My mother put it out during the “feste terribili” meaning those important occasions when lot of guests came and the table was spectacularly made up. This small vessel contained salt as a courtesy to the guests and it was intended to pass around when needed. However, it was rarely used, if food is properly balanced with seasons and flavors, there is no need for additional salt. Adding salt to food served at the table is kind of offense for the chef or cook.
Before refrigeration was invented, salt and many different spices were so important for the conservation of meat and fish. In the haute cuisine of the Middle Ages spices were abundantly used for a couple of reasons, one was to prove a higher status symbol. Rich people could afford the high price of all the spices and thus consumed about 2 lb a day, but in more modest households the common spices used were the most affordable: vinegar, mustard, onion, garlic and of course salt. The second reason for using salt and spices was to cover up at times the dull taste of meat gone bad and unpleasant fish smell.
Salt consumption in the 13th century was in such a high demand for preservation of food that it was necessary to create beds of sea salt drawn from Oceans and Seas. It was course and dark with all the impurities of the sea, but better for curing meat than refined salt. The white variety of salt was used for cooking, thus it was more expensive.
In the British Museum I saw the Nef, a stunning elegant salt vessel used in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. This extravagant 15th century table piece was made in the shape of a ship with the most elaborate head masts, sails and even crew.
The particularity was that the Nef was placed in front of the most important person at table as a respect to their high status. After the VIP used it, the Nef was rolled from one end of the table to the other. The examples made with wheels were the most elegant, but most had legs or pedestals. The German style Nef had clock, music and figurines animated by a small engine.
A Nef was usually made of silver, silver-gilt or gold, often further embellished with enamel and jewels. I would have wanted to own and cherish such an exquisite piece, just like my mother’s piece!
The dinner table of Middle Ages and Renaissance always fascinated me. No silverware only knives, no napkins, no refined glassware, but they had spices in abundance and during the grand feasts they even had the grandest effects with gold and silver leaf gilding the beaks and feet of roasted birds, pheasants, swans and peacocks.
It amazes me to think how so many sophisticated effects were achieved in dark kitchens, full of smoke, unhygienic, no automation, heat, long hours of preparation and cooking handling heavy pots.
This proves what I have always thought: if you know how to orchestrate a meal, you can do it anywhere, “small kitchens are for geniuses”.
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Copyright © 2011 Valentina Cirasola, All Rights Reserved
Valentina Cirasola is an Italian Interior Designer with a passion for kitchens and cooking. She operates in the USA and Europe. She loves to remodel homes and loves to turn ugly spaces into castles, but especially loves to design kitchens and wine grottos. She is the author of two published Italian regional cuisine books, available here in this site on the Books page and in various locations:
Come Mia Nonna – A Return To Simplicity - http://outskirtspress.com/ComeMiaNonna
Sins Of A Queen - http://outskirtspress.com/SinsOfAQueen