food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs

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Honey, melons & mellifying

And the fresh honey, Tom – I’ve always said it was the best nourishment.” – Thomas Mann, Bruddenbooks: The Decline of a Family, translated by John E. Woods (New York, 1994, page 4000… with thanks to Beatrice)



Living in England and recalling the milder climes of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna, the well-traveled and then exiled Giacomo Castelvetro (1546-1616) enthusiastically celebrated the abbondanza of his homeland in a small book dedicated to Lucy, Countess of Bedford. In addition to describing the profusion of fruits, vegetables, and herbs that filled Italian gardens and graced its tables, Castelvetro offered his readers a mélange of memories, an assortment of recipes, and some gardening advice. Concerning the latter, for example, he informs his reader that although honey has “many exceptional qualities… the most amazing [is] perhaps… its capacity… to preserve grafts or cuttings, especially from wild fruit trees.”[1]

I appreciate Castelvetro’s equivocation on this matter. Indeed, I would argue that inserting the qualifying term “perhaps” is critical when considering honey’s “many exceptional qualities.” I choose a different quality to put in first place. Honey, it turns out, is an impressive preservative. Castelvetro acknowledged this as fact with what is surely a fiction.

The Secret of how to preserve melons

“Melons can be preserved for a long time, by taking them from their mothers while still young and putting them in a jar of honey….  This was discovered by chance in the city of Modena….

A prosperous grocer had his shop very close to the part of the marketplace where these fruits were sold, and it often happened that gentlemen who liked to pick and choose melons for themselves, would find that their servants were not at hand to carry them, and would leave the bags in the grocer’s shop… [until] they remembered to send for them. One day a large number of melons was deposited there, and the apprentices piled them all up on a bench, under which were some jars or vats of honey. The bench collapsed from the weight, and one of the melons fell unnoticed into one of the honey pots….” Unfortunately, an errand boy was accused of pilfering the melon. It took many months before the boy’s innocence was proved. A full year after the melon tumbled into the golden murkiness of a vat of honey it was found, “wiped clean and restored to its owner as fresh and good as the day it was first picked.”[2]

Astounding! But not as astounding as a recipe (of sorts) that can be found among the 1,892 entries on medicinal uses of plants and animals in the Compenium Materia Medica, 1597. Compiled by the Ming dynasty physician, herbalist, and pharmacologist Li Shih-chen (1518-1593), the Materia Medica lauds the preservative capacity of honey but offers an unsettling illustrative example. While Castelvetro was to speak of melons, Li Shih-chen wrote of “mellifying” man.


“In Arabia there are men 70 to 80 years old who are willing to give their bodies to others. The subject does not eat food, he only bathes in and partakes of honey.” When death overtakes the honey-loving subject, his companions “place him in a stone coffin full of honey where he macerates.” The body safely submerged, the coffin is sealed shut and inscribed with the date. “After one hundred years, the seals are removed. A [medicinal] confection is formed for the treatment of broken and wounded limbs.”

While this “confection” of mellified man was generally prescribed for topical application, the compendium’s author tacks on a rather startling addendum. “A small amount [of mellified man] taken internally will immediately cure the complaint.”[3]

I realize this discussion has taken a decidedly odd turn yet honey’s medicinal value, which has received a lot of press over the centuries, deserves a few words. Long before the publication of Li Shih-Chen’s Materia Medica the abbess, visionary, botanist, author, and composer Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) offered a honey-based recipe for a concoction to treat “a person who has black turbulent eyes.” Combine 2 parts honey with 1 of rue then mix both in good cheer wine together with a “crumb of wheat bread.” Other remedies using honey include one useful in treating scrofula, a tuberculosis-like condition affecting the lymph nodes. The abbess advises that a bandage consisting of honey smeared on a lettuce leaf be applied to the affected area. Additionally, she notes that skin ruptures do well when spread with mugwort and honey that is then covered with egg white (presumably uncooked).[4]


Beehives, Theatrum Sanitatis, late 14th century Lombard Manuscript (Rome: Casanatense #4182)

In truth, there is no end of praise for the versatility of honey as a curative. The Tacuinum Sanitates, which relies heavily on an 11th-century Arab medical treatise, celebrated its capacity to “cleanse the chest and stomach; purge the abdomen; it keeps the humours of the flesh and mouth from decaying. It heats the blood and is suited to those with cold, moist temperaments.”[5] There are few ills, it seems, that cannot be assuaged by honey.


An appreciation of honey – and the industrious bees that make it – has been around for a very long time. Biblical citations are numerous. In Exodus 3:17 God charges Moses with leading his people “out of your affliction in Egypt, into the land of the Canaanites… – a land flowing with milk and honey.”

A similar description occurs in Deuteronomy 8: 7-8.

“For the Lord your God is bringing you/ Into a good land, A land of streams,/ Of springs and underground waters flowing/ Out in valley and hills,/ A land of wheat and barley, of vine/ And fig trees and pomegranates,/ A land of olive trees and honey.”

An Egyptian official who fled to the safety of Asia during the reign of Senusert I (ca. 1971-1926 B.C.E.) concurred. Canaan, he said, has an abundance of figs and olives and a “plentitude of honey.” Canaan was also heralded as a land in which there was “more wine than water.[6] Albeit with a bit of concocting license, one ends up with a glass of honey wine, or mead. In its earliest form, mead was pretty basic. After “honeycomb was drained of most of its honey,” it was soaked in water to extract all that remained. “This honey water would have fermented naturally in the presence of wild yeast.” Voilà!


Beekeeping in ancient Egypt, tomb relief, Pabasa’s Tomb

But wait! As Oscar Wilde said, “Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.” Fermented honey water was all fine and good but just didn’t do it for the Greeks. They mixed their mead with beer and wine, referring to the resultant concoction as kykeon, meaning mixture. No wonder the sorceress Circe was able to transform Odysseus’s sotted sailors into pigs.[7]


Should you want to ferment a bit of your own, try Columella’s recipe in De re rustica, ca. 60 C.E.

“Take rainwater kept for several years, and mix a sextarius of this water (about ½ liter) with a [Roman] pound of honey (or approximately 1/3 kilogram). For a weaker mead, mix a sextarius of water with nine ounces of honey. The whole is exposed to the sun for 40 days and then left on a shelf near the fire. If you have no rainwater, then boil spring water.”[8]


Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Beekeepers and Birdnesters, ca. 1568

As noted in A hundredth good pointes of husbandrie, 1557, mead is particularly appropriate for the revelries of the winter holiday season.

“At Christmas take hede, if their hiues be to light:

Take honey and water, together well dight.”[9]

And before Christmas brightened long, December nights there was Saturnalia to illumine Roman spirits during the month’s shorter hours of daylight!

Writing during the reign of Domitian, the Roman poet Statius described the public feast at the Colosseum during the celebration honoring the god Saturn that was held annually during the month of December. Dawn was just beginning to shed light on the masses crowded into the great amphitheater when sweetmeats suspended from a line stretched over the vast space began raining down, together with “whatsoever was famous from Pontic nut groves,/ Or falls from the fertile slopes of Idume;/ That which devout Damascus grows upon its branches/ Or thirsty Caunus ripens.”

More than sweetmeats and nuts fell “freely in ample plunder.”  So, too,  did dates and “soft cakes and honey cheese fritters.” (Silvae I. 6)

Such delectable comestibles were accompanied by spectacle: “female gladiators and dwarves, buxom Lydian girls, and dancers from Cadiz.”[10]

The festivities of Imperial Rome during the reign of Domitian had nothing over those of the Papacy during the pontificate of Pope Clement VI (1342-1352). A Frenchman by birth and rearing, Clement VI returned to France following his election to St. Peter’s throne and purchased Avignon for 80,000 florins from Queen Joan I of Naples.” The display of wealth at his dinner parties matched that of his land purchases. His tables were covered with cloths woven of Flanders linen and Italian silk. Tableware was gold and emblazoned with the pope’s coat-of-arms. Menus were rich, courses many (up to 30), and the pourings of wine – Châteauneuf-du-pape – liberal.[11]


Although not picturing a papal feast, the “January” page from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1410s, undoubtedly reflects the luxuriousness of Clement VI’s court


In their wonderful book Buon Appetito, Your Holiness, Mariangela Rinaldi and Mariangela Vicini suggest the following recipe for a dish worthy of the papal table.

Old-Style Pecorino and Walnut Pie*

3 eggs

¾ cup sugar

½ cup strawberry honey

8 oz. very fresh Pienza pecorino cheese, sieved

1 cup sheep’s milk ricotta

¾ cup potato flour

2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

1 ½ shelled walnuts, finely chopped, and 12 shelled whole

12 egg whites, whipped stiff

Shortcrust pastry for one pie

½ cup powdered sugar

Whisk together the eggs, sugar and honey. Little by little, add the pecorino cheese, ricotta, potato flour, all-purpose flour and chopped walnuts. Blend together and then amalgamate the 12 egg whites, to add volume and density to the mixture. Turn out this dough into a buttered pie dish lined with the shortcrust pastry, even out and bake at 325° F for 45 minutes. Serve the pie sprinkled with powdered sugar and decorated with whole shelled walnuts.

[*Rinaldi and Vicini, pp. 152-153].


Honey continues to hold an important place in holiday fare, binding together dried fruits, exotic spices, and nuts in wondrous cakes and cookies including buccellati.



Pulcinella wishes all a honeyed holiday season. Grab a glass of mead and a slice of buccellato di natale, and toast the coming year.





[1] Giacomo Castelvetro, The Fruits, Herbs & Vegetables of Italy (1614), translated by Gillian Riley (Blackawton, Totnes, Devon: Prospect Books, 2012), pp. 71-72.

[2] Castelvetro, The Fruits, Herbs & Vegetables of Italy, pp. 71-72; and Gillian Riley, The Oxford Companion to Italian Food (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp.250-51.

[3] Rachel Roach, Stiff. The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003), page 222.

[4] Hildegard of Bingen, Physica, translated by Priscilla Throop (Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1998), respectively, pp. 38, 49, and 56.

[5] Terence Scully, The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1995) p. 52. Like so many other comestibles, the value of miele depended wholly on the patient’s balance of humors. Honey, according to Baldassare Pisanelli’s Trattato della natura de’cibi et del bere, 1611, was bad for those who were choleric. Do not, therefore, put honey in the tea of someone who is characterized by a fiery temperament, but do not hesitate to sweeten a senior’s cup of tea with the amber colored stuff.

[6] Joan Goodnick Westenholz, ed. Sacred Bounty, Sacred Land. The Seven Species of the Land of Israel (Israel: Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem, 1998), p. 15. Also see, https://www.pri.org/stories/2015-12-02/what-we-can-learn-ancient-egyptian-practice-beekeeping

[7] Amy Stewart, The Drunken Botanist. The Plants that Create the World’s Great Drinks (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013), pp. 116-17.

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mead#cite_note-26

[9] http://www.larsdatter.com/beehives.htm

[10] John F. Donahue, The Roman Community at Table During the Principate (Ann Arbor,MI: University of Michigan Press, 2017), pp. 17-18. Sweet and the color of gold, honey was recognized as a perfect holiday gift.

“In ancient times Romans gave friends a glass jar full of dates and dried figs in honey, along with a bay leaf branch so the coming year would be as sweet and full of good fortune as the gifts.” Carol Field, Celebrating Italy. The Tastes and Traditions of Italy Revealed through its Feasts, Festivals and Sumptuous Foods (NY: William Morrow & Company, 1990), p. 289.

[11] Mariangela Rinaldi and Mariangela Vicini, Buon Appetito, Your Holiness. The Secrets of the Papal Table (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2000), pp. 111-113.

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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.