pulcinellapasta

food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs


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The Indulgence of Meat!

CarracciButcherStall

In January 1605, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) received a bill from his butcher. Over the course of roughly six weeks, between December 11, 1604 and January 29th, the purveyor of meats delivered to the astronomer’s home no less than “260 pounds of beef, 83 pounds of lamb, and 54 pounds of veal.”[i] At this point in time, the older of Galileo’s two illegitimate daughters was only a toddler but within a decade the plentitude of her father’s table would stand in sharp contrast to the abstinence foist upon her. Born in 1600, Virginia Galilei was confined within the restrictive walls of the Convent of San Matteo in Arcetri soon after her thirteenth birthday. Thereafter, the cloistered Virginia – or Sister Maria Celeste – could savor little more than fading memories of abbondanza.[ii]

Bosch, Gluttony detail

The contrast between the abundance of Galileo’s larder and the poverty of the convent’s kitchen reflects the seeming ambiguous place meat had in medieval and Renaissance culture. Although featured on the tables of the social elite, meat – especially red meat – was associated with society’s more unsavory, bawdy, and crude types. To be sure, meat came to be seen by some as a critical component of a healthy diet but proponents of flesh faced the obstacle of tradition, which held that the temperaments of animals directly affected consumers. Hence, for example, “eating rabbit causes fear” while “eating goat incites lasciviousness.”[iii] But the larger issue was of a more general nature. Meat was moralized.

Consider, for example, the personification of gluttony as represented by Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1450-1516) on Table Top of Seven Deadly Sins. Gluttony, his girth emphasized by the round table laden with an impressively large haunch, gnaws on the bone of some roasted beast. His appetite insatiable, Gluttony chows down as a serving woman brings him still more! Is it any wonder that Shakespeare’s Falstaff, the corpulent comic foil to the regal Prince Hal, is characterized as cuts of meat or the beasts from which they were carved: “chops,” “guts,” “sweet beef,” “sow,” “a little tidy Bartholomew boar pig,” “a Manning Ox with pudding in his belly.”[iv] Clearly, Shakespeare’s audience, like Bosch’s viewers, identified meat as an enticement that leads to sinful excess and reveals the folly of intemperance.

Claessen,family_saying_grace_c_1585

Similar to Bosch, Anthonius Claessen (ca. 1538-1613) set meat enticingly in the center of his painting, A Family Saying Grace before a Meal, and he, too, included a servant, platter in hand, entering the room. But these likenesses are inconsequential. Claessen’s pious family, unlike Bosch’s sinful glutton, can conquer temptation.

A_Meat_Stall_with_the_Holy_Family_Giving_Alms_-_Pieter_Aertsen_-_Google_Cultural_Institute

In A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms, 1551, the Netherlandish painter Pieter Aertsen (1508-1575) visualized the ambivalent place meat held in Renaissance society. Aertsen crammed the foreground of his painting with sausages, pig’s feet, the heads of a boar and a cow, roosters ready for the plucking, a side of beef, a bowl of curd, molded cheeses… and four fish, two fresh, two smoked. Through the stall’s doorway and windows we see two very different scenes. In the right background, just behind another hanging carcass, people indulge in life’s pleasures at a tavern. In the open landscape in the left background, the Holy Family gives the little they have by way of material goods to those in need. Significantly, the Holy Family – Joseph, leading the donkey bearing the Virgin and Infant Christ – align with the two fish on the pewter plate within the butcher’s stall. As an adult, Jesus would multiply two small fish and five barley cakes in order to feed five thousand.

Like Carnival – a time of indulgence – and Lent – a time of abstinence, meat and fish were not typically mixed. While it is true that sixteen of the seventeen courses served at the 1368 wedding banquet of Violante Visconti and Duke Lionel of Clarence combined meat with fish – gilded veal with gilded trout (3rd course), or beef pies with cheese and eel pies (8th course) – eating fish and meat on the same day, let alone at the same meal, was not the norm. In fact, the week was divided into fish days and flesh days. If the division had religious significance, it increasingly had economic justification. Londoners, it seems, not only had a hardy taste for meat, they associated it with the raucous times of festivals of Misrule. As the city’s population grew and consumption increased, shortages occurred, most notably in 1552/3 when fishing ships were diverted to London quays to avert famine. Government action was required to halt future depletions of meat stocks. By the 1580s secular regulation overtook religious custom. “The week was almost halved in favor of fish. Butchers were not officially allowed to sell on Wednesday, Friday or Saturday…. And though they had a market on Monday, by 1605 they were not allowed to kill or dress carcasses on Sunday.”[v]

So, as the Holiday season approaches and menus are devised for the feast of Roast Beast, as Dr. Seuss would have it, I advise all to choose judiciously whether to serve meat or fish. The choice is laden with nuance.

mince-pies-1500

Christmas mince pies with stars and icing sugar on top on wooden chopping board

16th Century Recipe for Yuletide Mincemeat Pie from A Propre new booke of Cokery, 1545:

“Pyes of mutton or beif must be fyne mynced & seasoned with pepper and salte and a lytel saffron to colour it / suet or marrow a good quantitie / a lytell vynegre / pruynes / great reasons / and dates / take the fattest of the broath of powdred beefe. And if you will have paest royall / take butter and yolkes of egges & so to temper the floure to make the paest.”

(Pie filling of mutton or beef must be finely minced and seasoned with pepper and salt and a little saffron to colour it. [Add] a good quantity of suet or marrow, a little vinegar, prunesraisins and dates. [Put in] the fattest of the broth of salted beef. And, if you want Royal pastry, take butter and egg yolks and [combine them with] flour to make the paste.)

Or try this one instead…

http://www.nigella.com/recipes/view/STAR-TOPPED-MINCE-PIES-5238

 

[i] The quantities are indeed impressive but Galileo’s taste for meat was by no means unique. In 1348 the first of several outbreaks of the plague swept across Europe cutting in half the populations of cities such as Paris, London, Hamburg, and Florence. The demographic shock, it has been suggested, left the living a greater portion of pork, mutton, beef, and poultry on which to feast. Hannele Klemettilä, The Medieval Kitchen. A Social History with Recipes (London: Reaktion, 2012), page 63. To what extent a devastated populace had the energy and resources to raise domestic animals for consumption is, I think, debatable. It has been argued, however, that arable land was left fallow due to the same drop in population. As a consequence, there was a reduction of fodder for cattle feed and this, in turn, points to pattern of subsistence farming. There was little left for market. Harry Kitsikopoulos, “The Impact of the Black Death on Peasant Economy in England, 1350-1500,” The Journal of Peasant Studies, vol. 29, no. 2 (2002), pages 71-90.

[ii] Dava Sobel, Galileo’s Daughter. A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love (New York: Walker Publishing Company, 1999).

[iii] Ken Albala, Eating Right in the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), pages 79-80.

[iv] Sandra Billington, “Butchers and Fishmongers: Their Historical Contribution to London’s Festivity,” Folklore, vol. 101, no. 1 (1990), page 101.

[v] Sandra Billington, “Butchers and Fishmongers: Their Historical Contribution to London’s Festivity,” Folklore, vol. 101, no. 1 (1990), page 98.


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The Leek (allium ampeloprasum) & the Scallion (allium fistolosum) & the Onion (allium cepa)

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Leeks, scallions, and the more pedestrian onion have been around a long time. Wandering in the wildness with Moses leading the way, the disgruntled “rabble that was among [the Israelites] had a strong craving” for the food, if not the laborious life style, they had left behind in Egypt. As the Israelites’s cuisine choices diminished and the rumblings of their stomachs grew louder, memories of forced labor faded. The only thing the despondent wanderers could recall was a bountiful table. And so, according to the biblical author of Numbers (11: 4-6), “the people of Israel wept again, and said, ‘O that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt…, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna…’” [See previous entry on quail.]

Cultivated worldwide for millennia, leeks, scallions, and onions have long been valued as recipe enhancers. Raw, they prick the palate and assault the nose. Cooked, their spicy bite is tempered to a delicate and aromatic sweetness. It was, perhaps, this culinary versatility that in 1211 prompted the Bishop of Winchester to authorize the expenditure of 1 shilling, 4 pence on “onion sets and shallots to plant, besides 6 pence on 2 pounds of onion seed, [and] 2 ½ pence for leeks.” Considered in terms of ground coverage rather than money, “we can estimate that about a quarter-acre [of the Bishop’s garden in Southwark] was under onions and shallots.”(1)

alliums

But taste enrichment was not the only benefit to be had from onions, leeks, and scallions. Whether green or dried and regardless of bulb size, the odiferous vegetable was believed to have a host of medicinal applications. Writing in the first century, Pliny the Elder (23-79 C.E.) reported in Natural History (book 19: 33. 108) that Nero, the infamous emperor who reportedly fiddled as Rome burned in July of 64 C.E., consumed leeks daily in order to maintain the clarity of his singing voice! The physician Alfonso Chirino (circa 1365-circa 1429) thought the piquant vegetable had better application elsewhere. In his Menor dano de la medicina, a book that provides therapies that enabled the general public to avoid visits to greatly feared medieval doctors, Chirino advised people suffering from hemorrhoids to mix onion with oil and apply to the affected area. (2) Presumably, the anti-inflammatory effects onions had on hemorrhoids also prompted its use to ease the pain of buboes during outbreaks of the bubonic plague. In Traicté de la Peste, 1566, François Vallériole proposed theriac,* a complex compound that included opiates, be stuffed into the hollow of a cooked onion that could then be applied as a poultice.

Jusespe de Ribera's painting of

Jusespe de Ribera’s painting of “Smell” from a series of works imaging the senses, circa 1615

For those of robust disposition, onions and scallions had the added benefit of heightening sexual drive. Writing at the end of the 16th century, Bartolomeo Pisanelli maintained, “scallions serve no other purpose than to excite the libido.”(3) Other writers were more specific. Onions were believed to be particularly felicitous to sexuality, promoting sperm production in males and lactation in women. (4) But there was always the problem of too much of a good thing… too much onion could cause headaches! Accordingly, in the instructive text he penned for students of medicine in the first decade of the 14th century, Bernard de Gordon cautioned headache sufferers to refrain from consuming fish, walnuts, onions, and strong wine.(5) Headaches aside, the repeated positive correlation of onions and coitus is, to me at least, perplexing. As noted by the first century Roman poet Martial, “As often as you have eaten the strong-smelling shoots of Tarentine leeks, give kisses with a shut mouth.”(6)

“Pori”, or Leeks, Tucuinum sanitatis, 1380s, copy in the National Library of Vienna

The Tacuinum sanitatis, a guide to healthful eating that was probably written in the 11th century and then translated from Arabic to Latin sometime in the 13th century, provides a succinct summary of the benefits to be had from leeks, or “pori”, (and, perhaps by extension other members of the allium family). Beneath a picture of a man carrying a basket brimming with the leafy sheaths of the vegetable and a woman arranging bunches of them on a table is an informative commentary. Leeks, we are told, stimulate the flow of urine and encourage sexual activity. Additionally, when mixed with honey, leeks break-up chest congestion, a notion repeated by Giacomo Castelvetro in 1614. However, one must be aware that they can assault the senses (I assume the reference is to their pungent smell and biting taste) as well as the brain! To counter these effects, the reader is instructed to mix leeks with sesame or sweet almond oil. Finally, leeks are deemed particularly appropriate for the diets of the elderly and those living in northern climes. (7)

As for Renaissance recipes that include onions… well, they are perhaps best left alone. Bartolomeo Scappi (1570) suggested adding them to fricassees of cow’s udder. I think Julia Child’s classic onion soup is the better way to go!

http://www.food.com/recipe/authentic-french-onion-soup-courtesy-of-julia-child-356428

Finally, there is yet another use for onions, one that has nothing to do with food or physiology. Years ago, I rented an apartment not far from the magnificent church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. I was on the top floor. Daily, I made the climb and daily I had to tip-toe my way through a pile of chopped – and very smelly – onions on the landing between the 2nd and 3rd floors. An enquiry explained the obstacle. A very old (it’s fair to say ‘ancient’) woman scattered them about in an attempt to keep away a pounce of black cats!

*THERIAC: compounds included as many as 80 ingredients that ranged from rue to ground rubies, honey, pepper, and myrrh as well as coral and vinegar.Its palliative effects far out-weighed any curative properties.

  1. John H. Harvey, “Vegetables in the Middle Ages,” Garden History, vol. 12, no. 2 (1984), page 94.
  2. Michael Solomon, The Literature of Misogyny in Medieval Spain (Cambridge University Press, 1997), page 100.
  3. Pisanelli, Trattato della natura de’ cibi et del bere, p. 25, as cited in Sheila McTighe, “Foods and the Body in Italian Genre Paintings, about 1580: Campi, Passarotti, Carracci,” Art Bulletin, vol. 86, no. 2 (2004), page 317.
  4. Madeleine Pelner Cosman, “A Feast for Aesculapius: Historical Diets for Asthma and Sexual Pleasure,” Annual Review of Nutrition, vol. 31, no. 1 (1983), page 6.
  5. Bernard de Gordon, Tractatus de conservation vite humane, as referenced in V. de Frutos Gonzáles and A.L. Guerrero Peral, “La neurologia en los regimina sanitatis medievales,” Nurologia, vol. 26 (2011), page 422.
  1. Brucia Witthoft, “The Tacuinum Sanitatis: A Lombard Panorama,”Gesta, vol. 17, no. 1 (1978), pages 49-60; Luisa Cogliati Arano, Tacunium sanitatis (Milan: Electa, 1973).
  1. Epigrams, book XIII. 18. For Castelvetro’s reference, see Giacomo Castelvetro, The Fruits, Herbs and Vegetables of Italy, trans. Gillian Riley (Totnes, Devon: Prospect Books, 2012), page 109.

See http://www.soupsong.com/fleek.html


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Quail… & Manna

blue quail

As I ambled through the galleries of the Cloisters Museum in Upper Manhattan the other day, my attention focused on pendant windows, 1497-1499, the only surviving stained glass from the cemetery church of Saint Salvator, Munich. Although the represented scenes were the Gathering and Transporting of Manna, the accompanying wall text referenced the rest of the Exodus story and, hence, the Miracle of Quail. Manna was not the only thing sustaining the Israelites on their flight from Egypt.

The Gathering and Transporting of Manna, circa 1497-1499

The Gathering and Transporting of Manna, circa 1497-1499

I was familiar with various aspects of the Israelites’ journey, its hardships and attendant miracles. With a change of heart, Pharaoh sent his forces to bring Moses and his people back but the chariots and horsemen were swallowed by the Red Sea. Thirst overtook the company but the bitter water of Marah was turned sweet. Hunger followed thirst. Again, God intervened, informing Moses that “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day…” (Exodus 16:4). But quail? My knowledge of the story was obviously lacking and so I read on. Then, only nine verses after the first mention of manna, there it was: the miracle of quail!

“In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning dew [man hu, or manna] lay round about the camp. And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as hoarfrost on the ground,” which, we are told in Numbers 11:7, “was like coriander seed.” It could be ground in mills, boiled in pots, and made into cakes. Clearly, manna was miraculous stuff but the daily appearance of quail at suppertime must be assessed no less extraordinary.

msdouce104f023vcoturnix, king quail

Quail have been associated with “corlew,” the Middle English term that in all likelihood refers to the true quail, or coturnix. Corlew are referenced in “The Vision of Piers Plowman,” circa 1370-1390, an allegorical poem composed of a series of visions comprising a quest for a true Christian life. In Passus XIV, lines 41-46, the character of “Patience” instructs Haukyn on how to recognize God’s merciful blessings. According to “Patience,” heavenly blessings are, as it were, food for the soul, a form of spiritual sustenance. The point “Patience” tries to make is this. Human beings are sustained by something they cannot see, touch, hear, taste, or smell. Yet this sustenance – God’s grace – is everywhere. It is like the air through which the corlew (or quail) flies. The analogy was particularly well chosen because at the time the curlew was believed to feed not grains and insects but on air.

Medieval beliefs aside, the sixteenth century quail – like other types of fowl, including capon, blackbirds, dove, pheasant, partridge, and the meat of virgin chicken (those having never laid an egg) – came to be esteemed as a noble food. Quail was counted among the “animali volatili” recommended for noble consumption by Baldassare Pisanelli in his Trattato della natura de’ cibi e del bere, first published in Rome in 1583. Pisanelli, a Bolognese doctor who authored a treatise on the plague and another on scorpions as well as the Trattato dealing with the nature of comestibles, reasoned that because birds fly they are light.* This capacity rendered them light and, consequently, easily digestible and well suited for those with delicate digestive tracks.

A version of Vincenzo Campi's Poulterers (Milan)

A version of Vincenzo Campi’s Poulterers (Milan)

Around 1580, the northern Italian artist Vincenzo Campi painted a series of five canvases of food vendors for one of Europe’s wealthiest mercantile families, the Fuggers of Augsburg. The Poulterers is among them. Like the Master of Hartford’s Still Life of Dead Birds in Rome’s Borghese Gallery, Campi’s painting presents the viewer with a display of all manner of fowl, large and small, some trussed and suspended, others living and stuffed into baskets.

Master of the Hartford Still Life

Master of the Hartford Still Life

Among the difference between Campi’s work and that of the Master of Hartford is the inclusion of two poulterers in Campi’s painting. With the carcass of a large bird slung across her lap, the woman is clearly a member of the low, working class. So, too, is the boy with a dead hare draped around his shoulders and a rebellious duck grasped in his hands.** It’s difficult not to see humor in Campi’s rustic pair but as Sheila McTighe has argued, these villani serve an additional function. Much of what they sell was perceived to be the very things they should not eat. Ducks aside, fowl was viewed as noble fare well-suited to the physiology of the highborn digestive system. “Signet [swan], capon stued [stewed], heron” as well as “crane, rabbit, chicken, partridge, peacock [‘pecok enhakyll’ – roasted & served in its plumage], egret, cock, plover, [and] quail” was proper for a king and members of his court… or so suggests the menu for the Coronation Banquet of Henry IV in 1429. Campi’s poulterers were better off eating beans, which, says Pisanelli, offered only “poor nourishment to delicate persons.”(1)

More than members of the nobility were counted among “delicate persons.” During the Renaissance, pregnant women consumed plenty of pigeon, capon, geese, and other fowl deemed appropriately delicate yet fortifying for the expectant mother. In her article “Pregnancy and Poultry in Renaissance Italy,” Jacqueline Musacchio not only illustrates a wonderful array of birth scenes, paintings of the Birth of the Virgin or that of John the Baptist, she also cites supportive personal documents, such as the record of one “Girolamo, a Florentine notary, [who] writes, ‘I record how on the 18th of September 1473 at about the 23rd hour my wife Caterina’s labor began. For this reason I bought… one fat pigeon.”(2)

Bartolomeo Scappi suggested that quail, like turtledoves, small coots, woodcocks and teal ducks, be seared on the coals. They can then be dressed with any number of sauces. Current recipes, like that of Hank Shaw, tend to concur with Scappi’s late sixteenth-century advice.

“Regardless of species, all quail roast the same. The basic rule for quail is hot and fast. Really hot and really fast. I like about 500°F for about 15 minutes or so. This will cook your little birds nicely, although they will be a little pale — a price to pay for juicy and tender meat.”

http://honest-food.net/2015/04/13/roast-quail-recipe/

As for a recipe, try adapting Lorenza de’ Medici’s “Palombe alla Ghiotta” (or wild pigeon stewed in red wine), which calls for a long cook of the birds in bath of red wine (1 quart), 3 tablespoons or so of red wine vinegar, 4 garlic cloves, a sprig of rosemary, a small bunch of sage tied together, a small onion quartered, 4 oz. prosciutto, 4 anchovy fillets in oil, 1 tablespoon capers, Lorenza da’ Medici, Florentines. A Tuscan Feast (New York: Random House, 1992), page 52.

Or… roast quail as the base for a pasta sauce!

http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/quail-sauce-for-fresh-pasta-15069

Eat on!

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(*But not all things that fly won Pisanelli’s favor. Ducks are struck from his list. Because they dwell in marshes and tend to be very rich are good for those with a stomaco di fuoco, or cast-iron stomach!)

(** As McTighe, page 311, explains, both the duck and the hare were “associated with vile stature: the hare ‘because it yields a very dirty and melancholic blood’ and the duck because of its association with an unhealthy environment of dank marshes, cold, and wet humors.”

  1. Pisanelli as quoted in Sheila McTighe, “Foods and the Body in Italian Genre Painting, about 1580: Campi, Passarotti, Carracci,” Art Bulletin, vol. 86, no. 2 (2004), page 308.
  2. Jacqueline Marie Musacchio, “Pregnancy and Poultry in Renaissance Italy,” Source: Notes in the History of Art, vol. 16, no. 2 (1997), 3-9 (Girolamo’s record, page 7).


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Borage… blossoms & “sallets”

Concerned with the health and well-being of his patients, Ububchasym de Baldach, also known as Ibn Butlân (died 1068), wrote a treatise that is, at least superficially, “a textbook of botanical specimens for medical practitioners.”(1) In Taqwin al-sihha, the Bagdad-born Christian physician reviewed the six elements he believed to be necessary for the maintenance of daily health and elimination of undue stress. This included the avoidance of certain foods, the imbibing of specific beverages, engaging in proper activities while making sure of adequate rest, attaining an equilibrium in mood (the 4 humours), etc.(2)

Ibn Butlan, Tacuinum sanitatis

Having made its way by the mid-13th century to Palermo where it was translated into Latin, Ibn Butlân’s book, now titled Tacuinum Sanitatis, arrived in Lombardy in the 14th century. There, Ibn Butlân’s words were augmented with sumptuous illustrations that do far more than visualize the characteristic shapes and colors of an impressive variety of botanical specimens. In contrast to contemporaneous herbals, the Tacuinum presents us with images of various “methods of preparing, gathering, even stealing foods and the social class likely to use a particular object.”(3) Put simply, it affords us a window into the past, pictures of life in 14th century Northern Italy. We see butchers slaughtering boar and cattle, men harvesting garlic and gathering chestnuts, women making wheat soup and collecting eggs, couples working to strain milk for ricotta and bake loaves of brown bread.

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Leafing through these early illustrated volumes – three dating to the second half of the 14th century and a fourth dating to the 15th century – one cannot help but take note of the range in leafy greens: watercress, arugula, spinach, parsley, sage, sweet flag (calamus), and the like.

Tacuinum sanitatis. Spinachfennel (feniculum)

But fragrant leaves and succulent shoots were not the only things gathered from fields and gardens. So, too, were delicate flowers: saffron, marjoram, lavender, violets, hyssop and borage. In various combinations, leaves and blossoms fed the taste for salad that began to burgeon in the 16th century, especially among Mediterranean populations!

Sebestik Kolar Dalibor, Chef at Le Bouchon, Barcelona, displays an array of spring flowers he uses to add taste and color to a variety of tapas and platillos!

Sebestik Kolar Dalibor, Chef at Le Bouchon, Barcelona, displays an array of spring flowers he uses to add taste and color to a variety of tapas and platillos!

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“Salad,” according to the naturalist Costanzo Felici da Piobbico (1525? -1585), “is a name invented solely by Italians, and it comes from salt (sale) , a part of its dressing; thus every raw green or a mixture of raw greens or something else dressed with oil and salt is called salad.”(4) Addressing the Countess of Bedford several decades later, Giacomo Castelvetro seconded Felici’s definition of “salad” with a proverb – “Insalata ben salata, poco aceto e bene oliata (Salt the salad quite a lot, then generous oil put in the pot, and vinegar, but just a jot!). To this, Castelvetro added a recipe… and a bit of culinary counsel.

Never do what the Germans and other uncouth nations do, [namely] pile the badly washed leaves… up in a mound like a pyramid, then throw on a little salt, not much oil and far too much vinegar!”

As for his recipe, its appeal has endured.

Of all the salads we [Italians] eat in the spring, the mixed salads, which I am about to describe, are the best known and loved of them all. This is how we make them [in Italy]: take young leaves of mint, those of nasturtium, basil, salad burnet, tarragon, the flowers and most tender leaves of borage, the flowers of ‘herba stella’ [buck’s horn plantain, the newborn shoots of fennel, the leaves of rocket, or sorrel, of lemon balm, rosemary flowers, some sweet violets, and the most tender leaves or the hearts of lettuce. When these precious potherbs have been picked clean and washed in several waters, and dried a little with clean linen cloth, they are dressed as usual, with oil, salt and vinegar.”(5)

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Castelvetro’s recipe bears practical witness to the list of herbs “necessary for a garden” compiled around 1525 by the Surrey landowner Thomas Fromond. ‘The Fromond List’ contains the names of 138 plants that are both useful and desirable for an estate garden. Some are ornamentals, others possess medicinal value and still others were perfect when cooked for pottage (stock enriched with vegetables) or raw when used in a salad. More than fifty of the greens and herbs on ‘The Fromond List’ appear in “The Feate of Gardening” of Mayster Jon Gardener, ca. 1350. Borage is among them.(6)

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Borage (borago officinalis) is an annual herb native to the Mediterranean that was long valued for its medicinal value. Like bugloss (anchusa officinalis), it is a member of the boraginaceae, or borage, family, which is also known as the forget-me-not family. Worldwide it comprises somewhere around 2,000 species in 146 genera.

According to Jack Sanders’ Secrets of Wildflowers, there are several tales associating the forget-me-not – or borage plant – with the Paradise of Genesis. One relates how all the plants and animals in the Garden of Eden shied away from the fallen Adam and Eve as they departed Paradise… all that is except for one. Filled with shame and forced to leave God’s perfect world, the exiting couple heard a gentle voice. It came from a patch of delicate blue flowers and urged the pair to “forget me not,” a wistful call for remembrance. Another story associated with the flower, this one German in origin, claims it came to be called the ‘forget-me-not’ as God was naming all the things of this earth. Fearing it would be overlooked, the flower begged, “Forget me not!” And so God named it.

Perhaps, the aura of these stories stands behind Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s reference to the mnemonic flower in “Evangeline, A Tale of Arcadie,” 1847.

Silently, one by one, in the infinite meadows of heaven,

Blossom the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels.”

More than five centuries before the great American poet was inspired to write – in dactylic hexameter – the epic love story of Evangeline’s quest to find her lost love, the delicate blue flower found its place in depictions of the Resurrected Christ’s encounter with Mary Magdalene, a scene commonly referred to by Jesus’s command to Mary that she not physically touch him. (John 20:17) The inclusion of forget-me-nots in paintings of the meeting known as “Noli me tangere” underscore the symbolism of resurrection as well as remembrance. Indeed, the flower’s strategic and prominent placement in images such as Giotto’s rendering of the theme in the Arena Chapel, Padua (consecrated 1305) and that by Lavinia Fontana dated 1581, which now hangs in the Uffizi, conveys in unequivocal terms the concept of renewal, regeneration and the promise of a return to paradisical life.

noli-me-tangere-1581-1images-1 images

The plant enlivening an otherwise barren and jagged cliff in the fresco of St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata in the Upper Church of San Francesco, Assisi, painted in the final years of the 1200s, is also recognizable as a forget-me-not, or borage. As in paintings of the Noli me tangere, it underscores remembrance, the enduring presence of the absent.

Stigmatization of St. Francis, Upper Church of San Francesco, Assisi, ca. 1295

Stigmatization of St. Francis, Upper Church of San Francesco, Assisi, ca. 1295

Borage flowers, or forget-me-nots, have not lost their appeal as attested by the following recipes – one dating to the 15th century, the other to the 21st.

Mixed Herb Salad (La Salade de Plusieurs Herbes)

Adapted from a 16th century French translation of a book originally written in Latin in 1474.

2 heads lettuce

1 handful young, tender borage leaves

1 handful chopped fresh mint leaves

1 handful fresh lemon-balm leaves

1 handful tender fennel shoots and flowers

1 handful fresh chervil leaves

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon oregano or marjoram flowers and leaves

salt

1/3 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons wine vinegar

  • Wash the lettuce and herbs well, dry them and place them in a large dish.
  • Sprinkle with salt, add the oil and finally the vinegar.
  • Let the salad stand a while before serving.
  • Eat the salad heartily, crunching and chewing well.

To serve 6

http://www. herb.co.za/15-borage-recipes/

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http://www.lavenderandlovage.com/2013/07/blue-on-blue-blue-blossom-salad-blue-cheese-borage-grilled-chicken-salad-recipe.html

Blue Blossom Salad: Blue Cheese, Borage & Grilled Chicken Salad

Print recipe

Serves 2 to 3

Salad

  • 100g mixed salad leaves of your choice
  • 1 large grilled or cooked chicken breast cut into cubes or small pieces (about 125g to 150g)
  • 6 to 8 cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 50g blue cheese of your choice (cubed or crumbled)
  • 10 to 12 blue borage flowers

Dressing

  • 50g blue cheese of your choice (crumbled)
  • 50mls low fat mayonnaise
  • 100mls low fat crème fraiche
  • 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar or cider apple vinegar
  • salt and pepper to taste

Note

A summery burst of blue on a plate, this salad takes full advantage of cooked chicken, which marries so well with blue cheese and dressing; the blue borage flowers add a subtle cucumber taste to the salad and makes it pretty as a picture!

Directions

Step 1 Dressing: Put the crumbled blue cheese into a jar or bowl and add the remaining ingredients, shake or mix well and adjust seasoning to taste. Thin with a little milk if the dressing is too thick.
Step 2 Salad: Arrange the salad leaves in a serving bowl and then add the cherry tomatoes before adding the cooked chicken pieces and crumbled or cubed blue cheese.
Step 3 Pour or spoon the blue cheese dressing over the salad and then scatter the borage flowers over the top.
Step 4 Serve immediately with spare dressing on the side and crusty bread.
  1. Brucia Witthoft, “The Tacuinum Sanitatis: A Lombard Panorama,” Gesta, vol. 17 (1978), page 50.
  2. http://www.moleiro.com/en/books-of-medicine/tacuinum-sanitatis.html
  3. Brucia Witthoft, “The Tacuinum Sanitatis: A Lombard Panorama,” Gesta, vol. 17 (1978), page 50.
  4. Costanza Felici da Piobbico, Lettera sulle insalate e piante che in qualunque modo vengono per cibo all’uomo, 1565, as translated in Laura Gianetti, “Italian Renaissance Food-Fashioning or the Triumph of Greens,” California Italian Studies, , vol. 1 (2010). http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/1n97s00d
  5. Giacomo Castelvetro, The Fruit, Herbs & Vegetables of Italy (1614), trans. Gillian Riley (Blackawton, Totnes: Prospect Books, 2012), pages 56-58.
  6. John H. Harvey, “Vegetables in the Middle Ages,” Garden History, vol. 12 (1984), pages 89-99. Also by Harvey, “”Garden Plants of around 1525: The Fromond List,” Garden History, vol. 17 (1989), pages 122-134.
  7. Jack Sanders, Secrets of Wildflowers: A Delightful Feast of Little-Known Facts, Folklore, and History (Washington, D.C.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2014), p. 121.


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Abstinence & Disguise

The wanton revelry of carnival is done & the Lenten season has begun. For many the next forty days will be a period of abstinence. Promises to forego chocolate, pledges to resist the temptation to devour sweet-buns and resolutions to withstand the allure of a nightly bowl of ice-cream were uttered as the gastronomic indulgences of Shrove Tuesday – the final day of mardi gras – gave way to the pious solemnity of Ash Wednesday. The transition from feasting to fasting was not, as Carol Field has stated, to be taken lightly.“The [Catholic] Church was serious about Lent: Anyone who ate meat during the designated days was kept from communion at Easter by decree of the Council of Toledo in 653. Charlemagne [ca. 742-814] actually sentenced such miscreants to death.”(1)

As the centuries passed and the Roman Catholic Church splintered into various Protestant faiths, the issue of fasting, which could be as excessive as the rapaciousness associated with feasting, was scrutinized – condemned as “vain religion” by some and defended for its spiritual cleansing effects by others. Giving-up meat meant that for forty days a diet heavy in fish was de rigueur. While this might be spiritually sustaining it was not, some believed, physically fortifying. More than a few physicians counseled that eating something that was by its very nature cold and wet simply made no sense when it was damp and frigid outside. No wonder people suffered from apoplexy, paralysis, catarrh and arthritis! (2) To this we can add that it is no wonder that foods were devised to urge patience – such as the small cookies known as “pazientini” or count down the days and weeks until Easter arrived – as do the seven fingered or seven limbed bread figures which are reduced by one appendage each passing Sunday.

an edible "advent" calendar of sorts... a leg broken off for each passing Sunday of Lent.

an edible “advent” calendar of sorts… a leg broken off for each passing Sunday of Lent.

Perhaps one of Carol Field’s most interesting asides is that had Lent not existed, “it would have had to [be] invent[ed]” since by carnival’s end, larders were low and fields were encased in ice. The bounty of autumn harvest was long gone and the abundance of summer fruits but a mirage.

Detail of a very robust "Carnival" and an emaciated "Lent" from Brueghel's Combat Between Carnival & Lent, 1559

Detail of a very robust “Carnival” and an emaciated “Lent” from Brueghel’s Combat Between Carnival & Lent, 1559

images

The juxtaposition between the excesses of carnival and the abstemious regimen of Lent is often illustrated by Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1559 painting The Combat Between Carnival and Lent. For my part, I find the masterfully illuminated calendar pages of “January” and “February” in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, ca. 1412-16, equally eloquent.

"January" Tres Riches Heures, ca. 1412-16

“January”
Tres Riches Heures, ca. 1412-16

"February" Tres Riches Heures, ca. 1412-16

“February”
Tres Riches Heures, ca. 1412-16

But in considering the Très Riches Heures image of “February” it is worth broadening the field. In 1642-43, Joachim von Sandrart (1606-1688) painted a series of works for Prince Maximilian of Bavaria’s dining room in the Old Palace in Schleissheim. Like the calendar pages in the Très Riches Heures, Sandrart’s dining room series devoted a painting to each of the 12 months. Unlike the illuminated calendar pages, which pictured activities associated with each month – feasting in January, dalliance in May, shearing sheep in July, hunting in December – Sandrart used a single figure to embody the essence of each month, its personality if you will. Here, too, we see harvesters and hunters, their expressions and postures conveying much about what they do. As for “February,” the month of frozen fields and empty larders, it is personified as a very prosperous cook. The clear hint of a prideful smile signals his delight in his endeavor… and certainly his corpulence suggests he enjoys consuming the result of his labors. Sandrart’s painting is rich and suggestive in its detail. Fowl and meat in various degrees of wholeness overflow the table in the immediate foreground. Revelers, their glasses raised high, are seen through an arched opening leading to a distant space. A few dance. But it is the portly cook, his eyes meeting ours, who commands our attention. So, too, does the dish he holds up for our inspection. What is all of this abundance? Was Sandrart depicting February as the month of carnival excess? Is this the last cavalier foray into sensorial indulgences before the quieter, meditative, abstemious days of Lent? Perhaps… but perhaps not. Maybe Sandrart was acknowledging the culinary creativity – the sleight-of-spoon-in-hand – that during periods of religious fasting transformed fish into “ham,” mashed turnips into pigeon or even a mélange of root vegetables into a peacock pie… or whatever delicacy is disguised beneath the feathers and pastries held aloft by Sandrart’s “February” chef!

Joachim von Sandraft, "February" from the series "The Months," 1642-43

Joachim von Sandraft, “February” from the series “The Months,” 1642-43

As Jennifer Davis explains, “Religious fast days provided opportunities to display prowess with culinary disguises… François La Varenne included a recipe for “ham” made from salmon farce* in his influential Le cuisinier François. Le cuisinier (The Royal and Bourgeois Cook), first published in 1691 and attributed to the royal cook Massialot, offered instructions for an entire meal of root vegetables, as had been served on Holy Friday, 1690, to Monsieur le Duc d’Orléans. Onions, turnips, and parsnips were sautéed in butter and mashed into a farce… The creative cook would then use this farce to sculpt different white fish…. Carrots and beets could be prepared similarly to imitate pink-fleshed fish, such as salmon or trout.”(3)

What, exactly, lay hidden beneath the crust and plumage that Sandrart’s cook holds up for our inspection must remain a mystery but surely it brought pleasure to the tongue just as Sandrart’s painting brings delight to the eye.

*farce, from the verb ‘farcier, meaning to stuff, it came to mean presenting things in ways that made them appear other than what they were.

  1. Carol Field, Celebrating Italy (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1990), page 384.
  2. Ken Albala, Eating Right in the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), page 202. Also see, Martha Daas, “Food for the soul: feasting and fasting in the Spanish Middle Ages,” EHumanista (September 2013).
  3. Jennifer J. Davis, “Masters of Disguise: French Cooks Between Art and Nature, 1651-1793,” Gastronomica, vol. 9 (2009), 38.


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Eating Gold

Sometime around 1400, Cennino d’Andrea Cennini wrote an instructional guide to painting which, he hoped, would benefit “anyone who wants to enter the profession.” Comprising no less than 189 chapters grouped into 9 books, Il libro dell’arte details, among other things, the best way to tint parchment, explains how to apply diverse pigments to both wet and dry plaster, and provides recipes for making glue from lime and cheese and for making tracing paper by soaking fish glue with leaf glue. There is, to be sure, advice concerning the best ways to paint the faces of the living as well as those of the dead, render foliage and capture the black opacity of a monk’s robe.  But Cennini’s book privileged the practical. As a how-to manual it instructed the painter in the basics of his art – how to make a proper brush and how to cut a quill for drawing. Cannon’s book also told the painter what he needed to know about the use of gold. To this end – and reflecting the prominence of the luminous metal in the paintings of this period – Cennini discussed everything from the material’s purchase to its grinding for use as color.

“… if [for example] you want to make a tree to look like one in Paradise, take a number of leaves of fine gold (gold beaten into very thin, flat strips)… say ten or twenty leaves. Put them on your porphyry slab, and work this gold up well with some well-beaten egg white, and then put it into a small glazed dish. Put in enough tempera to make it flow from the quill or brush.” (book IX, chapter 160)

detail of late trecento painting showing the use of goldimages

Approximately twenty years after Cennini counseled artists on how to “grind,” “beat,” “whisk,” “boil,” and “bake on the fire” all manner of ingredients into concoctions for varnishing, glazing and gilding images, the impresario of cuisine at the Savoyard court of Amadeus VIII (1383-1451), Maître Chiquart, devised a two day banquet that he hoped would please his patron. He recorded the event – and all that he required to pull it off – in Du fait de cuisine, 1420.

detail, January page showing a banquet at the Court of the Duke of Berry, ca. 1416/7

detail, January page showing a banquet at the Court of the Duke of Berry, ca. 1416/7

Like Cellini, Chiquart made use of gold…. no less than 18 pounds of it in the form of thin foil-like sheets! All of this gold needs to be kept in perspective. It was used to embellish the offering of “100 well-fattened cattle, 130 sheep, also well- fattened, 120 pigs; and for each day during the feast [an additional] 100 piglets…. [plus] 200 kids and lambs, 100 calves, and 2,000 head of poultry” and 6,000 eggs. This was by no means the limit of offerings. Other delicacies included venison, hare, partridge, pheasant, crane, heron and “whatever wild birds” that could be found.

Pleasing a patron’s palette was not Chiquart’s sole objective. He also aimed to intrigue the eye of Amadeus VIII with a colorful and glistening display of artful food creations. With this coupled goal in mind, the Savoyard master cook made sure to have on hand “for the said feast… two charges of the major spices, that is white ginger, Mecca ginger, cinnamon, grains of paradise, and pepper. The minor spices: of nutmeg six pounds, of cloves six pounds, of mace six pounds, and of galingale six pounds; again, 30 loaves of sugar, 25 pounds of saffron, 6 charges of almonds, one charge of rice, 30 pounds of amydon, 12 baskets of candied raisins, 12 baskets of good candied figs, 8 baskets of candied prunes, a quintal of dates, 40 pounds of pine nuts, 18 pounds of turnsole, 18 pounds of alkanet, 18 pounds of gold leaf, one pound of camphor, one hundred ells of good and fine tissue for straining; and these things are for nothing but the use of the kitchen. And again, there should be for the said feast two hundred boxes of sugar-spice pellets [dragié] of all sorts and colors to put on potages.”

As in the world of painting, so in the realm of courtly cuisine: Color Counted. Thus, just as Cennini used saffron and turmeric in order to create a yellow distinguishable from ochre, which is “found in the earth of the mountains” (book II, chapter 49), so did cooks gild meats, fish and even vegetables with these golden yellow spices as well as with egg yolk. (Anyone who has gone blackberry, blueberry or cherry picking knows first hand the colorful staining effects of fruit! These were used in Medieval and Renaissance kitchens to good effect!  – See Hannele Klemettila, The Medieval Kitchen, London, 2012, pages 123-125.)

earth rich in iron oxide

earth rich in iron oxide

bundles of saffron threads

bundles of saffron threads

It is not always easy to determine when gold vs. saffron vs. egg yolk created the desired glorious effect. Within a decade of Maître Chiquart’s composing of Du fait de cuysine, England celebrated the crowning of King Henry VI (still only 8 years old). John Lydgate recorded the menus of the extravagant celebration in “The Soteltes and Coronation Banquet of Henry VI” [November 6, 1429].

“This was the first cours at his coronacion, that is to say, first, ffurmentie [a concoction of grain boiled with sweetened or almond milk], with venison. Viande Royal [a sweet jellied dish] plantid with losenges of golde [that is, sliced into geometrical sections that were then dyed with saffron]. Borehedes in castelles of earmed with golde [boar’s head in pastry castles decorated with gold]. Beef. Moton. Signet [swan]. Capon stued. Heron. Grete pike. A redde lech [a leche was any firm or congealed dish, such as a jelly or pudding, that could be sliced] with lions corven theryn of white. Custade Rooial with a leparde of golde sittyng theryn. Fritour like a sonne with a flour de lice therynne’ [i.e., a fritter in the shape of the sun with a fleur-de-lis in the center].”  (- See: Robert Epstein, “Eating Their Words: Food and Text in the Coronation Banquet of Henry VI,” Journal of Medieval & Early Modern Studies, vol. 36 (2006), pages 359-360.)

The “Soteltes” to which John Lydgate referred were figurative food displays presented with each course. Over time these illustrative tableaux, which were probably made of colored sugar or marzipan, became more elaborate until they ceased to be consumed. Regardless of their role, whether as part of the meal or, instead, a visual attraction to be enjoyed as one dined, these culinary creations point to the close connection between food and sculpture.

The connection is not at all surprising. As both Cennini and Chiquart make clear, their respective arts of painting and cooking involved the transformation of one or more materials into something else by means of a prescribed process, or recipe, that often required raw materials to be combined then altered, sometimes by dissolving one ingredient into another and sometimes by heat.

Chocolate Sundae with gold & diamonds

Chocolate Sundae with gold & diamonds

A recent and wonderful meal that offered up a gold-coated chocolate extravaganza for dessert was the catalyst for this post. As the bill for the evening’s fare would attest, I delighted in a pauper’s version of such things. Back in January of 2009, a Wall Street Journal blog featured an article titled “Why the Rich Like to Eat Gold.” The star example cited was a Haute Chocolate Ice-cream Sundae – the chocolate used cost a paltry $2,600.00 – that was ornamented with 18 karat gold and studded with white diamonds. Cost for this delicacy: $25,000.00!  But do not think that gold is – or was – limited to the fantastic finale of a meal. Using gold leaf like we would use aluminum foil, cooks in Chiquart’s day famously covered the cooked head of boar to create a trompe l’oeil effect… it looked like a gilded piece of sculpture. As for gilded delights of our own age, try a pizza featuring 24 karat gold leaves rather than pepperoni!

24 karat gold leaf on pizza $4,200)

The impoverished Pulcinella would pass-out at the mere thought of such a delicacy!

For Chiquart, see: See: http://daviddfriedman.com/Medieval/Cookbooks/Du_Fait_de_Cuisine/Du_fait_de_Cuisine.html#50

For The Wall Street Journal post, See: http://blogs.wsj.com/wealth/2009/01/16/why-the-rich-like-to-eat-gold/


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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!”
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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.
http://asia.si.edu/shiota/

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.
http://esmeralda-rosa.blogspot.com/2014/01/scarpetta-di-santilario.html

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)

th-6

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!

th-1

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.