food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs

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as the Conclave of Cardinals convenes in Rome…

As the kitchens fire-up the ovens to feed the assembly that has gathered at the Vatican to elect the next pope it is worth reading the sonnet “La Cucina del Papa” (or “The Pope’s Kitchen”) by Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli (1791-1863). The translation is from Adam Victor’s translation of Mariangela Rinaldi & Mariangela Vicina’s “Buon Appetito, Your Holiness: The Secrets of the Papal Table” (New York: Arcade, 2000).

My old mate the cook
this morning let me take a look
at the most holy kitchen. Kitchen?
What a kitchen, More like a seaport.

Piles of food, pots, pans,
great jars of veal and beef,
chickens, eggs, milk, fish, herbs, pork,
game and all kinds of rare dishes.

I said, “Your very good health, Holy Father,”
He said: “Well, you should see the larder,
it’s just as full by the grace of God.”

I said: “Excuse me, my poor lad!
But is some great Eminence dining with him?”
“No,” he said, the Pope always dines alone.”

… and by the way, there is a recipe for “Council Eggs”. It reads like a ‘stack’: eggs whites, topped with sausage, topped with the egg yolk, another sausage slice, and finally a dolop of egg white. Eat up!

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More thoughts on the EGG

Francois Rabelais (ca. 1494/99- 1553), of gargantuan – and Gargantua – fame, respected the egg as any lover of gastronomy should. According to Timothy Tomasik, the celebrated writer refers to eight dishes featuring the egg prepared in various and, indeed, inventive, ways: frying, steaming, dragging through ashes, jumbled, and thrown down a chimney!
Bartolomeo Scappi, author of the renowned 16th century cookbook,L’arte et prudenza d’un maestro cuoco and a master cook who had conjured marvelous meals for the likes of Cardinal Du Bellay, Cardinal Cornaro, Cardinal da Carpi, and other members of the Vatican elite, offers some 20 egg dishes for “lean” days. Herbs count here, for some eggs are given flavor by the addition of rosemary, others with rosewater and sugar. Utensils are also of interest.

Here’s an example as taken from The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570), Terence Scully, translator and commentary (University of Toronto Press, 2008), p. 379 (recipe # 282):

To Poach Eggs on a Shovel
Heat up a shovel and when it is very hot grease it with pork rind and smear it with white wax or else with oil, and immediately break the eggs onto it. Cook them with another shovel over top, or else in the heat of the fire. Serve them with salt, sugar and orange juice on them. For lazy people the eggs can also be broken onto the embers.

Perhaps I should have tried Scappi’s recipe rather than Maestro Martino’s Neapolitan Rustic Torte, a savory pie that called for 6 eggs. It was less than “pretty” and my taste testers judged it unsatisfactory in terms of texture and ‘weird’ with respect to taste. Reflecting the recipe’s basis in 15th century cookery, one said it actually tasted like something medieval… not a stellar commendation!

Since we were in the experimental mode, we performed another ‘test’, this one involving wine and a blender. In a blind tasting of the same wine – one glass filled with juice poured directly from the bottle, the other having been poured from bottle to blender (briefly whirled about) and then poured into a glass – the aerated wine won hands down! Good to know!


The Egg

The EGG holds a place in the history of Italian Renaissance art. Writing in the middle decades of the 16th century and heralded by more than a few as the ‘father of art history,’ Giorgio Vasari used the egg to convey something about an artist or a work of art. Consider, for example, the following incident. Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) – best known today as the ingenious architect and engineer of the dome of Florence’s cathedral – chanced to see a Crucifix carved by the great Donatello (ca. 1382/86-1466). Although highly celebrated then as now, Donatello had “placed a ploughman on the Cross,” or so it appeared to an appalled Brunelleschi. He felt he could – and should – do better and so set himself to the task of demonstrating thge proper way to render the Son of God. Once he had finsihed making his own Crucifix, Brunelleschi invited Donatello to his home but did not tell him what he would see. A competition was clearly on. It would be decided by Donatello’s reaction to Brunelleschi’s work.  Vasari describes Donatello’s reaction: “… entering the house and going into the hall, Donatello saw the crucifix of Filippo [Brunelleschi]… full of amazement, like one who is distraught, he spread out his hands which were holding up his apron; whereupon the eggs and cheese… fell to the ground, and everything was broken to pieces.”  The smashed eggs were a testament to the awe-inspiring beauty of the work.

Eggs play a very different role in Vasari’s life of the painter Piero di Cosimo (1462-1521). Piero di Cosimo is presented in Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects as a genius but a highly eccentric one. He refused to have his house swept clean and forbid anyone to prune the vines and trees in his garden. He derived inspiration from gazing at the clouds and staring intently at stains on the sidewalk. He also lived off eating boiled eggs. Such oddities in personal behavior are reflected in a style that stands decidedly out of the mainstream of its day.

Eggs were no less important to artistic techniques. In the art of painting egg yolk was often used as a binder for tempera (honey might also serve this purpose). Different recipes circulated, each calling for powdered pigment to be mixed with wine, vinegar, or other soluble solution that is then bound by mixing in egg yolk. As for sculpture, consider some advice for the life-casting in bronze of nightingales, prized birds that must be well fed in order to keep them plump and lively before molding. The sculptor who intends to cast this poor little bird is instructed to ‘‘open its beak with a small pointed stick, and feed it on sheep heart or on other delicate flesh . . . that way it will not get thinner.’’ Alternatively, one can also enrich the nightingale’s diet with a mixture of beetles and hardboiled egg yolk.

The egg is, indeed, a wondrous thing but at this time of year, Lent, it was off limits to some, a situation that prompted Maestro Martino of Como, author of De arte coquinaria, or The Art of Cooking, to suggest a substitution. Writing in the 15th century, Maestro Martino proposed an egg-substitute in a recipe for Lenten Imitation Eggs. Blanched almonds are crushed with rose water, then in this “lean” season when one should deprive themselves of something rich and tasty, the almonds are made “fat” by cooking them in broth made from pike . The addition of starch helps replicate the the egg white while some saffron helps produce the yellow color of the yolk. For the complete recipe, see Maestro Martino of Como, The Art of Cooking, the first modern cookery book, edited by Luigi Ballerini and translated by Jeremy Parzen (University of California Press, 2005), page 113). …. let me know if it works and how it tastes! I’m going to try making pasta… and will report back!photo-24. The


Pulcinella… who?

Identifiable by his flowing, white pantaloons and shirt, black mask, and beak-like nose, Pulcinella was by the 17th century a stock character in the popular theater of Naples. As an 18th century print by Pier Leone Ghezzi shows, he was also closely associated with food, or rather, its absence. Ghezzi represented him surrounded by his famished brood. Others showed him devouring pasta, which, being made of wheat flour and water, was the simplest and cheapest of fare, or despondent, his pasta bowl (and stomach) empty. Today, Pulcinella would have less to lament. The Encyclopedia of Pasta lists no less than 310 types of pasta noodles over which a wide variety of sauces made with an amazing array of ingredients can be poured. Here’s to exploring variety!