Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Papal feasts

Another beautiful article by Christopher Pearson of The Australian.

Holy tortellini and other papal repasts
April 11, 2009

I have found Lent more of a trial than usual this year. Combining normal doses of medications for late-onset diabetes with any attempt at fasting can play merry hell with your blood sugar and mood. To make matters worse, this is the second year in a row that old friends have insisted on getting married in Holy Week and the wedding receptions have clashed with mandatory liturgies.
Last time I found myself singing along to the strains of Cat Stevens's "Morning has broken/Like the first morning" at a civil ceremony in a garden on the afternoon of Good Friday.
This year on Maundy Thursday I might have ended up at an early evening degustation banquet, rather than the mass of the Lord's Supper, and regretfully declined. So instead I stuck to the traditional, quite appetising mainstay of beans and lentil soup, saving up the hot cross buns until Friday. I've tried a number of recipes based on baccala, an Italian-style salt cod that is another Good Friday dish. However, in my experience, no matter how long you soak it or try to disguise the strong flavour with a sauce, it always tastes not just penitential but downright nasty, so I'm going to give it a miss.
Understandably, my thoughts have tended to anticipate the weeks of solemn feasting that begin tomorrow. What's more, a playful friend has given me a book called Buon Appetito, Your Holiness: The Secrets of the Papal Table (Mariangela Rinaldi and Mariangela Vicini, Pan). A lot of its recipes were designed for elderly men with bad teeth and digestive troubles: bread soups, polenta and pasta, easily swallowed stews and egg dishes.
But the medieval and Renaissance popes were often a different story, men with raging appetites who knew how to keep a princely table. Leo X was a son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, best remembered for the remark: "Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it!" He reigned from 1513 to 1521 and, for all his love of luxury and entertainment, was also scrupulous about fasting and his liturgical duties. He was a Renaissance patron of the arts and letters, with definite ideas about the style befitting a papal court.
In a feast to celebrate his family's elevation to the Roman patriciate, for example, he gave a feast to feed 3000 people, including about 600 noble guests. The latter group unfolded their napkins to discover that they contained little birds that hopped about the tables "to the delight of all", according to a contemporary diarist, while pages brought them silver ewers of rosewater so they could wash their hands.
Of the 25 Lucullan courses, three in particular stand out.
First there were dishes of sugared capons baked in a casing of gold leaf. Then followed "vessels with triumphant hoops and gilded balls in the middle, from which rose gold banderols enclosing various birds which, when the balls were opened, did as their feathered brethren had done earlier". (The release of clouds of small birds that in ordinary circumstances would have been eaten was a gesture of munificence, a grander version of the "four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie" that began to sing when it was opened.) Next came eight dishes of mature peacocks, baked and then dressed again in their skins and feathers, standing as if alive.
Excesses aside, there is a French dish still in the contemporary canon that is named after Leo X. It calls for a young chicken weighing less than 2kg, the breast larded with truffle slices and 100g of the best ham, gently browned in butter and then poached in madeira and half a glass of cognac, topped up with stock as required. A handful of finely chopped mushrooms is added to the liquid at the last minute and the chicken is served on a slice of bread fried in butter. By way of accompaniment, small macaroni pasta is cooked in chicken stock, coated in grated parmesan to taste and served in a white sauce. It sounds rich but not overpowering and I've a good mind to try my hand at making it during the Easter octave, which the Orthodox call "bright week".
Rodrigo Borgia reigned disgracefully as Alexander VI from 1492 to 1503. He is best known for the Torre Borgia (a specially designed place of torture with chambers decorated by Pinturicchio), for his illegitimate offspring, for his frequent reliance on poisons and the deployment of hired assassins.
Despite all that, he was said to observe seasonal fasts strictly and seen to eat in moderation, at least in public, relying on chaste salads, clear fish soups and pasta with chickpeas. Afterwards, in private, he tended to gorge himself on desserts and a kind of spiced bread called panpepato.
He was very fond of parties, especially family get-togethers with his appalling children, and kept a table famous for its capon pies, eel dishes and exotic sauces to accompany baked and boiled meats. When disposed to remind his guests of their mortality, he'd have them served pheasant in dishes made from human skulls. The Florentine banker Strozzi was later to adopt the pheasant-in-skull theme and other memento mori courses for a black carnival dinner. It included sausages protruding from thigh bones and skeletons hung from black-draped walls with candles in their eye sockets.
One recipe from Rome in Alexander's pontificate that is still popular is a simple sauce for game that works well with grilled quail. Take 500g of wild blackberries and 200g of very finely chopped almonds. Mash together and add a pinch of dried ginger and two tablespoons of balsamic vinegar. Strain through fine muslin and serve warm.
Another libertine pope of the Renaissance was Alessandro Farnese, who took the name Paul III. His nickname in Rome was della Gonella, the skirt-chaser. He sired many illegitimate children and engaged in nepotism on a grand scale. He's remembered for the masquerades, licentious plays, spectacles and extravagant feasts that characterised his reign. His estates supplied him with notable delicacies: sweet oranges from Capodimonte; cherries from Pianiano; wild boar, deer and hare from Castro; pigeons and pheasant from the island of Bisentina; and the eels for which Lake Bolsena is famous.
One measure of his fondness for the pleasures of the table is that he employed two famous cooks, Giovanni de Rosselli and then Bartolomeo Scappi, and a sommelier called Sante Lancerio, who kept extensive records of what appeared on the papal table. Although Paul III is said to have died of indigestion, the recipe most often associated with him is quite refined. It is a dish of tortellini stuffed with equal quantities of chicken meat, simmered in stock and finely chopped, fresh mushrooms and chicken livers, chopped and briefly fried in butter. The filling is mixed with pepper and a hint of nutmeg, then encased in the pasta and boiled in a good chicken stock for 12minutes.
Another, earlier pope with whom the authors have a lot of fun is Simon de Brion, who reigned briefly as Martin IV from 1281 to 1285. They note that Dante consigned him to purgatory because of his passion for eels cooked in an astringent white wine from the Lazio district. Jacopo della Lana says: "He was most depraved in gluttony and other food-inspired greed, to the point that he had eels brought from Lake Bolsena which he put to 'drown' in vernaccia wine, then had them roasted and ate. So fond was he of this morsel that he kept wanting them brought up to (a tank) in his room."
When not slavishly defending the interests of his patron, Charles of Anjou, his main preoccupation was leisurely gourmandising and his brief pontificate is generally regarded as a disaster for the church.
Having learned nothing from the example of Henry I of England, who had died 150 years previously from "a surfeit of lampreys", Martin IV met the same salutary end, eating himself to death on his favourite dish.


Kelly said...

After soaking the baccala in water try poaching in milk and then use in the recipe. Also in a tomato based sauce comes up well.

Michael said...

Fascinating stuff -- it's always eye opening to hear about food habits of the rich and the famous of centuries past. Makes the fanciest restaurants of today seem bland in comparison!

I remember hearing a talk about banquets in the French royal court where there were entire worlds made of pastry and pie (eg. battle ships complete with cannons that would actually fire)!