Alexander Lenard: The Byzantine Schnitzel


It was a bright day in March when Radetsky - general in chief of the Imperial Austrian Army in Italy - went to see emperor Ferdinand I. He did not feel the apprehension, commanders-in-chief sometimes feel when they are called to report to the Supreme Commander. Ferdinand - the poets sang - was good-hearted. He - the high brass of the Imperial Amy claimed - was really harmless. Radetsky crossed the courtyard of the Vienna Hofburg as calm as the backyard of the barracks.
 - “Well, what's the news with the Army? How about Italy? What's on in Venice?” - inquired Ferdinand, the first.
The Italian situation was not really bright. In spite of all endeavors of the Imperial Military Government the patriots were unenthusiastic about it. They were backed by France, enjoyed the sympathy of Great Britain and maintained dangerous connections with the patriots in Hungary. But it would have bored His Majesty to talk about all that stuff. Therefore, Radetsky said:
- “Last 'week I ate polenta with little birds in Venice - I wonder if they were larks or blackbirds - but they were delicious.”
- “And in Verona?”
- “Veronese sausage is reputedly the best and I confirm it.”
The emperor nodded and added slowly:
- “And in Milan?”
-"In Milan” - replied the general (and his voice revealed for the first time an excitement which in this historical moment was entirely understandable) – “there is something quite particular; the Milanese oint* the cutlets with egg-yolk and roll them in breadcrumbs - and then they fry them. Such a Milanese cutlet.....”
-“My dear Radetsky” - Ferdinand said his voice a bit reproachful; “why do you keep on telling me such exciting stories now, at a quarter to one, when I am hungry as anything?”
The General stood at attention.
-“My dear Radetsky”- repeated His Majesty, and he spoke confidentially, as only an Austrian emperor could talk to his indispensable commander- in-chief - “I am aware that I can, whatever may happen, rely upon you. Would you mind going down to the kitchen and show my chef how to prepare such a Milanese cutlet?”

Radetsky saluted - (writes aid-de-camp Count Attems - it is he we have to thank for this description in his letter to princess Clementine Eszterhazy) - and his grey soldier-eyes blinked. He went.

His Austrian Majesty's chef de cuisine, Joseph Grunzmuller, carried out the recipe and did it so perfectly, that the general, during the years to follow often wished, his battle-plans would have been carried out as correctly. He perfectioned the invention by the observation, that young chicken - it was, as we have mentioned, March - could be prepared in the same way and that a layer of flour helped to fix the breadcrumbs. Thus the expert - he was also an artist of the trumpet and took part in the performances of the Opera - became creator of the "Viennese fried chicken", which, as symbolic bird of good old times survived the two-headed eagle and the distribution of which still allows us to trace the frontiers of the Habsburg empire.

The cutlet was highly appreciated by the emperor and favorably criticized in court-circles and soon became introduced into the famous restaurants of Vienna, Paris and Budapest. The event had immediate historical consequences: the young-officers, who, in the years to follow, were sent to Italy ordered “Viennese cutlets” and affirmed, the Milanese had copied a Viennese recipe. The reaction, of course, was violent, and the heated discussions contributed considerable towards that atmosphere of revolution, which unavoidably came in 1848.

Even Austrian historians admit today, that the officers were wrong. But, as it is generally the case with questions leading to war: the Milanese were just as wrong claiming the cutlets were their invention.

The Renaissance cookery boos - such as the illustrated commentary to Apicius “On condiments and preparations” of the Ambrosiana - famous masterpiece of an unknown 15th century Lombard miniaturist - or the “Recipes” collected by the Flemish cook of Alphonse I d'Este, chef Messinburgher, exactly describe North-Italian cookery, included the Milanese - they already know mayonnaise, Madeira sauce and ravioli, but do not mention the method to fry meat in a breadcrumb layer. The States Archives in Mantua still hold a full list of the Sunday-menus served to the Gonzaga family, rulers of Mantova – hundreds years of culinary history do not contain a trace of the cutlets.

We are probably not mistaken, if we assume, that the introduction of the invention is closely connected with the events, which mark the end of high renaissance in Italy: with the invasions. The country of the painters and architects became the battleground of foreign armies. The King of France felt uneasy between Spain and Germany, especially because the ruler of both countries happened to be the same Charles V. It seemed vital to him to occupy Northern Italy in order to drive a wedge between the Kingdom of Spain and the Habsburg empire.... The biographer of Charles V., Karl Brandi, writes: “... that the fight for Milan was necessarily connected with the battles for Naples (1494). Ludovico il Moro had supported the campaign of Charles VIII against Naples, because his nephew, son-in-law of Alphons of Naples could hope for support from these very quarters. Ferdinand of Aragon turned out to be a more able competitor and drew advantages from the Naples bankruptcy and Louis XII of France, being a scion of the Visconti family had successfully claimed Milan. Milan, however, nominally belonged to the German empire and played a paramount role in Maximilian's French policy…” The scholar can no more doubt, that Francis II. Charles V. had to fight it out.

The situation so carefully analyzed above did not render their subjects over-enthusiastic about war. The fight was conducted by means of mercenaries and therefore lasted for decades. The most brilliant victory was of no avail, when the general lacked cash a fortnight later and the Swiss, considering cheese production as the better job, returned to their mountains. Peace reigned in winter, because it was cold and the most valiant condottieri cannot win, as long as their adversary sits behind the stove. Armistice was automatic when rained (gunpowder became wet). Not every shot was a hit and the lead could be extracted from wounds by a simple three-pronged forceps - whereupon the spot was disinfected by pouring boiling oil into it. It was a colorful war of the good old times and Milan was occupied several times by Charles V.'s Spaniards. They held out in the castle, when the Cognac League besieged the city and did not abandon Milan after the Sforza's return.

They introduced the cutlets.

Witness is the Chancellor of Charles V., Cardinal Gattinara, who in his, autobiography (often quoted by Professor Brandi) tells, that his beloved wife, Andrietta, used to prepare “costolette”. “The Spanish way” and adds, that her skill in cookery paralleled her beauty. In order to avoid misunderstandings, it should be remembered that Gattinara was created Cardinal in 1525, when he was 64 - that means many years after the death of his titian-red-hair wife,

It is not difficult to identify the place, where the cutlets are at home on the Spanish peninsula: there they are known as the “chutleta andaluza” or “Seville steaks”. Now we know that cookery in the South of Spain is very much the way, Moors used to do it. The population, which changed religion when the Christians moved in 1491, kept its cooking habits. Even the Holy Inquisition, had nothing to object as long as the "chutletas" were not eaten on Fridays.

The introduction of the cutlets - which, at this point of our investigation, we are inclined to call “Arabic” - appears thus closely connected with the events around 710: Roderick, the King of Goths had just returned from the campaign against the Basks and reigned in Pamplona. At his court there lived Florinda La Cava, the beautiful daughter of his vassal Oliban, Count of Centa; she was intended to study good manners and become a perfect countess. Now Gothic King of medieval times sometimes had funny ideas about what to teach young ladies. Beautiful Florinda described her father the way, how Rodrigo taught and what. Her letter was not preserved for history. We only know, that it arrived and that Oliban received, by the same mail, a royal rescript asking him falcons.

-“He will get a kind of falcons he never dreamed of” - the count mumbled - without knowing how many villains would repeat his words on Spanish stages throughout the following centuries. He conferred with Tarik, the Arab chieftain at hand and they crossed the straight, which ever since is called Gibr-al-Tarik or Gibraltar. On July 25th, 711, a bloody battle was fought between Medine Sidonia and Vejer de la Frontera. The Arabs killed even those few of Roderick's Army, who were able to spell, so that we lack punctual information. Even the name of the place was soon misspelled and the battle is often quoted as the one at “Xeres de la Fronterall” - a fact which for itself constitutes an excellent propaganda for the sherry, produced in this region. We do not know if Rodrigo drowned, whether he was lost in the forest, or whether Oliban killed him personally. Some say he retired to Portugal, others pretend he defended himself for a while in Merida - as far as we are concerned it is only important, that the experts in bread crumbing soon conquered the whole peninsula. A short while later they penetrated France and were defeated by Charles Martell near Tours. (Therefore the French got the cutlets 800 years later as “veau pane á la Milanaise”).

Now we cannot accept the hypothesis, that savage nomads - that's what the Arabs were around 711 - should have invented such a complicated dish, which calls, for butter, eggs and breadcrumbs. All products of high civilization. Grilled camel was the highest treat of their national cooking. If they brought the cutlets crossing triumphantly North Africa, they had learned them from a more highly developed nation.

Culture, at that time, was represented by the Byzantines - the brilliant heirs of Greek civilization. The Arabs had clashed with the Byzantines shortly before - in 693 -; it was not a war of national interest as the one in 1848, nor a dynastic one as those of Charles V.; Asia Minor, Syria and Arabia used Byzantine coins, as they were unable to coin other ones; the Byzantines, on the other hand, got their paper from Egypt. The watermark of these sheets was a cross. When Jesid's widow killed Merwan and Abdelmelik became chief, he abolished the cross and introduced a Koran verse. The Byzantines, thereupon, threatened to issue coins calling the prophet a jackass. War became unavoidable.

War meant, that the Arabs penetrated Byzantine territory. They soon saw what there was to learn. Their physicians copied Galenos and their cooks' recipes. That's what we thank the Arabs for.

Only one of the late Hellenistic cookery books lived through the ages: the Deipnosophistes, composed by Athenaios, the manuscript of which was brought to Venice by Aurispa in 1423.

This excellent book proves that gourmets in Athens and Rome knew how to dine (not, only Lucullus, who, after all, was a general and no cook). Athenaios names the pan (teganos), the cutlet (flogides), and talks about preparing breadcrumbs (leganon katatripsein). He is the crown witness for the Byzantine cutlet.

We are not allowed to proceed further. Archaeological excavations do not unearth cutlets or breadcrumbs. The models of Athenaios: the book of Mithacen on Sicilian cookery, the Opsartytikos of Herakleides and the wonderful Deipnology of Archestratos, who roamed around in order to satisfy “his stomach and what is under it” are lost. The last copies seem to have been burned in the Alexandrian library. We will never know, if the Thessalonians or the Persians were cute enough to make the great discovery, or if the Persians had the idea first.

But for the truth's sake - and truth above all - call the Viennese cutlets henceforward the - Byzantines.

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