food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs

Leave a comment



Delicate chanterelles, ruddy bright-capped russula, saffron milk cap lactarius deliciosus, and of course the wonderfully earthy boletus edulis, known to the French as cèpe, to the Germans as the Steinpliz, and to the Italians as funghi porcini. Mushrooms come in all sorts of shapes and colors – little white button caps, white-speckled red bulbs, orange-beige ruffled ribbons, blue and violet parasols… it’s amazing! There are about 750 species of genus russula, roughly 450 lactarius, and too many subspecies of the morchella genus to even count (in part because mycologists can’t agree on which funghi should be classed as such). Herein lies a problem. If mycologists are unsure about what counts as which type of fungus then what is the unlearned fungaiolo, or mushroom hunter, to do? This is not an idle question. [1] As tales of fungus intrigue make clear, eating mushrooms can be a risky business.

Writing in the first century Pliny the Elder duly noted that “among the things which it is rash to eat I would include mushrooms. Although they make for choice eating they have been brought into disrepute by a glaring instance of murder!”[2] Pliny, the first century cataloger of all natural thing who died in the miasmic air of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79, was referring to the death of the Roman Emperor Claudius in October (prime mushroom hunting season) twenty-five years earlier. As Pliny – as well as Tacitus, Suetonius, Juvenal, and Josephus – tell the story, Claudius’s third wife, Agrippina the Younger, knew her mushrooms well. More to the point, she did not hesitate to use that knowledge to achieve a much-desired end. Like any doting mother, Agrippina wanted the best for her son, Nero (sired by Gn. Ahenobarbus). But that meant getting Claudius off the throne and putting Nero on it. Agrippina’s plan was simple and effective. One day between the sixth and seventh hour, Agrippina joined Claudius to enjoy the antics of a troupe of comic actors. As they watched, the imperial couple munched on mushrooms. With a show of affection and taking care with each selection, Agrippina alternately popped a delicate field mushroom first into the mouth of the portly Claudius and then into her own. Within hours, the Emperor was dead, Nero assumed the throne, and rumors went wild. Was the mushroom itself poisonous or simply the vehicle for the delivery of some other toxin? In either case, it is worth keeping in mind Pliny’s advice to those who feel compelled to indulge then do so only when snakes hibernate. Apparently, the delicacy of mushrooms makes them particularly susceptible to absorbing whatever is wafting in the air and this includes the poisonous “breath” of any serpent slithering past.[3]

Lactarius_deliciosus Barcelona market

buying mushrooms in Barcelona

The ill effects of ingesting the wrong sort of mushroom is by no means limited to antiquity.  According to Voltaire, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI suffered Claudius’s fate in October 1740.[4] Emperors were not alone in being fed toxic funghi. On multiple occasions the Madonna dell’ Arco, whose shrine is on the outskirts of Naples, was credited with saving the life of someone who mistakenly ate the wrong sort of mushroom. Take the case of “Giovanni Andrea and Rebecca di Martino, both having eaten poisonous mushrooms, were near death” when they prayed to the Madonna, who beneficently restored them to good health.[5] The many accounts of poisoning-by-mushroom may very well explain Alessandro Petronio’s denunciation of the mushroom as the “excrement” of the earth! In a chapter devoted to “fonghi” in Del viver delli Romani et di conserver la sanità, Petronio, who was the pope’s private physician, claimed mushrooms “suffocate” the breath, cause stupor, and trigger apoplexia, which, claimed Voltaire, is what felled Charles VI![6]


Buying mushrooms in Richmond, Virginia

With all of these dangers in mind, cooks and botanist composed lists of “safe” mushrooms and prescribed methods of preparation to ensure safety.[7] The eminent maestro Martino of Como instructed the readers of his cookbook, circa 1465, to first clean mushrooms then boil them in water seasoned with garlic and bread before frying![8] Bartolomeo Scappi offered more recipes in The Art and Craft of the Master Cook, 1570. To prepare a thick soup of salted mushrooms, soak the mushrooms for at least eight hours, changing the water repeatedly. Once the saltiness is gone, chop the mushrooms and sauté in olive oil flavored with spring onion, pepper, cinnamon, and saffron.[9] To be honest, it would be a lot easier to simply pair mushrooms with a hearty serving of pears. For well over a millennium, pears were considered a natural antidote to fungus toxins. Hence, “Pyra sunt theriaca fungorum!”[10]

Jean-Jacques Paulet, Treatise on mushrooms

But historical assessments of mushrooms are not all couched in warnings and disparagements. Aztec prostitutes reportedly kept mushrooms on hand for their clients.[11] An explanation for this practice may be found in a directive King George IV (1762-1830) issued to his ministers in foreign courts. It concerns the most prized of funghi, the truffle. George’s ministers in Turin, Naples, and Florence were “instructed to forward by state messenger to the Royal kitchen any of those funghi that might be found superior in size, delicacy or flavor… it being a positive aphrodisiac which disposes men to be exacting and women complying.”[12]

Given this wondrous – and decidedly checkered history – it is not at all surprising that Alice stumbled upon mushrooms in Wonderland. Having grown quite small – a mere three inches in height, Alice encounters the Caterpillar lounging atop a mushroom. As he puffs his hookah he quizzes her. “What size do you want to be?” asks the Caterpillar. A bit bigger would be nice, Alice responds. And with that “the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth and yawned once or twice, and shook itself. Then it got down off the mushroom, and crawled away in the grass, merely remarking as it went ‘One side will make you grow taller, and the other side will make you grow shorter.’ ‘One side of WHAT? The other side of WHAT?’ thought Alice. ‘Of the mushroom said the Caterpillar… and in another moment it was out of sight.”[13]



… and here’s a lovely recipe from Angie’s Southern Kitchen:

Wild Mushroom Tart

Pie Crust click here for pie crust recipe


1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter ~ additional to butter pans
2 medium shallots finely chopped
1 garlic clove minced
1/2 pound Cremini mushroom thinly sliced
1 pound assorted wild mushrooms thinly sliced ~ I used shiitake, oyster + more creminis
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon salt
fresh ground pepper
1/4 cup mascarpone cheese at room temperature
1/4 cup whole milk
2 large eggs
1/2 cup grated fontina cheese
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 375. I made my crust and put it in the tart shell pans with removable bottoms. The size shown is a 6 inch tart pan and it made 4 of them. I buttered them really well. After I had the pie crust in the shell, I placed all on a baking sheet. Then made the filling. I saute my shallots in the oil and butter until tender. Then added the garlic for just a second then mushrooms and thyme. I saute mushrooms until almost all moisture was gone. I let the mushrooms cool and then added them to a bowl. Then add the remaining ingredients to the bowl the salt, pepper, mascarpone cheese, milk, eggs, fontina and parmesan cheeses. Once this is mixed well add it to the prepared pie shells. Do not over fill. I baked mine for 20 minutes and they came out nice and golden brown and the crust was wonderful nice and crunchy on the bottom. We all love it! Great recipe….I just love it when I find a good one!! Thanks Smitten Kitchen!


And for good measure: my lobster raviolo topped with truffle



[1] Of course, one can always turn to A.M.I.N.T. (Associazione Micologica Italiana Naturalistica Telematica), which catalogues about 1,200 types of mushrooms.   http://www.amint.it/ You will need to register and pay a nominal fee.

[2] Pliny, Natural History, book 22, chapter 46, 92-93. Also see V.J. Marmion, “The Death of Claudius,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (May 2002),, vol. 9 (5), 260-261.


[3] Pliny, Natural History, book 22, chapter 48, 100.

[4] “Charles the Sixth died, in the month of October, 1740, of an indigestion, occasioned by eating champignons, which brought on an apoplexy, and this plate of champignons changed the destiny of Europe.” Voltaire, Memoirs of the Life of Voltaire (London: G. Robinson, 1784), pages 48–49.

[5] Michele Miele, Le origini della Madonna dell’ Arco. Il “Compendio dell’historia, miracoli e gratie” di Arcangelo Domenici (1608) (Naples-Bari: Editrice Domenicana Italiana, 1995), page 175, miracle no. #126.

[6] Alessandro Petronio, Del viver delli Romani et di conserver la sanità [1581], trans. M. Basilio Paravicino (Rome: Domenico Basa, 1592), 136. Apoplexy is difficult to define during that period but seems related to stroke.

[7] In his treatise The Fruit, Herbs, and Vegetables of Italy, Giacomo Castelvetro (1546-1616) names 8 types off edible mushrooms but also references “a huge variety… whose names do not come immediately to mind.”
Among the named, are: Field mushrooms –“ small, very white and “not a bit harmful”; Ovali – egg-shaped. “Although considered some of the best, and quite good, it is better all the same to be on the safe side, and boil them” before consuming a bowl full; Parasol mushrooms – eat only those that have “a ring in the middle of the stalk,” a true sign that they are safe for human consumption; Boletus or porcini – “They are highly esteemed, whether eaten fresh or salted”; Polmoneschi- in addition to eating them, “we use them [when dried] in Italy to light the fire on winter nights.”

Roman mushrooms, which the local population refers to as ‘fongaruola,’ are “buried in a terracotta pot filled with the best garden soil and watered every morning.” The yield is impressive. A single pot “will produce 15 or 20 mushrooms by the next morning.” In Rome “many fine lords and cardinals have pots of them on their windowsills.” See Giacomo Castelvetro, The Fruit, Herbs & Vegetables of Italy (1614), trans. Gillian Riley (Totnes, Devon: Prospect Books, 2012), pages 99-103.

[8] Martino of Como, The Art of Cooking. The First Modern Cookery Book, ed. Luigi Ballarini, trans. Jeremy Parzen (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005), page 68.

[9] Terence Scully, trans., The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570). L’arte et prudenza d’un maestro cuoco (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), page 362, recipe no. #235.

[10] Ken Alba, Eating Right in the Renaissance (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002), page 254 and 259. The quote Pyra sunt theriaca fungorum comes from Prosper Calanius, Traicté pour l’entrenement de santé, 1533.

[11] . Jan G. R. Elferink, “Aphrodisiac Use in Pre-Columbian Aztec and Inca Cultures,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 9 (2002), 1-2.

[12] John Davenport, Aphrodisiacs and Anti-Aphrodisiacs, circa 1869, as quoted inMiriam Hospodar, “Aphrodisiac Foods: Bringing Heaven to Earth,” Gastronomica, vol. 4 (2004), page 90.

[13] Excerpt from the 5th chapter, “Advice from a Caterpillar,” of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, 1865.

Leave a comment

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.

Leave a comment

Skeletons on the table!


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


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

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

Westerhout sugar sculpturejpg

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Recipe: Cooking-With-Nothing Spaghetti





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



Leave a comment

The Indulgence of Meat!


In January 1605, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) received a bill from his butcher. Over the course of roughly six weeks, between December 11, 1604 and January 29th, the purveyor of meats delivered to the astronomer’s home no less than “260 pounds of beef, 83 pounds of lamb, and 54 pounds of veal.”[i] At this point in time, the older of Galileo’s two illegitimate daughters was only a toddler but within a decade the plentitude of her father’s table would stand in sharp contrast to the abstinence foist upon her. Born in 1600, Virginia Galilei was confined within the restrictive walls of the Convent of San Matteo in Arcetri soon after her thirteenth birthday. Thereafter, the cloistered Virginia – or Sister Maria Celeste – could savor little more than fading memories of abbondanza.[ii]

Bosch, Gluttony detail

The contrast between the abundance of Galileo’s larder and the poverty of the convent’s kitchen reflects the seeming ambiguous place meat had in medieval and Renaissance culture. Although featured on the tables of the social elite, meat – especially red meat – was associated with society’s more unsavory, bawdy, and crude types. To be sure, meat came to be seen by some as a critical component of a healthy diet but proponents of flesh faced the obstacle of tradition, which held that the temperaments of animals directly affected consumers. Hence, for example, “eating rabbit causes fear” while “eating goat incites lasciviousness.”[iii] But the larger issue was of a more general nature. Meat was moralized.

Consider, for example, the personification of gluttony as represented by Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1450-1516) on Table Top of Seven Deadly Sins. Gluttony, his girth emphasized by the round table laden with an impressively large haunch, gnaws on the bone of some roasted beast. His appetite insatiable, Gluttony chows down as a serving woman brings him still more! Is it any wonder that Shakespeare’s Falstaff, the corpulent comic foil to the regal Prince Hal, is characterized as cuts of meat or the beasts from which they were carved: “chops,” “guts,” “sweet beef,” “sow,” “a little tidy Bartholomew boar pig,” “a Manning Ox with pudding in his belly.”[iv] Clearly, Shakespeare’s audience, like Bosch’s viewers, identified meat as an enticement that leads to sinful excess and reveals the folly of intemperance.


Similar to Bosch, Anthonius Claessen (ca. 1538-1613) set meat enticingly in the center of his painting, A Family Saying Grace before a Meal, and he, too, included a servant, platter in hand, entering the room. But these likenesses are inconsequential. Claessen’s pious family, unlike Bosch’s sinful glutton, can conquer temptation.


In A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms, 1551, the Netherlandish painter Pieter Aertsen (1508-1575) visualized the ambivalent place meat held in Renaissance society. Aertsen crammed the foreground of his painting with sausages, pig’s feet, the heads of a boar and a cow, roosters ready for the plucking, a side of beef, a bowl of curd, molded cheeses… and four fish, two fresh, two smoked. Through the stall’s doorway and windows we see two very different scenes. In the right background, just behind another hanging carcass, people indulge in life’s pleasures at a tavern. In the open landscape in the left background, the Holy Family gives the little they have by way of material goods to those in need. Significantly, the Holy Family – Joseph, leading the donkey bearing the Virgin and Infant Christ – align with the two fish on the pewter plate within the butcher’s stall. As an adult, Jesus would multiply two small fish and five barley cakes in order to feed five thousand.

Like Carnival – a time of indulgence – and Lent – a time of abstinence, meat and fish were not typically mixed. While it is true that sixteen of the seventeen courses served at the 1368 wedding banquet of Violante Visconti and Duke Lionel of Clarence combined meat with fish – gilded veal with gilded trout (3rd course), or beef pies with cheese and eel pies (8th course) – eating fish and meat on the same day, let alone at the same meal, was not the norm. In fact, the week was divided into fish days and flesh days. If the division had religious significance, it increasingly had economic justification. Londoners, it seems, not only had a hardy taste for meat, they associated it with the raucous times of festivals of Misrule. As the city’s population grew and consumption increased, shortages occurred, most notably in 1552/3 when fishing ships were diverted to London quays to avert famine. Government action was required to halt future depletions of meat stocks. By the 1580s secular regulation overtook religious custom. “The week was almost halved in favor of fish. Butchers were not officially allowed to sell on Wednesday, Friday or Saturday…. And though they had a market on Monday, by 1605 they were not allowed to kill or dress carcasses on Sunday.”[v]

So, as the Holiday season approaches and menus are devised for the feast of Roast Beast, as Dr. Seuss would have it, I advise all to choose judiciously whether to serve meat or fish. The choice is laden with nuance.


Christmas mince pies with stars and icing sugar on top on wooden chopping board

16th Century Recipe for Yuletide Mincemeat Pie from A Propre new booke of Cokery, 1545:

“Pyes of mutton or beif must be fyne mynced & seasoned with pepper and salte and a lytel saffron to colour it / suet or marrow a good quantitie / a lytell vynegre / pruynes / great reasons / and dates / take the fattest of the broath of powdred beefe. And if you will have paest royall / take butter and yolkes of egges & so to temper the floure to make the paest.”

(Pie filling of mutton or beef must be finely minced and seasoned with pepper and salt and a little saffron to colour it. [Add] a good quantity of suet or marrow, a little vinegar, prunesraisins and dates. [Put in] the fattest of the broth of salted beef. And, if you want Royal pastry, take butter and egg yolks and [combine them with] flour to make the paste.)

Or try this one instead…



[i] The quantities are indeed impressive but Galileo’s taste for meat was by no means unique. In 1348 the first of several outbreaks of the plague swept across Europe cutting in half the populations of cities such as Paris, London, Hamburg, and Florence. The demographic shock, it has been suggested, left the living a greater portion of pork, mutton, beef, and poultry on which to feast. Hannele Klemettilä, The Medieval Kitchen. A Social History with Recipes (London: Reaktion, 2012), page 63. To what extent a devastated populace had the energy and resources to raise domestic animals for consumption is, I think, debatable. It has been argued, however, that arable land was left fallow due to the same drop in population. As a consequence, there was a reduction of fodder for cattle feed and this, in turn, points to pattern of subsistence farming. There was little left for market. Harry Kitsikopoulos, “The Impact of the Black Death on Peasant Economy in England, 1350-1500,” The Journal of Peasant Studies, vol. 29, no. 2 (2002), pages 71-90.

[ii] Dava Sobel, Galileo’s Daughter. A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love (New York: Walker Publishing Company, 1999).

[iii] Ken Albala, Eating Right in the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), pages 79-80.

[iv] Sandra Billington, “Butchers and Fishmongers: Their Historical Contribution to London’s Festivity,” Folklore, vol. 101, no. 1 (1990), page 101.

[v] Sandra Billington, “Butchers and Fishmongers: Their Historical Contribution to London’s Festivity,” Folklore, vol. 101, no. 1 (1990), page 98.

Leave a comment

The Leek (allium ampeloprasum) & the Scallion (allium fistolosum) & the Onion (allium cepa)


Leeks, scallions, and the more pedestrian onion have been around a long time. Wandering in the wildness with Moses leading the way, the disgruntled “rabble that was among [the Israelites] had a strong craving” for the food, if not the laborious life style, they had left behind in Egypt. As the Israelites’s cuisine choices diminished and the rumblings of their stomachs grew louder, memories of forced labor faded. The only thing the despondent wanderers could recall was a bountiful table. And so, according to the biblical author of Numbers (11: 4-6), “the people of Israel wept again, and said, ‘O that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt…, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna…’” [See previous entry on quail.]

Cultivated worldwide for millennia, leeks, scallions, and onions have long been valued as recipe enhancers. Raw, they prick the palate and assault the nose. Cooked, their spicy bite is tempered to a delicate and aromatic sweetness. It was, perhaps, this culinary versatility that in 1211 prompted the Bishop of Winchester to authorize the expenditure of 1 shilling, 4 pence on “onion sets and shallots to plant, besides 6 pence on 2 pounds of onion seed, [and] 2 ½ pence for leeks.” Considered in terms of ground coverage rather than money, “we can estimate that about a quarter-acre [of the Bishop’s garden in Southwark] was under onions and shallots.”(1)


But taste enrichment was not the only benefit to be had from onions, leeks, and scallions. Whether green or dried and regardless of bulb size, the odiferous vegetable was believed to have a host of medicinal applications. Writing in the first century, Pliny the Elder (23-79 C.E.) reported in Natural History (book 19: 33. 108) that Nero, the infamous emperor who reportedly fiddled as Rome burned in July of 64 C.E., consumed leeks daily in order to maintain the clarity of his singing voice! The physician Alfonso Chirino (circa 1365-circa 1429) thought the piquant vegetable had better application elsewhere. In his Menor dano de la medicina, a book that provides therapies that enabled the general public to avoid visits to greatly feared medieval doctors, Chirino advised people suffering from hemorrhoids to mix onion with oil and apply to the affected area. (2) Presumably, the anti-inflammatory effects onions had on hemorrhoids also prompted its use to ease the pain of buboes during outbreaks of the bubonic plague. In Traicté de la Peste, 1566, François Vallériole proposed theriac,* a complex compound that included opiates, be stuffed into the hollow of a cooked onion that could then be applied as a poultice.

Jusespe de Ribera's painting of

Jusespe de Ribera’s painting of “Smell” from a series of works imaging the senses, circa 1615

For those of robust disposition, onions and scallions had the added benefit of heightening sexual drive. Writing at the end of the 16th century, Bartolomeo Pisanelli maintained, “scallions serve no other purpose than to excite the libido.”(3) Other writers were more specific. Onions were believed to be particularly felicitous to sexuality, promoting sperm production in males and lactation in women. (4) But there was always the problem of too much of a good thing… too much onion could cause headaches! Accordingly, in the instructive text he penned for students of medicine in the first decade of the 14th century, Bernard de Gordon cautioned headache sufferers to refrain from consuming fish, walnuts, onions, and strong wine.(5) Headaches aside, the repeated positive correlation of onions and coitus is, to me at least, perplexing. As noted by the first century Roman poet Martial, “As often as you have eaten the strong-smelling shoots of Tarentine leeks, give kisses with a shut mouth.”(6)

“Pori”, or Leeks, Tucuinum sanitatis, 1380s, copy in the National Library of Vienna

The Tacuinum sanitatis, a guide to healthful eating that was probably written in the 11th century and then translated from Arabic to Latin sometime in the 13th century, provides a succinct summary of the benefits to be had from leeks, or “pori”, (and, perhaps by extension other members of the allium family). Beneath a picture of a man carrying a basket brimming with the leafy sheaths of the vegetable and a woman arranging bunches of them on a table is an informative commentary. Leeks, we are told, stimulate the flow of urine and encourage sexual activity. Additionally, when mixed with honey, leeks break-up chest congestion, a notion repeated by Giacomo Castelvetro in 1614. However, one must be aware that they can assault the senses (I assume the reference is to their pungent smell and biting taste) as well as the brain! To counter these effects, the reader is instructed to mix leeks with sesame or sweet almond oil. Finally, leeks are deemed particularly appropriate for the diets of the elderly and those living in northern climes. (7)

As for Renaissance recipes that include onions… well, they are perhaps best left alone. Bartolomeo Scappi (1570) suggested adding them to fricassees of cow’s udder. I think Julia Child’s classic onion soup is the better way to go!


Finally, there is yet another use for onions, one that has nothing to do with food or physiology. Years ago, I rented an apartment not far from the magnificent church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. I was on the top floor. Daily, I made the climb and daily I had to tip-toe my way through a pile of chopped – and very smelly – onions on the landing between the 2nd and 3rd floors. An enquiry explained the obstacle. A very old (it’s fair to say ‘ancient’) woman scattered them about in an attempt to keep away a pounce of black cats!

*THERIAC: compounds included as many as 80 ingredients that ranged from rue to ground rubies, honey, pepper, and myrrh as well as coral and vinegar.Its palliative effects far out-weighed any curative properties.

  1. John H. Harvey, “Vegetables in the Middle Ages,” Garden History, vol. 12, no. 2 (1984), page 94.
  2. Michael Solomon, The Literature of Misogyny in Medieval Spain (Cambridge University Press, 1997), page 100.
  3. Pisanelli, Trattato della natura de’ cibi et del bere, p. 25, as cited in Sheila McTighe, “Foods and the Body in Italian Genre Paintings, about 1580: Campi, Passarotti, Carracci,” Art Bulletin, vol. 86, no. 2 (2004), page 317.
  4. Madeleine Pelner Cosman, “A Feast for Aesculapius: Historical Diets for Asthma and Sexual Pleasure,” Annual Review of Nutrition, vol. 31, no. 1 (1983), page 6.
  5. Bernard de Gordon, Tractatus de conservation vite humane, as referenced in V. de Frutos Gonzáles and A.L. Guerrero Peral, “La neurologia en los regimina sanitatis medievales,” Nurologia, vol. 26 (2011), page 422.
  1. Brucia Witthoft, “The Tacuinum Sanitatis: A Lombard Panorama,”Gesta, vol. 17, no. 1 (1978), pages 49-60; Luisa Cogliati Arano, Tacunium sanitatis (Milan: Electa, 1973).
  1. Epigrams, book XIII. 18. For Castelvetro’s reference, see Giacomo Castelvetro, The Fruits, Herbs and Vegetables of Italy, trans. Gillian Riley (Totnes, Devon: Prospect Books, 2012), page 109.

See http://www.soupsong.com/fleek.html


CASTAGNE (Chestnuts)

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Chestnut tart

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

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

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

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

omnipresent Pulcinelle in Naples!!!

omnipresent Pulcinelle in Naples!!!

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

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