food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs

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Eating Gold

Sometime around 1400, Cennino d’Andrea Cennini wrote an instructional guide to painting which, he hoped, would benefit “anyone who wants to enter the profession.” Comprising no less than 189 chapters grouped into 9 books, Il libro dell’arte details, among other things, the best way to tint parchment, explains how to apply diverse pigments to both wet and dry plaster, and provides recipes for making glue from lime and cheese and for making tracing paper by soaking fish glue with leaf glue. There is, to be sure, advice concerning the best ways to paint the faces of the living as well as those of the dead, render foliage and capture the black opacity of a monk’s robe.  But Cennini’s book privileged the practical. As a how-to manual it instructed the painter in the basics of his art – how to make a proper brush and how to cut a quill for drawing. Cannon’s book also told the painter what he needed to know about the use of gold. To this end – and reflecting the prominence of the luminous metal in the paintings of this period – Cennini discussed everything from the material’s purchase to its grinding for use as color.

“… if [for example] you want to make a tree to look like one in Paradise, take a number of leaves of fine gold (gold beaten into very thin, flat strips)… say ten or twenty leaves. Put them on your porphyry slab, and work this gold up well with some well-beaten egg white, and then put it into a small glazed dish. Put in enough tempera to make it flow from the quill or brush.” (book IX, chapter 160)

detail of late trecento painting showing the use of goldimages

Approximately twenty years after Cennini counseled artists on how to “grind,” “beat,” “whisk,” “boil,” and “bake on the fire” all manner of ingredients into concoctions for varnishing, glazing and gilding images, the impresario of cuisine at the Savoyard court of Amadeus VIII (1383-1451), Maître Chiquart, devised a two day banquet that he hoped would please his patron. He recorded the event – and all that he required to pull it off – in Du fait de cuisine, 1420.

detail, January page showing a banquet at the Court of the Duke of Berry, ca. 1416/7

detail, January page showing a banquet at the Court of the Duke of Berry, ca. 1416/7

Like Cellini, Chiquart made use of gold…. no less than 18 pounds of it in the form of thin foil-like sheets! All of this gold needs to be kept in perspective. It was used to embellish the offering of “100 well-fattened cattle, 130 sheep, also well- fattened, 120 pigs; and for each day during the feast [an additional] 100 piglets…. [plus] 200 kids and lambs, 100 calves, and 2,000 head of poultry” and 6,000 eggs. This was by no means the limit of offerings. Other delicacies included venison, hare, partridge, pheasant, crane, heron and “whatever wild birds” that could be found.

Pleasing a patron’s palette was not Chiquart’s sole objective. He also aimed to intrigue the eye of Amadeus VIII with a colorful and glistening display of artful food creations. With this coupled goal in mind, the Savoyard master cook made sure to have on hand “for the said feast… two charges of the major spices, that is white ginger, Mecca ginger, cinnamon, grains of paradise, and pepper. The minor spices: of nutmeg six pounds, of cloves six pounds, of mace six pounds, and of galingale six pounds; again, 30 loaves of sugar, 25 pounds of saffron, 6 charges of almonds, one charge of rice, 30 pounds of amydon, 12 baskets of candied raisins, 12 baskets of good candied figs, 8 baskets of candied prunes, a quintal of dates, 40 pounds of pine nuts, 18 pounds of turnsole, 18 pounds of alkanet, 18 pounds of gold leaf, one pound of camphor, one hundred ells of good and fine tissue for straining; and these things are for nothing but the use of the kitchen. And again, there should be for the said feast two hundred boxes of sugar-spice pellets [dragié] of all sorts and colors to put on potages.”

As in the world of painting, so in the realm of courtly cuisine: Color Counted. Thus, just as Cennini used saffron and turmeric in order to create a yellow distinguishable from ochre, which is “found in the earth of the mountains” (book II, chapter 49), so did cooks gild meats, fish and even vegetables with these golden yellow spices as well as with egg yolk. (Anyone who has gone blackberry, blueberry or cherry picking knows first hand the colorful staining effects of fruit! These were used in Medieval and Renaissance kitchens to good effect!  – See Hannele Klemettila, The Medieval Kitchen, London, 2012, pages 123-125.)

earth rich in iron oxide

earth rich in iron oxide

bundles of saffron threads

bundles of saffron threads

It is not always easy to determine when gold vs. saffron vs. egg yolk created the desired glorious effect. Within a decade of Maître Chiquart’s composing of Du fait de cuysine, England celebrated the crowning of King Henry VI (still only 8 years old). John Lydgate recorded the menus of the extravagant celebration in “The Soteltes and Coronation Banquet of Henry VI” [November 6, 1429].

“This was the first cours at his coronacion, that is to say, first, ffurmentie [a concoction of grain boiled with sweetened or almond milk], with venison. Viande Royal [a sweet jellied dish] plantid with losenges of golde [that is, sliced into geometrical sections that were then dyed with saffron]. Borehedes in castelles of earmed with golde [boar’s head in pastry castles decorated with gold]. Beef. Moton. Signet [swan]. Capon stued. Heron. Grete pike. A redde lech [a leche was any firm or congealed dish, such as a jelly or pudding, that could be sliced] with lions corven theryn of white. Custade Rooial with a leparde of golde sittyng theryn. Fritour like a sonne with a flour de lice therynne’ [i.e., a fritter in the shape of the sun with a fleur-de-lis in the center].”  (- See: Robert Epstein, “Eating Their Words: Food and Text in the Coronation Banquet of Henry VI,” Journal of Medieval & Early Modern Studies, vol. 36 (2006), pages 359-360.)

The “Soteltes” to which John Lydgate referred were figurative food displays presented with each course. Over time these illustrative tableaux, which were probably made of colored sugar or marzipan, became more elaborate until they ceased to be consumed. Regardless of their role, whether as part of the meal or, instead, a visual attraction to be enjoyed as one dined, these culinary creations point to the close connection between food and sculpture.

The connection is not at all surprising. As both Cennini and Chiquart make clear, their respective arts of painting and cooking involved the transformation of one or more materials into something else by means of a prescribed process, or recipe, that often required raw materials to be combined then altered, sometimes by dissolving one ingredient into another and sometimes by heat.

Chocolate Sundae with gold & diamonds

Chocolate Sundae with gold & diamonds

A recent and wonderful meal that offered up a gold-coated chocolate extravaganza for dessert was the catalyst for this post. As the bill for the evening’s fare would attest, I delighted in a pauper’s version of such things. Back in January of 2009, a Wall Street Journal blog featured an article titled “Why the Rich Like to Eat Gold.” The star example cited was a Haute Chocolate Ice-cream Sundae – the chocolate used cost a paltry $2,600.00 – that was ornamented with 18 karat gold and studded with white diamonds. Cost for this delicacy: $25,000.00!  But do not think that gold is – or was – limited to the fantastic finale of a meal. Using gold leaf like we would use aluminum foil, cooks in Chiquart’s day famously covered the cooked head of boar to create a trompe l’oeil effect… it looked like a gilded piece of sculpture. As for gilded delights of our own age, try a pizza featuring 24 karat gold leaves rather than pepperoni!

24 karat gold leaf on pizza $4,200)

The impoverished Pulcinella would pass-out at the mere thought of such a delicacy!

For Chiquart, see: See: http://daviddfriedman.com/Medieval/Cookbooks/Du_Fait_de_Cuisine/Du_fait_de_Cuisine.html#50

For The Wall Street Journal post, See: http://blogs.wsj.com/wealth/2009/01/16/why-the-rich-like-to-eat-gold/