FRESH SUMMER FRUIT PIES OF THE LIBRO NOVO
By Heather Mosey
Fresh fruit pie is a pleasure of summer, and that pleasure was known in the Italian city-state of Ferrara during the Renaissance. Christoforo Mesissbugo, steward of the Este family during the early sixteenth century, and author of the Libro Novo, gave us a pie recipe that is distinctly of the Italian Renaissance, yet the classic simplicity of this pastry would make it welcome on a twenty-first century table. This pie possesses a delectable, melting soft flour crust that will convince you that the Italians were masters of the art of pastry. The fruit filling is rich and spicy, but retains the fresh, fleeting, flavor of summer fruit.
Two recipes are used to create the fruit pie. The second recipe refers to the Pie of Quince asking the cook to make that crust. The addition of cloves and rosewater to the quinces is the most distinctive difference between the recipes, but they are not used in this redaction. I suspect that those ingredients would be delicious with a variety of fruits.
A fare un pastello di Cordogne, che uvole essere tondo.
Prima farai la Cassa del pastello no trappo grande con farina, e Butiro, & un poco Zaffrano, poi pigliarai un Cordogno grosso, e lo mondarai cosi intiero, e li farai un buco nel mezzo tanto che caui l’anime co tutto quell toso doue stan l’anime dentro, e qualle che Giordano intiero, poi li farai il sue coperto, e lo pourrai a cuere con dispora, e se li Cordogne seranno piglia, li farai I quarto de pezzi.& per uno pastellonon gli uorra meno Butiro d’oncie noue e Garosani numero dieci , & Zuccaro libra meza, & acqua Rosata.
To Make One Round Quince Pie
First you will make the shell of the pie not too large, with flour and butter and a small amount of saffron. Then you will take one large quince and you will peel this whole, and you will make one whole in the middle so you may remove the seeds and the entire core containing them.
And you will put them in the pie with butter and sugar and some whole cloves, then you will make your cover, and you cook it with careful attention, and if the quinces are small, you will cut them in quarters, and for one pie it wants not less than nine ounces of butter and ten cloves, and one half pound of sugar, and rose water.
The vital information Messisbugo gives in the Quince Pie recipe is the ingredients for the case or Pastello. Florio defines “pastelli” or “pastegli” as “fine little pasties, or pastemeates, tartes, pyes, chewets or marchepanes”. On the other hand, a “torta” is “any kind of tarte”. So a pastello is logically a sweet, dainty torta. The gastronomic glory of this pastello is that it does not require the toughening agents of sugar and eggs. Many tortas in the Libro Novo require egg-strengthened cases that essentially become stew pots for the filling. Tough cases are not limited to the Libro Novo, Redon, Sabban and Serventi wrote The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy. They guess that the pastry case had two functions, concealing surprise ingredients and protecting the delicate interior from burning in an open fire, and thus are not necessarily meant to be eaten. Often the case was merely a paste of flour and water (pg.133-4). These less edible cases appear to be the rule in the French, English and German cookery. The pastry for the Quince pie points to what Elizabeth David calls “the advanced state of civilized life in Italy as compared to that of France in the first half of the sixteenth century” (pg.8). Messisbugo asks for flour, butter, and saffron. This crust buttery, flaky and golden is very pleasing to the senses, it is meant to be enjoyed.
“First you will make the shell of the pie not too large” This is meant to be a dainty dish, not a display piece. There are examples of tortere, or tart pans, shown in Messisbugo’s Banchetti. There are no dimensions given, but the tortere look very similar to modern pie pans, with straight or sloped sides. This redaction uses a 9-inch pie pan as an approximation. Messisbugo tells us that we are to use the crust of the Quince Pie (see above) so that it is “wider on the bottom and that is to be pressed on top” This sounds like a covered, or two crust pie.
The recipe calls for “flour and butter and a small amount of saffron.” Before deciding on a quantity or method for making this pie case it was important to look at the ingredients themselves. My initial reaction is to use a soft wheat pastry flour simply because it has a low protein and will result in a flaky crust. That is a modern impulse based on modern experience in baking. A more complex question is what type of flour is proper for the region and time?
The flour of Italy is the species Triticum aestivum, which is divided into two categories, soft wheat and hard wheat (grano tenero). Kasper notes that the wheat grown in the Po river valley is soft because of the heat and soil type. There are five grades of grano tenero, and they are classified by the amount of husk and whole grain that remain after sifting. The appearance and the whole grain content determine the grade of the flour. “00” is the most refined Italian flour, and “0” contains about 70% of the grain, and therefore is slightly darker and coarser. American flour is measured by it’s protein content, or strength. American bread flour has 13-15% protein, all-purpose flour has a protein of 11 or 12 percent, and pastry flour is 4-9% protein. American all-purpose flour is a bit stronger than Italian “0” flour. The Italian practice of grading flour by appearance is helpful when deciding the type flour to use in Renaissance recipes. Carol Field and Lynne Rosetto Kasper recommend mixing one part cake flour to four parts all-purpose to approximate modern “0” flour and one part cake flour to three parts all-purpose to mimic “00” flour. I used these proportions in my work because Messisbugo often specifies the finest, whitest flour for his most delicate recipes.
Butter is another question, and again, we turn to Ms. Kasper. (pg. 473) Butter was a symbol of wealth in Emilia-Romagna (Ferrara is located in this region), and it was used to make game, pasta filling and vegetable more rich. She recommends Grade AA unsalted butter, with the least water content available, to mimic European butter. Emilia-Romagna is traditionally a rich dairy region, and its butter is heavily used in Libro Novo recipes.
Messisburgo did not give any further clues about the technique of combining the ingredients for the pastry crust. The ingredients of Pasta Briciolata and Pate Brisèe are similar to each other and to this pastry recipe that Messisburgo gives (with the exception of saffron). In the past, I used Julia Child’s pate brisèe (pg.139), which makes a delicious, melting crust. The classic method of assembly simply cuts the butter into the flour and adds cold water. It is essential to keep all the ingredients very cold and use a light touch. Later, I decided to use the traditional Italian pasta briciolata (Bugialli, pg. 468-71), which requires much more handling and room temperature ingredients, but similar proportions of butter and flour. I have no evidence to support one method over the other, but it is possible the traditional Italian technique may have origins in Renaissance Italy, rather than French pastry making. The French did play with the recipes and techniques they learned from the Italians, and added their own touches. I chose to put saffron in the mixture by mincing it with a knife and adding it to the flour. The saffron creates beautiful rich golden flecks in the dough when added in this manner.
Pastelli di Marene, persiche, o Brogne, o Muniache, pera, o pome.
Farai la cassa di pastello del modo che fu quella del pastello di cordogne, che sia larghetta nel fondo, e che si venal stringed di spore, poi per un Pastello, pigliarai libra una di Marene a buono peso, monde da i picolli, e nel fondo della Cassa del Pastello, le distenderai politamente, poi li metterai oncie cinque di Zuccaro, & oncia meza di bouna canella fina, & onci cinque butiro fresco, & poi li farai il sou coperto tagliato di sopra in tre luoghi, poi lo cuocerai destramente, E’l simile farai in quelli delle alter frutte. Ma avuertissi che le alter frutte una pelate, e le pelerai faccilmete in questa maniera, Sbolienzandole in Vino, od acqua, & poi che seranno raffredate pelandole, & alle pere moscardine li lasciarai mezi i picolli.
Pies of Cherries, or Peaches, or Plums, or Apricots, or Pears or Apples
You will make the case of the pie in the way of the quince pie; make the bottom half wider, so you may press on a top.
Then for one pie you will take one pound of cherries and crush, clean from the seeds, and spread them neatly in the bottom of the pie case. Then you will place five ounces of sugar, and half an ounce of good finely ground cinnamon, and five ounces of butter, and then you will make your cover and cut it in three places, then you will cook it carefully.
And if you will use other fruits you will make those pies in a similar fashion. But note that you will peel the other fruits, and you will peel those fruits most easily in this manner, soak them in wine or water, and then when they are plump, peel them. And Italian pears (or musk pears) cut them to make them small.
“Then for one pie you will take 1 libra (12 oz.) of cherries and crush and clean from the seeds and in the bottom of the case you will spread neatly”. The question of preparation is very clear here, but the type of fruit is a mystery. Carol Field mentions “marasche” which are wild sour cherries from Bologna [in the same region as Ferrara] (pg.391). Florio defines “marascha” as a kind of soure cherrie” and “marene” as a “kind of faire great cherrie”. It appears that the “marene” of the recipe may be a sweet cherry. I tested this with Bing cherries, and the result was pleasing. I think it is a fair assumption to say that a sour cherry would be an excellent choice as well, because the amount of sugar and butter can use an acidic foil.
Cherries are just one choice of fruit. I have used apples, pears, and plums for this pie, all with great success. Plum makes an especially rich colorful pie. Italian expatriate, Giacomo Castelvetro wrote a treatise called The Fruit, Herbs & Vegetables of Italy in 1614. He describes the flavors and uses of common produce used in his native country. This work gives invaluable information (and makes it quite clear to me that Red Delicious is not a great substitute for period apples). Despite the fact that the majority of markets do not carry heirloom European produce (are there any that do???), choosing any full-flavored fruit is an excellent and appropriate choice for this pie.
Directions for preparing the fruit are given. Messisbugo recommends soaking the fruit in water or wine to make them plump, and then peeling them. I had two interpretations of this direction. My first thought was to blanch fresh fruit to loosen the skin and ease the peeling. However, after the harvest season the cook would need to use dried fruits, soaking them in water or wine would rehydrate the fruit and allow the cook to peel them, and the wine would add another layer of flavor to the pie. I usually blanch the fruit for this pie, and I suspect that dried fruit would make and intense filling.
“Then you will place five ounces of sugar, and half an ounce of fine-ground cinnamon, and five ounces of butter” During the period this recipe was written, sugar was a major commodity in Venice, just north of Ferrara. The Venetians had devised a method to make sugar loaf. This processing of sugar refined it further, and made it more accessible to wealthier families. I use white granulated sugar in this recipe because sugar loaves are not readily available today. The cinnamon used in this recipe was Ceylon Cinnamon. It is softer and sweeter in flavor. The amount of cinnamon in this recipe, half an ounce, would be unpalatable if it is cassia, the modern cinnamon we use in the U.S. Ceylon cinnamon has a tremendously different flavor, and you should not be afraid to use it in this extravagant amount. The problem I have with Ceylon cinnamon is that grinding it with a mortar inevitably leaves larger pieces. Some people enjoy the concentrated flavor, while others find the texture gritty or woody. I recommend sifting the ground Ceylon cinnamon, though because of the quantity of the spice the texture will be noticeable.
A worldwide standard of measurement did not come into use until the twentieth century. Elizabeth David says that when she did her research in Italy in the 1950’s cooks used handfuls and bunches, scales and measuring cups were rarely used. During the Renaissance measurement was tremendously unique to an area. Because the Roman Empire had such far-reaching influence, it is appropriate for the modern redactor to use Roman measures. However, Ronald Edward Zupko researched historical weights and measures of Italy, and he provides invaluable knowledge. When I redacted these recipes, I used Zupko’s research to measure the Libro Novo libra and oncia. He translates 1 libra as 12 ounces or 345 grams. An oncia is 28.8 grams.
Pasta Briciolata (Pastry Crust) (all measurements are modern)
2 ounces pastry flour
6 ounces all-purpose flour
4 ounces sweet butter
Pinch of salt
Pinch of saffron, minced
4 to 5 tablespoons cold water
1. Sift the flour onto a board and arrange it in a mound. Cut the butter into pieces and place them over the mound. Let rest ½ hour until the butter softens.
2. Start mixing the flour into the butter with your fingers.
3. Rub the flour and butter between your palms.
4. Then make a well and put in the salt and saffron. Add 2 tablespoons of water, mix with a fork, and keep adding the water until it is all absorbed.
5. Begin to form a ball with your hands. Knead gently until a very smooth and elastic ball of dough is formed (about 2 minutes). Divide the dough into two parts, one slightly larger than the other. Slightly dampen a towel and wrap the dough in it. Let it rest in a cool place or in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour.
6. Dust the board with flour. Unwrap the dough and knead it for 1 minute on the board. Flour the board, then using the rolling pin, roll out the larger dough ball into a layer less than ¼ inch thick and about 14 inches in diameter. Place gently in a buttered 9-inch pie pan.
7. Fill the crust and roll out the smaller ball of dough to ¼ inch thickness and 12 inches diameter. Set aside to cover the pie.
1 libra, 345 g or app 2 cups of cherries, pitted or peaches or apricots, or pears, or plums or apples, blanched, cored and cut in ½” slices.
5 oz., 144 g, or 3/4 cup of white granulated sugar
5 oz., 144 g, or 1 ½ sticks unsalted sweet cream butter
1/2 oz, 14.4 g, or 4 TBS. Ceylon cinnamon (or 1 to 2 tsp. cassia)
1. Preheat the oven to 375˚F.
2. Pit the cherries by crushing them with the bottom of a sturdy glass, or using a paring knife to open the fruit, and remove the pit. Place the cherries evenly in the prepared pie-crust.
Bring 3 quarts of cold water to a boil in a large pot. Lightly score an ”X” into the skin of the fruit. When it boils carefully drop the fruit into the water. Have a large bowl half filled with ice water. After 1-2 minutes remove the fruit and place in the ice water. Peel the skin away with a knife.
3. Sprinkle the sugar and cinnamon over the fruit. Cut the butter into pats and place evenly over the fruit and sugar.
4. Using the reserved pie dough, rolled thin, cover the pie, trim and flute the edges. Make three vents in the top crust with a sharp knife.
5. Place the pie dish into a moderately hot oven, 375°F for 40-50 minutes until the top is golden brown in color.
This is the first period pastry recipe I’ve worked with that is undeniably meant to be eaten and enjoyed. It is not intended to simply be a protective container for the filling. The pastello ingredients are the same as those used in modern pastry crusts. This pie could be a link between modern and medieval tarts. It also indicates the Italian recipes may have been uniquely sophisticated in during the early 16th century. Regardless of this pastry’s significance, it is a delectable recipe, and would be a spectacular part of a Renaissance feast.
Translating from Renaissance Italian to Modern English USA creates many questions, and the answers come slowly. The pleasure of recreating a 400+ year-old recipe is intensified when I realize the steps taken to make it as close to period as possible. Master Basilius Phocas translated these recipes, and redacted them with help from apprentices, Claire a l’en Or and Rachaol MakCreith.
Di Messisbugo, Christoforo Libro Novo: Venice: 1557, Reprinted Bologna: Arnoldo Forni, 1973.
Redon, Odile; Sabban, Francoise; and Serventi, Silvano; The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy: Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Scappi, Bartolomeo Opera: Venice: 1610 Edition, Reprinted Bologna: Arnoldo Forni, 1980.
Thomas, William; Principal Rules of the Italian Grammer: 1550, reprinted Menston, England: R.C.Alton, 1968.
Near Period Sources
Castelvetro, Giacomo; The Fruit, Herbs and Vegetables of Italy: London, 1614.
Florio, John; Queen Anna’s New World of Words: 1610, Reprinted Menston, England: R.C. Alston, 1968.
Bugialli, Giuliano; Classic Techniques of Italian Cooking: New York, Simon and Schuster, 1989.
David, Elizabeth; Italian Food: New York, Smithmark, 1996.
Field, Carol; The Italian Baker: New York, HarperCollins, 1985.
Fitzgibbon, Theodora; The Food of the Western World: New York, Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co., 1976.
Kasper, Lynne Rosetto; The Splendid Table: New York, Morrow, 1992.
Root, Waverly; Food: New York, Smithmark, 1980.
Zupko, Ronald Edward; Italian Weights and Measures From the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century: US ISSN 0065-9738.