With Italy celebrating 700 years since Dante’s death (which to me doesn’t quite seem a right thing to celebrate – couldn’t they call it 700 years with Dante?) I started wondering what would Dante have eaten?
Dante Alighieri, known as The Supreme Poet and known for establishing the standardized Italian language as we know it today, was born in Florence around 1265. For political reasons, he was exiled from Florence in 1302. He went to Verona then Sarzana, Liguria then to Lucca and finally to Ravenna in 1318, where he died 14 September 1321 from malaria at the age of 56.
He wrote his most famous work, Divine Comedy, while in exile. Unfortunately, he didn’t write about what he ate! But I guess if you write the first piece of literature not in Latin, making literature more accessible for everyone, I guess you can be forgiven. Thus we can thank him for all of the Italian words we know just from eating!
Anyway, given the time frame, we know what he didn’t eat: tomatoes, which didn’t arrive in Europe until the 1500s, potatoes which arrived only in 1536 and corn which arrived sometime after 1492 i.e. his diet was completely unaffected by North America!
It also would not have contained salt since in 100, during wars between Pisa and Florence, Pisa blockaded the salt in its port to prevent it from reaching Florence. This accounts for the famous saltless bread in Florence to this day.
Luckily the list of things that he could have eaten is longer. What he actually did eat would have depended on his social status, which is not quite clear. The fact that his father survived the Guelph-Gibelline wars could mean that he had influence, or that he was so insignificant to not have suffered the consequences!
Common to all was the use of cereals in the diet, with barley, oats and rye eaten by the poor and wheat more likely for the governing classes. Also common to all were olive oil, vegetables such as cabbage, chard, onions, garlic and carrots and fruit. Parmeggiano cheese was widely available and well know.
All types of cooking involved the use of direct fire, which was the most efficient and also using simple stewpots that did not waste precious cooking juices and were the most efficient use of the firewood.
Since it is named after the Etruscans, and pasta was well-established by the 13th century, a typical dish at that time would probably have been the Tuscan pasta dish, Pici alle Trusca.
But in honour of the beginning of spring, and wild asparagus season in Italy, I have chosen instead to present Spaghetti al Limone with Asparagus. As I said above, pasta was already popular and the asparagus and herbs would have been wild so easily accessible to all classes.
Recipe for Spaghetti al Limone with Asparagus (from Bon Appetit)
1 lb. spaghetti
⅔ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 large bunch asparagus, trimmed, thinly sliced on a deep diagonal
4 garlic cloves, smashed
4 3″-long strips lemon zest
½ tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
8 large basil leaves
2 lemons, halved
2 oz. Parmesan, finely grated (about 1 cup), plus more for serving
Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until al dente. Drain pasta, reserving 1½ cups pasta cooking liquid.
Meanwhile, heat oil in a large Dutch oven or other heavy pot over medium-high until shimmering. Add asparagus, season with salt, and cook, stirring often, until just beginning to take on color, about 1 minute. Add garlic, lemon zest, and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Remove from heat and let sit until pasta is done.
Add pasta and basil to pot with asparagus mixture and return to medium-high heat. Squeeze juice from both lemons into pot and add 2 oz. Parmesan and 1 cup reserved pasta cooking liquid. Cook, tossing vigorously and adding more pasta cooking liquid if needed, until sauce is creamy and emulsified and pasta is coated, about 1 minute. Taste and season with more salt if needed. Remove and discard garlic.
Divide pasta among bowls, placing a lemon strip in each, and top with more Parmesan.