Food During the Renaissance Period

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The Renaissance was a period in European history following the Middle Ages and preceding the Enlightenment, from about 1300 to 1600, characterized by religious and political turmoil and the works of great artists such as Michelangelo and da Vinci. It also was a cultural transition point in the preparation and consumption of food. In particular, the emergence of global commerce -- which gave the wealthy access to food, drink and spices from all over the world -- anticipated modern ways of eating.

Pheasant was a luxury the wealthy enjoyed during the Renaissance.
Pheasant was a luxury the wealthy enjoyed during the Renaissance. (Image: Jupiterimages/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

The Making and Eating of Bread

Regardless of nationality or economic status, people throughout Europe ate bread. In Italy, people of all classes had spaces within their homes devoted to making dough. Among the lower and middle classes, this dough was taken into town and baked in communal ovens as most households were too poor to afford private ovens. However, the wealthy often had their own wood-burning ovens in which they baked soft white breads. The poor, however, made and ate coarse wheat bread that sometimes contained rye or barley.

Alcoholic Beverages

Fearing sickness, people of the Renaissance seldom drank plain water. From Germany in the north to Italy in the south, and France and England, preferred beverages were wine and beer. Wine was the staple drink of the elite while beer was the drink of choice among the lower classes. However, because during this period, wine was not stored in bottles but in casks that could spoil easily, new wine generally was preferred to older wine. The south of France and certain islands in the Atlantic were the chief sources of wine production. Beer was more popular than wine in northern Europe because wine was difficult to transport and thus prohibitively expensive.

Meats and Spices

Although the climate of southern Europe, France and England allowed for an abundance of fresh meat, the consumption of meat was a privilege normally accorded to the upper classes. In Italy. fish was a staple across the socioeconomic spectrum, especially during Lent when the Catholic church discouraged eating other kinds of meat. Certain delicacies such as pheasants and peacocks were the exclusive preserve of the wealthy. Salts and other exotic spices such as pepper, cinnamon, cloves and ginger were used to enhance flavor and as a preservative. Salt was instrumental in preserving meat during the winter months.

Eating Habits

By modern standards, eating practices of the Renaissance were primitive even among the very wealthy. Bread functioned as an eating utensil because the use of real eating utensils remained uncommon. One of the first mentions of a fork in European literature occurs in an encyclopedic cookbook compiled in 1570 by Bartolomeo Scappi, personal chef to Pope Pius V. It was at around this time certain members of the upper classes began eating on plates, and brass cutlery appeared not long after. Standards of etiquette would not emerge until much later, in the 17th century. However, in all classes, gluttony was uncommon; people ate until they were full and then stopped. Among the wealthy, live music might accompany dinner.

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