Early modern European cuisine

Early modern European cuisine

The cuisine of early modern Europe (c. 1500-1800) was a mix of dishes inherited from medieval cuisine combined with innovations that would persist in the modern era. There was a great influx of new ideas, an increase in foreign trade, religious reformation and a scientific revolution. The discovery of the New World, the establishment of new trade routes with Asia and increased foreign influences from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East meant that Europeans became familiarized with a multitude of new foodstuffs. Spices that previously had been prohibitively expensive luxuries soon became available to the majority population, and the introduction of new plants like maize, potato, sweet potato, chili pepper, cocoa, vanilla, tomato, coffee and tea transformed European cuisine forever.

There was a very great increase in prosperity in Europe during this period, which gradually reached all classes and all areas, and considerably changed the patterns of eating. Nationalism was first conceived in the early modern period, but it was not until the 19th century that the notion of a national cuisine emerged. Class differences were far more important dividing lines, and it was almost always upper-class food that was described in recipe collections and cookbooks.


In most parts of Europe two meals per day were eaten, one in the early morning to noon and one in the late afternoon later at night. The exact times varied both by period and region. In Spain and in parts of Italy such as Genoa and Venice the early meal was the lighter one while supper was heavier. In the rest of Europe, the first meal of the day was the more substantial. Throughout the period, there was a gradual shift of mealtimes. The first meal, then called dinner in English, moved from before noon to around 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon by the 17th century. By the end of the 18th century, it could be held as late as 5:00 or 6:00. This necessitated a midday meal, luncheon, later shortened to lunch, which was established by the late 18th century. Breakfast [The word "breakfast" is a calque of Medieval Latin "disjejunare", literally "to un-fast", and rendered "disnare" or "disner" in Old French. The word was later borrowed into Old English as "dinner" and referred to the first (accepted) meal of the day.] does not receive much attention in any sources. Breakfast, when it began to be fashionable, was usually just a coffee, tea or chocolate, and did not become a more substantial meal in many parts of Europe until the 19th century. In the south, where supper was the largest meal, there was less need for breakfast, and it therefore remained important, something that can still be seen today in the traditionally light breakfasts of southern Europe, which usually consists of coffee or tea with bread or pastry. There is no doubt that working people since medieval times ate some sort of morning meal , but it is unclear exactly at what time and what it consisted of. The three-meal-regimen so common today did not become a standard until well into the modern era.

As in the Middle Ages, breakfast in the sense of an early morning meal, is largely absent from the sources. It's unclear if this meant it was universally avoided or that it simply wasn't fashionable enough to be mentioned, as most sources were written by, for and about the upper class.



For most of Europe, the many varieties of grain were the most important crop and formed the daily staple for segments of society. The differentiation was in the varieties, its quality and how it was prepared. The lower classes ate bread that was coarse and of considerably higher bran content while the upper classes enjoyed the finely ground, white wheat flower flour that most modern Europeans are used to. Wheat was considerably more expensive than other grains, and rarely eaten by many. Most bread was made with a mixture of wheat and other grains. [Braudel, pp.105-29]

Grain remained the undisputed main staple of early modern Europe until the 17th century. By this time the skepticism towards New World imports such as potatoes and maize had softened among the general populace, and the potato in particular found new appreciation in Northern Europe, where it was a much more productive and flexible crop than wheat. In Ireland, this would later have disastrous results. In the early 19th century, when much of the country depended almost exclusively on potato, the potato blight, a fungus that rotted the edible tubers of the potato plant while still in the ground, caused a massive famine that killed over a million people and forced another two million to emigrate. In Northern and Eastern Europe the climate and soil types were less suited for wheat cultivation and rye and barley were far more important in regions such as Scotland, Scandinavia, and Russia. Rye was used to bake the dense, dark bread that is still common in countries like Sweden, Russia and Finland. Barley was more common in the north, and was often used to make beer.

Oats made up a considerable minority of the produced grain but stood very low in status and was commonly used as animal feed, especially for horses. Millet, grown in much of Europe since prehistoric times was still used throughout much of the early period, but had largely disappeared by the 18th century although its exceptional storage period of up to twenty years meant it was used for emergency reserves. [Braudel, p. 109] For example the Italian dish polenta, previously made from millet, later was made with maize. Pasta had been a common food since the middle of the medieval period, and gained in popularity during the early modern period (notably in Naples, where it was not often seen until the late 18th century), but it was not yet usual to use the hard variety of durum wheat or semolina to make dried pasta until the Industrial era. Rice became established in many places, especially Italy and Spain, during the period, but was regarded as a low-status food; the well-off might occasionally have rice pudding but otherwise ignored it. [Braudel, pp. 110-11]

Peas and beans, which made up a very large part of the diet of the medieval poor, were still often treated as a staple food, but to a diminishing extent over the period, to be replaced by cereals and the potato. [Braudel, pp. 112-14]


No parts of animals were wasted; blood was used in soups, for blood sausages, tripe was an ingredient in stews, soups or pies, and even cuts that clearly reminded of the live creature were readily consumed. Calf's head could be served as a separate dish, and eating eyes, tongue or cheeks was not seen as problematic; in some regions they were even considered to be delicacies.

European consumption of meat remained exceptional by world standards, and during the period high levels generally moved down the social scale. But the poor continued to rely mainly on eggs, dairy products, and pulses for protein. Often they did better in the less populated regions, where wild game and fish could still easily be found. The richer nations, especially England, ate considerably more meat than the poorer ones. In some areas, especially Germany and the Mediterranean counties, the meat consumption of ordinary people actually declined, beginning in about 1550, and continuing throughout the period. Increasing population seem to lie behind this trend. [Braudel pp. 190-99]


A map of Early Modern Europe could be drawn based on the characteristic fats that predominated: olive oil, butter and lard. These kitchen staples had not changed since Roman times, but the onset of the Little Ice Age that coincided with Early Modern Europe affected the northernmost regions where olives would flourish. Only olive oil was a subject of long-distance trade.


Cane sugar, native to India, was already known in Europe in the Middle Ages, expensive and mainly regarded as a medicine. From the end of the 17th century greatly increased New World production struggled to meet the increase in European demand, so that by the end of the period the maritime nations of England, France, the Low and Iberian Countries were consuming large quantities, but other parts of Europe used it far less. [Braudel, pp. 224-7] At the same time, modern distinctions between sweet and savoury dishes were becoming general; meat dishes were much less likely to be sweetened than in the Middle Ages.


Water as a neutral table beverage did not appear in Europe until well into the Industrial era, when efficient water purification could ensure safe drinking water. All but the poorest drank mildly alcoholic drinks on a daily basis, for every meal; wine in the south, beer in the north and east. Both drinks came in many varieties, vintages and at varying qualities. Those northerners who could afford to do so drank imported wines, and wine remained an integral part of the Eucharist, even for the poor. Ale had been the most common form of beer in England through most of the Middle Ages, but was mostly replaced with hopped beer from the Low Countries in the 16th century.


The art of distillation was perfected in Europe during the 15th century and many of today's most common and familiar spirits were invented and perfected before the 18th century. Brandy (from Low German "Brandwein" via Dutch "brandewijn", meaning "burnt wine") first appeared in 15th century Germany. When the English and Dutch were in fierce competition for the control of the lucrative European export market, the Dutch encouraged wine growing outside the Bordeaux area, where the English had strong connections. The result that the regions of Cognac and Armagnac became famous for producing high-quality brandy. Many of today's most famous cognac producers, like Martell, Rémy Martin and Hennessy started their businesses in the early to mid-18th century. Whisky and schnapps were produced in small household stills. Whisky became fashionable, commercialised and exported in the 19th century. Gin, grain liquor flavored with juniper, was invented by the Dutch and commercial production by Lucas Bols began in the mid 17th century. [cite web
last =
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title = History
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quote= ...the Bols family founded the company in 1575 and began by making liqueurs... The production of genever came 100 years later.
] The production was later refined in England and became immensely popular among the English working classes.

In the triangular trade which began in the 16th and 17th century between Europe, North America and the Caribbean, rum was one of the most important commodities. It was made from molasses and was one of the most important products made from the sugar grown on the Caribbean Islands and in Brazil.

Coffee, tea and chocolate

Before the Early modern period, the social drinks of Europe had all been alcoholic. With the increased contact with Asia and Africa and the discovery of the Americas meant that Europeans came into contact with tea, coffee and drinking chocolate. But it was not until the 17th century that all three products became popular as social beverages. The new drinks contained caffeine or theobromine, both mild stimulants that are not intoxicating in the same way as alcohol. Chocolate was the first drink to gain popularity, and was one of the preferred drinks of the Spanish nobility in the 16th and early 17th century. All three remained very expensive throughout the early modern period.

National cuisines

As nations began to form in Europe, the foundations of cuisine had begun to form. Although nationalization of many of today's European nations had not occurred in early modern Europe, many of the characteristics that establish a national cuisine began to emerge. These attributes included attributes such as the emergence of professional chefs, professional kitchens, the printing of codified culinary texts, and educated diners.


:"Main article: French cuisine"In France in particular, this characteristic change came from the specialization of culinary skills by-way-of guilds. The two major separations of guilds were between those who supplied raw products and those who prepared them. Those who were members of guilds, specialized in specific forms of cookery, including bakers, pastrycooks, saucemakers, poulterers, and caterers. It was through this specialization that many of the well-known French dishes of today began to take hold, but it was not until the 17th century that France's haute cuisine would begin codification with La Varenne the author of works such as Cvisinier françois and Le Parfait confitvrier, he is credited with publishing the first true French cookbook. His recipes marked a change from the style of cookery known in the Middle Ages, to new techniques aimed at creating somewhat lighter dishes, and more modest presentations of pies as individual pastries and turnovers. [Wheaton, pp. 114-120.]

During the 15th and 16th centuries, French cuisine assimilated many new food items from the New World. Although they were slow to be adopted, records of banquets show Catherine de' Medici serving sixty-six turkeys at one dinner. [Wheaton, 81.] The dish called cassoulet has its roots in the New World discovery of haricot beans, which are central to the dish's creation but had not existed outside of the New World until its exploration by Christopher Columbus. [Wheaton, 85.]


:"Main article: Italian cuisine"Italy similarly was undergoing its own shift toward a national cuisine. However, a didactic switch occurred during the early modern era which changed the cuisine from one of high court cuisine, to a regional local cuisine by the end of the era. In the beginning of the era the courts of Florence, Rome, Venice and Ferrara were an integral component to the creation of fine cooking in Italy with the court of Estes in Ferrara a central figure to the creation of this high-cuisine. A number of chefs were integral to this process, including Christoforo Messisbugo steward to Ippolito d'Este published Banchetti Composizioni di Vivande in 1549 who published Messisbugo which detailed banquets in the first-half of the book, while in the second-half of the book a multitude of recipes for items such as pies and tarts (containing 124 recipes with various fillings) were featured. [Del Conte, p. 13.] In 1570, Opera was written by Bartolomeo Scappi, personal chef to Pope Pius V, a five-volume work that to that date encompassed the most comprehensive example of Italian cooking. The work contained over 1,000 recipes, with information on banquets including displays and menus as well as illustrations of kitchen and table utensils. Opera was an important text as it is seen as one of the first integral works which shed game meats in favor of domesticated animals. Additionally "alternative" cuts of animals such as tongue, head, and shoulder appear in recipes. Seasonality to fish and seafood dishes was also featured along with emphasis on Lenten cookery. Opeara also featured an early version of the Neapolitan pizza, however, it was a sweet concoction unlike today's savory dish. Turkey and maize also appear for a first time in Italy in this book. [Del Conte, pp. 14,15.]

Unlike France's continued path toward high-cuisine, Italy began to show a change toward regionalism and simple cooking in the late 17 century. In 1662 the last cookbook on Italian high-cuisine was published by Bartolomeo Stefani chef to Gonzagas. L'Arte di Ben Cucinare introduced "vitto ordinario" ("ordinary food") to Italian cookery. [Del Conte, 15.] In turn, at the beginning of the 18th century the cookery books of Italy began to show the regionalism of Italian cuisine in order for Italian chefs to better show the pride of their regions instead of the high cuisine of France. These books were no longer addressed to professional chefs but to bourgeois housewives who could address their home cook. [De Conte, p. 16] Originating in booklet form, periodicals such as La cuoca cremonese (The cook of Cremona) written in 1794 give a sequence of ingredients according to season along with chapters on meat, fish and vegetables. As the century progressed these books increased in size, popularity and frequency, while the price to attain them dropped well within the reach of the general populace. [Capatti, 158-159.]



*Albala, Ken, (2003) "Food in early modern Europe, 1500-1800" ISBN 0-313-31962-6
*Braudel, Fernand," Civilization & Capitalism, 15-18th Centuries", Vol 1: The Structures of Everyday Life, William Collins & Sons: London, 1981.
*Capatti, Alberto and Montanari, Massimo. Italian Cuisine: a Cultural History. New York: Cloumbia University Press, 2003. ISBN 0231122322
*Del Conte, Anna. The Concise Gastronomy of Italy. USA: Barnes and Nobles Books, 2004. ISBN 1862056625
*Wheaton, Barbara Ketcham. "Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789". New York: First Touchstone, 1996. ISBN 978-0684818573

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