food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs


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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

Author: Pulcinella Pasta

Fredrika Jacobs, professor emerita of Art History at Virginia Commonwealth University, is the author of three books focused on the art and culture of Renaissance Italy ("Defining the Renaissance Virtuosa: Women Artists and the language of art history and criticism" (1997/99); "The Living Image in the Renaissance" (2005); and "Votive Panels and Popular Piety in Early Modern Italy" (2013). Additionally, she has contributed essays and articles to dozens of books and scholarly journals and spoken at symposia and conferences around the world.

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