From the days of ancient Greece, people have worked the land, cultivating an abundance of fruits and nuts, vegetables and herbs, and grain that they'd combine into palatable dishes.
Savory or sweet, this cuisine is explored at the J. Paul Getty Museum's locations at Getty Center and Getty Villa in a series of culinary workshops starting with “From Garden to Table: Dining in the Renaissance” on Thursday and Friday and “A Victorious Banquet” on Sept. 26 and Sept. 27. The workshops combine presentations on the origins of gastronomy and edible gardens, gallery tours and hands-on cooking classes in which art history lovers and cooks, alike, recreate historic banquets using mostly authentic recipes.
“You're actually making these recipes, and when you do a hands-on component like this you're more likely to want to repeat it at home,” says Robin Trento, an art historian who lays out the art and culinary traditions rooted in Renaissance gardens in “Dining in the Renaissance” at the Getty Center.
In the Renaissance, gardens fed the body as well as the senses. They were balanced, symmetrical and filled with decorative, medicinal and edible plants.
For a snapshot of what it must have looked like, during “Gardens of Renaissance” participants tour the exhibition with a manuscript that includes garden illustrations from the time period.
“If you go to some of the great places in Italy where the gardens used to be, they may still have gardens there but they've changed over time, so they may not look exactly as they did 500 years ago,” Trento says. “But when we look at the manuscripts we're actually seeing the trellis, we're seeing the flowers, we're seeing the shape of the fruit and really understanding what it looked like then.”
It's only then the aprons are tied and the cooking begins.
Think herb, fresh greens and edible flower salads, asparagus frittatas, game hens with lemon and pepper sauce, chard ravioli, fennel and leaks cooked with saffron and apple and pear pie. If it sounds familiar that's because the Renaissance was the moment when regional, seasonal and fresh Italian cuisine became modern and started breaking itself away from the medieval cuisines of Europe, which were heavily spiced.
“They were focusing on the natural flavors of the vegetables, fewer ingredients and as a better way to control health,” Trento says. “It's really the regional cooking that we are familiar with today.”
Herbs, greens and whatever was local and native to the area grew in Renaissance gardens with spaces set aside for citrus trees, which were starting to become popular all over Europe.
Melons were also on the rise.
“The belief of the dieticians and medics at the time was that if you're going to eat melon, you should eat it at the beginning of the meal and you should have it with salted meat,” Trento says. “So this is where the great Italian appetizer prosciutto and melon probably came from and so we're also going to be offering that.”
Health was very much on the mind of the ancient athletes, warriors and gladiators at the Greco-Roman table in Nancy DeLucia Real's workshop, “A Victorious Banquet,” at Getty Villa.
A historian of the ancient Mediterranean world who writes the blog, Real says growing food was the job of many.
“Eighty percent of the people in ancient Greece (alone) were farmers,” she says. “We always think of the artists, the philosophers, the statesmen, but they all had to descend the land because that's what sustained them. And so the gardens and the farmland together were important and they protected their crops through decisive confrontational battle.”
Like the Renaissance garden, the ancient gardens and farmlands produced familiar foods. Although they tended to be rooted in mythology.
Gods gave the people olives for olive oil, grapes for wine and barley for flour, which they'd use to make a dried fruit and nut-studded bread. Fennel, celery and herbs like mint, thyme and rosemary went into the creation of everyday meals.
They were sometimes modest, sometimes lavish as in the banquet Real's class will prepare.
The menu includes salads made of fennel, celery and dates, dipping sauces with fresh herbs, ricotta pancakes drizzled with honey, honey-sesame sweets, and a stew made of ox or bear.
“Doesn't that sound good? Of course we're not going to be using ox or bear, I'm going to be replacing it with meat, either lamb or beef,” says Real, who sources her recipes from such classics as “The Life of Luxury” by gastronomic poet Archestratus of the 4th century BCE and the Apicius, a collection of Roman cookery recipes from the late 4th or early 5th century AD.
Some have been adapted to suit modern tastes.
“Just like language, everything changes through the centuries,” Real says. “But the basics are the same. Maybe the ingredients have gone through some processing by the food industry between the 1960s and the last five to eight years but we're going back to the natural, healthier way of eating as well as combining it with exercise. Just like the ancient Greeks and Romans. It's almost as if you're taking the virtual trip back in time.”