food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs

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The Oxford Companion to Italian Food begins the entry on garlic with a truth. This liliaceous plant with its pungent bulb has played quite “an ambivalent role in Italian gastronomy.”[1] Perhaps that’s to be expected from something that, says Wikipedia, propagates asexually and produces hermaphrodite flowers! Propagation aside, garlic’s ambivalence is its magic. As any cook knows, it has a remarkable capacity to assume, as stated in The Oxford Companion, “many personalities – raw and crude, it has an aggressive bite which disappears when lightly cooked in oil, or simmered in stews, when it becomes sweet and mild. Crushed with salt… it gives pungency to sauces…, it can be mild and nutty when pickled,” and it is lively in a salad! But that’s only a part of the magic.


The “many personalities” garlic assumes in kitchen pots and on dining tables is more than matched by a long and often ambivalent history in which it is celebrated for its curative powers and condemned as injurious, the source for all sorts of ills.


The magic – and magical potency – of garlic was recognized, it seems, from the moment of its emergence into European culture. In his encyclopedic Natural History (XIX. 101), Pliny the Elder (died 79 CE) noted that “whenever they take an oath, the Egyptians swear by garlic and onions as though they were gods.” Why garlic and onions were granted this honor rather than, say, saffron, is not disclosed. In any event, the ancient Egyptians seem to have held garlic in high repute, for it made its way into Tutankhamen’s tomb. Garlic, fit for a pharaoh, was also valued as a food especially appropriate for galley slaves, soldiers, and those performing heavy labor.[2] It was a marvel. In fact, Pliny devotes an entire chapter (book 29, chapter 34) to garlic. Among it’s more amazing feats is the job it does in crop fields, protecting newly sown seeds “from the remorseless ravages of the birds.” All you need to do is boil the garlic and scatter it about. Birds will be become “stupefied” by it and drop to the ground like a stone… but only momentarily so. Industrious farmers will have just enough time to gather and remove these dazed birds before they come round! Could this ability to ward off threats have inspired Bram Stoker to choose garlic as an effective vampire-repellant in Dracula, 1897? Perhaps. It certainly seems to speak to a belief in its ability to keep the unwanted away. Between a top-floor apartment I once rented  in Rome and the ground floor was an obstacle of an impressive pile of garlic and onions. The old woman who created this smelly mélange believed it kept the black cats that roamed the neighborhood away from her door! I think it did. I never saw a cat within a block of the building!

But back to garlic’s medicinal history.


Garlic made it into the most renowned medieval texts devoted to women’s health. It is referenced in the Physica of Hildegard of Bingen, who was Abbess of Rupertsberg, (1098-1179) and the Trotula, a 12th century collection of three books.  The latter reflects the practices advocated by a group of physicians in southern Italy who knew the practices advocated in classical texts and were also fluent with the progressive ideas of Arabic medicine. Hildegard recommended eating garlic raw but in moderation “lest a person’s blood becomes too hot.”[3] Trotula, described as a “wise woman from Salerno” in a letter dated 1059, includes garlic in list of “hot” foods that can help women suffering from a “paucity of menses.” And, again because of its heat, she considers it bad for wet nurses. A variation on the theme of garlic’s heat and consequential benefits is found in a passing remark by the Sephardic Jewish scholar Maimonides (1135-1204). In deciding which ordinances of Abraham Ibn Ezra to include in the Mishnah, he opted to omit one cited in the Babylonia Talmud (BT 82a). Although eating garlic on Sabbath eve had been a “custom” because it “aided” the production of semen, he apparently felt it necessary to prescribe the practice.[4]

More generally, Trotula prescribed garlic as a component in a recipe for benedicta, “so-called because of all the things from which it is comprised [including wild garlic], it is blessed.” In this concoction of spikenard, roses, ginger, saffron, poppy, pepper, and other things, garlic is something of a miracle ingredient, good against gout and for problems with the kidneys.[5]

These uses continued in the centuries to come as still others were added. In the 16th century, Pietro Mattioli of Siena prescribed garlic for digestive disorders and, interestingly, as helpful to women enduring difficulty in childbirth. In Dyets Dry Dinner (London, 1599) Henry Buttes acknowledged “Garlicke” to be “of most special use for Sea-faring men: a most excellent preservative against infection proceeding from the nasty savor of pump or sinck, and of tainted meates which Mariners are faine to eate for fault of better.”[6] Baldassare Pisanelli had made a similar observation three years earlier in Trattato della natura de’ cibi e del bere (Rome, 1583).

But what was prescribed for sailors was proscribed for landlubbers suffering from gout, or so suggested Christophorus Ballista in his poem “The Overthrow of the Gout,” which is known only through a 1577 edition in the British Library. The relevant passage reads as follows:

“All Salt and slimy meats, and flesh

that long doth powdered lye,

And fish in Salt preserved: all such

I warn thee to flee.

Both Garlick, Rue and Onions sour

expel them far from thee,

Although the fond Egyptians do

suppose them Gods to be.”[7]

The list of health benefits derived from garlic has continued to grow. According to a study published in the British Medical Journal on August 17, 1991, it has positive effects on “coagulation, platelet aggregation, and serum lipid concentrations.”

But garlic has not always been the magical cure all. Attitudes have been ambivalent. The Summoner in Geoffrey Chaucer’s (1343-1400) Canterbury Tales makes the point.

Canterbury_Tales 1483

Described in the book’s “General Prologue” as physically repulsive and morally reprehensible, the red-faced, heavy-lidded, and pustule-covered Summoner is a lover of “garleek,” onions, leeks, and red wine. At least one commentator has linked the Summoner’s appearance and tastes to the Bible, specifically Numbers 11:5.[8] It is here that the Hebrews complain about having only manna to eat and lament the absence of cucumbers, leeks, onions, and garlic from their diet. Since the time of St. Gregory (circa 540-604), commentators have read the Old Testament passage allegorically. Our experience of the world, including its delights, cause us to cry. The Liber de Mortalitatibus was less poetic and far more harsh. Garlic was equated with the stench of evil, blamed for ulcerating the body, said to weaken the vision, and disparaged for the general frenzy it caused. No wonder Samuel Johnson defined a “Garlickeater” as “a mean fellow”!

Ribera, Allegory_of_Smell, 1615-6

And so to the end… although Shakespeare in A midsummer night’s dream (act iv, scene iii) has ‘Bottom’ advise his acting troupe to “eat no onions or garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath” and thus be applauded for a sweet comedy, I say bring it on and to this delectable end I give you an Epicurious recipe for garlic soup.


Garlic soup



  • 26 garlic cloves (unpeeled)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil


  • 2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter
  • 2 1/4 cups sliced onions
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
  • 18 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 3 1/2 cups chicken stock or canned low-salt chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup whipping cream


  • 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese (about 2 ounces)
  • 4 lemon wedges
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Place 26 garlic cloves in small glass baking dish. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper; toss to coat. Cover baking dish tightly with foil and bake until garlic is golden brown and tender, about 45 minutes. Cool. Squeeze garlic between fingertips to release cloves. Transfer cloves to small bowl.
  2. Melt butter in heavy large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onions and thyme and cook until onions are translucent, about 6 minutes. Add roasted garlic and 18 raw garlic cloves and cook 3 minutes. Add chicken stock; cover and simmer until garlic is very tender, about 20 minutes. Working in batches, purée soup in blender until smooth. Return soup to saucepan; add cream and bring to simmer. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Rewarm over medium heat, stirring occasionally.)
  3. Divide grated cheese among 4 bowls and ladle soup over. Squeeze juice of 1 lemon wedge into each bowl and serve.



** In the spirit of Renaissance cuisine, I add the following just because!!

In The Art and Craft of a Master Cook, 1570, Bartolomeo Scappi, who many consider to be the most renown Italian chef of the period, used garlic in his recipe for braising a suckling calf’s head (“with its hair off and the head clean”) cleaved in half! First parboil the garlic then add it to the following: cinnamon, pepper, cloves, saffron, diced prosciutto, and muscatel raisins. Braise! Scappi also added garlic to a recipe for fricassee of a breast of suckling veal, crushing it with sweet fennel, salt, pepper, cloves, and cinnamon. As for the eminent Maestro Martino of Como, in Libro de Arte Coquinaria (The Art of Cooking), ca. 1465, he advises its “generous” use in the roasting of kid.

Go for it!



[1] Gillian Riley, The Oxford Companion to Italian Food (OPxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pages 226-27.

[2] Patrick Faas, Around the Roman Table. Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), page 216. This might be related to its medicinal value. Of the 800 herbal remedies in the Codex Ebers, an Egyptian medical papyrus of around 1550 BCE, twenty-two contain garlic.

[3] Hildegard von Bingen’s PHYSICA, The Complete English Translation of her Classic Work on Health and Healing, trans. Priscilla Throop (Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1998), page 45 (chapter LXXIX is devoted to Garlic). If garlic causes stomach pain, she suggests parsley as an antidote.

[4] The reference to the ordinance is in Maimonides, Commentary on the Mishna, Nedarim 8:4. See, Maimonides, Herbert Davidson, Moses Maimonides: The Man and His Work (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), page 224, note 152.

[5] The Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine, trans. Monica H. Green (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2001), page 126.

[6] Ken Albala, Eating Right in the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), page 203.

[7] Robert M. Schuler, ed., “Three Renaissance Scientific Poems,” Studies in Philology, vol. 75 (1978), page 90. The lines quoted are 267-270. I have altered the spelling in the original text to make it more accessible. Christophorus Ballista is the Latinized name of Christophe Arbaleste, a French monk and physician who left the Catholic Church at the beginning of the Reformation and went to live in Strasbourg. There, he became acquainted with Martin Bucer and other religious reformers. He is known to have treated the Bishop of Sion for gout.

[8] Robert Earl Kaske, Medieval Christian Literary Imagery (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989); Stephen Henry Rigby, Chaucer in Context: Society, Allegory and Gender (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), page 87ff for a discussion of Canterbury Tales, I. 634.

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“’What a lovely thing a rose is!’”
– Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Naval Treaty




Montague or Capulet? Does it really matter? After all, “What’s in a name?” asks Juliet in William Shakespeare’s (1564-1616) Romeo and Juliet. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

But just because it looks like a rose doesn’t mean it is one! (Just consider the ‘snow’ dusted ‘rose’ apple.)!

apple:puff pastry roses

Certainly the culinary artifice of Shakespeare’s time – a time when banquets featured “a cunning counterfeit ham made of salmon in gelatin” and the like – reveled in serving dishes that looked like one thing but were, in fact, made of something wholly different. These stunning assemblages of foodstuffs were, in a way, the ingestible counterparts of Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593) ‘portraits’ of The Librarian, circa 1566, The Jurist, 1566, and The Vegetable Gardener, circa 1590, a painting that works equally well whether it is viewed upside-down or right side-up!


Roses, like other flowers, assumed a fancy-dress role in this Arcimboldo-like cuisine. This is, perhaps, not surprising since roses – whether red or white – were so often symbolic. Invariably, they stood for something else: the enraptured heart of the lover, the perfection of the bud-like lips of the beloved, the purity of the Virgin Mary, etc.

The Rose has been around a very long time, appearing in the fossil record about forty million years ago. As for the fragrant varieties with which we are familiar, they made their way to Europe from China and the Near East only in the last few thousand years! Europeans obviously recognized their aesthetic, medicinal, and culinary values. Hence, for example, the mania for tulips that gripped 17th century Holland also embraced a passion for roses. In addition to a vase brimming with the real thing, artists Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) made a very fine living replicating their appearance in various stages of growth-bud to full blossom!


As for medicinal use, the medical handbook The English Physician, 1652, says it all. “Red roses do strengthen the Heart, the Stomach, and the Liver.” Moreover, they “mitigate the Pains that arise from Heat, assuage inflammations, procure Rest and Sleep, stay both Whites and Reds in Women, the Gonorrhea, or Running of the Reins, and Fluxes of the Belly; the Juice of them doth cleanse the Body from Choler and Phlegm.” (2)

The versatility of the rose in the sickroom was more than matched by its use in the kitchen!  In 1536, Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio hosted a multi-service & many-course dinner welcoming to Rome the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Besides napkins that released flocks of song birds when unfolded and in addition to candied violets encased in puff pastry and aromatic rice, Charles enjoyed cold roasted carp dressed with sugar and rosewater. But that paled in comparison to the delights served to Queen Christina of Sweden during her visit to Rome in November-December of 1668.

“In spite of those who deny that one might be nourished by scents, the diners here grazed on the flowers… and fed on the scents; here [in a manner paralleling Arcimboldo’s up/down-side Gardener] autumn turned into spring and spring into autumn…. Fruits were in flowers but flowers were more fruitful still…. For here there were truly fruits aplenty to be found inside flowers…. And of these flowers it could have been said that… their blueness was flavorsome, their flavor was crimson, and their sweetness green; and that the carnations were sweet, the rose sugary, the violet honey-flavored…”(1)


Yet such grandiose uses of the rose were not restricted to the royal class, a fact made clear by Sir Hugh Plat’s Delights for Ladies, 1602. Written with the housewife of middling-means in mind, Plat’s book includes multiple recipes for candying flowers and distilling Rosewater. The artfulness of roses in cooking – their Arcimboldo effect – comes through vividly in Plat’s Delights for Ladies.


Among the first rose recipes (no. #5) is “A singular Manner of Making the Syrup of Roses.” Fill a silver basin ¾ full of rain water and “put therein a convenient proportion of rose leaves (petals).” Cover then steep in a double-boiler (“as we usually bake a custard”). After an hour remove petals, squeezing out any liquid. Repeat 7 times in order to attain the maximum intensity of flavor and richness of color. The vivid splendor of color is crucial since it not only helps retain the desired hue for Preserved Roses but can be used as paint.

To Preserve a Rose – a real rose – (recipe no. # 7), dip a Rose (one that is neither a bud nor over blown) in a syrup made of double-fine sugar and Rosewater. After dipping, carefully separate the petals with “a fine bodkin, either of bone or wood” then set out to dry “whilst the the Sun is in good height.”

As for making a counterfeit rose, the skilled housewife is given step-by-step instructions on how to feign reality like any adept artist. Indeed, like Rachel Ruysch’s canvas, her table can rival nature with a veritable bouquet of “sugared simulacra of reality.” (3) To do this Plat instructs (recipe no. 12) the woman of the house to make an almond paste that is malleable enough to be rolled into a dough, shaped by hand or pressed into a mold that can then be painted with Rosewater. (Infusions concocted from marigolds, violets, sage and other flowers broader the artful cook’s palette as well as tantalize the diner’s palate!)


In looking for an appropriate recipe, I came across an article titled “Flower Power.”  It focused on the excitement in 2005 of menus in which flowers did more than garnish a salad. Dishes created in conjunction with the Chelsea Flower Show made flowers, including roses, an integral ingredient in an array of amazing culinary creations. One is below….

… but first a quote. In reading for this post, I came across Moderata Fonte’s (1552-1592) defense of women, who had long been (and sadly in some quarters still are) seen as secondary, derivative.


“Men were created before women. … But that doesn’t prove their superiority – rather, it proves ours…. [simply consider the fact that] Lowly seeds are nourished in the earth, and then later the ravishing blooms appear; lovely roses blossom forth and scented narcissi.”
― Moderata FonteThe Worth of Women: Wherein Is Clearly Revealed Their Nobility and Their Superiority to Men, 1600.




Royale of juniper and rose petals, violet consommé*


(Serves 10)

Chicken consommé

4 chickens

2 onions

3 carrots

2 leeks

10g juniper berries

For the royale

650g milk

40g juniper berries

300g of chicken liver

50g whipping cream

6 eggs

1tbs rose blossom water

15 rose petals

15 violets (on stem)

To finish

10 dried rose petals

10 violets


Blanch the chickens for four minutes and rinse them under cold water. Halve the onions and char the cut surfaces. Put chickens whole in a large stock pot with carrots, onions and leeks. Cover with cold water, bring to simmering point, skim. Wipe any scum from the pan edges and simmer very gently for eight hours. Drain stock through a kitchen cloth or muslin into a clean pan and put in the rose petals and juniper berries. Reduce very gently by evaporation in the oven (at 100°C) for two hours. Drain and keep for serving.

For the royale, infuse milk with juniper berries. Remove berries and blitz the chicken liver, eggs, milk, cream, salt, white pepper, rose blossom water, violet and rose petals. When liquid, pass and pour into small moulds or ramekins. Cook in a bain-marie for 20 minutes in a moderate oven (150°C).

To finish, julienne the rose petals and dry them in a warm oven (70°C) for one hour. Put the hot royale in middle of a soup plate and pour the hot consommé over it. Add the rose julienne and violet petals over it. Serve.

*Bignold, D. (2005, May). FLOWER POWER. Caterer & Hotelkeeper, 194, 28-31.




  • Charlotte Birnbaum, Ed., Threee Banquets for a Queen. The Reception of Her Most Serene Majesty Christina Queen of Sweden by His Holiness Our Lord Pope Clement IX in Rome 1668 (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2011), page 41.
  • Amy Stewart, The Drunken Botanist. The Plants that Create the World’s Great Drinks (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2013), page 221.
  • In addition to Plat’s Delights of Ladies to Adorne their Persons, Tables, Closets, and Distillatories, with Beauties, Banquets, Perfumes and Waters, see Wendy Wall, “Distillation: Transformations in and out of the Kitchen” in Renaissance Food from Rabelais to Shakespeare. Culinary Readings and Culinary Histories, Joan Fitzpatrick (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010), esp. pages 95-98.

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Pear – roasted or poached but never raw


Giovanna Garzoni

Shrove Tuesday is upon us and the raucous pleasures of Carnival come to a close for another year. But Valentine’s Day is less than a week away and so delights remain to be had! It is the combination, or ‘pairing,’ of these two events – the on-set of a meatless season & the prospect of happy coupling – that has inspired this post on pears. The word play between pear & pair is just too good to ignore. As for the conclusion of Carnival, which derives from the Latin carne vale, or ‘good-bye to meat,’ consider the pairing of pears and cheese. Not only is cheese a viable and delectable substitute for meat but the marriage of pears and cheese worked to the same medicinal end in medieval medical theory. Coming at the conclusion of a meal, a fruit and cheese course was believed to “seal” the stomach! (1)


Pliny the Elder (23-79 C.E.) noted no less than 41 varieties of pear in his encyclopedic Natural History (book 15, chapter 16). By the beginning of the 18th century that number had almost tripled. A large painting by Bartolomeo Bimbi (1648-1729) makes the point.


Bartolomeo Bimbi’s painting of pears, 1699

Like Jacopo Ligozzi (1547-1627) and Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670) before him, Bimbi was employed to record the flora beloved by the Medici dukes. Putting brush to canvas in 1699, Bimbi painted for Duke Cosimo III what has been characterized as an “inventory” of the 115 known types of pears. The painting is large – it measures approximately 5 ½ x 7 ½ feet – and the array of pears impressive. Piled in baskets, platters, and on the marble tabletop, Bimbi’s assemblage of pears is as colorful as any artist’s palette. Some are red. Others are yellow or green. A few, most notably the Worcester (or Warden) pear, are purplish black. And then there are those that are a blend of colors. (2)

Worcester Black Pear

The Worcester or Black Pear. Also known as the Warden Pear. “I must have saffron to color the Warden Pie.” – Shakespeare, Winter’s Tale 4.3.48

Surely Bimbi’s painting is a display worthy of a botanical treatise but did everyone see it as an enticing presentation? The jury is out, at least it was out in the Renaissance. The very thing that helped distinguish the pear as a “noble” fruit– its delicate flavor, perfume, and flesh – was the very thing that made some shy away. Pears have dark spots and, when ripe and at their most luscious, bruise quite easily. Thus in 1614, Giacomo Castelvetro praised the Bergamot pear but added a caveat. It turns “yellow as it ripens [and] is full of a delicate juice quite unlike anything else. Its only fault is that it does not keep well.” (3)

Bergamot pear

Bergamot Pears

It is this concern with perishability that gave rise to a medical advisory in Harrington’s The Englishman’s Doctor: Or the Schoole of Salerne, 1607.

“Raw pears a poison, baked, a medicine be.”(4)

Harrington’s opinion on the benefits of cooked pears was preceded by the commentary Master Chiquart Amiczo, who was chef to the House of Savoy, appended to a recipe for pears in his Du fait de cuisine, 1420. He advised that once you are sure that the pears “have cooked enough,” allow them to cool then “put them out into fine silver dishes; then they [can be] borne to the sick person.”(5)


But for many of the period, pears were simply too susceptible to rot. More to the point, their putrefaction was deemed unhealthy. As Thomas Cogan put it in The Haven of Health, first edition 1584,

“That peares may not hurt thee, take out the coares; Pare them, and salt them, & cast them out of doors.”(6)

Thankfully, the problem of pear consumption was easily remedied. Forget biting into a juicy raw pear. Eat only those that have been roasted or poached. In fact, the eminent chef Martino of Como included an entry on “How to prepare rotten pears or bruised pears or apple-pears” in his Art of Cooking, circa 1465.

The directions are simple. Clean the pear, Roast it over hot coals then marinade in wine that has been spiced with “a generous amount of cinnamon.” I suggest adding whole cloves, cardamom pods, and black peppercorns as well!

There was not a lot new about Martino’s approach. At the close of the fifth century, Gelasius I, who is credited with coming up with the idea of crêpes, suggested filling the delicate pancakes with sliced pears that had been poached in syrup… and don’t forget the magical last step. Drizzle the pear-stuffed crêpe with liquor.(7)

Perhaps my favorite pear recipe comes from an heir of Bartolomeo Bimbi’s patron. In Florentines: A Tuscan Feast, Lorenza de’ Medici provides the following recipe:



1 stick butter, softened

scant 1 ½ cups flour

1 egg

scant ½ cup fine sugar

½ cup cocoa powder

2 ½ tablespoons orange marmalade

2 pears


3 ½ oz. bittersweet chocolate

4 tablespoons butter

2 eggs, separated

½ cup fine sugar

Make a dough with the butter, flour, egg, sugar, and cocoa powder.Line an 8” tart pan with the dough, press to cover bottom of pan; Spread with marmalade. Peel, core & quarter pears then slice. Arrange them artfully in the dough case.

To make FILLING, melt chocolate and butter over low heat, then set aside to cool. Beat egg whites until stiff. Beat egg yolks and sugar very well (until pale & fluffy). Add chocolate mixture and fold in beaten egg whites. Pour the mixture over the pears. Bake in preheated 350 degree oven for about 40 minutes. – Lorenza de’Medici, Florentines: A Tuscan Feast (New York: Random House, 1992), page 99.


For a variation on the theme, try this one from:




¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter (at room temperature)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
½ cup packed light brown sugar
2 ripe pears (Bosc or Bartlett) peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
⅓ cup unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa powder
⅔ cup boiling water
4 large egg yolks
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1½ cups sifted cake flour
1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves


Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Melt ¼ cup of the butter in a cast iron skillet over medium heat. Stir in the brown sugar until well combined and remove the skillet from the heat. Arrange the pear slices in tight, overlapping circles on top of the sugar mixture, with the thin ends facing toward the center. Brush the sides of the plan with the melted butter.

In a small bowl, whisk together the cocoa powder and boiling water. Let the mixture cool to room temperature. In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, one quarter of the cocoa mixture, and the vanilla.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, lightly mix together the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and cloves. Beat in the remaining 10 tablespoons of the butter and the remaining cocoa mixture. Beat on medium speed for 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides. Beat in the egg mixture, a third at a time, beating the mixture for 15-20 seconds between each addition.

Spoon the batter over the pears, smoothing it evenly with an offset spatula. Bake until a toothpick emerges clean, 40-45 minutes. Remove skillet from the oven and let the cake cool for 5 minutes in the pan on a wire rack. Run an offset spatula around the edges of the cake. Place a large plate on top of the skillet and carefully flip the cake over onto the plate. Let the cake stand for 2 minutes before lifting the skillet. Cool completely before serving.

Makes 1 10-inch cake

Recipe from Brian Nicholson and Sarah Huck’s Fruitful: Four Seasons of Fresh Fruit Recipes(Running Press, 2014)



And one final Valentine’s Day thought concerning enjoying food in the company of one’s beloved. It comes from Pietro Aretino (1492-1556)

“When she ate she seemed to be gilding the food; and when she drank she gave flavor to the wine.”



  1. Massimo Montanari, Cheese, Pears, & History in a Proverb, trans. Beth Archer Brombert (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010). The proverb in question is: “Al contadino non far sapere quanto è buono il formaggio con le pere,” or “Do not let the peasant know how good cheese is with pears.” As Meryl S. Rosofsky states in a review in the journal Gastronomica (summer 2012), pages 111-112, Montanari “places the proverb in the ‘tradition of the rustic,’” ultimately positioning it as an emblem of class conflict.” In part, the conflict recognizes the fact that it is the peasant who makes the cheese and harvests the fruit. Of course he knows how good it is!
  2. Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi and Gretchen A. Hirschauer, The Flowering of Florence: Botanical Art for the Medici (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art in Association with Lund Humphries, 200), pages 91-92.
  3. Giacomo Castelvetro, The Fruit, Herbs and Vegetables of Italy (1614), trans. Gillian Riley (Totnes, Devon: Prospect Books, 2012), page 88.
  4. David Gentilcore, Food and Health in Early Modern Europe. Diet, Medicine and Society, 1450-1800 (London: Bloomsbury Academic2016), page 117.
  5. Terence Scully, Chiquart’s “On Cookery”: A Fifteenth-Century Savoyard Culinary Treatise (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1986), page 108.
  6. Ken Albala, Eating Right in the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), page 102.
  7. Mariangela Rinaldi and Mariangela Vicini, Buon Appetito, Your Holiness. The Secrets of the Papal Table, trans. Adam Victor (New York: Arcade, 2000), pages 41-43.

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Skeletons on the table!


Think centerpiece… How about a construction of willow, fern, and flowers or perhaps an ensemble of candles artfully arranged around a blown glass figurine, or maybe a small flock of swans carved in ice? All are prosaic when compared with the creations – sometimes revealed as a parade of fanciful dishes – that in fact and fiction graced ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque banquet tables.(1) Consider, for example, this tidbit of culinary performance in Petronius’s mid-1st century Satyricon (36).


“ ‘This is sauce for the dinner.’ As [Trimalchio, the host] spoke, four dancers ran up in time with the music and took off the top part of the dish. Then we saw… fat fowls and sow bellies, and in the middle there was a hare with wings like Pegasus. Four figures of [the satyr] Marsyas positioned at each corner of the plate also caught the eye; they let a spiced sauce run from their wine-skin [flasks] over the fish swimming about in a kind of sauce tide.”

If Petronius’s imagination is too much for one’s credulity to swallow, then consider the elaborate sugar sculptures recorded in etchings by the Dutch artist Arnold van Westerhout (1651-1725) after confectionary creations by Giovanni Battista Lenardi (1656-1704).(2) (see my earlier post, “Sugar… and ingegno)

Westerhout sugar sculpturejpg

To these impressive images-of-record we can add Bartolomeo Scappi’s brief notations concerning some statue di butiro, or butter sculptures, in his Art and Craft of a Master Cook, 1570:

“An elephant with a castle on its back,” “Hercules wrenching the jaw of a lion,” and “a Moorish king astride a camel.” (3)

But these wonderful molded concoctions and constructions were not the only things placed amid an abundance of dishes, bowls, and platters featuring the diversity and fecundity of nature as well as the creativity of those manipulating it. Again, I turn to Petronius’s Satyricon (34) and the banquet of excess known as the Cena Trimalchionis.


“As we were poring over the labels [proclaiming that the wine had spent ‘100 years in the bottle’], Trimalchio clapped his hands and cried, ‘Ah me, wine lives longer than miserable man. So let us be merry.”

Trimalchio’s declaration was accompanied by an object; a small “silver skeleton made so that its joints and sockets could be moved and bent in every direction.”


These skeletons are noted with a fair amount of frequency in the literature on the ancient Roman table and its customs but I never focused on them until I saw one in the exhibition “Nutrire l’impero. Storie di alimentazione da Roma e Pompei” at the Museum of the Ara Pacis in Rome in the fall of 2015. (4) The small, bronze figure – a larva convivialis – is one of only ten or so that have survived from antiquity into the modern era. As Petronius’s text suggests, the skeleton is meant as a reminder of our mortality, hence carpe diem, seize the day, eat, drink, and be merry! Yet these little skeletons do something else. They are a material example of the close ties that bind food and drink to death in both the ritualized practices surrounding grief and loss and in the carefree frivolity of popular festivals associated with, for example, the Day of the Dead and Lent. (5)


In fact, the Victorian practice of picnicking at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia (where I live) remains alive and well! http://www.thebolditalic.com/articles/5891-how-to-picnic-right-at-hollywood-forever-cemetery

The union of joyful feasting and the less than palatable prospect of a death had some interesting iterations over the centuries. In Renaissance Italy young men of patrician rank and some of the most renowned artistic talents of the day organized themselves into compagnie to express youthful exuberance and exhibit impressive talents. Sporting names such as The Company of Hose (as in hosiery), The Company of the [Mason’s] Trowel, and the Company of the Cauldron, these compagnie had a typical “membership” of one or two-dozen men. Imbibing copiously, company members enjoyed banquets worthy of Petronius’s Cena Trimalchionis with its acrobatic performances, mock combats, and poetical recitations. During the 16th century, courses were punctuated with theatrical interludes (intermezzi), short farces, costume contests, and, especially in Venice, masked dances and pageantry (momarie). Humor generally attended such revelry but sometimes the death cast its shadow over an evening’s lightheartedness.

The painter and art critic/historian Giorgio Vasari recounted one such occasion in his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, 2nd edition, 1568. It was a banquet staged by the men of the Company of the Cazzuola, or mason’s trowel, that had as its theme the myth of Pluto’s abduction of Proserpine, the daughter of the goddess of agriculture and fecundity. That evening, the assembled company had an objective. They were to descend to the “infernal regions” of Hades over which Pluto ruled. Their assigned task was to assist Proserpine’s mother in liberating the maiden from the clutches of lord of death and dark. As Vasari tells the tale,

“The invitation [to assist in the rescue] was accepted. Whereupon, all having entered through that mouth [of Hell], which was full of teeth, and which, being hung on hinges, opened to each couple of men who entered, and then shut again, and which had no light but a very little one in the center… they could hardly see one another. There, having been pushed into their seats with a great fork by a most hideous Devil who was in the middle beside tables draped in black, Pluto commanded” that his marriage to Proserpine be conducted. “Now in that room were painted all the chasms of the regions of the damned, with their pains and their torments.”

As for the food, it appeared to be all manner of “animals vile and most hideous … but within, under the loathly covering” of pastry, were the “most delicate meats of many kinds.”

But “bats,” “lizards,” “toads,” and “scorpions” were not the only thing on the table. So was a Renaissance version of Trimalchio’s skeleton. There were, says Vasari, “dead men’s bones” (ossa di morti), confections set within a reliquary fashioned of sugary fruits!(6)

All of this stands in stark contrast to the decoration and mealtime practices in medieval monasteries.

The refectory, or dining area, in Europe’s 13th century monasteries was a significant place of gathering for cloistered communities. Consequently, the arrangement of the tables in relationship to the art on the walls served a didactic role. At Cluny, Monte Cassino, and other monasteries a refectory was “a place of corporeal punishment.”

“Infractions in the refectory were corrected in front of the abbot’s table often situated before a Majesty or Judgment picture. A painting of the Last Judgment, showing Christ meting out justice, was germane in [this] penitential context.” This, together with images emphasizing abstinence, gluttony was condemned and mortification of the body imposed. (7)

Would the ever-famished Pulcinella have been able to stomach all of this? Regardless of whether it was the fantastically horrific constructs gracing the banquet table at the Company of the Trowel or the monastic meal of meager sustenance (but spiritual fullness) eaten under the critical eye of a painting of a judgmental Christ, I know I would find swallowing a difficult task!



As an addenda, here is a recipe fit for Pulcinella!

Recipe: Cooking-With-Nothing Spaghetti





  1. For a recent, informative survey, see The Edible Monument. The Art of Food for Festivals, edited by Marcia Reed (Los Angeles: The Getty Institute, 2015).
  2. The Edible Monument. The Art of Food for Festivals, edited by Marcia Reed, pages 112-113, figures 1-3. Also see my earlier post “Sugar… and ingegno”.
  3. The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570), Terence Scully commentary and translation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), page 398. There is a new and terrific addition to the literature on Scappi. Deborah L. Krohn, Food and Knowledge in Renaissance Italy. Bartolomeo Scappi’s Paper Kitchens (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2015.
  4. Nutrire l’impero. Storie di alimentazione da Roma e Pompei, Claudio Parisi Presicce and Orietta Rossini, eds. (‘L’Erma’ di Bretschneider, 2015), page 214, cat. no. R69. Also see the very informative site: http://www.lifeandland.org/2009/02/skeletons-on-the-table/
  5. For a brief and wonderful survey, see Jane Levi, “Melancholy and Mourning. Black Banquets and Funerary Feasts,” Gastronomica, vol. 12 (winter 2012), pages 96-103.
  6. Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, Gaston Du C. de Vere, trans. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1979), vol. 3, page 1715. The account is included in the biography of Giovan Francesco Rustici. The Italian is in Gaetano Milanesi, editor (Florence: Sansoni, 1906), vol. 6: page 616.
  7. I have relied on the dissertation of Irene Kabala, “Medieval decorated refectories in France, Italy and England until 1250 (The Johns Hopkins University, 2001).



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The Indulgence of Meat!


In January 1605, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) received a bill from his butcher. Over the course of roughly six weeks, between December 11, 1604 and January 29th, the purveyor of meats delivered to the astronomer’s home no less than “260 pounds of beef, 83 pounds of lamb, and 54 pounds of veal.”[i] At this point in time, the older of Galileo’s two illegitimate daughters was only a toddler but within a decade the plentitude of her father’s table would stand in sharp contrast to the abstinence foist upon her. Born in 1600, Virginia Galilei was confined within the restrictive walls of the Convent of San Matteo in Arcetri soon after her thirteenth birthday. Thereafter, the cloistered Virginia – or Sister Maria Celeste – could savor little more than fading memories of abbondanza.[ii]

Bosch, Gluttony detail

The contrast between the abundance of Galileo’s larder and the poverty of the convent’s kitchen reflects the seeming ambiguous place meat had in medieval and Renaissance culture. Although featured on the tables of the social elite, meat – especially red meat – was associated with society’s more unsavory, bawdy, and crude types. To be sure, meat came to be seen by some as a critical component of a healthy diet but proponents of flesh faced the obstacle of tradition, which held that the temperaments of animals directly affected consumers. Hence, for example, “eating rabbit causes fear” while “eating goat incites lasciviousness.”[iii] But the larger issue was of a more general nature. Meat was moralized.

Consider, for example, the personification of gluttony as represented by Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1450-1516) on Table Top of Seven Deadly Sins. Gluttony, his girth emphasized by the round table laden with an impressively large haunch, gnaws on the bone of some roasted beast. His appetite insatiable, Gluttony chows down as a serving woman brings him still more! Is it any wonder that Shakespeare’s Falstaff, the corpulent comic foil to the regal Prince Hal, is characterized as cuts of meat or the beasts from which they were carved: “chops,” “guts,” “sweet beef,” “sow,” “a little tidy Bartholomew boar pig,” “a Manning Ox with pudding in his belly.”[iv] Clearly, Shakespeare’s audience, like Bosch’s viewers, identified meat as an enticement that leads to sinful excess and reveals the folly of intemperance.


Similar to Bosch, Anthonius Claessen (ca. 1538-1613) set meat enticingly in the center of his painting, A Family Saying Grace before a Meal, and he, too, included a servant, platter in hand, entering the room. But these likenesses are inconsequential. Claessen’s pious family, unlike Bosch’s sinful glutton, can conquer temptation.


In A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms, 1551, the Netherlandish painter Pieter Aertsen (1508-1575) visualized the ambivalent place meat held in Renaissance society. Aertsen crammed the foreground of his painting with sausages, pig’s feet, the heads of a boar and a cow, roosters ready for the plucking, a side of beef, a bowl of curd, molded cheeses… and four fish, two fresh, two smoked. Through the stall’s doorway and windows we see two very different scenes. In the right background, just behind another hanging carcass, people indulge in life’s pleasures at a tavern. In the open landscape in the left background, the Holy Family gives the little they have by way of material goods to those in need. Significantly, the Holy Family – Joseph, leading the donkey bearing the Virgin and Infant Christ – align with the two fish on the pewter plate within the butcher’s stall. As an adult, Jesus would multiply two small fish and five barley cakes in order to feed five thousand.

Like Carnival – a time of indulgence – and Lent – a time of abstinence, meat and fish were not typically mixed. While it is true that sixteen of the seventeen courses served at the 1368 wedding banquet of Violante Visconti and Duke Lionel of Clarence combined meat with fish – gilded veal with gilded trout (3rd course), or beef pies with cheese and eel pies (8th course) – eating fish and meat on the same day, let alone at the same meal, was not the norm. In fact, the week was divided into fish days and flesh days. If the division had religious significance, it increasingly had economic justification. Londoners, it seems, not only had a hardy taste for meat, they associated it with the raucous times of festivals of Misrule. As the city’s population grew and consumption increased, shortages occurred, most notably in 1552/3 when fishing ships were diverted to London quays to avert famine. Government action was required to halt future depletions of meat stocks. By the 1580s secular regulation overtook religious custom. “The week was almost halved in favor of fish. Butchers were not officially allowed to sell on Wednesday, Friday or Saturday…. And though they had a market on Monday, by 1605 they were not allowed to kill or dress carcasses on Sunday.”[v]

So, as the Holiday season approaches and menus are devised for the feast of Roast Beast, as Dr. Seuss would have it, I advise all to choose judiciously whether to serve meat or fish. The choice is laden with nuance.


Christmas mince pies with stars and icing sugar on top on wooden chopping board

16th Century Recipe for Yuletide Mincemeat Pie from A Propre new booke of Cokery, 1545:

“Pyes of mutton or beif must be fyne mynced & seasoned with pepper and salte and a lytel saffron to colour it / suet or marrow a good quantitie / a lytell vynegre / pruynes / great reasons / and dates / take the fattest of the broath of powdred beefe. And if you will have paest royall / take butter and yolkes of egges & so to temper the floure to make the paest.”

(Pie filling of mutton or beef must be finely minced and seasoned with pepper and salt and a little saffron to colour it. [Add] a good quantity of suet or marrow, a little vinegar, prunesraisins and dates. [Put in] the fattest of the broth of salted beef. And, if you want Royal pastry, take butter and egg yolks and [combine them with] flour to make the paste.)

Or try this one instead…



[i] The quantities are indeed impressive but Galileo’s taste for meat was by no means unique. In 1348 the first of several outbreaks of the plague swept across Europe cutting in half the populations of cities such as Paris, London, Hamburg, and Florence. The demographic shock, it has been suggested, left the living a greater portion of pork, mutton, beef, and poultry on which to feast. Hannele Klemettilä, The Medieval Kitchen. A Social History with Recipes (London: Reaktion, 2012), page 63. To what extent a devastated populace had the energy and resources to raise domestic animals for consumption is, I think, debatable. It has been argued, however, that arable land was left fallow due to the same drop in population. As a consequence, there was a reduction of fodder for cattle feed and this, in turn, points to pattern of subsistence farming. There was little left for market. Harry Kitsikopoulos, “The Impact of the Black Death on Peasant Economy in England, 1350-1500,” The Journal of Peasant Studies, vol. 29, no. 2 (2002), pages 71-90.

[ii] Dava Sobel, Galileo’s Daughter. A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love (New York: Walker Publishing Company, 1999).

[iii] Ken Albala, Eating Right in the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), pages 79-80.

[iv] Sandra Billington, “Butchers and Fishmongers: Their Historical Contribution to London’s Festivity,” Folklore, vol. 101, no. 1 (1990), page 101.

[v] Sandra Billington, “Butchers and Fishmongers: Their Historical Contribution to London’s Festivity,” Folklore, vol. 101, no. 1 (1990), page 98.

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The Leek (allium ampeloprasum) & the Scallion (allium fistolosum) & the Onion (allium cepa)


Leeks, scallions, and the more pedestrian onion have been around a long time. Wandering in the wildness with Moses leading the way, the disgruntled “rabble that was among [the Israelites] had a strong craving” for the food, if not the laborious life style, they had left behind in Egypt. As the Israelites’s cuisine choices diminished and the rumblings of their stomachs grew louder, memories of forced labor faded. The only thing the despondent wanderers could recall was a bountiful table. And so, according to the biblical author of Numbers (11: 4-6), “the people of Israel wept again, and said, ‘O that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt…, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna…’” [See previous entry on quail.]

Cultivated worldwide for millennia, leeks, scallions, and onions have long been valued as recipe enhancers. Raw, they prick the palate and assault the nose. Cooked, their spicy bite is tempered to a delicate and aromatic sweetness. It was, perhaps, this culinary versatility that in 1211 prompted the Bishop of Winchester to authorize the expenditure of 1 shilling, 4 pence on “onion sets and shallots to plant, besides 6 pence on 2 pounds of onion seed, [and] 2 ½ pence for leeks.” Considered in terms of ground coverage rather than money, “we can estimate that about a quarter-acre [of the Bishop’s garden in Southwark] was under onions and shallots.”(1)


But taste enrichment was not the only benefit to be had from onions, leeks, and scallions. Whether green or dried and regardless of bulb size, the odiferous vegetable was believed to have a host of medicinal applications. Writing in the first century, Pliny the Elder (23-79 C.E.) reported in Natural History (book 19: 33. 108) that Nero, the infamous emperor who reportedly fiddled as Rome burned in July of 64 C.E., consumed leeks daily in order to maintain the clarity of his singing voice! The physician Alfonso Chirino (circa 1365-circa 1429) thought the piquant vegetable had better application elsewhere. In his Menor dano de la medicina, a book that provides therapies that enabled the general public to avoid visits to greatly feared medieval doctors, Chirino advised people suffering from hemorrhoids to mix onion with oil and apply to the affected area. (2) Presumably, the anti-inflammatory effects onions had on hemorrhoids also prompted its use to ease the pain of buboes during outbreaks of the bubonic plague. In Traicté de la Peste, 1566, François Vallériole proposed theriac,* a complex compound that included opiates, be stuffed into the hollow of a cooked onion that could then be applied as a poultice.

Jusespe de Ribera's painting of

Jusespe de Ribera’s painting of “Smell” from a series of works imaging the senses, circa 1615

For those of robust disposition, onions and scallions had the added benefit of heightening sexual drive. Writing at the end of the 16th century, Bartolomeo Pisanelli maintained, “scallions serve no other purpose than to excite the libido.”(3) Other writers were more specific. Onions were believed to be particularly felicitous to sexuality, promoting sperm production in males and lactation in women. (4) But there was always the problem of too much of a good thing… too much onion could cause headaches! Accordingly, in the instructive text he penned for students of medicine in the first decade of the 14th century, Bernard de Gordon cautioned headache sufferers to refrain from consuming fish, walnuts, onions, and strong wine.(5) Headaches aside, the repeated positive correlation of onions and coitus is, to me at least, perplexing. As noted by the first century Roman poet Martial, “As often as you have eaten the strong-smelling shoots of Tarentine leeks, give kisses with a shut mouth.”(6)

“Pori”, or Leeks, Tucuinum sanitatis, 1380s, copy in the National Library of Vienna

The Tacuinum sanitatis, a guide to healthful eating that was probably written in the 11th century and then translated from Arabic to Latin sometime in the 13th century, provides a succinct summary of the benefits to be had from leeks, or “pori”, (and, perhaps by extension other members of the allium family). Beneath a picture of a man carrying a basket brimming with the leafy sheaths of the vegetable and a woman arranging bunches of them on a table is an informative commentary. Leeks, we are told, stimulate the flow of urine and encourage sexual activity. Additionally, when mixed with honey, leeks break-up chest congestion, a notion repeated by Giacomo Castelvetro in 1614. However, one must be aware that they can assault the senses (I assume the reference is to their pungent smell and biting taste) as well as the brain! To counter these effects, the reader is instructed to mix leeks with sesame or sweet almond oil. Finally, leeks are deemed particularly appropriate for the diets of the elderly and those living in northern climes. (7)

As for Renaissance recipes that include onions… well, they are perhaps best left alone. Bartolomeo Scappi (1570) suggested adding them to fricassees of cow’s udder. I think Julia Child’s classic onion soup is the better way to go!


Finally, there is yet another use for onions, one that has nothing to do with food or physiology. Years ago, I rented an apartment not far from the magnificent church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. I was on the top floor. Daily, I made the climb and daily I had to tip-toe my way through a pile of chopped – and very smelly – onions on the landing between the 2nd and 3rd floors. An enquiry explained the obstacle. A very old (it’s fair to say ‘ancient’) woman scattered them about in an attempt to keep away a pounce of black cats!

*THERIAC: compounds included as many as 80 ingredients that ranged from rue to ground rubies, honey, pepper, and myrrh as well as coral and vinegar.Its palliative effects far out-weighed any curative properties.

  1. John H. Harvey, “Vegetables in the Middle Ages,” Garden History, vol. 12, no. 2 (1984), page 94.
  2. Michael Solomon, The Literature of Misogyny in Medieval Spain (Cambridge University Press, 1997), page 100.
  3. Pisanelli, Trattato della natura de’ cibi et del bere, p. 25, as cited in Sheila McTighe, “Foods and the Body in Italian Genre Paintings, about 1580: Campi, Passarotti, Carracci,” Art Bulletin, vol. 86, no. 2 (2004), page 317.
  4. Madeleine Pelner Cosman, “A Feast for Aesculapius: Historical Diets for Asthma and Sexual Pleasure,” Annual Review of Nutrition, vol. 31, no. 1 (1983), page 6.
  5. Bernard de Gordon, Tractatus de conservation vite humane, as referenced in V. de Frutos Gonzáles and A.L. Guerrero Peral, “La neurologia en los regimina sanitatis medievales,” Nurologia, vol. 26 (2011), page 422.
  1. Brucia Witthoft, “The Tacuinum Sanitatis: A Lombard Panorama,”Gesta, vol. 17, no. 1 (1978), pages 49-60; Luisa Cogliati Arano, Tacunium sanitatis (Milan: Electa, 1973).
  1. Epigrams, book XIII. 18. For Castelvetro’s reference, see Giacomo Castelvetro, The Fruits, Herbs and Vegetables of Italy, trans. Gillian Riley (Totnes, Devon: Prospect Books, 2012), page 109.

See http://www.soupsong.com/fleek.html

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Quail… & Manna

blue quail

As I ambled through the galleries of the Cloisters Museum in Upper Manhattan the other day, my attention focused on pendant windows, 1497-1499, the only surviving stained glass from the cemetery church of Saint Salvator, Munich. Although the represented scenes were the Gathering and Transporting of Manna, the accompanying wall text referenced the rest of the Exodus story and, hence, the Miracle of Quail. Manna was not the only thing sustaining the Israelites on their flight from Egypt.

The Gathering and Transporting of Manna, circa 1497-1499

The Gathering and Transporting of Manna, circa 1497-1499

I was familiar with various aspects of the Israelites’ journey, its hardships and attendant miracles. With a change of heart, Pharaoh sent his forces to bring Moses and his people back but the chariots and horsemen were swallowed by the Red Sea. Thirst overtook the company but the bitter water of Marah was turned sweet. Hunger followed thirst. Again, God intervened, informing Moses that “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day…” (Exodus 16:4). But quail? My knowledge of the story was obviously lacking and so I read on. Then, only nine verses after the first mention of manna, there it was: the miracle of quail!

“In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning dew [man hu, or manna] lay round about the camp. And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as hoarfrost on the ground,” which, we are told in Numbers 11:7, “was like coriander seed.” It could be ground in mills, boiled in pots, and made into cakes. Clearly, manna was miraculous stuff but the daily appearance of quail at suppertime must be assessed no less extraordinary.

msdouce104f023vcoturnix, king quail

Quail have been associated with “corlew,” the Middle English term that in all likelihood refers to the true quail, or coturnix. Corlew are referenced in “The Vision of Piers Plowman,” circa 1370-1390, an allegorical poem composed of a series of visions comprising a quest for a true Christian life. In Passus XIV, lines 41-46, the character of “Patience” instructs Haukyn on how to recognize God’s merciful blessings. According to “Patience,” heavenly blessings are, as it were, food for the soul, a form of spiritual sustenance. The point “Patience” tries to make is this. Human beings are sustained by something they cannot see, touch, hear, taste, or smell. Yet this sustenance – God’s grace – is everywhere. It is like the air through which the corlew (or quail) flies. The analogy was particularly well chosen because at the time the curlew was believed to feed not grains and insects but on air.

Medieval beliefs aside, the sixteenth century quail – like other types of fowl, including capon, blackbirds, dove, pheasant, partridge, and the meat of virgin chicken (those having never laid an egg) – came to be esteemed as a noble food. Quail was counted among the “animali volatili” recommended for noble consumption by Baldassare Pisanelli in his Trattato della natura de’ cibi e del bere, first published in Rome in 1583. Pisanelli, a Bolognese doctor who authored a treatise on the plague and another on scorpions as well as the Trattato dealing with the nature of comestibles, reasoned that because birds fly they are light.* This capacity rendered them light and, consequently, easily digestible and well suited for those with delicate digestive tracks.

A version of Vincenzo Campi's Poulterers (Milan)

A version of Vincenzo Campi’s Poulterers (Milan)

Around 1580, the northern Italian artist Vincenzo Campi painted a series of five canvases of food vendors for one of Europe’s wealthiest mercantile families, the Fuggers of Augsburg. The Poulterers is among them. Like the Master of Hartford’s Still Life of Dead Birds in Rome’s Borghese Gallery, Campi’s painting presents the viewer with a display of all manner of fowl, large and small, some trussed and suspended, others living and stuffed into baskets.

Master of the Hartford Still Life

Master of the Hartford Still Life

Among the difference between Campi’s work and that of the Master of Hartford is the inclusion of two poulterers in Campi’s painting. With the carcass of a large bird slung across her lap, the woman is clearly a member of the low, working class. So, too, is the boy with a dead hare draped around his shoulders and a rebellious duck grasped in his hands.** It’s difficult not to see humor in Campi’s rustic pair but as Sheila McTighe has argued, these villani serve an additional function. Much of what they sell was perceived to be the very things they should not eat. Ducks aside, fowl was viewed as noble fare well-suited to the physiology of the highborn digestive system. “Signet [swan], capon stued [stewed], heron” as well as “crane, rabbit, chicken, partridge, peacock [‘pecok enhakyll’ – roasted & served in its plumage], egret, cock, plover, [and] quail” was proper for a king and members of his court… or so suggests the menu for the Coronation Banquet of Henry IV in 1429. Campi’s poulterers were better off eating beans, which, says Pisanelli, offered only “poor nourishment to delicate persons.”(1)

More than members of the nobility were counted among “delicate persons.” During the Renaissance, pregnant women consumed plenty of pigeon, capon, geese, and other fowl deemed appropriately delicate yet fortifying for the expectant mother. In her article “Pregnancy and Poultry in Renaissance Italy,” Jacqueline Musacchio not only illustrates a wonderful array of birth scenes, paintings of the Birth of the Virgin or that of John the Baptist, she also cites supportive personal documents, such as the record of one “Girolamo, a Florentine notary, [who] writes, ‘I record how on the 18th of September 1473 at about the 23rd hour my wife Caterina’s labor began. For this reason I bought… one fat pigeon.”(2)

Bartolomeo Scappi suggested that quail, like turtledoves, small coots, woodcocks and teal ducks, be seared on the coals. They can then be dressed with any number of sauces. Current recipes, like that of Hank Shaw, tend to concur with Scappi’s late sixteenth-century advice.

“Regardless of species, all quail roast the same. The basic rule for quail is hot and fast. Really hot and really fast. I like about 500°F for about 15 minutes or so. This will cook your little birds nicely, although they will be a little pale — a price to pay for juicy and tender meat.”


As for a recipe, try adapting Lorenza de’ Medici’s “Palombe alla Ghiotta” (or wild pigeon stewed in red wine), which calls for a long cook of the birds in bath of red wine (1 quart), 3 tablespoons or so of red wine vinegar, 4 garlic cloves, a sprig of rosemary, a small bunch of sage tied together, a small onion quartered, 4 oz. prosciutto, 4 anchovy fillets in oil, 1 tablespoon capers, Lorenza da’ Medici, Florentines. A Tuscan Feast (New York: Random House, 1992), page 52.

Or… roast quail as the base for a pasta sauce!


Eat on!


(*But not all things that fly won Pisanelli’s favor. Ducks are struck from his list. Because they dwell in marshes and tend to be very rich are good for those with a stomaco di fuoco, or cast-iron stomach!)

(** As McTighe, page 311, explains, both the duck and the hare were “associated with vile stature: the hare ‘because it yields a very dirty and melancholic blood’ and the duck because of its association with an unhealthy environment of dank marshes, cold, and wet humors.”

  1. Pisanelli as quoted in Sheila McTighe, “Foods and the Body in Italian Genre Painting, about 1580: Campi, Passarotti, Carracci,” Art Bulletin, vol. 86, no. 2 (2004), page 308.
  2. Jacqueline Marie Musacchio, “Pregnancy and Poultry in Renaissance Italy,” Source: Notes in the History of Art, vol. 16, no. 2 (1997), 3-9 (Girolamo’s record, page 7).