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Flavouring the Garden: Neapolitan Pizza, Palms and Phoenix Nests

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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

Ingredients

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

Method

  • 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

Mixing

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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2 thoughts on “Flavouring the Garden: Neapolitan Pizza, Palms and Phoenix Nests

  1. It’s such a joy to open my email box to find, instead of the monotony of the usual email suspects, an update for Naso’s Song! I love the idea of understanding history through non-traditional methods, so it’s such a joy to visit a blog that indulges in sensory experiences (visual with the beautiful art; taste, smell and texture with the culinary experiments; and textual with the lovely selection of ancient sources). I want to plan a pizza night with my friends now too! Can’t wait for the next post!

  2. Pingback: Flavouring the Garden: Plums Part 1 – Preserved Plums | naso's song

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