Food of the Renaissance
You are the owner of a large ship. You sail around the world and trade goods with other countries. A French investor has agreed to pay for your next trip if you can bring back a profit and, hopefully, goods that he can sell to local merchants. If for any reason you do not return with a profit, he has the right to back out of the deal, and you’ll be stuck paying for everything. Before you sail from your homeport in Lisbon, Portugal, you will need to make several important decisions about how to prepare for your journey and what route to take. If you succeed, you will be extremely wealthy and will cement your reputation as a spice trader, ensuring that more rich investors come your way. But if you fail, you may go bankrupt and lose your ship, not to mention ruin your reputation. Food and spices of the Renaissance were the fruit of explorers’ labor. Through exploration and trade, bizarre and exotic foods native to newly found territories became commonly traded goods. In addition new ways were found to use already common staples, and the number of spices went from a few to a few hundred. The Renaissance was a time of great discovery, and new foods were one of them.
During the Renaissance, different regions of Europe had foods that were more common to them and less common to other areas. Around the coast fish was the food of choice. Herring and cod were prevalent in the north, and in the south sardines, anchovies, and tuna were among the more commonly consumed fish1. On the other hand cattle and other domestic animals were more common around inland regions. Cows, sheep, and goats were among the most commonly raised domestic animals. As meat most of these animals were eaten when they were young as veal, lamb, and kid2.
Of the all the foods that were common throughout all of Europe bread and grain were by far the most common. Peasants and aristocrats alike consumed bread. The rich ate white bread made of refined wheat flour3. Where as the poor ate darker breads and flat bread because they were much cheaper4. In England biscuits became very popular. Grains, such as polenta and oats were also a universally consumed staple. Of all the many foods during the Renaissance foods of the bread group were among the most common. They were not only very cheap but were very healthy.
The making of bread was highly regulated during the renaissance5. At first, rules were imposed upon bakers from the higher authorities. Grouping the bakers together was simply a more efficient way of ensuring that they followed the rules. As local economies developed, however, these organizations began to go off on their own. Groups began to formulate their own regulations to better profit from their status in the public diet.
Some forms of public health regulations have undoubtedly been around since the start of urbanization. For bakers, the easiest rules to impose were those regarding bread weights and prices. Requirements on bread prices, quality, weight, and freshness have been documented to well before even the renaissance6. Generally, however, regulations were enforced at the local level. Standards varied from town to town according to grain availability and tastes. For example, the Winchester Assize of 1203 stated that “white bread made in our city of Winchester shall weigh thirty shillings, but black bread sixty-five shillings7.”
The most widespread regulation was the “Assize of Bread”. This English law made in 1266 attempted to standardize the various local policies8. The Assize directed bakers to make a common weight of bread known as a penny loaf. However, the loaf could vary in weight, and thus price, according to the type of flour used. the white loaf was made from the finest white flour available. The “wheaten” loaf was coarser, and weighed half as much. “household” loaves were approximately double the weight of white loaves, made from unbolted flour9. Although the assize of bread made a good attempt, bread weights were inconsistently based on the going local rate of grain, and weights differed throughout the country. The Judgment of the Pillary was a law spelling out procedures to investigate and punish offenders10.
In times of famine or grain shortages, authorities had the power to “take over” bakers and force them to operate at below-market rates11. Bakers in this situation were not allowed to raise prices even though their ingredients were more expensive. Sometimes bread was simply taken from them to feed the town. For example, famine threatened northwest England in 1479.12 The local bakers were ordered to work for free and sell their bread at a very low cost. Those who refused were imprisoned and other townsfolk were recruited to bake in their place. Similar regulations were common throughout Europe. Because bread weights were generally tied to grain prices, bakers were often forbidden to sell or mill grain.13 This supposedly would discourage baker fraud.
Obviously a baker’s life was not easy. The work was hard, the hours terrible, and the laws numerous and constantly changing. Bakers fought back by organizing themselves into guilds, to limit the markets and increase their profits. As towns developed and organized, bakers did too. Bakers’ guilds flourished because they benefited both parties: towns ensured a more reliable source of bread for the public, and bakers could try to limit the competition. However, bread was simple enough that guilds did not last once the people gained easy access to flour and ovens. For their time, though, bakers’ guilds were a very efficient way to produce one of the most important parts of the renaissance diet.
The most prevalent drink throughout all of Europe during this time was alcohol. This was because many people did not dare to drink the water for fear of contamination. So instead they fermented the water with different combinations of fruits and barley’s to create various wines and liquors. Around the area France grape juice from the grapes of the French vineyards were fermented to create wine.14 This was one of the most widespread drinks throughout Europe. In the north and around England the Viking’s, and English men used barley, honey, and cider to create beers, and ales.15 This was one of the other very popular drinks during the time. Harder drinks such as whiskey and brandy were also consumed however they were less popular.
As strange as it may sound, only peasants ate fruits and vegetables. Many doctors went as far as warning people not to eat vegetables. This is because many vegetables and berries were thought to be poisonous. However fruits made up the largest portions of peasants diets, because if they were found they were free.16
Most of the spices that were used in Europe were imported from the Philippines and India. However spices were very expensive for a long time there was no known all water route to the West. So instead the spices had to change hands as much as 5 or 6 times. Indian spice farmers would grow the spices. They would then sell them to Arabs who would travel across the land by camel to the west edge off the Mediterranean where they would in turn sell them to the European merchants. This long line of middlemen came to an end, though, in 1498 when the Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama discovered the first all water route to India.17 The discovery of an all water route to India allowed European Merchants to deal directly with Indian spice dealers. This made spices cheaper throughout all of Europe. However, the elimination of Arab middlemen created much uproar throughout the Middle East. Although most men did not have to worry about them, the trek for men passing through these areas became very dangerous, and attacks on caravans became much more common.18
Explorers brought back countless new foods and spices from territories that they found. Columbus was the first European other than the Norsemen to make it to the New World. When he came back he brought with him: Potatoes, tomatoes, corn, and squash from the north, and peppers, and beans from the Caribbean and South America.19 Among other commonly traded goods from the New World were cocoa, sugar, and tobacco. The many spices that were found by various explorers formed the backbone of the American slave trade.20 From Africa explorers brought back many foods such as banana’s, dates, and mangoes.
Although sea trade was less dangerous than trade by land it still had its share of perils. The seas were swarming with pirates just waiting to ransack merchant ships. Also, the Dutch who would stop at nothing to prevent merchants from other countries from getting spices through the Indian ocean routes that were predominately controlled by them.21 The worst peril of all, though, was the sea itself. At any given moment a giant wave could snap a boat in half like a toy. Together these perils helped to increase the price of imported food’s and spices.
Of all the spices the one most loved by people not only during the renaissance, but also throughout all time is sugar. Today sugar can be found on all corners of the globe. This is because during the renaissance sugar was such a hot commodity that if an explorer found a new territory that did not have native sugar they would plant sugar canes on the land.22
Desserts were common during the renaissance, but only to the upper class. The price of sugar was simply too high for the lower class Europeans to afford a lot of it. The dominant desserts throughout all of Europe were tarts.23 Tarts are pastries that consist of a light flaky crust with sweet, but slightly bitter fruit filling. Although desserts were eaten at various times, they were generally served only during special occasions.
When people think of the explosion of culture that happened during the short 300-year period known as the Renaissance they usually think of art. Food and spices are generally overlooked as one of the great advances that happened during the renaissance, but the advances that happened during this short period are just as great if not greater than the advances that happened in any of the other areas.