Lasagne was one of the most popular dishes during the Middle Ages and Renaissance with increasing levels of complexity, but its origin dates back to more ancient times. We find, indeed, in ancient Greek and Roman cuisine the laganon, used by Apicius in a similar way as the medieval lasagna to make a couple of patinae in which layers of pasta alternate with other ingredients. According to the short note written by Hesychius, ancient laganon (in the plural form, lagana) was a circular shaped and thin pasta sheet, let dry and then deep fried in oil. It is interesting to notice that in the modern-day Neapolitan vernacular still exists the medieval word laganaturo, that means rolling pin: the tool used to make the lagana.
During the Middle Ages, the fried variant continued to be prepared (for example, we find it in Anonimo Meridionale‘s manuscript along with the boiled one), but the most popular was the version cooked in a thick broth – of meat or fish according to the days of the year – flavored with spices. From the Liber de Coquina, we know that the shape of the lasagna was squared, three fingers wide.
The composition of the dish is similar for the most part of medieval cookbooks’ authors: usually, the lasagne, cooked into broth, are strained and placed in a plate, the layers of pasta alternated with cheese and sometimes spices. This is the method we chose following, mixing the recipes we found in the medieval and early-Renaissance cookbooks: Liber de Coquina, Anonimo Toscano, Anonimo Veneto, and Maestro Martino’s book.
The method became more complex during the late Renaissance. Bartolomeo Scappi’s recipes, in particular, demand many ingredients. In a recipe, the lasagne are prepared with flour, eggs, warm goat milk or water cooked in a rich broth, strained and let cooling. Then they are placed in a cake pan greased with butter, over a sheet of pasta reale (flour, rose water, sugar, butter), with layers of provatura cheese, sugar, black pepper, cinnamon, butter, and Parmigiano cheese alternated with layers of lasagne. The lasagne cook in the oven, in a similar way we do today, a step that we don’t find in the medieval cookbooks. The plate is served coated with sugar, cinnamon, and butter. You can use this method, writes Scappi, also for other kinds of pasta, and sometimes you can add mint, marjoram, and garlic. Another Scappi’s method suggests cutting the pasta in little squares, cook it in hare, crane or other meat broth, or milk, and serve lasagne still hot covered with cheese, sugar, and cinnamon.
The recipes we chose are simple but delicious and incredibly flavorful. For preparing medieval lasagne, we suggest using the spices you prefer, chosen among the most used during the Middle Ages: cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, pepper (white, black or long), grains of paradise, malabathrum, and others. We used aged pecorino cheese, but you can choose also Parmigiano, one of the most popular Italian cheeses since the Middle Ages, traditionally used to coat the pasta. The broth has to be thick and rich. You can prepare it with capon, beef or any other fatty meat, or, if you prefer, with fish, a perfectly philological option as commonly used during the lean days. Enjoy!
200 gr remilled durum semolina
500 gr beef
pecorino or Parmigiano cheese
spices (nutmeg, cloves, fresh ginger, cinnamon, black pepper, long pepper)
Prepare the beef broth adding half a cinnamon stick, half a nutmeg, slices of peeled ginger, black pepper, cloves, and two pinches of coarse sea salt. When it starts boiling, skim it as much as you can, as suggested by medieval and Renaissance cookbooks.
Meanwhile, prepare the pasta kneading the flour with two pinches of sea salt and warm water for at least ten minutes to reach a smooth and elastic consistency. Roll a thin pasta sheet with a rolling pin dusting it often with flour. Cut the dough in squares three fingers wide and let the lasagne rest for a while.
Grind in the mortar nutmeg, long pepper, and cloves.
Cook al dente the lasagne in the broth, then strain and plate them, alternating layers of pasta with grated cheese and spices.
The medieval recipes
We find recipes of lasagne in many cookbooks.
Liber de Coquina unexpectedly suggests using leavened pasta. The method is simple: roll a thin sheet, cooking the lasagna in boiling and salted water. When they are well cooked, serve with grated cheese. (Accipe pastam fermentatam et fac tortellum ita tenuem sicut poteris. Deinde, diuide eum per partes quadratas ad quantitatem trium digitorum. Postea, habeas aquam bullientem salsatam, et pone ibi ad coquendum predictas lasanas. Et quando erunt fortiter decocte, accipe caseum grattatum).
Anonimo Veneziano offers a recipe for lean days. He doesn’t give us information about how to prepare the pasta. He suggests cooking lasagne and add ground walnuts, then serve them dusted with spices and sugar (Se tu voy fare lansagne de quaressima, toy le lasagne e mitile a coxere, e toli noxe monde e ben pesta e maxenate, e miti entro le lasagne, e guardale dal fumo; e quando vano a tavola, menestra e polverizage de le specie, del zucharo).
Anonimo Toscano writes that we have to take good, white flour, mix it with warm water, and roll a thin sheet, then let it dry. Cook the lasagne in capon or other fatty meat broth. Plate alternating layers of lasagne and fatty cheese (Togli farina bona, bianca; distempera con acqua tepida, e fa’ che sia spessa: poi la stendi sottilmente e lassa sciugare: debbiansi cocere nel brodo del cappone o d’altra carne grassa: poi metti nel piattello col cascio grasso grattato, a suolo a suolo, come ti piace).
Anonimo Meridionale gives us two versions of lasagne. The first is similar to the method above mentioned. Prepare the lasagne with white flour and make them boil in salted capon broth. Serve in a plate with a lot of cheese, coated with capon fat (Chi voi e fare alesagne, tolla bona farina bianca et falla bollire in brodo de capuni. Se non fosse tanta, mictice de altra acqua, et mectace del sale a bollire con essa, et tragala in uno catino, et mectano del cascio assay, et burla sopra li tagliaturi del grasso del capone).
The second recipe is called lesagne in pavese. Cook the lasagne al dente, strain and wash them with cold water. Serve them dusted with spices and saffron. If you want it, you can deep fry them (Anchi se possono fare lesagne in pavese. Tolale et facale cocere che non sciano troppo cocte, et tragale del vaso, et lavai e ad dui acque frede, ad ciò ch’el siano desillo metereaçe spetie et çaffarano, et poy se volionu frigere).
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