A remarkable and delectable exhibition at the Fitzwilliam
Can someone please explain to me why the concept of “tasting menus” in fine restaurants ever caught on? These culinary journeys were inspired by the French notion of dégustation—primarily reserved for wine tasting—but they began popping up on menus at top restaurants around the world from the 1990s: each tiny course a delectable calling card, an edible CV, to showcase the talents of superstar chefs.
At Per Se, one of New York’s most sought after restaurants, you can brace yourself for a 13-course meal for an eye- (and no doubt mouth-) watering $355 per person, wines extra. Your taste buds can romp through courses ranging from—to mention just a few—a dish called “oysters and pearls” (oysters with caviar), duck foie gras on a “condensed milk tuile”, butter-poached Maine lobster and some veal ribeye; in case you were tempted, the “charcoal grilled Miyazaki wagyu beef with Fukushu kumquats, cipollino onions, gem lettuce and anchoide” incurs a $100 supplement. To finish, there is aged gruyère and black winter truffles, because you’re worth it, and an assortment—aka, lots and lots—of desserts. Don’t get me wrong, were I invited (reader please note, invited), to experience this extravaganza, I would accept with relish (excuse the pun).
The show-stopping tasting menus of today are reminiscent of 17th-century Dutch Golden Age binges on canvas: still lifes of over-laden tables filled with food intended to focus our minds on economic abundance (it was not called the Golden Age for nothing), temptation, and a soupçon of sex versus morality. Mounds of costly foodstuffs, as shown in Joris van Son’s Still Life with a Lobster were genuinely served up in reality. These images are part of more than 300 works on display in Feast and Fast, a remarkable and highly entertaining exhibition exploring historical customs surrounding Western eating at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.
The exhibition’s curators explain how the bills of fare of great Baroque feasts often read like inventories rather than menus. Take, for example, that for James II’s coronation banquet in Westminster Hall in 1685. We learn that the king and his new wife, Maria di Modena, sat down alone to a table laden with 170 different dishes. One consisted of “twenty four puffins, cold” and another of “four fawns, two larded”. Although van Son appeared satisfied with a single lobster on his still life table, and Per Se in New York offers just one morsel of Maine lobster on its tasting menu, their majesties had 12 on theirs.
The exhibition is a curated cornucopia overflowing with paintings, prints and objects from the 15th to 18th centuries, demonstrating how food was as much about power, status and morality as filling an empty hole. Bedazzling dining room bling abounds; its craftsmanship not only astounds but also makes one feel a tad queasy at the unbridled flaunting of opulence. Tableware wrought in gold and silver, known as plate, was a perfect way to show off in elite circles for the sheer hell of it.
One object stands out as particularly outlandish: a spectacular cup which was created in London in 1585 by an Antwerp goldsmith. It was made out of an exotic nautilus shell from south-east Asia, encased in an elaborate silver gilt setting. A figure of Neptune, bronco-busting a dolphin, forms the stem; and as if that were not enough, a giant silver lobster crawls inside the cup, ready to stick his frightful pincers up your nostrils.
Besides such nightmarish ostentation are delightful examples of table paraphernalia, designed to amuse or surprise. The porcelain soup tureen on page 58 was made in Chelsea in 1755. The manufacturers stressed the rabbit should be “as large as life”, the idea being that when placed on the table, diners would be deceived into thinking that a cuddly rabbit, daubed in lilac-brown glaze and munching a cabbage leaf, was real. Well, why not?
The prize for sheer inventiveness must surely go to the bizarre tureen and cover in the form of a trussed roast capon. In the late 1790s, due to war with France and several failed harvests, flour was in short supply and the authorities forbade its use in pastry. Staffordshire potters rose to the challenge by making stoneware dishes to mimic pie crusts. This tureen would have been made to hold a poultry or game pie. The attention to detail is extraordinary if not outright weird: the makers even included holes to show where the “bird” had been removed from the spit, as well as giving it a golden-brown roasted glaze.
Eating made our ancestors anxious, although perhaps not in the same self-absorbed, Instagrammable ways of privileged 21st-century influencers and celebrity chefs. Gluttony was a deadly sin, and as the curators point out, in this early-modern period, people had to fast because the Church told them to. The current 5:2 diet craze seems lame in comparison. Incidentally, servants were always forced to fast—no meat, no dairy—but if you were rich enough you could pay your way out of abstinence with a small fine.
In 1691 the writer and merchant, Thomas Tryon, advocated veganism as the way to have a long, happy and by implication, devout life: in his view God created the earth along with Adam and Eve, and animals were created to keep them company, so man, as created by God, was originally a vegan.
A 17th-century drawing by Jacob III de Gheyn shows a duck, plucked alive and hung up by its neck and one leg. Another from the 1550s shows the barbaric practice of hunting cranes, (a delicacy), which involved luring the poor birds to stick their beaks into paper hoods smeared with sweet-tasting glue; the hunters hide behind a tree waiting to trap them. Thus the word hoodwinked, according to the curators.
It is not too far-fetched to see these as a form of protest art which expressed unease about culinary cruelty to animals. My favourite is a tiny print from 1530 (a magnifying glass is provided), showing animals getting their own back. Entitled The World Turned Upside Down, it portrays some feisty hares who have captured a hunter and his dogs and are roasting him on a spit while boiling his dogs alive.
Whether deliberate or with an eye to cost, there is a nod to another of our contemporary concerns about food miles and the campaign to “shop local”. Most of the works on display are from Cambridge, either from the Fitzwilliam’s own extensive collection or from the rich pickings of neighbouring university colleges.
Elaborate displays by the food historian Ivan Day include historically accurate recreations of a sugar banquet, with edible playing cards made specially for an English Renaissance wedding and an enticing shopfront window of a Georgian sweet shop in London. These are works of art in themselves, but I prefer the real things—infinitely more eccentric and surprising. After such a visual tasting menu I came away longing for a succulent roast and suffering from a severe case of tureen envy.
“Feast & Fast: The Art of Food in Europe,1500-1800” is at the
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until 26 April