Ariel Toaff on the Cuisine of the Italian Jews

Maria and Marta in the Kitchen, Vincenzo Campi (ca. 1536-1591), Galleria Estense, Modena


The Cuisine of the Jews of Italy
Ariel Toaff, Bar Ilan University

The culinary history of any people is inevitably tied into its cultural identity which, born of the religious, social and economic evolution of that people, tells the complex story of its past. This is especially true of the Jews.

Clearly the most significant historical factor governing the food choices of the Jews were the strict dietary laws rooted in biblical prohibitions, which rabbinical establishments consequently interpreted and expanded.

Among other things, these banned from the Jewish table pork and horse meat, and forbade the use of butter fat, cream or cheese anywhere meat was being cooked, prepared or served. Jews ate what they were allowed to eat and cooked with ingredients that were compatible with rabbinic regulations, commonly referred to as kosher (suitable food) and kashrut.

However, it would be a great mistake to conclude that Jewish culinary culture was solely based on biblical prohibitions and rabbinic ritual, or mere adaptations of the gastronomic practices of the surrounding Arab and Christian worlds. Furthermore, it’s hard to question the existence of a uniquely Jewish culinary identity, despite the extraordinarily diverse traditions of Ashkenazim, Sephardim and Judeo-Italians.

The distinct nature of Jewish food, far from being defined solely by the refusal of certain ingredients or their combination, is characterized by distinctive choices that are frequently surprising and noteworthy on all sorts of levels. Nor does Jewish culinary identity have only to do with those specified rules of food preparation related to holidays and religious celebrations – like unleavened bread, or the Saturday dishes, traditionally made the day before and put in a warm place throughout the night to avoid falling under the law prohibiting cooking on the Sabbath.

Throughout their history Jews have demonstrated considerable creativity in handling food dilemmas – often in challenging situations. They managed to find not merely acceptable but imaginative alternatives and substitutes, to those practices common to the new societies they lived in. It was precisely these choices and their singular and inimitable evolution that would come to define the essence of Jewish cuisine in all its varieties, both from a cultural and a gastronomic point of view.

In most of Europe, between the Middle Ages and the modern era and -especially where pig farming was a key part of local food culture – Jews typically substituted goose. The goose soon became the main source of domestic nutrition and occupied pride of place on the family table. In summer it was eaten fresh and during the winter months could be used in the form of salted and cured meat.

The goose, therefore, played an important role in the family economy of European Jewry, as the pig did for the Christians. Her fat, used for cooking instead of bacon and lard, provided cheap protein and calories. Her hams, (so-called by the Jews with conscious irony), sausages, luganighe, and salami replaced pork sausages on the Jewish dinner table. Geese became part of gastronomic mythology and a polemical alternative to the Christian table: The culture of the goose versus the culture of the pig.

In the late Middle Ages, the Jews of the Rhine valley specialized in breeding geese and producing sausages. The writer Hans Wilhelm Kirchhof (Kassel, 1525-1603) indicated that “the geese of the Jews are very fat and Jewish passion for fat is proverbial.” The 19th century German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt echoed this when he recommended making foie gras with the livers of geese raised by the Jews of Bohemia, which could to weigh up to three pounds.

In Italy, particularly in Triveneto, in the Duchy of Milan, and in Piedmont and Emilia during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Jews bred geese on a large scale and were well known for producing fine sausages and salted meat. The illustrious Renaissance chef Bartolomeo Scappi celebrated “the liver of domestic geese raised by the Jews, which is of extreme size”. In the sixteenth century, in Padua, Ferrara, Reggio, Emilia-Romagna and other towns of the plain of the Po, the observant treasurers of local municipalities taxed the producers of goose fat, ham and salami, setting their retail sale price.

In the same year the court of Casal Monferrato, deputy of the slaughterhouses of the city, wishing to highlight the distinction in meat consumption between Jews and Christians and their other respective dietary practices, recorded what everyone knew, namely that “during the winter months (Jews) regularly eat goose meat.”

In general, even in Veneto and Emilia the cibum Judaico par excellence was always the goose sagatata (i.e. shachtata, butchered according to the rite). Small wonder then that during the sixteenth century, a report of eating salted goose meat was enough for the Inquisition to identify any suspected Jew.

Conversely, goose meat was not appreciated by other European cuisines, where it was considered cheap, dank and unsophisticated.

A Jewish saying, coined after the more famous one concerning the pig, pronounced “Of the goose nothing is wasted.” Indeed the Jews had devised myriad delicious ways to utilize all parts of the goose: the bowels and intestines, necks, fat and calves.

The so-called Gribole (Griboli in Veneto), pieces of goose skin fried in their own fat and served with crispy onions was a popular dish on both sides of the Alps. Its name derived from the German Griben: scraps of goose fat. It was a typical dish of the Jews of Worms and the Rhineland, the valleys of the Rhine and Main (Mainz), and enjoyed particular fame in Germany even among Christians, for its delicacy.

The recipe for Griben had been brought to Italy at the time of the Black Death by refugees from the Rhineland, Bavaria, Hesse, Franconia, Styria and Carinthia who had settled in Triveneto and Lombardy. But Griboli were not the only typical dish of the Ashkenazi Jews in Germany and Italy. Just as important was Gefilte fish which in Friuli and the Veneto was called “sweet fish German style”. It was made from carp, sliced and cooked with a filling of chopped fish, breadcrumbs, sugar, pepper, onions, carrots and horseradish.

Other Northern dishes included Sulze, boiled calf foot in gelatin seasoned with garlic, pepper, onion and bay leaves, which the Ashkenazi Jews of the Veneto called Piede di Zeladia, and Kreplach or Pasteden – sheets of egg pasta, stuffed with liver and goose fat, boiled eggs, fried onions and pepper which made their first appearance in Italy in a Yiddish language recipe written in Padua in 1507.

Then there were Tzimmes (from the German Zummus) where sweet carrots were cut into thin slices, cooked in goose fat, honey, sugar and cinnamon. The wheels of carrot, which when cooked took on a burnished golden color, were adopted as a symbol of good luck in business and economic prosperity – the Yiddish word Merna: carrot being identical to the verb Merna: multiply.

One food much accustomed to abuse in Jewish cuisine in all its varieties is the egg. Boiled or fried, beaten, scrambled or stuffed, savory, spicy or sweet, the egg is ubiquitous. The reason for its popularity can clearly be attributed in large part to its status in rabbinic law: eggs were considered pareve or neutral category of foods and also bivalent, which warranted consumption at all times in all types of meals.

Since they could therefore legitimately accompany meat and dairy dishes, it is not by chance that hard-boiled eggs were used as accompaniment to goose dishes, sausages, and stuffed bowels, as well as cholent, a characteristic Ashkenazi dish of beans and barley which was left to stew on Friday nights in preparation for lunch on Saturday. Cholent (a Yiddish word corrupted from the French chaud and lente), and which showed striking similarities to the French cassoulet, is mentioned for the first time by the rabbis of Vienna at the beginning of the thirteenth century. It is perfectly understandable that the Inquisition regarded with suspicion the new Christians who, despite being baptized, continued to consume – with nostalgic appetite – the Saturday hamin.

Hard boiled eggs were also a staple on the Shabbat table of Italian Jews. Zidqiyah Anaw, a Roman Rabbi of the second half of the thirteenth century, mentioned that they were used in cooking goose or capon, which were often stuffed with ground meat, fat and boiled eggs.

But surely the most distinctive and famous Italian-Jewish sabbatical dish, particularly in the center of the plain of the Po, remained that of Frizinsal (perhaps “fry in salt”). This traditional dish dating back to the Renaissance was a cake, consisting of three layers of lasagna or noodles boiled in a broth of capon, stuffed with foie gras, small pieces of duck prosciutto and salami, and topped with the inevitable hard-boiled eggs cut in thin slices, raisins and pine nuts.

This cake was baked in goose fat on Saturday and sprinkled with pepper, sugar and cinnamon before serving. The Frizinsal was commonly known as Rota di Faraone (Pharaoh’s wheel) because it was also intended as a sort of culinary memorial celebrating the drowning of the king of Egypt and the sinking of his chariots in the waters of the Red Sea. The round shape of the cake and the sliced hard boiled eggs symbolized the wheels of the chariots, the lasagna noodles and rippling sauces and condiments brought to mind the waves of the sea.

If eggs were the main food of the Jewish table, it was Sephardic Jews who elected them a fundamental ingredient, and invested great care and love in the creation of an endless variety of egg-based dishes. Sephardic cuisine, though rooted in Judeo-Iberian culture, selected and adapted many aspects of the various regional cuisines across the lands of refuge, devising “variants” that rendered the original model virtually unrecognizable.

This definition of Sephardic cuisine, has more recently expanded – perhaps a little arbitrarily – to include all Jewish groups living in the Mediterranean and the Orient. Claudia Roden, the distinguished cookery writer whose exploration and celebration of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine spans four decades, has recently split it into four main groups, each distinguished by its own particular cooking style:

1) Judeo-Iberian cuisine, taken mostly in the Balkans and in Turkey,
2) North Africa and Maghreb,
3) Judeo-Arabic, including the traditions of Syria and Lebanon;
4) Judeo-Eastern cuisine, typical of Jews from Persia (Iran) and Iraq (here also merged with the Jewish communities of India and Yemen).

However we apply the definition of Sephardic cooking, the fact remains that in many cases it is difficult to detect the Iberian or Arabic substratum in many dishes adopted by the Sephardic Jewish cuisine, since they were so radically transformed. But sometimes the name of a particular food (of Spanish or Arabic origin) remained unchanged even though it was prepared in a Jewish version.

A Sephardic variant of the famous hard-boiled eggs were the so-called Huevos Haminados (from hamin), boiled in their shells in ceramic pots with oil and ash to give them their characteristic brown color. The eggs, which after extended cooking could be seasoned with spices, salt and pepper, or covered with sugar and cinnamon, derived from a medieval Iberian Jewish recipe which was later adopted by Jews from North Africa and Gibraltar. In more modern times the Huevos Haminados became part of the culinary traditions of Jewish groups beyond the Mediterranean, like those of Yemen.

The Iberian exiles, Jewish and Marranos, who settled in Rome at the beginning of the sixteenth century, introduced recipes to the local cuisine involving novel ways of cooking eggs, such as Prestinos: fried in honey, Hojuelas: cooked with flour, sugar and milk, as well as those that Scappi called Barbagliate, meaning scrambled eggs with a sweet and sour flavor given by verjuice, melangolo sauce and sugar.

To Livorno, home of the largest Sephardic Jewish community in Italy, the Iberian Jews brought their recipes for “Spun eggs” (Huevos Hilados): egg yolks made into Capellini, (angel hair) cooked in sugar syrup and sprinkled with orange flower water, and Scodelline (Escudillitas ): egg yolks with ground almonds, clotted in sugar syrup, orange flower water and cinnamon.

The “spun eggs” and “little bowls” were considered typical desserts of the Sephardic communities of Tunis, Amsterdam and London and, although no longer Jewish, still maintain their reputation in the patisseries of Portugal. In medieval Spain Jewish chefs were known and appreciated for their expertise in the confection of sweet eggs, an exclusive art that distinguished them from their Arab and Christian neighbors. The triumph of eggs, pareve par excellence of a cuisine always in search of dishes that could live together in harmony – while avoiding mixing meat and dairy – reached in Sephardic cooking its apotheosis.

For all their distinctive culinary characteristics and choices, there’s no denying the impact of voluntary or forced mobility on the Jewish cuisine. What is interesting is that their cooking style and produce selections often carried from one place to another made their cuisine -at least in part – a cuisine of mediation.

Foods such as string beans (judias in Spain), fennel, artichokes and eggplant, whose origin was Arab or Asiatic, were introduced by the Iberian exiles to the markets and tables of their new land of refuge. Frequently the surrounding population largely ignored these interlopers to their diet or, despite enjoying them from a gastronomic point of view, mistakenly regarded them as “Jewish food”.

The assimilation of these dishes was not always successful and rarely immediate. It takes time to engage the palate of a society. This was very much the case with the artichoke, pride of Roman Jews, fried as rosettes in olive oil with the leaves cut in a spiral and the stems upward, or of couscous (cuscussù in Italy), introduced to Livorno and Tuscany by Jewish immigrants from the Maghreb and considered in Rome, Florence and Siena, as a “Jewish dish”.

But the case of the eggplant is still the most interesting. Its use by the Jews of the Iberian peninsula, who had adopted the eggplant from the Arab cuisine, is recorded as far back as the late Middle Ages and, after the expulsion of 1492, it became a staple of Sephardic cuisines all over the Mediterranean, where it assumed the role of today’s potato. Drained of its bitter juice -which was considered toxic – the berenjena was cooked in countless ways, particularly fried and marinated in vinegar, with the optional addition of garlic and rosemary, or stuffed with ground meat, rice and spices.

A few slices were enough to season brown bread, simple cereals and polenta and made them delicious delicacies. In seventeenth century Italy gastronomists Antonio Frugoli and Vincenzo Tanara, disregarding entirely its Arab origin, defined the eggplant as ” the food of low class people or Jews” and “food for the Jews” Thus did they display not only their ignorance, but worse, their lack of originality – a century earlier in Emilia the eggplant had been known as “Jewish Food”

The journey of the eggplant continued to be, at least in Italy, a difficult one. Pellegrino Artusi, author of Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well (1891), observed that even at the end of the nineteenth century it was almost impossible to find them in the fruit and vegetable markets of Florence, because they were despised as “Jewish food”.

But the gradual promotion over an extended period of eggplant, artichoke and fennel, as well as of dishes such as couscous, highlighted the role of Jewish cuisine as cultural intermediary. It is solely through the Jewish cuisine in its Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Judeo-Italian variations, that many new foods were introduced to regions (especially in the Mediterranean area), where they had previously been unknown.

In speaking of Judeo-Italian cuisine, two distinct schools evolved, more or less divided by the Apennine mountains. The first might be termed Padano-Adriatic, encompassing as it did Lombardy, Piedmont and Triveneto all the way to the Po River and on down to Ancona on the Adriatic coast. This is the undisputed kingdom of the so-called “goose culture”. The second branch termed Romano-Tyrrhenian, embraced the Jewish communities of Rome and Naples, Tuscany and then onward to Genoa and the Ligurian coast. The only fat permitted in this cuisine, as in the Sephardic tradition, was olive oil.

The Padano-Adriatic gastronomic tradition is characterized by the consumption of goose and a fusion of elements of traditional Arabic cuisine with typical dishes of the Po Valley, where herbs and roots were consumed in large quantities. It was common in this region to eat wild radicchio, flavored with garlic or sour grapes, herb salads, omelettes, pies made with chard, spinach, herbs, leek, marinated cabbage, and turnips both boiled and sautéed: all foods typical of the peasant tradition, like the soups of vegetables and fava beans, or the flavoring of polenta with chestnuts and raisins, a dish commonly called Castagnaccio.

With regard to the preparation of fish, the Padano-Adriatic cuisine was inclined to sweet and sour flavors. Typical of this are the Scapece, fried or boiled fish – like sardines – marinated in vinegar, spices and herbs, and the “carp” or Carpiùn, that was first marinated in a mix of vinegar, grape-must and herbs and then fried.

The Romano-Tyrrhenian cuisine, indubitably the oldest in the Judeo-Italian world had strong southern influences with a preference for offal and the entrails of animals such as buffalo which were common in the Roman countryside. Animelle con I ceci, stewed or cooked in Malvasia, trippe with garlic sauce, Milze in a pan with sage and Agresto – a medieval pesto sauce usually of parsley and basil – or filled with boiled eggs and minced meat, rognone e polmoni in a stew, Coratelle di bufola with cloves, saffron, coriander and cinnamon, and cerella frite with Roman artichokes and pears.

Not surprisingly for those familiar with the Jewish cuisines, Roman Jews too used spices in abundance including pepper, cloves, coriander, cinnamon and saffron. They were very fond of vegetable soups, especially with lentils and chickpeas, and were known as heavy users of fennel.

Beginning the sixteenth century characteristic elements of Romano-Tyrrhenian cuisine traveled north to the communities of Livorno and Tuscany to the Ligurian coast .Thus, typical Judeo-Roman dishes, like Carciofi con l’indivia stir-fried with olive oil, salt and pepper, or Pasticcio de cervello e carciofi baked and covered with sugar and cinnamon, found their way to the tables of Jews in Pisa and Florence, Massa, Genoa and San Remo.

The contribution of Roman Jews – especially those of Neapolitan and Sicilian origin – to the popularization of dry pasta, semolina and durum wheat, and of filled pasta, is today incontrovertible. In the middle of the thirteenth century Rabbi Zidqiyah Anaw indicated that the Jews of Rome ate macaroni “boiled and covered with cheese” and ravioli stuffed with minced meat. The fact that the vermicelli, fettuccine and lasagna were also known by these names and commonly eaten by Yiddish speaking Jews in the valleys of the Rhine and the Main in the twelfth through fourteenth centuries is most likely linked to those Sicilian Jews who had settled in Rome and later moved north as students or teachers at the famous rabbinical academies of Worms, Speyer and Mainz.

Indeed, in the early fifteenth century the activity of Roman-Jewish “lasagna masters” is attested in Perugia and other towns in Central Italy. Eventually – by the sixteenth century – to paraphrase Doctor David de Pomi, there was not a Jewish home, in Venice or elsewhere, without “lasagna, tagliolini, vermicelli and macaroni”. Of course they were strictly kosher, as fashioned by the expert hands of Jewish pasta masters.