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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!

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