A 19th century lunch for Good Friday
One of my favourite things about Artusi’s cookbook, the 1891 bible of Italian cooking, is his suggested menu at the back for seasonal and traditional dishes, listing recipe suggestions by the month (see some of them here), with additional menus for special holidays. It’s not only is a quick way to glance over some of the nearly 800 recipes in his book, but it is also an incredibly interesting indication of what a meal consisted of in the late 1800s. Did everyone really eat a seven course meal?
This month’s Italian Table Talk covers, of course, the ever important tradition of Easter, which is as much an opportunity to eat non-stop and stuff yourself with oversized chocolate eggs as it is a family get-together and one of the year’s most important religious (and social) holidays.
The first place I turn to – as is always the case when looking for interesting traditions and recipe inspiration – is Artusi and his menu suggestions. While searching for an Easter recipe, I was rather intrigued by the menu for a ‘pranzo di quaresima‘, a lunch for Lent. Baked goods (such as Neapolitan pastiera and Tuscan Easter bread) have a long and important tradition at Easter time, but there’s also the tradition of what you eat just before Easter – those last days of Lent when, symbolically, only “lean” foods are to be eaten, no red meat. Technically speaking, Lent is the 40 day period between Carnival and Easter so I suppose this is an appropriate menu for any time during that period but I think these days it’s really the Good Friday, venerdi santo, when this tradition has come to mean that a seafood feast is in order and most make the effort to create a special fish-based meal.
Here’s a glance at Artusi’s Lent menu, exactly as it appears in his book, complete with the number of the recipe rather than page number:
Pranzo di quaresima
Minestra. Zuppa nel brodo di pesce n. 65 o Zuppa alla certosina n. 66
Principii. Baccalà montebianco n. 118 con Crostini di caviale n. 113
Lesso. Pesce con salsa genovese n. 134
Tramesso. Gnocchi alla romana n. 231
Umido. Pesce a taglio in umido n. 461
Arrosto. Anguilla n. 491
Dolci. Pasticcini di marzapane n.6 28 e gelato di pistacchi n. 767
His menu begins with minestra, soup, giving the choice between a fish broth (he suggests muggine or mullet, as the best fish to use for stock) or the Zuppa Certosina, a delicious fish and egg drop soup which supposedly had its beginnings in the medieval monastery, La Certosa, just outside Florence and was a favourite of Tuscany’s Grand Duke.
You cannot talk about a traditional fish dinner without baccalà, dried salted cod. It’s usually soaked for days to revive it and then used in a million different ways. As a ‘starter’, Artusi suggests baccalà montebianco, which today would probably be called baccalà mantecato, a favourite Venetian cicchetto or antipasto. It’s a branade of sorts, which Artusi amusingly goes on to say means in French to move or vibrate a sword or similar, only in this case it’s just a wooden spoon. He instructs whipping together 500 gr baccala, 200 ml olive oil, 100 ml of milk or cream.
This is to go with crostini di caviale. Artusi instructs mixing together “lots of butter and lots of caviar” and spreading onto “English” white bread (think High Tea sandwiches), for these crostini.
The next course, lesso, refers to the cooking method – boiling or poaching. Salsa genovese is a flavourful salsa verde of sorts made from pine nuts, capers, salted anchovy, the yolk of a hard boiled egg, olives (I’m guessing Ligurian is the way to go here), a touch of garlic, parsley and bread softened in vinegar – an excellent sauce, says Artusi, to go with poached fish.
Tramesso, from the verb ‘to interpose’. I quite like this idea – as if this is a course that just quietly slips between two others, cushioning the dishes. Gnocchi alla romana is not what most non-Italians would think of as gnocchi. Made with cooked semolina, rather than potato, cooled to set and cut into rounds, they are then covered in cheese and baked. It’s quite a hearty, comforting dish and a great one to make when entertaining for a group of people as you can prepare it in advance then just pop in the oven when you’re ready.
Umido, another course that refers to the cooking method – not ‘humid’, it’s literal translation but ‘stewed’. Artusi recommends using fish such as tuna or sea bass, cleaned and scaled, and cut into pieces, dusted with flour and pan fried. It’s then cooked “in umido” with a tomato sauce tinted with whole cloves.
His roasted eel, the “arrosto” course, is one that I am keen to try out as soon as I can find some fresh eel. Eel from Comacchio in Emilia Romagna is famous in Italy (they have a sagra, a food festival, dedicated to it every year in Comacchio) and even Artusi states it is the best. If not eel from Comacchio, he says, go for the ones from Lazio’s Lake Bolsena, which are even mentioned by Dante (what other cookbook author refers to Dante? Yet another reason why I love Artusi). Skin a large eel and cut into 3cm chunks. Thread the eel onto skewers between two slices of bread (baguette style would work) and sage leaves. Grill and serve simply with lemon wedges and dry red wine.
To finish this nineteenth century feast, not one but two dolci: little pastry tarts filled with a marzipan mixture of almonds and candied fruit served with pistachio gelato. I like Artusi’s tip to reinforce that pretty green pistachio colour, the nineteenth century way: stir through some pureed, cooked chard.
I’m not sure about nineteenth century folk but after such a feast, it’s fair to say that modern participants of a similar meal would drown themselves in digestivi then sneak off to sleep the meal off until Easter Sunday, when, the feasting is done all over again only this time with plenty of red meat.
To celebrate other Easter traditions around Italy, Valeria of My Life Love Food travels to Naples and uncovers a love for pastiera, Jasmine of Labna bakes Mimuna, a traditional Jewish bread for Passover, and Giulia from Juls’ Kitchen prepares that Tuscan Easter favourite, lamb.