Book of the week - The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi

Robert Appelbaum savours the genius in a culinary compendium

March 19, 2009

Consider the frog leg. In the bible of French gastronomy, Larousse Gastronomique, you will find seven different recipes for it, fried, sauteed and baked in a gratin dish. In the more pedestrian bible of Italian cookery, The Silver Spoon, there are six recipes for frogs' legs: fried, sauteed or used in a soup with vegetables, tomatoes and meat stock. And then there is The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi. Scappi also has six recipes for them: fried, baked en croute or used in a soup. But Scappi offers several variations of his recipes too, with different kinds of sauces and garnishes, so that we end up with many more than six possibilities. And among his variations we get this gem: frogs' legs fried with parboiled garlic, parsley, pepper and salt. "That was how Pope Pius IV, of blessed memory," writes Scappi, "used to eat them in 1564 when I was serving him."

Scappi came from obscure origins in the north of Italy. He was born around 1500 and died in 1577, in Rome. He rose through the culinary ranks in aristocratic households, becoming by 1536 a "master cook" to high-ranking Church officials in Venice and elsewhere, for whom he sometimes presided over enormously elaborate banquets with dozens of dishes - literally dozens, hot and cold, heavy and light, savoury and sweet. We are unsure of all his whereabouts over the years, but by 1564 he was established in Rome, cooking for Pius IV, and in 1566 he was named the personal cook of the succeeding pontiff, Pius V. An irony in all this is that when, as an old man, Scappi had arrived at the pinnacle of his profession, he did so under a pope who was determined to live ascetically, and bridle the palatial excess for which his immediate predecessors were notorious.

But it was while he served Pius V that Scappi finished compiling his Opera, publishing it in Venice in 1570. There was nothing like it before, and nothing like it for a long time after. Certainly a number of cookbooks had been printed earlier, but Scappi's "work" is enormous, with more than 1,000 recipes. And it is systematic. It attempts to give detailed instructions for all aspects of cookery, from how to pick the best young suckling pig or set up a spit in a field to how to prepare a "peacock sauce" with toasted almonds, egg yolks, chicken livers, mostaccioli, toast, vinegar, verjuice, broth, sugar, cinnamon, pepper, cloves, nutmeg and bitter orange juice, and then use it as a garnish for roasts. It even has a large number of artful illustrations, showing how to arrange a kitchen and what kinds of instruments to use, whether for cutting, grating, heating, mixing or storing. In fact, Scappi uses more individual utensils than even the best-stocked professional kitchen of today would do.

Historians are apt to tell you otherwise, but modern readers will probably be struck by how Italian Scappi's cooking is, even well before even the idea of an Italian style of cooking had been invented. He prepares a number of pastas, spicy vegetable dishes and salads, as well as any of a number of roasts, sautes, fricassees, fritters, savoury tarts and pies, meatballs, and even pizze (though without tomatoes, which were not yet in use), with Italianate sprezzatura.

He is fastidious about the freshness of ingredients, the precision with which they are cooked, and the logic by which ingredients and seasonings are combined. He likes his seasonings, especially sugar, which he adds to almost everything, along with salt, pepper, cinnamon and saffron. But Scappi likes sharp, sweet and piquant flavours matched with briskly cooked and elegantly finished products. He even uses one of his favourite ingredients the way later Italian cooks would use tomato sauce: heavily seasoned and thickened orange juice.

Terence Scully has a done a beautiful job preparing this book. This is the first translation into English; it is highly readable, and many fans of cooking will enjoy sifting through its voluminous entries. The editing is heavy-handed, however. Scully cannot resist commenting in his endless annotations even on aspects of the cookery that need no comment (informing us, for example, that dried pasta can be stored for a long time). And instead of offering us an index, he offers us, confusingly, six, with subdivisions, all of them lacking page references. If, when coming across the mostaccioli you find yourself puzzled as to what it is, you may end up getting lost in the cross-references, and never find your answer. (It's a tube pasta; or else it's a biscuit.)

Scully is a grey eminence in a somewhat unusual field: call it food philology. Manuscripts and printed books alike are combed through, recipe by recipe; individual ingredients and preparations are indexed and collated; a chicken soup from medieval Denmark is correlated with a similar soup at the court of Louis XIV; and lines of provenance, plagiarism, variation and development are drawn. The result is almost comically antiquarian, and much too slanted toward the peccadilloes of the rich, the powerful and the famous.

But who knows where such diligent study will eventually lead? Thanks to Scully and others, we are acquiring an empirical, systematic knowledge of the history of food. And we are learning a good deal about the uses of literacy and the specifics of material culture in the pre-modern era that would otherwise be inaccessible to us.

With Scappi we encounter something like culinary genius. He had no rivals in the world of cookery book publication, and he approached his task of teaching ambitious artisans how to become great cooks with a candour, clarity, attention to detail and mastery of technology and technique that one would expect from the master painters, sculptors and architects of the day, like Scappi's contemporary Giorgio Vasari. Some historians, such as Ken Albala, will even argue that Scappi's cuisine shares with other arts of the time a mannerist aesthetic. But neither a pottage of tuna belly with sauteed onions, prunes and cherries, nor a flaky-pastry pie filled with layers of two kinds of caviar, sturgeon, herring, herbs and raisins - "mannerist" though such things may be - is quite a marble palazzo. And a cookery book is not quite a Lives of the Most Excellent Artists.

This volume will be invaluable to food historians and very attractive to anyone interested in Renaissance culture, not to mention the growing ranks of food antiquarians among us. Try the peacock sauce. Try it with white peacock, if you can, a bird whose flesh, says Scappi, "is black, but more tasty than all other fowl".

THE AUTHOR

With a number of books on the history of cuisine to his credit, Terence Scully, professor emeritus of French at Wilfrid Laurier University, is, beyond question, a culinary expert. But when it comes to practical deployment of that knowledge, he is happy to share the spotlight.

Although he researched the recipes that featured in the legendarily sumptuous medieval feasts to which he invited his French literature students, his wife prepared the banquets.

Drawing on his background in palaeography, the study of ancient writing systems and historical manuscripts, Scully has searched for early recipe collections in countless manuscripts, including that of papal master chef Bartolomeo Scappi.

Scully says: "Because source material about 14th and 15th-century food was so very rare (and inaccurate) 30 years ago, I studied as many as I could run down, and learned a very great deal about culinary practice of the time."

Although he modestly claims that his own cooking skills are somewhat lacking, he is known to make "a mean pancake", and, along with his dinner guests, particularly enjoys the connotations that foodstuffs carried in the Middle Ages, such as eggplants serving as symbols of sexual desire.

One of the greatest pleasures he derives from his work, he says, is the opportunity to work with manuscripts that "were scratched by a man with a quill pen six or seven hundred years ago". Now a dozen years into his retirement, he treasures the chance he has to communicate to today's society what our ancestors deemed essential to the human race.

The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570): The Art and Craft of a Master Cook


University of Toronto Press
776pp
£60.00
ISBN 9780802096241
Published 20 February 2009

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