In Maestro Martino’s cookbook, titled Libro de Arte Coquinaria and written in the 15th century, we find four recipes for zanzarelli, a soup made with eggs and cheese which, in some of its variants, recalls a traditional Italian dish, called stracciatella. A recipe, instead, is more similar to others we made in the past: medieval gnocchi or the vivanda bona described by Anonimo Veneziano, which we prepared recently.
The method is very simple and luckily, the author provides the ratio between the ingredients. For ten plates, he writes, we need eight eggs, half a libra of cheese (about 160 grams), and a loaf of bread. We do not know how much a loaf of bread might weigh at Maestro Martino’s times, however, it is intended that the final consistency of the batter must be quite liquid. A variant, indeed, is called zazzarelli in bocconcelli (bocconcelli means morsels) and requires a harder dough, more similar to pasta than to a soup, cut into pieces the same size of a fava bean, tossed one by one in the boiling broth.
Maestro Martino describes yellow, green, and white zanzarelli. We chose the first, cooked in broth colored with saffron. The green variant requires herb juice instead of saffron, obtained with chard, parsley, and wheat leaves, pounded and sifted with the addition of a bit of water. White zanzarelli, clearly, contain just white ingredients: almond milk, white bread, egg whites, and broth. The zazzarelli in bocconcelli may be colored in the same way as the others.
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60 gr Parmigiano
60 gr stale bread
spices (black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, saffron)
Grate the cheese and bread, then add the eggs and beat all the ingredients together, obtaining a quite-liquid batter. Steep the saffron in warm water and grind the other spices in the mortar.
Warm the broth and add the saffron. As soon as it starts boiling, pour the batter. Cook for a couple of minutes, then remove the soup from the fire. Plate the zanzarelli, dusting with spices.
Note about the ingredients
The author does not specify which kinds of cheese or spices to use, except for saffron to color the broth. We chose some of the most common spices in the Middle Ages and his cookbook, but you can use others, such as nutmeg, grains of paradise, cardamom, ginger, or others.
As a cheese, we used Parmigiano, considered since the Middle Ages one of the best kinds of cheese in Italy. The imaginary Paese del Bengodi described by Giovanni Boccaccio in his Decameron, indeed, has a whole mountain made with Parmigiano, used to season pasta in the same way we do still today.
In the medieval sources, we find two kinds of cheese made in the same way, with similar characteristics: Parmigiano and Piacentino. This distinction still exists with the difference between Parmigiano and Grana, produced in different cities exactly like in the Middle Ages. Piacentino was produced in the territories of Piacenza, Milano, Novara, and Vercelli, writes Pantaleo of Confienza in the 14th century. This cheese was big and large, weighing about 100 pounds or more (in this period, about 35-45 kilograms). This savory cheese, writes Pantaleo in his Summa Lacticiniorum, was aged up to three or four years.
In the 16th century, we find an interesting and funny source written by Giulio Landi, Formaggiata di Sere Stentato, in which the author provides a bucolic description of the cheesemaking, with beautiful and pleasant shepherdesses who prepare the Parmigiano. They sing the praises of the milk and cows when they milk them, then curdle the milk with excellent and sweet rennet and boil it in a huge, bell-shaped pot as big as half a man, called caldara, an action that requires great skill and knowledge. Then, they pour the curdled milk into wheels, and after leaving it to rest, they salt the cheese every eight days for a couple of months, washing the cheese diligently, and oil the wheels of cheese to make them age.
Per fare zanzarelli. Per farne dece menestre: togli octo ova et meza libra de caso grattugiato, et un pane grattato, et mescola ogni cosa inseme. Dapoi togli una pignatta con brodo di carne giallo di zafrano et ponila al focho; et como comincia a bollire getta dentro quella materia, et dagli una volta col cocchiaro. Et como te pare che sia presa toglila dal focho, et fa’ le menestre, et mittivi de le spetie di sopra.
To make zanzarelli. To prepare ten plates: take eight eggs and half a pound of grated cheese, a grated loaf of bread, and mix all the ingredients together. Then, take a pot with meat broth, yellow-colored with saffron, and place it on the fire. When it starts boiling, pour inside that batter [materia means literally matter] and stir with the spoon. When it seems to be thickened, remove it from the fire and plate, dusting with spices on top.
Translations of Historical Sources
De Re Coquinaria by Apicius – books 1-2
Appendicula de Condituris Variis by Johannes Damascenus (8-9th century)
De Flore Dietarum – first part (11th century)
Opusculum de Saporibus by Mainus de Maineris (14th century)
Anonimo Veneziano – first part (14th century)
Registrum Coquine by Johannes von Bockenheim (15th century)
Cheese Pasta – Vivanda Bona
Gratonata – Chicken Stew
Chickpea Soup with Poached Eggs
Hippocras and Claretum – Mulled Wine
Pastero – Pork Pie
10th-century Byzantine Goat Roast
Medieval Pizza – The Origin of Pizza
Roast Chicken with Salsa Camellina
Afrutum or Spumeum – 6th-century Byzantine recipe
A Medieval Breakfast – Wine, Carbonata, and Millet Bread
Salviata – Eggs and Sage
Tria di Vermicelli
Frittelle Ubaldine – Pancakes with Flowers and Herbs
Drunken Pork – Early Medieval Pork Stew
Medieval Monk’s Stuffed-Egg Soup
Lentils and Mustard Greens
Chicken soup – Brodo Granato
Beans and Bacon – Black-Eyed Peas
Prawn Pie – Pastello de Gambari
Foxtail Millet Polenta and Spit-Roasted Goose
Quail Stew with Coconut
Red Mullet Soup
Spit Roast Beef with Arugula Seeds
Roast Lamb with Green Sauce
Sweet and Sour Sardines
Trouts with Green Sauce
Quails with Sumac
Chicken with Fennel Flowers