food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs


Scarpetta di Sant’ Ilario & Cinnamon

scarpetta di Sant' Ilario

scarpetta di Sant’ Ilario

I have no doubt that the forever-famished Pulcinella would always take care to clean his plate of every morsel of food, meticulously swabbing his bowl with whatever crust of bread he might have been fortunate enough to possess. Indeed, one could, perhaps, attribute the wonderfully practical dictum, “Fa una scarpetta!” to him. To give the best sense of the phrase, which literally means to make a little shoe, I quote my dear friend Cinzia. Cinzia, a Venetian, takes great pleasure in dancing a little piece of bread around her plate to sop-up delectable sauces.
“Fare la scarpetta means to wipe your plate clean, that is to collect the sauce that is left on your plate with a piece of bread.
According to the Galateo, you should use your fork to do it. You are not supposed to touch the bread with your hands.
Personally speaking, I think that it is the most gastronomically gratifying experience in the world!”

The literal meaning of the word scarpetta, which is a little shoe or bootee, prompted a jumbled meandering of thoughts. Please bear with me!

I have been giving shoes a fair amount of consideration in recent months. In all likelihood the catalyst has been the spate of exhibitions that have featured shoes. Last spring, Boston Public Library memorialized the bombing that shattered the Boston Marathon with, among other things, running shoes left at the site by runners. As the show’s curator noted, running shoes are deeply personal, each one individualized by the wearer’s gait and impressed with his or her goals and hopes. http://artery.wbur.org/2014/04/07/dear-boston-bombing-memorial-exhibit

This show was followed by an installation in the Smithsonian’s Sackler in Washington, D.C. in which the Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota arranged nearly 400 shoes bound by red yearn.

Chiharu Shiota installation, Sackler, Washington, D.C.

Chiharu Shiota installation, Sackler, Washington, D.C.

Together, these exhibitions drove home, yet once more, the point that shoes are complicated things. Molded to the wearer’s foot, shaped and scuff by a life of encounters and roads trod, they are in many ways portraits of remarkable poignancy.
More than a pair, a shoe missing its mate underscores this fact. Consider, for example, Angelo Beolco’s The Veteran (an abbreviated title for Dialogue of Ruzzante back from the Front). Possibly performed first in 1529 as entertainment between courses at a banquet in Ferrara, the play dramatizes the lowly soldier’s plight while recalling the devastation wrought to the countryside by famished, scavenging armies. The play centers on Ruzzante’s return to Venice and quest to be reunited with his wayward wife. As he begins his search, the veteran encounters a kinsman, who cannot help but take note of the soldier’s disheveled appearance. Ruzzante’s clothes are torn and dirty and he has but one shoe. The other, he explains, was lost as he scrambled over rocks, across fields and through woods in a desperate attempt to reach his home.
Like Beolco’s Ruzzante, Saint Hilary (Ilario), the 4th century bishop of Poiters, also lost a shoe. As this story goes, Hilary arrived in Parma, then in the clutches of a cold winter’s day, with only one shoe. The other had been lost en route to the city. As Hilary walked Parma’s frozen streets a cobbler observed what wasn’t there – a second shoe – and, being a good Christian, decided to remedy the loss. He gave the sainted Hilary the gift of a new pair. Not surprisingly, the caring cobbler’s kindness was repaid. When he awoke the next morning he found a replacement pair of shoes. These, however, were made of gold.

Sant' Ilario

Sant’ Ilario

As is often the case in the history of Italian cuisine, the legend of Hilary and the cobbler gave rise to a festival with a signature food: the Scarpetta di Sant’ Ilario, a shoe-shaped cookie made of ground almonds, hazelnuts, sugar and some of the most exotic spices of the medieval and Renaissance eras.

Scarpetta di Sant' Ilario

Scarpetta di Sant’ Ilario

Among the ingredients in Scarpetta di Sant’ Illario, cinnamon is particularly fascinating for the many biblical references to it as well as its lucrative place within the spice trade.

Writing in the first century with the intent of celebrating the geographical extent of the Roman Empire and thus pleasing the emperor, Pliny detailed how the trade winds filled ships’ sails enabling the aromatic bark to be transported around the Arabian peninsula and into Rome’s ports.(1)

Centuries earlier, the Greek historian Herodotus explained how cinnamon entered the kitchens (and the medicine cabinets of 5th century B.C.E. physicians) differently. In Histories he relates that birds gathered cinnamon sticks for nest building from the inaccessible reaches of the Arabian Mountains. In order to get their hands on the aromatic sticks of bark, humans left large chunks of meat lying about. The birds would retrieve the meat and take it to their cinnamon-nests. Alas, the nests would give way under the weight of the meat sending the prized sticks plummeting into the eager hands of those waiting below.(2)


Cinnamon arrived in the medieval and Renaissance worlds with a well-established aura of the exotic. In his “Hymn for the Lighting of the Lamp,” Prudentius (348-405) named the fragrance of cinnamon among the aromas of paradise.

There [in paradise] bright roses exhale fragrance from gardens rare,
And where murmuring springs water the earth around,
Modest violets bloom, crocus and marigold,
Lifting radiant flowers, rich in their saffron hues.

There sweet balsams distill perfume from slender trees,
The rare cinnamon breathes spices that fill the air,
And the leaf of the [spike]nard floats from the hidden spring
To the mouth of the stream laving the pleasant strand….(3)

Prudentius’s “Hymn” recalls the description of the beloved in Song of Solomon 4: 11-14:

Your lips drip nectar, my bride;
honey and milk are under your tongue;
the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon.
A garden locked is my sister, my bride,
a spring locked, a fountain sealed.
Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates
with all choicest fruits,
henna with nard, nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon,
with all trees of frankincense,
myrrh and aloes,
with all choice spices—
a garden fountain, a well of living water,
and flowing streams from Lebanon.

….. and Prudentius’s “Hymn” also looks forward to Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” in which the besotted Absalom summons Alison, calling her “My cinnamon, my fair bird, my sweetie!” Although Chaucer is mute on the subject, one can hazard the idea that Absalom prepared himself for the desired amorous encounter with an electuary, or powdery medicinal paste, made of a mixture of spices such as cinnamon, pepper, ginger, licorice and galangal that was said to improve sexual performance!

Like Absalom’s beloved Alison, cinnamon was in fact very dear, albeit in a different sense of the word. It was a costly luxury commodity. In 1343, a Barcelona merchant could anticipate a profit exceeding 40% on cinnamon purchased in Cyprus and sold on the streets of his home city. The “dearness” of cinnamon held for centuries across Europe. About a hundred years after the Barcelona merchant smiled at his profit margin, a skilled craftsman in London would toil for 3 days in order to purchase 1 pound of the prized aromatic!

As for cinnamon & cuisine, one might want to try Bartolomeo Scappi’s recipe for roast peacock on a spit in L’arte et prudenza d’ un maestro cuoco, 1570 (book II. recipe 140, in Terence Scully’s translation, The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi).
The bird’s cavity is filled with salt, fennel flour, cloves and cinnamon!

For dessert I recommend you serve Scarpetta di Sant’ Ilario!
Buon appetito!


1. In Pliny’s day, four varieties of cinnamon were recognized: cassia from Arabia and Ethopia; true cinnamon from Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Burma and India’s Malabar Coast, Malabathrum from north of India, and Serichatum from China Today also called Saigon cinnamon).
2. Paul Freedmen, “Spices and Late-Medieval European Ideas of Scarcity and Value,” Speculum, vol. 80 (October 2005), 1209. Freeman notes Marco Polo’s similar explanation of the method by which diamonds were collected from deep gorges. Also see Freeman’s Out of the East. Spices and the Medieval Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).
3. Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination (Berkeley 2006), pages 225-26.