Sharing a meal with friends around a campfire on a starry night out in the Australian Bush, with the smell of the eucalyptus assaulting your senses, or in England seated at a beautiful mahogany table groaning with linen, silver and crystal, with music by Mozart playing and with Hugh Bonneville and the rest of the cast of Downton Abbey as guests, can just as equally be a stylish, memorable experience if thoughtfully prepared.
Today in the West we tend to take for granted a wholesome, reliable and fresh food supply. So much so, that here in Australia it would be reasonable to say that we place eating well on a daily basis very high on our list of priorities. However that was not always so. For so much of man’s history food was a precarious part of life, so precarious in fact that any breakdown would cause famine and death.
Cooking I would have to say in my own family is a shared passion, as is coming together to enjoy a meal. With us all scattered and living in three east coast Australian cities these days that doesn’t happen too often, but it will soon and therefore is an event to look forward to, to be savoured and enjoyed.
Setting a table with simple food and adding good company is now seen as one of the greatest of pleasures in life in Australia. Eating well has become a national past time and for many, an obsession fed by scores of cooking shows.
In the west we are inheritors of a legacy from ancient Greece and Rome that despite the passing of over 2500 years is still potent. Through their ideas the desire to capture the essence of fine living was born.
Dignity, humor, society, youth and misfortune are a few subjects about which the Greek critic, philosopher, physicist and zoologist Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) expressed compelling ideas. In regard to humanity and its value system he observed that…’those who educate children well are more to be honored than parents, for these only gave life, those the art of living well’.
In the east it has always been considered a cultural norm to take care of strangers and foreigners living among you. The whole idea of Eastern hospitality crossed from east to west during the crusades.
It imposed duties on both the host and the guest: they were both obliged to be gracious when breaking bread together, because it was part of a virtuous and noble tradition from ancient times, which carried with it deep philosophical and intellectual connotations, as well as social and moral obligations.
It’s a tradition crusading knights and nobles admired, embraced and took back home to England and Europe where it affected ideas of how people should conduct themselves for hundreds of years. If a guest or a host violated there obligations it was considered a heinous attack on a society and its cultural integrity.
So, are the delights of life we enjoy now so different from what has gone before? Or, is it part of a great continuum? ‘Life is what happens to you‘, said Beatles lead singer John Lennon (1940-1980) ‘when you’re busy making other plans’.
Delights of Life Legacy
The ancient Greeks loved the delights of life. The pleasure considered the greatest, the expense the least. This does not mean they would get carried away. The dignity of life and value of an individual lay in the exercise of his consciousness.
Any diminishment of this exercise was seen to diminish the individual himself. A citizen’s intellectual and moral make up demanded a very high standard of personal attitude, stance and behaviour, or, his words, deeds and actions needed to be in complete harmony with each other.
Ancient Greek gastronomy developed out of a practice of sacrificing domestic animals to a variety of gods. Afterwards, as one would expect in a democracy, the carcasses were equally proportioned and sold at market. During the fifth century BCE herbs, spices and honey were added to heighten taste.
As documented in the literature of this period, cookery was considered a very important skill, because the Greeks understood it to be one of the basic arts that sustained human life.
Following the decline of the Roman republic with the death of Julius Caesar (100 – 44 BCE) and ascent of the Empirical system at Rome, a shared meal became a vehicle for display, ostentation, rank and hierarchy and for flattering and influencing people. This took place in a setting in which they could exercise the art of conversation.
The Romans of the first century embraced Greek ideas and art forms with great passion. The orator Cicero [106 BC -43 BC] believed ‘to style the presence of guests at a dinner table’ lay at the heart of Roman civilised life ‘because it implied a community of enjoyment, a convivium, or ‘living together’.
The Roman banquet was a sign of civility and the perfect occasion for a man to affirm his accomplishments and show off to his peers. The Emperors of Rome kept no court, although most lived in a ‘palace’ on the Palatine Hill, except the divine Augustus, who lived like his nobles in a private villa with only slaves and freedmen for company. When night came the Emperor dined with senators and others whose company he relished.
At table was one of the few places he could relax. Reclining on a couch he partook of braised or roasted bloodless meat served sugared, drinking a wine with a flavour something like a Marsala that was diluted with water. ‘Make it stronger’, the suffering erotic poet ordered his cup bearer, and the trickiest part of the evening, and the longest, was set aside for serious drinking.
The Romans were the first people to mature wine on anything approaching a modern scale. Latin writers speak of wines with years of age. Most however would have been vin ordinaire and consumed in the year after vintage.
Early in the dinner the men ate without drinking. Later they drank without eating. More than a feast, the banquet was a festival with each man was expected to hold his own. Guests expressed their views on general topics and noble subjects or give summaries of their lives and between dishes music, dancing and singing with professional musicians took place.
The advent of Christianity created a challenge for those at the top because of the now well-established tradition of fine living throughout the Roman world. The Apostle Paul struggled to attend gatherings where rich men and their friends were served different food and drink to those of a ‘lower status’. It was a dilemma he felt he could not resolve so in the end decided the wealthy had better eat privately.
The spread of monastic culture and establishment of religious houses certainly assisted wine evolution. At the same time it added to the legends about wine drinking – for instance; consider the fate of Abbot Piro of Caldey Island who, while stumbling about the monastery one night the worse for drink, fell down a well and died poor fellow.
He had clearly not followed the rule of St. Benedict Chapter 40 that said: ‘We do, indeed, read that wine is no drink for monks; but since nowadays monks cannot be persuaded of this, let us at least agree upon this, to drink temperately and not to satiety; for wine maketh even the wise to fall away’.
Private enterprise was a contributing factor in ensuring the popularity of wine during the Middle Ages. So perhaps it would be fairer for us today to assume a combination of monasticism and private enterprise together ensured that viticulture’s traditions were preserved throughout seemingly more than difficult times.
The standard of food at the court of Henry II (1154-1189) of France was renowned for its poor quality. In fact it was described as atrocious, the tables piled high with putrid food and the wine not much better.
Peter of Blois described the wine as being so full of dregs the noblemen were compelled to close their eyes and filter it through their teeth. He concluded the only way courtiers kept healthy was through vigorous exercise in the fresh air so that many more of them did not die of food poisoning.
There is a huge gap of reliable documentation from the fall of the Roman Empire, when the demise of eating in a reclining position also came about, until about the fourteenth century in Europe. What we do know is that communal living by Christian monks and nuns meant communal eating, often to strict rules of silence, with an aim of feeding the soul.
Hunting & Gatherings
Prolonged periods of peace meant that the aristocracy, landed gentry and merchants could establish their houses out in the countryside. A concept of ‘eating outdoors’ or, picnics became something new and exciting as described by Gaston de Foiz in Le Livre de chasse (1387). Fifteenth Florentine author and philosopher Marsilio Ficino 1433 – 1499 revealed his thoughts about a meal that it ‘embraces all the parts of man, for it restores the limbs, renews the humours, revives the mind, refreshes the senses and sustains and sharpens reason’. Throughout the fifteenth century in Italy dining at table was strongly symbolic of a good society one in which strong social relationships were forged, ideas exchanged and mutual respect established.
From the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries in Europe not only the spiritual but also the physical frontiers of the known world were expanded and luxuriant living became a hallmark of the age now known as the Renaissance. The power of sulphur to preserve wines became known and was also used as a fumigant for wine casks. Clothes were made of sumptuous textiles and wigs in high demand with banqueting a most important aspect of life. The battle to keep wine drinkable, to prevent it going sour or turning into vinegar was continual and cloudy, discoloured and evil smelling wines a common disappointment of life.
In England during the sixteenth century the head of a powerful household sat at the head of his table facing a fanciful portal crowned with trumpeters. They burst into sound at the exact moment the food, led by the marshal of the hall carrying a white staff arrived. At the grandest banquets, a household officer on horseback emerged from underneath a screen that protected guests from draughts from the doorway.
At Hatfield House, home of the famous Cecil family, the ornately carved screen was crowned with the Cecil crest and family motto Sero Sed Serio “late, but in earnest’.
Its painted decoration and panoply of decorative devices had been plundered from Turkish rugs and old Medieval manuscripts imposing a visual richness so confronting for the guests it’s hard to imagine that they would ever become widely acceptable.
If a house during the Tudor period in England included a Long Gallery hung with portraits of the family, famous patrons or friends it was the mark of a settled and civilized house; an Elizabethan magnate could contemplate their character or otherwise be inspired by their virtues.
Owning such a house became important to practicing the art of fine living.
Let’s make it all about Me
In France during the fifteenth century wealthy French connoisseur and collector Jean Duc du de Berry amassed a fabulous collection that also included Oriental textiles, Persian miniatures, cameos from antiquity, illuminated manuscripts and medals.
He loved to dine in style.
In 1556 at Oxford University ‘poor scholars preferred wines made basically from Muscat grapes, which was a sweet wine with an excellent bouquet.’
The court of James 1 (1566-1625) of England became notorious for its drunkenness an unattractive characteristic.
The English palate enjoyed Mediterranean wines shipped through what we now know as the Straits of Gibraltar
What is the use of Muscadell, Malmesie and brown Bastard
These kinds of wines are only for married folkes, because they strengthen the back.
At the Chateau at Versailles the art of fine living was enhanced by joyous and uplifting music where Louis IV dined with an audience watching him. His favourite composers Jean Baptiste Lully 1632 – 1687 and Jean Phillipe Rameau 1683-1764 produced works that celebrated life and love as well as plunging the depths of the soul.
For Louis it was the only music to dine by !
The Age of Reason was preoccupied with self examination and multiple mirrors reflected with merciless clarity the world which amused or intrigued. Reflecting light became an obsession via glass on the table, walls and hanging from the ceiling.
There were continual changes afoot and the realization one would need to acquire flexibility to move with the times and avoid revolution was dawning on many a noble mind as the English Grand Tourist got drunk and soaked up the local scene.
According to the Oxford Dictionary the term enlightenment means to be free of prejudice, ignorance or superstition. Grand Tourists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe were busy discovering the excavations at Rome, Pompeii and Herculaneum and the delights of life experienced at table.
They began striving for aesthetic perfection wanting to emulate a new ideal; classical perfection. As a result small temples in a landscape became focal points and places of pleasure. The emphasis was on beauty, taste, transcendence, and the concept of the sublime.
An English and European gentleman’s broad ranging education required him to understand and gain knowledge about such things as historical events, intellectual ideas, architecture, music, gardens, interiors, paintings, sculpture, silver and objet d’art.
Considered connoisseurship became an important concern with members of men’s clubs devoted to pursuing their passions and toasting exalted beauties and life. English wine drinking glasses of lead became objects of such beauty, and delight, that today they are highly sought after by collectors the world over.
Beautiful art might fall into the category of pretty, pleasant, pleasing images to the eye while on the other hand sublime images were those that were completely awe-inspiring.
Sweeping scenes from nature; mountain tops covered in snow, the dazzling sea, or light shining through forested trees produced a tantalizing experience of the ‘sublime’ which Caspar David Friedrich captured so well. His young man looking out on a great prospect of nature wondering what it all represents.
Is it the artifice of human civilization set against the divine creation of nature? Or, is he seeking to suggest the insignificance of himself within it? He is like a grain of sand in the completely full hour glass of time. Time that is always moving forward, so we should enjoy it now.
All About Me Again
By the turn of the nineteenth century interiors as described by Jane Austen in her novels, presented an image of a sublime world.
China, glassware and silverware displayed the family coat of arms proving to those who sat at table with you that your lineage was not only important, but also could be traced to ancient (the inference was more important) times.
Simple white starched linens with drawn thread work were surmounted by elegant vases made of glass, filled with fresh flowers picked from the garden loosely, but consciously arranged and placed on great tables. These were made from the new rage timber, mahogany with their elegantly fluted legs inspired by the columns from a Greek classical temple.
Guests were seated on chairs whose prototype was found in wall paintings at Pompeii. Women’s dresses emulated Greek statuary although some, endeavouring to appear like the goddesses on Greek temples by wetting their dresses, succumbed to pneumonia… because by now death was preferable to not being seen as part of a fashionable scene involved in the art of fine living
During the reign of Queen Victoria on the English throne changes in the colonial structure of America, Australia and India, as well as the monarchical and republican hierarchies of Europe had a dramatic effect on the consumption of and style of wines produced.
Dining rooms remained primarily a gentleman’s territory, however by 1860 the way that food was being served had changed to a whole new style of service, one that was introduced by the Russian Ambassador to Paris in 1810
This is when the table was first laid, as it is today with the cutlery for every course and glasses for every wine. This was an economy as fewer servants were needed to hand around the food and wine which was served from large sideboards or tables.
With the stirrings of women’s liberation from the 1890’s educated women entered, what had always been a male preserve, as all types of eating establishments were made accessible for women to dine and wine in and enjoy the Moselle gallop?
Good Works or is Greed Good
When Australia was first settled in 1770 the age of elegance was in full swing in Europe and sparkling champagne, for the first time in history was being drunk and appreciated.
Two monks, Dom Perignon and Dom Oudart had contributed to refining an earlier process by inventing a more efficient cork to keep the bubble of a young wine during its second fermentation in the bottle.
This was one of the great breakthroughs that brought wines forward into the modern age.
However it would take a full century before they could keep the explosion in suspense until the cork was removed to issue forth a bubbled wonder as a celebration of life.
‘Life without industry is guilt, and industry without art is brutality’said English author and art critic John Ruskin 1819 – 1900.
He resented social injustice and the squalor that was a direct result of the ‘greed is good’ mentality that accompanied the unbridled capitalism of the Industrial Revolution.
His influence on the next generation of artists and craftsmen who led the way toward establishing Le Style Moderne was to be profound.
World War 1 marked a great divide in the age of the moderns bringing artists face to face with an alternative; either a clean sweep or hope of a reformed society, or alternatively the retention of a privileged art in the service of an elite and moneyed class.
Following World War 1 as hemlines rose dining out in became a very glamorous affair, especially when rooms were decked out in marble, glittering glass by Rene Lalique and superb objet d’art.
Back to the future and beyond…
Between the wars in Europe the style Art Deco’s purpose was luxury and leisure. In America it was celebrated in New York by the building of the Chrysler Building 1928-30, a direct expression of that will to power, which lies behind free competitive enterprise.
The Art Deco style was a cultural melting pot that included a fascination for the Gothic, classical Greece, the exotic Near and Far east, for South America, tribal Africa and the Ballet Russes whose dancing troupe with their celebrity leader, Russian art critic, patron, impresario and founder Serge Diaghilev who were busy touring the world at the time.
After WWII a focus on art and design coming together again was rejuvenated. Wines once again, came into high focus with modern technology contributing a new level of excellence. There was also an expanding culture of men and women with appreciating palates to match…a heady spiral with no apparent vortex.
In 2011 at this moment its perhaps significant that Diahlev’s costumes from the Ballet Russes are on display in the national capital and that Art Deco has become a style well admired.
This is surely about the philosophy and its cultural connotations because unlike between the wars Australia is now a multicultural society and the style suits the melding together of our different nations, notions and traditions associated with our parents and grandparents.
Dining, breaking bread, having a meal together, enjoying a coffee with friends and their friends is an important way of communicating and learning about each other and what our hopes are for the future.
Today in the west, and especially here in Australia, what we must be most careful about is not to take for granted a wholesome, reliable and fresh food supply. Up until now in Australia we have been a lucky country. So we need to ensure that we value what we have and what we share.
At the end of the day, what we all want to do is continue to enjoy the delights of life.
We may live without poetry, music and art;
We may live without conscience, and live without heart;
We may live without friends; we may live without books;
But civilized people cannot live without cooks;
We may live without books – what is knowledge but grieving?
We may live without hope, – what is hope without deceiving?
We may live without love, – what is passion but pining?
But where is the man or woman that can live without dining?*
So far a favourite for me to cook when my family is coming is pink spring lamb served with a wonderful concoction of peas with fetta and toasted pine nuts, that we have shared enthusiastically and think is to die for.
My father always told me that I would never be out of work as a chef because people had to eat’ said Luke Mangan, whose At Home and in the Mood cook book contains this, and many other simply fabulous recipes.
It is without doubt one of the best cook books we have ever come across. And, in my lifetime I have owned a few. Mangan’s words are a good way to end our tale…
‘simple food to cook for company to enjoy – one of the great pleasures in life’.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2013
*…with sincere apologies to Edward Robert Bulwer, Earl of Lytton – Lucile, 1860