food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs

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A late medieval Dutch prayer refers to the almond as follows: “noble almond, soft and sweet” (edel amandel saecht ende suet). Given such praise, it is not surprising that almonds (as well as pomegranates, nutmeg, dates and figs) grow in the wonderful garden described by Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1343-1400) in his version of Romaunt of the Rose. Similarly, it seems appropriate that in writing to the lord of Milan and Parma, Luchino Visconti, Petrarch (1304-1374) promised in March of 1348 to send cuttings from his garden at Vaucluse in southern France. Like Chaucer’s garden, Petrarch’s was planted with vines and olives, peaches, pears and figs, walnuts and almonds. (see Epistolae Mertricae, I. 5, and Familiares, XIII.8)

The almond was, after all, a symbolically significant tree – Aaron’s rod flowered and put-forth almonds (Numbers 17:8). It also had medicinal application and culinary use. According to Pietro De’ Crescenzi, the 14th century Bolognese jurist best known for his writings on agriculture, almonds were useful in treating asthma and coughs. To these curative powers historian Sharon Strocchia adds another. The almond (presumably bitter almond which was known for its purgative value) was a key ingredient in ‘cookies’ baked by Florentine nuns that were given to syphilitics. As for the culinary use of almonds, one only need visit Agrigento in Sicily. In February, the city hosts a weeklong festival celebrating the flowering of the almond tree. Almond pastries and ice cream are easily found. I recalled this festival a few days ago when I visited a bakery in Virginia Beach that is owned by a family with deep roots in southern Italy. In a case filled with biscotti, cannoli, and other treats were mini dioramas featuring lambs (some supporting an American flag) and a variety of fruits that had been fashioned of almond paste. These lavorieri di marzapane are just the sort of thing that in 1570 Bartolomeo Scappi advised as appropriate things to adorn a festive sideboard.

Scappi also offered the following recipe for a “tourte of starch for a day in Lent.”
1 lb ground marzipan paste
3 oz. pinenut paste
4 oz. starch cooked in almond milk
-Mix the above ingredients with rosewater then shape like a thick shell (pie-crust) in a pan that has been oiled with almond oil. Cover with a second sheet of dough and bake. (see The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570), translator and commentary Terence Scully (University of Toronto Press, 2011), p. 530, recipe #228)

Almonds are also found in the Easter cake known as the Columba. With ingredients similar to those in a panettone, these seasonal cakes (which began to be made in the early 1900s) have the form of a dove. At this time of year they are omnipresent throughout Italy.

Finally, it must be said that the almond is but one of the ties that bound the cuisine of Renaissance Europe to the fecundity of North African fields, especially those in Tunisia. According to the Arab geographer al-Bakri (died 1094), a variety of almond called farik was especially prized in European kitchens.

Also… check this out (Thanks to Catherine Kovesi for the site):

Columba cake