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that naso’s song may flower for all time

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Flavouring the Garden: Figs, Dates and a Sweet New Year

As we come to end of January (and Chinese New Year!), I wanted to have a recipe involving figs, dates, which, along with honey, were given as gifts at the start of the Roman calendar to ensure the new year would be a sweet one, as Ovid discovers when he asks the god Janus of their purpose:

‘“What is the meaning of the dates and wrinkled figs, and the gift of shining honey in a snow-white jar?” “The omen is the reason,” says he, “so that flavour may follow what ensues, and the year continue sweet on the journey it has begun”’

– Fasti 1.185-189

Figs!Having covered dates in my previous post, we now turn to one of my favourite fruits. I love the myriad of textures you get in quick succession when biting into a fig – first the smooth softness of the skin, next the chewiness of the flesh and then the grainy, crunchiness of the seeds. They are right at the top of my (admittedly rather long) list of most moreish fruits and never linger long in my fruit bowl.

Figs are among the oldest fruits cultivated in the Mediterranean, their succulent, honeyed sweetness never loosing appeal over time and their popularity carrying through the Italian Renaissance where fig trees were highly prized out of all fruits grown in the garden, to today where the timeless combination of figs and Parma ham remains an irresistible classic.

Some things never change, it would seem, as the promise of sweet, fleshy figs is enough to distract even a servant of Apollo, the raven, who is commanded by the god to bring clear spring water  for ritual use. On sighting a fig-tree (and no doubt enticed by its wonderfully fragrant leaves), the raven succumbs to temptation and abandons his god-given mission, instead waiting beneath for the fruit to ripen, such is the allure of the ripe fig:

‘There was a fig-tree standing thickly covered with fruit that was still hard. He tests it with his beak, but it wasn’t ready for picking. Forgetting his order, he is said to have sat beneath the tree waiting for the fruit to become sweet in the slow passage of time.’

– Fasti 2.253-256

By succumbing to temptation, the raven is unable to complete the task and lies to Apollo, who his trickery and condemns him:

‘This is your sentence: as long as the milky fig shall cling to the tree, you will not drink cold water from any spring.’

– Fasti 2.264


Fig Tree (Ficus carica)

The fig tree (Ficus carica) was commonly grown in ancient Roman gardens, with evidence of numerous varieties cultivated and were vibrantly depicted in a number of frescoes.  To continue the story of the founders of Rome that began in my previous post, it is beneath a fig tree that the abandoned Romulus and Remus come to rest. This is where they are found by the she-wolf who nurses them and Ovid claimed that the very same fig-tree, called the Rumina, stood at the Lupercal, the cave where the twins were found (Fasti 2.415-417).

Fig Tree, House of the Orchard, Pompeii

Fig Tree, House of the Orchard, Pompeii

Fig Basket, Villa Poppaea, Oplontis

Fig Basket, Villa Poppaea, Oplontis

Fortunately Scappi uses dried figs predominantly, which is handy because as much as I adore fresh figs, they won’t be in season until the summer so the fresh fig recipes will have to wait until then. In the meantime, we have the rather unappetizingly-named ‘sops’ to look forward to, or more simply, figs and dates on toast:

 To prepare sops with various dried fruits
Get prunes and let them soak in warm water. After that, cook them in white wine with sugar, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon ground together. When they are done, have slices of toast ready in dishes and put with prunes on them with the decoction. Serve them hot with sugar over top. You can also do dried visciola cherries or halved dates and dried figs the same way.

– The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, Book VI, Recipe 257


75g dried figs
75g dates
half bottle white wine
50g caster sugar
couple cloves
teaspoon nutmeg
teaspoon cinnamon
2 thick slices bread


  • Place the sugar, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon in a pan, pour in the white wine and bring to a simmer


  • Halve the dates and figs, then add the to the pan
  • Simmer for 15 minutes until the wine has reduced and the fruit is softened
  • Cut the bread into chunky slices and toast – you’ll need them like door stops to soak up all the juices!
  • Spoon your figs and dates onto the toast, sprinkle with sugar

Figs on ToastsAt this point in my blogging, I am getting a little disheartened with the majority of recipes thus far turning out varying shades of brown and looking pretty unappealing, but I have to say, this one was an all-time low! Whilst the cooking of this was highly enjoyable, as it filled the kitchen with a fragrant medley of spices that was so similar to mulled wine that I was plunged into a spice-induced daze of Christmas reminiscing as I stirred the pan, I was soon brought back to a harsh reality when I served it up and found myself presented with a heap of brown fruit on brown toast drizzled with brown sauce. Delightful. My sister summed it all up in the face she pulled when I asked her to try it – the same one she used to make when we were children and she’d just been presented with cauliflower cheese or spinach. My thoughts exactly, Susie. The taste wasn’t too bad: imagine a chunky fig/ date jam mixed with mulled wine, but I couldn’t manage more than a couple of bites because it was so heavy. All in all, it tasted only slightly better than it looked.

Having had my aesthetic sensibilities utterly shattered, I have resolved that my next Renaissance recipe will be beautiful, or at least, not brown.


Flavouring the Garden: Neapolitan Pizza, Palms and Phoenix Nests

PizzaFor me, pizza is a full table…preferably in the garden on a summer evening. It is company and contentment and chatter. Some of the happiest memories I have involve pizza, because where there is good pizza, there is good company. 

My first night in the south of Italy was spent eating pizza stone baked in a woodfire oven by a beautiful man called Beppe – life doesn’t get much better than that! The tables were set out underneath trailing grape vines and they wobbled precariously on the uneven ground, making the olives tumble off our pizzas unless we devoured them immediately (which needless to say, I did).

date palm

Date Palm (Phoenix dactylifera)

This was one of the best days of my life for one simple reason: it revolved entirely around pizza. From being told in the morning that tonight we would make pizza, planning which toppings to buy over breakfast, carefully choosing the ingredients from the local market, gathering herbs and veg from the garden, calling up friends to join us for the evening; prepping the dough took up most of the afternoon and getting the oven going took up the rest. Pizza got all the attention that day and why shouldn’t it? Pizza demands such respect and I am more than happy to give it.

So you can imagine my excitement when I found a recipe for pizza in Scappi’s cookbook. I made the mistake of just reading the title of the recipe ‘a tourte with various ingredients, called pizza by Neapolitans’ and deciding this would be my next experiment before actually reading the recipe through. When I did come to do so, I found that my experience of pizza is a far cry from Scappi’s: for Scappi, it is apparently an open fruit and nut pastry tart. Needless to say, I was frankly disappointed, but decided to press on with it when I saw dates listed among the ingredients, as I’d recently bought some intending to use them for some (previously unknown) Great Purpose. Now I had a Great Purpose, although never thought it would be pizza…

Date palms (Phoenix dactylifera) were cultivated in ancient Roman gardens primarily for ornamental purposes, as they did not have a climate warm enough for the tree to reach to maturity and their growth was stunted, meaning dates were largely imported from hotter climes. They were frequently depicted in garden frescoes, with the most stunning example found in the House of the Golden Bracelet in Pompeii (see below, the date palm is pictured centre right, between the fountain and the herm).

The palm was a symbol of victory and according to Ovid also symbolised the founders of Rome: when Mars, god of war, visits Rhea Silvia as she sleeps, impregnating her with twins Romulus and Remus, she has a prophetic dream of the sons she now carries:

‘…amazing to behold, two palm trees rise up together. One of them was bigger, and with its heavy branches covered the whole world, and with its foliage touched the highest stars…A woodpecker, bird of Mars, and a she-wolf fight for the twin trunks. By their doing both palm trees were safe.’ 

– Fasti 3.25, 31-39

fresco house golden bracelet

Garden Fresco, House of the Golden Bracelet, Pompeii, 1st century BC – 1st century AD

It is also the tree in whose branches the phoenix builds its nest before being reborn:

 ‘When it has lived for five centuries, it then builds a nest for itself in the topmost branches of a swaying palm tree, using only its beak and talons. As soon as it has lined it with cassia bark, and smooth spikes of nard, cinnamon fragments and yellow myrrh, it settles on top, and ends its life among the perfumes.’ 

Metamorphoses 15.393-397

According to Pliny’s Naturalis Historia, the name of the mythical bird is taken from the tree and he describes a particular cultivar that appeared to die but then came back to life in the same manner as the phoenix.

Needless to say, a tree with such associations would certainly bear a remarkable fruit – a fruit even eaten by the gods, as dates were included in the humble fare Philemon and Baucis unwittingly offered Jupiter and Mercury when the gods visited their home in the guise of mortals (Metamorphoses 8.675). So, if dates good enough for gods, they are certainly good enough for Scappi, which brings us to his Neopolitan pizza:

To prepare a tourte with various ingredients, called pizza by Neapolitans.
Get six ounces shelled Milanese almonds, four ounces shelled, soaked pinenuts, three ounces of fresh, pitted dates, three ounces of dried figs and three ounces of seeded muscatel raisins; grind all up in a mortar. Into it add eight fresh raw egg yolks, six ounces of sugar, an ounce of ground cinnamon and four ounces of rosewater. When everything is mixed together, get a tourte pan that is greased and lined with a sheet of royal pastry dough; into it put the filling, mixed with four ounces of fresh butter, letting it come up to no more than a finger in depth. Without it being covered, bake in an oven. Serve it hot or cold, whichever you like. Into that pizza put anything that is seasoned. 

– The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, Book V, Recipe 121


Ingredients500g puff pastry
150g almonds
100g pinenuts
75g  dates
75g dried figs
75g raisins
8 egg yolks
150g sugar
100g butter
4 teaspoons rosewater
teaspoon cinnamon


  • Pre-heat the oven to 200°C
  • Lightly brush a round tin with butter, roll out the pastry and line the tin
  • Prick the base and bake in the oven for 10 minutes, then remove from the oven
  • Chop the the almonds, pinenuts, dates and figs
  • Add the raisins, egg yolks, butter, sugar, cinnamon and rosewater and mix well, then spread the filling evenly over the dough and bake at 180°C  for 20 minutesBowl


And here with have Scappi’s Neopolitan pizza, which may look fairly unappetizing but went down rather nicely with a dollop of cream.Final

Rather like the chestnut torte, the rosewater is the first flavour that hits the tongue, like an explosion of potpourri in your mouth – I was pretty dubious when I read that Scappi advises such a vast quantity and I only put in 4 teaspoons as the stuff I’ve got is so strong, but I’m just not a fan of something that reminds me so much of my Grandma’s talcum powder. My friend/ guinea pig tactfully commented she thought it was sweetly fragrant, whilst I found it rather soapy, although oddly we all found after the first mouthful you stop noticing the rosewater and start to appreciate the other flavours. I enjoyed the contrast between the sweet, gooeyness of the fruits and the crunchiness of the nuts, alongside with the gentle flakiness of the pastry, which is a combination I’m not very familiar with and reminded me of baklava. The general consensus was that it was very dense, but because the flavour had such punch a small slice went a long way.

All in all, not bad for a Sunday afternoon dessert and whilst I will not be making Scappi’s pizza again any time soon, it has inspired me to experiment with using dates and figs on savoury pizzas: both would go nicely with some prosciutto with caramelized onions and balsamic vinegar, maybe with some walnuts thrown into the mixso watch this space!

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Flavouring the Garden: Pomegranates, Husbands and Hades

Today was a good day: I found a duck in our local supermarket half-price, which is always cause for celebration in our house because on occasion my flat mate and I like to indulge like the rampant carnivores we are in an entire roast duck for dinner. This ritual is always heralded by the auspicious appearance of those delightful ‘reduced’ stickers, shining under neon supermarket lights with the promise of a bargain.

397px-Pomegranate_DSWIt must be said, there is something wonderfully primal and undeniably satisfying about tearing the meat off a roast <duck/ insert your favourite roast meat here> with your fingers without the usual encumbrance of cutlery. Sometimes there are even greens involved, but mostly just duck. Today was a roast duck day with a sweet twist, as I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to try out Scappi’s recipe for pomegranate sauce.

Moving swiftly on from the image of our shameless, carnivorous indulgence, we come to another  irresistible delicacy: the pomegranate. It is the seeds of this crimson fruit that prove all too tempting for the young Proserpina after she is abducted by Pluto to become his wife and preside over the Underworld with him. Her mother Ceres demands the return of her daughter and in her despair neglects her duty as the goddess of fertility, causing famine to ravage the earth. In order to placate grief-stricken Ceres, Jupiter agrees for Proserpina to be freed on a single condition decreed by the Fates:

Pomegranate Tree (Punica granatum)

Pomegranate Tree (Punica granatum)

“Proserpina shall be restored to the heavens – on one condition: no morsel of food must have touched her lips while she stayed in Hades. These are the terms decreed by the three Fates.” Jupiter made his point, but Ceres was still determined to have Proserpina back. The Fates, alas, were against it. The girl had already broken her fast. While taking a stroll in the orchard, she’d plucked a crimson fruit from a hanging bough; then peeling off the yellowish rind, she had picked out seven pomegranate seeds and crunched them between her teeth.

                                                                    – Metamorphoses 5.533-538

Those few delicious seeds are enough seal her fate and condemn Proserpina to spend half of every year in Hades with her husband, although she is allowed to return to Ceres in the land of the living for the rest of the year. According to Ovid, this accounts for the progress of the seasons as the cycle of a mother’s grief at the loss of her daughter and the joy of her return is played out year after year as she alternately neglects and attends to her duties to the earth.

Pomegranate Tree, detail

Pomegranate Tree, detail from Garden Room, House of Livia, Prima Porta

Cockerel Pecking Pomegranate, House of the Painters at Work, Pompeii

Cockerel Pecking Pomegranate, House of the Painters at Work, Pompeii

Because of its many seeds and the emblematic appearance of its cross-section, the pomegranate was (and still is) a symbol of fertility and the fruit tree was widely cultivated throughout the ancient Mediterranean, its popularity revealed by extensive writings on how to cultivate the fruit, its medicinal properties, culinary uses and its  numerous depictions in art (see wall paintings below). Punica granatum was also one of the most commonly cultivated fruit trees in Italian Renaissance gardens, a legacy which has endured to today as its brilliant scarlet blossoms can still be seen throughout Italy.

Among their numerous culinary uses, pomegranates make a refreshingly earthy, tangy wine…or so I’m told, because I’ve never tried it, having scoured the length and breadth of the county to source some but failing to do so – not the first time the culinary diversity of Devon has proved disappointing and surely not the last. So instead of using pomegranate wine, as Scappi states in this recipe, I’m using pomegranate molasses and a Primitivo as a substitute (I fell in love with this wine last summer when my sister and I visited friends in Puglia who made their own and plied us with it every meal – best holiday ever!). Let’s just hope Scappi can forgive me for tinkering with his recipe…

To prepare a pomegranate sauce
Get a pound and a half of clarified pomegranate wine and a pound of sugar and boil the mixture over a low coal fire until it is cooked – which you can tell by a test done with a globule. Above all make sure the sugar is fine; and boil it slowly. It is then kept in jars of glass or glazed earthenware.

– The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, Book II, Recipe 264


1/2 bottle dry red wine
3 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
50g caster sugar
pomegranate seeds for decoration


  • Slosh the wine into a pan with the sugar, boil over a medium to high heat whilst stirring continuously until the sugar has dissolved
  • After 8-10 minutes when the sauce has reduced by 1/2 *, stir in the pomegranate molasses and take off the heat
  • Serve with whatever  meat you desire, topped with a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds alongside a generous glass of red wine
  • Pour any remaining sauce into a sterilised jar

* I know Scappi makes an evasive reference to a ‘test by globule’, which gave me flashbacks to my failed attempts at jam making, a skill which I’ve decided is best left to my Mum; so in this case, I think it is easier just to watch for the desired reduction rather than doing complicated tests involving saucers and chilling.Duck

Drink MeAdmittedly, a picture of a half-eaten duck carcass smothered in sauce would be a more honest representation of our meal, but for the sake of aesthetics I opted to slice some of the breast in a more dignified manner (as opposed to showing a mess of meat pulled off by eager pomegranate-stained fingers) as I felt a duck that gave such satisfaction deserved its moment looking as appealing as it tasted!

As you can see, the sauce had a fabulous, deep crimson colour which looked gorgeous on the plate and totally appealed to my sense of aesthetics. Although the consistency of the sauce had a syrupy quality, the taste was not as sweet as my flatmate or I anticipated, but more tart with a refreshing crispness that cut through the wine beautifully. In fact, the wine was a little overpowered by the rich and earthy flavour of pomegranate, which for the purposes of this experiment was beneficial as that is the taste I am concerned with, but if I make it again I would probably add less of the molasses as it is potent stuff! I fully intend to revisit this recipe when I can get my hands on some pomegranate wine, so watch this space…

And yes, I couldn’t resist a little nod to Down the Rabbit Hole – when I filled this little bottle  with such a tempting sauce the ‘drink me’ reference instantly sprang to mind!


Flavouring the Garden: Scappi’s Chestnut Torte and Polyphemus’ Song

Chestnut tree

Chestnut tree (Castanea saliva)

As it’s Christmas, I thought Scappi’s chestnut torte was a suitably festive choice for my first post. We also have an abundance of fresh chestnuts in the house at the moment which are just crying out to be eaten!

As a tree native to Italy, Sweet Chestnuts (Castanea sativa) grew in abundance and were cultivated in ancient Italian gardens for their fruit. In Italian Renaissance gardens, their tall stature made them ideal for higher terraces and they were frequently planted in the wooded bosco areas.

Chestnuts are only mentioned once by Ovid in Metamorphoses, in the story of Acis, Galatea and Polyphemus. In an attempt to woo ‘whiter than the snowy petals’ Galatea, the hulking cyclops Polyphemus appeals to her in a song, promising her the fruits of the ground he cultivates:

‘With me as your lover, you’ll have sweet chestnuts and arbutus fruits in the richest abundance, so every tree shall be at your service.’

– Metamorphoses 13.828-830

The nymph Galatea, however, is repulsed by Polyphemus’ effusive attentions (and his body’s ‘bristling thicket of prickly hair’ as well, no doubt) and only has eyes for her beloved Acis. Enraged with jealousy, the cyclops kills his rival by crushing him beneath a boulder, but as the blood flows from his body, he is transformed into the River Acis.

Polyphemus’ song also contains a number of references to plants, fruits and other such edible delights, so will definitely be making a reappearance! But for now, chestnuts…

To prepare a tourte of fresh or dried chestnuts. You can get fresh chestnuts in August; they are quite bitter when they are slightly unripe – that is, those that are just whitening. Boil them in a meat broth or in salted water. Peel off their outer and inner skins, then grind them in a mortar and put them through a filter or a colander. For every two pounds of strained chestnut add in a pound of fresh butter, half a pound of goat’s or cow’s milk, a pound of creamy cheese, a pound of sugar, half a pound of fresh, well ground ricotta or provatura, an ounce of cinnamon, half an ounce of pepper and six uncooked egg yolks. When everything is blended together, make a tourte with a lower and upper shell and a twist around it. Bake it in an oven or braise it. When it is almost done, make a glazing on it with sugar, cinnamon and rosewater. When it is done, serve it hot. You can do it the same way with dried chestnuts, putting in more milk and fewer eggs.

The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, Book V, Recipe 120

I will be halving Scappi’s recipe and for the ‘creamy cheese’ I’m using mascerpone. The method – for this and all recipes to follow – incorporates all of Scappi’s directions and where he gives no instruction, (e.g. rather unhelpfully stating to ‘bake it in an oven but not stipulating any cooking time) I will use a mixture of baking intuition, trial and error and in some instances, just making it up as I go along! After all, this blog isn’t about how to be the perfect Renaissance cook (sorry Scappi), it’s about experimenting, tinkering and generally indulging my penchant for playing with food.


500g shortcrust pastry
200g butter
100ml milk
200g mascerpone
200g sugar
100g ricotta
3 egg yolks
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon rosewater
1 teaspoon cinnamon
50g granulated sugar


  • Pre-heat the oven to 200°C and lightly grease a 23cm tart tin
  • For the torte shell, roll the pastry out to about 3mm thickness on a lightly floured surface, then line the tin and prick the base with a fork. 
  • Bake for 15 minutes until golden, then allow the pastry shell to cool completely before adding the filling.
  • For the filling, score an X into the side of each chestnut – this allows them to boil more easily and prevents the nuts from exploding out of the water into your kitchen!


  • Boil the chestnuts in salted water for 15 minutes at a steady simmer until softened
  • Drain and allow the chestnuts to cool for a few minutes, then peel off their outer and inner skins while still warm


  • Grind in a mortar, or cheat and just do it in a blender – I’m going for a slightly coarse texture in my torte, so I haven’t blended them too finely
  • Place the nuts in a bowl, add the butter, sugar, milk, mascerpone, ricotta, cinnamon, pepper and egg yolks and blend well, then gently pour into the shell
  • With the remaining pastry, roll out enough to cover the top of the shell, or you can do some lattice-work if you feel so inclined
  • Bake at 180°C for 30-35 minutes until the pastry is golden brown

Blended Filling

  • For the glaze, melt granulated sugar in a pan over a low heat, then add cinnamon and rosewater whilst stirring continuously and spread over the tart with a pastry brush


I feel the look of it leaves a lot to be desired, (one of the reasons why I was perhaps a little liberal with the glaze!) especially after cutting it reveals an unappealing greyish-brown filling, but I have to say the smell is beautiful – buttery sweetness laced with cinnamon and rose.


For the tasting, I have enlisted the help of family and friends to act as my guinea pigs…

The rose and cinnamon hits as soon as its on your tongue, then a slightly cloying sweetness along with the grainy texture of the filling comes through, but the general consensus was that the pervading aftertaste is the gentle earthiness of chestnut. The moistness and grainy texture reminded several of us of sweet potato or pumpkin pie. One friend dubbed it ‘a Western take on a Chinese dessert’, saying it reminded her of mooncake, a Chinese pastry with lotus paste filling which is eaten at the Mid-Autumn Festival that has the same greyish-brown colouring and a similar umami flavour.

Every one seemed to enjoy it and with a generous splash of cream it went down rather nicely, but I was only fully convinced of its success when I found my brother-in-law eating the leftovers for breakfast the next day!