Bartolomeo Scappi – the master cook

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One of my many loved books in my library is a translated copy of The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570) subtitled The Art and Craft of a Master Cook.

Who was Bartolomeo Scappi and why does he hold my fascination. Here is a little insight.

Bartolomeo Scappi is thought to have been born in Veneto around 1500 but there are few dates, places or activities that give historians the opportunity to accurately detail Scappi’s life. Interestingly, it is really only in passing comment by Scappi himself that we get a glimpse into his early life or indeed how he ended up as the cook for cardinals and popes, for indeed his legacy to the world of food is comes from the extraordinary banquets and feasts that he would go on to prepare. Importantly, it was the papal conclave of 1549 that stands in as the highlight of his ‘career’ and he included copperplate engravings of that conclave at the end of each printed volume.

Scappi’s Opera, as it has become to be called, is broken into 6 separate books, each offering recipes, brief disquisitions on particular foods, menus, the layout of an ideal kitchen, detailed information on the necessary implements needed for that kitchen and those needed when one’s employer was travelling. Each book concludes with a detailed index.

We do know that by his mid-30s, Scappi had been engaged in the service of Cardinal Campeggio of Bologna, for in 1536, a menu appears in a document by Scappi  for a dinner offered by Cardinal Campeggio for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V consisting of some some five sideboard settings and seven kitchen settings, each of which consisted of not less than a dozen lean preparations. Again, we do not know how he acquired the skills necessary to prepare such a feast, but he must indeed have a master chef.

The conclave of 1549 occurred when Scappi was working for Cardinal Capri. The Holy Father Paul III had died and the conclave was called to elect a new pope. It is said that the two months that it took to elect Pope Julius II was due almost entirely to the extensive catering of Scappi – so good in fact that the assembled cardinals did not want to leave. The new pope Julius II took Scappi on as his personal chef, unsurprisingly perhaps, and he held this position throughout the reign of the next six papal heads.

Sacppi’s Opera was first published in Venice in 1570 with the blessing of the pope, and became without question the culinary standard for both courtly and bourgeois cuisine. It is from Scappi that we see detailed recipes for braised, roasted, poached, deep-fried, sour, robust, piquant and sweet dishes of extraordinary variety, many of which can be found in our recipe books of today.

Scappi wrote that his overall purpose of writing his books was to leave to his apprentice, Giovanni, a written memorandum of all the high professional standards that he has striven to implant in this young man during his ‘apprenticeship’. It is in these practices and endeavours of a lifetime Scappi said, lay the art and skill of a master cook.

I will write a little more of this man another day – but hopefully I have given you some insight to an extraordinary ‘enigma’ – Bartolomeo Scappi, the master cook.

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