Italian Food in the Late Middle Ages

Italy, in the Middle Ages, was very diverse in its eating habits. The food was extremely distinct.

Conditions Influencing Food During the Middle Ages

The period known as the Middle Ages lasted for approximately 1000 years and can be divided into three distinct periods. The population of Europe in 1300 was about 100 million and then as a result of famine, disease and war, dropped substantially by 1500. Consequently, the standard of living improved. A location in Europe also influenced the availability and style of food. What people ate in Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Spain was influenced by the Turkish Empire and trade and was very different from food enjoyed in Great Britain.

Written Evidence of Eating Habits

Our knowledge of food is also influenced by the existence of written records. These tended to include recipe books from towards the end of the Middle Ages and records of expenditure for various banquets held. Many of these have survived or were kept in Britain.

Italian Food

Italy was at the heart of trade with the east and the Ottoman Empire in the late Middle Ages. Its climate was also warmer. It consisted of many city states rather than the strict feudal system that existed in Britain and France. One possible outcome of this was the existence of a larger business or trading class that had wealth not associated with land.

Arab Influence on Italian Food

Arab culture influenced Spain and Southern Italy. It introduced sugar, rice, palm trees, mulberries, citrus fruits and bananas. In the 1500s, Naples was consuming 1,500 tonnes of sugar every year. Another important outcome of contact with the Middle East was the influence on pasta. Contrary to many popular myths, Marco Polo did not bring pasta back from China. In his writings, he refers to seeing vermicelli in China indicating it was a product he was already familiar with. In fact pasta, in the form of soft pasta such as lasagne, can be traced back to Roman times. The impact of the Middle East was in the introduction of Durum Wheat (hard wheat). Unlike soft wheat used for bread making, it could be stored for long periods of time. So, in a time of plenty, it could be stored for those years when life became a little harder. It also enabled the making of hard dry pasta; modern examples of which are the spaghetti many individuals buy and cook. Similarly, dry pasta could be stored for long periods of time.


It was towards the end of the Middle Ages that machine produced dry pasta started to appear. In 1150, the Arab geographer Al-Idrisi refers to the production of string pasta in Palermo for export by ships. The first reference to dried noodles cooked by boiling is in the Jerusalem Talmud, written in Aramaic in the 5th Century AD. By 1546, the Corporation of Pasta Makers was established in Liguria (North West Italy) and rules for Pasta Making established in Savona in 1574. Lasagne was originally eaten like any other flat bread. By the Middle Ages, it was eaten creamy and with cheese, (tomatoes only came to Europe after Columbus went to America). Also, pasta, such as tortellini with cheese, was eaten by travellers. A recipe for pasta can be found in the book “De arte Coquinaria per vermicelli e macaroni siciliani” (The Art of Cooking Sicilian Macaroni and Vermicelli) written by Martino Corno, in about 1000 A.D. Additionally, there is reference to macaroni and ravioli in the Decameron in the Mid-Fourteenth Century.


During the Middle Ages, rice became more readily available but was not new to Europe. African rice had been known for thousands of years. But in Italy, at the end of the Middle Ages, the plains along the Po River in Lombardy were cleared by entrepreneurs (not Feudel Lords) for the purpose of growing Asian rice (Oryza sativa L.) in water. This was to meet the growing demand in towns and cities for food. These new venture capitalists backed farmers to establish rice fields. The availability of rice further influenced Italian food especially the creation of Risotto.

The Influence of Trade

The Genoese (Christopher Columbus was Genoese) were a maritime people who took long sea voyages to get spices such as pepper from India and cinnamon from Ceylon. The effect of this was that Genoese cooking did not use spices other than local products such as basil pesto. This remains a tradition in contemporary society. The reason for this was that after months at sea in ships pungent with the odours of spices, sailors, upon returning home, did not want to utilise them. As a result, recipes such as Nicoise salad (Nizzarda) made with anchovies on a bed of lettuce with eggs, olive oil and onions became a favourite. Also, the Genoese surprisingly imported preserved fish such as herring from Flanders, tuna in oil from Spain and dried cod (baccala). There was also a large emphasis on meat and vegetables which returning sailors were keen to have. Many of the dishes were slowly cooked such as Minestrone and meat was stewed for long periods. The juices (stock) were used to flavour ravioli. Ravioli was stuffed with pork, eggs, cheese, and parsley.

Example of an Italian Banquet

“Here are details of a banquet thrown January 23, 1529 by the son of the Duke of Ferrara for his father and various dignitaries. The total guest list numbered 104. Sugar sculptures of the labours of Hercules appeared first, in deference to the host himself, named “Hercole.” The antipasto course consisted of cold dishes: a caper, truffle and raisin salad in pastry, another salad of greens with citron juice and anchovy salads. There were also radishes carved into shapes and animals, little cream pies, prosciutto of pork tongue, boar pies, mortadella and liver pies, smoked mullet served several different ways, and gilt-head bream. The first hot course had capon fritters sprinkled with sugar, quails, tomaselle (liver sausage), capon liver stuffed into a caul (netting of pork fat) and roasted pheasants, an onion dish, pigeons in puff pastry, tarts of fish ilt (spleen), fried trout tails and barbel (a fish), quails, meatballs, white servelat sausage, veal, capon German style in sweet wine, pigeon pastries, carp, turbot, shrimp, trout roe pies, a yellow almond concoction,and pastries.

The third course had partridge, rabbit, turtledoves, sausages, boned capon, pigeons and more fish. This proceeded on to a fourth course, again with birds, fish, a rice pie, and other dishes. A fifth course followed with some suckling pig, veal and more birds and fish as well. A sixth course with more veal prepared a different way, peacock, goat, boar and also more fish was eaten. The seventh course finally sees some vegetables, fennel, olives, grapes, pears, and other pastries; the ninth citron, lettuce, cucumbers and almonds in syrup, various fruits and confections…What is immediately striking is that guests were given individual plates for many of the dishes, only larger foods or presentations of several ingredients together came out in multiples of 25 or 50, and would have been divided up and served. Many of the foods came out in multiples of 104 on 25 larger plates as well. Because Messisbugo specified the number of plates needed for each food in each course, they can be counted. This meal used 2,835 plates” (Olver: Online Source).

Reference List:


Boccaccio, Giovanni [1313-1375], “The Decameron”, G.H. McWilliam, trans. London: Penguin, 1972, (VIII) 3.

Internet Sources

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Halsall, P. (1996), “Introduction to the Medieval World”, Retrieved April 28, 2006 from:

Olver, L. (2000), “The Food Time Line” Retrieved April 26, 2006 from:

Wageningen University, The Netherlands, (2006), “Food info”, Retrieved April 26, 2006 from:

Wikpedia. (2006) Retrieved April 28, 2006 from:

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