The art of Renaissance comfort food

Twelve months ago, I posted a recipe from Artusi’s cookbook for a Sicilian almond pudding, biancomangiare. The 120 year old recipe is a classic, but it’s origins go back centuries further, when the pure white dish of biancomangiare was a monastery staple and bedside comfort food of chicken and almond milk.

I wrote about the Renaissance version of this recipe recently for The Canberra Times, to coincide with the opening of an unprecedented exhibition of Renaissance painting in the National Gallery of the Australian capital city. It’s a recipe too good not to share around even further.

One of the paintings in the exhibition has a detail that caught my eye. It is by Venetian painter Carpaccio, who incidentally has a delicious, classic dish named after him. In this sacred scene of The Birth of Mary (1502-04) we catch a glimpse of domestic life inside a typical Venetian palace. While wet nurses tend to the newborn Mary, a woman approaches new mother Anne with a traditional first meal in a majolica bowl: the porridge-like dish of biancomangiare.

It was the traditional restorative meal for women in childbirth. An elegant and delicate dish, it is made with finely shredded or pounded poached chicken breasts cooked with almond milk, white bread and sugar until creamy, then garnished with rosewater or spices. The dish was immensely popular in the Renaissance and appeared on every noble banquet menu (it was even served as the first course at the extravagant celebrations of Lorenzo the Magnificent’s sister’s marriage into Florence’s powerful Rucellai family). But biancomangiare also retained its original purpose, which was to calm, soothe and nourish, thanks to the ingredients of chicken and sugar, which were both thought to have important medicinal properties. It was Renaissance comfort food, much like today’s chicken soup.

Biancomangiare was carefully and skilfully prepared by masters of the kitchen; the colour and texture of the dish were just as important as painting the Virgin Mary’s blushing cheek. With its beautifully creamy texture, made with techniques that ensure it remains perfectly white in colour, delicate but perfectly balanced flavour, it is a wonderful example of how the culinary arts went through a Renaissance as much as the rest of the arts, taking a giant leap from the Middle Ages. During this time, cooking techniques were improved, becoming more sophisticated, while aesthetics and presentation of food became ever important.

Italian Renaissance food, like much of what was going on in other aspects of life, encompassed every sensory experience possible. Dishes consisted of many tastes all at once – sweet, salty, sour, bitter, spicy. Rosewater or sugar and cinnamon were commonly sprinkled on savoury food such as roast meats just before serving.

One of the most important sources of Renaissance food is the cookbook of Platina. A true Renaissance figure, this charming and witty humanist was part of the court of the Gongazas in Mantua, where he met and befriended the talented cook, Maestro Martino. The pair collaborated on a cookbook of Martino’s recipes, which were carefully translated into classical Latin by Platina and printed in 1470 under the title De honesta voluptate et valetudine. It was an instant best seller, marking a turning point in the Renaissance of the culinary arts.

Platina’s Biancomangiare

There are as many recipes for biancomangiare as there were Renaissance cooks and Medieval monasteries. This is one that works very well for modern households. Don’t be put off by the idea of the sweet garnish – I urge you to try it, you’ll see why it was considered such a special, sophisticated and comforting dish.

Serves 4

  • 300 g peeled whole almonds
  • 1 lt of water
  • 2 chicken breasts
  • 4 slices of white bread, crusts removed to obtain 80 grams of soft bread
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 tsp white sugar

Poach the chicken in the water. When done, remove the chicken and allow to cool, reserving the poaching liquid for later. Shred the cooled poached chicken by hand to make very fine “threads”. If you’re strapped for time, mincing it finely or blending together with some of the liquid can also be done, but you will end up with a smoother dish, without the careful texture of the threads.

Pound the whole almonds in a mortar (this takes quite a bit of muscle but it’s the way it would have been done in the Renaissance!) or use a food processor to reduce to crumbs, adding about half of the poaching liquid a little at a time to make almond milk. Strain the almond mixture in a cheesecloth or fine strainer to remove the nuts. Transfer the almond milk to a saucepan.

Add the bread and chicken to the almond milk and cook slowly on low heat for about 10 minutes, adding enough of the poaching liquid to cover the chicken. Stir until the mixture thickens slightly to a porridge.

Serve warm, garnished with sugar and cinnamon, as a first course.

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Comments

18 Responses to “The art of Renaissance comfort food”
  1. Rosa says:

    A very interesting dish and post! This biancomangiare reminds me of a Turkish dessert called “Tavuk Gogsu”…

    Happy New Year!

    Cheers,

    Rosa

    • Emiko says:

      Wow, I’ve just had to look up Tavuk Gogsu, can’t believe I didn’t know about it before but you’re right, it seems to be almost the same recipe! Amazing, I love that it was a delicacy served to the sultans and just proof that this dish made it all around the continent.

  2. Really gorgeous post Emiko – fascinating. I’ve seen a lot of references in medieval cookbooks to blancmange, which I imagine is just the French name. I’ll have to try it out!

    • Emiko says:

      Thanks Emma! The blancmange I believe is really similiar to the sweet Sicilian biancomangiare (a bit like a pannacotta but made with almond milk set with gelatin) but I’m sure that they all came from this original chicken & almond porridge version which sounds like it was pretty much all over Europe!

  3. Francesca says:

    …is that supposed to be a pudding or a side dish? Might give it a try, in the Renaissance times they did create a lot of amazing dishes in true fairness.

    Thanks!

  4. What a beautiful post! I enjoyed the link between the history of the dish and the Renaissance painting. So beautiful. So many details in that painting to notice.

    • Emiko says:

      Yes, I cut out some more of the analysis of the painting but I love that you can see two rabbits in the background eating (they were kept for food, very common in Venice…) and to get an idea of a Renaissance Venetian palace, you can even see through to the kitchen with its huge fireplace and the courtyard beyond…

  5. Wonderful post! I feel that some have forgotten that food is meant to stimulate all the senses- not just taste. Part of the pleasure of cooking and eating is touching, smelling, and hearing. It’s interesting to con sider what you wrote about the Renaissance and how aromatics were added to food just before serving to stimulate the senses.

    • Emiko says:

      Thanks! I agree – if you look through history, food was not only to nourish but also to entertain. We’re a bit distracted now with tv and internet I think! But in the Renaissance, food was also made to delight people in many other ways – an example: roasted birds were often presented at their table re-dressed in all their plumage (saved from the oven of course) and with alcohol-induced fire coming out of their beaks!

  6. Is this a main dish? Or an appetizer, like a soup. It sounds really good, whatever it is!

    • Emiko says:

      I would treat it like a soup; like the Medici did in their banquets, this was often served as the first course. But I’ve just found out that there is a really similar Turkish dish that is served as dessert.

  7. Ciaochowlinda says:

    I’m so intrigued by the recipe and the painting. anything that connects food to art gets my attention right off the bat. Glad I found your site.

  8. Everything about this post is beautiful, Emiko. i love the gentle palette in your photos–they mirror the gentle nature of the biancomangiare. I’ve only had the dessert version (no chicken). I can’t imagine using chicken in a biancomangiare but I know that mixing meat and sweet was common in Renaissance cuisine, wasn’t it? And, as a form of nourishment, especially for new mothers, it makes perfect sense.

    • Emiko says:

      Thank you Domenica, oh yes, they loved sugar and meat together in the Renaissance! This really just works beautifully though, it’s very subtle. And of course, you can choose not to sprinkle sugar on it too, but a little bit of sweetness really complements the delicate flavours!

  9. I really liked your blog article.Much thanks again. Will read on…

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