When we think of the Renaissance, we think of the flourishing of humanist ideas, the paintings of the old masters, the exquisite basilicas and cathedrals erected – but what did these culture cats eat? While the cuisine of Renaissance Europe can generally be described as "meat forward," many dishes would be totally unfamiliar or even downright bizarre to a modern diner.
1. Eel pie
In the Middle Ages and throughout the Renaissance, life revolved around the Church. People adhered strictly to religiously mandated fast days, of which there many; in fact, medieval Christians would, in theory, spend about one-third of their year fasting. Of course fasting in this period didn’t actually mean not eating, just abstaining from meat; so fish was eaten in its place.
For those who lived near the coast, a fish-focused menu still guaranteed a delicious meal. But for those living further away from the coast, in a time before refrigeration, fast days really did require a certain degree of penance. Turning to rivers and muddy ponds for their supper, eels became la piece de resistance for many fast day tables. Eel pie specifically was incredibly popular. One fifteenth-century Italian recipe calls for the pie to be made with eel, spinach, raisins, pine nuts, cinnamon, ginger and sugar. Bon appetit?
2. Curdled Eggs
Today the very words "curdled eggs" invokes an image of something that has gone off, soured, and needs to be chucked in the bin. But a fifteenth-entury recipe demonstrates how such a preparation could actually be pretty tasty.
A recipe for Zanzarelli composed by Renaissance celebrity chef Maestro Martino in his -fifteenth-century cookbook Libro de Arte Coquinaria describes a dish made with chicken broth, saffron, grated pecorino cheese, fresh breadcrumbs and curdled eggs. The eggs are of course fresh, but cracked, whisked and scrambled in the broth, resulting in "curdled eggs’" floating amongst the breadcrumbs, cheese and saffron threads.
A Renaissance outdoor party, including a feast. Image via Sailko/Gillis Mostaert.
3. Dolphin and Porpoise
Yes, Europeans used to eat dolphin. They also ate porpoise. While these creatures weren’t eaten everyday, for large feasts or special occasions, especially those that fell on fast days, a whole roast dolphin or porpoise was considered a true delicacy. We’ll chalk this dish up to their lack of knowledge in the zoology department. Look away, Flipper, look away.
4. Roast Peacock
Another dish that often appeared on banquet tables was peacock. The bird would be roasted whole and before being brought to the table would have all its feathers stuck back in, thus creating the impression that it was still very much alive. To really impress guests, a sparkler was sometimes put in the peacock’s mouth so it didn’t just appear to be alive, but breathing fire, as well.
Trompe l’oeil, a visual illusion popular in Renaissance art, wasn’t just restricted to basilica ceilings. Creating tricks of the eye with food was a way for the wealthy to impress their guests. Making food look like something else (ie. making a roast peacock look like it was still alive) demonstrated that you had a very talented chef working for you who would no doubt be expensive to hire.
The Cockatrice is perhaps one of the best examples of this Renaissance culinary trend. The dish was made by taking the front end of a pig and sewing it to the back end of a partridge or large bird, thus creating what appeared to be a new kind of mythical beast. A favourite dish of Henry VIII in Tudor times, it became a staple at banqueting tables across Europe.