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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!