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. Continue Reading →