food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs

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Peaches (prunus persica)

Giovanna Garzoni peaches

Arriving in London – just one step ahead of Inquisitors – Giacomo Castelvetro (1546-1616) was aghast at English cuisine. Too much meat, not enough fruits and vegetables! The learned Castelvetro, whose editing of Erastus’s medical works had familiarized him with the medicinal value of herbs, decided to do his part to reverse the situation. The result was A Briefe Account of the Fruit, Herbs & Vegetables of Italy, 1611. Predictably, peaches are included. Castelvetro gives two good reason for their inclusion. First, they taste good. Second, they have medicinal value… at least their pits have benefits.According to the medically savvy Castelvetro, peach stones can be dried, ground into a powder, then ingested as a remedy for kidney stones! [Others, disagreed. Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), who was better known for his fire-and-brimstone sermons, believed peaches were poisonous!]
Health benefits aside, it is the proverb that Castelvetro cited that I find curious:

Garzoni peaches

“About the middle of August… we start to have peaches. They last all September and into October. This delicate fruit is usually eaten raw. Some eat peaches unpeeled, after wiping the skin with a clean cloth, and quote in justification the saying:

A l’amico monad il fico,
e il persico al nemico

Peel a fig for a friend,
And a peach for enemy.’

This [Castelvetro goes on to explain] may also be taken to mean that peaches are as unwholesome as they are delicious. For this reason some steep them in good wine, which is supposed to draw out the harmful qualities, though I think myself that they do this more out of gluttony than because of any danger.”

While Castelvetro opted to quote a proverb that may or may not relate to the virtue of speaking honestly, or from the heart, others favored a more ribald reading of the fruit!

Sixteenth and seventeenth-century Italian men of letters enjoyed the company of one another in “academies” such as the Accademia dei Vignaiuoli (Academy of Vintners) or the Accademia degli Incogniti (Academy of the Unknowns). Academy gatherings were festive affairs. Members feasted on an array of dishes, drank copious amounts of wine, judged or in some instances participated (in drag) in “beauty pageants,” and enjoyed the recitation of sexually suggestive verse. Fruits – especially figs but also peaches – and vegetables – especially of those with a phallic form – seem to have been a rich source of inspiration. Perhaps it is its texture or possibly it’s the color, whichever (or both), the peach gave rise to a number of homoerotic poems and bawdy elocutions, including “dare la pesca” which is a reference to the male derriere! In fact, the first Italian-English dictionary (1598) offers the following definition of “pesca” (peach): “A young man’s bum”. As for the phrase “dare le pesca” – “to give one’s taile, to consent to buggerie.” In 1995, Adrienne von Lates suggested we keep this association in mind when pondering the prominently placed peaches on the foreground ledge of Caravaggio’s Bacchino malato (Sick Bacchus), ca. 1593/4! (2) But long before Caravaggio painted his Bacchus with its euphemistic peaches, the metaphoric potential of the peach had been captured in the anonymous “Canzona delle pèsche.”

Caravaggio, Bacchino malato - detail of peaches

“Some enjoy it [the peach] before the meal,
But we like it before and after;
Rude people only enjoy it before,
Most use it after
Just let everybody use it and keep quiet,
Before or after or wherever they prefer.”(3)

Regardless of their off-color connotations, peaches were enjoyed at the Renaissance table. Bartolomeo Scappi (1571) provided recipes for both fresh and dried peaches, sometimes baked into a tart spiced with cinnamon and almonds, sometimes stewed with quince and apples.

I have my own new favorite: Roasted with burrata & toasted pecans, which is adapted from the following recipe from the terrific site: Food 52:

Roasted Peach salad  from Food52

Roasted Peach salad from Food52

So, enjoy the bounty!
Peaches at a local market

1. Giacomo Castelvetro, The Fruit, Herbs & Vegetables of Italy (1614), translation and introduction Gillian Riley(New York: Prospect, 2012), 86-87.
2. Adrienne von Lates, “Caravaggio’s Peaches and Academic Puns,” Word & Image, vol. 11 (1995), pages 55-60; also see John Varriano, “Fruits and Vegetables as Sexual Metaphor in Late Renaissance Rome,” Gastronomica, vol. 5 (2005), 8-14.
3. Lauara Giannetti Ruggiero, “The Forbidden Fruit or the Taste for Sodomy in Renaissance Italy,” Quaderni d’italianistica, vol. 27 (2006), pages 31-52.