.