Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Birth of Mediterranean Cuisine,Vincenzo Corrado and his Pine Nut Truffle Sauce

Vincenzo Corrado lived for 100 years. Born in 1736, he was a cultured, elegant man who gained prominence as a chef for a prince who regularly fed a virtual legion of cosmopolitan guests in the Italian city of Naples.

We know of Corrado today because he was the first to write of what we now think of as ‘Mediterranean Cuisine’ in his The Gallant Cook in 1773. The book would never have been written but for the encouragement of the Prince of Francavilla –– his flamboyant and discerning master. Francavilla wanted to share and celebrate his chef’s delicious and, as it turns out, healthy creations with the public. The book went through 6 editions from 1773 to 1806. His dishes were so ahead of their time ––– imagine shrimp on a mound of prosciutto drizzled with olive oil or squid stuffed with eel, anchovies, parsley and truffles with an olive oil lemon sauce! It’s simple, good food.

He was ahead of his time for another reason –– Corrado also wrote a book about vegetarian cooking. It was called Pitagoric Food after Pythagoras (some legends portray Pythagoras as a vegetarian who subscribed to simple eating habits for health and for spiritual reasons –– he believed in re-incarnation). In Cibo Pitagorico, Corrado preached the benefits of vegetables over meat –for their flavor and for health. Corrado included some of the first recipes for tomatoes –– in a soup and with pasta and pizza (yes, pizza). He also wrote a treatise on potatoes.

Not to say that he neglected the culinary grand architectural presentations of the day, he could create edible spectacles with the best of them.

18th century Naples

His route to his destiny was not an orthodox one. After his beginnings as a page in the court of Don Michele Imperiali, he went into the church and began studying math, astronomy and philosophy. Then he branched out to natural science and culinary arts. That’s where he found his passion. He never took his orders.

Palazzo Cellamare, Naples

The Prince of Francavilla gave him the title of "Capo dei Servizi di Bocca" – loosely translated as the ‘head of mouth services’ -- sort of the head taster or the court arbiter of taste/cuisine. He was in charge of the kitchens at the magnificent Palazzo Cellamare overlooking the bay of Naples that still stands today. This kept him busy, I would imagine. The Prince would entertain hundreds nearly every day at his rented palazzo filled with his highly valued art collection.

Giacomo Casanova (1725-98)

I discovered Giacomo Casanova’s recollections of one of these parties on the Mad Monarch’s site  "…the Prince led us to a pool beside the sea. A priest, Don Paolo Moccia, jumped stark naked into the water and without making any movement he floated like a pine plank. Next, Michele made all his pages dive into the pool together. These were boys of about 16 years old, as comely as cupids. On leaving the breasts of the waves almost simultaneously, they swam up under the public's eyes, "developing in strength and grace, and performing a thousand evolutions" It seems the Prince had an eye for the lads and these beauties were his “sweethearts”. Michele loved spectacle and set an impressive table.

Banquet at the Casa Nani alla Giudecca in Venice, 1755

For such a gargantuan operation, the kitchen was run like that of a great hotel. Corrado said of his work there, "The abundance, variety and delicacy of food, its splendor and sumptuousness of the tables required a host of men of art, wise and honest."

TABLE  illustration from Cuoco Galante --

In addition to the cooks who stewed and grilled, carved and sautéed, there were cooks for all the specialized stations of the kitchen – deployed in areas for the preparation of salads or for creating the fanciful pastries. There were also those who worked the gardens to supply the kitchens, people who cleaned it all up as well as an army of servers to present the feast to the guests.

 Small table in an illustration from Cuoco Galante --

Corrado wrote a good deal about his lavish presentations decorated with porcelain characters, vases of flowers, crystal and silver presentation dishes of 3 to 4 tiers overflowing with fruits and vegetables. There were bird cages full of chirping birds, and frames of flowers and fruit with tiny porcelain gardeners working at their citrus trees, complemented by priceless tableware – silver, china and crystal - the book gives suggestions on how to recreate some of his presentations for your own banquets

TABLE for 16

Corrado was fond of his patron and expressed a reverential deference for the lords and ladies that dined at his tables. The effulgent style of his master was no doubt influenced by his Spanish heritage that thrived under Neapolitan skies. The lord encouraged his kitchen artist to aspire to greatness, and Corrado was terribly grateful for the opportunity.

In the foreword he offers thanks to his beloved patron:

"Questi due libri che del buon gusto trattano, con la guida e norma scrissi, e pur mercé la tua generosità mandai alle stampe, e Tu di propria mano ne segnasti il titolo il -Cuoco Galante- l'uno e il -Credenziere del Buon Gusto- l'altro, tutti e due a te li porgo come frutto di un albero dalla mano piantato... Mio Scopo egli è di richiamare alla memoria dei nobili uomini dei quali Tu fosti la gloria l'ornamento alla memoria e la lode. Ah? Ma qual Tu fosti non basterebbe di dire di cento e mille lingue, per cui io stimo meglio il tacere e con il silenzio benedire gli anni che ti fu appresso."

"These two books that deal with good taste, I wrote with guidance and the way I normally wrote and also thanks to your generosity I sent them to the printer and you with your own hand suggested the title "The - Gallant Cook" - the one and the "Purveyor of Good Taste" - the other, I offer both of them to you as the fruit of a tree planted by purpose is to bring noble men back to memory among whom you were the glory, the ornament to memory and the praise. Ah? What you were one hundred tongues or one thousand would not suffice, therefore I better regard my silence and with the silence to bless the years that I spent close to you."

What better way to introduce you to the delights of Corrado than his passage and recipes for truffles.  As you can see, they are not recipes as we think of them, more suggestions of ingredient combinations:

"I Tartufi sono di due specie bianchi, e neri; gli uni, e gli altri sono ottimi purché siano odoroti e fodi. Questi sono di maggior gusto de' Funghi, e di maggior condimento nelle vivande. Per condimento si usano come i Funghi. Servendoli soli si cuocono con oilio; pressemolo, aglio, pepe, acciughe, late di pignoli, e sugo di limone; o pure con butirro, pressemolo trito, e spezie, legati con parmegiano grattato e gialli d'uova. Si servono cotti in vino di Sciampagna e butirro sopra croste de pane fritto. Si fanno cuocere intieri sotto le ceneri calde, netti ed involti nella carta, e si servono in fette con butirro, olio, sale, pepe, e sugo di limone, o pure con salsa d'acciughe all'olio, Si conservano o in fette secche, o pure intieri nell'olio."

"There are two species of truffles, white and black. Both are excellent provided that they are fragrant and firm. Truffles taste better than mushrooms and provide better seasoning in cooking. For seasoning they are used like mushrooms. When served by themselves they are cooked in oil, parsley, pepper, anchovies, pine nut milk and lemon juice; or with butter, chopped parsley and spices, bound with grated parmigiano and egg yolk. They are served cooked in champagne and butter over crusts of fried bread. They are cooked whole under warm ashes, clean and wrapped in paper and they are served sliced with butter, oil, salt, pepper and lemon juice or with an oil-based anchovy sauce. They are kept (preserved) either sliced and dry or whole under oil."

I decided I would make the first sauce with pine nut milk, a brilliant ingredient I have never had before. If you are lucky enough to have a few truffles, you can make this on its own – a glorious plate of sliced truffles with a divine sauce.  I had one from D'Artagnan and decided that it would be spectacular with asparagus – and it was. If you haven’t got truffles lying around, may I suggest sautéing the asparagus with truffle butter or oil and enjoying the sauce that way? You will thank chef Corrado most effusively for his inspired combination and wonder why you haven’t had it before.

Truffles with Pine Nut Sauce on Asparagus

Sautéed sliced Truffles (available from Dartagnan - summer or winter depending on season)
Pine nut sauce
Asparagus, steamed, roasted or sautéed

¼ c pine nuts
3-4 T water
2 T chopped parsley
½ t anchovies, chopped fine to taste
2-3 t lemon juice to taste
½ t pepper
salt to taste

sliced truffles
oil or butter
good gray salt


Soak the pine nuts in water for a few hours or overnight. Drain and rinse and put in a blender with 2 T water, process, then add more till you get a creamy consistency.

Add the rest of the ingredients. Add the lemon juice and anchovies to taste.

Steam your asparagus for 6-7 minutes (or bake them at 400º for 10 minutes).

Warm the butter or oil, gently sauté the truffles for a few minutes and add the salt.

Place the asparagus on the plate, scatter the truffles over them and pour on the sauce.
The flavors are so modern – belying the recipe’s centuries-old provenance.