A Cautionary Cook’s Tale

Medieval cook

A Cautionary Cook’s Tale

Not only was Leonardo Da Vinci a dab hand with the paintbrush, he was also handy with the spatula and the mortar and pestle. His first big culinary opportunity came in 1473 when he was put in charge of the kitchens at the Three Snails tavern in Florence following the mysterious death by poisoning of the previous cooks. His commis chef days ended though in 1482 when he landed the job of his dreams; he was appointed Master of the Revels and Feasting at the Sforza Court in Milan, and Ludovico Sforza would prove to be a most benign patron.

Ludovico’s first mistake was to allow Leonardo to revamp the palace kitchens.  He really should have known better, since Leonardo’s culinary eccentricities were already legendary around that corner of (what is now) Italy.  Suffice it to say that at the end of six months Ludovico had a much bigger yet strangely dysfunctional kitchen being now full of treacherous gimmicks and terrified cooks in fear of their lives.  If these men were trying to avoid almost certain death or horrific injury on a late medieval battlefield they had come to the wrong kitchen. Indeed, some may have welcomed the crowded melee of combat, the clash of swords, or the whirring of speeding arrows to Leonardo’s gastronomic death trap. Formerly benign cooking utensils became industrial scale implements of death and destruction. It was like Heath Robinson had jumped into a time machine. The cow-grinding machine needed an army of men to operate it.  Two oxen harnessed to an enormous revolving brush took up much more room than one man with a broom, while the wind-powered bread-slicing machine ended up being twice as large as the original bakery.   The final touch was an ingenious sprinkler that would douse everything in the event of a fire.

As is always the case with the self-employed artistic types, you either have too much work or nothing at all. In the middle of this project, the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception asked Leonardo to paint a centrepiece for the altar of the Church of San Frenesco Grande, but what with project managing the new kitchen for Ludovico, Leonardo was too hassled to take out his brushes.  As luck would have it though he just so happened to have another painting stashed away called the Virgin of the Rocks.  It’s the wrong size, but they can see he’s under pressure so they take it.  Meanwhile, opening night for the new kitchens is almost upon him and he must concentrate on the menu.  For the first course each guest would be served a large beet carved in the likeness of Ludovico; this was going to need an army of creative sorts. Every available artist and sculptor in Milan joined the already overcrowded kitchen.  Not much cooking or sculpting went on as both parties fought for workspace. Then the sprinkler system came on and the cow-grinder was jammed with half a cow still protruding.  Nobody ate that night, as Leonardo’s labour-saving devices seemed to be remote-controlled from hell. Inexplicably, he didn’t get the sack; this is probably because he also did a very good line in weapons of warfare, being adept at and clever with pulleys, weights and gears and Ludovico, like every other duke of his time, was only as good as his last military success.

Cooking aside, Leonardo also had strong opinions on the correct positioning of diseased guests at the table.  Those guests with the most appalling diseases short of the plague could not sit at the top table, ‘unless they be the sons of Popes or nephews of high Cardinals.’  Instead it was suggested that they could be discreetly dispersed among unsuspecting lesser nobles and foreign visitors.  Regarding table manners at royal banquets Leonardo had some basic rules – like not sitting upon the lap of your neighbour, not placing your head on your plate to eat and not wiping your knife on your neighbours clothing.  With permission though, he thought it was acceptable to help yourself to food from your neighbour’s plate, or leave half-chewed pieces of your own food on their plate. But setting your neighbour alight or letting your pets loose on the table was strictly forbidden.

Leonardo was also up to the wily tricks of the clergy.  Noting that Cardinal Salviati always ate his plate of beans apart from everyone else at the Lenten table, Leonardo discovered that they were cunningly disguised chicken testicles.  He also observed that Pope Leo X was a bit underhand when it came to his sausage.  A subtle blend of cow brains, ground chicken, pheasant, partridge, and black truffle, Leonardo noticed when dining at Pope Leo’s table that, ‘His Holiness’s sausage has been twice as vast as mine and that of any other’s.’  With that combination of ingredients, I would have made sure it was Lent, before accepting an invitation to dinner from Pope Leo, and I certainly wouldn’t have sat anywhere near Cardinal Salviati.

This was first broadcast on Sunday Miscellany, RTE Radio 1 July 17th 2002

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