I thought it would be fun to do a little research to trace the history of cuisine (as different from simple “cooking”) over the years.
Sour flavors and spices dominate the palate in the Middle Ages.
In the Middle Ages, those who could eat fine found acidity everywhere by virtue of vinegar, citrus juices and verjus (from vert, “green” and jus, “juice”) a sour juice from the pressing of a late or second vineyard crop. It was believed that these sour flavorings lent a note of unequaled freshness to meat and fish dishes.
In modern sushi making, rice vinegar is used to treat the rice. This product is very weak as compared to standard vinegars from which we today make vinaigrettes—a little like diluting vinegar with water. Sushi would then be a foodstuff whose aromas fall in line with Medieval flavoring schemes.
A reduced number of spices were the order of the day one thousand years ago. Greatly appreciated were nutmeg, ginger, saffron and cinnamon. These spices and sauces made with them were considered antidotes in the widespread belief that meat did not have an altogether healthy effect on the body.
Chefs didn’t yet employ butter or cream to emulsify their sauces. Instead, powdered almond, bread miche (or crumb: the part inside the crust of the loaf) and egg were their tools.
There were some cook books in Medieval times.
Cook books from the Renaissance teach us that the dominant flavors were sweet and salty. Spices were still as popular as ever, but the discovery and exploitation of sugar—cane sugar—began to permeate everything from desserts to meat and fish dishes.
Of course, when we speak of cuisine through history—in fact until just the last half century or so—we’re really talking about what the nobility or high bourgeoisie ate since the common people, the peasants and workers, ate only gruel and porridge with a bit of meat whenever a pig was slaughtered giving them the poorer, unwanted parts. In the history of Brazil, for example, this was the origin of feijoada, their national dish.
Eating one’s fill was never something the majority of the population could do. Meats and produce were the result of the labor of the class that had not the means to enjoy them; in order to survive, the best and the abundance were reserved for those who could pay. Access to prime cuts of meat would not become common until the XIXth century, exotic fruit and imported foodstuffs only since the Second War.
gruel A preparation of cereal boiled in water or milk, thinner than porridge and more often drunk than eaten. In Latin America, orchata is a rice-based gruel enhanced with flavors and sweeteners to become a refreshing drink.
porridge A simple dish made by boiling oats, wheat, maize or another cereal in water, milk or cream.
The Genoans and Venetians were the kings of the spice and sugar trade. Italian tastes led the way in Europe and everyone followed. There is little doubt that the availability of spices and sugar and the need to trade them exerted pressure on Italian cooks one way or another.
Italy dominated the scene culinarily just as she reigned over all other artistic expression. Most cook books were written by Italians, none by the French and few by other countries in Europe. The greatest Italian chef and writer of this period was named Bartoloméo Scappi, cuisinier of the popes.
Scappi’s works, containing more than a thousand recipes including illustrations, offer us the original genius of the flaky crust (invented by Andalousian Moors between the Xth and XIIIth centuries) and a North African dish, couscous.
Universally, pasta was introduced, also an Arab invention which gained Europe by way of Sicily when under Arab occupation. Types included maccaroni, lasagne, tortelli and ravioli. Amusingly enough, Scappi’s recipes have chefs boiling pastas for an hour; al dente is a phenomenon that will not appear until the XIXth century in Napoli.
Scappi has notions that one would not find out of place in a modern-day cook book.
France it is that launched the innovation that this should be sweet and that should be savory in the XVIIth century. Sweets will appear at the end of the meal sort of to cap it all off with the effect that, once exposed to sugar, the tongue will lose its hunger for the savory.
Note that Louis the XIVth had his own vegetable garden at the Palace of Versailles.
Today society is all abuzz about fruits and vegetables, but until the Renaissance, these were treated badly in public opinion. The idea circulated by would-be experts was that the closer to heaven the source of the food the better it was.
So already in the Middle Ages, vegetables that grew directly on the ground—not to mention those that grew under its surface—found themselves indicted for just about any and all crimes. Peasants were more likely to consume vegetables as lowly as the carrot.
Fruits fared better since they grew in trees for the most part. Tomatoes, members with the potato of the same family as nightshade, were considered poisonous some three centuries after their discovery in the New World—until Napoleon brought in the custom of eating stuffed ones made popular by Italian chefs. The up-shot of this is that the fowls of the air were thought to be healthiest with the eagle (basically little more than a powerful vulture as we well know).
By the Renaissance, vegetables are found in abundance on the tables of nobles throughout Italy. France will wait, however, for Louis the XVIth and his garden.
A great example is the pea, a vegetable that always existed, but was apparently never consumed until an Italian cook introduced it whereupon (as if rats following the pied piper) the Court suddenly couldn't get enough. A French novelist of the XVIIth century, Madame de Sévigné, wrote that the ladies were given to eat peas until they made themselves sick.
You probably guessed that King Louis did not himself plant the Versailles vegetable garden. It was his chief gardener, named Quintinie (almost certainly an Italian name in origin), who cultivated some 18 acres to supply his king with produce. This garden still exists today.
Louis had very exotic and demanding tastes like asperagus all year ’round and cantelope in March, feats of considerable difficulty for the technology of the day.