“For fast days the sideboard should be furnished with..tuna belly..smoked herring..caviar.. and salmon with royal marinade, served cold with muscatel raisins over them, big cold pies or sea fish and other large fish done in jelly..” (The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi). The list goes on to suggest strawberries, fresh little almonds, artichokes, plums and mulberries. The 16th Century Italians obviously had a much better time fasting than we do.
I had a go at the 5:2 diet, and let’s face it, it never stops feeling like a twice-weekly penance. But at the height of my desperation, I was given a book that made me reconsider what fasting should be all about.
The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, published in 1570, is a collection of the finest Italian cookery, the most tempting sounding dishes with carefully considered ingredients and with as much attention paid to fasting as there is to feasting.
In those days, it wasn’t health that was the reason for fasting, but religion. Fasting during Lent and holy days is an important Catholic discipline and as cook to Pope Pius IV, Scappi’s job was to come up with exciting ways to eat within these limitations. Lean meals (containing no meat, but some dairy and eggs were allowed) would have been served before days that required spiritual concentration. So on Fridays and Saturdays for example, the Pope would eat lighter food in preparation for Sunday’s worship. Proper fasting took place during the 40 days of Lent and vigil days. Although even eating on these days didn’t sound too bad, with recipes for tagliatelle with salsa verde and grilled turbot. Olive oil was used instead of butter and dairy on fast days, and cow’s milk replaced by pressed almond milk. Sounds sensible to me. There is even a recipe for cooked spelt in almond milk – the sort of dish you’d read about in the Times 2 health pages.
Grilled turbot on a bed of tomato and potato – a dish that Scappi would approve of
Compared to some of the fabulous dishes Scappi recommends, our attitude to fasting today seems joyless and dour and all about denial. While we are busily counting calories on iPhone apps, Scappi is describing the benefits of sea fish over fresh water and how “dried squash rinds (I suppose eaten as a substitute to tagliatelle) are brought to Rome from Savona in small bound bundles the way bunches of lute strings are tied”. He suggests parboiling them and sautéing with parsley and herbs and beaten cloves of garlic. I’d eat that instead of a rice cake with cottage cheese any day. There is nothing of the monkish ascetic and everything of the gourmand, applying his talent to healthier food.
Spiced fish with peppers, see recipe below
He is meticulous about the ingredients used, from where the best places to catch fish are – those caught among rocks are much more tasty than those from dead waters – to buying almonds specifically from Milan and mullet roe from Slovenia, which is better quality than from the Mediterranean.
Many of Scappi’s recipes are a perfect answer to today’s health crazes of free-from, good proteins and more vegetables. But most importantly, food is celebrated, not denied, even on ‘lean’ or fast days – it’s just thought about more carefully. I think from now on, I will use Scappi’s recipes to cook on my ‘fast’ days, and perhaps I should buy a bigger sideboard to fit all the dishes on.
Halibut with peppers and spices
In this dish, the fish is steamed over the spiced vegetables, encouraging all of their flavours to seep in during cooking.
Ideally you can use fish which is cut into steaks on the bone, but any white fish can be substituted.
2 tbsp olive oil
A small bunch (140g) spring onions, finely sliced
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1tsp ground cumin
1tsp smoked paprika
500g potatoes, peeled and cut into slices
300g green pepper, deseeded and cut into slices
500g tomatoes, white core removed and cut into chunks
1 tbsp pitted olives
20g coriander leaves, roughly chopped
20g parsley leaves, roughly chopped
2 Halibut or hake steaks (each weighing about 200g)
Sea salt and pepper
Heat the oil in a large, heavy bottomed pan with a lid. Fry the spring onions with a good pinch of salt for a few minutes so they begin to soften. Add the garlic, cumin and paprika and continue to cook for another couple of minutes to lightly fry the spices. Add the chopped potatoes and salt and pepper and stir well. Let the potatoes cook for a while to begin to brown and then add the green peppers and the tomatoes. Stir well and put on the lid. Cook covered for 10-15 minutes so the peppers and potatoes soften and the tomatoes collapse to become a sauce. When the vegetable are cooked and tender, add the olives and herbs and stir well. Lay the fish on top and replace the lid to allow the fish to steam over the vegetables. This should take about 10 minutes.
Remove the lid, check the fish is tender and squeeze over the lemon to serve.