If Columbus' Italian friends had thrown him a farewell party on the eve of his voyage, what would they have served? We can easily think of things they would not have served; cornmeal polenta, potato gnocchi, tomato sauce. There would have been no zucchini or pasta e fagioli or penne all'arrabbiata either, (squashes, beans and red pepper are New World crops too.) And no desserts containing cioccolata, of course.
Hey! What's left?
Some things would certainly look Italian to us. There would be pasta, though not in as many shapes as we have now: basically lasagne, vermicelli and a variable middle-width pasta (and possibly macaroni, though it was still a novelty). We could find veal scaloppine and simple roast meats, served with sauces largely made from ground spices. The cheesecakes would look familiar, but they might turn out to be spiced too.
The rest would seem very strange. There would be peculiar stews, such as chicken with almonds, sugar, dates, sour orange juice, mushrooms and five or six spices. Meatballs might be made from a mixture of bacon, grated pork liver and mixed cheeses, plus raisins, herbs and spices.
Many sauces would be distinctly thickened, usually with bread crumbs, because the medieval habit of eating with either a spoon of the fingers still affected cookery. There would be a surprising number of pies, a habit left over from the days when pies with very sturdy crusts (not necessarily to be eaten) were a way of preserving food. The date on which the bon-voyage feast was held would have a profound effect on what was served, because days of abstinence from meat and dairy products were numerous and strictly observed.
The most exotic features, from the standpoint of modern Italian cooking, would be the heavy use of spices, nuts and fruit with meat, and the strong taste for sweet-and-sour flavors. If we attended a farewell banquet for Columbus, the food would seem alien, full of wild aromas and flavors, but also hauntingly familiar -- just as beneath the quarreling and pageantry of the 14th and 15th centuries we can detect the faint origins of our own world.
This early cuisine was closer to medieval Near Eastern cookery than to any modern style of cooking, particularly in the free use of spices and the preference for sweet-sour combinations. Incidentally, the reason for the spices and other strong flavors was not, as we often hear, that medieval cooks had to cover up the smell of rotting meat. Spices were used on vegetables as well as on meat, and one thing medieval and Renaissance cookbooks never say is to throw in spices if the meat is spoiled. (For that matter, it's very much a matter of opinion whether spices really can cover up the smell of rotting meat.)
The real reason for the use of spices were simple, almost childlike. Spices smelled delightful, and they seemed magical -- all that flavor in a tiny bit of powder. And before trade with India became common, they were still rare and expensive, and therefore a way of showing off.
Possibly the main reason for using spices was that they were considered to have medicinal value. Many medieval books try to spell out which spices to use for which medical complaints. Sweet and sour flavors were also supposed to affect your health, and this is probably why so many dishes were sweet-sour. It made them "neutral" and unlikely to knock your metabolism off balance.
But a new spirit was brewing underneath all this archaism. Among the complex, heavily spiced dishes, Maestro Martino (personal chef of the papal treasurer) was already given a recipe for shrimp that would be considered minimalist even by Nouvelle Cuisine standards; Boil them with fennel leaves and serve with vinegar.
In the next century, Cristofaro Messisbugo would give a recipe for mushrooms that was totally medieval: Boil them with bread crumbs and garlic ("against poison"). Put them in a bowl with oil, pounded parsley and mint, pepper, cinnamon, ginger, salt, saffron, juice of sour grapes and honey. But he also suggested alternatives that were thoroughly modern: fry the mushrooms with oil, salt and pepper, or with parsley, oil, citrus juice and pepper. Add some zucchini on the side, and maybe some gnocchi and tomato sauce, of course - and we're home.
The above essay and the following recipes are used by permission of Charles Perry and The Los Angeles Times.