Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Ardabil Carpet, Persian Art and Albaloo Polow – Rice with Cherries

Ardibil Carpet

Created in 1539, the Ardabil Carpet is one of my favorite archetypal objects like the Knole sofa  and the Klismos chair. It is considered to be the best of the best –– a masterpiece of design and execution.

The Ardabil Carpet comes from the city of Ardabil in the north of Iran (formerly the seat of the Safafid empire in Persia) close to the coast of the Caspian Sea and not far from the great carpet center of Tabriz. There are actually 2 Ardabil Carpets –– the largest sits at the Victoria &Albert Museum in London, acquired for them by famous artist and designer William Morris –– so precious that a special enclosure was constructed to protect it from the light (the slightly smaller version of the carpet is in California –– its border was cannibalized to repair the V&A carpet). It is no wonder that the phrase "Persian" and "carpet" are linked in a bond of art, quality and tradition, but Persia was so much more.

When I hear the word Persia, I think of great art and culture. Tragically, when I hear the word Iran I think of a broken country.

The Ardabil carpet as displayed at the V&A in London

It’s terrible that what is great about Iran is nearly buried in the swirling sands of extremism. Persia’s influence on art, science and even food is rather impressive.

Frontispiece of Voyage du Chevalier Chardin en Perse et autres lieux de l'Orient, 1739 ed.

Tales of the Savafid Dynasty (1501-1722) spread to the West in great part through the writings of French Jeweler, Jean Chardin whose Voyage du Chevalier Chardin en Perse et autres lieux de l'Orient recorded his 1673-77 travels in Persia.

Chardin wrote:

“The Persians are the most civilized of the peoples of the East, and what the French are to Europe, they are to the Orient... Their bearing and countenance is the best-composed, mild, serious, impressive, genial and welcoming as far as possible. They never fail to perform at once the appropriate gestures of politeness when meeting each other... They are the most wheedling people in the world, with the most engaging manners, the most supple spirits and a language that is gentle and flattering, and devoid of unpleasant terms but rather full of circumlocutions.”

Persia influenced the art and cuisines of countries all over the Middle East into Russia, China, India and even Europe as they traded, invaded and visited other countries and were themselves invaded or visited during their long long history.  You can see their influence in world design just looking at their metalwork and pottery.

Savafid copper basin

Aiguière. Bronze coulé, Iran, 16th century. Musée du Louvre 

17th century Savafid dish with vegetal decoration Musée du Louvre 

Plate decorated with two pomegranates, v. 1500, Musée du Louvre

Savafid, early 1600’s, British Museum, (Chinese elements with Persian ‘dandy’)

But there was more than art and good manners, Chardin observed all aspects of Persian culture including what they ate on their marvelous tableware often set on top of cloths set over the magnificent carpets. He marveled at the produce of the country and thought that their “saffron was the best in the world... Melons were regarded as excellent fruit, and there were more than 50 different sorts, the finest of which came from Khorasan. And in spite of being transported for more than thirty days, they were fresh when they reached Isfahan... After melons the finest fruits were grapes and dates, and the best dates were grown in Jahrom.”

Seen in art of the period and 19th century recreations, fruit was what was served at any important gathering. Chardin noted that there were more varieties of fruit in Persia than in Europe –– at banquets in the capital of Isfahan, there were more than 50 kinds of fruit.

19th century painting of Safavid Shah Abbas I Uzbek Vali Muhammad Khan

19th century painting of 1646 Persian reception at Chehel Sotoun , Esfahan

But for all that Persia did to influence other cultures, there was a quid pro quo going on as well.

Recently, I spent a lot of time reflecting on the effects of arrival of New World chilies on the Old World –– rice has certainly affected the cuisines of many nations but started the migration much, much, much earlier.

Rice is thought to be as old as time, originating in Pangaea in the early Cretaceous period (130, 000,000 years ago – before the continents separated). The ancient wild ancestor of our rice was growing wild in Africa, Asia and even Australia. More familiar cultivated rice goes back as much as 9000 years in China and India.

Rice came to the Middle East as early as 1000 BC –– judging from archaeological finds and reflected in the rice section of neighboring  Bahgdad's 10th c cookbook of ibn Sayy ar al-Warraq, rice was being enjoyed in a variety of ways. In the Baghdad cookbook,  it was often made into a spiced porridge “ in the Persian style” with meat or vegetables or a dessert with fruit. Thanks to the give and take that occurred with the Persian Mughal Empire in India –– Persian rice dishes came to India through that doorway (the Mogul emperor Baber conquered India in 1526 bringing with him Persian cuisine that took root and flourished) –– they cross-pollinated. The word biryani comes from the Persian word, birian.

Barbad Plays for Khusraw by Mirza Ali, 1539-43 – maybe a rice plate in front of the man in red in the backround?

Today, modern Persia/Iran enjoys rice dishes that often combine meat vegetables or fruits. One of my favorites is called Albaloo Polow, a direct descendent of ancient pilafs and biryani. It is spectacular –– cherries and rice baked to form a crispy crust on the bottom and perfumed with saffron. It is great as a side dish or the main, meatless event. I could eat it for dessert.  I had eaten it many times but have never tried to make it on my own so I looked for expert help. I adapted the recipe from one on My Persian Kitchen that used fresh sour cherries and not canned because I had frozen cherries  and love them madly. Canned or jarred are just not as good.  I also used brown rice because I like it better than white -- personal preference.  My only change in the recipe would be to use a non-stick pan to make it.  The fabulous crust is tough to get out of the pan in a piece.  Also, I halved the recipe so what you see is smaller than the full recipe.

Albaloo Polow based on a recipe from My Persian Kitchen (for 4)

4 cups of fresh or frozen sour cherries (or jarred in light syrup)
1/3 cup of sugar
2 cups of basmati rice (I used brown basmati)
4 tbsp of butter
1 tbsp + 1 tsp of Advieh (recipe follows)
2 tbsp of yogurt
2 pinches of saffron
Canola oil
1/2 c of pine nuts, toasted or sliced pistachios
parsley for garnish

Wash rice a few times, sloshing it with your hands each time until the water looks clear (this removes the starch from the rice).

Add some salt and let the rice soak for a few hours or overnight. Drain when ready to use.

Place the pitted sour cherries in a pot, add the sugar on top. Simmer till the cherries give up their juices.

Drain the cherries in the colander. Reduce the juices by about 1/2 depending on the amount the cherries have given off.   It should be a bit thick and maybe 1/4 c.

Place 2 T of butter in a pan with the juices. Let it melt. Add 1 T of Advieh and a pinch of saffron and stir, remove from the heat. Add the cherries –– make sure they are coated with the juice.

Bring 6 cups of water to a boil.

Add sugar and saffron to a mortar or spice grinder and grind until saffron turns into a powder.

After the water has boiled, take 2 T of the hot water and add it to the saffron and sugar powder. Then salt the boiling water.

Place the rice in the boiling water and cook, covered,  medium low for about 10 minutes for white rice and 20-25 minutes for brown –– you want it just cooked, not soft.

As your rice is cooking,  place yogurt in a mixing bowl, add saffron water to it and mix well.

Once your rice is ready drain in a colander,  rinse with cold water to stop additional cooking.

Add about 4 to 5 tablespoons of rice to the yogurt mixture.

Cover the bottom of the pan with a thin layer of water and about 1 T of oil (I think a non-stick pan would be great for this). Put in the rice with yogurt and saffron, spreading evenly over the bottom of the pan. Pour more rice on top.

Then place half of the sour cherries on top. Give it a gentle stir to mix the sour cherries with the rice making sure not to disturb the yogurt layer. Repeat with the rest of the rice and cherries.

Finish with a layer of rice and make sure that the surface is lumpy. With the handle of a wooden spoon,  make some holes –– again making sure that you don't disturb the bottom layer, where the rice and yogurt mixture has been placed.

Cover and cook on  medium high for 10 minutes to begin the crust.

Pour the cherry juice over the rice.

Wrap the lid with a cloth to absorb the steam and cook for 45 minutes to 1 hour on low (you can sort of see that it is browning if you peek in at the side, pulling away the rice with a knife). When done, up-end the rice on a platter and sprinkle the pine nuts or pistachios on top with herbs –– mint or parsley will work well.


1 t cinnamon
1 t nutmeg
2 drops Aftelier rose essence or 1 t rose petals
1 t cardamom
½ t cumin

Mix together and reserve.

Follow Me on Pinterest

Monday, February 17, 2014

Snowshill Manor, Charles Wade and Anglesey Eggs with Leek Mashed Potatoes and Cheese Sauce

Painting of Wade by Maurice Codner, 1939

Why are some National Trust Houses heavily trafficked while others are not? I have often puzzled over this question.

A grand house in London that has just been featured in a huge blockbuster film is empty. A smallish manor owned by a relatively unknown eccentric and situated well off the beaten path is packed to the gills.

When I decided to visit Snowshill Manor in the Cotswolds, I had an image of myself noodling through the ephemera and kicking the dust around with a few other like-minded odd-ducks –– I mean, the NT guide described a house, “packed to the rafters with thousands of unusual objects” that were “laid out with creative flair” –– artful hoarding wouldn’t draw crowds, right?

Wrong –– I had to wait an hour to get in because there were so many people. I was shocked, delighted and disappointed all at once. Delighted by what I found inside the house – an absolute treasure of artfully arranged collections –– disappointed because there were so many people it was hard to move around let alone take pictures. At one point I threw my hands up, stashed the camera and decided to enjoy the show, squeezing into small rooms to view all the little details of thousands of pieces, photos be damned. The place is magical and the man who created it was an exceptionally eccentric genius of collection and display.

Painting of Wade by Thomas Roberts, 1910

It seems there are a great many out there who feel a certain affinity to fellow travelers on the Rue Excentrique. The man behind Snowshill Manor was a Class-A, solid gold eccentric. I was completely charmed. As Queen Mary said when she visited Snowshill, “Wade was the most remarkable part of the collection.”  Virginia Wolfe called him a necromancer!

Charles Paget Wade was born in 1883. His life trajectory took an unexpected turn when his parents stashed him at his severe Victorian grandmother’s house.  As it turned out, she had strict and rather unorthodox ideas about raising Charles –– she did not believe he should play with other children or even alone in a traditional toys-&-athletics sort of way.

Grandmother Spencer’s Cantonese cabinet, NT photo

Yet the austere environment had an unusual bright spot –– a Cantonese cabinet that Wade called a ‘Heavenly Palace of faraway Cathay’ full of ‘old family relics of interest and value’ that his grandmother only opened for him to investigate on Sundays. It inspired him to begin his collecting career when he was just 7. He took to fabricating devilishly well-constructed and creative displays for his collections as well as drawing and sketching up a storm to entertain himself. The odd upbringing forced him into his imagination –– for him, objects were both playmates and playthings. Perhaps the fact that he was denied a normal childhood kept him forever tied to it. Wade confided to the great architect Edwin Lutyens that he “had never grown up".

He didn’t care for school (he later called schools ‘Graveyards of Imagination’ and ‘Factories of Boredom’), but he found he enjoyed building things. He began stopping at a local woodworker’s shop after school and learned how to build and repair –– a hobby that he enjoyed nearly as much as he did collecting interesting objects (often repairing items himself in his workroom at the house). Between 1900 and 1910 he had collected 594 objects. By 1940 it was 5,000 objects, by his death his collection had grown to 22,000 specimens! Given his predilection for construction and reverence for color, line, form and function it was natural that he became an architect and illustrator.

When his father died in 1911, Charles inherited a goodly income from the family’s sugar plantations in St Kitts. He gave up working to devote himself to collecting and puttering. He stashed his collections at his mother’s house during his WWI army service but had it in his mind to procure a permanent home for his much loved objects as soon as his duties permitted.

Snowshill Manor exterior

He saw a Country Life ad for Snowshill Manor while the war was still on and couldn’t get it out of his mind. He ended up buying the ruined but un-updated Snowshill for £3,500 in 1919.  He saw it as a perfect frame for his collections.

Exterior of studio

Three years, 28 workmen and a good deal of expense later, the manor was completed but Wade never intended to live there.  Instead, Wade lived in a separate Priest House –– saving the Manor House for his collections. He had no desire to modernize –– there was no plumbing or electricity on the property (he allowed a battery powered radio during WWII). He did love to entertain there and proudly shared his marvelous rooms with thousands of visitors every year.

Spinning Room

Snowshill was very much done to his personal taste. He hated bare rooms and said he was “miserable in such surroundings and wanted a room full of interesting things.” He certainly got it. In a book called The Collector's Voice: Critical Readings in the Practice of Collecting the authors proffered, “ His theory was that a careful choice and combination of items could provide ‘a harmonious background and a perfect sense of restfulness’. His taste suggests a strongly nostalgic, escapist motivation in his aesthetic; he believed furniture should blend into the background, and that metals should be displayed in a subdued light. Further to this, he disliked rooms with windows in more than one wall and eschewed the use of electricity.”

Wade wrote a book about his life and collections called Days Far Away (which is sadly out of print). From the book we learn he began with English objects but then cast his net to the continent for color “I gather the golds, vermilions and blues of Spain and Italy, the colors of Persia and the Far East. There the three essentials of shape, colour and craftsmanship are attained to the fullest with the added attraction of another world.” He added, "how much more interesting any object becomes with sufficient knowledge to suggest how it was made, where and when, what its purpose was...."

JB Priestley
In An English Journey, author J.B. Priestley said of the completed vision of Snowshill Manor, “The house itself had a Gothic craziness. There was no sense, though infinite charm, in its assembled oddity of roofs, gables, windows, doorways”. Priestley saw the Manor as “ancient dim paneled rooms, in which there were collections of spinning wheels, sedan chairs, model wagons, weapons, old musical instruments … and blazing lacquer from Peking”. Wade’s workshop was “a set of queer, ramshackle rooms [containing] tools and implements of every kind, coats of arms, skulls, black letter folios, painted saints, colossal tomes of plain song, swords and daggers, wooden platters and I know not what else.”  Priestley went on to say of Wade, "He was, in fact, one of the last of a famous company, the eccentric English country gentry, the odd and delightful fellows who have lived just as they pleased, who have built follies, held fantastic beliefs, and laid mad wagers."

Wade’s drawing of his workroom, NT Collection

His collections were terribly unique.  He built a model of a whole fishing port called "Wolfs Cove". He collected “records of vanished craftsmanship” and loved tinkering with and repairing his acquisitions. Rooms full of vintage bikes, spinning wheels, toys, globes, weapons, Japanese armor and tools as well as odd furniture and antique clothing were all displayed at Snowshill Manor.

Brian Haughton, who writes about  folklore and hauntings (Ann's room has a ghost), described the unusual way the rooms came by their names, "The names of the rooms in the house were chosen by Wade, and usually bear some relation to their contents, decoration, or their position in the house. So there are names like 'Seventh Heaven' on the top floor, 'Meridian' in the centre of the house, 'Dragon' - named after the roaring fire that Wade would usually have burning in what was probably the great fireplace of the medieval hall, and 'Hundred Wheels' containing objects mainly connected with transport. The 'Green Room' contains an incredible collection of twenty-six suits of Japanese Samurai armour, dating from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, gathered from various parts of England between 1940 and 1945. "


Here are just a few of the rooms (there are a great many wonderful shots of the house HERE taken by Nicholas Kaye to give you a better picture), beginning with a shot of his coat of arms that states “Let No Thing Perish” in Latin – NE QUID PEREAT.

Wade’s coat of arms

Japanese Armor Room -- dark and dramatic 

Children’s Room with a baby walker in the foreground

Ghostly Anne’s Room where a former inhabitant of the house perished

Chest in Anne's Room

Admiral Room

Wade in Cromwellian Garb

Haughton said of Wade, “He was extremely fond of dressing up using old costumes from amongst his vast collection, and visitors to his strange Cotswolds’ manor house, including John Betjeman, Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene and J.B. Priestley, were often persuaded to perform amateur dramatics in 'Dragon', one of the rooms in the manor house, or in the garden....” By the time he was done, he had collected over 4000 costume pieces.

 Photos of a piece from the Charles Paget Wade Collection from the Historical Costume blog 

Snowshill did not have enough room to store and display the huge collection so it was sent off to Berrington Hall  (there is a special costume blog for Berrington Hall called Historical Costume  where you can see more of the collection). The National Trust Collection site, Treasure Hunt, had a fabulous piece on the splendid textiles in the Wade collection HERE a few weeks ago. The quality of the workmanship is really astonishing –– more for museums than dress-up.

The Dragon Room

The Dragon Room

The Dragon room was set up for dining. All sorts of cooking implements were displayed but very little cooking was done there. Wade liked the idea of being authentically old-style and his cooks wanted modern conveniences so would cook off-site. I think Wade was more of a ‘eat to live’ rather than a ‘live to eat’ kind of guy. He kept odd hours and would often tinker in his workroom for days at a time, eating as he worked (when he remembered to eat).

  Priest House kitchen
 Priest House kitchen
 Priest House kitchen

A woman named Mrs. Hands made Wade breakfast in the workshop kitchen or Wade make his own coffee and eggs on a spirit lamp served with “large slabs of bread” but Wade seemed to enjoy snacking on guava jam or honey most of all.

Wade’s room in the Priest’s house

When I thought about what to make, something for Mr. Wade’s breakfast seemed the perfect choice. There’s an old Welsh egg dish called Wyau Ynys Mon or Anglesey Eggs made with poached or sliced boiled eggs on mashed potatoes with leeks, and a cheddar-y cheese sauce broiled bubbling and browned over the top –– it fits the bill perfectly –– served with a "slab of bread" as Mr. Wade would have liked it. It is simple, delicious and hearty. I could see myself cuddled in my box-bed on a cold morning enjoying this on my breakfast tray. I would love to live at Snowshill Manor.

"Old am I, so very old,
Here centuries have been.
Mysteries my walls enfold,
None know deeds I have seen."

Charles Paget Wade

The recipe is a mix of a few I’ve seen but mostly from Jane Grigson.

Anglesey Eggs for 2 (4 light portions)

3/4 -1 pound potatoes (about 3-4, I used yukon gold)
2 medium size leeks (white and light green parts only)
2-3 oz butter (depending on how rich you want it to be)
1 heaping T flour
1 c hot milk
4 hard-boiled eggs (or poached eggs)
2 oz plus 2 T cheddar cheese
pinch of nutmeg
pinch of cayenne
1 t of dry mustard
S&P to taste

Boil the potatoes in their jackets, cool a bit and then peel and rice them.

Trim and clean the leeks and slice them. Stew them in a covered pan over low heat with a bit of water and 1 oz butter.  When tender, take out a few slices for garnish then crush the rest in their “not abundant’ juices or puree them –– they will have the texture of rich and creamy mayonnaise when pureed.

Make the cheese sauce by melting 1 oz butter and cooking the flour for a minute. Add the milk slowly, stirring all the while. Cook at a low heat for at least 10 minutes, 20 is better. Strain to make smooth. Add the spices and pepper to taste. Set aside, covered.

Turn on broiler.

Add the rest of the butter to the potatoes and leeks and blend. Add salt and pepper to taste.  When ready, place this in an ovenproof dish, creating an indentation for the eggs and keep warm (I used individual dishes, a round low casserole would work as well). You can be fancy and pipe them in or press like a pie crust.   Add 2 oz of the cheese to the white sauce and stir till dissolved.  Check for seasonings and add salt if needed (cheddar can be salty). Slice the eggs into quarters if using hard boiled eggs.  Place sliced or poached eggs in the middle of the potatoes in the indentation and pour the cheese sauce over it. Sprinkle the rest of the cheese over the top and broil on high till browned and bubbling. Sprinkle the reserved leeks and herbs like parsley, thyme, marjoram etc. over the top.

Do visit Marie Telling's heroic piece in BUZZFEED about 44 Classic French Dishes to Try Before You Die HERE.There are 3 dishes from Lostpastremembered in the series, so I am pleased as punch!

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Lion and the Rose, Love, Intrigue and Renaissance Fish Pie with Orange

Kate Quinn’s new book, The Lion and the Rose (A Novel of the Borgias) is out and the author has reassembled her band of bloggers to cook from her new book as we did for her The Serpent and the Pearl a few months back.

If you liked The Serpent and the Pearl, you'll enjoy Quinn's new book since the great core-cast of characters return in the second novel. We still have the Borgia clan, the Pope's beautiful mistress Giulia Farnese, a fictional feisty cook named Carmelina and a valiant, knife-throwing dwarf named Leonello as well as the young chef Bartolomeo Scappi –– but positions and relationships will go through seismic changes in the new work.

The Lion and the Rose is full of passion, intrigue and surprising plot turns that will have romance novel lovers staying up well past your bedtimes turning pages. Food still plays a delicious and important role in the story.

Although the book paints a richly colored picture of Renaissance Italy, I love illuminating the nooks and crannies of the story by investigating the historical characters and places described in the novel. I wrote about Scappi (HERE) and showed you the glorious, rarely seen Borgia apartments in the Vatican and the faces of the historical figures in the novel for The Serpent and the Pearl post (HERE).  I thought for The Lion and the Rose I would dawdle over some of my favorite Renaissance table decorations to add some color to the fictional table. I love Deruta plates.

Today, when you hear Murano you think of glassware, when you hear Sèvres you think porcelain –– these places are synonymous with superior quality and craftsmanship in their respective fields. It wasn't  any different during the 15th and 16th centuries. Some cities (or islands in cities in Murano's case) are hubs for particular decorative arts.

Maiolica lustrato in oro e dipinto in blu – attributed to Nicola Francioli, Deruta 1515-30 (the plate recently sold at auction for €100,000)

Majolica was la haute couture in the Renaissance dining room and the best majolica came out of a place called Deruta in the Umbria region of central Italy.

 A 17th c. display of finery but like those in Scappi's time, 
 Bartholomeus van Bassen, Renaissance Interior with Banqueters,1618-20

German personal cutlery set, late 15th century V&A

I talked to my friend, food historian Ken Albala about these dishes being used at the table rather than just for display and he felt they might have been even though the wear marks we see today are only on the rims of the plates and no knife marks are in evidence –– the cutlery of the day probably would have left a mark or two on the glaze (people brought their own cutlery sets to the table). Perhaps the plates were used for presentation of special treats and not as dinner plates. They are magnificent however they may be deployed. We are fortunate to have them –– they were created thanks to a string of happy accidents and coincidences.

Apollo, Deruta 1520-40

Although Deruta lacked sufficient fuel for hot firing of clay, the local potters more than made up for the perceived misfortune with metallic glazes, exuberant patterns and clever firing techniques –– these techniques gave Deruta majolica its distinctive look. Some of the patterns were inspired by Islamic cultures and Hispano-Moresque traditions.  They were also inspired by their proximity to Perugia’s art scene and to the work of Raphael, Perugino and Pinturicchio (who did the Borgia murals). The site That’s Arte  suggested that the Deruta potters may have copied the artist’s frescos on their pottery as they were easily accessible to the craftspeople. They were in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.

“Belle Donne” plate by Nicola Francioli 1520-25

“Belle Donne” plate by Nicola Francioli 1520-25

The article also revealed that Deruta craftsmen often used the “spolvero” technique so they could repeat a design that was then personalized when they were painted (spolvero involved laying down a colored dust that came through small holes cut in paper – the same technique used to paint frescoes). In that way, intricate border designs could be applied dozens of times and faces and clothing could be changed from plate to plate. The “Belle Donne” plate design was a particular favorite. Lovely ladies were captured on the plate’s surface, often with a name or a motto.

Spolvero shown on Stefania Patassini’s site 

A plate inscribed, “nothing is gained by sleeping” (1490-1525 Deruta) BM

The images for the “Belle Donne” plates came from local models and from the aforementioned practice of lifting from great painter’s works. It is possible Giulia Farnese had her lovely profile captured this way.

 500 year old tiles at Deruta’s Museum of Ceramics (photo from Bill and Suzy)

After all, Giulia Farnese’s brother Allesandro (Pope Paul III), employed the Deruta craftsmen to make exquisite tiles for him and we also know Giulia's lover,  the Spanish Borgia Pope enjoyed tile work and used Moorish-influenced patterns in his rooms in the Vatican. It's not much of a stretch to think a favorite visage was recorded on a plate or two.

Deruta plate by Nicola Francioli 1520-25 V&A

Nicola Francioli, who often signed his work “Co’ ”, was a star of the Deruta pottery scene. He was influenced by Raphael and Perugino and copied their work in his ceramics. A particular style of Deruta pottery is still called Raffaellesco, after Raphael’s grotesque frescoes in the Vatican Palace. Laurence Kanter of the Metropolitan Museum said that artists like Francioli helped make Deruta pottery “one of the purest forms of Italian Renaissance culture”. They are colorful, exuberant artifacts of a nearly mythic time when the world of art, music and science was emerging from the chrysalis of the Dark Ages.

Danae and a hunting scent, Deruta, 1520 (V&A)

Lucky for us, the majolica tradition has continued so that Deruta’s Renaissance patterned ceramics are still made there. Fine vintage Deruta pottery is available on Ebay at reasonable prices –– some are really superb copies of Renaissance pieces.

So, now that we can imagine a table set with beautiful plates and Giulia and the Borgias dining with them as they eat their way through the story–– what to put on them? There are 42 dishes mentioned in the book!

I chose to make a fish pie with the exotic addition of orange and dates here described by young chef Scappi flexing his culinary muscles:

“ I changed the menu,” he said. “The stew will hold for tomorrow. Tonight we’re to serve salted ox tongue, a fish pie flavored with oranges, nutmeg and dates….”

Now, before you say it’s a weird combination, remember all of the lovely sweet fish dishes you’ve had like sweetened Japanese eel and many Thai and Chinese fish preparations? Fish can swim well in sweet waters.

To find an historically appropriate recipe I started looking at fish pies in The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570) but also went leafing through a few late medieval cookbooks; one by the chef for the first Duke of Savoy, Master Chiquart and his 1420 Du Fait de Cuisine  and another by chef Martino of Como –– his 1465 Libro de Arte Coquinaria.  I found some inspiring flavor combinations there. The herbs and spices in the other books were very similar to those that Scappi used in his fish pies in The Opera –– but Chiquart was more specific about what spices to use. The almond milk and dried fruit are delicious together. I know, you are going to say "weird" again but I recently made a Mexican dish, Chiles en Nogada and thought the fruited filling was not unlike a fruited Renaissance pie filling and the walnut cream is a distant cousin to the almond milk in the Chiquart pie recipe –– perhaps an ancient memory of the Spanish Conquistador's 15th and 16th century cuisine.  This pie uses meaty tuna instead of chicken or pork.  The Italian versions always had rose in them so I put in just a hint of rose –– besides, rose loves orange.

Another decision to make was about the pie's crust. At the time of Scappi, pie crust was not always eaten –– sometimes it was more like a cooking pot that would be cut open and served from but not eaten by the guests (a concept related to bread trenchers that were often given to hungry peasants after being used by the upper classes as plates). Terrance Scully, who translated Scappi's cookbook said "In earlier times, pies made use of pastry dough –– often two or three centimeters thick –– as a means to contain a mixture of ingredients while it baked.  By Scappi's day a distinction was made between that coarse, but sturdy, flour-and-water pie shell, which a diner or the carver was expected to discard, and a thinner one made of a fine pie dough that incorporated eggs, butter or grease, perhaps with a seasoning; it had a distinct gastronomic appeal in itself."  I decided to make my fish pie with an edible crust.

The result is a bit like a mincemeat  –– very much like the 17th century English chuet I made HERE.  It is sweet with a delicate and appealing fish flavor.  The nut oil and almond milk partner superbly with the dried fruit.   I think you will find the result to be velvety and elegantly spiced like the smooth but effusive artistry of Deruta majolica –– a real taste of the Renaissance.

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 Quinn provides the descriptions.

The Inn at the Crossroads: the Roman-style tenderloin Bartolomeo makes when Carmelina's stuck in a convent with the Pope's daughter Lucrezia

Island Vittles: a smorgasbord of the various nibbles all the Borgias are constantly snacking on as they plot—spiced pears and candied nuts. And as a bonus? The fried tubers from the New World, which feature heavily in a scene my readers have taken to calling simply “the aphrodisiac potato scene.”

Little White Apron: the salad of blood orange, fennel, and olives served to the Duke of Gandia, and the beef en brochette served at a very illicit party..

Taking on Magazines: The venison in cream and brandy sauce served after Juan Borgia's lastest hunt, and in another post, the tortellini with basil and parsley filling with which Bartolomeo hopes to woo Carmelina

Between the Sheets: Endives stuffed with cheese and drizzled w/ olive oil & blood orange tourte with honey

Kate Quinn: The tourte of walnuts and pecorino cheese

Renaissance Fish Pie for 2 - 4 (with a little help from a Master Chiquart recipe interpreted by Eleanor Scully)

1 recipe double crust for pie
¼ c raisins
3 dates
2 prunes
2 T pine nuts
¼ c white wine
3T oil (almond, walnut or hazelnut would be nice - otherwise a mild oil)
2 T chopped parsley
2 t marjoram, chopped
1 t sage, chopped
½ t ground ginger
2 cloves or a pinch of ground cloves
pinch of saffron
pinch of nutmeg
1 drop Aftelier rose essence or 2 t rosewater
3- 4 T orange juice
1 T verjuice or 2 t sherry vinegar
¼ t salt
½ -1 t ground grains of paradise and or pepper ( I like mine peppery)
¼ c sugar

½ c plus 1 T almond milk
1 T rice flour

½ lb lightly cooked tuna, flaked (I imagine you could use imported Italian canned tuna for this)
3 pieces of cooked eel to fit your pan (optional but can be found canned, frozen and fresh - often smoked)

Cut the fruit and nuts into small pieces and add white wine, soak for an hour. Warm the oil and add the fruit mostly strained from the wine (you can add a bit of the wine to the mix). Add the spices, juice and sugar and stir to dissolve.

Combine ½ c of almond milk with the rice flour and stir till dissolved. Add to the fruit mixture and stir till thickened somewhat.  Remove from heat and stir in the tuna. Allow to cool –– you can easily refrigerate it.

Lay bottom crust in a 7" pan (mine was 7" at the top and 5½" at the bottom)  and then spoon the mixture into the crust, place the eel slices on top if you are using them. Place the top crust on the pie and decorate with remaining scraps. Brush with 1 T almond milk.

Cook at 425º for 10 minutes and then 375º for 20-30 minutes or until the crust looks perfectly cooked.

*This recipe is easily doubled.  The pie crust is enough for a regular pie plate and the cooking time would remain the same.

Butter and Egg Pie Crust

1 3/4 c flour
1/4 c whole wheat flour
1/2 t salt
1 stick butter, frozen and chopped
1½ oz lard or an additional amount of butter or vegetable shortening in bean size pieces
3 T ice water (approximately)
1 egg yolk
2 T orange juice

Combine the dry ingredients.   Add the butter and lard and pulse in a food processor.  Add the yolk to the ice water and stir to blend, then add the orange juice immediately before using.  If you do it too soon it will curdle the egg.  Pour all around the dry ingredients and pulse till blended.  Pour out and make into 2 rounds –– I like to use the frissage method to make my rounds.  Put it back in the fridge and chill for at least an hour.  Roll out into 2 rounds.  You will have plenty left over unless you want to double the filling, then it will be just enough for a full size pie.  Make decorative fish with some of the dough I make it into cookies, cook them with the pie for 12 minutes and freeze them to use for quick desserts or pot pies.

Original Cliquart recipe from 1420, translated by Elizabeth Cook:

40. Now I, Chiquart, would like to give to understand to him who will be ordered to make parma tarts of fish, let him take slices of tuna if he is in a place where he can get marine fish, and if not let him take as much of those of fresh water, that is large filleted carp, large eels and large filleted pike, and of this take such a great quantity as he is told to make the said tarts; and take candied raisins, prunes, figs, dates, pine nuts, and of each of these take what seems to him right to take according to the quantity of the said tarts; then, for the said tarts, let them be cut into pieces, cleaned and washed and put to cook well and cleanly; and, being well cooked, draw it out onto fair and clean tables or boards and let the bones be removed and take them out very well and properly so that no little bones remain, and chop them well and finely; and let the aforesaid raisins have the stems very well removed, let the pine nuts be cleaned very well, let the figs, prunes, and dates be cut into little dice; and, all these things thus dealt with, except for the meat, should be very well washed in white wine and drained, and then mix them with the aforesaid meat of the fish. And it is also necessary, according to the quantity of the said tarts which you have to make, that you have parsley, marjoram, and sage, and of each herb the quantity according to the strength of each, that is of parsley more and of the others less; and let them be well cleaned, washed, and very well chopped and then mix them with the aforesaid meat. And, this being done, have fair, clear, clean, and well refined oil and then have a fair, large and clean frying pan and let it be set over a fair clear fire and put all this into it, and have a good assistant with a fair, large and clean spoon who stirs very well and strongly in the said frying pan; and arrange that you have your almond milk well thickened and strained through a strainer, and a great deal of amydon* according to the quantity of tarts which you have and put all in to thicken it; and then put your spices in with your meat while stirring the contents of the pan continually, that is white ginger, grains of paradise and a little pepper, and saffron which gives it color, and whole cloves and a great deal of sugar pounded into powder, and salt in reason. And arrange that your pastry-cooks have made well and properly the crusts of the said tarts, and, being made, take the aforesaid filling and put in each what should be put. And then arrange that you have a very great quantity of good and fair slices of good and fair eels which should be well and properly cooked in water and, being cooked, put them to fry in fair and clean oil; and, being fried, take them out; and then on each tart put three or four pieces, one here and another there, so that they are not together; and then cover the tarts and put in the oven and, being cooked, put them on your dishes and serve them.

* Amydon is a thickener made from bread that is soaked until it turns to a mush, left for a few days and then spread to dry flat. It is broken up to use as a thickener –– quite a smart idea.

Martino of Como recipe:

Bartolomeo Scappi recipe:

Do visit Marie Telling's heroic piece in BUZZFEED about 44 Classic French Dishes to Try Before You Die HERE.There are 3 dishes from Lostpastremembered in the series, so I am pleased as punch!