The past suppers: Can paintings reveal how our ancestors ate?

A new TV series attempts to find out by analysing paintings of food and replicating the meals.
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The Independent Culture

Oysters collect in heaps on a wooden table, near to the hanging carcass of a wild goose. A selection of juicy meat cuts are strewn beneath the bird. There is no doubt that Flemish artist Frans Snijder's Kitchen Still Life (1605) gives a fascinating insight into the cooking habits of the past.

"I was genuinely shocked by how sophisticated people were back then," says restaurateur Oliver Peyton, who is fronting Eating Art, a new series about the relationship between food and art which starts on Sky Arts on Monday. "They had machines in front of the fires which could move back and forward and could cook a joint of meat as well as any modern oven. When you look back at the cookbooks of the time people were eating well, they had fresh food. In many ways what they did was much healthier: they just caught things and then ate them. Many of problems with hygiene have come from modern preparation and preservation methods."

In the programme, Peyton interviews some of the world's greatest chefs – including Michelin-starred chefs Yannick Alléno and Christopher Kostow – to explore everything from the significance of beef in the work of Hogarth to Paul Klee's use of seafood. Crucially, however, he highlights the importance of painting as a pre-photographic historical record. By looking at various examples – including three paintings mentioned below – Peyton claims we can learn about everything from age-old cooking techniques, to the social divisions prevalent in European societies contemporaneous to the pieces' production.

Kitchen Still Life is case in point. By looking at the contents of the painting, food historians can go some way to recreating the cooking methods of the past. "It shows a sumptuous display of food about to be displayed for a wealthy Flemish family," says Peyton. "It was a complete snapshot of how people were cooking and eating at the time. You get to see how oysters would have been opened, how stuff would have gone on a grill, the cuts of meat, the whole operation of the kitchen is encapsulated." The work is featured in Eating Art's first episode, in which Michelin-starred Birmingham-based chef Glynn Purnell attempts to cook the contents of Kitchen Still Life using 17th-century techniques. He is taught by food historian Ivan Day in Penrith inside the country's only operational 17th-century kitchen, where one can use a spit over a fire (as seen in Snijder's painting) instead of gas or electricity. "What has been lost is not cooking over the fire – we still do that a bit – but cooking in front of it," explains Day. "The British and the Flemish were known as the great roasters of Europe."

The pair cook a fillet of beef, using larding, a process which involves threading seasoned fat through the meat to ensure it doesn't dry out. In the present day, Purnell says he would sear the meat before putting it in an oven. Day uses a spit jack, a weighted mechanism that turns the spit for a set amount of time, ringing a bell upon completion. "I look at paintings for those details to see how something was done," says Day.

"The only artificial thing about the painting is that this chef would get very annoyed if his work surface was covered [with all the raw meat seen in it]," he continues in Eating Art. In the run-through, the food takes an hour to cook. "It looks and smells delicious, challenging everything I thought 17th-century cooking would be like," says Peyton. It would have been served with 20 other kinds of meat, along with fish and vegetables. "We need to respect these cooks as much as the artists," adds Day. The food, they claim, tastes wonderful.

Another painting under the magnifying glass is A Peasant Family At Mealtime (1665) by Dutch artist Jan Steen. "The thing that strikes me in the first place is how matter of fact it is," says Peyton. "There is no frivolity. The father is cutting the bread he has worked so hard for. The child has put down his toy to say grace. It's all about the decency of the working family. It feels like a photographic representation of a real time."

A hundred years on, a more ostentatious form of banqueting culture evolved across Europe. Jean François de Troy's 1737 painting The Hunt Lunch shows the typical aristocratic privileges of the day, which included carving up game after a day's hunting. It also displays forks' increasing use, though they were not found on middle-class dinner tables until well into the 19th century (individual forks were found in France – for special, elite folk – from the middle of the 16th century). "It looked more like a banquet than a hunt scene, which also gave rise to social eating," says Peyton. By 1766, the first French restaurants, such as Paris's Laperouse (where gentlemen would bring their mistresses), were established. Cooking historian Jacqui Wood, whose book Tasting the Past was published last month, says paintings are just one source of information about former cooking habits. "You can look at history from different angles," she says. "Different sources give different information about different walks of life. Another place to look could be the cookbook, which as far as Britain is concerned, emerged in the mid-17th century. They provided an amazing snapshot of what people ate, from the lady of the house to the servants."

Paintings are first port of call for Peyton, however. "I consider the world's great chefs to be artists," he says. "They can do things with two or three ingredients which no one else on God's Earth can achieve. Many chefs have the same issues as painters. I found happiness in meeting these people."

Eating Art begins on 7 December on Sky Arts