Tomatoes
[ In the Shadow of Light ]

Eating is Fun: The Perks of Historical Research

Tomatoes
Tomatoes, gouache on vellum, in Gottorfer Codex. Painted by Hans-Simon Holtzbecker. Between 1649 and 1659.

It is difficult to think of Italy and not immediately imagine steaming plates of pasta with red sauce and crisp slices of delicious pizza with mozzarella and tomato, right? That familiar image of Italian cuisine—chock-full of tomato-based ingredients—is such a part of our collective consciousness that it’s easy to assume that it has been that way since the dawn of time.

In the Shadow of Light takes place in 1630 in Florence, Italy—the capital city of Tuscany—at the tail-end of the Renaissance. It follows a period of religious turmoil marked by the Protestant Reformation and a cultural rebirth of the arts and sciences which included gastronomy.

As a writer of historical fiction, investigating the eating habits of an era and region is key to depicting an accurate experience of the time. Knowing that the tomato didn’t solidify its position of power in Italian cookery until the 18th century is quite important. Luckily for my readers, one of my self-imposed job requirements is to eat traditional regional cuisine for research purposes.

Although history books tend to recount the most elaborate banquets enjoyed by the upper nobility, this was only a sliver of the population and was not the usual experience for the majority. Not surprisingly, meals of common Italian folk were far less elaborate.

In a region blessed with shady olive groves, citrus orchards, endless fields of golden grain, ancient vineyards, and rolling hills with grazing sheep, pigs, and cattle, it’s easy to imagine the bounty available to the locals. Typical dishes were created with the humblest of ingredients and often included salt-less bread. As it turns out, simplicity was—and still is—considered the key to Tuscan cuisine.

Tuscan Vineyards
Tuscany, Italy

There are some great examples of 17th century Tuscan fare that have stood the test of time and are still made today—with the addition of tomato in many instances.  Zuppa di cipolle, a classic onion soup made by placing a piece of bread in the bowl, pouring the soup over it, and adding cheese. Ribollita, a hearty soup, made with bread, cannellini beans, and seasonal vegetables. And Panzanella, a simple rustic salad, made of onion, bread, garlic, and olive oil, often served on warm summer days.

Ribollita Toscana
Panzanella

While we’re at it, let’s not forget dessert. Ricciarelli—crunchy, diamond-shaped cookies comprised of crushed almonds, sugar, and honey—were favorites during celebrations and gatherings, and Biscotti—a dry, crumbly, twice-baked sweet pastry made with fruit and nuts—was frequently served with local sweet wine.

Ricciarelli
Ricciarelli – Tuscan almond cookies

When people find out I write historical fiction, they often ask if I find the research boring. The answer is a resounding NO, because learning about history is the most fun when it’s being explored via the taste buds.

So, I encourage you to click some of the recipe links and pick a traditional Tuscan recipe—or two—to try on your own. If you’re worried about calories or disrupting your diet, just remember you’re testing them for “research purposes.”

See there…now you’re off the hook!

Buon appetito!

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