October 18, 2012
Real Retro Jewish Cuisine at a Medieval Jewish Banquet in Italy
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.
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.)
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.
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