Leeks & storks but no pasta

Feasting in former plagues

by Ivano Ruggeri, writing from Parma, Italy


When plague swept through London in 1592, Queen Elizabeth’s Court retreated to Windsor. Whilst Stratford furloughed, Shakespeare wrote his celebrated work, Venus and Adonis. This was indeed so popular that copies had to be chained to prevent them from being stolen.

But undoubtedly perhaps the most influential work ever produced in a time of pestilence was Boccaccio’s Decameron, which takes us to the Italy of 1348 . There, the Black Death (which eerily came from the orient), decimates the population of the Europe’s financial capital, Florence, emptying the skyscraper towers of the medieval city.

Boccaccio’s father had succumbed to the plague. He sets the Decameron in Fiesole, the hilly countryside outside the city, where wealthy Florentines have retreated to escape the illness.

A group of seven women and three men meet up and for each of the 10 days of the lockdown every participant will tell a story: in all 100 tales, hence the Greek name deca (10) and hemera (day).

They gather around a sumptuous table, laden with wine and specialities of the time.

The plague had caused a severe shortage of manpower which meant that the fields could not be tilled, sown, or harvested. However, the husbandry of animals, which required far less attention, became more commonplace. This is reflected in the foods that the group eat. There is much meat: particularly pork and exotic fowl.

One tale is about the consumption of roast stork.

A wily cook’s fancy woman has begged him for the leg of the roasting stork in exchange for sexual favours. When the stork is presented at table, the master notes that one of the legs was missing. The cook responds “My lord, have you not noticed that storks always stand with only one leg.”

The next day the master drags the cook to the river and indeed there is a group of storks standing on one leg. The birds were asleep. The cook feels vindicated, until the master claps and shouts ”oh ha, oh ha”. The birds fly off revealing both their legs.

The master: “you lied to me”.
The Cook: “of course not my lord, had you clapped at the table and cried oh ha the other leg would have been revealed”.

So much for the fowls.

But the biggest surprise of this feast would have been the absence of pasta. Although it had been present in the Italian diet since Roman times it was not used in the way we see today. Tomatoes, the vital ingredient of most pasta sauce, were unknown until the discovery of the new world. Italian food without tomatoes: unthinkable.

On each of the ten days, a story involves the humble leek. This unpretentious vegetable, with its verdant upper part and its lower part white, symbolised the enduring passions that survive from the verdant days of youth to the snow capped white of age.

In reality, although Boccaccio sets his great work around a table laden with luxurious food and wine, the true feast of the Decameron is a literary cultural banquet. His oeuvre will nurture and influence the world for the next 800 years. We can safely describe it as Europe’s first blockbuster best seller: a celebration of life in a time of Apocalypse.