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.