THE GREAT EUROPEAN FOOD ADVENTURE | Vincennes | Rendezvous with Rousseau-2 — Cookbooks and Master Chefs

Poland’s first cookbook

Denis Diderot saw cookery as a ‘simple matter in the early stages of the world’.

‘Now,’ he wrote in the mid-1700s, it ‘is a most difficult study or science’. We cannot know the context of this remark because he never elaborated but he would have read Rousseau’s work and heard at close quarters the philosophies of the man from Geneva.

Diderot would also have known about the relationship between the de Medicis in Florence and the Bourbons in Vincennes and the extravagance of Versailles that followed. How could he not? It was one of the factors that would led to the bloody overthrow of that regime five years after his passing.

This is where Stanislaw Czerniecki comes into the picture. Cookbooks were once a rare event on the European continent – the preserve of an elite, the master chefs of the aristocracy. Most of these books never survived. From those that did we now have a good idea what type of cookbook was published between the 1100s and 1800s. That library is significantly small, nowhere near what we would like, to get a holistic understanding of the kind of food that was prepared, whether by bakers and cooks of low or high standing. Written and published recipes were thin on the ground. Almost everything to do with food preparation was passed by rote from one generation to the next.

So it should be no surprise that one of the earliest published cookbooks was produced by a historian. Murcia-born Ibn Razin Al-Tugibi published Reliefs of the Tables, about the Delights of the Food and the Different Dishes sometime in the 1200s.

It began a cookbook tradition on the Iberian peninsula that continued with several anonymous books, including the now celebrated Sent Soví – the oldest surviving Catalan cookbook from 1324 to Francisco Martínez Montiño’s Art of Cooking, Pie Making, Pastry Making and Preserving in 1611. A palace chef in Madrid during Spain’s imperial age, Montiño said he wrote his book because there were no cookbooks ‘to guide those who serve the kitchen, everything is in charge of memory’.

Master chef Roberto of Nola was a palace chef, in the court of Ferdinand I, king of Naples when it was ruled by the house of Aragon. Sometime around 1477 ‘The Cook’s Book’ appeared in Catalan apparently compiled by de Nola as Master Roberto. It was published in Barcelona in 1520 and contained 203 recipes. Five years later it was re-published in Toledo in Castillian and contained 236 recipes. This version was updated with seven extra recipes in 1529 and constantly reprinted throughout the 1500s when it was known as ‘Book of Stews, Delicacies and Potatoes’. It found its way to America where it influenced the Latino cooking culture. De Nola, whose existed has been disputed, had been a palace chef during an era when palace chefs were known to collect recipes and get them printed into handbooks, usually anonymously, commissioned by publishers who saw a demand for them among those who frequented the courts of the aristocracy. De Nola’s book was influenced by a pan-European sensibility, rooted in Germanic, Gaulish, Iberian, Italian and Slavic traditions.

Lady Brighid ni Chiarain produced an English language version. In her introduction she stated. ‘The Libre del Coch was published in 1520 in Barcelona. It was written in Catalan – a language related to, but distinct from, Spanish. The author, listed only as Maestre Robert, identified himself as the cook to Ferrando (or Fernando), King of Naples. The book was extremely successful. republished four more times in Catalan, and ten times in Spanish, and 55 of its recipes were plagiarized by Diego Granado for his 1599 cookbook. The first Spanish edition, in 1525, entitled Libro de Cozina, called the author Ruperto de Nola. He has been referred to by that name since. The author’s identity and nationality are still matters of speculation. He may well have been Catalan, since he wrote in that language. If Nola was truly his surname, he may have been an Italian, from the city of Nola in the province of Naples. The king he served? Probably Ferrante I, King of Naples from 1458-1494.’

There is a school of thought among scholars that the recipe-collecting culture began with the Holy Roman christians in the 1200s around the same time the Arabic muslims were printing cookbooks to record their own culinary traditions, although this is disputed. Food historian Massimo Montanari is clear about the motives. ‘Although the oldest cookbooks that survive today in codex form were created as early as the fourteenth century, the concept of the recipe collection in the broadest sense goes back further in time and includes the recording of pharmacological preparations … as well as the diffusion of practical texts on household management that also offered advice on economic and hygenic matters.’

What cannot be argued against is the fact that the 1500s were the golden years of the cookbook and each one comes from the same source, the kitchens of the elites (popes and cardinals) and royalty (princes and kings). Maestro Martino in 1516, Cristoforo Messisbugo in 1549, Domenico Romoli in 1560 and Bartolomeo Scappi in 1570 produced a magnificent body of recipes. Cesare Evitascandalo, Giacomo Castelvetro, Giovan Battista and Antonio Frugoli added to it during the first half of the following century.

When Czerniecki, palace chef at Wiśnicz, produced Poland’s first cookbook, the Compendium Ferculorum (Collection of Dishes) in 1682, a completely new sensibility had been created that would cause societal division and lead Diderot and Rousseau to lament three generations later the cataclysmic change of attitude toward the provision and preparation of food.

… continued in part 3.