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Renaissance Cooking in Italy - An Introduction

As with the rebirth of all things during the Renaissance, Italy also led the way with the revival of cooking.

Renaissance Cooking in Florence
Italy at the time of the Renaissance was overflowing with sources of good food. Meat and fowl were plentiful. Sea food was abundant, including tuna, sardines, lobsters, and shrimp. Last, but not least, farms produced various grains, vegetables, and fruits. Although there was a lot of food to be had, though, much of it was very simply prepared, with most of the fruits and vegetables being eat raw.

When Marco Polo returned from his trade and exploration mission to the Far East he brought not only new food and spices from China, but also new ideas about how to cook and combine different foods to create new recipes. People began new ways of cooking where they simmered foods in fruits, wine, and spices. Another change was starting the meal with fruit.

As went Florence, so went the Renaissance! The first cooking academy, the Compagna del Paiolo (the Kettle Company), was opened. Membership to the guild was limited to only 12 people, and it was said that each member was required to "invent" and present a new "food invention" to the guild to become a member. It is believed that a precursor to the now popular Jell-O, a multicolored gelatin mixed, was introduced at one of these guild meetings.

Contributions of America to Renaissance Cooking
It is often forgotten that the Americas were "discovered" by Christopher Columbus during the Renaissance! The so-called "New World" contributed heavily to the foods used in what is now referred to as Renaissance food. These new foods included potatoes, maize, peanuts, chocolate, beans, never before seen breeds of fowl and other meat, vanilla, pineapples, and many others.

Two of the biggest foods associated with Italian cooking - corn (used in polenta), and tomatoes! Today everybody thinks of polenta and red sauce as the ultimate in Italian foodstuffs, but they didn't arrive in Italy until the Renaissance! Another "staple" - coffee - was introduced by the Venetians in the 1600s.

The Spread of Renaissance Cooking
The changes in the culinary arts that took place during the Renaissance are evident in the the banquets of Rome's papal court, the Venice of the doges and perhaps most elegantly in the Florence of the Medici. The Medici's preferred style of cooking were transferred to France when Caterina de' Medici married King Henry II of France, bringing with her the cooks and recipes that led to the development of what is now known as "French" cuisine.

Recommended Reading!
"Art history and food history have traditionally been separate disciplines, parallel universes. In this book John Varriano makes a cosmic leap and lures the two into a stimulating, provocative, and always entertaining study--a tasting menu of gastronomic and visual delights."--Gillian Riley, author of The Oxford Companion to Italian Food

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