Bartolomeo Scappi, c. 1500 –1577: Top Chef

Sistine Chapel Roof,  Mona Lisa,  School of Athens – all works for the ages, of course, but what do we really think of when we think of Italy?   And if that’s what we think, then surely they were thinking the same thing in the days of Leonardo and Michaelangelo and Rafael.  But as a more transitory pleasure than the above mentioned works, food and its creators tend to get less lasting fame.   Of course the Romans had Apicius, but he was old school, a curiosity for classicists and food historians.

It is Scappi who deserves our attention.

His dates are approximate and various cities try to lay claim to him.  Ironically, Bologna, the food town par excellence, has one of the weakest cases to make.  Milan figures as a more plausible candidate, and even more so Lombardy, and there is evidence he spent some time in Venice.  But it is Rome where he makes his greatest mark, first overseeing the tables of various Cardinals, then as the head chef for six popes in the Vatican.  (Must have been a slow time with Pius V who was notoriously abstemious in his own habits.)

It’s a good a job as one could imagine at the time, but then as now, it’s a grueling life and those at the top of the heap can get exhausted.  Then as now als0, the real money came with marketing and rather late in the game, he published his Opera dell’arte del cucinare, a sort of Joy of Cooking for the age.  Not the first of its kind, not by a long shot – but it was the first since Apicius to slap the author’s name on the cover.  Well, cooking for the pope, ti would be a bit overly modest not to mention the fact.  Certainly his publisher’s marketing department would have insisted on it.   Possibly they suggested the various name-dropping anecdotes that improve the book as well.

The book is no hack job.  It included about a thousand recipes and detailed instructions on both the equipment and its various uses (including, famously, the so-called “fork”).  The book was a hit (insofar as any book was a hit back then) and reprinted regularly long after his death, and translated into various languages.  (Even a Dutch pirated edition, Koockboec oft Familieren Keukenboec,  by Antoine Magirus, which sounds surprising until you remember that by 1612 the Dutch were starting to roll in money and had a strong food ethic.)

The book itself is a blending of medieval with a more modern (for the time) interest in the possibilities that world trade brought to the larder, just beginning to take hold. He outlines the tools and technique, the life of the professional chef in all its many details,  and various course (including, happily, a pasta course).  Freshness of ingredients in stressed. Of ingredients,  sugar figures largely. So also orange juice.  (The fellow would have had a field day had tomatoes been as ubiquitous as they later became.)

And while it is easy to gently mock the foods of our ancestors, even a brief perusal of this work shows just how seriously the author (and presumably his clients) took the whole matter, and rightly so.  It is easy to get absorbed in the book and frankly to work up an appetite.

Happily, there is a recipe for pizza. Not the thing we are used to, but a start.  Oh, and topped with sugar.

In a bit of good news, bad news, we can report that the book has been translated and given an extremely good set of notes by Terence Scully.  A bit pricy just now, but it is something of a specialized taste.  If all you want is a taste, there is always the preview at google books.  But really, it’s no comparison.  This is one for the easy chair.

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