Books can give us valuable insights into different eras, cultures or countries. In Giacomo Castelvetro’s “The fruits, herbs and vegetables of Italy”, originally written in 1614 and recently published by Prospect Books, with translation by Gillian Riley and foreward by Jane Grigson, we are not only offered glimpses of Italy and England in the seventeenth century but also tastes of the food of the period.
Giacomo Castelvetro was an interesting character, one of those wandering plant-loving scholars whom aristocrats delighted in befriending. Forced by religious persecution to leave his home in Modena, he became tutor to some of the great European families. He married and lived in Edinburgh for a while and, when his wife died, he went to live in Sweden where he was part of the social milieu of King Charles IX who was also a great gardener.
Together they grafted pear tree cuttings which Castelvetro had preserved in a pot of honey. He then settled for twelve years in Venice where he made friends with the then British Ambassador Sir Henry Wotton, who, it is claimed, first defined an ambassador as ‘one who is sent to lie abroad for his country’. This happy sojourn came to an abrupt end when he was imprisoned by the Inquisition. Impoverished, he returned to Britain and it was here that he wrote this book.
He dedicated it to Lucy, Countess of Bedford, the sister of one of his past pupils. She loved gardening and was interested in the produce of Italy so Castelvetro probably hoped for patronage which sadly did not materialize, as she was too burdened by debts herself to provide him with any financial assistance.
His mission was to open the eyes of the clique of the elite of the English people who loved Italian gardens and visiting Italy, to appreaciate the wonders of the fresh produce of the Italian kitchen garden. It was not a question of eating more, for the British had always consumed quite a quantity of vegetables but the fact that they were given such poor fare by cooks. Unfortunately this state of affairs persisted for a couple more centuries, and although John Evelyn, in his 1699 work Acetaria, vigourously promoted fresh vegetables, it was not really until Elizabeth David wrote about them in the 1950s that techniques for the preparation of fruit and vegetables began to change.
Castelvetro did not intend this as a book of recipes. In it he simply expounds his idea of luxury: very fresh vegetables, simply prepared and tastefully served. Basically he advocates cooking vegetables in salted water or broth, draining them and serving them tepid or cold seasoned with oil, salt pepper and lemon or bitter orange juice or alternatively roasting them over hot coals, barbeque style.
Writing in the days when even in Italy tomatoes and potatoes were curiosities and in England even more common salad plants were not thought of as edible, he begins the book by writing,
“I am amazed that so few of these delicious and health giving plants are being grown to be eaten. It seems to me that through ignorance or indifference they are cultivated less for the table than for show…”
He then says that he will write down all he can remember of,
“…the herbs, fruits and plants we eat in Italy, my civilized homeland, and to explain how to prepare them…for the table, so that the English no longer need be deprived…of the delights of growing and eating them.”
Taking plants season by season, he does just that. Tips on growing as well as preparation are given together with a number of endearing asides: “So, the person making the salad should first of all wash their hands…” or
“Although somewhat outside my main theme …wherever lupins are grown, they drive away moles who flee their accustomed nests and go looking for lodgings elsewhere…”
The reader will come across unknown fruits and vegetables together with fresh ways of preparing and dressing familiar ones. I have invested in some Seville oranges, the juice of which I shall freeze in order to experiment with the bitter orange dressing which Castelvetro frequently mentions.
This book, a window to the dining tables of a past era, is full of interest and would make the perfect little thank-you gift for a hostess who loves both history and food.
“The fruits, herbs and vegetables of Italy” (1614), published by Prospect Books at www.prospectbooks.co.uk.