food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs

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Pear – roasted or poached but never raw


Giovanna Garzoni

Shrove Tuesday is upon us and the raucous pleasures of Carnival come to a close for another year. But Valentine’s Day is less than a week away and so delights remain to be had! It is the combination, or ‘pairing,’ of these two events – the on-set of a meatless season & the prospect of happy coupling – that has inspired this post on pears. The word play between pear & pair is just too good to ignore. As for the conclusion of Carnival, which derives from the Latin carne vale, or ‘good-bye to meat,’ consider the pairing of pears and cheese. Not only is cheese a viable and delectable substitute for meat but the marriage of pears and cheese worked to the same medicinal end in medieval medical theory. Coming at the conclusion of a meal, a fruit and cheese course was believed to “seal” the stomach! (1)


Pliny the Elder (23-79 C.E.) noted no less than 41 varieties of pear in his encyclopedic Natural History (book 15, chapter 16). By the beginning of the 18th century that number had almost tripled. A large painting by Bartolomeo Bimbi (1648-1729) makes the point.


Bartolomeo Bimbi’s painting of pears, 1699

Like Jacopo Ligozzi (1547-1627) and Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670) before him, Bimbi was employed to record the flora beloved by the Medici dukes. Putting brush to canvas in 1699, Bimbi painted for Duke Cosimo III what has been characterized as an “inventory” of the 115 known types of pears. The painting is large – it measures approximately 5 ½ x 7 ½ feet – and the array of pears impressive. Piled in baskets, platters, and on the marble tabletop, Bimbi’s assemblage of pears is as colorful as any artist’s palette. Some are red. Others are yellow or green. A few, most notably the Worcester (or Warden) pear, are purplish black. And then there are those that are a blend of colors. (2)

Worcester Black Pear

The Worcester or Black Pear. Also known as the Warden Pear. “I must have saffron to color the Warden Pie.” – Shakespeare, Winter’s Tale 4.3.48

Surely Bimbi’s painting is a display worthy of a botanical treatise but did everyone see it as an enticing presentation? The jury is out, at least it was out in the Renaissance. The very thing that helped distinguish the pear as a “noble” fruit– its delicate flavor, perfume, and flesh – was the very thing that made some shy away. Pears have dark spots and, when ripe and at their most luscious, bruise quite easily. Thus in 1614, Giacomo Castelvetro praised the Bergamot pear but added a caveat. It turns “yellow as it ripens [and] is full of a delicate juice quite unlike anything else. Its only fault is that it does not keep well.” (3)

Bergamot pear

Bergamot Pears

It is this concern with perishability that gave rise to a medical advisory in Harrington’s The Englishman’s Doctor: Or the Schoole of Salerne, 1607.

“Raw pears a poison, baked, a medicine be.”(4)

Harrington’s opinion on the benefits of cooked pears was preceded by the commentary Master Chiquart Amiczo, who was chef to the House of Savoy, appended to a recipe for pears in his Du fait de cuisine, 1420. He advised that once you are sure that the pears “have cooked enough,” allow them to cool then “put them out into fine silver dishes; then they [can be] borne to the sick person.”(5)


But for many of the period, pears were simply too susceptible to rot. More to the point, their putrefaction was deemed unhealthy. As Thomas Cogan put it in The Haven of Health, first edition 1584,

“That peares may not hurt thee, take out the coares; Pare them, and salt them, & cast them out of doors.”(6)

Thankfully, the problem of pear consumption was easily remedied. Forget biting into a juicy raw pear. Eat only those that have been roasted or poached. In fact, the eminent chef Martino of Como included an entry on “How to prepare rotten pears or bruised pears or apple-pears” in his Art of Cooking, circa 1465.

The directions are simple. Clean the pear, Roast it over hot coals then marinade in wine that has been spiced with “a generous amount of cinnamon.” I suggest adding whole cloves, cardamom pods, and black peppercorns as well!

There was not a lot new about Martino’s approach. At the close of the fifth century, Gelasius I, who is credited with coming up with the idea of crêpes, suggested filling the delicate pancakes with sliced pears that had been poached in syrup… and don’t forget the magical last step. Drizzle the pear-stuffed crêpe with liquor.(7)

Perhaps my favorite pear recipe comes from an heir of Bartolomeo Bimbi’s patron. In Florentines: A Tuscan Feast, Lorenza de’ Medici provides the following recipe:



1 stick butter, softened

scant 1 ½ cups flour

1 egg

scant ½ cup fine sugar

½ cup cocoa powder

2 ½ tablespoons orange marmalade

2 pears


3 ½ oz. bittersweet chocolate

4 tablespoons butter

2 eggs, separated

½ cup fine sugar

Make a dough with the butter, flour, egg, sugar, and cocoa powder.Line an 8” tart pan with the dough, press to cover bottom of pan; Spread with marmalade. Peel, core & quarter pears then slice. Arrange them artfully in the dough case.

To make FILLING, melt chocolate and butter over low heat, then set aside to cool. Beat egg whites until stiff. Beat egg yolks and sugar very well (until pale & fluffy). Add chocolate mixture and fold in beaten egg whites. Pour the mixture over the pears. Bake in preheated 350 degree oven for about 40 minutes. – Lorenza de’Medici, Florentines: A Tuscan Feast (New York: Random House, 1992), page 99.


For a variation on the theme, try this one from:




¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter (at room temperature)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
½ cup packed light brown sugar
2 ripe pears (Bosc or Bartlett) peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
⅓ cup unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa powder
⅔ cup boiling water
4 large egg yolks
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1½ cups sifted cake flour
1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves


Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Melt ¼ cup of the butter in a cast iron skillet over medium heat. Stir in the brown sugar until well combined and remove the skillet from the heat. Arrange the pear slices in tight, overlapping circles on top of the sugar mixture, with the thin ends facing toward the center. Brush the sides of the plan with the melted butter.

In a small bowl, whisk together the cocoa powder and boiling water. Let the mixture cool to room temperature. In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, one quarter of the cocoa mixture, and the vanilla.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, lightly mix together the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and cloves. Beat in the remaining 10 tablespoons of the butter and the remaining cocoa mixture. Beat on medium speed for 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides. Beat in the egg mixture, a third at a time, beating the mixture for 15-20 seconds between each addition.

Spoon the batter over the pears, smoothing it evenly with an offset spatula. Bake until a toothpick emerges clean, 40-45 minutes. Remove skillet from the oven and let the cake cool for 5 minutes in the pan on a wire rack. Run an offset spatula around the edges of the cake. Place a large plate on top of the skillet and carefully flip the cake over onto the plate. Let the cake stand for 2 minutes before lifting the skillet. Cool completely before serving.

Makes 1 10-inch cake

Recipe from Brian Nicholson and Sarah Huck’s Fruitful: Four Seasons of Fresh Fruit Recipes(Running Press, 2014)



And one final Valentine’s Day thought concerning enjoying food in the company of one’s beloved. It comes from Pietro Aretino (1492-1556)

“When she ate she seemed to be gilding the food; and when she drank she gave flavor to the wine.”



  1. Massimo Montanari, Cheese, Pears, & History in a Proverb, trans. Beth Archer Brombert (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010). The proverb in question is: “Al contadino non far sapere quanto è buono il formaggio con le pere,” or “Do not let the peasant know how good cheese is with pears.” As Meryl S. Rosofsky states in a review in the journal Gastronomica (summer 2012), pages 111-112, Montanari “places the proverb in the ‘tradition of the rustic,’” ultimately positioning it as an emblem of class conflict.” In part, the conflict recognizes the fact that it is the peasant who makes the cheese and harvests the fruit. Of course he knows how good it is!
  2. Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi and Gretchen A. Hirschauer, The Flowering of Florence: Botanical Art for the Medici (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art in Association with Lund Humphries, 200), pages 91-92.
  3. Giacomo Castelvetro, The Fruit, Herbs and Vegetables of Italy (1614), trans. Gillian Riley (Totnes, Devon: Prospect Books, 2012), page 88.
  4. David Gentilcore, Food and Health in Early Modern Europe. Diet, Medicine and Society, 1450-1800 (London: Bloomsbury Academic2016), page 117.
  5. Terence Scully, Chiquart’s “On Cookery”: A Fifteenth-Century Savoyard Culinary Treatise (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1986), page 108.
  6. Ken Albala, Eating Right in the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), page 102.
  7. Mariangela Rinaldi and Mariangela Vicini, Buon Appetito, Your Holiness. The Secrets of the Papal Table, trans. Adam Victor (New York: Arcade, 2000), pages 41-43.

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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.