On a balmy, starlit night more than 40 people are seated at a table that runs the length of the inner courtyard of Castello di Potentino, a medieval castle in southern Tuscany. Through openings in the wall you can glimpse the slopes of Monte Amiata. The mountain was sacred to the Etruscans, whose civilisation flourished in this area from around 900BC until they were absorbed into the Roman Empire almost 900 years later. Tonight the diners are here to eat like Etruscans, enjoying a candlelit banquet of delicacies – the result of nine hours’ work from a team of five cooks, and months of research by a Canadian archaeologist, Farrell Monaco. We are here to taste the past, in the form of heaped dishes that were first created more than 2,000 years ago.
Rich red sauces, gnocchi, pasta and pizza are now enjoyed the world over. Yet the cuisine we label “Italian” today is most often that of southern Italy, where the majority of early Italian emigrants originated. And much of what we think of as traditional Italian food is, in fact, quite recent.
The most ubiquitous ingredient – the tomato – was a relatively late import to the country and it took some time to be adopted. There is some evidence that lasagne dates back to Roman times, but there is no record of long pasta before the Middle Ages. Some Italians claim that Marco Polo brought the idea for spaghetti, fettuccine and other noodle-like pastas from China in the 13th century. It is more likely that it was Arabs who first imported dried pasta, however, after they conquered and occupied Sicily in the ninth century. An account from that time describes the making of a food made from dried strips of dough, known as itriyya.
Modern Italian cooking is a colourful affair, with red, white, yellow and green (or some combination of the four) jostling for attention on the plate; course follows course. Monaco’s feast was served to the diners on the same plate and the dominant colour of the meal was beige, as it would have been in Etruscan times. At the castle, the offerings included chickpeas with cumin, fennel and defrutum, a light fruit syrup; seasoned fish with asparagus; rough-ground pork sausages smoked in hay and goat’s-cheese cakes flavoured with honey and lavender. Overall, the flavours are more redolent of contemporary Middle Eastern cooking than of today’s Italian fare.
John Hooperis Italy correspondent of The Economist and author of “The Italians”