Celebrations & More: Medieval-style Jewish banquet resurrects forgotten menus

bevagna, italy   |    In a medieval tavern in 21st-century Italy, waitresses in archaic costumes served a tepid, chalk-white substance the texture of oatmeal to tables filled with slightly skeptical diners.

Sweet yet salty, and flavored with a mix of unexpectedly tangy spices, it turned out to be a tasty purée made from shredded chicken breast, almond milk, rose water, cloves and rice flour.

The dish was a savory form of biancomangiare, or almond pudding, a food that was popular in Italy in the Middle Ages. Jews back then loved it, food historians say, and often called it “almond rice.”

On a recent night in Bevagna, an ancient walled town in central Italy’s Umbria region, biancomangiare was being served as the first course of a special kosher-style dinner aimed at re-creating a meal that Jews in Italy would have eaten in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Historian Ariel Toaff is served double-roasted goose and baked onion salad at a “medieval” banquet. photo/jta-ruth ellen gruber

It was followed by a spicy lentil soup and then the main course: heaping platters of crisp, twice-roasted goose with garlic, served with a warm salad of baked onions in sweet and sour sauce. The meal was rounded out by a form of spiced white wine called ippocrasso and honey-nut sweets served on fresh bay leaves.

“We love medieval cooking,” said Alfredo Properzi, one of the dinner organizers. Properzi, a local doctor, belongs to a civic association that fosters study and re-enactment of life in the Middle Ages. The recipes for the dinner, he said, came from cookbooks of the period.

“One of the big differences was the spices that they used — much more than today,” Properzi said. “Also, medieval cooks liked to use various spices to color food as well as season it.”

The dinner added flavor — literally — to an academic conference on medieval Jewish life in Bevagna, a town where Jews lived from the early 14th century until they were expelled from all of Umbria in 1569.

“There were probably never more than two or three Jewish families in Bevagna,” Bar-Ilan University historian Ariel Toaff, the main conference speaker, said as he sampled the dishes and sipped the strong local wine.

“It would have been impossible to maintain a kosher slaughter house for so few people,” he said. “If they wanted meat, they would have had to get it from another town, or they would have eaten poultry, which could be slaughtered at home.”

No Jews today live in Bevagna, and only a few dozen Jews live in all of Umbria. But historic documents provide fascinating insights on many aspects of medieval Jewish life — from food and wine to religious observance, sex, love and marriage, economic life and discrimination.

Extensive archival material details the dramatic family saga of the most prominent Jews who lived in Bevagna in the 15th century: the banker Abramo and his large, extended clan.

Abramo owned banks in three towns, as well as a mansion, investment properties, farmland and many other holdings. But after his death in 1484, the family suffered a series of tragic setbacks, including deaths, bank failures and even a trumped-up claim by a young Bevagna boy that the family had lured him to their home and crucified him over Easter in 1485. Though apparently linked to a default on a loan to the Abramo bank by the boy’s mother, the allegations led to the banishment of several Abramo family members.

The dramatic tale and long-gone Jewish presence in Bevagna have kindled interest in a town that already revels in its medieval history. Bevagna hosts medieval events throughout the year, and every June the town is given over to a medieval festival featuring food, costumes, artisan workshops, and historic re-enactments.

The town co-sponsored the medieval Jewish life conference that featured the dinner, and Bevagna Mayor Analita Polticchia said she would like to take things even further.

“We are thinking now of adding Jewish components to our annual medieval festival,” she said between courses. “Maybe we can even see about getting a kosher winery started up.”

Toaff, the son of the retired longtime chief rabbi of Rome, was key to organizing the Bevagna dinner. Though he gained notoriety a few years ago for a book suggesting that the medieval blood-libel myth may have been fueled by the actions of small groups of Ashkenazi Jewish extremists carrying out revenge killings against their persecutors, his main work has focused on medieval Jewish life in Umbria. He also authored “Mangiare alla Giudia” (Eating Jewish Style), an influential history of Jewish cooking in Italy.

“The dinner organizers asked me what would be a typical dish for the menu, and I immediately told them goose because goose was, so to speak, the Jewish pig,” Toaff said. “It had the same function for the Jewish table as the pig did for non-Jews. Every part of the animal was used, including for goose salami, goose sausage and goose ‘ham,’ and foie gras was also a Jewish specialty.”

Like today, he said, Jews in medieval times generally ate what the non-Jewish population did, adapting local recipes to the rules of kashrut.

“Biancomangiare was also made sweet with milk, pine nuts, almonds and raisins,” Toaff said. “But if it was served with a meat dish, the Jews would substitute almond milk for dairy milk.”

 Certain dishes became Italian Jewish favorites.  “Lentils were typically Jewish, and lentil soup was commonly eaten in the 14th and 15th centuries,” Toaff said. “Being round, they symbolized the cycle of life. Another typical Jewish cooking style was sweet and sour, like the baked onion salad.”

He added: “White sugar was considered a spice. And salt and pepper were expensive because they served as ‘refrigerators’ — they preserved food, and they also hid any spoilage.”

Ruth Ellen Gruber

Ruth Ellen Gruber is a writer for JTA.