food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs

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Pear – roasted or poached but never raw


Giovanna Garzoni

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


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


Bartolomeo Bimbi’s painting of pears, 1699

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

Worcester Black Pear

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

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

Bergamot pear

Bergamot Pears

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



1 stick butter, softened

scant 1 ½ cups flour

1 egg

scant ½ cup fine sugar

½ cup cocoa powder

2 ½ tablespoons orange marmalade

2 pears


3 ½ oz. bittersweet chocolate

4 tablespoons butter

2 eggs, separated

½ cup fine sugar

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

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


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




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


Preheat the oven to 350°F.

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

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

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

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

Makes 1 10-inch cake

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



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

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



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

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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.