From the ancient Orient to the splendour of the Renaissance, from alchemists to chefs: the thousand-year-old history of a passion that is consumed at the dining table.
THE SACRED GOLD OF ANCIENT EGYPT
The first evidence of gold for food use dates back to Egypt in the second millennium BC. The purpose of its use was essentially votive: for the ancient Egyptians it was a way to approach their divinities. The skin of the gods depicted in their frescoes was gold-coloured; the tombs and sarcophagi of the Pharaohs were decorated with gold; and gold was eaten as a sacred food to ingratiate themselves to the gods.
TALES FROM THE EAST
Marco Polo in “Il Milione” writes that Far Eastern civilisations have been eating gold for votive purposes since ancient times. Like the Egyptians, they believed that feeding on precious metal attracted the favour of the gods.
A more secular approach was amply demonstrated in Japan. In ancient times, gold was used exactly as we use it today, as a decoration on foods and drinks. The sake bottles glowed with gold flakes and the more special dishes were sprinkled with the glow of that precious powder. It is likely that this custom originated within the rites of the tea ceremony, one of the oldest Japanese traditions.
In Europe, edible gold arrived in the Middle Ages. Loved by the lords of the time, it was used to decorate dishes for the most sumptuous banquets. The banquet of Gian Galeazzo Visconti in 1386 has remained in the history books. To celebrate the wedding of his daughter Violante, this Lord of Milan delighted his guests with sturgeons, carp, ducks, quails and partridges entirely covered by a very thin gold leaf. The same decoration (this time for bread and oysters) was presented in 1561 in Venice, for a feast in honour of the Prince of Bisignano. Also in Venice, there is documentation attesting to the habit of the nuns of the Convent of Santa Maria Celeste to knead the typical “bussolai” biscuits with edible gold. In Padua no expense was spared when trying to impress their guests. In the 16th century the City Council was forced to put a limit on the use of gold in the kitchen. At wedding receptions it was forbidden to serve more than two golden courses.
There have also been numerous more contemporary dishes that have used edible gold in the main European courts of the time. On Queen Elizabeth’s tables there have been oranges, pomegranates, dates, figs and grapes that were served covered with a magnificent gold powder.
Many have attributed healing powers to gold over the centuries. The Native Americans were convinced that by eating it they acquired the otherworldly power that allowed them to levitate bodies. Less portentous, but still astonishing, results were promised by the alchemists who, from the fifteenth century onwards, began to work on medicines based on gold because they considered it a panacea to cure many diseases.
In the 16th century in Europe the practice of eating a candy covered with gold leaf at the end of a meal began. It was considered a safe remedy against all types of heart disease. Also in the 16th century, in Milan, apothecaries began coating medicines with gold leaf to cover up their taste. It was this custom that gave rise to the saying “gilding the pill” (“sugar the pill”).
After the 17th century there is little evidence of using gold in food. Its splendour eclipsed together with the great courts, until it almost completely disappeared from culinary traditions. Gualtiero Marchesi is credited with having rekindled its glow: in 1981 the great chef invented his famous saffron risotto with gold leaf. With this dish edible gold regained its role as the prince of food decoration. Starred chefs, award-winning bartenders, cake designers, and producers of chocolates and spirits consecrated its revival on a planetary level, making edible gold a true must in the cuisine of the new millennium.