A modern chef between the middle ages and the renaissance

This work is a mainstay. One which is made of butter, admittedly, but which has held up to perfection until now.

Libro de arte coquinaria (The Art of cooking) by Maestro Martino da Como, is not only one of the two pivotal 14th-century works on gastronomy, together with De honesta voluptate et valetudine (On honest indulgence and good health) by Bartolomeo Sacchi, known as “Platina”, but also marks the arrival in Italy of butter-based cuisine. The latter, developed in Northern Europe as an alternative to spiced flavours, would become the most popular one in the following centuries, especially in the north of the country (while in the south the use of olive oil would be more common).

The author

Martino de Rubeis or de’ Rossi, from Ticino, known as “da Como”, worked as personal chef to the Patriarch of Aquileia (Ludovico Scarampi Mezzarota, nicknamed “Cardinal Lucullus” because of the lavish banquets he gave), between the late 1450s and 1465 and was the first important name in Italian cuisine.

At the beginning of his career he worked in Milan at the court of Francesco Sforza and, in his latest years, at the service of the condottiere Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, both in the Kingdom of Naples and of France. Therefore, the gastronomic vision of Master Martino was open to experiences in different countries and to the influences of the Catalan, Arabic and Oriental culture.

The work

Master Martino’s recipe book, probably composed around 1450 and kept in its original form at the Library of Congress in Washington, is extremely technical and more complete and methodical than previous works.

Clear and well structured, with a precise and accessible style, the text is designed to be understood and used by everyone, which is why Master Martino chose to write it in the vernacular language.

Foods are meticulously separated according to course and type of ingredients, in a very modern manner. Furthermore, Martino suggests quantities in relation to the number of guests, specifying cooking times and which receptacles to use.

He even suggests alternatives for some ingredients, should they be hard to find. And what’s more, at a time when they were erroneously considered synonymous with poverty, he recommends vegetables as the foundation of a healthy diet and highlights the opportunity of promoting local food. He also brings out the authentic taste of raw materials, avoiding the overuse of those spices that were such a fashionable status symbol in Medieval cuisine.

The work was so esteemed by his contemporaries that it was plagiarized numerous times. An almost complete transcription of it was published in Venice in 1516 by “French Master Giovanni de Rosselli”, under the title Opera nova chiamata Epulario (New work called Banquet), and reissued until it reached its seventeenth edition in the mid 18th century; only recently has it been “returned” to its legitimate author.

Why read it?

In Italy, as in other European countries, culinary writing was born between the 14th and 15th centuries, as the result of a long evolution that differentiated Medieval cuisine from the ancient one, of Roman origin.

It was a cuisine with “international” features in which recipes, ingredients and tastes were practically identical throughout Europe, unified mainly by social standards. On one side was the aristocracy, with its hunting and fishing privileges, which relied on a unified recipe book which met the tastes of visiting dignitaries from different European courts; on the other were the common people, who fed themselves with what the land and the local market had to offer, giving rise to those “characterizations” which over time would define specific national and regional cuisines.

What happened in the 16th century? That story is told by Master Martino’s The Art of Cooking, which represents a milestone in Italian gastronomic culture because it organized in a systematic way all the knowledge about cuisine from the late Middle Ages to the beginning of the Renaissance.

It is, therefore, of inestimable historical value and offers a glimpse on what can be considered the creativity of a great, learned chef whose talent was not limited to the kitchen, and who was constantly engaged in research and experimentation.

In the Vatican kitchens, where Master Martino achieved success and established his reputation as a great cook, he was especially appreciated for his imagination and the fact that he loved inventing new recipes or reworking traditional ones with modern flair and taste.

Two elements in his work are particularly intriguing. Cooking times: he gave instructions that nowadays may appear bizarre, but which made sense at the time: a variable number of prayers (Pater Noster or Miserere) to be recited while waiting for the dishes to cook. Colours in food preparation: Martino made colour the distinguishing feature of many of his dishes and, when choosing ingredients, followed the tradition of primary colours.

Why not plan a meal around the colour of your dishes? Or yet again: why not associate the cooking time of different recipes with a famous song or poem and then have your guests try to guess which one you chose as an unusual watch?