A few weeks ago I got a rather interesting email from a lady named Kate Quinn. She is the author of 3 historical novels set in ancient Rome. Her new book, The Serpent and the Pearl, is set in the Italian Renaissance.
Quinn sent me the book to read and asked if I would be interested in cooking one of the many dishes that flavor its pages. I thought it was a great idea to engage food bloggers as part of a book roll-out since one of the main characters in the book is a fictional cook named Carmelina. Better still, one of the lesser characters in the novel is none other than a very young Bartolomeo Scappi, one of the greatest cooks in Italy (I wrote about Scappi HERE). He wrote the ground-breaking cookbook, The Opera (L'arte et prudenza d'un maestro Cuoco), in 1570. Needless to say, there were many recipes to choose from as 74 separate dishes are mentioned or described, many of them taken directly from Scappi’s Opera. Scappi’s food is fantastic and light-years ahead of its time –– a good reason to include him in the narrative even if his appearance was a bit of an anachronism (he was born around 1500).
The other characters are not fictional in the least –– the story revolves around the Borgias – Cesare, Lucretzia and patriarch, Roderigo Borgia, as well as Roderigo’s mistress, Giulia Farnese.
The book is written in an interesting style with 3 narrators and so 3 perspectives on the unfolding narrative–– that of mistress Giulia Farnese, her cook Carmelina and a dwarf named Leonello who is Giulia’s bodyguard.
Borgia themes are certainly timely these days with politics, religion, sex and intrigue looping 24-7 in today’s news. The Borgias on Showtime had been a sweet addiction for many, even if elegantly attenuated Jeremy Irons looks nothing like the real, very portly Roderigo Borgia (Alfred Hitchcock would be a closer match). With only a small, if nearly fanatical audience, The Borgias was cancelled this summer before its final 4th season could finish Roderigo’s story (an e-book will finish the tale for bereft fans denied the 2 hour finale that the series’ creators planned). Something tells me, the series will do very well when it can be binge-watched –– nothing like immersion to hook a new audience with passion, sex, political intrigue, cruelty and violence and Jeremy Irons.
Or you can satisfy your Borgia cravings by reading Kate's book and looking at some of the real locations and players in the Borgia story.
When I read The Serpent and the Pearl, I really wanted to refine my vague recollections of the players and the places and made some thrilling discoveries –– most especially the long-lost Borgia apartments at the Vatican. For me, art and architecture enrich the reading experience with real locations and faces. For all their notoriety, some faces were elusive.
Although Giulia Farnese was one of the great beauties of the age, no painting or drawing of her has survived that we can be sure of (when the Borgias lost power, they were much despised and much of their legacy was destroyed). There are some images that are said to be Giulia, but they cannot be verified as hers and frankly bear little resemblance to one another.
Lady with Unicorn
La Trasfigurazione: Raffaello 1518 - 1520 Musei Vaticani (the lady in front with the naked shoulder is supposed to be Guilia
Lucretzia Borgia fared no better with a handful possible portraits –– again they bear little resemblance to one another, save sharing very curly hair and a piercing stare. A figure in the sensational Borgia Apartments in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican seems a likely contender for an accurate representation.
Commissioned by her father, it is likely that his children and his mistress are captured on the densely populated walls of the rooms but no records exist to prove it. The only verifiable Borgia decorating the apartments is the Pope himself, a mountain of gold kneeling at the resurrection (as well as a Spanish pope's nod to Spain's discovery of the New World hovering mysteriously above the tomb -- the family name was originally Borja from Valencia).
Possibly Lucretzia, detail
The Borgia Apartments were closed after Pope Alexander’s death and rarely used until the 19th century, concealing the magnificent Pinturicchio frescoes that he and his students had painted from 1492-94. Because of the evil Borgia association, they were virtually walled off for nearly 400 years so Pinturricchio’s work in the apartments never achieved the recognition that Michelangelo and Rafael enjoyed for their work in the Vatican. On the plus side, the rooms were not renovated and damage was mostly repairable so they are a magnificent Renaissance time-capsule –– especially after a recent cleaning.
The following black and white pictures are from The Vatican and its History (go HERE to see them in color –– Blogger was unhappy with too many images today so I had to remove them!).
In a chapter on the Borgia Apartments, The Vatican and its History posited that Alexander VI, all too aware of his own mortality and haunted by a virulent strain of demons suckled on Borgia crimes, got to work on his Vatican apartment immediately:
“Alexander, then, had barely entered the Vatican when he resolved to prepare for himself a suite of apartments that would be a marvel of splendor, rich in reliefs, in gilding, in marbles, in majolica, in furniture, in hangings; a suite so magnificent that not a hand’s breadth of ceiling or of walls should be left untouched. The eye and the mind were to find no repose. In the tiniest unoccupied space memory might lurk to awaken remorse or painful recollections. Everywhere, therefore, splendor and gaiety must prevail. Alexander summoned the artist who at that time gave the most satisfactory proof of his ability to comprehend his patron’s disposition and satisy his desires –– Bernardino de Betto, called Il Pinturicchio….
Scholars Franz Ehrle and Henry Stevenson named the rooms in their 1898 book on the apartments –– Sala dei Misteri, Sala dei Santi, Sala delle Arti Liberali, Sala del Credo, Sala delle Sibille.
Hall of Liberal Arts
Hall of Liberal Arts
Hall of Sibyls
The decoration of the rooms gives you a sense of the opulent Borgia lifestyle that was a backdrop to the novel’s drama. It’s easy to see Kate’s characters living in spaces like these.
A 1908 article on the apartments speaks of Pinturicchio’s forgotten masterpiece :
“THERE is perhaps hardly a place in Rome where you feel so transported into the heart of that old life of the Renaissance, as you do in the Borgia Apartments. After mid-day it is almost empty of sightseers; and in the long rooms, where the silence is only broken by the splash of the fountain in the quiet, grassy court outside, you realize the setting of the passionate lives that once ran their course here. Here the light caught Lucrezia's golden hair, here the famous pontiff rustled in his brocaded robes, and Cesare Borgia strode in gilded armor. Here great ambitions were matured, and blackest crimes consummated; and here, too, came and went the little, deaf, beauty-loving painter from the Umbrian hills, and drew his cartoons, and spaced his decorations, and overlooked his army of workmen, and left us as splendid a scheme of rich ornament as the quattro-cento has to show.”
The article gives a brilliant history of the rooms and speaks eloquently of the art and artist. –– it’s a fun read.
The style of decoration for the rooms has been called International Gothic, with most of the artwork done in vaults and lunettes at or on the ceiling, the tile work on the floor speaks to the Moorish influence from Borgia’s Spanish homeland. It is said the first grotesques appeared in the Borgia Apartment (Pinturicchio first used the word in a 1502 contract).
Hall of Mysteries, with Roderigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, praying in the foreground.
Detail:reference to the New World above the open casket (Borgia had a hand in the negotiations for the New World agreement between Spain and Portugal).
A 1914 book, How to See the Vatican, eloquently described the Pope of the fresco above: “… the whole anatomy of the figure speaks, though it is swathed in a great cloak stiff with gold and gems; and though the head is bald and the face fat, with double chin, long upper lip and parrot-like nose, the impression you get is of calm strength, of a man who saw his end clearly and grasped it without allowing his attention to be drawn off by any conventions or excuses. In his portrait the man who flung conventionalities to the winds, and brooked no obstacle to his projects for providing for his children, does not look bad or merciless; it is true that to represent him as such might not have been pleasant for Pinturicchio. Here he looks only a man not to be deterred. He was at all events a wise patron of the arts, and he steered his ship in the troubled sea of Italian civil wars and intrigues with a manfulness which any civil Prince of his time might have envied. After all, he was quite up to the moral standard of the gods of Greece –– was very much the Jupiter of the Vatican.”
Table for preparing something magnificent from Scappi's Opera
With all the glorious Renaissance images swimming in my head, I must say The Serpent and the Pearl was a great romp of a read and aside from conjuring great characters, art and architecture, the delights of the kitchen ran through the chapters, spicing and flavoring all.
Consider Carmelina's decription of making pastry; "I was making a tourte of caravella pears, which i normally could have made in my sleep, but this time I was making a miniature version hardly bigger than my thumb, and it required very close concentration. I'd already grated the pears and cooked them slowly in butter... added the almond paste, the candied citron... A spoon of filling, just a spoon into a shell of very thin pastry... I rubbed my hands briskly up and down my apron. Pastry required steady hands, and I'd need very tiny strips like shutters to seal the tourte up. Then glaze the top with sugar and rosewater..."
With sweets like crostate of quince and apple or peach, "with a ribboned twist of flakey pastry layered about the top in a spiral.", elderflower frittelle "... elderflowers soaking in milk... with a little saffron ...", blood oranges in pastry stars and sugared cedar flowers –– savories from "Light summer menus would be called on, to cool the blood and tempt heat-dulled appetites: snow chilled wine, and fresh-pressed infusions of mulberry or tart peach; salads of endives and caper flowers; chicken served cold with limes and just splash of rose vinegar; featherlight omelets with goat's milk and chopped truffles..." or a beef stew with raisins and rose vinegar, a peacock with pine nuts and cinnamon on a bed of rose petals, well, lets just say it was difficult to choose what to make.
"I began whisking together the spices I'd need for the capons –– perhaps a shoulder of wild boar too? No Venetian archbishop coming to my table would go away thinking the food provincial". In the end a boar recipe from Scappi asked to be made –– full of dates, plums and cherries and not in the least provincial –– I'd say princely. It is related to the beef recipes of Scappi’s I have made and loved, but with subtle differences that acknowledge the use of boar or pork instead of beef. I got a splendid boar shoulder from D'Artagnan. If you haven't tried it, it is a gorgeous meat, tasting somewhere between veal and pork. Remember that tomatoes were not yet popular in Italy and do not appear in Scappi's cookbook. They are not missed since fresh and dried fruits were often used to flavor sauces and stews. The fruit combination in this recipe is really sublime and the dish speaks to the divine excesses of the arts of the extraordinary times –– all the senses are pampered with each mouthful.
|Serving the meal from Scappi's Opera|
Here are my fellow bloggers for this virtual Renaissance banquet. Do stop by their sites and see how the creative angels incited their talents. Kate provides the descriptions.
The Inn at the Crossroads: The crostata of summer peaches that Carmelina is making when Juan Borgia decides to make a pass hat her
Island Vittles: The tourte of sweet cheese and Genovese onions that Carmelina cooks for Giulia's wedding feast
Little White Apron: The baked apples that Carmelina serves Giulia the morning after her weeding and capon with garlic, coriander and white wine that is her favorite chicken recipe.
Taking on Magazines: the sugared biscotti that form a staple munchie throughout the book, and the elderflower fritters Giulia tries to make
Between the Sheets: The asparagus zuppa and zabaglione which Carmelina's apprentice whips up on a country trip to impress her
Kate Quinn: Hot sops with Cherries,
I give you my recipe followed by Scappi’s original collection of techniques for cooking wild boar and Terence Scully’s translation of The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570): L'arte et prudenza d'un maestro Cuoco. If I may say, leftovers are smashing. You can also chop up what's left and add the remaining sauce and fruit and a cup of red wine, cook gently and have a fabulous ragout for pasta.
Wild Boar with Dates, Prunes, Cherries and Rose
1 3-4 lb wild boar shoulder roast from D'Artagnan or pork roast*
2 T lard or olive oil
1/2 -1 c water (approx)
1/2 -1 c white wine (approx)
1 t salt
1 t pepper
5 whole cloves
1 stick cinnamon
1/4 t nutmeg or 1/2 nutmeg crushed
1/4 lb prosciutto end, sliced into retrievable pieces
1/4 - 1/2 c white wine vinegar**
1-2 drops Aftelier rose essence*** or 2 t rosewater
1/4 c vin cotto (or 2 c red wine reduced)
1 c prunes
1 c dates
1/4 c sour cherries if dry, 1/2 c if fresh or frozen
2 1/2"slices of onion
Juice of 1/2 an orange
4-6 spring onions, gently sauteed in butter or olive oil
1 t fennel pollen
Preheat the oven to 325º. Use a dish with a well-fitting lid that is not much bigger than the roast (Scappi recommends a clay pot or copper, I used enameled cast iron).
* Remove the netting from the roast and tie with kitchen twine a few lashings front to back and around the middle. Brown the boar roast in the fat. Use enough wine and water so that the liquids com up about 1/4 of the way up the dish. The liquid is meant to moisten, not to drown and the roast will give up liquid. Add the rest of the ingredients, 1/4 c of white wine vinegar through the vin cotto and cook tightly covered for 45 minutes for a 3 lb roast, 1 hour for a 4 lb roast).
Flip the roast. Add the fruit and onion and cover. Cook for 45 minutes longer or until tender (if you have a larger roast make it an hour).
Remove the roast from the pan. Pour orange juice over it ( you may want to spoon the juice over the sliced roast as well –– it is a wonderful bright addition to the dish) and sprinkle with fennel pollen. Rest, tented while you remove the fruit from the pan. Taste the sauce and adjust for seasoning. ** You may want to add more vinegar if you want the sauce more sweet and sour than sweet. Place the roast on a platter and serve sliced or whole. Surround with the fruit and onions (the prosciutto may be left behind or served - it dries out during cooking so I left it out) or spoon the fruit over the slices. Serve the sauce on the side or, if you have a deep platter, pour some of the sauce around the whole roast or over the slices.
*** For those of you who have never had the good fortune to try them, Aftelier's chef's essences are sublime. Rose and Jasmine are my particular favorites (you can try a Medici Jasmine Chocolate HERE)
Terence Scully translation of Scappi's recipe for Wild Boar:
“Filter that washwater [white wine and water used to rinse the meat] and put it with the meat into an earthenware or copper stewing pot, or a cooking por with crushed pepper, whole cloves, whole cinnamon and crushed nutmegs – the quantities of each depending on the amount of meat there is adding in marbled prosciutto that has been diced, a little rose vinegar and must syrup, or else sugar, so that the mixture has both a tang and a sweetness to it. Boil that with the pot stopped up and without skimming it except when it is half done. At which time you add in pitted dates, prunes and dried visciola cherries. If you want to put in whole onions that have first been parboiled or cooked under the coals, that is optional. With all that together, finish off cooking. When it is done, serve it hot with broth and other things over the top, being very careful that the meat does not fall apart because sometime the meat is cooked and the brisket is quite tough. Again you can set that rack of ribs in salt for two days and ten boil it in plain water, serving it hot with garlic sauce or mustard over the top of in dishes.”
Furthermore, after boiling it plain, you can let it cool and cut it apart rib by rib along with the brisket, sprinkling it with pepper and fennel flour. Heat it on a grill until it browns slightly on both sides. Serve it hot with orange juice over it. Again, you can sautee those ribs with beaten spring onions and serve them dressed with mild spices and orange juice.