Friday, 27 November 2015




Selected Recipes
Cherry Pie

While perusing the shelves in Gerstein Library (yes, the Medical Sciences Library of UofT, not the first place I expected to find such a concentration of historic cookbooks either), looking for the recipe books I used over the summer to bring to the recent Musings themed iTea, I discovered this little gem:

It is a translation of the Libro de Arte Coquinaria, by Martino of Como (also of Milan), a 15th century Italian chef. Martino is possibly the Early Modern World's first celebrity chef, and he is still widely idolized in Italy today. (Notice his Italian Wiki page contains much more information on his cooking practices and the themes within his writings than the English one.)

However, very little is actually known about him, and it is sometimes very hard to separate the man from the myth. Four Medieval Italian recipe manuscripts are attributed to Martino, though only one, in the Riva del Garda Library, cites him directly as the author. The Pierpont Morgan Library posits that some of the recipes within their Neopolitan Collection can be attributed to Martino, forming the earliest collection of his works.

Cherry Pie, inspired by a recipe from the Jewish Quarter of Medieval Rome. Photo: Leah Moncada.

The 15th century was a critical time in Italy. They were very aware of their own cultural growth, and wealthy patrons eagerly supported artists, architects, and in the case of Martino, chefs. One of Martino's more famous patrons was Duke Sforza of Milan. (Interesting anecdote tangent! Sforza actually hired Leonardo Da Vinci to mechanize his kitchen in an attempt to cut costs, which resulted in a comedy (or catastrophe) of non-efficiency.) After working for Sforza, Martino served as cook for Cardinal Trevisan, and he (possibly...might have...we hope with academic enthusiasm...) eventually found his way to the Papal kitchens at the Vatican.

Martino had the luck to find a wealthy fan of his work in the fifteenth century Italian humanist Bartolomeo Sacchi, who lauded Martino in text right around the time the printing press was becoming a standard feature in the cultural life of Europe. Praise for Martino found itself repeated far and wide. His work was translated from Italian into Latin, and reached new audiences across the European continent. And one could argue, immortalized in time.

The title of his work reads much like a resume. Below is a composite of some of the versions I found in Ballerini's book: 

Cookery Book
Composed and Compiled
By the Eminent Master Martino Di Rossi
from the Milanese Valley of Bregna, Diocese of the Descendant
from the Villa de Turre
Born to the Holy House of San Martino Vidualis
to the Illustrious Seigneur Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, et cetera
a Most Prudent Expert in this Art
As You Will Read Below.
Once Cook to the Most Reverend
Cardinal Trevisan,
Patriarch of Aquileia.

You can find an Italian translation of Martino's works here.

Mushrooms, p. 68
Recipe adapted by Stefania Barzini, p170.

Martino's Mushrooms. Photo: Leah Moncada.

6 large (porcini) mushrooms
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, pealed and minced
1 bunch Italian parsley, finely chopped
salt and fresh ground black pepper

Slice the tips of the mushrooms off, and slice in lengthwise halves or quaters. In a bowl, combine the rest of the ingredients. Rub the mixture into the mushrooms gently. Cook on a hot griddle or cast iron pan, turning once, about 5m per side. Serve hot.

Barzini reminds us to never scrub our mushrooms, and to wash them as gently as possible. In fact, she even recommends not washing them at all. After all, as the Italians say, quel che non strozza ingrassa. "If it doesn't make you choke, it can only be good for you." This can also translated as " can only fatten you." The dual translation shows evidence for a very different relationship with food than the North American culture of social pressures and media standards of beauty. This saying comes from the late 14th c, when any of the poor who were suffering from the plague (or the many other ailments) were sent to lazzaretti to live out their last days in dirty conditions, and sleeping on straw mats. They were fed "every concievable mixture". In these settings, society recognized that indeed, fattening up could only be good for you.

This recipe was absolutely delicious, and you all have to try it. Seriously, put these ingredients on your shopping list. RIGHT NOW. The rest of this post can wait.

Rashers, p. 58
Recipe adapted by Stefania Barzini, p178.
Carbonata, similar to straccetti

Rashers and Martino's Mushrooms. Photo: Leah Moncada.

2 lbs beef fillet, sliced paper thin
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic glove, peeled
2 or 3 fresh bay leaves
1 sprig rosemary
4 tbsp aromatic balsamic vinegar
juice of 1 lemon
juice of 1 orange
fresh ground black pepper
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp finely chopped Italian parsley

Cut each slice of beef into 3 or 4 pieces. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan large enough to fit all the meat. Add the garlic to the oil, and allow the garlic flavour to infuse with the slowly heating oil. Do not allow the garlic to brown, or the oil to boil. Add all the ingredients together in a bowl with the beef. Remove the garlic from the pan. Add the beef mixture to the pan, and sauté on high heat 6 or 7 minutes per side. Do not overcook. When the liquid has reduced a bit, season with salt and serve hot.

Rashers, almost done! Photo: Leah Moncada.

This dish of fried or grilled fatty meat is a distant ancestor of the italian carbonata. You can see this in the name, for it was cooked over "hot coals", or carboni in Italian. It is also similar to the straccetti of Central Italy, which is beef cooked in olive oil (straccetti meaning 'little rags').

There was a very heavy citrus flavour that I found unfamiliar with red meat. In fact, it quite dominated the dish. This might result from the fact that none of Martino's recipes include any ingredient quantities. Barzini, in making her adaptations, would have needed to experiment again and again to give us numbers, and her results would be based upon the strength and quality of her own ingredients. (This could be a not-so-subtle reminder that I need to replace my aging cinnamon!)

Cherry Pie, p. 84.
Adapted by Stefania Barzini, p. 186.

Girl with Cherries ca. 1491-95. Source.

For the crust:
2 1/2 cups flour
8 tbsp softened butter, plus extra to grease the tin
3/4 cup sugar
2 egg yolks
grated zest of 1 lemon

For the filling:
2/3 lb ricotta (500g)
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp fresh grated ginger
1 tbsp rosewater
2/3 lb sour cherries, pitted and chopped

Photo: Leah Moncada

Preheat the oven to 375F.

Make a short crust. Combine all ingredients in a bowl, working the dough vigourously. Cover and let sit in a cool place for 30m. If too dry, add small amounts of water until it can hold a loose ball. Split the dough in half. Roll out one half and use to line a greased 9 inch pie tin. Save the other half for a lattice top.

Drain the ricotta and pass it through a sieve. Combine it with the rest of the ingredients. Add the filling to the dough-lined tin. Level off. Roll remaining dough out and cut long rectangles. Weave the dough into a lattice top. Bake in preheated oven for 45 minutes. Let cool.

Ballerini says this Cherry Pie is a classic from the Jewish quarter's cuisine in Rome. This was before the establishment of the walled ghetto, in which the resulting isolation facilitated the creation of an even more divergent dialect and cuisine.

I was very curious over the instruction to include a lattice top, as I saw the original recipe includes *no* top (making it a tart, rather than a pie). A quick search revealed that the actuality of pie crusts has alluded historians, due to the customary vague writing style of recipes. (Note, they are vague to us, but would likely have been more than sufficient to contemporary cooks who would have supplemented the recipes with their own kitchen knowledge, as we do today with our own recipes.)

I found the mix of tart cherry, spicy cinnamon, and creamy cheese to be delightful! (Though upon offering slices to friends, only one proved brave enough to try one with me.)

I will return next term with another season of Historic Kitchen, this time much closer to home! I will be exploring the foodways of Canada throughout our rich history, including First Peoples, Wartime, and more!


  1. What a multi-layered story behind Martino of Como's life as a chef. I really enjoy how you bring in so much more information than just the recipes and the challenge of recreating them today. Your talent for contextualizing your articles is something else. And of course, everything this week looks divine and I can't wait to try to make that pie myself one day. Thank you for yet another great post I'm sure many people will enjoy reading!

    1. Thank you for your lovely comment Madeline! I can only hope that I did justice to that "Most Prudent Expert" and "Eminent Master" Martino. Though the attempt itself was dazzlingly fun, as always! I must also congratulate you on being the one brave soul who was willing to try that pie with me :)