• ´Say, cheese!´, A portrait of 17th century Dutch cheese

    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.

    Frieze of the temple devoted to the deity Ninhursag, Dairy scene, 2400 BC. Limestone. Location unknown (after the looting of the Bagdad Archaeological Museum in 2003, now reopened as the National Museum of Iraq).

    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.

    Floris Claesz. van Dijck. Still life with cheeses, 1615. Oil on panel. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

    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.

    Floris Claesz. van Dijck, Still life with cheeses (detail), 1615. Oil on panel. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

    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.

    Pieter Claesz, Still life with cheeses and fruit, 1623. Oil on panel. Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem.
    Clara Peeters. Still life with cheeses, almonds and pretzels, 1612-1615. Oil on panel. Mauritshuis, La Haya.

    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 Museum, 2011.

    Transcription of Magirus´ recipe book (in Dutch): http://www.kookhistorie.nl/


    To celebrate the recipes category of mycurioseaty, I believe baking a cake would be in order, don´t you think? It has to be a grand cake of course, a royal one if possible, not just any cake.

    Do you remember the first piece of the blog on cake decoration, where I showed you an image with a banquet starred by Philips II, Charles V and co.? Well, it´s not a cake, but the tart on that painting looks pretty grand to me. Let´s bake that, or at least give it a try. One royal tart to go, please!

    Anonymous (attributed to Alonso Sánchez Coello), The Royal Feast, 1596. Narodowe Museum, Warsaw.

    But how could we possibly know what it tasted like, what ingredients could have been used? Well, don´tt worry, to find out what type of tart this might have been, I have searched in written sources from around that time, end of the 16th, beginning of the 17th century, specifically in historic cookbooks from the Low Countries. The paintings with similar tarts I showed in that article were made there, and the title of the royal banquet is quite clear about who was in charge in Flanders at the time. It is quite possible that similar tarts became fashionable, or maybe they were already. What has become clear when searching in these cookbooks is that these types of tarts were made and eaten, not only at royal tables.

    A candidate recipe can be found in a cookbook from the beginning of the 17th century in Leuven, city which was then part of the Spanish Netherlands. The so-called Koocboec of Antonius Magirus[1], contains a total of 55 recipes for pies and tarts, which is quite a compilation.

    What strikes your attention, while reading these recipes, is the clear distinction that is often made between white and dark tarts and pies. Depending on the ingredients the cooks had or the ones that could be replaced for others, the result would be a lighter or darker filling. If we look closely at the painting, we can see both types. The tart with the lighter filling can be found on the foreground and the brown one more at the back of the scene. Given the level of decoration and the prominent place, it appears the lighter one is more important. This distinction could be similar to the one that used to be made between white and wholegrain bread. Maybe something that is worthwhile exploring.

    Back to the recipe, I have to admit, that adaptation to current circumstances is in place. I´m used to doing it with contemporary recipes as well. You can also call it: doing whatever you like. Besides, older recipes don´t tend to be very detailed in quantities or instructions. So, let´s give it a try then!

    Frontpage of ´Koocboec oft familieren keukenboec´ by M. Antonius Magirus. Printed in Leuven in 1612. Transcription available at: http://www.kookhistorie.nl/

    Today we are going to prepare a ´royal tart with pine nuts, almonds and other stuff´.[1] Yes… stuff is part of the ´detailed´ description I´m afraid, let´s see what it is. Nevertheless, the royal part of the title suits our painted tart, as well as the fancy pine nuts and almonds.

    First, I will reduce quantities, otherwise we will be eating tart for a month. Besides, the pound of pine nuts that goes into the filling would take away a big chunk of the recipes budget. Regarding the ginger, I have used just a teaspoon of the powdered version. I do wish to try this recipe with stem ginger on syrup, I´sure it would suit the tart very well.

    The dough is made with the ingredients of a shortbread crust, which is almost identical to the ones listed by Magirus[1], except for the baking powder or self-raising flower some people use today.

    Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

    Royal tart with pine nuts and almonds

    For 2 individual round pie molds or 1 mold of 15cm

    The dough:
    150g self raising flour
    75g butter
    35g icing sugar and some more for decoration
    1 egg yolk
    12g rose water

    The filling: 
    50g peeled almonds
    50g pine nuts
    100g sugar
    75g cream cheese
    1 egg yolk, beaten
    40g apple
    1 tsp ginger
    Pinch of nutmeg
    Splash of rose water


    The dough: 
    Sieve the flour onto a clean flat surface. Add the butter in cubes and mix well with your fingers. Add the yolk, sugar, rose water and mix without kneading the dough. Form a ball, wrap it in plastic and let it rest for a few hours in the fridge.
    Roll out the dough and cover the mold with it. Pick the dough with a fork to prevent it from raising and bake the crust in a preheated oven at 180ºC for aprox. 10-15 minutes. Let it cool.

    Grind the almonds and pine nuts together with the apple. Add all the remaining ingredients and mix well. Pour the mixture into the crust and bake at 180ºC for 15 minutes or until slightly golden. Let the tart cool down and finally dust with icing sugar.[1]

    It´s mycurioseaty´s royal tart

    In honour of the tart from the painted banquet, I have decided to laureate my royal tart as well, a bit more modest of course, with just a few leaves.

    And now to the taste, which is a curious one I must admit. It seems like a mix between an almond cake and a baked cheese cake with spicy and floral touches, but definitely worth the try. Not many people can say they ate a royal tart just like the one served to Philips II of Spain.

    So, fancy an ancient royal tart? Here´s your chance. Enjoy!

    [1] Interpretation of the original text. Dutch transcription by Hilde Sels and Marleen Willebrands, http://www.kookhistorie.nl/, version 20-05-09: Pelt een pont amandelen, die men eerst te weyck heeft geset, den tyt van acht uren in cout water, ende als sy gepelt syn, stamptse met een pont pinghelen, die ooc geweyckt hebben ses uren lanc in cout water, ende alsse wel cleyn gestooten syn, doetter dan by twee pont fyn suycker geraspt, oft gestooten, ende anderhalf pont roomkes, die vers is, oft in plaetse anderhalf pont platten kese van schapenmelck, hierby ses doyeren van eyeren cleyn geclopt, ende vier oncen appelen gestooten heel cleyn, ende een greyntjen muskes, ende een half once gember, een lutsken rosewater, ende vraecht gyder niet naer, oftse wit is oft niet: in plaetse van gember, doetter nagelen in, canneel, ende noten muskaten, legtse in deech, laetse backen als voor.

    [1] A transcription in Dutch is available on the following website: http://www.kookhistorie.nl/

    [1] Translation of: ´Toerte reale van pinghelen, amandelen, ende andere materien´, nr. 124 from the recipe book.

    [1] A bit of rosewater will go into the crust, just like Magirus´ version.