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How to Tart Up a 16th Century Italian Feast in 13 Easy Steps

(pies not included)

Here's a list of some super-straightforward thing you can try out to give your feast a more authentic feel and make it just that little bit more spiffy, without a soteltie in sight. Feel free to try these ideas out for feasts that aren't necessarily 16th century or Italian, however, note that my research has specifically focused on the area more modernly known as Italy, in the 16th century, so I can't vouch for other loci or times.

  1.  Pay attention to your seating plan. Take a look at paintings of the time, or read up on feast practices ("Feast" by Roy Strong is a good place to start).1 They didn't just serve to eight people seated around a standard 2m/6ft trestle table. If you have the room, do something interesting: seat your guests in a u-shape, or a u with a hole in the middle to let servers through/guests out. Seat them just down one side of the table: this one's great, because it lets servers have easy access to the table from the other side, gives you more space on the table to place food (and decorations/lighting), and, if you scatter a few chairs around the space on the other side, it allows guests to move around and talk to one another more easily. If you want to try for something a little more controversial - or if you're sure you've got the exact right combination of people to pull it off - try seating people in order of precedence, with the highest-ranking person at the far end of one table, descending down in order travelling left around the table. Just a wee bit different from having a high table with the most important people in the centre!
  2. Add a credenza. A "credenza" is the sideboard, and was traditionally used - for the purposes of a feast - to show off how rich someone was by displaying all their plate and fancy serving ware. For that extra measure, add a bottiglieria (bottle table) - this one's something I have yet to achieve, as most people bring their own drinks to feasts.2
  3. Don't plate for eight, if you can avoid it. It's a fairly standard modern dinner party serving size, and awfully convenient for the ubiquitous trestle seating plan. But actually, in 16th century Italy, you would have seen platings for groups of 4, 5, or 6 people.3 Pulling this one off is a little reliant on having the right serving gear, but, if you have the ability to serve to fewer people, this works really well - and the guests enjoy having to reach less far or pass heavy plates to one another down the table.
  4. Serving. If you still do it, please cease and desist from getting one person from each table to go fetch their food for a feast. If the assumption is that they're noble, no way are they doing that. In an ideal world, you will have a server (and a carver!) assigned to each plating group. In the real world of modern reenactment, if possible use a dedicated serving team and establish a pattern of serving - then stick to it, for the entire feast. Add a bit of pageantry to it: have all the servers enter and then leave at the same time. And always serve high table in its entirety first.
  5. Ewering is another great option for dressing up your feast. If you're dealing with a large feast - and chances are that you are - there's no way you could possible ewer for everyone without the entire feast going cold. Instead, make a show of it and ewer only to high table, or guests of honour. To make it more authentic, don't offer a bowl of water that everyone dunks their hands in. Have one person carrying a bowl, and a second carrying the ewer of water. Hold the bowl under your guest's hands as you pour water over them, then offer then a towel to dry them with. If you really want to ewer for everybody, consider setting up a station or stations near the entrance for the plebs to use.4
  6. Tablecloths fall into the same category as ewering: this is probably only really practical to do with the high table - but it does add a nice element of theatre to a feast. In period, they would have had one tablecloth on each table for every course that was served. At the end of a course, plates would be cleared and the tablecloth ceremonially removed, revealing a fresh, clean tablecloth underneath for the next course.5
  7. Feasts should be a true feast for all the senses, and as part of that, music is important. Again in an ideal world, you'll have small groups of musicians playing throughout each course, changing up the composition of the instruments for each. In a realistic world, you might have canned music piping discreetly from some hidden corner of the room. Or, if you have some live musicians, you might get them to play at the start of a course, to usher it in.6
  8. Pay attention to what was served, and when, in feasts of the time - we're very lucky to have access to a large number of actual menus of the time. You'll then need to distil it down for your feast: there is just no way modern reenactors could possibly consume all the dishes served in menus of the period - nor would they want to, given some of the items on offer. Instead, look for commonalities between menus and within specific courses, and try to represent elements of each course to give your feast a more authentic flavour. This is too big a topic to cover off here, but if you don't know where to begin, have a look around my website at some of my writing.7 And if putting together your own menu is all too challenging for you, I am including an appropriate, simple feast in the book I'm writing at the moment ("16th Century Italian Meals Made Easy").
  9. Serve something challenging. There's literally hundreds of recipes that I've never cooked and am unlikely to, because a modern audience just wouldn't eat it. But, if you look carefully, you can find a few dishes that will add to the authentic flavour of your feast, and challenge - but not revolt - your audience. Good examples that I like to use include pigs' trotter jelly,8 or sliced sauteed beef tongue served with spring onions and orange juice.9 Food that pushes the bar too far, on the other hand, may include whole heads of animals (variable by audience), or - my personal favourite - a pie of goats' ears, eyes and testicles.10
  10. Candy. At the end of your feast, there should be candy. Practically by the bucket load. Sugar was the new hit thing to show off just how ridiculously wealthy you were, and boy did they use it!11 Candies weren't served in small quantities by the extremely wealthy: they were served by the pound, and there were many of them. For the very best candies and greatest varieties, you should make your own, as bought candies are often bland by comparison - but this is not an easy option. It requires year-round attention to seasonality, and many hours of work per batch. To candy 50g of seeds takes me about four hours of work over the course of at least a week. What was candied? Seeds: think fennel, coriander, anise, cardamom, caraway, dill. If you can't candy your own, buy them from an Indian store - just make sure to get the white ones. Nuts-wise, almonds, pistachios and pine nuts were all candied - but in Italy, pine nuts were the most common. Almonds are the easiest (and cheapest) to candy if you're making your own - but you can also buy them as dragees. Just be warned, the bought ones are a lot harder than homemade ones. Other things that were candied which you can buy include ginger, lemon or orange peel, and quinces made into paste. If you're buying a quince paste, get the reddest one you can find, and also the clearest - a lot of commercial quince pastes include the peel to keep the cost down, but it results in a cloudy product, and the epitome of quince paste was its translucency and redness. If you want to try making some candy yourself, but don't have much time, pick something unusual: my personal preference is candied cucumber.12 This also conveniently falls into the category of "challenging but not too challenging foods".
  11. Flowers. Use appropriate fresh or silk flowers to decorate your feast hall. Also, and I'm not entirely clear on why or how, they were typically served at the end of a feast. I suspect that probably, small posies were given to guests as part of the "freshening up" end of things. Still life paintings of the time are a good place to start looking at arrangements and appropriate flower choices; there is also plenty of written material about plants of the time floating about the place that can help you out ("place" in this instance being "the internet" and "books"). If you're pushed for time or don't want to research it, just stick to roses, tulips and carnations - they're probably the most easily-available appropriate commercially grown flowers to get hold of in any case.13
  12. Fresh fennel bulbs should be served cubed at the end of the evening, alongside your piles of candy. This was served and eaten following a meal in order to freshen the breath - it really works, and your somewhat dubious guests will get a kick out of trying it.14
  13. Serve toothpicks to your guests alongside the fresh fennel. Ideally, these should be about pencil-size, and sharpened at both ends. I often pass them out ahead of time to people I know who like whittling, or give out bunches with accompanying pencil sharpeners to anyone sitting still long enough. But if that's too much like hard work, try a short kebab skewer instead. To really take it to another level, soak them in rose water before serving.15

So there you have it, folks - a plethora of ideas for taking your feast to the next level. Have fun!


A lot of these ideas I wouldn't have been able to try out at actual feasts without my superb team. Great thanks to Mistress Katherina Weyssin and Master William de Cameron, who have acted as the head servers for numerous feast and will hopefully at some point put out their own information on how to serve feasts with maximum points for spiffiness (hint, hint) - they even danced in a course for me once. And thanks also to Mistress Anna de Wilde, who has done fantastic work for me plating the food to best effect.


1 Roy Strong, Feast (Pimlico, London, 2003), particularly pp60-65

2 Shannon Wanty, 16th century Italian meals, and how these can be adapted for use in the SCA, March 2013, pp19-20

3 Check out some of Scappi's menus, in Scappi, Bartolomeo, Scully, Terence (trans.), The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570) (University of Toronto Press, London, 2008) Book IV pp391-420: some of the items are for individual serves, so you can work out the guest numbers per plating from these.

5 Strong, Feast pp172-174

6 Shannon Wanty, 16th century Italian meals, and how these can be adapted for use in the SCA, March 2013, pp20-21

9 Scappi, Book II Recipe 31, p150 in Scully's translation

10 Scappi, Book V Recipe 23, pp446-447 in Scully's translation



13 Shannon Wanty, 16th century Italian meals, and how these can be adapted for use in the SCA, March 2013, pp22-23

14 Ibid

15 Ibid