Eating cheese in Lent? That was flogging and two years as a galley slave in 17th century Malta

Religion in 17th century Malta generated rigid food patterns: find out more at the historic cookalong sessions taking place at the Inquisitor’s Palace this week

That's the last time I'm breaking the fast...
That's the last time I'm breaking the fast...

Eating pleasures could easily turn into nasty business during the Inquisition, as confirmed by the Criminal Proceedings of the Holy Office.

Amongst other details in these historic documents, one may find interesting insights hidden in food habits that included the consumption of milk and other dairy products by the inhabitants of the Maltese islands.

Very little is known about the consumption per capita of milk in its raw state, yet references to the drinking of milk are available. Cheese, butter and other dairy products formed part of the commonfare of several people. Fresh, salted, dried or peppered dairy products were consumed with large quantities of bread. Cheese was produced in different shapes and sizes to please the palates of the local consumers, and was considered so important that it was closely regulated. The Inquisitor’s refined kitchen was also equipped with the necessary equipment to prepare cheese as a condiment.

The Inquisitor’s refined kitchen was also equipped with the necessary equipment to prepare cheese as a condiment
The Inquisitor’s refined kitchen was also equipped with the necessary equipment to prepare cheese as a condiment

The overwhelming influence of religion generated rigid food patterns. Days were divided between giorni di magro and giorni di grasso. Milk, cheese and butter, together with eggs, meat and any animal produce, could only be consumed during the giorni di grasso namely on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Sundays and Catholic festivities. Unless one had special medical concession or an emergency arose, the consumption of dairies was not allowed on Mondays, Wednesdays, Saturdays, on the eve of major Catholic festivities, as well as throughout Lent and Advent.

In 1637, things turned sour for Gioanne Cassar, Antonio Calayro, and Vincenzo Bezzula. Whilst carrying out a spiritual sentence for eating cheese, salami and ham fried in butter with grated cheese during Lent, they were once again found guilty of consuming dairy in a matter of days. Their repeated offence, which was peppered with lies, implied a special inquisitorial permission to consume such food during Lent. This cost them the bitter sanction of public flogging and two years of rowing on galleys.

Milk-related culture underwent significant change in the 20th century when the authorities invested a lot of energy in educating the Maltese regarding the consumption of pasteurised milk. However, such developments were met with significant resistance.

The 6th historic cookalong session, Milk in 17th and 18th century Malta, which is taking place at the Inquisitor’s Palace on Thursday, 25th April at 19.30hrs, will be divulging such narratives while presenting an exclusive sensory experience. Food historian, Dr Noel Buttigieg, will help the audience to explore this fascinating theme, while chef Josef Baldacchino will be conducting a historic cookalong session of latte alla portughesa, a crème caramel from 1748.

Tickets at €12 per person (€10 for Heritage Malta members), are available from all Heritage Malta museums and sites, and also online.

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