A CULINARY JOURNEY INTO THE TASTIEST FOOD: THE STARTERS
Starters, starters and STARTERS! The same idea of starters has something joyful and attractive. A riot of colours and flavours that invite us to participate in the banquet. The image and the conception of starters recalls a moment of happiness, with friends or family, a moment of pure conviviality and sharing. The role of starters has crucial importance: to introduce the guest to a culinary journey, which will continue with all the other subsequent courses. It has the extremely important task of announcing what the menu will be: if it will be informal or refined, rustic or elegant. The culinary traditions of the various countries have led to the development of the concept of appetizers in various ways. The combinations of ingredients are almost infinite: they can be hot or cold, meat or fish or only vegetables, sweet or salty, spicy or not, simple or elaborate. These cultural and culinary traditions and specificities are inevitably conditioned by the millennial culinary history of the appetizers themselves.
Ancient Rome and “Ante Pastum”
Our journey starts from antiquity, more specifically from Ancient Rome. The Italian word “antipasto” itself is derived from the Latin word “ante pastum“, translated “before the meal”, precisely to predict and anticipate the main courses, not only by stimulating the appetite but also and above all by revealing the style of lunch. The banquets began with an infinite number of cold and hot dishes, served with opulence and creativity so that their entry on the scene was greeted with the applause of approval. We have a great example of the majesty of starters with the Latin writer and historian Petronius, who in his work the Satyricon, describes the banquet of the house of the protagonist Trimalcione:
… in the middle of the appetizer tray, he raised a donkey of Corinthian bronze with two saddlebags full of white and black olives… Pretty bridges, welded to each other, supported dormice seasoned with honey and poppy. There were also hot sausages on silver grill and plums from Syria and pomegranate grains to imitate the embers of the fire.
Since the Roman Empire arrived in much of Europe and the East, Roman culinary culture was also influenced by exotic foods imported from all the provinces of the Empire. Often the function of these banquets and the abundance of ingredients was to underline the social position of the family and constituted a sort of “social recognition”. Other Latin authors, such as Virgil and Catone in De agri culture, talk to us about some recipes of recurring appetizers in Roman banquets such as stadium, a plate of dried fruit, eggs, capers and olives; there are also slices of sacred focaccia (libum) seasoned with moretum, a sort of cream cheese and garlic or with an olive cream; Another dish we know of is the patina: a lettuce omelette with pepper and cooked wine.
With the end of the Roman Empire, the tradition of appetizers is lost. In fact, with the barbarian invasions, the new custom is to consume the banquets starting directly from the meat and the hunt.
There was no trace of starters until the sixteenth century, in which the term “antipasto” was found in a writing in the treatise of a chef of the time, Messisburgo. He spoke of appetizers as a “first sideboard service”, and proposed some dishes based on vegetables, meatballs, salami, sausages, cold dishes, small pies, crustaceans. We have for example some Renaissance recipes, such as Herbolata de Maio, a sort of savoury pie, with eggs, butter, pasta, herbs of various kinds. Another recipe is the Sulmona red garlic cake, a preparation based on eggs, garlic and onions, fresh cheeses, saffron and lard; the Salviata, a typical Tuscany dish: an omelette with eggs, cheese and sage. As is easy to understand, the egg is the basis of many recipes of this era: beaten, hard-boiled or stuffed with herbal preparations, the egg is the main ingredient.
Appetizers have found their maximum expression since 1500, especially in France and Europe. Called “hors d’oeuvre”, the starters here have deep roots and a very important culinary tradition. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, French cuisine assimilated several products from the new world with the discovery of the Americas, but above all, it had a great turning point which led it to be one of the largest kitchens in the world. In the second half of the seventeenth century, thanks to the presence of Versailles in the most refined courtyard in Europe, French cuisine will receive a new and vigorous impulse becoming more and more varied and sophisticated. The French preparations are among the most varied and elaborated: we have typical land appetizers such as the famous Escargot à la Bourguignonne, croutons with pâtés of various kinds, from the best-known foie gras to other cheaper ones. Soufflé is also a very welcome Entrée, although very difficult to prepare. In the south of France, on the beautiful and sunny French Riviera, you can taste typical appetizers such as the Pissaladière, focaccia originally from the city of Monaco. Even the brisée pasta, based on savoury pies or quiches, has countless application destinations. The use of preparing appetizers has also taken hold in the court of other European rulers. For example, in Russia, at the court of the Zar, from the 1700s the term “zakuska” indicated an assortment of hot or cold appetizers, served before the main courses. The zakuski were composed of pickles, such as cabbage, cucumbers and mushrooms; salted fish, such as sturgeon, salmon and caviar; smoked or boiled meat. Over the years the zakuski have taken on increasingly important and complex importance. One of the basic elements of the appetizer was being accompanied by alcoholic drinks such as vodka.
Even over the rest of Europe, some forms of appetizers have found diffusion: for example, in Spain, since 1800 we have the famous Tapas, sometimes consumed even without following the main course. There are various legends about their origin: one of these tells that an innkeeper served the king of Spain Alfonso XIII a glass of wine covered with a slice of ham, to prevent the sand from the beach from ending up in the glass. The King appreciated to such an extent that he requested another “covered” glass or “tapar”. The consumption of tapas is a moment of pure conviviality and happiness.
Even today, this culinary tradition is carried on in various countries. In Italy, there has been the discovery of starters since the end of the Second World War. With the growth of social well-being, the kitchen has rediscovered this tradition on a national scale that was previously destined for a few wealthy people. The culinary tradition of appetizers has peculiarities not only at the national level but also at the regional level: each territory has expressed its fantasies in countless dishes to be tasted, based on the raw materials available in the territory. The globalization process and the advent of the Internet have not erased the peculiarities of the territory but have contributed to the spread of local traditions on a global scale, going to offer typical dishes of territory to an international audience. We can conclude by saying that the variety of products created is infinite and intercultural. Whether hot or cold, of meat, fish or vegetables, rustic or refined, starters are a world heritage of traditions that must be maintained and preserved.
W the starters and buon appetito!