Making a recipe from the first printed cookbook. ever.
Author & Photographer: Claire Schultz
This past spring, I took a class on the Italian Renaissance, and as part of the final, we were told to do a project on pretty much anything from the time period. I chose food, of course, and was soon introduced to Bartolomeo Platina, author of De Honesta Voluptate et Valetudine (On Right Pleasure and Good Health), published around 1470 and generally considered “the first dated cookery book.” Despite being a widely-cited, significant work, it’s been out of print since the 90’s and nearly impossible to find; I had to put in three Interlibrary Loan requests to get a copy, and fully intend to hold on to it until its September due date.
It’s part lifestyle guide and part recipe collection, more doctor’s orders than Joy of Cooking. The overall goal seems to be the improvement of digestion, and Platina dedicates entire chapters to the specific powers of certain ingredients. Spices, in particular, a new and exciting Renaissance development thanks to increased trade, become a sort of alchemy. Some are almost reasonable--nutmeg and cinnamon are especially popular because they are “warm and dry” and bring about “digestion and [aid] the stomach and liver,” and ginger dries out a stomach’s “excessive moisture.” Some are truly bizarre: thyme “dispels dim eyesight, kills worms...brings on the menstrual period for women.” It’s all so incredibly Renaissance, and I cannot stress how much I love this book.
Naturally, in the spirit of the age, the recipes are just as weird. They mix sweet and savory; chicken gets sugar and rose water, fruit pies get cheese and spinach. I decided it was time to test a date pie with figs and almonds that sounded almost pleasant--in the spring, I’d made an egg-based cherry pie that was surprisingly not bad (and I had a pie crust left over from my last endeavor), so I was cautiously optimistic. It did have parsley and orach, a kind of spinach, and the option to add liver or fish fat, which threw me, but I was willing to give it a shot.
The original recipe is as follows:
Soak well-pounded almonds with fish juice and rose water. When they are soaked, pass through a sieve into a bowl. Grind in the same mortar a half pound of pitted dates, a few raisins, four or five figs, as well as three ounces of well-cooked rice. Then cut up with a small knife a little parsley, orach, and marjoram, torn by hand and fried in oil. It will not be out of the way if you cup up livers or fish fat with these. Besides, grind together, or separately, an ounce of Corinthian raisins, a half pound of sugar, a little cinnamon, a little more ginger, and a bit of saffron, and mix into the above. So that it may really thicken more, put in either a half ounce of starch or pike eggs, and spread out in a well-oiled earthenware pot with a lower crust with well-washed pine nuts stuck everywhere in it. If it will really please you, spread crepes instead of an upper crust. This mixture ought to be cooked in a slow fire. Also, it is necessary for it to be thin. When cooked, it should be covered with sugar and rose water. This really also nourishes a great deal, is slowly digested, helps the liver, damages the teeth, and increases phlegm.
I made a couple of adaptations to a modern kitchen (by omitting the fish juice and livers, which I really didn’t want to look for or work with), and, maybe surprisingly, it wasn’t bad. A little sticky and over-sweet, maybe, and the parsley was strange, although not overwhelming, but the pine nuts in the crust gave a good balance, and it was rich and decadent and tasted almost like a Renaissance Fig Newton. Do you have to rush out and make this pie? Maybe not. Is it edible? Actually, yes. Not the best pie I’ve ever had, but a solid 7 out of 10, and definitely helped by a good homemade crust.
I’ve broken down the recipe with rough quantities and baking times, as well as a few ingredient and equipment substitutions to make it more achievable. Platina suggests spreading crepes instead of an upper crust “if it will really please you,” and I decided that no, it would not really please me, so we’re going open-faced. I don’t know why, exactly, you’d want to follow this recipe, but if you have any strong desire to make a fifteenth-century Italian pie, I’m in no position to stop you.
Servings: 1 (8-10 inch) pie
Preparation Time: 1 hour
Cook Time: 35 minutes
1 cup sliced almonds
2 tbsp rosewater, plus more for finishing
1 cup dried dates
5 dried figs
2 tbsp raisins
¼ cup cooked rice
2 tbsp cold water
¼-⅓ cup sugar, plus more for finishing
1 tsp cinnamon
1 ½ tsp ginger
1 tbsp cornstarch
Small bunch flat-leaf parsley and baby spinach
A little olive oil, for frying
1 prepared pie crust
Roughly ½ cup of pine nuts
1.Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. In a small plastic bag, crush the almonds using a rolling pin or bottle until they’re finely ground. Transfer to a bowl and stir in rosewater.
3. Slice the dates and figs into fairly small pieces, then mix with raisins, rice, and 1 tbsp water. Add the mixture to a blender or food processor a little at a time and pulse until almost smooth. You may need to clean out the blade and mix the filling pretty regularly as it will be sticky and thick, so take this part slowly. If you just give up when it’s kind of blended, that’s fine.
4. In a small pan, fry the parsley and spinach in olive oil until they’re dark green and crispy. Let cool, then chop finely.
5. In a bowl, whisk together the sugar, cinnamon, and ginger. Add the date mixture and 1 tbsp water and stir until combined.
6. Mix in the parsley, spinach, and cornstarch.
7. Roll out the pie crust and place it into an 8-10 inch pie dish. Evenly press a layer of pine nuts into the bottom, then add the filling. Smooth out the top with a rubber spatula, and crimp the edges with a fork, if you’d like.
8. “If it will really please you, spread crepes instead of an upper crust.”
9. Bake for 35 minutes, or until crust is golden brown and filling seems firm.
10. Sprinkle with rosewater and sugar, let cool, and serve to whoever is willing to eat it.
Recipe adapted from: Platina’s On Right Pleasure and Good Health, translated by Mary Ella Milham. Tempe: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1998.