Food & Drink
Of fish, veg and nuts: a taste of Lenten supper from the 1600s
Ever wondered what people – from commoners all the way up to nobles, Knights and even Inquisitors – ate in the past? Thanks to Heritage Malta, you can!

Sarah Micallef

Earlier this month, I was delighted to have been given the opportunity to attend An Inquisitor’s Cena di Magro – Chigi’s 1637 Lenten supper: an exclusive historic Lenten supper and food-and-wine pairing session at the Inquisitor’s Palace, organised by Heritage Malta and the Institute of Tourism Studies (ITS).

Being a self-confessed foodie and a bit of a history nerd, this was right up my alley, and having heard, too late, of a number of these evenings in the past, I was excited at the prospect of attending one, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed! - Aaron Briffa

The 500-year old Inquisitor’s Palace served as a fantastic backdrop for the evening, and walking into the historic hall, featuring two decked out banquet tables lining each end, was a treat in itself.

The evening kicked off with a brief introduction by Noel Buttigieg, a food historian and lecturer at the Institute for Tourism, Travel and Culture, who carried out the research behind the dinner. He explained that according to Vatican Archives, Inquisitor Fabio Chigi (who later went on to become Pope Alexander VII) is recorded as having had vegetable soups, fish, dried fruits, olives, oranges and wine during his giorni di magro for Lent in 1637 (days in which no meat, eggs or dairy products could be consumed).

These ingredients served as the basis for the historically interpreted supper, which Heritage Malta and ITS presented according to an exact contemporary Lenten recipe book found at the National Library. And to think, we were experiencing it in the very place the Inquisitor himself had, almost 400 years later!

The meal began with the first service – a choice between a thick lentil soup and an onion and leek soup. In what has become an unspoken agreement between my partner and I, we each chose one option, in order to be able to taste both. The lentil soup was my choice, and it was hearty and flavoursome – a real wintry treat. The onion and leek was also delightfully tasty, though I must admit I was happiest with my choice!

Each course featured a wine pairing, which was articulately presented by ITS lecturer Aaron Rizzo, and based on a list of wines consumed by Grand Master Francisco Ximenes. A white Bordeaux went down incredibly well with the soups, particularly with the dense bread which was served alongside.

According to Dr Buttigieg, these giorni di magro were not just restricted to the Lent period, but was typical for every Monday, Wednesday, Saturday, Advent and the vigil of the major Catholic festivities. At the time of the Inquisition, meat and cheese could only be consumed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Sundays and Catholic festivities, and in their role as guardians of faith, Inquisitors were not only asked to make sure that people stick to these patterns, but they were expected to lead by example – not such a bad deal, as we joked with our table mates!

While we expected the second service to be fish-based, the dishes presented were not quite what we are accustomed to today – a detail I enjoyed, particularly due to the reasoning behind it. These comprised of poached salt cold infused with cloves, cinnamon and coriander leaves, complemented with prunes and dry cherries, as well as a dish of pan seared sardine fillets enhanced with lime, grape and saffron vinaigrette. Dating back to a time before fridges and freezers, food needed to be preserved using traditional, now often forgotten methods, such as salting – a detail which the team here did not overlook!

Both fish dishes were excellent and enjoyed by all present, with many going in for seconds. The sides were simple and vegetable-based yet delicious (what suffering!) and the paired Burgundy wine went down a treat. Last came dessert – a welcome selection of oranges, dried fruit and nuts paired with a lovely Ruby Port, followed by coffee.

So went the Lenten meal, and in a fine testament to the skill, passion and attention to detail of the team involved, an enjoyable and enlightening experience. To say that the absence of the luxuries of meat, eggs or dairy products was hardly felt, or indeed missed, is a given, but to have experienced such a unique look into the past of Malta and its people is really quite priceless!

An Inquisitor’s Cena di Magro – Chigi’s 1637 Lenten supper was an exclusive experience for a limited number of participants held on Thursday 15th March at the Inquisitor’s Palace. For details on future events, call 21663731 visit Heritage Malta, or check our calendar of events during your stay.

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Sarah Micallef
Written by
Sarah Micallef
A keen traveller with an interest in most things, Sarah loves her island home as much as she loves getting away from it, and enjoys discovering and re-discovering the gems, hidden corners and unique stories of her native Malta and Gozo.

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