naso's song

that naso’s song may flower for all time


4 Comments

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!


Leave a comment

Mint & Elderflower Fritters and the Misfortunes of Menthe

dsc_0165

Elderflowers from the European Black Elder (Sambucus nigra)

Late spring brings elderflower. Every year my Mum makes countless bottles of elderflower cordial, but the fact she is annoyingly generous with it and always giving away bottles to people combined with my family unrestrained greed for it means that our supplies rarely last until the autumn, but it does sustain us through the long and lazy hot summer days. Whilst elderflower is making a seasonal appearance in this post, it is mint that takes centre stage…Ovid reveals the origin of mint with a reference to the story of the nymph Menthe in the lamentation of Venus before she transforms her beloved dying Adonis into an anemone:

Persephone, you were allowed to alter a woman’s body, Menthe’s, into fragrant mint: shall the transformation of my hero, of the blood of Cinyrasbe grudged to me?

– Metamorphoses 10.728

Mint

Mint (gen. Mentha)

According to Strabo, Menthe was a Cocythian nymph who was seduced by Hades, only to be discovered by his wife, Persephone who trampled her underfoot as she transformed into the pungent herb, mint. As well as being used in funerary rites, mint was an essential element of kykeon, the drink used by initiates in the Eleusian Mysteries (you can pop over to Circe’s Kitchen for the kykeon recipe). Because of its numerous gastronomic and medicinal properties as well as its use in ritual, mint was a favourite herb in the Roman garden and remained a popular garden herb in the Italian Renaissance.

For Scappi, mint wasn’t just to be used as a flavouring or accompaniment to dishes, but as a food in its own right, the case for which is proved by his fritters recipe:

To prepare fritters.
Get a pound of fine flour, two ounces of cooled melted butter, two ounces of sugar, two ounces of rosewater, a little saffron, salt, eight eggs and a beaker of goat’s milk, with all that make up a batter like well beaten glue. Let it sit in the same pot in a warm place for a quarter of an hour. Beat it again. Make fritters of it in the way described above. In that mixture you can put elderflower or mint and marjoram.

– The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, Book V, Recipe 137

Ingredients Ingredients

100g flour
25g melted butter
25g sugar
1 egg
splash goat’s milk
drop rosewater
pinch saffron
5 elderflower heads*
5 mint stems
oil for frying

* elderflower usually blooms from the end of May to mid June (depending on the weather) – the flower heads should be collected fresh when the buds have just opened and no bitter smell can be detected

Method

  • Heat some oil in a frying pan
  • Rinse the elderflower heads and trim the stems, but leave them long enough to hold whilst frying
  • Combine the flour, melted butter, sugar, milk, rosewater and saffron and beat together until it forms a batter, then fold a beaten egg white into the mixture
  • Dip the elderflower heads one-by-one into the batter and hold by the stem in the oilFrying
  • Fry until the batter is crisp and golden, then immediately dip into caster sugar and place on a piece of kitchen rollFritters
  • Repeat with the mint leaves, leaving them on the stem and serve immediately for optimum crispiness!Final

I REALLY loved these, they were unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before and the only thing I can compare them with is the crispy fried texture of churros, but with a wonderfully aromatic hit. The cool, freshness of the mint worked so well in the warm, crunchy batter and the leaves darkened to a rich green as they fried and crystallized beautifully. I was worried the frying would cause the delicate taste of the elderflower to be lost, but if anything it preserved it and the gently floral, aromatic flavour complimented the crisp sweetness of the fried batter perfectly.

I really recommend people try these – they are so simple to make, plus they look and taste truly fantastic!


Leave a comment

Flavouring the Garden: Images of a Golden Age & Strawberry Crostata

Today was a gorgeous sunny spring day with a heat that promised summer. I love how the Devon countryside comes to life in spring in a bright, mismatched patchwork of greens, oranges and yellows as fields of wheat, barley and rapeseed flourish under the sun and the lambs grow fat grazing on lush grass.  I never fail to marvel out how this season transforms what for months has been a sodden, dreary Devon landscape into one of fruitful abundance as flowers blossom, crops thrive and fruit grows juicy.

According to Ovid, there was once a Golden Age when the earth was uncultivated, yet brought forth fruit in abundance and the world was in a state of perpetual spring:

‘The earth was equally free and at rest, untouched by the hoe, unscathed by the ploughshare, supplying all needs from its natural resources. Content to enjoy the food that required no painful producing, men simply gathered arbutus fruit and mountain strawberries, cornel cherries and blackberries plucked from the prickly bramble, acorns too which they found at the foot of the spreading oak tree. Spring was the only season.’

Metamorphoses 1.100-106

arbutus fruit

Strawberry Tree, House of the Golden Bracelet, Pompeii

Central to this image is fruitfulness and fruit, and one of these is the strawberry, one of my favourite fruits – sweet, juicy and irresistible. Two types of strawberries were grown in ancient Italy: the arbutus fruit (arbutus unedo), grown from the evergreen strawberry tree whose fruit is edible, but bland; the name arbutus unedo supposedly came from Pliny the Elder’s description unum edo ‘I eat one’ because of its unpalatable taste (although I have it on good authority they make a fantastic brandy). It was cultivated in Roman gardens for its evergreen properties symbolically associated with immortality, as well as its brightly coloured red and yellow fruits and was depicted on frescoes, including one from the House of the Golden Bracelet.

Arbutus

Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo)

The other was a wild variety found in the mountains, (Fragaria vesca) smaller and harder than the garden strawberry (Fragaria anassa) widely cultivated today, which was not grown until the late 18th century. As such, it was the wild strawberry later cultivated in Italian Renaissance gardens and used in Scappi’s dishes. As these are not readily available here and my local greengrocer has just started selling perfectly ripe Spanish garden strawberries which have proved a welcome substitute as I wait (impatiently!) for the British strawberry season to begin, I will be using these in Scappi’s strawberry crostata.

To prepare a crostata of visciola or morello cherries, strawberries, gooseberries or fresh verjuice grapes

Get viscola or morello cherries (or strawberries) that are not too ripe, without their stalk; pit them. Have a tourte pan ready with dough and wash the top with beaten egg white, immediately sprinkling it with sugar: that is done so that the juice will not penetrate into the pastry. Let it sit a while, then get the fruit, having coating it with sugar, cinnamon and musk-flavoured Neapolitan mostaccioli crumbled and mixed with beaten egg yolks: that is done in order to hold everything together. Put it all into the pan and cover it.

– The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, Book VI

IngredientsStrawberry Ingredients

500g shortcrust pastry
400g strawberries
50g biscotti
2 eggs, separated
50g sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon

Method

  • Pre-heat the oven to 180°C and line a tray with baking paper
  • For the crostata shell, roll the pastry out to about 1cm thickness on a lightly floured surface
  • Hull and chop the strawberries into halves, then place in a bowl and coat with sugar and cinnamon
  • Brush with egg white and sprinkle with sugar
  • Crumble the biscotti/ cantucci (using the good old bashing in a plastic bag with a rolling pin method!) and mixed with egg yolks, then spread evenly over the base of the pastry shell, leaving a 5cm border (for the sake of aesthetics, I’ve decided to put this on base of the pastry with the strawberries on top, rather than mixed in with the strawberries as the recipe dictates – sorry, Scappi!)Biscotti Base
  • Pile the strawberries onto the pastry shell and spread out evenly
  • To form the crust, fold the edges of the pastry up over the strawberries, pleating it to encircle themPleating
  • Bake for 30-35 minutes until the pastry is golden

It never even occurred to me to make a crostata with strawberries and I must admit I am somewhat of a purist when it comes to summer fruits and berries, much preferring them uncooked to best enjoy their luscious summer flavours! Only occasionally do I add them to dessert and even then only as a raw ingredient and I have only ever cooked them in jam. As such, I did not expect to enjoy this dessert nearly as much as I did and I must confess I have been converted to having an appreciation for baked strawberries. The cinnamon and sugar drew the juices out of the strawberries during baking which soaked into the layer of biscotti underneath, making for a soft and velvety fruit filling that tasted indulgently sweet.Slice


1 Comment

Scappi’s Mostaccioli & Easter Biscotti

Having scanned Scappi for an exciting Easter dish (seeing as there are plenty of recipes for Lent I thought Easter dishes would be a given), hoping for an early version of Pastiera or Pane di Pasqua, to my great disappointment I have been unable to find a single one! So I have settled instead for a modern biscotti made with orange, inspired by the signature flavours of Pastiera to compare with Scappi’s mostaccioli, an early example of the ‘twice-baked’ biscotti. Scappi recommends these are served at the beginning of a feast as a credenza alongside other sweet morsels and accompanied by wine to stimulate the appetite and includes them crumbled in a number of sweet dishes, as with the plum torte.

Mostacciolo are among the most ancient of Italian confectionary and modern versions retain many of the characteristics of those served in medieval and Renaissance Italy which were twice-baked, heavily spiced, sweet treats served at banquets and festive occasions. The name mostaciollo comes from the Italian grape must most which was reduced to form a syrup used as a sweetener.  The recipe is thought to have originated from a type of Roman cake called mustacea ‘must cake’, described by Cato the Elder in De Agri Cultura, where the ingredients flour, lard, cheese, grape must, anise and cumin were combined and baked wrapped in bay leaves…a future recipe for The Hungry Historians, methinks, so watch this space!

mostacciola 300g

Neopolitan mostaccioli

In Sicily today mostaciollo are biscuits spiced with cinnamon and cloves, commonly served with dessert wine for dipping, as well as being made with orange and sesame seeds as a festival speciality on All Souls’ Day. Perhaps the most recognisable modern example comes in the form of diamond-shaped spiced biscuits covered in chocolate from Napoli, which are typically eaten at Christmas and weddings, but each region has its own version.

Scappi’s mostaccioli are therefore the link between these ancient and modern recipes. However, unlike the typically spiced biscuits, Scappi’s Milanese version only calls for aniseed and musk, representing a refined recipe tailored for the elite: a deliberate move away from the earlier heavily spiced versions and more closely resembling biscotti. This un-spiced version may sound a little dull, but it is important to remember this biscuit was intended to be served with various sweet accompaniments and a good wine. As such (and because it’s Easter!) I will serve them alongside a modern chocolate and orange biscotti with hot mocha dipping sauce (fabulous recipe courtesy of the Silver Fox himself, Paul Hollywood) and whatever wine I happen to find open at the time.

To prepare dainty morsels – that is, Milanese-style mostaccioli Get fifteen fresh eggs, beat them in a casserole pot and strain them with two and a half pounds of fine, powdered sugar, half an ounce of raw aniseed or else ground coriander, and a grain or two of fine musk; with that put two and a half pounds of flour… Then have greased sheets of paper ready, made like lamps, or else high-sided torte pans with, on the bottom, then put the batter into the lamps or torte pans, filling them no more than the thickness of a finger. Sprinkle them immediately with sugar and put into a hot oven…When that batter has risen up and thoroughly dried out and is rather firm take it out of the torte pan or lamp. Right away with a broad, sharp knife cut them up into slices two fingers wide and as long as you like, and put them back into the oven on sheets of paper to bake again like biscuits, turning them over often. 

 – The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, Book VI, Recipe 142

Biscotti IngredientsIngredients

3 eggs
250g caster sugar
250g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon aniseed
1 teaspoon grape must/ concentrated grape juice

Method

  • Preheat the oven to 160°C
  • Combine all the ingredients together in a bowl and mix to form a dough, turn onto a floured surface
  • Roll the dough into a log shape, place on a greased baking tray and sprinkle with sugarBiscotti Dough
  • Bake for 25 minutes until dry and firm
  • Leave to cool and when only slightly warm cut into 2cm slicesSlicing
  • Place the slices back on the baking tray, bake for 15 mins, then turn over and bake on the other side for a further 15 mins until golden brown on both sidesTwice Baked
  • Serve after dinner with dipping sauce and digestivi – the perfect way to end a meal

Final BiscottiIn case you were wondering, these biscotti really do taste as plain as they look, which makes them perfect for nibbling on after an indulgent dinner (of which I have had far too many over this Easter period) along with a digestivi to help wash it all down. The aniseed taste is very subtle and you only get a subtle hint of the flavour and I have to say the concentrated grape juice I used as a substitute for the grape must was completely lost on me, but presumably added a little to the sweetness. Compared with modern biscotti, there wasn’t a huge amount of difference in taste and this could be used as a base recipe for biscotti to which you can add whatever flavorings you want, although I’d recommend adding a bit of baking powder as I had to roll it up in the oven to keep its shape for the first 10 minutes of baking.

All in all, a lovely and simple accompaniment to chocolatey/ boozy dips!

Buona Pasqua a tutti!


1 Comment

Flavouring the Garden: Plums Part 2 – Preserved Plum Torte

LambsFor me, two things have heralded the arrival of spring this year: Victoria plums and lambing – and this was a weekend of both! Growing up in North Devon you know spring has arrived when the fields start to fill with gamboling lambs, their white wooly coats speckling the view of the landscape for miles around. Having lots of farming friends meant that from a young age, every year come spring my sisters and I would help with the lambing at a friend’s sheep farm up on Exmoor called Ovis (Classicists will no doubt appreciate the name!). Unfortunately I haven’t been able to help for many years now since leaving home, but as I was at home this weekend and asked if I wanted to see how this year’s lambing was going on Ovis Farm, I couldn’t resist a visit and getting stuck in!Curious

Whilst the day was filled with lambing, in the evening my mind turned to my preserved plums and the delicious spring dessert they would make! I’ve been looking forward to making this all week and it hasn’t been a disappointment, but turned out to be a wonderfully bright and sunshiny spring torte…

 To prepare visciola cherry tourte without cheese.
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 eggs 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 yolk, butter, sugar, rosewater, salt and fine flower, put the filling into it with a similar sheet of dough on top. The same can be done with plums.

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

Plum IngredientsIngredients

800g preserved plums (see Plums Part 1 – Preserved Plums)
500g shortcrust pastry
250g marzipan
250g biscotti/ cantucci

Method

  • Pre-heat the oven to 180°C and lightly grease a 23cm 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
  • Fill with baking beans and bake for 15 minutes until golden, then allow the pastry shell to cool completely before adding the filling
  • Roll the marzipan out to about 6mm thickness and cut to size and place in the base of the pastry shellMarzipan Base
  • Crumble the biscotti/ cantucci (put into plastic bag and bash with a rolling pin – very therapeutic!) and sprinkle over marzipanBiscotti Base
  • Drain the liquid from the preserved plums and cut each plum into segments and starting from the centre, arrange over the top of the torte, starting from the centre and working your way out

Plum TartThis torte had just the kind of taste that appeals to me, not too sugary, but with a natural sweetness that comes from the fruit as the pervasive taste, much like the apple crostata of a few weeks ago. The first bite is wonderfully unexpected, too: the soft, yielding fruit just melts in the mouth whilst the crunchiness of the cantucci hidden beneath and the smoothness of the marzipan offers a perfect compliment of textures. The fruit was a little too soft for my taste, I’d have liked a little more bite so I will simmer them for a little less time in future, but they were still firm enough to keep their shape once sliced, so I’m happy with the outcome.

As for aesthetics, I think this makes such a marvelous-looking spring dessert, like a burst of sunshine or a flower unfurled. Whilst this recipe was made with Victoria plums, I’m now curious to try it with different varieties to see what other colourful creations they would make – mirabelles would give this even more vibrant a yellow and combined with damsons with their purple skins still on would look fabulous. I also quite like the idea of damsons and greengages for a more interesting colour combination, which certainly wouldn’t look out of place at a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party…


3 Comments

Flavouring the Garden: Plums Part 1 – Preserved Plums

It’s Mother’s Day and therefore the perfect day for what is in my mind the quintessential mother-daughter activity: preserving fruit. I have many fond memories of helping (and when I say helping, I mean giving the pot an occasional stir) my Mum make jam…or rather, pouring jam! It must be said, it took her a while to get the knack of it (and when I say a while, I mean years and not without the help of a Women’s Institute book on preserves) but she does make a very good jam, although I confess I was also rather fond of the pouring jam, which went marvelously with ice cream, and look forward to the day when it makes an impromptu return. However, I am not making plum jam today, but preserved whole plums that will be used in my next recipe (hence the ‘Part 1’ of this post) for plum torte.

Plum Tree (Prunus domestica)

Plum Tree (Prunus domestica)

There are so many varieties of plum in a myriad of bright, beautiful colours and flavours: tart, purply-blue damsons, rich and intense greengages, sunshine yellow, sweet mirabellles, rosy-red, juicy Victorias and many, many more. Plums have grown wild across northern Europe and were widely cultivated throughout ancient Greece and Rome – Pliny lists twelve varieties, including the damascenum ‘Damascus plum’ from  Syria, from which the damson (Prunus institata) grown today throughout northern Europe may have originated. 

The Romans recognised the medicinal uses of the plum tree: respiratory illnesses were treated with its leaves and the laxative effects of the fruit, especially in its dried form as prunes, were also utilised. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a burning branch pulled from a plum tree is used as a weapon in the Battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs (12.272) and the aforementioned Philemon and Baucis unknowingly serve plums to the gods when they visit them in the guise of mortals (8.675). It also appears that as well as the learned Pliny, the rustic cyclops Polyphemus was also acquainted with various types of plum as he promises the choicest of cultivars to the nymph Galatea in a vain attempt to woo her (see chestnut torte recipe for Polyphemus’ song). 

With your own fair hands you will pick the most delicious of strawberries growing under the trees,  the cornel berries in autumn, and juicy plums, not only the dark blue kind, but also the choicer sort with the golden colour of fresh-made wax.

– Metamorphoses 13.826

Plum Tree Detail, House of the Fruit Orchard, Pompeii

Plum Tree Detail, House of the Fruit Orchard, Pompeii

For Scappi’s preserved plums I shall be using the Victoria plum variety, which are just coming into season now that spring has begun.

To preserve fresh plums in syrup
Skin the plums with a knife. Have clarified sugar ready in a clean, well-tinned copper pot and, for every pound of sugar, six ounces of water. Boil it over a low fire with the plums in it, as many as can go into it without being too close together, until the plums are tender and the sugar has thickened. Then take that out of the pot, put it into dishes and let it cool.

The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, Book VI, Recipe 136


Plum IngredientsIngredients

200g preserving sugar
800g plums
400ml water

Method

  • Heat the oven to 130°C and sterilize a jar by washing them it hot, soapy water and then placing them on a baking tray in the pre-heated oven for 10 minutes (or if unlike me you have a dishwasher, just put them through a cycle and voilà), keeping them warm until filled
  • Fill a pan with 400ml water and preserving sugar, heat gently, stirring to dissolve the sugar
  • Add the plums and simmer for 5-7 minutes until the skins have come away from the fleshPreserving
  • Fill the jar with the plums and syrup, leaving about 2cm from the top and seal

Preserved PlumsAlthough these plums would be quite lovely to eat as they are, or with a scoop of ice cream, I will be saving them for the plum torte which will feature in next week’s blog post…


5 Comments

Flavouring the Garden: Golden Apple Trees and Scappi’s Apple Crostata

During Carnival in Venice, on the last day of February, Scappi created a feast for 50 guests where over 50 varieties of apple, both cooked and raw, were served to guests. Scappi’s apple-centric feast is my idea of fine dining: I love apples of all shapes, sizes and varieties and I think one of the reasons I’ve stayed in Devon for so long is down to the abundance of orchards and the myriad of apple varieties available (you can check these out at www.devon-apples.co.uk!). So, in honour of Scappi’s banquet, I am making his Apple Crostata. 

Apples were something of a phenomenon in the ancient world, particularly the golden variety: the golden apples of the Hesperides were said to be guarded jealousy by the dragon Ladon, which only Hercules, as part of his twelve labours (Met. 9.190) and Eris, goddess of discord, succeed in stealing. Eris inscribed the stolen fruit with τῇ καλλίστῃ ‘for the most beautiful’, which Hera, Athena and Aphrodite each claimed as theirs. Paris, however, judged Aphrodite as the fairest, won over by her pledge to give him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta, wife of Menelaus – thus the wheels of the Trojan War were set in motion by a single golden apple.

Then, there is the golden tree sacred to Venus, the fruit of which she used to trick Atalanta, a young woman who desired to remain a virgin huntress and only agreed to marry the man who can outrun her in a race. Whilst unbeatable, she was outwitted by Hipponemes, who was given three golden apples by Venus, which he uses to distract Atalanta during the race, enabling him to win and claim her hand as victor:

‘…there gleams a golden tree with foliage of yellow and branches rustling with yellow gold. I chanced to be coming from there with three gold apples I’d plucked in my hand.’

– Metamorphoses 10. 646-50

Apple Tree  (Malus domestica)

Apple Tree (Malus domestica)

It would seem that the golden apples that graced that boughs of trees during the classical period perhaps also thrived during the Renaissance, as Italian nobleman Giacamo Castelvetro claimed the ‘paradise apple’ was among the greatest specialities Italy had to offer. According to Castelvetro, these were recognised by their golden yellow skin flecked with scarlet and were so aromatic that they were used to infuse linen with their scent and their skins were burned in fires to perfume rooms.

A visitor to the Villa d’Este, Cernobbio at Lake Como claimed that the  gardens had apple trees ‘whose fruits are fairer than the apples of the Hesperides‘. It is likely these were Annurca apples, cultivated throughout Italy and grown in numerous gardens, which is believed to date back to ancient times. Although the earliest documentation of this fruit is in 1876, depictions of this apple can be seen on frescos from Pompeii and Herculaneum (see below), where carbonized remains were found in the garden of the Villa Poppaea and it is believed to be the apple variety Pliny refer to as the mala orcula, which originated from Pozzuoli (ancient Pueteoli).

Apples in a Bowl of Fruit Fresco, House of Julia Felix, Pompeii

Apples in a Bowl of Fruit Fresco, House of Julia Felix, Pompeii

Glass Bowl with Apples and Pomegranate, Villa Poppea, Oplontis

Glass Bowl with Apples and Pomegranate, Villa Poppea, Oplontis

It is probable Scappi’s apple crostata would have been made from this variety, also…

To prepare an apple crostata.
Get apples, either pare them or roast them in the coals, and cut them into thin slices. Stew them a little in a earthenware or copper pot in fresh butter, sugar and a little malmsey or white wine. When they are done take them out and make a crostata with them, with slices of fresh provatura under and over them, sprinkling them with sugar and cinnamon. Put a few lumps of butter and seeded muscatel raisins in with that. Apples and muscatel pears can be put into a crostata raw as they are without being stewed if you have sliced them very thin.

– The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, Book V Recipe 61

Apple IngredientsIngredients

500g shortcrust pastry
2 cooking apples
150g mascarpone
25g butter
50g sugar
50g raisins
2 teaspoons cinnamon

Method

  • Pre-heat the oven to 180°C and line a tray with baking paper
  • Slice the apples thinly and to keep from browning  place in a bowl of water with a little lemon juiceSlicing

  • For the crostata shell, roll the pastry out to about 1cm thickness on a lightly floured surface
  • Spread the mascarpone evenly over the base of the pastry shell, leaving a 5cm border
  • Sprinkle the raisins, half the sugar and cinnamon over the mascarponeFilling

  • Transfer onto a baking tin and arrange apple slices overlapping each other from edge of the pastry and working your way into the centre in a spiral
  • Fold the edges of the pastry up over the apples, pleating it to encircle them and form a crust
  • Melt the butter and brush over the apples, then sprinkle with remaining sugar and cinnamonArranging SlicesArranging  Final

  • Bake for 30-35 minutes until the apples are tender, serve warmFinal Apple

So, we have had a tourte, now we’re having a crostata – the main differences being that the filling of a tourte is well-blended whereas the filling of a crostata is chunky and has more bite to it, making the latter my favourite of the two. In fact, this has been my favourite Renaissance recipe so far: it wasn’t fussy and had no overpowering flavours, (the conspicuous absence of rosewater in this recipe came as quite a relief in particular!) just simple, tasty and elegant in appearance. The crisp, sharpness of the apples was complimented beautifully with the juicy sweetness of the raisins and undercut perfectly with the mellow smoothness of the mascarpone. Its clean, no-nonsense flavours made a refreshing change from typical overly  sweet desserts we are so accustomed to nowadays and this is sure to remain a firm favourite for me, especially as it goes so well with a nice dollop of Greek yogurt!


Leave a comment

Flavouring the Garden: Pastries, Cinnamon and Stardust

After three out of four recipes resulting in dishes of varying shades of brown, I resolved in my last post that my next recipe would not be brown. I’ve been saving this one for a rainy day – and rainy it is, with flooding across the county and storms all week. So as Devon drowns, I shall make pastries…

Pastries are one of my greatest weaknesses and greatest joys. My post Saturday morning rowing ritual is two warm pain au chocolat fresh from the local deli with a massive mug of yorkshire tea. Sometimes the one thing that gets me through a really grueling winter training session when its wet, windy, I’m numb from the cold and wondering why I’ve got up at the crack of dawn on my day off to torture my body in this way, is the promise of pastry waiting for me at the end of it (at this point I’m hoping my coach doesn’t ever see this post, as he would not be impressed at my poor choice of post-training nutrition). Many of you will be familiar with those t-shirts bearing the slogan, ‘run like <insert your celebrity crush here> is waiting at the finish line’, well for me, even Benedict Cumberbatch comes (an admittedly close) second to those golden parcels of buttery flakiness waiting for me at home.

Cinnamomum_camphora

Cinnamon Tree (gen. Cinnamomum)

It is cinnamon that gives the sweet, warmly spiced flavour to the pastries I’m making today, a spice derived from the bark of trees from the genus Cinnamomum. An expensive spice imported from India in Roman times, cinnamon was given as an offering to the gods, used in perfumes, medicines, aphrodisiacs, cooking and even to flavour wine. As well as lining the nest of the phoenix (Metamorphoses 15.397), Ovid describes how cinnamon originates from the mythical Panchaea, an island east of Arabia:

The land of Panchaea may boast her fabulous riches in balsam, cinnamon, spices, frankincense sweated from trees, and her various scented flora, so long as she keeps her myrrh to herself.

Metamorphoses 10.304

By the Renaissance, cinnamon was used extensively in cooking, giving rise to the heady cocktail ‘Renaissance stardust’: a flavour bomb of cinnamon, sugar and a pinch of salt used to season a multitude of both sweet and savoury dishes that is still used today and I will be using as the dusting for Scappi’s pastries.

To prepare a filled twist.
Sprinkle the dough with four ounces of sugar and cinnamon. Then get a pound of currants, a pound of dates cut up small and a pound of seeded muscatel raisins; combine all those ingredients and mix them with sugar, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Spread that mixture out over the sheet of dough, along with a few little gobs of butter. Beginning at the long edge of the dough, roll it up like a wafer cornet, being careful not to break the dough. A twist like that needs only three rolls so it can cook well: it should not be too tight. Grease its surface with melted butter that is not too hot. Begin at one end and roll it up, not too tightly, so it becomes like a snail’s shell or maze. Leave to rest. Bake it in an oven or braise it with a moderate heat, not forgetting to grease it occasionally with butter. When it is almost done, sprinkle sugar, cinnamon and rosewater over it. Serve it hot.

The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, Book V, Recipe 122

IngredientsIngredients

500g Danish pastry
100g dates
100g currants
100g raisins
50g sugar
50g butter
2 tsp cinnamon
1tsp nutmeg
couple cloves
rosewater
pinch salt

Method

  • Line a baking tray with baking paper
  • Combine the chopped dates, currants, raisins, sugar, butter, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg in a bowl
  • Roll the dough out to a rectangle onto a lightly floured surface

Dough

  • Spread the combined ingredients evenly over the dough and roll into a tight sausage

Roll

  • Cut the sausage into 3cm slices

Cutting

  • Transfer to a baking tray with plenty of room between each roll, then leave to rise for approximately 2 hours until doubled in size

Baking Tray

  • Preheat the oven at 200°C
  • Brush the surface of each roll with melted butter
  • Bake for 15-20 minutes until golden
  • Sprinkle with rosewater and combined sugar, cinnamon and pinch of salt ‘stardust’ mix

Glazed

The recipe for these cinnamon twists is similar to pain aux raisin, so I thought it would be an interesting point of comparison to make both – any excuse for more pastries! For the pain aux raisin (left), I used Paul Hollywood’s recipe from How To Bake.

Pastries

My guinea pigs (aka friends and family) were pretty happy to be served these after the aforementioned plethora of brown dishes! They were intensely buttery, even more so than the pain aux raisin, because of the  butter used as both binding and glazing agents rather than crème patissiere and apricot jam, as with the latter. They were also less sweet than the pain aux raisin and had more of a natural sweetness that came from the dried fruits which had almost candied in the butter during baking time. The combined flavour of the fruits and spices, dominated by the cinnamon, gave them a pleasantly aromatic, Christmassy taste.

The fact that they were wolfed down so eagerly, (and it must be said, without the suspicion my other recipes have been met with) and when asked to comment on the taste there was a general chorus of ‘Mmmmms’ and nodding of heads in response before reaching for seconds, made us conclude this was the best Renaissance recipe so far!


Leave a comment

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

Ficus_carica

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

IngredientsIngredients

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

Method

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

Pan

  • 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.


2 Comments

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

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!