food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs

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Butter… & curd



Let’s start with the basics. It’s a matter of language… butter versus curd.

“In simple terms butter is an edible fatty solid made from cream and milk by the process of churning.” In fact, it’s quite fatty, containing at least 80% butterfat by current industry standards. By contrast, “curd is a soft, white substance formed when milk coagulates” either because it has soured or been treated with enzymes. This coagulated milk is “used as the basis for cheese.”[i] Just for the record, and with the following rhyme in mind,

Little Miss Muffet

Sat on a tuffet,

Eating her curds and whey…,

whey is the liquid that’s left after milk has curdled and been strained in the cheese-making process.[ii]


So much for the basics!

Butter and curd are decidedly not the same thing. And certainly no self-respecting cook or host would substitute one for the other at table! But as obvious as the distinction might seem, the difference between butter and curd is not clear… at least if you read the Bible. In fact, one edition of the Bible uses the word butter while another uses the term curd.

I’m not sure how I started down this path but it began in earnest when I consulted a Concordance, an index of principal terms found in the Bible. My Concordance, a wonderful leather-bound volume that I found years ago at a yard sale, was published in 1845. In it butter has a comparatively impressive presence with no less than ten Old Testament passages cited. With these citations in hand, I began leafing through different editions of this incredible text. It took only moments to discover that I was confronting a challenge. I couldn’t find any of the cited references to “butter” in either the Revised Standard Version of the Catholic Holy Bible or in the Holy Scriptures published by The Jewish Publication Society of America in 1966. In its stead was the word “curd.” Curious and undaunted by this language substitution, I next turned to The Authorized King James Version of the Bible published by Oxford University Press in 1944. In this edition of Holy Scripture the word “butter” did, in fact, appear. Moreover, it did so precisely as my Concordance of 1845 had noted. What’s this all about? An attempt at an explanation is, I think, required.


——– butter churns & firkins used for storage


Before considering this and several of the passages in question, it is, I think, worth mentioning that my Concordance indexed “curd” only once. The passage itself, Job 10:10, doesn’t use the noun curd but rather the verb “curdled.” Notably, all three of the editions of the Bible that I consulted – the Catholic Holy Bible, the Holy Scriptures published by The Jewish Publication Society and the King James Bible – used the same word: “curd”. Here, there are no butter substitutions!

Remember that Thou hast made me of clay [says Job];

And wilt Thou not turn me to dust again?

Didst Thou not [also] pour me out like milk and curdle me like cheese?[iii]


——- History of Job, manuscript illumination, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Department                        des manuscripts, Latin 15675, folio 5v.

There are two possible ways to read this. One takes into consideration the idiomatic meaning of “to curdle,” as in ‘it made my blood curdle with fear and terror.’ Let’s face it, the “sore boils” that blistered Job’s body from head to toe can be understood as disfigurements that resembled lumps of soured milk that would cause anyone’s blood to curdle with horror!

The second possibility is far more palatable but it also calls for thinking creatively. On the one hand, it requires that we visualize in our mind’s eye what curd looks like. (Think cottage cheese!!!) On the other, it asks us to imagine what butter looks like after it has been shaped and molded in wondrous ways.

For centuries, butter has been a medium for sculpture. Bartolomeo Scappi, for example, made note in 1571 of several butter sculptures featured at a banquet, including “an elephant with a castle on its back” (a personal favorite) and “a unicorn that has its horn in the mouth of a serpent.”[iv]


In more recent history, Caroline Shaw Brooks (1840-1913), the enterprising wife of an Arkansas farmer, produced the greatly celebrated butter sculpture Dreaming Iolanthe, 1873.[v] With that in mind, consider the single biblical reference to curd. To me, it can be read as anticipating the later use of butter as a medium of sculpture. In Job 10:10, God is characterized as a sculptor. Not only is He the creator of Adam and Eve, having modeled both of clay (Genesis 2: 27), He is also cast as a sculptor (if you will) for here he gives shape to poor Job’s face and body by “curdling” it with soured milk!

As for Caroline Brooks, she was by no means the first sculptor to use butter as a material suited to the art of modeling. Horatio Greenough (1805-1852), the artist responsible for the marble statue of a toga-clad and very oratorical George Washington (1832), was said to have displayed his craft of butter sculpting before a coterie of ladies enjoying tea with his mother. Antonio Canova (1757-1822), the master famed for, among other works, a recumbent and suggestively [un]covered statue of Pauline Borghese (1805-08), also was said to have sculpted butter. Working as a lowly scullery boy, he molded a lion that won him some serious financial backing.[vi]


—– Minnesota State Capitol modeled of butter

The stories about Greenough and Canova may belong to the world of myth and conceit but Brooks was the real deal. Instead of wielding a hammer and chisel she shaped and etched figures with butter paddles, cedar sticks, broom straws, and a camel’s hair pencil! Clearly, she was in the vanguard. More than two decades after Brooks’ Dreaming Iolanthe garnered critical acclaim, butter sculpture began to come into its own in the arena of the fair, if not in the world of art. Among the featured exhibits at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York in 1901, was a rendering in butter of Minnesota’s State Capitol. Measuring over eleven feet in length and five feet in height, the work had kept John K. Daniels and his brother Hacon Daniels busy for at least fifteen hours a day, every day for more than five weeks. A fitting, albeit ephemeral, tribute to the “bread & butter state,” Minnesota, which sponsored the Exposition project![vii]

But back to butter versus curd.

I will settle the issue of terminology with Pliny the Elder’s first century, encyclopedic compendium concerning “the nature of things,” The Natural History. Butter, or butyrum in Latin and βούτυρον in Greek, means quite simply “cow cheese.” Let’s now face facts. “Cow cheese” is precisely the stuff of curd and butter so let’s go with butter as the catch-all term.

Pliny did more than supply us with a working definition of butter. He addressed the issue of its consumption. Butter, he informs us, is “held as the most delicate of food among barbarous nations, and one which distinguishes the wealthy from the multitude at large.”[viii] Writing several decades before Pliny, Strabo put a different spin on butter-eaters. Mysians, who dwelled in ancient northwest Asia Minor, or Anatolia (present day Turkey), abstained from eating meat, preferring to live on honey, milk and cheese. Perhaps because they shunned slaughter, they lived, according to Strabo, “a peaceable life, and for this reason are called… god-fearing.”[ix] Here, Strabo implies that there is something righteous about milk-products, including cow-cheese or curd or butter. So, too, do many of the biblical references noted in my Concordance.


In Genesis 18: 8, for example, butter is one of the comestibles that the God-fearing, devout, and virtuous Abraham set before the angelic strangers who visited him just before the destruction of the sin-ridden city of Sodom. The significance of the meal offered by Abraham is explained in, among other places, Deuteronomy 32: 13-14. Here butter joins honey as well as the “finest of wheat” and “the blood of grape” (wine) as the food that God bestows upon the righteous. No wonder then that in Isaiah 7: 14-15, a passage understood as foretelling the coming of Christ, we read the following.

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.

Behold a young woman shall conceive and bear a son

and shall call him Immanuel.

He shall eat butter and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.”

I don’t want to push the equation of butter and godliness too far. Neither do I want to suggest that keeping idle – female – hands busy with the butter churn was a way to keep the fairer sex out of the proverbial playground of the devil. That’s me reading into a text! The truth is that butter, or at least the task of churning milk into butter, had its fair share of devilish overtones and undercurrents. Popular imagination saw pixies in the cream! Hence, for centuries, churners chanted charms when cream proved slow to clot. They did so with the hope of countering any and all spirits that might hinder their labor.

“Come, butter, come,

Come, butter, come;

Peter stands at the gate

Waiting for a butter cake.

Come, butter, come.”

According to Iona and Peter Opie, the editors of The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, there is more than a little evidence to suggest chanting while churning was a widespread and long-lived practice. “Supernatural aid has been consistently called upon through more than 400 years of Protestantism. Thomas Ady, writing in 1656, knew an old woman who said the butter would come straight away if it [“butter, come, butter”] was repeated three times, ‘for it was taught [to] my Mother by a learned Church-man in Queen Maries days, when Churchmen had more cunning and could teach people many a trick.’”[x]

If all of this is just too unpalatable for the secular at heart, dump the milk and try the following recipe from Giovanni de Rosselli’s Epilario, or the Italian Banquet…, 1516. “To counterfeit butter,” grind 1 pound of blanched almonds with half a glass of rosewater, add a bit of sugar and, to make it yellow, some saffron. Let the mixture thicken over night and presto![xi]

Otherwise make your “cow cheese” even more delectable by following the recommendation in Hugh Plat’s Delights for Ladies to Adorn their Persons, Tables, Closets, and Distilleries, with Beauties, Banquets, Perfumes and Waters, 1603, which explains “How to make sundry sorts of most daintie Butter, having a lively taste of Sage, Cinamon [sic.], Nutmegs, Mace, etc.” Simply mix into your churned butter a few drops of oil extracted from one of the above listed herbs and spices. Delicious!

For my part, I’m going to slather some of the creamiest of butters on a slice of bread right now!



Ina Garten’s Recipe  for Herb Butter
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced scallions (white and green parts)
1 tablespoon minced fresh dill
1 tablespoon minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Combine the butter, garlic, scallions, dill, parsley, lemon juice, salt and pepper in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Beat until mixed, but do not whip.
2012, Ina Garten, All Rights Reserved




[ii] During the long medieval period, butter was a rarity in winter months when cattle had little to graze upon. The new shoots of spring led ultimately to the sweetest butter being churned in the month of May, as both Mikael Agricola (ca. 1510-1557) and Bartolomeo Scappi (ca. 1500-1577) observed.

[iii] Here, and throughout unless otherwise noted, I use the Holy Bible, revised version, Catholic Edition, 1952 translation for the Old Testament.

[iv] Bartolomeo Scappi, The Art and Craft of a Master Cook in Terence Scully, The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570) (Toronto University Press, 2011), page 398.

[v] Pamela M. Simpson, “Butter Cows and Butter Buildings. A History of an Unconventional Sculptural Medium,” Winterthur Portfolio, vol. 41, no. 1 (2007), pages 1-20.

[vi] Simpson, “Butter Cows and Butter Buildings. A History of an Unconventional Sculptural Medium,” page 2, note 6.

[vii] Karal Ann Marling, “’She Brought Forth Butter in a Lordly Dish’: The Origins of Minnesota Butter Sculpture,” Minnesota History, vol. 50, no. 6 (1987), pages 218-228, specifically page 223.

[viii] Pliny, The Natural History, translated by John Bostock and H.T. Riley (London: Taylor and Francis, 1855), book 28, chapter 35.

[ix] Strabo, Geography, book 7, chapter 3. https://books.google.com/books?id=xjIzAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA454&lpg=PA454&dq=Strabo+%22capnobatae%22&source=bl&ots=h2pANDkj-W&sig=75vWElcxj-sItWzLPgHqBP25ml0&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi4o-yokOPRAhWO8oMKHSFqDKQQ6AEIIzAC#v=onepage&q=Strabo%20%22capnobatae%22&f=false

Accessed January 27, 2017.

[x] Iona and Peter Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pages 124-125, rhyme no. 85.

[xi] Giovanni de Rosselli, Epilario, or the Italian Banquet Wherein is Shewed the Maner How to Dresse and Prepare all Kind of Flesh, Foules or Fishes. As Also How to Make Sauces, Tartes, Pies. With an Addition of Many Other Profitable and Necessary Things (London: William Barley, 1598), n.p.

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Skeletons on the table!


Think centerpiece… How about a construction of willow, fern, and flowers or perhaps an ensemble of candles artfully arranged around a blown glass figurine, or maybe a small flock of swans carved in ice? All are prosaic when compared with the creations – sometimes revealed as a parade of fanciful dishes – that in fact and fiction graced ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque banquet tables.(1) Consider, for example, this tidbit of culinary performance in Petronius’s mid-1st century Satyricon (36).


“ ‘This is sauce for the dinner.’ As [Trimalchio, the host] spoke, four dancers ran up in time with the music and took off the top part of the dish. Then we saw… fat fowls and sow bellies, and in the middle there was a hare with wings like Pegasus. Four figures of [the satyr] Marsyas positioned at each corner of the plate also caught the eye; they let a spiced sauce run from their wine-skin [flasks] over the fish swimming about in a kind of sauce tide.”

If Petronius’s imagination is too much for one’s credulity to swallow, then consider the elaborate sugar sculptures recorded in etchings by the Dutch artist Arnold van Westerhout (1651-1725) after confectionary creations by Giovanni Battista Lenardi (1656-1704).(2) (see my earlier post, “Sugar… and ingegno)

Westerhout sugar sculpturejpg

To these impressive images-of-record we can add Bartolomeo Scappi’s brief notations concerning some statue di butiro, or butter sculptures, in his Art and Craft of a Master Cook, 1570:

“An elephant with a castle on its back,” “Hercules wrenching the jaw of a lion,” and “a Moorish king astride a camel.” (3)

But these wonderful molded concoctions and constructions were not the only things placed amid an abundance of dishes, bowls, and platters featuring the diversity and fecundity of nature as well as the creativity of those manipulating it. Again, I turn to Petronius’s Satyricon (34) and the banquet of excess known as the Cena Trimalchionis.


“As we were poring over the labels [proclaiming that the wine had spent ‘100 years in the bottle’], Trimalchio clapped his hands and cried, ‘Ah me, wine lives longer than miserable man. So let us be merry.”

Trimalchio’s declaration was accompanied by an object; a small “silver skeleton made so that its joints and sockets could be moved and bent in every direction.”


These skeletons are noted with a fair amount of frequency in the literature on the ancient Roman table and its customs but I never focused on them until I saw one in the exhibition “Nutrire l’impero. Storie di alimentazione da Roma e Pompei” at the Museum of the Ara Pacis in Rome in the fall of 2015. (4) The small, bronze figure – a larva convivialis – is one of only ten or so that have survived from antiquity into the modern era. As Petronius’s text suggests, the skeleton is meant as a reminder of our mortality, hence carpe diem, seize the day, eat, drink, and be merry! Yet these little skeletons do something else. They are a material example of the close ties that bind food and drink to death in both the ritualized practices surrounding grief and loss and in the carefree frivolity of popular festivals associated with, for example, the Day of the Dead and Lent. (5)


In fact, the Victorian practice of picnicking at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia (where I live) remains alive and well! http://www.thebolditalic.com/articles/5891-how-to-picnic-right-at-hollywood-forever-cemetery

The union of joyful feasting and the less than palatable prospect of a death had some interesting iterations over the centuries. In Renaissance Italy young men of patrician rank and some of the most renowned artistic talents of the day organized themselves into compagnie to express youthful exuberance and exhibit impressive talents. Sporting names such as The Company of Hose (as in hosiery), The Company of the [Mason’s] Trowel, and the Company of the Cauldron, these compagnie had a typical “membership” of one or two-dozen men. Imbibing copiously, company members enjoyed banquets worthy of Petronius’s Cena Trimalchionis with its acrobatic performances, mock combats, and poetical recitations. During the 16th century, courses were punctuated with theatrical interludes (intermezzi), short farces, costume contests, and, especially in Venice, masked dances and pageantry (momarie). Humor generally attended such revelry but sometimes the death cast its shadow over an evening’s lightheartedness.

The painter and art critic/historian Giorgio Vasari recounted one such occasion in his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, 2nd edition, 1568. It was a banquet staged by the men of the Company of the Cazzuola, or mason’s trowel, that had as its theme the myth of Pluto’s abduction of Proserpine, the daughter of the goddess of agriculture and fecundity. That evening, the assembled company had an objective. They were to descend to the “infernal regions” of Hades over which Pluto ruled. Their assigned task was to assist Proserpine’s mother in liberating the maiden from the clutches of lord of death and dark. As Vasari tells the tale,

“The invitation [to assist in the rescue] was accepted. Whereupon, all having entered through that mouth [of Hell], which was full of teeth, and which, being hung on hinges, opened to each couple of men who entered, and then shut again, and which had no light but a very little one in the center… they could hardly see one another. There, having been pushed into their seats with a great fork by a most hideous Devil who was in the middle beside tables draped in black, Pluto commanded” that his marriage to Proserpine be conducted. “Now in that room were painted all the chasms of the regions of the damned, with their pains and their torments.”

As for the food, it appeared to be all manner of “animals vile and most hideous … but within, under the loathly covering” of pastry, were the “most delicate meats of many kinds.”

But “bats,” “lizards,” “toads,” and “scorpions” were not the only thing on the table. So was a Renaissance version of Trimalchio’s skeleton. There were, says Vasari, “dead men’s bones” (ossa di morti), confections set within a reliquary fashioned of sugary fruits!(6)

All of this stands in stark contrast to the decoration and mealtime practices in medieval monasteries.

The refectory, or dining area, in Europe’s 13th century monasteries was a significant place of gathering for cloistered communities. Consequently, the arrangement of the tables in relationship to the art on the walls served a didactic role. At Cluny, Monte Cassino, and other monasteries a refectory was “a place of corporeal punishment.”

“Infractions in the refectory were corrected in front of the abbot’s table often situated before a Majesty or Judgment picture. A painting of the Last Judgment, showing Christ meting out justice, was germane in [this] penitential context.” This, together with images emphasizing abstinence, gluttony was condemned and mortification of the body imposed. (7)

Would the ever-famished Pulcinella have been able to stomach all of this? Regardless of whether it was the fantastically horrific constructs gracing the banquet table at the Company of the Trowel or the monastic meal of meager sustenance (but spiritual fullness) eaten under the critical eye of a painting of a judgmental Christ, I know I would find swallowing a difficult task!



As an addenda, here is a recipe fit for Pulcinella!

Recipe: Cooking-With-Nothing Spaghetti





  1. For a recent, informative survey, see The Edible Monument. The Art of Food for Festivals, edited by Marcia Reed (Los Angeles: The Getty Institute, 2015).
  2. The Edible Monument. The Art of Food for Festivals, edited by Marcia Reed, pages 112-113, figures 1-3. Also see my earlier post “Sugar… and ingegno”.
  3. The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570), Terence Scully commentary and translation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), page 398. There is a new and terrific addition to the literature on Scappi. Deborah L. Krohn, Food and Knowledge in Renaissance Italy. Bartolomeo Scappi’s Paper Kitchens (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2015.
  4. Nutrire l’impero. Storie di alimentazione da Roma e Pompei, Claudio Parisi Presicce and Orietta Rossini, eds. (‘L’Erma’ di Bretschneider, 2015), page 214, cat. no. R69. Also see the very informative site: http://www.lifeandland.org/2009/02/skeletons-on-the-table/
  5. For a brief and wonderful survey, see Jane Levi, “Melancholy and Mourning. Black Banquets and Funerary Feasts,” Gastronomica, vol. 12 (winter 2012), pages 96-103.
  6. Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, Gaston Du C. de Vere, trans. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1979), vol. 3, page 1715. The account is included in the biography of Giovan Francesco Rustici. The Italian is in Gaetano Milanesi, editor (Florence: Sansoni, 1906), vol. 6: page 616.
  7. I have relied on the dissertation of Irene Kabala, “Medieval decorated refectories in France, Italy and England until 1250 (The Johns Hopkins University, 2001).




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.

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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.



Even the most casual of wanderers through the great Cathedral in Cusco, Peru, cannot miss the monumental painting of “The Last Supper” by Marcos Zapata (ca. 1710-1773). The imagery is readily recognizable. Surrounded by the apostles and distinguished by an aureole of divine light, Christ holds a loaf of bread in his left hand and raises his right in a gesture of benediction. Bread, however, is not the only food to be consumed at this sacred meal. Carafes of wine (or, possibly, chicha made of fermented maize) as well as two platters laden with fruits and ears of corn are on the table. But the centerpiece – quite literally for it occupies the middle of the table and, hence, the center of the canvas  – is a roasted “cuy” or guinea pig. The Peruvian Quechua artist has painted what he knew. Cuy (cuye or curi) was traditionally reserved for ceremonial meals.





The roasted guinea pig – its little clawed feet pointed heavenward – caused Zapata’s “Last Supper” to be imprinted in my visual memory. The detail also encouraged me to take a careful look at what is featured for dinner in other Renaissance and Baroque paintings. And so it was that on a recent trip to the Cleveland Museum of Art I took notice of Giovanni Battista Piazzetta’s oil painting “Supper at Emmaus,” circa 1720. Recounted in the Gospels of Luke and Mark, the story goes like this. Walking towards the town of Emmaus after Jesus’s Crucifixion, two apostles meet a stranger. The pair invites the stranger to join them for dinner. He agrees. It is only when the unrecognized man breaks bread that “their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and He vanished out of their sight” (Luke 24:31). In depicting this story, which is one of the early resurrection appearances of Christ related in the Bible, Piazzetta – like Zapata – decided to set the supper table with food other than the traditional Eucharistic bread and wine. Piazzetta’s supper at Emmaus also includes a plate piled high with asparagus.



Wild and cultivated asparagus has graced tables for centuries. The Roman M. Gavinus Apicius – who, according to Seneca and Martial, made a fortune – provided a couple of recipes for his late 4th and 5th century readers. They involve crushing asparagus tips in wine, draining the mashed tips then adding an assortment of flavoring ingredients: coriander, savory, lovage seeds, and olive oil. The mixture is then baked until it sets.

Image Image

Apicius’s cookery book was in circulation when Bartolomeo Scappi began to compile his own “L’ arte et prudenza d’un maestro cuoco,” 1570. Like his ancient predecessor, Scappi offered recipes requiring “the most tender parts” of asparagus to be mashed, seasoned then baked. He, however, liked the idea of combining asparagus with hops. He also added some interesting ingredients.

“Take the tenderest parts [of asparagus and hops] and parboil in water, then take it out and squeeze the water out of it. Beat it… with mint, marjoram and a little parsley, and sauté in butter with raisins.” Place the mixture into a piecrust shell and bake.

                                (Recipe#103 in book V,

                                The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, translated and commentary by Terence Scully. Toronto,    2011, page 482.


Besides being tasty, asparagus was recognized as having medicinal value. Scappi offered recipes for “potions” of asparagus and hops as well as thick soup to take to the sick. In his treatise The Fruits, Herbs and Vegetables of Italy, 1614, Giacomo Castelvetro concurred. “Quite apart from being good to eat, asparagus is a most health-giving vegetable; it cannot harm any part of the human body and is positively helpful to those who find urinating painful.” A proud native of Italy who was living in England at the time of the book’s writing, Castelvetro could not help but pass negative judgment on the “weedy specimens of this noble plant for sale in London.”[i] 

Not all 16th and early 17th century writers agreed that asparagus was good for you. Alessandro Petronio, who in Del viver delli Romani et di conservar la sanita, 1581, weighted his personal experience far and above the authority of ancient texts by Galen and Hippocrates, argued that the fetid urine that follows the ingestion of asparagus clearly indicates that the vegetable putrefies the body![ii]


Whatever your opinion concerning asparagus might be, for 10 days each year it is unquestionably the cherished vegetable of Santena in the Piedmont region of Italy. http://www.disagrainfesta.it/piemonte/2013/sagra-dellasparago-santena-torino/





[i] Castelvetro, The Fruit, Herbs & Vegetables of Italy, translated by Gillian Riley (Blackawton, Totnes: Prospect Books, 2012), pages 46-47.

[ii] Ken Albala, Eating Right in the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), page 38. Petronio’s text appeared in Latin in 1581 and then in Italian translation in 1592.

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turnip truck

By the second half of the seventeenth-century Holland had become a land noted for its produce. Among its cities and their surrounding environs, Leiden was especially admired. By 1630, Leiden had already devoted 238 hectares (or 588 acres) of land to crop cultivation, prompting the region to be celebrated as the garden of Holland. Here and elsewhere land was drained to grow both “grove” (coarse) vegetables – cabbage, parsnips, turnips, onions, etc. – and fine (“fijn”) – lettuce, spinach and cauliflower. Located only 43 kilometers away from Leiden, Amsterdam markets helped distribute the bounty to urban dwellers.

The Amsterdam market system was a rather complicated affair that was subject to regulatory laws stipulating who could sell what where. Sellers of carrots, cabbage and turnips from North Holland, for example, hawked their produce on the east side of the Prinsengracht while those from Leiden sold theirs on the west side. But it wasn’t as easy as being on one side of the canal versus the other. If you wanted turnips (as opposed to cheese and butter, fish or fruit) you had to go to the Noorder-markt. The Noorder-markt was not for the well-heeled. In addition to turnips, it was the place to find old and patched clothing and wooden clogs.

Prinzengraft, Amsterdam

Prinzengraft, Amsterdam

The symbolic implications of this lowly root vegetable run the gamut. Govaert Flinck’s painting “Marcus Curius Dentatus Who Scorned His Enemy’s Gold and Chose a Meal of Turnips Instead,” 1656 (Amsterdam: Royal Palace) awards the turnip a positive place. As described in classical sources, Marcus Curius Dentatus was a late 3rd century BCE plebian who rose to be consul of Rome. He ate simply and lived frugally, honestly and valorously. The long title of Flinck’s painting, which features Dentatus dressed in red and holding aloft a turnip in his right hand, says it all. In his version of the popular tale, Jacopo Amigoni (1682-1752) pictured Denatus more modestly dressed, his clothing a better match with the humble turnip.

Jacopo Amigoni, Marcus Curtius Denatus Choosing Turnips over Riches

Jacopo Amigoni, Marcus Curius Denatus Choosing Turnips over Riches

If Govaert Flinck’s and Jacopo Amigoni’s “Marcus Curius Dentatus Who Scorned His Enemy’s Gold and Chose a Meal of Turnips Instead” associates the turnip with incorruptibility and humility, then Remigius Hogenberg’s (ca. 1536-ca. 1588) etching “The Turnip Wagon” does the very opposite. Based on Hieronymous Bosch’s “Haywain,” which castigates monks and nuns, princes and knights, indeed everyone for greed, lust and other moral shortcomings, “The Turnip Wagon” pictures the same societal assembly grabbing turnips from a horse-drawn cart. The substitution of turnips for hay is a play on language and an illustration of a Netherlandish proverb. In the 16th century, the noun ‘rapen’, which is the plural of ‘raap’ or turnip, evokes the verb ‘rapen’ which means to rob and steal. The image of the motely crowd collecting, cooking and even fighting over turnips is accompanied by an inscription of a proverb: “Each is out to steal (‘rapen’) by night, by day churchmen, laymen, be it woman or man; they pull, they pluck all from the wagon; he who can steal the most is soon called the best.”

Hieronymous Bosch, The Haywain, central panel

Hieronymous Bosch, The Haywain, central panel

It is possible that Dutch turnips made their way to Italian tables. While he does not specify the turnip, the historian Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540) professed a preference for Dutch vegetables over those cultivated in Italy. Giacomo Castelvetro (1546-1616) did not weigh in on which was better but in his treatise on the Fruits, Herbs and Vegetables of Italy, 1614, dedicated to the Countess of Bedford, he noted that Italian and English cooks prepare turnips differently. “We make an excellent dish with turnips, different from the way you do here [in England], first peeled, then cut into thin slices and cooked in broth, and served with grated mature cheese and pepper.” Very different preparations were offered by Maestro Martino da Como in his “De arte coquinaria,” 1465, and by Bartolomeo Scappi in “L’arte et prudenza d’un maestro cuoco,” 1570. Both master chefs suggest roasting turnips by nestling them beneath hot coals although boiling is another option. Once cooked, turnips could be mashed then layered with cheese, butter, and a sprinkling of sugar, some pepper and “sweet spices” such as cinnamon and saffron.

But turnips were not always eaten. Some were hurled at human targets… at least in Venice. Beginning sometime in the 12th century, Venetians began to celebrate the “Feste delle Marie,” or Festival of the Twelve Maries, with a fair amount of gusto. Coinciding with the Festival of the Purification of Mary on February 2, the Feste delle Marie lasted eight days or more. A proper display of piety was not, however, always evident, or so suggests an edict issued by Venice’s Grand Council in 1349… just 30 years before the festival was finally abolished. It reads as follows:
“Since the Feste delle Marie has been organized for the reverence of God and the Virgin… it is necessary that scandal provoking conduct cease… from now on, the throwing of turnips or any other object is, on pain of a fine of 100 deniers, banned…” (see Thomas Devaney, “Competing Spectacles in the Venetian Feste delle Marie,” Viator, vol. 39 (2008), pages 107-125.)

Venice seems to have had a special turnip dish: a thick soup. After roasting turnips under the coals, Scappi advises mashing them and then placing them in a tinned copper or earthenware pot with enough “fat broth made from beef – I mean [broth with] the grease that comes to the surface when the meat cooks” to cover the turnips. Boil slowly, then blend in a mixture of pepper, cinnamon and saffron. Sprinkle with rosewater before serving.

For me, the most indelible image of turnips is conjured by Thomas Hardy in “Tess of the D’Urbevilles.” Hardy describes the monotonous acreage of a field planted with turnips. There was little to see. Livestock had eaten the part above ground. “It was the business of the two women to grub up the lower, or earthy, half of the root” that lay hidden in the cold, dark ground.


CASTAGNE (Chestnuts)

“He who is versed in cookery is not far removed from genius, since the meals that are to be concocted are largely a matter of ingenious composition.”
– Bartolomeo Platina (1421-1481) in an undated letter to Cardinal Giacomo Ammannati Piccolomini.

It’s November and I am in Rome… it’s the season for truffles (far too costly for the poor Pulcinella of the 16th century to afford!) and (the more affordable) chestnuts!


There is nothing new about the delights of chestnuts. To escape the city and its ills – outbreaks of plague, malaria, the poor & the destitute – the urban elite took the countryside. During the 16th & 17th centuries luxurious villas were constructed where they could pass the days hunting, feasting & drinking with great conviviality. Chestnuts found their way into many a delectable dish.

Maestro Martino of Como, cook to Cardinal Trevisan, Patriarch of Aquileia, and 15th century culinary expert, provided the following farro (wheat grain) torte recipe with directions for its adaptation to seasonal offerings.

Clean the farro well and cook in a good fatty broth, then remove and let dry (as you would rice). “Take a libra [approximately 329 grams] of fresh cheese, and a half of libra of good aged cheese, crushing the one and grating the other, as one customarily does. Take a pork belly or veal udder a libra of that has been cooked almost to the point that it breaks apart, finely chop with a knife, adding some good spices and sugar if desired, and 15 eggs with a bit of saffron. Mix all these things together well; place in a pan to cook with a crust only on the bottom. When it appears to you to be almost done, take some well drained lasagna, and add them on top, in a thick layer; and let it continue to cook; and when it has finished cooking, top with some sugar and rose water.

For a CHESTNUT TORTE: follow the above, substituting the farro with chestnuts that have been boiled, dried and finely chopped then passed through a fine sieve with a little milk. Add extra saffron.

I happened upon a far more elaborate version of a Chestnut torte on the Via Scrofa!

Chestnut tart

As for a chestnut flavored pasta, combine wheat flour with chestnut flour, which Bartolomeo Scappi observed in 1571, “is sweeter and has fewer filaments in it than any other flour.” Scappi includes instructions for a chestnut soup, which actually sounds like it has the consistency of grits and, when cooled, can be sliced, fried, and topped with a sprinkling of sugar and cinnamon.

Galen condemned them, but in his 1618 annotation of Ugo Benzi, Giovanni Lodovico Bertaldi observed that nobles enjoy them when roasted over coals in a perforated pan.
This echos Giacomo Castelvetro, “Brieve racconte”: Discussing autumnal fruits & nuts, he notes there are several ways to cook chestnuts:
“Firstly roasted in a perforated dish over the fire, then left under hot ashes” then seasoned with orange juice rather than sugar. Many, he says, eat chestnuts “with a sip of wine after each one, which leaves them reeling if the wine is young and sweet. Simply boiled in water they are food for peasants and young children rather than discriminating adults. We also cook chestnuts in good quality sweet, white wine, and when they are done, strain them and put them to dry in the smoke. We call them ‘biscottelli’ and they are marvelous preserved this way, and keep for a whole year.” As for bread made of chestnut flour, Castelvetro recommends using only the “smaller ones, which tastes sweet,” adding it has a long shelf life and is ideal for stock-piling in fortresses as a wartime provision.

A final note of interest from Castelvetro: “When roses are in bloom our ladies take quantities of those dried chestnuts and mix them with rose petals in coffers and baskets, where the chestnuts soon become soft and very fragrant.”

On a recent visit to Naples – the home of Pulcinella, whose like is every where, I came across the following recipe for CASTAGNACCIO. (I hope you can translate grams…but here’s some help: http://www.gourmetsleuth.com/cooking-conversions/conversions.aspx)

omnipresent Pulcinelle in Naples!!!

omnipresent Pulcinelle in Naples!!!

CASTAGNACCIO (a chestnut cake)
Blend carefully the following ingredients:
500 grams of chestnut flour into 1 liter of water, 1 decaliter (scant ½ cup) virgin olive oil, 150 grams sugar, & pinch of salt. When it has a pliable consistency, pour into a buttered and floured cake tin,
Sprinkle crumbled rosemary on top and a generous handful of pinenuts, plus some raisin (soften in warm water if too dry and hard. Finally, drizzle olive oil on top.
Bake in a preheated 180 Farenheit oven for an hour. Test with a toothpick. If it does not come out clean, continue to bake a bit longer.
Eat while warm.
(The recipe comes from Lejla Mancusi Sorrentino, “Delizie degli orti di Napoli” (Naples: Grimaldi, 2009), p. 39

Becky tells me she has received chestnut flour from Anson Mills: