Monday, January 14, 2008

The Pope comes to dinner.

January 14 ...

Over a thousand people, including Queen Christina of Sweden attended a banquet give for Pope Innocent XI in Rome on this day in 1687. Mine host was His Excellency the Earl of Castelmaine, English Ambassador to Rome, and he put on a fine spread indeed – so fine that the feast remained set out “for two whole days, (according to the Roman way) that everyone's curiosity might have some share in the Entertainment”.

The event was recorded by the Ambassador’s steward, John Michael Wright, and he left some details about the food.

“This large table, having (as is said) these adornments in the middle, had between them, and the napkins, (which were also most artificially folded) two rows of Assiets, or Intermesses, on either side, fill'd with all sorts of relishing bits, whether salt, sweet or soure; as Pickles, Butter, slices of delicate Bacon, Bologna-Sausiges, Taratufoli, Composts, &c., all which, stood in the abovesaid order, for two whole days, (according to the Roman way) that everyone's curiosity might have some share in the Entertainment."

The art of napkin-folding had impressed Samuel Pepys a few decades earlier, so it seems that it was a relatively new fashion in England. The ‘adornments’ were the incredibly elaborate food ‘sculptures’ – like the medieval subtelties or illusion foods that were not necessarily eaten but served as messages of propaganda or symbols of religious devotion, or simply – as in this case – to impress the guests with the wealth and status of the host. These ‘adornments’ were given to eminent ladies to take home – so no doubt they did second duty in eminent homes as symbols of rank and influence.

Mr. Wright’s inclusion of ‘composts’ in his list seems a little old-fashioned for the time. It was already an old word to describe a ‘composition’ or combination of ingredients – as in the modern use of the word to describe a mix of garden refuse in the process of melting down into rich soil. We do still use it in a culinary sense too – although we use the Frenchified version: the little accent mark over the second ‘o’ in compĂ´te indicates the loss of a letter ‘s’. So there you are – next time you have a fruit compote you are really having a modern version of compost.

Composts were not exclusively made of fruit in medieval and early modern times. Here are a couple of versions from Englands first printed cookbook, A Noble boke off cookry ffor a prynce houssolde or eny other estately houssolde (1500)

Peres in composte.
To mak peres [pears] in composte tak a good quantite of canelle [cinnamon] and sugur and set it on the fyer to boile and draw yt throughe a stren then lesk [slice or chop]dates thyn and put them ther to in a pot and boille wardens [pears] and pair them and put them in the ceripe [syrup] put ther to sanders [red sandalwood, used to color the dish] and boile them and alay them up with chardwins and salt it and mak yt doucet [sweet] and chargaunt and put it out of the vesselle in to a treene vesselle and let it boille then pare smalle raisins and tried guinger and temper it ij dais or ij nyghtes with wyne then lay it in clarified hony cold a day and nyght then tak the raisins out of the hony and cast ther to peres in composte and serue it furthe with a cold ceripe.

To mak compost.
To mak composte tak chekins [chickens] and halve them then tak saige parsly lekes and other good erbes and chop them small then tak a pint of hony and som of the erbes and lay in the botom of the pot and som of the chekyn then tak lard of pork smale mynced and lay it on and cast ther to pouder of guingere and canelle and boille it and serue it.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Living on Parmesan.

Quotation for the Day …

Monsieur Guizot assures us that while he was ambassador in London, his cook was more useful to him politically than his secretaries.
Lucien Tendret (1825-1896) great-nephew of Brillat-Savarin.


Rachel Laudan said...

I love the quote at the end. It echoes Talleyrand's famous remark that he had more need of cooks or pots (depending on who's telling the story) than on written instructions at the Congress of Vienna.

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Rachel - I seem to remember another one too - was it by Patrick Lamb, and the diplomatic value of the sumptuous banquets put on by the court of Queen Anne ('the gouty queen of the gourmands')?. I think someone wrote a book on dinner-table diplomacy, didnt they? If they didnt write one, someone ought to - you perhaps??

Rachel Laudan said...

Did someone? I've not run across it. But I'll hunt down Patrick Lamb on this