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The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice (Anglais) Broché – 28 octobre 2008


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I Antichi

What I remember best from that dinner on Campo San Maurizio are the canoce, a tangle of milky pink sea creatures spilling across a great silver platter. And Luca, looming in the low kitchen doorway, in an outfit of leather pants, royal blue velvet blouse, and Day-Glo orange boots, a huge grin splitting his satyr’s face as he paused dramatically to hold up the dish so that we might admire his succulent prize. Canoce are about the size of a fat man’s index finger and belong to the same family of tasty exoskeletal sea life as shrimp and saltwater crayfish; however, they are distinctly more buglike in appearance, lacking the bright color and exuberant claws of other crustaceans. In flavor, though, they are far more delicate, infused with sweetness and brininess in exquisite balance. When they arrive at the table, I give up on my knife and fork so that I can methodically rip each luscious beast apart to extract its sweet belly and slurp on my fingers to secure each salty drip. I try to remember the instructions from a pamphlet on etiquette published in 1483, when everyone ate with their hands: “Eat with the three fingers, do not take morsels of excessive size and do not stuff your mouth with both hands.” Success is elusive.

Like most Italian cooking today, the canoce recipe is simple: the crustaceans are bathed in a little olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. It is Venetian food at its most elemental, a dish that comes from the bounty of the lagoon that fed local fishermen long before Venice became Europe’s pepper dealer and continued to do so long after the city was washed up in the spice trade. The pepper is still there, but there’s not even a trace of the other seasonings—the ginger, the cinnamon, the nutmeg, the cloves—that once filled the city’s great galleys and suffused her suppers with Oriental scents. It’s as if the ancient town can no longer recall yesterday’s spiced debauch and instead, as the old often do, has retreated to the memories of her youth, before the parvenu aristocrats began to dress her up with baubles from abroad. Luca explains that this method of cooking canoce is more popolare, of the people, the way the old ladies make them, the only ones who can still make Venetian food. The recollection of feasts gone by fades the rake’s smile to melancholy.

I had come to Venice to try to pry off her mask, to uncover some of the antique flavors, to sniff out her ancient peppery smells. I figured Luca could make the introductions. After all, he has spent his forty-something years consorting with the old dowager on the lagoon. Along the way, he has reproduced Renaissance feasts complete with trained bears, swordfights, and period trumpet serenades, where the gilded pheasants and cinnamon-scented ravioli were served from ornate platters and golden bowls. Although he is more a jack-of-all- trades than a Renaissance man, he has often dressed the part of the latter. Imagine Paul Bunyan in silk tights topped by an exquisite doublet of pink and gold. In other towns, Luca Colferai might have been a punk rocker in his youth, but here, his rebellion took the form of organizing erotic poetry festivals and resurrecting Casanova. So you can understand that when his grandiloquent dinner invitation arrived, I could hardly refuse.

One of Luca’s many roles is to play a guiding spirit to I Antichi, a confraternity of like-minded families known as a compagnia de calza (literally, “society of the stocking”). “Our compagnia is made up of a small lunatic fringe who just want to have fun during Carnevale” is how Luca describes his companions. In fact, the society’s mandate, to organize celebrations during Carnival, is fully approved and authorized by the Venetian municipal government. Given that this is Venice, the idea goes back to the sixteenth century, when groups of elite young men formed these associations to throw parties during Carnival. This was a time when the city’s commercial prowess, and the spice trade in particular, was under siege. To the sons of privilege, drinking and whoring till dawn seemed much more sensible than risking their lives in the increasingly precarious pepper business.

The original I Antichi was founded by a group of Venetian nobles in 1541 with the motto Divertire divertendosi, which might be roughly translated as “Throw parties so you can party.” The group was reinvented by a Venetian lawyer and antiquarian named Paolo Zancopè in the late 1970s and subsequently passed into Luca’s hands upon the founder’s death. Zancopè’s residence, where our canoce feast was held, has become a kind of clubhouse for I Antichi, presided over by the effervescent presence of his Brazilian widow, Jurubeba.

Emptying yet another bottle of fizzy Prosecco, Luca recounts a golden past of grand regattas and mask-filled balls. The membership of I Antichi ranges from street sweepers to multimillionaires, from butchers to poets. They come together for the many official festivals that mark the Venetian calendar: for the Festa della Salute, which commemorates the end of the plague of 1631, when a third of Venice perished; for the Festa di Redentore, another party in memory of an epidemic; for the Festa della Sensa, when Venice recalls a time when the doge, the elected Venetian leader, would symbolically marry the sea; and, of course, for Carnevale, the pre-Lenten festival that overruns Venice and can seem as execrable as a plague when the narrow alleys swarm with the tourist hordes. The menu for every holiday follows age-old traditions: cured, spiced mutton, for the Salute; artichokes for the Sensa; bigoli for the Redentore.

Jurubeba interrupts Luca’s reminiscences to consult on the state of our bigoli. (The canoce were only one course among many.) He breaks off midsentence to attend to the important matter at hand. Bigoli are a kind of thick whole wheat spaghetti that are typically served entangled in a sauce of caramelized onions and anchovies, the saltiness of the fish and sweetness of the onion providing the perfect, if unsubtle, condiment for the rough pasta. They are very traditional, especially to the Jews of the Ghetto Nuovo, the original “ghetto.” (The Jewish variant uses garlic instead of onions.) But today, it seems, all that’s left of the Ghetto’s ancient community are Hassidic Jews from Brooklyn—and they know about as much about bigoli as they do about prosciutto. These days, there is little traditional food to be found in Venice. When I invite Luca to a restaurant, he grimaces, insisting that there are no more “honest” restaurants left, that they’re all for the tourists now.

All the same, Venetian food hasn’t entirely disappeared (yet), and if you dig hard enough, you can still unearth hints and clues of what food might have tasted like two hundred, five hundred, even a thousand years ago. Many restaurants still serve sarde in saor, a dish of fried sardines mounded with onions and raisins, seasoned with vinegar, sugar, and occasionally even cinnamon. Its combination of sweet and sour is typical of the Middle Ages; there’s even a fourteenth-century recipe for much the same dish. You can also taste the past in the confections called peverini, sold in every Venetian pasticceria. They are barely sweet with molasses but distinctly seasoned with pepper, the pungency a faint echo of the city’s past renown as spice supplier to the Western world.

Still, most of the food that Venetians call their own, the cooking of their grandmothers, is of much more recent vintage. In Marco Polo’s day, our canoce would have been showered with a medieval blend of spices on top of today’s salt and pepper; even as late as the seventeen hundreds, Casanova sprinkled his pasta with sugar and cinnamon. Indeed, the very idea of Venetian food as a regional Italian cuisine is largely an invention of the nineteenth century, much like the Italian state itself. It was only when Venice lost her overseas empire that her cuisine became dependent on local “Italian” ingredients. The occasional spiced dishes of the Renaissance held on, but only as obscure local specialties. Pelegrino Artusi, who wrote the nineteenth-century bible of Italian bourgeois cooking, is bemused and a little horrified when he writes of the way spices were used in the past.

While there’s no way to know just how the food of the past tasted (the meat, the wine, even the onions, were different from what we have today), the spiced mutton served at the festival of the Madonna della Salute probably comes the closest in flavor to the food eaten by Shakespeare’s merchants of Venice. Preparations for the November holiday begin in the spring, when the meat is prepared by curing a castrated ram with salt, pepper, and cloves before it is smoked and then air-dried for several months. It is still exported from Dalmatia (better known today as the countries of Albania and Croatia), as it would have been when the ancient republic used the preserved meat to feed her sailors. The flavor is strong and complex—and anachronistic. It is entirely alien to Luca’s four-hour feast of simply seasoned bigoli, canoce, roast triglie (red mullets), shrimp, and grilled radicchio and a world apart from the simple dessert of mascarpone and biscotti that arrived to finish our memorable evening.

I can’t help but see a parallel between today’s cooking, with its absence of spice, and the general amnesia you find in Venice about the importance of the spice trade. It didn’t used to be like that. When Venetians found out that the Portuguese had arrived in India, at the very source of the pepper that made the city’s economy hum, many panicked. The loss of the spice trade “would be like the loss of milk and nourishment to an infant,” wrote the spice dealer Girolamo Priuli in his journal in July 1501. And in many ways, it was, though it wouldn’t be until a hundred years later that the Dutch finally choked off the teat of prosperity.

Bemoaning the city’s fate has been a favorite pastime ever since. But there may be more to it now. The city’s population has shrunk by a third in the last twenty years. Foreigners do arrive to settle in the city, just as they have always done, but they are a trickle compared to the exodus. Jurubeba, in her mellifluous Brazilian accent, murmurs how, yes, Venice is shrinking but how the community is più profondo, “deeper.” I don’t ask if becoming deeper in a city that is sinking is necessarily the best thing. Luca shakes his head as he finishes his Prosecco: “The shrinking of the population is a shock to the system. All the food stores are closing so that they can sell masks, but not only masks. Lately, for some reason, everyone is opening lingerie stores. A great explosion of intimate apparel!” Luca bursts into laughter—he doesn’t find this entirely displeasing.


From the Hardcover edition.

Revue de presse

Advance praise for The Taste of Conquest

“As a chef I have always been deeply intrigued by the mystique of spices. Michael Krondl’s book awakens and transports the reader into this mysterious world, showing us how our lives and history have been transformed by the sensuous odors of cardamom, nutmeg, and turmeric.”
–Gray Kunz, chef and owner of Cafe Gray and Grayz, co-author of The Elements of Taste,

“Michael Krondl’s new book on the spice trade peeks behind the usual histories of Venice, Lisbon, and Amsterdam–and tells a tale that is at once witty, informative, scholarly, and as consistently spicy as its subject. In short, it’s delicious!”
–Gary Allen, food history editor at Leite’s Culinaria and author of The Herbalist in the Kitchen

“With a dash of flair, and a pinch of humor, Michael Krondl mixes up a batch of well-researched facts to tell the story of the intriguing world of spices and their presence on the worldwide table. This is a book that every amateur cook, serious chef, foodie, or food historian should read.”
–Mary Ann Esposito, host/creator of the PBS cooking series Ciao Italia

“The Taste of Conquest is the savory story of the rise and fall of three spice-trading cities. It is filled with rich aromas and piquant tastes from the past that still resonate today. Michael Krondl serves up this aromatic tale with zest and verve. This book isn’t just for historians and spice lovers–it’s for all who love good writing and great stories.”
–Andrew F. Smith, editor of The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink

“In common with the finest food writers–Elizabeth David, Mark Kurlansky, Anthony Bourdain–Michael Krondl shows a respect for the details of the past that never slays his appetite for the realities of food now. His love of history, travel, and food is as compelling as it is infectious.”
–Ian Kelly, author of Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antonin Careme, the First Celebrity Chef


From the Hardcover edition.



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Amazon.com: 31 commentaires
44 internautes sur 47 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
a well-seasoned & highly recommended adventure 11 novembre 2007
Par M. J. Williams - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
This book was a total pleasure to read ... highly recommended ... made me hungry for scents, flavors and travel! It's in the vein of Kurlansky's "Cod" and "Salt" books, and was even a bit better than "Salt". It's filled with many, many interesting stories, great people, and delicious meals. I'd also recommend the author's companion website for the book (spicehistory.net) ... more pictures, info, and some terrific-sounding recipes.
14 internautes sur 15 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Remarkable insights on the history of the spice trade from someone who actually understands food 10 mai 2010
Par Whitt Patrick Pond - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Broché
Michael Krondl's The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice is a unique contribution to the history of the spice trade. The three great cities referred to in the title were first Venice, then Lisbon, and later Amsterdam, each having been the dominant center for the spice trade at particular times, starting from the time of the Crusades, continuing through the Renaissance and finally into the modern age. Krondl traces the history of how each city rose to dominate the spice trade and then later lost that position of dominance. In each section, he also takes us on a modern day walking tour of each city, describing what they were like in their glory days and then what they are like today, in the case of Venice and Lisbon with little remaining to remind their inhabitants or visitors of the power they commanded in centuries past. But even so, Krondl manages to seek out a number of fascinating individuals who manage to keep at least some piece of this rich history alive, whether it's by recreating the period dishes as they were once served or building recreations of the ships that were used to haul the empire-building cargoes from halfway around the world.

Unlike most authors who write on history, Krondl comes to the subject with the insights of a professional chef and a repected authority on food. The value of his insights becomes particularly clear when he addresses questions like what Europeans wanted spices for, the differentiations between the different levels of society, why spices commanded the prices they did, and why the demand for spices rose and fell over the centuries. In particular, he quickly dispenses with two of the more common legends about medieval Europe's usage of spices: (1) that they used spices to cover the taste of rotting meat, and (2) that they spiced their food at levels beyond modern comprehension.

"A great deal of nonsense has been written by highly knowledgeable people about Europeans' desire for spices. Economic historians of the spice trade... will typically begin their weighty tomes by mentioning, almost in passing, the self-evident fact that Europeans needed spices as a preservative or to cover up the taste of rancid food. This is supposed to explain the demand that sent the Europeans off to conquer the world. Of course, the experts then quickly move on to devote the rest of their study to an intricate analysis of the supply side of the equation. But did wealthy Europeans sprinkle their swan and peacock pies with cinnamon and pepper because their meat was rank? The idea is an affront to common sense, to say nothing of the fact that it completely contradicts what's written in the old cookbooks."

Krondl proceeds to draw on period sources show how spices were never used as preservatives, and also makes the common sense point that anyone rich enough to afford expensive imported spices was certainly rich enough to afford fresh meat. He also shows how the assumption that medieval Europeans consumed gargantuan levels of spices was based on interpretations of medieval recipes made by people who simply did not understand how much food was being prepared and for how many people.

"It may simply be that most historians just don't know how to cook for a crowd. A quick glance, for example, at a recipe for ambrosino, a kind of chicken stew with dried fruit, would lead you to believe that a dozen guests will be consuming a dish seaoned with almost half a pound of spices (mostly ginger and cinnamon but also some bay leaves and a very small quantity of nutmeg, saffron, and cloves), in addition to a little more saffron and nutmeg. The problem with this analysis is that there is no way twelve people could eat this much food.... the medieval tables of the wealthy were enormous smorgasbords where only a small portion of the food was likely to be eaten by the guests."

The book is rich in all kinds of details, with Krondl pointing out how the spice trade was actually the first step towards truly global trade and how, in the case of Amsterdam, it resulted in the creation of the first modern corporation, the Dutch East India company. One of the more interesting points Krondl makes is the effect of religion on the spice trade as changes in religious attitudes affected the demand for spices:

"Spices came into this religious framework rather indirectly.... In general, the church did not particularly approve of spiced food, especially when cinnamon and ginger were added purely for reasons of taste.... When taken for 'medical' purposes, however, the use of spices was more excusable. Moreover, theological antipathy to the Asian imports waxed and waned. In the early Middle Ages, cinnamon and other aromatics were actually brewed up into an anointing oil used in church sacraments, but by Wycliffe's day, spices were more likely to show up on a bishop's pot roast than on his altar. The early medieval emphasis on mortification of the body was losing much of its appeal in those later years. Certainly, most of the Renaissance popes had no issues with pursuits of the flesh -- culinary or otherwise. But then this is what led to the Protestant reacion, after all. To Martin Luther and his fellow travellers, the Roman church was a cesspool of corruption and moral turpitude; Christianity could be purified only by returning to its simpler origins. The abolition of pleasure, whether in the form of exotically spiced dishes or public baths where the genders mixed, was placed high on the new puritan agenda. Unfortunately, the Catholic reaction to this was to become even more puritan than the puritans, with sex and cooking falling as sacrifical lambs to the Counter-Reformation. Not that the religious reformers managed to ban fun entirely. People still licked their chops with pleasure, but now they worried more about going to hell for it."
--"Even more indirectly, the popularity of spices fell victim to the religious conflits that wracked Europe during the years of the Reformation and its Catholic response. The split in Christendom affected life far beyond the limits of Sunday morning.... Whereas once medieval Europe had adhered to a common Catholic religion, a common Latin language, and common well-spiced cuisine (at least, for the elite), the balkanization of the Christian world along national lines now meant that nations could no longer gather around the same table as easily as before. Even though it would take some years, the Europe-wide fashion for spices -- as much as Latin -- would be a casualty of Martin Luther's squabble with the bishop of Rome."

Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the history of the spice trade or in the history of food and popular cusine over the centuries.
6 internautes sur 6 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
A peek inside the book while learning history that you thought was boring 24 octobre 2011
Par LD - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Broché
After reading the book, I felt I was reading another James Burke "Connections" chapter. Venice began its sea trade with salt evaporation ponds while northern Europe was using salt mines. Venice dominated trade with the Middle East from 1330-1571.

P.46 "The trade network that resulted involved anything that could be loaded onto a vessel. So Bohemian silver might be exchanged for Slavic slaves in the Crimea, who were in turn traded for pepper in Alexandrea which was then bartered for Florentine wool in Venice, from whence it was shipped to Trebizond and sold for ginger, which could be used to buy Apulian grain in the south of Italy and sent to Venice, where it then fetched a good price in Bohemian silver. Consequently Venetian merchants, no matter what was in their ship's hold benefited from the bases established to further the pepper trade. As in Byzantium, the European definition of what was called a spice was rather loose in those days, encompassing perfumes, medicines, and even dyes along with the likes of cinnamon and ginger."

Lisbon wanted a sea route to spice suppliers because overland made it too expensive. Mariners worked their way down the African coast until they rounded it and got into the Indian Ocean. Trading posts were established in India and beyond. At the same time war broke out against the Ottomans and Venice spice imports dropped to a third. The Portuguese brought in 5 times that. The profit for the king was twice that of gold coming from Africa. The Portuguese shipped large volumes of pepper but also nutmeg from the Indonesian islands. The heyday was 1500-1600. This was the time when the aristocracy would put spices out at banquets to give the air a pleasant smell. You showed that you were part of the upper class by liberally using spices because there weren't many other items available.

Amsterdam comes into the picture because of many changes in Europe. The Dutch sided with the Protestants which got rid of fish eating Fridays and Lent. The Portuguese royal family died out and was replaced by the Spanish who didn't care about the fleet as they were heavily invested in the Americas for gold, silver, and spices there. Spain put an embargo on trade with the northern Protestant Europe. And the Dutch were at war with the Spanish. So the Dutch formed the Dutch East India Company and around 1600 armed their merchant fleet and went out to get rid of any Portuguese ships they came across in their journeys to the same ports. In time the Dutch dominated the trade.

P.193 "In Holland, you find nutmeg sprinkled on asparagus, red cabbage scented with cloves, sausage rolls flavored with mace, and even eel topped with cinnamon." Meats were seasoned with exotic spices not just salt and pepper. "Even the cheese for which Holland is justly famous can be flavored with astonishing quantities of spice."

The Dutch became rich selling to England, Scandinavia, and Germany. Spices help flavor and preserve dried foods (some used on ocean voyages for the crew), as medicines, and in regular cooking. In the Far East the Dutch had the exclusive trade rights with Japan. Japanese silver and gold were traded to India and China for silk, cotton, porcelain, and textiles which were traded for spices and then all the remaining items sailed to Europe.

Comments by the author about recipes from these eras compared to today really help you picture life in those times. And you know more about the spices in the food you buy at the grocery today. Another fascinating book in the same genre is "Salt: A World History" by Mark Kurlansky.
15 internautes sur 18 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
A spicy history of the age of discovery 1 janvier 2008
Par Sara C. - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
If you haven't thought about Vasco da Gama, or the age of discovery since grade school, you will be surprised at all the spicy parts that the textbooks left out. Here is a history of the three main powers at the time in succession -- Venice, Portugal, and Amsterdam -- including all the bloodiness and debauchery. Along the way, Krondl invites us into the homes of people of the time, describing what and how they ate in careful and tantalizing detail. He also shows us how various taste trends starting in medieval times affected the course of history, laying the groundwork for the global economy, multinational conglomerates and even slavery. An excellent read for foodies, history buffs, and anyone who wants to know more about what seasons our food today and why.
13 internautes sur 17 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
A most compelling account of the early spice trade 26 novembre 2007
Par Debra L. Mraz - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
This book reads as easily as a fairy tale but it's full of fascinating facts and information. Expertly researched and so well written you'll be able to taste the spices. Fitting analogies to our day are full of wit and help to paint the picture.
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