food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs

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This post is somewhat different than those that preceded it… it’s more laden with recollections of places seen and associated with memories of special people. My musings are therefore dedicated to Rod & Karla, who gave me my pomegranate tree, and to Catherine, whose love of pomegranates prompted me to love them too!



About a decade ago, I rented a small apartment in a very small street just off the Via Giulia in Rome. It was a fourth story walk-up (or fifth if you count like an American, which I do!) but lovely every step of the way. Because it fronted on a very narrow street and because there was another floor above it, the apartment lacked a terrace. However, it boasted two very large windows. Across the way – I could almost stretch to touch the opposite sill – were two sights: 1) a well-toned specimen of a man who liked to walk around in the nude, and 2) a pomegranate bush in a terracotta pot. The sight of the latter prompted me to try to secure a pomegranate of my own. (I never did meet the gentleman!) Two dear friends assisted in the endeavor and this year, at last, it has blossomed! It’s bright orange blooms filled with the promise of a harvest – meager though it might be. Those delicate flowers are also the impetus for this post!



Pomegranates have l-o-n-g history (see: Asaph Goor, “The History of the Pomegranate in the Holy Land,” Economic Botany, vol. 21, no. 3 (1967), 215-230). Known as “Punica granatum L”, as well as “Malum punicum,” or ‘Apple of Carthage’ and, in European parlance as “Pomum granatum,” meaning ‘seeded (grained) apple’), the pomegranate has been cultivated in Israel for more than 5,000 years.
Its wonderful fruit has long been associated with festive foods, as is evinced by a ancient Egyptian depiction of the ceremonial feast of Opet at Karnak (ca. 1350BCE) and a similarly festive scene in the Temple of Mut at Luxor. But it is not only the wine and seeds yielded by the pomegranate that have made this fruit a favorite. According to Aasaoh Goor, “The ancient Egyptians made a juice from the pomegranate… as well as wine; the rind they considered to be a specific against intestinal worms. The flowers were crushed to make red dye; and the peel yielded a yellow for dyeing leather.” In his encyclopedic Natural History, which traces all of the fecundity of the Roman Empire, Pliny mentions the latter. I can only guess whether or not the huge vats of yellow dye used to color dozens of hides left to dry in the Moroccon sun in the old and mesmerizing city of Fez owe their striking brilliance to the pomegranate’s skin!
Dyed leather left to dry in the sun, Fez, Morroco

Dyed leather left to dry in the sun, Fez, Morroco

One thing is for certain. The pomegranate holds a privileged position among decorative devices and symbols. During the Biblical era (1200-445 BCE) the robes of kings and Jewish priests were hemmed with pomegranates “of blue and purple and scarlet (Exodus 39: 24-26). The Christian world followed suit as is clear by a 15th century Florentine linen weave Dalmatic, which is a liturgical wide-sleeve vestment often worn by a deacon during Mass, that is in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Art. It features a gold pomegranate pattern woven in silk and metallic thread on red velvet. In fact, the fruit and its flower were already popular by the time King Roger II (1095-1164) established looms in Sicily. The pomegranate made its way not only into the elaborate patterns on textiles – see, for example, Titian’s Pesaro Madonna, 1519-26 – but also into the ornaments used to enrich architecture. Surely the latter reflects biblical references to the pomegranate as a decorative element rife with symbolism (sanctity, fertility, abundance) in the Temple of Solomon (II Chronicles 4: 13 and I Kings 7: 18).

According to Pliny the Elder (23-79), who cites no less than 26 remedies derived from the pomegranate plant, the fruit had medicinal value as well. The flesh and peel were used as ‘nostrums’ against respiratory & stomach ills and their blossoms were steeped in wine to combat dyspepsia (indigestion). In his treatise on pharmacology Rabbi Shabtai Donolo (913-985) suggested other benefits. As a practicing physician in Italy, he recommended gargling with pomegranate juice mixed with wine as a remedy for laryngitis. Later, in the sixteenth century, the English physician John Gerard grew pomegranates in his garden in order to have the ‘medicine’ at hand.

Before turning to the pomegranate’s culinary uses, it is worth noting the following. If cherry lips were appreciated as a sign of feminine beauty so, too, were pomegranate cheeks, or so says the Song of Solomon 6: 7. After celebrating the beloved’s hair, which “is like a flock of goats,” and teeth, which “are like a flock of ewes,” the celebrated lover is informed that “your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil.” (Henceforth, in my book pomegranate cheeks have it all over rosy ones!) No wonder then that Shakespeare used the plant in Romeo and Juliet: “Nightly she [the nightingale] sings on yon pomegranate tree.”

Finally, pomegranate juice!
In describing the abbondanza of the Holy Land in 1663, Eugène Roger observed, “Some of them [pomegranates] are sweet and some are very sour, and some are a blend of the two, that is to say sweet-and-sour… and these are squeezed to produce a beverage. All the pomegranates are full of grains so that at times they burst open on the tree; and so our sages of blessed memory used to say, ‘full of good deeds like a pomegranate’.”

As for using their juice, the first challenge was in the squeezing. Giacomo Castelvetro issued the following warning in 1614. “If pomegranates are squeezed too vigorously the juice will become astringent with tannin from the membranes, so crush the fruit gently by hand and strain the juice through a sieve.” (Giacomo Castelvetro, The Fruit, Herbs, and Vegeatables of Italy (1614), trans. Gillian Riley, Prospect Books, 2012, p. 132) Thereafter one can turn to Bartolomeo Scappi’s recipes of 1570.
To prepare a Pomegranate Sauce you must first secure 1½ pounds of clarified pomegranate wine and a pound of fine sugar. Boil the two over a low coal fire “until it is cooked.” The recipe sounds a lot like one for homemade grenadine, which is listed on Epicurious: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/drink/views/Homemade-Grenadine-236104