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that naso’s song may flower for all time

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Ovid’s Garden Party Review

We had a fantastic turn out for Ovid’s Garden Party on Saturday, which featured talks from myself, Miriam BayCultivating Narrative & Composing Landscape, and garden designer and bestselling author Kathryn AaltoCreating Gardens with Narratives, followed by performances of episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses by ancient Roman pantomime theatre group Avid for Ovid.

Ovid’s Garden Party marked the official opening of my garden project at Winterbourne House and Gardens, recreating the plantings of Italian Renaissance gardens inspired by ancient botany. Ovid’s Garden is a project that forms part of my PhD research in the Classics Department at the University of Birmingham, exploring the invocation of ancient myth, landscape and botany within Italian Renaissance gardens, transmitted through the writings of Roman mythographer Ovid.

In my talk, Cultivating Narrative & Composing Landscape, I discussed how both my PhD research and Ovid’s Garden were inspired by the idea of landscape as a living link to the past, as conveyed by novelist Margaret Drabble in A Writer’s Britain: Landscape in Literature:

‘The past lives on in art and memory, but it is not static: it shifts and changes as the present throws its shadow backwards. The landscape also changes, but far more slowly; it is a living link between what we were and what we have become.’

I was fascinated by this idea of landscape, and particularly plants, as a living link to antiquity, generating a physical, sensory experience as well as an intellectual, semiotic one. I was particularly drawn by the fact that the same plants cultivated since antiquity are still in cultivation today. This meant they have the potential to be experienced physically, just as they once were, whether for their aesthetic and olfactory properties in a garden setting; or practically, in food, medicine or cosmetics.

I wanted to create a space that could be used as a testing ground to look at the somatic properties of these plantings, in order to explore the sensory experience they generated, alongside their symbolic meaning. The plants grown in Ovid’s Garden represent those cultivated in antiquity, which were also popular features of Italian Renaissance gardens, valued for their aesthetic and practical properties or their symbolic associations.

Lavender lines the front of the garden, its name comes from the Latin lavare, ‘to wash’, as it was used to scent bath water in antiquity. In the two front flowerbeds there’s thyme, rosemary, sage, borage and pennyroyal mint — common herbs used in cooking from antiquity to this day.

In the two flowerbeds at the back of the garden, poet’s narcissus, hyacinths, violets and anemones flower in the spring, as well as saffron crocus in the autumn. The story of Narcissus is well known, the youth who was transformed into a pale daffodil after wasting away with longing for himself, but these other flowers also represent young men who have undergone metamorphosis. From the blood of Hyacinthus, fatally wounded by his lover Apollo’s discus, springs a flower whose petals are inscribed with the god’s mourning cries. In the myth of Adonis, Venus causes an anemone springs to spring from youth’s blood, after he is mauled by a wild boar. Similarly, violets spring from the blood of dying Attis and the saffron crocus appears in place of the body of Crocus. In each myth, flowers signify the youths’ transient masculinity and fleeting lives: in the bloom of youth, their lives cut short before they have transitioned to maturity.

Summer flowering damask and centifolia roses are ancient cultivars, valued in antiquity for their strong scent and abundant petals, their fragrant essential oil was used in ritual, medicines, cosmetics, perfumes and cooking. White Madonna lilies, red poppies and orange calendulas bloom in mid summer — flowers which conjured meadows where girls picking flowers, like Europa and Persephone, were abducted by opportunistic deities. These flowers were used in ritual, medicine and cooking, and the poppy was particularly valued for the opium derived from its sap, as it is today.

Then we have evergreen cypresses, bay laurels and olive trees. According the Ovid, the nymph Daphne, transformed into a laurel to escape the amorous advances of Apollo; whilst cypresses were a symbol of mourning in antiquity, derived from the story of Cyparissus, another unfortunate youth who died in his prime and was transformed into the tree by Apollo.

As well as being a testing ground for my own research, I wanted Ovid’s Garden to be a public facing project, accessible to any one. To function as a living museum without glass cabinets, where any one, regardless of academic background or knowledge of antiquity, could experience this living link to the past.

Kathryn Aalto’s talk, Creating Gardens with Narratives, situated the intertwining of landscape and narrative which I discussed within a broader historical and contemporary context. Kathryn explored how physical landscapes are imbued with symbolism and meaning when a literary dimension is added to them:

Adding a literary dimension to the physical landscape imbues it with additional ‘sense of place’. What does that mean? To me, it’s that invisible layer of memories, history and emotions covering the real landscape we see in front of us. It’s like unseen but powerful strata. And it’s different for each of us. It’s important both in writing as well as designing. We are adding a new layer to our sense of Ovid’s work today, and to the sense of place he evoked in his writing.

You can read Kathryn’s talk on her blog.

Theatre group Avid For Ovid performed four inspirational pieces, each a collaboration between the dancers and musician Malcolm Atkins, who composed and performed music which supported the narrative of each piece. The performances were chosen to complement the garden setting:

We chose stories for this event that had outdoor locations which might be echoed by the real garden; thus Medea’s plant gathering, Circe’s herb garden, and the woods in which the nymphs Syrinx and Daphne flee their pursuers and are themselves transformed into plants.

The first performance was Medea Mother of Dragons, by Marie-Louise Crawley. Medea was the sorceress who aided the hero Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece and gave Jason herbs that put the dragon guarding the Fleece to sleep. Ovid recounts how Medea traveled the world in a chariot drawn by dragons, in order to procure a myriad of plants to brew a potion that extended Jason’s life.

Susie Crow performed Pan & Syrinx. Syrinx was a huntress nymph who fled the amorous advances of Pan – half god, half goat – and was transformed into hollow water reeds before Pan could seize her. The haunting sound of the wind blowing through the reeds inspired Pan to fashion the pan pipes.

Ségolène Tarte performed Circe the Enchantress. Circe was another sorceress, who Odysseus encountered on his wanderings. Circe brewed a potion from flowers and herbs that she tricked Odysseus’ men into drinking, transforming them into pigs.

The final episode, Apollo & Daphne was performed by Marie-Louise Crawley. Daphne was a nymph who was transformed into a laurel tree in order to evade the sun god Apollo.

I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate the thanks I gave in my talk at Ovid’s Garden Party and acknowledge those who have supported the project:

First of all, thank you to Winterbourne and the AHRC Cultural Engagement Fund, who funded the opening event. The project itself was made possible by generous funding from the AHRC Midlands Three Cities Doctoral Training Partnership, the University of Birmingham and Winterbourne.

Thank you to all the staff and gardeners at Winterbourne who have helped with the project – particularly curator Lee Hale, events manager Anna Fawcett and gardener Leighanne Keasey.

I also want to thank my wonderful supervisor Professor Diana Spencer, who encouraged and supported me from the project’s inception, when Ovid’s Garden was just another one of my crazy ideas!

Thank you to Joel Mills, for kindly offering to photograph the event and for the fantastic pictures you took.

Finally, I want to thank Kathryn Aalto, for her brilliant talk, Creating Gardens with Narratives, as well as the Avid for Ovid – Marie-Louise Crawley, Ségolène Tarte, Susie Crow and Malcolm Atkins – for their fantastic performances.

The primary purpose of this opening event was to showcase Ovid’s Garden as a space for public engagement. There are already plans to run interactive workshops on the uses of plants in ancient cooking, ritual, medicine and perfumery as part of the schools outreach events run by West Midlands Classics For All, and I’m also liaising with the University of Birmingham School to run workshops for their students.

So if you have an interest in using the garden space for outreach events or as a performance space, do contact me: / @mim_bay.


Ovid’s Garden: Summertime

Summer is here and the season’s scents are filling Ovid’s Garden: sweet-smelling roses in full bloom, aromatic herbs mingling with lavender, fragrant bay and olive, smells that never fail to remind me of 1The olive and bay trees have finally arrived and been placed around the perimeter of the garden in front of the copper beech hedge, which at present is covered in a vibrant display of crimson, burgundy and purple-hued leaves, dramatically contrasting the silvery olives and glossy green bays.

Native to the Mediterranean, the olive tree has been cultivated for thousands of years, predominantly for olive oil and the olive fruit, and used by the ancient Greek and Romans in all aspects of daily life, including food, medicine, cosmetics, and ritual.

The olive was sacred to Athena, and Ovid tells of its role in the godesses’ contest against the sea god Poseidon for the patronage of Athens: Poseidon creates a salt water spring from his trident, but Athena triumphs with her gift of the olive tree and the city is named after her:

‘…the earth had been struck by the goddess’ spear to produce the olive tree covered with berries and grey-green foliage’

Metamorphoses, book 6

photo x2The bay tree also had many uses in the ancient world, it’s fragrant leaves were used as a seasoning in cooking, as they are today and laurel wreaths were given as prizes at games to honour the victor.

Sacred to Apollo, Ovid recounts the story of the beautiful nymph Daphne who is pursued by the god and transformed into a laurel tree to escape from his clutches:

‘…a heavy numbness came over her body; her soft white bosom was ringed in a layer of bark, her hair was turned into foliage, her arms into branches. The feet that had run so nimbly were sunk into sluggish root; her head was confined in a treetop; and all that remained was her beauty.’

– Metamorphoses, book 1

photo 2The damask and centifolia roses are in bloom, both ancient cultivars, valued since antiquity for the strong fragrance of their abundant petals – see my April post Ovid’s Garden: Rosa damascena and Rosa centifolia for more information about the cultivation and uses of these roses in antiquity.

There are still summer annuals and herbs left to plant, as well as the autumn-flowering saffron, but the garden is flourishing under the summer sun and looking more abundant than 5


Wonderland Wanderings: The Gardens of Isola Bella, Lago Maggiore

View by NightMy first sight of Isola Bella was on our first evening in Stresa, as my sister and I walked along the lakeside, soaking up the warmth of the balmy dusk and watching the sun slip behind the mountains. The next day we made our way across Lago Maggiore on a little taxi boat that misted the view with its spray. From a distance the island seems to float serenely on the surface of the water like a tiered wedding cake. As the boat gets closer this impression is only emphasised when tall statues, white obelisks and pink roses come into view, festooning the tiers like filigree decorations.

Isola BellaThe gardens of Isola Bella were a labour of love. Count Carlo Borromeo commissioned them for his wife Isabella d’Adda, the namesake of the island and it took 40 years (1631-1671) to transform the craggy, uneven landscape into the stunning baroque gardens that gives the island its characteristic pyramid shape today.

You enter the garden through the Tapestry Room of the Borromeo Palace, which leads out onto a connecting courtyard where a statue of Diana stands over a lazily bubbling fountain pool. Two curving flights of stairs, darkened by ceilings of climbers, flank the goddess in her alcove, leading up to towering bay hedges, which deny any glimpse of the garden beyond and enclose the space, giving the impression the visitor is standing in a green-walled room, more hall than atrium. It is as if the garden beyond is a palace in its own right and Diana is receiving her guests in the hall, welcoming them into the her domain.

With the goddess presiding above the pool, one cannot help but think of another who encountered Diana in such a sylvan setting, as the layout vividly recalls the landscape described in the story of Actaeon, who wanders too far into the woods and stumbles upon the goddess bathing:

Diana's AtriumNow picture a valley, dense with pine and tapering cypress, called Gargáphië, sacred haunt of the huntress Diana; there, in a secret corner, a cave surrounded buy woodland, owing nothing to human artifice. Nature had used her talent to imitate art: she had moulded the living rock of porous tufa to form the shape of a rugged arch. To the right, a babbling spring with thin translucent rivulet widening into a pool ringed round by a grassy clearing. Here the goddess who guards the woods would bathe her virginal limbs in the clear, clean water. 

– Metamorphoses 3. 154-163

The virgin huntress is enraged when Actaeon is discovered and splashes him with water from her pool, transforming him into a stag who is hunted down and torn to pieces by Actaeon’s own dogs. Fortunately for us, Diana of Isola Bella was fully clothed and seemed welcoming, so we passed her without any such trouble, up one of the vine-covered staircases and through great iron-wrought gates shadowed by the branches of an enormous Camphor tree, into the Piano della Canfora. Cinnamomum camphor can grow up to 30m tall and this particular specimen is the largest in Italy, planted by Vitaliano IX Borromeo in 1819; camphor oil is extracted from its wood and its leaves are used in perfumery.

From the Piano della Canfora you step out onto a vast piazza, flanked by rectangular parterres, and are faced with the immense Teatro Massimo, a shell-shaped water theatre so imposing you seem to grow smaller and smaller as you approach – like Alice taking the ‘Drink Me’ potion, shrinking to enter Wonderland – until you stand dwarfed beneath and blink up at the figures silhouetted against the brilliant sunlight.

Theatro Massimo

The majority of the statues were made between 1667-1677 by the Milanese sculptor Carlo Simonetta. They  reach up to the sky or hold the weight of pillars on their backs, while others lounge in pebble-studded alcoves bordered by crimson hydrangeas and sprays of viburnum. At the pinnacle of the theatre is a rearing unicorn, symbol of the Borromeo family and taken from their coat of arms, ridden by a winged figure, representing Honour, or Love. Either side are statues symbolising Art and Nature and below is Verbano,  personification of Lago Maggiore, along with the rivers Ticino and Po flanked by shells and dolphins. The colossal statues at the sides represent the four elements: fire and earth to the right, air and water to the left.

View from the TopTwin flights of stairs lined with terracotta pots of rounded box lead up to a vast, empty terrace, 37m above the the level of the lake. Bare and stark comparison to the rest of the gardenscape, with the sun glancing off the stone beneath your feet, it is a desert in the centre of this lush oasis. When you look out across the lake the reason for its emptiness becomes clear as your eyes are filled with Lago Maggiore in all its breathtaking beauty and the terrace fades into the background: it is merely Borromeo’s banquet table, serving his guests with a feast for the eyes. The rose-wreathed terraces sloping down towards the lake guide your eyes South across brilliant blue waters to Stresa stretched out along the headland; to the West the haze-covered Mottarone mountain rises skywards among the Alps, and to the East is Isola Madre, the largest island on the Borromeo Gulf.

It is not hard to imagine lavishly dressed guests at one of the Borromeo’s parties, surveying lake, shore and mountains with from this high and heady vantage point in the evening light, dizzy from the climb and tipsy from fine wine, drinking in a view that allows the beauty of the outside world to be enjoyed from the comfort and safety of rose-scented gardens.

Tower of the WindsIt was hard to leave the top terrace, but the promise of a closer look at the sumptuous garden below beckoned and we walked to the East side of the garden overlooking the Parterre delle Azalee, which in spring is blanketed with the great clusters of white azaleas and snowy drops of fuscias, but in summer is dominated by immaculately manicured hedges of yew, holm oak, bay laurel, holly and box in bold shades of green. Above stands an aviary full of chattering lovebirds and a shady walk walled with lemon trees in terracotta pots border the spectacular view over the Lombard coast and offer a temporary reprieve from the riot of colour found elsewhere in the gardens.

 HibiscusA belvedere leads to the South of the garden, its walkway flanked by stunning hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa sinensis, which only flowers for a single day) and a medley of blazing scarlet blooms entice you along the path through the octagonal Torre dei Venti, leading to the Giardino d’Amore.

As you step into the Giardino d’Amore the first glimpse offered is an understated one, you cannot yet see the tranquil waters of the lake stretching out into the distance or the ten magnificent flower-strewn terraces towering above. Instead, you are faced with an unassuming wall of espaliered lemons and the crisp scent of citrus intermingled with the warm headiness of jasmine boasts of the garden’s glory and beckons you in.


SeasonsStanding beneath the terraces one is again reminded of a tiered wedding cake, but as well as festoons of pink roses, oleanders and hydrangeas wreath the pyramid, edged by box and cone-shaped yew trees. The statues that were faceless from a distance can now be recognised as the four seasons, each identified by the plant they bear that flowers in season, evoking Ovid’s vivid description:

…youthful Spring with her wreath of flowers,
Summer naked but for her garland of ripening corn ears,
Autumn stained with the juice of trodden clusters of grapes,
And icy Winter, whose aged locks were hoary and tangled.

Metamorphoses 2. 27-29


The crowning glory of this garden, however, are the starry Nymphaea, exquisite waterlilies of reds, yellows, pinks and whites sitting elegantly on the shining surfaces of mirror-like ponds, confident in their bright beauty, not unlike Isola Bella herself.

Making your way out of the garden through the Torre della Noria and along the west side of the pyramid, another olfactory feast awaits: espaliers of citrus trees cling mural-like to its base, lining the wall as far as the eye can see, their fresh and zesty scent pervading the warm air. These golden fruits would not look out of place on a fresco and are reminiscent of those depicted in the Garden Room fresco of Livia’s Villa at Prima Porta (pictured at the top of the blog). Green and gold pomelos, sunshine yellow grapefruits, gigantic lopsided lemons and tangy citrons climb the side of the pyramid, including the strongly aromatic Citrus limonimedica ‘Florentina’ and ‘Maxima’, whose fruits can weigh up to 3kg.

LemonsAs if this was not enough, to the left is the Viale di Ponente where pomegranates and palms frame the Western view and lead to a path of rare and exotic plants: breadfruit, coffee, cacao, gum, endangered ferns and finally an exquisite rare orchid behind glass, suspended in mid-air.

But even as you exit the gardens through a greenhouse walled with tufa and lake stones, bursting with tropical plants, it is the striking citrus trees and their intoxicating scent that clings to you and seems to follow you out, or at least, you wish it did.


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


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


  • 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


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!


Flavouring the Garden: Scappi’s Chestnut Torte and Polyphemus’ Song

Chestnut tree

Chestnut tree (Castanea saliva)

As it’s Christmas, I thought Scappi’s chestnut torte was a suitably festive choice for my first post. We also have an abundance of fresh chestnuts in the house at the moment which are just crying out to be eaten!

As a tree native to Italy, Sweet Chestnuts (Castanea sativa) grew in abundance and were cultivated in ancient Italian gardens for their fruit. In Italian Renaissance gardens, their tall stature made them ideal for higher terraces and they were frequently planted in the wooded bosco areas.

Chestnuts are only mentioned once by Ovid in Metamorphoses, in the story of Acis, Galatea and Polyphemus. In an attempt to woo ‘whiter than the snowy petals’ Galatea, the hulking cyclops Polyphemus appeals to her in a song, promising her the fruits of the ground he cultivates:

‘With me as your lover, you’ll have sweet chestnuts and arbutus fruits in the richest abundance, so every tree shall be at your service.’

– Metamorphoses 13.828-830

The nymph Galatea, however, is repulsed by Polyphemus’ effusive attentions (and his body’s ‘bristling thicket of prickly hair’ as well, no doubt) and only has eyes for her beloved Acis. Enraged with jealousy, the cyclops kills his rival by crushing him beneath a boulder, but as the blood flows from his body, he is transformed into the River Acis.

Polyphemus’ song also contains a number of references to plants, fruits and other such edible delights, so will definitely be making a reappearance! But for now, chestnuts…

To prepare a tourte of fresh or dried chestnuts. You can get fresh chestnuts in August; they are quite bitter when they are slightly unripe – that is, those that are just whitening. Boil them in a meat broth or in salted water. Peel off their outer and inner skins, then grind them in a mortar and put them through a filter or a colander. For every two pounds of strained chestnut add in a pound of fresh butter, half a pound of goat’s or cow’s milk, a pound of creamy cheese, a pound of sugar, half a pound of fresh, well ground ricotta or provatura, an ounce of cinnamon, half an ounce of pepper and six uncooked egg yolks. When everything is blended together, make a tourte with a lower and upper shell and a twist around it. Bake it in an oven or braise it. When it is almost done, make a glazing on it with sugar, cinnamon and rosewater. When it is done, serve it hot. You can do it the same way with dried chestnuts, putting in more milk and fewer eggs.

The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, Book V, Recipe 120

I will be halving Scappi’s recipe and for the ‘creamy cheese’ I’m using mascerpone. The method – for this and all recipes to follow – incorporates all of Scappi’s directions and where he gives no instruction, (e.g. rather unhelpfully stating to ‘bake it in an oven but not stipulating any cooking time) I will use a mixture of baking intuition, trial and error and in some instances, just making it up as I go along! After all, this blog isn’t about how to be the perfect Renaissance cook (sorry Scappi), it’s about experimenting, tinkering and generally indulging my penchant for playing with food.


500g shortcrust pastry
200g butter
100ml milk
200g mascerpone
200g sugar
100g ricotta
3 egg yolks
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon rosewater
1 teaspoon cinnamon
50g granulated sugar


  • Pre-heat the oven to 200°C and lightly grease a 23cm tart tin
  • For the torte shell, roll the pastry out to about 3mm thickness on a lightly floured surface, then line the tin and prick the base with a fork. 
  • Bake for 15 minutes until golden, then allow the pastry shell to cool completely before adding the filling.
  • For the filling, score an X into the side of each chestnut – this allows them to boil more easily and prevents the nuts from exploding out of the water into your kitchen!


  • Boil the chestnuts in salted water for 15 minutes at a steady simmer until softened
  • Drain and allow the chestnuts to cool for a few minutes, then peel off their outer and inner skins while still warm


  • Grind in a mortar, or cheat and just do it in a blender – I’m going for a slightly coarse texture in my torte, so I haven’t blended them too finely
  • Place the nuts in a bowl, add the butter, sugar, milk, mascerpone, ricotta, cinnamon, pepper and egg yolks and blend well, then gently pour into the shell
  • With the remaining pastry, roll out enough to cover the top of the shell, or you can do some lattice-work if you feel so inclined
  • Bake at 180°C for 30-35 minutes until the pastry is golden brown

Blended Filling

  • For the glaze, melt granulated sugar in a pan over a low heat, then add cinnamon and rosewater whilst stirring continuously and spread over the tart with a pastry brush


I feel the look of it leaves a lot to be desired, (one of the reasons why I was perhaps a little liberal with the glaze!) especially after cutting it reveals an unappealing greyish-brown filling, but I have to say the smell is beautiful – buttery sweetness laced with cinnamon and rose.


For the tasting, I have enlisted the help of family and friends to act as my guinea pigs…

The rose and cinnamon hits as soon as its on your tongue, then a slightly cloying sweetness along with the grainy texture of the filling comes through, but the general consensus was that the pervading aftertaste is the gentle earthiness of chestnut. The moistness and grainy texture reminded several of us of sweet potato or pumpkin pie. One friend dubbed it ‘a Western take on a Chinese dessert’, saying it reminded her of mooncake, a Chinese pastry with lotus paste filling which is eaten at the Mid-Autumn Festival that has the same greyish-brown colouring and a similar umami flavour.

Every one seemed to enjoy it and with a generous splash of cream it went down rather nicely, but I was only fully convinced of its success when I found my brother-in-law eating the leftovers for breakfast the next day!