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Cherry Trees & Cherry Torte

Sour Cherry

Sour Cherry (Prunus Cerasus)

It has been a fantastic year for cherries in Britain and we are enjoying a bumper crop thanks to a cool spring followed by a gloriously sunny summer, which has meant the trees blossomed later and the fruit ripened in ideal temperatures. In Britain the majority of edible cherries come from the sour cherry (Prunus cerasus) or the wild (or sweet) cherry (Prunus avium).

Cherries were probably introduced by the Romans to Britain at the beginning of the 1st century and there is a legend that old Roman roads are marked by wild cherry trees grown from the stones Roman soldiers spat out while marching along them!

Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mas)

Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mas)

Ovid writes of only one type of cherry: the cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), which is not part of the Prunus family, as our sweet and sour cherries are, but a deciduous shrub that produces small yellow flowers in winter and edible glossy red or yellow cherry-like fruits, the taste of which is best described as a combination of a cranberry and a sour cherry. These cherries are pictured as part of the abundant golden age (Met. 1.102), they are among the foods Philemon and Baucis served to the gods (Met. 8.665) and are promised to Galatea by Polyphemus if she becomes his lover:

With your own fair hands you will pick the most delicious of strawberries growing under the trees,  the cornel berries in autumn.

– Metamorphoses 13.828

Whilst the cornelian cherry featured in Italian Renaissance gardens, it was cultivated for its ornamental value rather than its fruit, because of its vibrant yellow winter flowers. Instead sour and sweet cherry trees were grown for their fruit and Scappi calls specifically for visciola cherries in his cherry torte, a variety of black cherry which comes from the Prunus creasus species which in Italy has been used for centuries to make Vino di Visciole, a sweet, ruby-red dessert wine.

To prepare a visciola cherry tourte
Get visciola cherries, cook them in a little butter over a low fire, and strain the thickest part of them. Have ground marzipan paste ready, fresh egg yolks and mostaccioli, the amount of each at your discretion. When the filling is made up, have a tourte pan lined with a sheet of dough made from egg yolks, butter, sugar, rosewater, salt and fine flour, put the filling into it…

– The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, Book VI, Recipe 128

IngredientsCherry Ingredients

500g shortcrust pastry
500g cherries
100g butter
2 egg yolks
250g marzipan
50g biscotti, crumbled

Method

  • Pre-heat the oven to 180°C and lightly grease a tart tin
  • Roll the pastry out to about 3mm thickness on a lightly floured surface, then line the tin and prick the base with a fork
  • Cover with baking paper and fill with baking beans and bake for 10 minutes
  • Remove the baking beans, crumble the biscotti mixed with the egg yolks and spread over the pastry base, bake for a further 5 minutes, then allow the pastry shell to cool
  • De-stone the cherries – this sounds much simpler than it is! If you have a fancy de-stoning gadget, you’re sorted, but I use a paperclip bent into an S shape to hook the stones out. This is tricky at first, but you soon get the knack for it and it leaves the cherries with only one hole, whereas de-stoners poke the stone out from one side through to the other and make the cherries loose their shape more than the paperclip method. Either way, the process is very messy and the juice gets everywhere, so be warned!De-Stoning
  • Sautée the cherries in a saucepan with butter for about 5 mins until juices begin to run, but the cherries still have their shapeSauteeing
  • Roll the marzipan out to about 5mm thickness and cut to size and place over the biscotti crumbsBase & Marzipan
  • Arrange the cherries over the marzipan – this is best to do when the cherries are still warm, as they melt into the marzipan slightly and don’t roll about when you’re trying to place themArranging Cherries
  • Brush the remaining juices over the cherries and serveCherry Tart

As I’ve mentioned before, I am very dubious about cooking summer fruits, much preferring them raw, so I was pleasantly surprised  that sautéing the cherries in butter did wonders to their flavour. Raw, they were already juicy and sweet without a hint of bitterness, but sautéing gave their flavour a much deeper intensity and they took on a bolder, almost fortified quality. This made me feel that perhaps Scappi missed a trick with his recipe and a boozy ingredient wouldn’t have gone amiss…proof that recipes are made to be tinkered with, even Scappi’s! Boozy or not, this is a great summer dessert, you can’t go wrong with cherries and marzipan and when make it again I intend to add a generous splash of amaretto!

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Classics Kitchen: Ancient Roman Pesto

Mark GrantThe purpose of this post is twofold – firstly, to alleviate my guilt for not having published anything for over a month (in my defence, I have been away for most of it) & secondly, as a tribute to my time at the JACT Wells Latin School where I spent 2 weeks brushing up on my Latin and having lots of geeky Classics-related fun! The highlight of this time was meeting the marvelous Dr. Mark Grant, Classicist and food historian, whose writing has inspired my interest in food in the ancient world.

As well as giving a lecture, Dr. Grant also gave a Roman cookery class where each group was given a recipe from his book (right) for a dish that would feature in our Roman banquet. My group opted for Roman pesto, a ‘Herb Puree with Pine Kernels’ from Columella. Interestingly, the Romans did grow basil and it often features in ancient medicine, but it was believed to attract scorpions and considered difficult to digest because of its juices and was therefore not used in cooking.

The recipe is taken from page 98 of Roman Cookery, which I thoroughly recommend and encourage you to try out some Roman recipes from!

Mixtura cum Necleis Pineis
Chop into small pieces Gallic cheese, or any other well-known cheese you like. Pound it. Take pine kernels, if you have a lot of them, but if not, hazelnuts toasted after their shells have been removed, or almonds, and mix them in equal quantity with the seasonings detailed. Add a small amount of peppered vinegar and blend. Pour some olive oil over the mixture. If there are no green seasonings, pound dry pennyroyal or thyme or oregano or dry savoury with the cheese, and add peppered vinegar and olive oil. But, if the other herbs have no pungency, each of these herbs can be mixed when dry with cheese.

– Columella, On Agriculture

Ingredients

100g pine kernels or hazelnuts
80ml olive oil
80ml red wine vinegar
125g feta
handful fresh parsley
handful fresh coriander
2/3 mint leaves
sprig of savory, rue & thyme
salt & pepper

Method

  • Put all the ingredients in a food-processor
  • Purée until you have a smooth consistency and serve with bread *
  • If you are using hazelnuts, roast them first under a hot grill for 5 mins to release their nuttiness, turning them frequently to avoid burning

* Mark Grant’s recipe describes this as a patê and recommends the mix is puréed, however, I preferred to blend it a little less so it more closely resembled pesto and I also reduced the quantity of olive oil and red wine vinegar by half for a thicker, more pesto-like consistency…because recipes are made to be tinkered with!Pesto
I am a big fan of pesto and therein, a big fan of garlic, so I did have my doubts about the taste of this and expected it to be much blander than a typical basil pesto. I was completely mistaken, however, as this had such a rich, nutty flavour and a real tanginess from the different herbs. It was served at our Roman banquet with thin strips of fried pasta (lagana, page 60 of Roman Cookery) which made for a delightful combination.

Feasting

While this dish may represent the ancient origin of pesto, that should not rule out its use today, because it is quite simply too tasty not to make again and I fully intend to reintroduce Roman pesto!