Tasting the Past

November 6, 2014--

For many, the taste-buds are the gateway to memory. One bite of a favorite dish can send me back in time, and I've always loved the nostalgia attached to well-remembered meals. This is what drove me to write GASTROPHYSICS, my novel about a time-traveling food critic. To celebrate finishing the final (read: sixth? seventh?) draft of this long-awaited accomplishment, my husband and I treated ourselves to the literal flavors of the past.

When one of my critique partners mentioned there was a Boston restaurant that served medieval and Renaissance dishes, I jumped out of my seat. I'd just finished researching centuries of food preparation for Gastro, and the thought of tasting some of these recipes executed at a high-end restaurant sounded too good to be true. I had to find out for myself, so my husband and I booked a table at Boston's new Seaport restaurant, M. C. Spiedo.

(I will not go into detail about what my husband thought of the restaurant's name, but let's just say he pictured a DJ in questionable swimwear.)

M. C. Spiedo is owned by Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier, who own one of my favorite restaurants on the planet, Ogunquit Maine's legendary Arrows. So, Mister Speedo-- ahem, M. C. Spiedo-- already has some points on the board in my book.

When we arrived, we noticed the restaurant's upscale modern decor with hints of baroque-- some tapestry-like prints here, velvet booths there-- and although it didn't give the real appearance of a historical restaurant, part of me was glad. I wasn't looking for King Richard's Faire, here, I was looking for kingly fare. 

And I wasn't disappointed.

The meal started off with a snack cart that came by, boasting small plates of historical origin. There was poached pear wrapped in prosciutto, a pate made of walnuts, spiced ham and orange salad, and a dish akin to deviled eggs. I'm always on the prowl for good pig, so I took the pear and prosciutto dish. The pear was firm and the prosciutto tore apart like tissue paper. It was heavenly.

For an appetizer, all I needed to see was one word and I ordered it. In the Medieval feast scene in Gastrophysics, my protagonist Alfredo is wowed by a meal served on a trencher. I'm one to sop anything up in some good bread, so when I saw this meat and cheese trencher on the menu, I nearly hugged the server with glee as I ordered. When it came out, I was slightly disappointed that it wasn't served with bread as a plate, but the cured and smoked meats were diverse, unique and heavenly. And then there were the cheeses.

Don't even get me started on the cheeses. 

Let's just say it took a lot of self restraint not to stab my husband for the last piece of Parmigiano. And yes, of course there was bread with it, but like Nicholas Cage, it was gone in sixty seconds.

At this point in the feeding frenzy, I couldn't help but gush when the waiter came over. I told him how excited I was to be eating at a historically-based restaurant and I sort of pitched him my book. Sorry, Jessica, I know that's your job. Anyway, he began telling me the story of how they put the menu together, and even had the chef come out to the table to help us navigate the menu for our main courses! Chef Michael Sutton came over and discussed the most historically-accurate dishes they served. We talked at length about some of the most famous old cookbooks-- the Medici family's, in particular, where the M. C. Spiedo team got their "torta" recipe.

Now, I'm going to stop for a minute and give you a minute to think about what's in the torta, because I wasn't prepared for it and I sort of made a scene and there may have been some Muppet-flailing. The torta is a pie baked with Bolognese sauce, meatballs and tortellini.

I'm sorry, WHAT?!

The sort of pies I was used to researching were pasties and meat pies with ale, not ones WITH MEATBALLS. The chef explained that this was an Italian Renaissance dish, an era I did not cover for this book. I began to feel a sequel coming on when he described this recipe. I had to have it, or, rather, my husband did and I leaned over the table and did a face-plant into it. 

For my dish, I had to order something that Alfredo would have eaten.

One of the things that so entranced me about the Medieval feast dishes was the fact that the sauces were so thick, they were the consistency of hummus. This was because it would stay on the bread trencher and not make a mess. How interesting! Plus, they were nut-based, a delicacy I can't sample at home because of my itchy children. I threw my epi-pen to the wind, however, and ordered the spit-roasted chicken in an almond and dried-fruit sauce. This was something akin to what Alfredo ate during the feast, so I had to try it. It was just how I had imagined! Yay for authenticity on both parts! The sauce was thick and rich from the almonds, had a zip of traditional spices such as cinnamon and clove, and the dried fruit really added a nice sweetness. The chicken fell off the bone, too. Next time you see the word "spit" in a dish's description, don't cringe.

Because the people at this restaurant are so cool, Chef Sutton sent over two particularly historic dishes that we didn't even order! A "green cauliflower" dish that was fire roasted and covered in pesto, and the Leonardo Da Vinci salad...a recipe that came straight from the genius himself's note-pad! I couldn't get over the hospitality and atmosphere. 

All good things must come to an end, however, and the hubs and I finished our meal with some historically-inspired cocktails. While I thought mead might be more appropriate for my dish, my 14th century barrel-aged Manhattan was impressive to say the least.

As we finished our meal, I realized that this truly was the perfect place to celebrate finishing the long-awaited final draft of my "Anthony Bourdain meets Doctor Who" manuscript. The food itself was high-end and lovingly prepared, but the recipes sent me back in time. This was a food version of what I wanted my readers to experience! Sumptuous but with sustenance. A feast for both the mouth and the mind.

Bon appetit, friends.