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that naso’s song may flower for all time


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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.

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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!