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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The Oxford Companion to Italian Food begins the entry on garlic with a truth. This liliaceous plant with its pungent bulb has played quite “an ambivalent role in Italian gastronomy.”[1] Perhaps that’s to be expected from something that, says Wikipedia, propagates asexually and produces hermaphrodite flowers! Propagation aside, garlic’s ambivalence is its magic. As any cook knows, it has a remarkable capacity to assume, as stated in The Oxford Companion, “many personalities – raw and crude, it has an aggressive bite which disappears when lightly cooked in oil, or simmered in stews, when it becomes sweet and mild. Crushed with salt… it gives pungency to sauces…, it can be mild and nutty when pickled,” and it is lively in a salad! But that’s only a part of the magic.


The “many personalities” garlic assumes in kitchen pots and on dining tables is more than matched by a long and often ambivalent history in which it is celebrated for its curative powers and condemned as injurious, the source for all sorts of ills.


The magic – and magical potency – of garlic was recognized, it seems, from the moment of its emergence into European culture. In his encyclopedic Natural History (XIX. 101), Pliny the Elder (died 79 CE) noted that “whenever they take an oath, the Egyptians swear by garlic and onions as though they were gods.” Why garlic and onions were granted this honor rather than, say, saffron, is not disclosed. In any event, the ancient Egyptians seem to have held garlic in high repute, for it made its way into Tutankhamen’s tomb. Garlic, fit for a pharaoh, was also valued as a food especially appropriate for galley slaves, soldiers, and those performing heavy labor.[2] It was a marvel. In fact, Pliny devotes an entire chapter (book 29, chapter 34) to garlic. Among it’s more amazing feats is the job it does in crop fields, protecting newly sown seeds “from the remorseless ravages of the birds.” All you need to do is boil the garlic and scatter it about. Birds will be become “stupefied” by it and drop to the ground like a stone… but only momentarily so. Industrious farmers will have just enough time to gather and remove these dazed birds before they come round! Could this ability to ward off threats have inspired Bram Stoker to choose garlic as an effective vampire-repellant in Dracula, 1897? Perhaps. It certainly seems to speak to a belief in its ability to keep the unwanted away. Between a top-floor apartment I once rented  in Rome and the ground floor was an obstacle of an impressive pile of garlic and onions. The old woman who created this smelly mélange believed it kept the black cats that roamed the neighborhood away from her door! I think it did. I never saw a cat within a block of the building!

But back to garlic’s medicinal history.


Garlic made it into the most renowned medieval texts devoted to women’s health. It is referenced in the Physica of Hildegard of Bingen, who was Abbess of Rupertsberg, (1098-1179) and the Trotula, a 12th century collection of three books.  The latter reflects the practices advocated by a group of physicians in southern Italy who knew the practices advocated in classical texts and were also fluent with the progressive ideas of Arabic medicine. Hildegard recommended eating garlic raw but in moderation “lest a person’s blood becomes too hot.”[3] Trotula, described as a “wise woman from Salerno” in a letter dated 1059, includes garlic in list of “hot” foods that can help women suffering from a “paucity of menses.” And, again because of its heat, she considers it bad for wet nurses. A variation on the theme of garlic’s heat and consequential benefits is found in a passing remark by the Sephardic Jewish scholar Maimonides (1135-1204). In deciding which ordinances of Abraham Ibn Ezra to include in the Mishnah, he opted to omit one cited in the Babylonia Talmud (BT 82a). Although eating garlic on Sabbath eve had been a “custom” because it “aided” the production of semen, he apparently felt it necessary to prescribe the practice.[4]

More generally, Trotula prescribed garlic as a component in a recipe for benedicta, “so-called because of all the things from which it is comprised [including wild garlic], it is blessed.” In this concoction of spikenard, roses, ginger, saffron, poppy, pepper, and other things, garlic is something of a miracle ingredient, good against gout and for problems with the kidneys.[5]

These uses continued in the centuries to come as still others were added. In the 16th century, Pietro Mattioli of Siena prescribed garlic for digestive disorders and, interestingly, as helpful to women enduring difficulty in childbirth. In Dyets Dry Dinner (London, 1599) Henry Buttes acknowledged “Garlicke” to be “of most special use for Sea-faring men: a most excellent preservative against infection proceeding from the nasty savor of pump or sinck, and of tainted meates which Mariners are faine to eate for fault of better.”[6] Baldassare Pisanelli had made a similar observation three years earlier in Trattato della natura de’ cibi e del bere (Rome, 1583).

But what was prescribed for sailors was proscribed for landlubbers suffering from gout, or so suggested Christophorus Ballista in his poem “The Overthrow of the Gout,” which is known only through a 1577 edition in the British Library. The relevant passage reads as follows:

“All Salt and slimy meats, and flesh

that long doth powdered lye,

And fish in Salt preserved: all such

I warn thee to flee.

Both Garlick, Rue and Onions sour

expel them far from thee,

Although the fond Egyptians do

suppose them Gods to be.”[7]

The list of health benefits derived from garlic has continued to grow. According to a study published in the British Medical Journal on August 17, 1991, it has positive effects on “coagulation, platelet aggregation, and serum lipid concentrations.”

But garlic has not always been the magical cure all. Attitudes have been ambivalent. The Summoner in Geoffrey Chaucer’s (1343-1400) Canterbury Tales makes the point.

Canterbury_Tales 1483

Described in the book’s “General Prologue” as physically repulsive and morally reprehensible, the red-faced, heavy-lidded, and pustule-covered Summoner is a lover of “garleek,” onions, leeks, and red wine. At least one commentator has linked the Summoner’s appearance and tastes to the Bible, specifically Numbers 11:5.[8] It is here that the Hebrews complain about having only manna to eat and lament the absence of cucumbers, leeks, onions, and garlic from their diet. Since the time of St. Gregory (circa 540-604), commentators have read the Old Testament passage allegorically. Our experience of the world, including its delights, cause us to cry. The Liber de Mortalitatibus was less poetic and far more harsh. Garlic was equated with the stench of evil, blamed for ulcerating the body, said to weaken the vision, and disparaged for the general frenzy it caused. No wonder Samuel Johnson defined a “Garlickeater” as “a mean fellow”!

Ribera, Allegory_of_Smell, 1615-6

And so to the end… although Shakespeare in A midsummer night’s dream (act iv, scene iii) has ‘Bottom’ advise his acting troupe to “eat no onions or garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath” and thus be applauded for a sweet comedy, I say bring it on and to this delectable end I give you an Epicurious recipe for garlic soup.


Garlic soup



  • 26 garlic cloves (unpeeled)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil


  • 2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter
  • 2 1/4 cups sliced onions
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
  • 18 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 3 1/2 cups chicken stock or canned low-salt chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup whipping cream


  • 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese (about 2 ounces)
  • 4 lemon wedges
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Place 26 garlic cloves in small glass baking dish. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper; toss to coat. Cover baking dish tightly with foil and bake until garlic is golden brown and tender, about 45 minutes. Cool. Squeeze garlic between fingertips to release cloves. Transfer cloves to small bowl.
  2. Melt butter in heavy large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onions and thyme and cook until onions are translucent, about 6 minutes. Add roasted garlic and 18 raw garlic cloves and cook 3 minutes. Add chicken stock; cover and simmer until garlic is very tender, about 20 minutes. Working in batches, purée soup in blender until smooth. Return soup to saucepan; add cream and bring to simmer. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Rewarm over medium heat, stirring occasionally.)
  3. Divide grated cheese among 4 bowls and ladle soup over. Squeeze juice of 1 lemon wedge into each bowl and serve.



** In the spirit of Renaissance cuisine, I add the following just because!!

In The Art and Craft of a Master Cook, 1570, Bartolomeo Scappi, who many consider to be the most renown Italian chef of the period, used garlic in his recipe for braising a suckling calf’s head (“with its hair off and the head clean”) cleaved in half! First parboil the garlic then add it to the following: cinnamon, pepper, cloves, saffron, diced prosciutto, and muscatel raisins. Braise! Scappi also added garlic to a recipe for fricassee of a breast of suckling veal, crushing it with sweet fennel, salt, pepper, cloves, and cinnamon. As for the eminent Maestro Martino of Como, in Libro de Arte Coquinaria (The Art of Cooking), ca. 1465, he advises its “generous” use in the roasting of kid.

Go for it!



[1] Gillian Riley, The Oxford Companion to Italian Food (OPxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pages 226-27.

[2] Patrick Faas, Around the Roman Table. Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), page 216. This might be related to its medicinal value. Of the 800 herbal remedies in the Codex Ebers, an Egyptian medical papyrus of around 1550 BCE, twenty-two contain garlic.

[3] Hildegard von Bingen’s PHYSICA, The Complete English Translation of her Classic Work on Health and Healing, trans. Priscilla Throop (Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1998), page 45 (chapter LXXIX is devoted to Garlic). If garlic causes stomach pain, she suggests parsley as an antidote.

[4] The reference to the ordinance is in Maimonides, Commentary on the Mishna, Nedarim 8:4. See, Maimonides, Herbert Davidson, Moses Maimonides: The Man and His Work (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), page 224, note 152.

[5] The Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine, trans. Monica H. Green (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2001), page 126.

[6] Ken Albala, Eating Right in the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), page 203.

[7] Robert M. Schuler, ed., “Three Renaissance Scientific Poems,” Studies in Philology, vol. 75 (1978), page 90. The lines quoted are 267-270. I have altered the spelling in the original text to make it more accessible. Christophorus Ballista is the Latinized name of Christophe Arbaleste, a French monk and physician who left the Catholic Church at the beginning of the Reformation and went to live in Strasbourg. There, he became acquainted with Martin Bucer and other religious reformers. He is known to have treated the Bishop of Sion for gout.

[8] Robert Earl Kaske, Medieval Christian Literary Imagery (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989); Stephen Henry Rigby, Chaucer in Context: Society, Allegory and Gender (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), page 87ff for a discussion of Canterbury Tales, I. 634.

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“’What a lovely thing a rose is!’”
– Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Naval Treaty




Montague or Capulet? Does it really matter? After all, “What’s in a name?” asks Juliet in William Shakespeare’s (1564-1616) Romeo and Juliet. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

But just because it looks like a rose doesn’t mean it is one! (Just consider the ‘snow’ dusted ‘rose’ apple.)!

apple:puff pastry roses

Certainly the culinary artifice of Shakespeare’s time – a time when banquets featured “a cunning counterfeit ham made of salmon in gelatin” and the like – reveled in serving dishes that looked like one thing but were, in fact, made of something wholly different. These stunning assemblages of foodstuffs were, in a way, the ingestible counterparts of Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593) ‘portraits’ of The Librarian, circa 1566, The Jurist, 1566, and The Vegetable Gardener, circa 1590, a painting that works equally well whether it is viewed upside-down or right side-up!


Roses, like other flowers, assumed a fancy-dress role in this Arcimboldo-like cuisine. This is, perhaps, not surprising since roses – whether red or white – were so often symbolic. Invariably, they stood for something else: the enraptured heart of the lover, the perfection of the bud-like lips of the beloved, the purity of the Virgin Mary, etc.

The Rose has been around a very long time, appearing in the fossil record about forty million years ago. As for the fragrant varieties with which we are familiar, they made their way to Europe from China and the Near East only in the last few thousand years! Europeans obviously recognized their aesthetic, medicinal, and culinary values. Hence, for example, the mania for tulips that gripped 17th century Holland also embraced a passion for roses. In addition to a vase brimming with the real thing, artists Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) made a very fine living replicating their appearance in various stages of growth-bud to full blossom!


As for medicinal use, the medical handbook The English Physician, 1652, says it all. “Red roses do strengthen the Heart, the Stomach, and the Liver.” Moreover, they “mitigate the Pains that arise from Heat, assuage inflammations, procure Rest and Sleep, stay both Whites and Reds in Women, the Gonorrhea, or Running of the Reins, and Fluxes of the Belly; the Juice of them doth cleanse the Body from Choler and Phlegm.” (2)

The versatility of the rose in the sickroom was more than matched by its use in the kitchen!  In 1536, Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio hosted a multi-service & many-course dinner welcoming to Rome the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Besides napkins that released flocks of song birds when unfolded and in addition to candied violets encased in puff pastry and aromatic rice, Charles enjoyed cold roasted carp dressed with sugar and rosewater. But that paled in comparison to the delights served to Queen Christina of Sweden during her visit to Rome in November-December of 1668.

“In spite of those who deny that one might be nourished by scents, the diners here grazed on the flowers… and fed on the scents; here [in a manner paralleling Arcimboldo’s up/down-side Gardener] autumn turned into spring and spring into autumn…. Fruits were in flowers but flowers were more fruitful still…. For here there were truly fruits aplenty to be found inside flowers…. And of these flowers it could have been said that… their blueness was flavorsome, their flavor was crimson, and their sweetness green; and that the carnations were sweet, the rose sugary, the violet honey-flavored…”(1)


Yet such grandiose uses of the rose were not restricted to the royal class, a fact made clear by Sir Hugh Plat’s Delights for Ladies, 1602. Written with the housewife of middling-means in mind, Plat’s book includes multiple recipes for candying flowers and distilling Rosewater. The artfulness of roses in cooking – their Arcimboldo effect – comes through vividly in Plat’s Delights for Ladies.


Among the first rose recipes (no. #5) is “A singular Manner of Making the Syrup of Roses.” Fill a silver basin ¾ full of rain water and “put therein a convenient proportion of rose leaves (petals).” Cover then steep in a double-boiler (“as we usually bake a custard”). After an hour remove petals, squeezing out any liquid. Repeat 7 times in order to attain the maximum intensity of flavor and richness of color. The vivid splendor of color is crucial since it not only helps retain the desired hue for Preserved Roses but can be used as paint.

To Preserve a Rose – a real rose – (recipe no. # 7), dip a Rose (one that is neither a bud nor over blown) in a syrup made of double-fine sugar and Rosewater. After dipping, carefully separate the petals with “a fine bodkin, either of bone or wood” then set out to dry “whilst the the Sun is in good height.”

As for making a counterfeit rose, the skilled housewife is given step-by-step instructions on how to feign reality like any adept artist. Indeed, like Rachel Ruysch’s canvas, her table can rival nature with a veritable bouquet of “sugared simulacra of reality.” (3) To do this Plat instructs (recipe no. 12) the woman of the house to make an almond paste that is malleable enough to be rolled into a dough, shaped by hand or pressed into a mold that can then be painted with Rosewater. (Infusions concocted from marigolds, violets, sage and other flowers broader the artful cook’s palette as well as tantalize the diner’s palate!)


In looking for an appropriate recipe, I came across an article titled “Flower Power.”  It focused on the excitement in 2005 of menus in which flowers did more than garnish a salad. Dishes created in conjunction with the Chelsea Flower Show made flowers, including roses, an integral ingredient in an array of amazing culinary creations. One is below….

… but first a quote. In reading for this post, I came across Moderata Fonte’s (1552-1592) defense of women, who had long been (and sadly in some quarters still are) seen as secondary, derivative.


“Men were created before women. … But that doesn’t prove their superiority – rather, it proves ours…. [simply consider the fact that] Lowly seeds are nourished in the earth, and then later the ravishing blooms appear; lovely roses blossom forth and scented narcissi.”
― Moderata FonteThe Worth of Women: Wherein Is Clearly Revealed Their Nobility and Their Superiority to Men, 1600.




Royale of juniper and rose petals, violet consommé*


(Serves 10)

Chicken consommé

4 chickens

2 onions

3 carrots

2 leeks

10g juniper berries

For the royale

650g milk

40g juniper berries

300g of chicken liver

50g whipping cream

6 eggs

1tbs rose blossom water

15 rose petals

15 violets (on stem)

To finish

10 dried rose petals

10 violets


Blanch the chickens for four minutes and rinse them under cold water. Halve the onions and char the cut surfaces. Put chickens whole in a large stock pot with carrots, onions and leeks. Cover with cold water, bring to simmering point, skim. Wipe any scum from the pan edges and simmer very gently for eight hours. Drain stock through a kitchen cloth or muslin into a clean pan and put in the rose petals and juniper berries. Reduce very gently by evaporation in the oven (at 100°C) for two hours. Drain and keep for serving.

For the royale, infuse milk with juniper berries. Remove berries and blitz the chicken liver, eggs, milk, cream, salt, white pepper, rose blossom water, violet and rose petals. When liquid, pass and pour into small moulds or ramekins. Cook in a bain-marie for 20 minutes in a moderate oven (150°C).

To finish, julienne the rose petals and dry them in a warm oven (70°C) for one hour. Put the hot royale in middle of a soup plate and pour the hot consommé over it. Add the rose julienne and violet petals over it. Serve.

*Bignold, D. (2005, May). FLOWER POWER. Caterer & Hotelkeeper, 194, 28-31.




  • Charlotte Birnbaum, Ed., Threee Banquets for a Queen. The Reception of Her Most Serene Majesty Christina Queen of Sweden by His Holiness Our Lord Pope Clement IX in Rome 1668 (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2011), page 41.
  • Amy Stewart, The Drunken Botanist. The Plants that Create the World’s Great Drinks (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2013), page 221.
  • In addition to Plat’s Delights of Ladies to Adorne their Persons, Tables, Closets, and Distillatories, with Beauties, Banquets, Perfumes and Waters, see Wendy Wall, “Distillation: Transformations in and out of the Kitchen” in Renaissance Food from Rabelais to Shakespeare. Culinary Readings and Culinary Histories, Joan Fitzpatrick (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010), esp. pages 95-98.

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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.