A groundbreaking culinary work of extraordinary depth and scope that spans more than one thousand years of history, A Mediterranean Feast tells the sweeping story of the birth of the venerated and diverse cuisines of the Mediterranean. Author Clifford A. Wright weaves together historical and culinary strands from Moorish Spain to North Africa, from coastal France to the Balearic Islands, from Sicily and the kingdoms of Italy to Greece, the Balkan coast, Turkey, and the Near East.
The evolution of these cuisines is not simply the story of farming, herding, and fishing; rather, the story encompasses wars and plagues, political intrigue and pirates, the Silk Road and the discovery of the New World, the rise of capitalism and the birth of city-states, the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, and the obsession with spices. The ebb and flow of empires, the movement of populations from country to city, and religion have all played a determining role in making each of these cuisines unique.
In A Mediterranean Feast, Wright also shows how the cuisines of the Mediterranean have been indelibly stamped with the uncompromising geography and climate of the area and a past marked by both unrelenting poverty and outrageous wealth. The book's more than five hundred contemporary recipes (which have been adapted for today's kitchen) are the end point of centuries of evolution and show the full range of culinary ingenuity and indulgence, from the peasant kitchen to the merchant pantry. They also illustrate the migration of local culinary predilections, tastes for food and methods of preparation carried from home to new lands and back by conquerors, seafarers, soldiers, merchants, and religious pilgrims.
A Mediterranean Feast includes fourteen original maps of the contemporary and historical Mediterranean, a guide to the Mediterranean pantry, food products resources, a complete bibliography, and a recipe and general index, in addition to a pronunciation key. An astonishing accomplishment of culinary and historical research and detective work in eight languages, A Mediterranean Feast is requiredand intriguingreading for any cook, armchair or otherwise.
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About the Author
Clifford A. Wwright is a cook, food writer, and research scholar specializing in the cuisines of the Mediterranean. He is the author of six cookbooks and writes frequently for Saveur, Fine Cooking, Gourmet, Bon Appétit, and Food & Wine, as well as having written all the food entries for Columbia University's Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East.
Wright is also a nationally recognized cook. He was chosen as one of the most innovative cooks in America by The New York Times in its "Cooks on the Map" series for his style of emphasizing regional Mediterranean home cooking with its historical background. Before writing about food, Wright had a successful career in the field of international affairs, beginning as a researcher at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., then as a staff fellow at the Institute of Arab Studies in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and finally as the executive director of the American Middle East Peace Research Institute.
Wright received his master of arts degree in philosophy from the graduate faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York, where he was also a doctoral candidate. Today, while he continues his writing and cooking, Wright is a center affiliate of the Gustav E. von Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. Born in New York, he lived for many years in the Boston area and now resides in Santa Monica, California, with his three children.
Read an Excerpt
In the ninth century, the word algebra was used for the first time in the title of the famous work by the Muslim mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarazmi, Kitab al-mukhtasar fihisab al-jabrwa'l-muqabalah, which can be roughly translated as "The hook of summary concerning the process of calculating compulsion and equation," with the word al-jabr giving us the word algebra. Al-jabr in the title means restoration and amplification or balancing something incomplete. Al-Khwarazmi did not use any symbolic notation in his book, for his argument was rhetorical. His hook was first translated into Latin by Robert of Chester in 1145, and al-Khwarazmi himself gave his name to our English word algorithm.
Why does a cookbook begin with the etymology of algebra? The reason I've chosen this approach is that there really is no such thing as "Mediterraneancuisine." At the same time, we seem to know what we mean when we use the expression. This paradoxical phenomenon needs to be explained and this book is my attempt to explain it: to inquire into the value of an unknown, call it x. I'm using algebra as a paradigm for determining the value of x, x being the contemporary Mediterranean cuisines that developed from the centuries of struggle that we will encounter in the chapters ahead. I suspect "Mediterranean cuisine" is an invention of Anglo-Saxons, for I have never heard, until the past few years, any native of the Mediterranean (who lives in the Mediterranean) refer to such a thing. But after Elizabeth David published her famous A Book of Mediterranean Food in 1950, the expression "Mediterranean cuisine" became common, even though we weren't quite certain what was being referred to. The sense in which I use the word algebra is a desire for certainty, for a complete picture. I hope to expose the foundation of Mediterranean gastronomy, which we will see begins with a consideration of the historical situation in which it arose, as well as the climate, the harvest, the search for food. I will show in Part I that understanding contemporary Mediterranean food is rooted in the history of the Mediterranean peoples and their struggle against poverty and famine. The story of today's celebrated Mediterranean cuisines begins with the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Islamic civilization. This is somewhat at variance with the traditional approach, which begins with the ancient Egyptians or the classical Greeks. The story I tell unfolds with the emergence of feudalism and the transition to capitalism. It is a story affected by agricultural revolutions, the plague, innovations in technology, and the Age of Exploration. Once the historical context is set, we can explore where our Western cuisine comes from and how it developed. We will consider how harvests were more of sorrow and food more of dreams in a Mediterranean world where the climate was cruel, scarcity the norm, and vagrants, bandits, the religiously pious, and even the rich struggled for their nourishment. The last chapter of Part I, called "Feast, Anti-Feast," will look at how food determined all. We will look at a sampling of Mediterranean cultures in a variety of historical eras to see how the victory over hopelessness transformed Mediterranean foods from subsistence to cuisine.
The Historical Foundation of Mediterranean Gastronomy
Cabbage was one of the most common foods on the Mediterranean table for more than a millennium. In the simple cabbage we find a paradigm for the evolution of Mediterranean cuisine. The horticultural progress of the cabbage from a simple leafy vegetable to the compact tight-headed one of today, from cabbage cooked in water to the following contemporary minestrone di cavolo recipe from Pisa in Tuscany, is a metaphor for the evolutionary complexity of Mediterranean cuisine today. How do I define the Mediterranean? What is a cuisine? What is Mediterranean cuisine? How did it develop? These are questions that, if not answered, at least will be addressed in the chapters ahead. But first, fortify yourself for the journey with this cabbage minestrone.
Minestrone di Cavolo (Tuscany)
The most common dish in the medieval Mediterranean was cabbage soup. The cabbage, today hardly considered a popular vegetable, was a metaphor for nearly a thousand years of Mediterranean food. In many ways cabbage soup was the paradigm of the Mediterranean meal, which only today we can call a Mediterranean feast. Take this recipe, which Pisans claim as their own. It is a delicious, rich, and complex minestrone that everyone will find satisfying in an elemental way, yet it began as nothing more than cabbage cooked in water. Make this soup and the lessons of this chapter can be well digested. (See Italian cooking techniques, below, on making a battuto.)
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 medium-size onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
2 ounces pancetta, finely chopped
1 ounce prosciutto fat, finely chopped
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil leaves
1 pound green cabbage, damaged outer leaves removed, cored, and coarsely chopped
1/2 pound red cabbage, damaged outer leaves removed, cored, and coarsely chopped
1 1/2 quarts water
1/2 pound dried cannellini other white beans, picked over, soaked in cold water to cover for 2 hours, and drained
1 pound potatoes, peeled and diced large
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 pound pennine or other small macaroni
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1. In a soup or stockpot, heat the olive oil over medium heat, then cook the battuto of onion, carrot, celery, pancetta, prosciutto fat, parsley, and basil until the onion is soft and some fat has rendered, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
2. Add the cabbage and toss with the battuto until all the leaves are coated. Add the water and beans. Cover, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook until the beans are slightly soft, about 1 hour, with the soup only gently bubbling. Add the potatoes and cook just until tender, 25 to 30 minutes.
3. Season the soup with salt and pepper and add the pasta. Cook the pasta, uncovered, until it is al dente, 12 to 15 minutes. Serve with the cheese and more olive oil if desired.
Makes 4 servings
Italian Cooking Techniques
Battuto, which is often used in the same sense as soffritto, means "beaten." A battuto is usually a very finely chopped mixture of salt pork, pork fat, or pancetta along with garlic and onions. It can also contain celery, carrots, hot or sweet peppers, and other ingredients as long as they are all very finely chopped. The mixture, because it is so finely chopped, almost looks like it's beaten together.
What People are Saying About This
Paula Wolfert, author of The Cooking of South-West France and The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean
I always felt it would take several lifetimes to research the many faces of Mediterranean cooking history, languages, influences, the range of culinary resourcefulness and extravagance, and the varied tastes of fourteen countries. In this monumental work, Clifford Wright has made a huge contribution. An astonishing accomplishment!
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Great history book on middle eastern foods along with suggestions and recipes
While the Mediterranean climate can give the impression of sea, sun, and fun.....Clifford Wright makes us aware that the climate can be ferocious. He also brings out the realities of the basic struggle for survival, what people ate in the past, and how government, agriculture, and religion determined what people ate. I enjoyed the delicious descriptions of gardens, stories behind the recipes, vivid descriptions of Medieval life, and the historical aspects of cuisine. Yes, I did feel overwhelmed with information. If at birth we tried to imagine our entire life, we would be equally overwhelmed. So, I suggest taking this book by the spoonful. Even though I love to read an entire book in one sitting, this book was not one you could devour in one sitting. For the cook who's mind longs for cultural information and the historical background of food, this book contains a variety of interesting ideas and historical facts. 'The story told in this book is a complex one because the lives of people are complex.' --Clifford A. Wright This is a story of the birth of the celebrated cuisines of the Mediterranean. I have sat at an outdoor restaurant next to the Mediterranean and selected a freshly caught fish which the chef then cooked to perfection. I have never tasted fish so well prepared. Perhaps this is why I could relate to some of the recipes. 'This book is a history with recipes.' --Clifford A. Wright The goal of the authors writing was not to overwhelm, but to give the reader a memory of why a food came into existence. 'All cuisine is a reflection of the society from which it emanates.' --Clifford A. Wright So, with that said.....To say this is a cookbook is an understatement. It is a history book with recipes to illustrate the historical data. You will learn: The history of the fork That 'minestrone' means 'big soup' How to preserve lemons That peaches were introduced to Europe from Persia When Tiramisu was invented Clifford A. Wright first sets the stage, then explores the relationship between the geography of the Mediterranean and the populations interactions with the environment. Then he shows the importance of trade and how it caused cuisines to develop. 'A cuisine exists when people are eating not simply to fuel up or sustain themselves but because they are emotionally and intellectually relating to culinary creations in the same way they might relate to a work of art.' --Clifford A. Wright In order to appreciate this monumental work, I found it helpful to see the book from the authors perspective. From the first chapter, I realized the author felt that certain cultures had not been given credit for their accomplishments and contributions to Mediterranean cuisine. He definitely promotes the significance of Arabic civilizations and also makes a comparison of the Muslim chefs in ninth century Baghdad to the chefs in France. Humanism, Feudalism, Capitalism, Crusades, agricultural revolution, ship building, peasants and aristocracy, and even his ex-wife's recipe for lentil soup is discussed. With such an array of interesting information one could be distracted from the recipes. Each recipe does begin with some interesting information, while most of the historical aspects are written before or after the recipes in each chapter. Here are the recipes I found to be interesting: Gyro's, Baba Ghannuj, Scrambled Eggs with Asparagus and Shrimp, Lemonade, Shish Kebabs, Pesto and Shrimp Risotto. While I believe American food as we know it today is the best food we can find from everywhere....I didn't agree that Americans don't have a cuisine. I mean, what are hamburgers? I am sorry....but I could not help myself on that one!
In recent years there has been a growing hunger on the part of many readers for more information on the cultural and historical background of food. If you are such a reader, 'A Mediterranean Feast' would be a welcome addition to your cookbook library. Along with traditional recipes from many regions, this massive volume offers extensive text on the history of Mediterranean food, including the influences of climate and geography. The book is handsomely produced, with maps and period illustrations adding their own interest to the narrative.