food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs

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wonderful cherries from Karla! Thanks!

wonderful cherries from Karla! Thanks!

Cherries (prunus avium, or sweet cherry; prunus cerasus, or sour cherry)

Traveling through Italy in 1789, the English diarist Hester Lynch Piozzi observed, “The fruits in this place begin to astonish me; such cherries did I never yet see, or even tell of… They are, in the London street phrase, cherries like plums, in size at least.” As for their taste, Pozzi declared their flavor superior to any plum she had tasted.

Bartolomeo Bimbi, Cherries, 1699

Bartolomeo Bimbi, Cherries, 1699

Pozzi did not elaborate further so we cannot know which of the several varieties of cherry depicted in Bartolomeo Bimbi’s “Still Life with Cheeries,” 1699 – Ciliegia visciola, Moraiola, Ciliegia del Posere della Casetta, etc. – she may have encountered. One thing is certain. Cherries garnered the attention of master cooks like Bartolomeo Scappi and accomplished artists such as Bimbi and Giovanna Garzoni, who more than once rendered with extraordinary delicacy a bowl brimming with the fruit.

Giovanna Garzoni, Gouche on vellum painting of a bowl of cherries, ca. 1620s

Giovanna Garzoni, Gouche on vellum painting of a bowl of cherries, ca. 1620s

Paintings like those of Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670) and Bartolomeo Bimbi (1648-1723) reflect a trend that began in the 15th century then exploded with world exploration and trade. As Lucia Tongiori Tomasi explains, “the study of natural history and the practice of horticulture, [which] received the wholehearted support of Cosimo I [de’ Medici] the Elder (1389-1464),” offered artists “an inexhaustible source” of flora with which to convey ideological content. (Tomasi & Hirschauer, “The Flowering of Florence. Botanical Art for the Medici,” National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2002)

Paintings of the Virgin Mary were filled with flowers symbolizing her character and alluding to events in her life: iris and columbine signified her sorrow at the death of her son, lilies denoted her purity, etc. But a wide array of flowers was not the only form of flora performing a symbolic function. Cherries did as well. In fact, it is not at all unusual to find cherries in representations of the Madonna and Christ Child, such as those painted by the Venetian master Titian (ca. 1488/90-1576) and the Northern artist Joos van Cleve (ca. 1485-1540/1). Their inclusion is explained by the apocryphal gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, chapter 20, which narrates Jesus’s childhood. According to this text, “Joseph was an old man” who was less than pleased to discover his young wife was pregnant. Indeed, he found Mary’s explanation hard to believe. When Mary asked the skeptical Joseph to gather some cherries so she could satiate cravings brought on by her pregnancy, he responded with a cynical suggestion. Let the one who got you pregnant get them! At this, the highest branch of the tree miraculously “bowed down to Mary’s knees” thus testifying to God’s presence and the truth of her word.
“O eat your cherries, Mary,
O eat your cheeries now;
O eat your cherries, Mary,
That grew upon the bow.”
The popularity of the apocryphal gospel of Pseudo-Matthew assured cherries an honored place in Marian imagery.


The Virgin Mary was not however the only saintly person who, as legend has it, craved cherries. So did Pope (and later Saint) Gregory the Great (ca. 540-604). Known for his frugality and abstinence, Gregory was (to the surprise of all) seized by a sudden and inexplicable desire for cherries. His craving occurred on April 25th, which is far in advance of the cherry-picking season. Rome’s gardeners despaired of their inability to serve the pontiff. As one farmer wandered despondently through his orchard, he confronted a vision of St. Mark, whose feast day just happened to be April 25. The fiery apparition informed the farmer that the problem would be resolved… and sure enough it was. The apparitional saint disappeared leaving the trees laden with fruit. “As the story handed down through the centuries in Roman dialect recounts, the Pope ‘se ne fece subito una bella panzata’ (‘wasted no time wolfing down a bellyful’). Since then, on St. Mark’s feast day [April 25], the Pope usually enjoys a nice bowlful of cherries!” (Mariangela Rinaldi & Mariangela Vicini, “Buon Appetito, Your Holiness. The Secrets of the Papal Table,” NY, 2000, pages51-52)

Italian Renaissance cookbooks offer a wide array of recipes in which cherries are the principal flavor. Not surprisingly, distinctions are made between visciole (sour), cerase negre (black), cornioli (cornel), etc. Directions for the making of sauces, jellies and wines are especially plentiful. Here’s a jelly recipe from Bartolomeo Scappi’s The Art and Craft of a Master Cook, 1570 (Book II, recipe 280)

-10 pounds of cherries, not bruised & picked that day. Half should remain on their stalks
-Fill a pot with 1 pound of water (I’m a bit stuck on this but a gallon water weighs about 8 pounds). Add cherries. Bring to a boil, adding 10 pounds of fine sugar. Skim liquid as cherries cook down.
-Remove cooked cherries and drain well.
-Bring juice left in pot back to a boil and cook until it forms jelly-like globules when dripped onto a dish.
-Meanwhile, stuff cooked cherries into jars (or “beakers or in silver dishes”).
-Pour the jellied juice over the packed cherries and store in a cool place.


Alternatively, one can make Morello Wine according to William Graham of Ware’s The Art of Making Wines, of fruits, flowers, and herbs, all the native growth of England (London, 1760)!
-2 gallons white wine
-20 pounds Morello cherries, “bruise them that the stones may be broken.”
-Press Morello juice into the white wine
-Season with mace, cinnamon, and nutmeg which has been placed into packets (sort of like a tea bag!)
-Pour mixture into a cask and dangle the spice bags into it.
-Let it steep/ferment for a bit
Presumably, this recipe will have the same effect as “Wine of Cherries,” which is “a great cooler of the body in the heat of weather; clears the heart, and much enlivens nature in its decay; it is also good against violent pains in the head, and swooning fits.”

Finally, like so many other cities and towns throughout Italy, Marostica (Veneto) honors food with an annual celebration. In late May or early June, those attending Marostica’s Sagra delle Ciliegie enjoy local cherries with Asiago cheese and Breganze wine.
Cheers yet again.