Thursday, October 18, 2012

Medieval Jewish Banquet in Italy

Honey-nut sweets served on bay leaves. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

This post also appears on my En Route blog for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.

Biancomangiare, lentil soup, twice-roasted goose with garlic, sweet and sour baked onion salad, Ippocrasso (spiced white wine), honey-nut sweets.

These were the dishes served at a Medieval Jewish banquet that recreated a meal that Jews in Italy might have eaten in the 14th and 15th centuries.

The event took place in Bevagna, a stunningly beautiful town in Italy's Umbria region -- whose historic center looks much the same as it did way back then.

Entering Bevagna. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

The dinner, in a so-called Medieval Tavern in the heart of the town, capped a little academic conference on medieval Jewish life in Bevagna. I wrote about the dinner for JTA, in an article that also included the recipes for the dishes we ate. The first course was Biancomangiare, a puree made from chicken breast, almonds, rice flour, rose water and spices.

It was followed by a spicy lentil soup and then the main course: heaping platters of crisp, twice-roasted goose with garlic served with a warm salad of baked onions in sweet and sour sauce. The meal was rounded out by a form of spiced white wine called ippocrasso and honey-nut sweets served on fresh bay leaves.
"We love medieval cooking," said Alfredo Properzi, one of the dinner organizers. Properzi, a local doctor, belongs to a civic association that fosters study and re-enactment of life in the Middle Ages. The recipes for the dinner, he said, came from cookbooks of the period. 
"One of the big differences was the spices that they used -- much more than today," he said. "Also, medieval cooks liked to use various spices to color food as well as season it.

The main speaker at the conference -- and my partner across the dining table -- was Ariel Toaff, an emeritus professor of Medieval and Rennaissance history at Bar Ilan University, who is the son of the reitred, longtime chief rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff.

Ariel Toaff and a "medieval" waitress. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Ariel's wonderful book, Love, Work and Death: Jewish Life in Medieval Umbria, is one of my favorite books -- partly because I spend a lot of my time in Umbria (where so very few Jews live today that when my entire family is with me, we make up one of the major Jewish centers in the region) and partly because the book reads like a spicy novel, set in Assisi, Orvieto, Bevagna, Todi, Perugia, Terni, Foligno -- and other towns that I'm very familiar with.

The chapter headings say it all: "Sex, Love, and Marriage;" "Love of Life and Intimations of Mortality;" "Meat and Wine;" "The House of Prayer;" " Outcasts from Society;" "Witchcraft, Black Magic, and Ritual Murder;" "Converts and Apostates;" "The Pattern of Discrimination;" "Merchants and Craftsmen;" "Doctors and Surgeons;" "Banks and Bankers."

Ariel also authored Mangiare alla Giudia, an influential history of Jewish food and eating in Italy, which has not been translated into English. Both books served as inspiration for the Bevagna dinner. (See an article on Italian Jewish cuisine in English by Ariel by clicking HERE.)

"The dinner organizers asked me what would be a typical dish for the menu, and I immediately told them goose because goose was, so to speak, the Jewish pig," he said. "It had the same function for the Jewish table as the pig did for non-Jews. Every part of the animal was used, including for goose salami, goose sausage and goose ‘ham,’ and foie gras was also a Jewish specialty."
Like today, he said, Jews in medieval times generally ate what the non-Jewish population did, adapting local recipes to the rules of kashrut. 
"Biancomangiare was also made sweet with milk, pine nuts, almonds and raisins," he said. "But if it was served with a meat dish, the Jews would substitute almond milk for dairy milk."
Also like today, certain dishes became Italian Jewish favorites.
"Lentils were typically Jewish, and lentil soup was commonly eaten in the 14th and 15th centuries," Toaff said. "Being round, they symbolized the cycle of life. Another typical Jewish cooking style was sweet and sour, like the baked onion salad."

No Jews live today in Bevagna, but the city actively promotes its medieval history with festivals, pageants, Medieval dinners, and other events. The mayor told me that she was now thinking of how to add a Jewish component to all this -- and maybe even get a kosher winery started up.

There is particularly rich archival documentation about Bevagna's most prominent Jewish family in the 15th and early 16th centuries, the extended clan of the banker Abramo. Ariel Toaff recounts the story in great detail in "Love, Work and Death." it is a dramatic family saga that has a sort of rags to riches to rags again narrative framework.

Abramo owned banks in three towns, as well as a mansion, investment properties, farmland and many other holdings. But after his death in 1484, the family suffered a series of tragic setbacks, including deaths, bank failures and even a trumped-up claim by a young Bevagna boy that the family had lured him to their home and crucified him over Easter in 1485. Though apparently linked to a default on a loan to the Abramo bank by the boy’s mother, the allegations led to the banishment of several Abramo family members.

Click here to read full JTA article

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