In her debut work, Melodie Winawer created an historical novel, mystery and love story that transports readers—and her protagonist, neurosurgeon Beatrice Trovato, to fourteenth century Tuscany. The recipient of a Publishers Weekly starred review, Winawer explains here the variety of early Italian food (and painstaking research) that went into her novel.
Three years into writing The Scribe of Siena, I started to get really hungry. I’d been spending a lot of time with The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy, and many of the dishes described there had found their way into the book. I wrote about the food but I hadn’t tasted it, and certainly hadn’t tried to cook it either. Something essential was missing.
Food is a bridge to understanding the past. It goes straight to the visceral—literally. To make that sensory connection come alive for myself and for the story, I needed to live it, not just write about it. Beatrice, my protagonist, contemplates a similar choice when she is forced to choose between medieval and modern life. Read about it or live it? For me, there was an obvious route to living the past: making dinner.
I planned the menu for a month. I sourced ingredients at specialty food stores and online outlets that ship overseas, so not precisely an authentic medieval experience. The spice trade in the 14th century doesn’t compare to Amazon Prime.
I had to test drive a few techniques including making almond milk, an essential medieval Italian ingredient. Fresh almond milk has no relationship to the carton-packaged liquid at health food stores, and it took me six pounds of raw almonds and two days.
First the almonds had to be blanched in a huge pot of boiling water. (Imagine doing that with only a fireplace and a pot hanging over it). I dropped a load of nuts in, splashing and scalding myself in the process. Then—uh oh—remove all the almonds rapidly after three minutes. SERIOUSLY? Accomplished, but barely. Then the next step: “When cool enough to handle, remove skins from almonds.”
This translated into pinching hundreds of almonds between my fingers until the nuts slipped out of their skins. At first it was awkward; many shot suddenly across the room. Then the rhythm set in.
The steam wafted from the cooling nuts, the sun slanted through the kitchen windows, and I started to feel the long stretch of centuries I’d dropped into. Hours later I had to soak the nuts, then grind them. (Imagine this without a blender.) Then I had a milky slurry of almonds and water to push through a strainer.
At this point I realized my strainer was seriously inadequate, and I ordered a same-day delivery, heavy duty version on line—a luxury I didn’t share with my medieval predecessors. But they would probably have started with a better strainer.
“During those days in the kitchen, I learned more than medieval recipes.”
The end product was pure white, and tasted like the smell of an almond tree in bloom. It became the base of poratta bianca, a leek soup dusted with cardamom and nutmeg—the first dish that welcomes my time-travelling protagonist to medieval life.
It swirled into a pink sauce made from garlic, sourdough bread, and crushed red grapes. With the juice of fresh pomegranates it formed a sauce for romania of chicken, cooked with onions sautéed to a caramel sweetness.
These recipes found their way into my book, and others too —pumpkin tart in a flaky crust, and lasagne fermentatam, springy squares of fresh pasta made from a yeasted dough layered with parmesan and spices. I learned the recipes well enough to make their flavors and their execution convincing in the pages I was writing. When I hosted dinner for my friends and family at long tables lit by flickering candles, my guests laughed and ate and toasted my book in progress, and shared tastes of the past.
During those days in the kitchen, I learned more than medieval recipes. The slowness demanded by the cooking techniques, the attention to ingredients in season, and the prescribed order of foods designed to promote health and celebrate the joys of a shared meal. That intangible sense found its way into my book, and gave me a connection to the past I was writing about—an emotional, visceral connection that transcended what I read and went straight to the heart, soul, and belly of the era I not only tried to portray in writing, but actually longed to inhabit. Just like Beatrice.
Melodie Winawer is a physician-scientist and Associate Professor of Neurology at Columbia University. A graduate of Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia University with degrees in biological psychology, medicine, and epidemiology, she has published over fifty nonfiction articles and book chapters. She is fluent in Spanish and French, literate in Latin, and has a passable knowledge of Italian. Dr. Winawer lives with her spouse and their three young children in Brooklyn, N.Y. The Scribe of Siena is her first novel. Visit her at http://melodiewinawer.com/