As a member of numerous food-related Facebook groups, it's not uncommon to have something interesting come across my news feed. Today, it was a write-up for a fiction about Bartolomeo Scappi and his apprentice Giovanni.
Sadly, it was not interesting in a good way. Rather, it serves as a fine example of poor scholarly work, a lack of consideration for relevant sources, and the perpetuation of patently false information.
We'll take a look at the information the author, Crystal King, presents both in the write-up and the various comments and responses thereto.
A Beef With Beef
King opens with a brief description of Scappi's Opera, touching on its extensive nature, as well as the grand meals Scappi had been involved in.
Before jumping into the rabbit recipe, King talks about how she "transformed a recipe for braised beef" that Scappi had written. We'll start with this.
First, she goes so far as to use short ribs in lieu of beef tenderloin. A choice she made not due to cost, because she didn't want to use tenderloin, and "detract from its flavor", and that a cut with more fat would be better. This alone shows a lack of trust for a renowned cook, that had prepared the food for Popes and Cardinals, in the service of the Vatican.
King's justification for most of the other ingredients is fine enough, until you get to her replacement for "beaten pork fat". Bacon, while fatty, is not an adequate replacement for straight fat. Depending on the contents of one's pantry, or the whims of the cook, this could either have been a fresh fat, cleaned and beaten with knives, or a salted fat (mixed with a little broth) treated similarly.
Getting to her directions, compared to Scappi's, we get the following two lines:
"After it is cleaned of its membrane, splash it with wine and white vinegar, and sprinkle it with [salt and spices]..." -Scappi
"Blend spices together and rub into the meat. (Skip the washing in wine and vinegar as suggested by Scappi…today’s meats are already clean and spices will stick with no problem)." -King
The observant among you will notice that Scappi never calls for the meat to be "washed" in wine and vinegar. The implication here is that some meats in the Renaissance were sold, despite being rancid. THIS IS NOT TRUE.
Cooks of the time paid particular attention to the quality, safety, and presentation of their foods, and books on cookery attest to this.
Martino de Rossi, the author of “The Art of Cooking”, published in the 15th Century gives us this quote, “Stick a knife into the prosciutto, and then hold it to your nose; if the knife smells good, the prosciutto is good, and the same holds for the contrary.”
“Le Ménagier de Paris” (14th Century) states as follows, “...it is much nicer to serve fair and white lard than yellow, for no matter how good the yellow is, its unappealing color condemns it and discourages its use.”
This perpetuation of the myth that sauces and spices were used to cover the taste of foul and rancid meats is patently false. Not only that, but it makes it difficult for academics to dispel those myths.
A Fricasee of Rabbit?
Moving back to the initial source of my frustration, the write-up. King presents us two redacted/modified/"transformed" recipes from Scappi, a fricassee of hares, and a black broth to be served with it.
Scappi describes it simply as hare that has been boiled in salt water for a time, then fried in rendered fat. This is then to be served with a mustard or black broth.
King opted to use rabbit in lieu of hare, though later in this same recipe, Scappi calls for preparing rabbit in a different manner. This I can overlook for a moment, given that one meat or the other may not be available in a given region, compared to the tenderloin/short ribs of beef.
Instead of (par?)boiling the rabbit in salt water, King opts to brine it. Anyone who has eaten something hot, and then cold later on (pizza, I'm looking at you) can tell you having it hot and having it cold are two entirely different things. By boiling it, you are essentially brining and cooking at the same time.
For a rendered fat, King goes with using a chunk of prosciutto, rendered in the cooking pan. Not a bad choice, but also one lacking in flavor. Scappi's ragnonatica is a salted and seasoned beef fat. It would be stored for long periods of time, and used when needed. This would've been decently salty, and strong in flavor, given the inclusion of fennel and black pepper.
A Curious Sauce
Following the "transformed" fricassee recipe, King presents her interpretation of Scappi's black broth.
Like many of the recipes Scappi gives us, the black broth's ingredients reads a bit like a grocery list, calling for numerous fruits, wines and must syrup, spices, orange juice, and toasted bread and biscuits. It is these last two that prove irksome. Toasted breadcrumbs were a common method for thickening sauces in the Renaissance, and the biscuit, mostaccioli, that Scappi also mentions would also help serve this goal.
King never once makes a mention of these two ingredients, and instead opts to use 1 Tbsp of flour. Flour is very poor substitute for toasted breadcrumbs, or biscuits made from a flour of ground up biscuits and eggs...
Claims to Knowledge
Towards the beginning of the write-up, King states, "I’m often asked if I’ve tried to make any of the historical dishes I describe in my works. Yes!" and later on, "I try to stay as true to the flavors as possible." It is clear from her "transformations" of Scappi's recipe that she has never tried to prepare the recipes as written, or even with any degree of closeness.
To clarify, I'm all for playing around with Medieval and Renaissance cookery, but to say "I'm going to make this recipe from Scappi," and not follow closely to his directions is an affront to such a well-respected cook. "Loosely inspired by Scappi" would be a better fit for the work King has presented.
In a reply to a comment on the write-up, King also states, "I have tried the majority of recipes exactly as prescribed, with mixed results, or interpreted them in the best way I could with very limited instructions.", but before that, she is can be quoted as saying, "The Scappi cookbook is fairly readable. It is really the first cookbook that is like cookbooks of today."
That makes me wonder which is true? Is Scappi's work so arcane that generous modifications need to be made? Or is it thorough enough in its descriptions of ingredients and process that it's akin to the works of one such as Julia Child? Being familiar with Scappi's work, I'd say the latter.
And lastly, we cycle back around to the point that drew me into this in the first place, a comment by one Rhys Bowen, and the subsequent reply by Hank Phillipi Ryan.
"[Bowen]...I suppose you are right and the meat wasn't always fresh!...
[Phillipi Ryan]...And you are right, possibly some of those sauces had a little bit of element of "disguising the meat"..."
Truth be told, Bowen is speaking in terms of Victorian Britain, but to neglect doing any research, and just go with what is generally considered a myth among academics is not exactly helpful to one's credibility. Fortunately, scholars of pre-1600 food, such as myself, are working diligently to dispel this awful myth, and show how wonderful food of the time can be.