Do you know the feeling when you start with something on your to-do list and you realize you have no idea what you´re doing? Or that you still have quite a lot to learn, which doesn´t sound as bad. When you´re listening to ´the expert´, and the only thing you can do is nod and make sounds, like: ooh, uh-huh, sure…
Well, that´s what recently happened to me when I took some kitchen knives to the sharpener at the local market. I have to admit that he had quite some things to teach me about the matter. Half the knives I brought weren´t even worth sharpening anymore, the pour things.
While I was listening to the master himself explain about the sharpening techniques and the correct use of knives and scissors, my eyes wandered around the shop, with all its instruments, until suddenly a very interesting object came into my sight: a dark book with gold lettering. It was titled: “Arte cisoria, o Arte del cortar del cuchillo”, which means something like: The art of mastering a cutting knife. Even though the first edition came out during the sixteenth century, the manuscript was already written by Enrique de Villena in 1423, as commissioned by Sancho de Jarava, who was in charge of cutting the royal meals of the king Don Juan II.
It was intended as a useful book, describing the science behind the cutting techniques, and bringing it closer to the work of a surgeon that to that of a cook. The master of the knife was both key to the monarchs diet and to the presentation of the food or the ceremonial aspects around the table. And besides that, the manuscript also includes a few images, showing us some of the different tools a professional cutter needed.
Taking a look at this manuscript, we can agree that the cutter is asked to be a connoisseur, to know his job perfectly, or at least try to, as much as possible. Isn´t this exactly what we need to look for when we take some knives to sharpen them, for example? It´s essential to be able to count on professionals at our local markets. They need us, especially nowadays, and it is clear we also need them.
With these kinds of visits to the market, I usually take something else home, something great and intangible, besides the food in my shopping bag. What do you take with you when you come home from the market?
A couple of weeks ago it was international cheese day, so I figured, let´s take a look at some painted cheese. I´m as Dutch as a Gouda cheese, so it´s not a surprise I love the actual product as well, not just the painted ones. A few pieces of cheese, some bread, a glass of wine… and I´m in. Any day is good to do a little cheese tasting.
But getting back to the images, there are quite some examples of cheese on murals, paintings, etc. One of the oldest is the dairy frieze from the third millennium BC, where the production of cheese is shown as if it were a comic strip. Already in this period there was a love for cheese, which is no surprise to me.
If we now get a little closer to more known examples, something struck my attention. On some Dutch still lifes, cheese has a prominent place. Sometimes they are placed on top of each other, giving the stack a considerable volume within the painting. As a cheese lover, they catch my attention instantly. But then, I look a little bit closer, and they don´t look very attractive, I have to admit, the pour things are not so good looking.
Some have stains or even cracks filled with mold, and I don´t mean the mold on cheese after ripening, like on soft matured cheeses for example, but the one that appears when everybody forgets that it still exists and the poor thing turns green.
I imagine it all has to do with the production process that wasn´t anything like it is today, nor were the options to preserve it obviously. Even the biological process of fermentation was still unknown, and made it impossible to better understand the production process like nowadays. But then again, aren´t they delicious? Especially the raw milk varieties. We love them anyway, even if they are not that good looking.
In this work from the Dutch painter Floris Claesz. van Dijk we see a couple of these stacked cheeses. I wonder what type of cheese they were, when they were eaten and what they were used for, don´t you? The smallest one on top, has an ash grey colour which doesn´t ring a bell, and it looks so dry that the only purpose it seems to have is to be grated. It owes its dark green colour to herbs like parsley, which was normally added to give low-fat cheeses more flavour. Don´t we buy cheeses with nettle, chives or even pesto nowadays? This green cheese is still very common.
When we speak in terms of it´s use, this type of cheese could have indeed be used for grating. If we look up Magirus´ recipe book (which I introduced in my piece on the royal tart), published a few years before this painting was made, we can find 28 references to ´g(h)eraspten kese´, or indeed: grated cheese.
Taking a closer look into this book, we can see that the word cheese appears no less than 64 times, and with a few variations as well. An incredible number of times, uncommon for contemporary Dutch recipe books. This is where the influence of Bartolomeo Scappi´s Italian kitchen becomes evident, from whom Magirus borrowed quite some recipes for his book. What Magirus does is accommodate them to the already famous and abundant cheese in the Low Countries.
If we now go back to the painting and compare the three cheeses with the varieties in the book, each of the painted ones can be connected to one of the categories he mentiones. From top to bottom we have the ´drooghen kese´ or dry cheese, ´ouden kese´ or ´old cheese´ and finally ´nieuwen Hollandschen kese´ or new Dutch cheese. Magirus names quite defined and common varieties so it seems. In his recipes he mentiones all these types of cheeses as an ingredient in various dishes, especially for tarts and pies: fillings with meat, offal, or mushrooms and vegetables, even with fruit and nuts. Cheese also went into stuffings for roasted poultry or other meats.
And the cheese was of course served as is, at the end of a meal. According to several medical contemporary treatises, the best for this purpose were hard cheeses, as they would serve to close the stomach. Bitter and sour fruit, nuts and olives also did the trick. The combination of these ingredients, except for slight variations, can be seen on this painting by Van Dijck, just like on some other paintings from around that period, such as these from Pieter Claesz or Clara Peeters. They could all be representing the mentioned last course of a meal, finishing the banquet properly and with the right products.
But wait, there is more to these cheeses. Magirus doesn´t only tell us how to cook with them, or when to serve them, he also gives advice on what to serve depending on which dinner guest one had: Want meest alle vrouwen met soeticheyt, de mans met suer, met sout, met sterck ende met bitter te onderhouden syn. And translated: Because most woman are taken care of with sweets, and men with sour, salted, strong and bitter.
And that´s that. Equality? That was certainly not an issue yet. Well, I tell you one thing, Magirus, I prefer a plate of the ´sour, salted, strong and bitter´, please. He recommends a good Parmesan and Dutch cheese, but also anchovies, dried salmon, seasoned oysters, nuts, dried fruit and wine, just to name a few. Nothing wrong with that, don´t you think? Let´s leave these masculine and feminine last courses for another day, there´s still a lot to talk about.
So, what about a nice cheese plate, to close our stomach? Don´t forget the hard cheese, or any other type you like of course.
Bruyn, J. Dutch cheese: a problem of interpretation.
Simiolus (24), 1996.
Kwak, Z. ‘Proeft de kost en kauwtse met uw’ oogen’.
Beeldtraditie, betekenis en functie van het Noord-Nederlandse keukentafereel
(ca. 1590-1650). Tesis doctoral. Universiteit van Amsterdam, 2014.
El arte de Clara
Peeters [catálogo exposición]. Amberes: Koninklijk Museum voor Schone
Kunsten/ Madrid: Museo Nacional del Prado, 2016.
Smakelijk eten: eten
en drinken in de Gouden Eeuw [catálogo exposición]. Hoorn: Westfries
A few days ago I was at a birthday party where I had a piece of cake that had absolutely all the colours of the rainbow. The topping was a glazing packed with sugar, a feast for the eyes, but not so much for your teeth.
It seems that these decoration trends that transform cakes and pies into beautiful edible objects have emerged quite recently. All kinds of ingredients and techniques to make spectacular creations that are appealing to the eye and sweeten our palate.
Really? Your cake doesn´t have any colourful sugar paste, countless layers of frosting, chocolate or other sweet decorations? How boring.
As it happens, cake decoration is actually not a contemporary trend. Some of these decorations already existed during the 16th century, used for dishes that were served at meals to the rich and famous. Just imagine Philip II of Spain without his trendy cake during a royal banquet.
Today I want to show you a few examples that will not go unnoticed by the bakery and pastry fans amongst us, not even by the plain cake lovers like me.
There are some paintings with visual examples of tarts, that allow us to know how they may have looked like in real life, at least on the outside. I´m aware that we must make a difference between cake, pie and tart, and so on, but today we are focussing on the decorations themselves.
Some tarts were decorated with branches of bay leaves and flowers, others with little sticks made of sugar. Others were topped with rosemary sprigs and golden pendants, silk flowers or icing sugar drawings.
The most stunning example can be found on an anonymous painting from the end of the 16th century, representing a banquet with Charles V and members of his family and entourage.
Anonymous (attributed to Alonso Sánchez Coello), The Royal Feast, 1596. Narodowe Museum, Warsaw.
The servant on the lower left side brings a spectacular tart to the table with a great branch of gold and silver bay leaves, topped with a banner and crown to identify the most important dinner guest, Charles V, as The Holy Roman Emperor. At the back of the table another tart is being served, however clearly less important given the size, position and decorations.
A few decades later, at the beginning of the 17th century, the paintress Clara Peeters shows us a similar tart as leading actor of the scene, without any dinner guests at the table. This one is topped with a rosemary sprig that has little golden pendants hanging from it. The borders are decorated not only with smaller sprigs, but also with little silk and wire flowers.
Detail of Clara Peeters, Still life with tart, silver cup with sweets, porcelain, shells and oysters. 1612-13. Private collection, Russia. Photographic collection RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History, The Hague
Last but not least, I have found two other anonymous paintings, also made in the Lower Countries during the 17th century, that are quite like the previous one. Look at the silk flowers, for example.
Detail of Osias Beert (manner of), Still life, 1600-50, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Detail of anonymous, Still life, 1600-1699. Location unknown. Photographic collection RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History, The Hague
In these two examples little sugar sticks have been used instead of rosemary. In the first painting they even resemble burning candles due to the golden tip. Predecessors of the birthday candles we currently use?
Carrying on with the decorations, we can see that both cakes are covered with icing sugar, already known and used during this period. The first of these two even has a geometric design, like the ones that are made with a template nowadays. Even some kind of granulated decoration is used to finish off these elegant tarts, just like on the one painted by Peeters.
We know that cooks looked at great architects and stage decorations to present their dishes at the table with a spectacular scenery, as if the meal were a theatre play.
These visual examples I have shown you today, bring us much closer to what some of the tarts may have looked like. The ones for the rich and famous at least.
Some other questions however remain unanswered… What did they taste like, were they sweet, savoury, or maybe both? Did the decorations play a particular role and did they have a clear meaning?
I will take a ´bite´ of the tarts and try to answer these questions later on. This includes keeping you informed, of course…