food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs

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For centuries weddings and quince have gone together hand-in-glove. The Greek biographer Plutarch (46-ca. 120) reported that brides would eat the fruit to sweeten their breath before entering the bedchamber. Plutarch’s observation – quince is an effective breath freshener particularly appropriate for lovers – is corroborated in the Bible. In Song of Songs 7: 8-9, the desire for the beloved is expressed as follows:
“Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of grapes, And the scent of your breath like quince.”

By the 15th century the association of quince with matrimony was firmly established. Not only was the fruit consumed, but its symbolic association with Venus and fertility meant that it figured in the festivities that attended weddings.
Consider, for example, the symbolism of the quince in the 1487 entertainment that was part of the marriage celebration between two noble families: the Bentivoglio of Bologna and d’Este of Ferrara. Before, during, and after a sumptuous banquet, performers kept guests enthralled with elaborately staged and costumed dances that one onlookers described as follows:
“… then Cupid let fly [his arrow] at the rock from which… straightaway came a young woman nobly dressed in a fair robe holding a flower and a quince and dancing in the ‘moresca’* fashion. Behind her came eight men with black faces and white manes and Moorish garb… they had on their legs circlets of fine bells; and they danced the ‘moresca’ around the noble young woman.”

By the second decade of the 17th century, the association of quince & marriage was firmly established. While earlier editions of Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia omitted the quince from the symbolic depiction of “Matrimony,” the edition of 1613 added the quince to the yoke and shackle-box that were already common signifiers of marital union!

Cesare Ripa, "Matrimonio" in ICONOLOGIA, 1613

Cesare Ripa, “Matrimonio” in ICONOLOGIA, 1613

In the kitchen quince, like apples, were often cooked down into a jelly or paste. Lady Elinor Fettiplace (ca. 1570-ca. 1647) recommended boiling the fruit “till it wamble up like sope suds.” Not surprisingly, master chef Bartolomeo Scappi offered a more elaborate recipe in his 1570 cookbook.
“To prepare a jelly of finely chopped chicken with quince juice,” one needed to boil 4 capons, plucked and drawn, and 20 goat kid’s feet, cleaned and skinned. When reduced by two-thirds, skim off the fat and strain. Return the broth to the pot and add 2 pounds of sugar, half an ounce of cinnamon, 8 ounces of quince juice, 4 ounces of vinegar and 6 of white wine, plus a bit of salt and some chopped apple. Cook the concoction a bit more then pour through a filter and allow to cool. (The opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570), trans. Terence Scully. Toronto, 2008, p. 609).

In 1614, Giacomo Castelvetro, who chose the adjective ‘noble’ to describe the fruit, noted that quince jellies and pastes “are delights for all.” Besides that, when trained against a wall, quince branches “make fine espaliers”. How perfect for a garden wedding!

*The ‘moresca’ originated at the end of the Middle Ages. As a dance it was intended to capture the conflict between Christians and Moors. Consequently, swordplay among dancers was not unusual. Loosely structured, the moresca was open to improvisation and varied from place to place.
It is worth recalling that battle imagery was common on painted marriage chests (‘cassoni’) of the time.

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Recently I have been reading various takes on the Myth of Prometheus. Although ancient writers are split in assessing Prometheus – he’s either a good guy who assists humanity or he’s too competitive and egoistic for his own good – they agree on one thing. The great Titan stealthily ascended to Mount Olympus, stole heavenly fire from Zeus, and gave it to humankind! How did he achieve this feat? The stolen fire was hidden in the hollow of a fennel stalk! Clearly, fennel and ‘tamed’ fire – the hearth & cookery – go back a very, very long way.
The ancient Romans used fennel (feniculum) in the preservation of olives. Moderation in consumption was advised, however. According to Pliny the Elder (23-79 C.E.), the author of an encyclopedic text that traces the “nature of things” from their raw state (say, a block of marble) to a finished product (a beautifully carved statue), cautions that fennel can be a source of headaches! (Pliny, Natural History, 20.95)

Not all Romans subscribed to Pliny’s less than positive view of fennel’s effects. Some believed that snakes ate fennel just before they shed their skins as a way to preserve and improve their eyesight. This notion carried forward with a human application. A manuscript, which dates to around 800 and is in Paris’ Bibliothèque Nationale, contains the following medicinal recipe.
Mix the gall of a vulture “with sugar of fennel & horehound & with oil of balsam & Attic honey.” Apply the mixture to hurting eyes each morning “to drive away pain.”

Fennel could drive away ills other than physical pain. On Midsummer’s Eve during the medieval period fennel was placed above doorways to ward off evil spirits. (If you needed to drive away troublesome dwarfs and demons you were advised to sprinkle caraway seed mixed with salt!) Whatever its prescribed uses, fennel was readily found growing in medieval and Renaissance gardens, or so suggests its presence in “’ The Feate of Gardening’ of Mayster Jon Gardener,” written around 1350.

Bartolomeo Scappi’s “The Art and Craft of a Master Cook,” 1570, contains numerous recipes for preparing fennel in its wild and sweet forms as well as directions for grinding seed into flour. In “De arte coquinaria” (or the Art of Cooking), Martino of Como – to whom Bartolomeo Scappi pays tribute – offers directions for cooking fennel fritters.
“Prepare a mixture [some sifted flour, some water, salt & sugar] in the same way and shape as above (into a malleable dough]… and take some fennel that has blossomed, and if desired, you can leave the fennel fronds attached… then dredge and turn them well in the mixture and fry in good rendered lard or in equal amounts of oil and butter.”

Although Giacomo Castelvetro repeated in 1614 Scappi’s earlier claim that boiled “young shoots” of fennel serve as a delectable Lenten dish, it is his advice on the effects of fennel on the palate when consumed with wine that is most interesting.
“This medicinal plant has several good effects. One is that it improves the taste of bad wine – our villainous Venetian wine-sellers solicitously offer innocent or simple-minded customers a piece of nice fennel to eat with their wine.” Charlatans!!!
*** For the record, Mario Batali matches his Porchetta with Fennel Gratinato with either a Gruner Weltliner or a Zinfandel. See: winespectator.com

To this Castelvetro adds,
“The other virtues of fennel are that it warms a cold stomach, gets rid of wind, helps digestion and sweetens bad breath.” (Castelvetro, “The Fruits, Herbs & Vegetables of Italy,” trans. Gillian Riley (Prospect Books, 2012), p. 65.) fennel