This unique and fascinating book of recipes compiled by the fifteenth-century master cook Chiquart, who served Duke Amadeus VIII of Savoy over a period of thirty years, offers a precious and vivid insight into late medieval cooking and eating practices. Terence Scully has meticulously transcribed the single manuscript, provided a very readable English translation of the original Middle French, and added a general introduction, myriad detailed footnotes, and a number of useful indices. The result is an engaging slice of gastronomic history that will be of interest to medievalists, food historians, and amateurs alike.
Master Chiquart structures his cooking treatise around an elaborate two-day banquet in two versions, one for “meat” and one for “lean” days. Chiquart’s text is vivid and detailed; it sparks the imagination and brings home the staggering amount of work and resources needed to feed medieval nobles. Many dishes are monumental in both their size and the labor needed to prepare them: one stunning example is a castle made of molded meat paste, adorned with five fire-breathing roasted animals, innumerable smaller molded figures, and a fountain spraying rosewater and mulled wine. The necessary provisions alone, listed at the beginning of the text, are mind-boggling: Chiquart recommends that the cook overseeing such a banquet have access to six thousand eggs per day, among myriad other items.
Complementing Chiquart’s work, Scully offers an informative introduction situating food and eating practices in late medieval culture. Scully’s discussion of “culinary theory and practice,” which details the relationship between cookery and medicine according to humoral theory, is particularly interesting. According to medieval medical science, maintaining a balance among the body’s humors was the basis of good health, and each food had its own humoral properties, being classified as hot, dry, cool, or moist. Such classifications, as Scully explains, determined which sauces were served with which dishes and, indeed, dictated a whole range of food and flavor combinations. A warm and dry ingredient, such as parsley, in a sauce, moderates the cool and moist nature of many types of fish, but it would be taboo to serve a dry sauce, such as mustard, with a dry meat, such as hare.
The sheer volume of Scully’s scholarly accomplishment, like that of Chiquart’s preparations, is impressive. Numerous texts and contexts are cited in the extensive footnotes, which offer a parallel discourse to both the introduction and Chiquart’s text, allowing the book as a whole to be read on several levels. The bibliographies, especially the multilingual list of primary sources, constitute a precious resource. Three separate indices allow the reader to search the text according to ingredients, prepared dishes, and a miscellany of “conditions and circumstances.” Treasures for the logophile abound: in one index, for example, one learns that the French word souies, meaning a prepared dish, is the ancestor of the English word “souey,” which is used to call pigs (p.319).
Nevertheless, while Scully’s overall achievement is monumental, a few quibbles could be raised. Most potentially troublesome was the lack of English translations of quotes in the footnotes: knowledge of Latin, Italian, and both middle and modern French would be required to read the footnotes in their entirety. Yet this practice was not consistent: certain footnotes instead give the author’s English translation of a medieval text (for example, p.30, fn.59), but not the original text. The practice of translating original texts (or not) should have been standardized throughout. What seem to be similar assumptions about the reader’s linguistic level of preparedness occasionally make for difficulties in reading, as in the introduction, where a list of kitchen personnel with French job titles is cited and discussed, but the titles themselves are not translated (pp.31–32). It is only two pages later that we finally learn that a solliar is a scullion, and one would need to look up (or already know) other terms such as fornier and carronnier; translations in brackets could easily have eliminated any confusion here.
Any such concerns, however, are easily eclipsed by Scully’s wide-ranging erudition on the one hand and Chiquart’s engagingly magisterial voice on the other. This master of forgotten preparations and flavors is well worth reading, and Scully has done a great service in making his work available to us.