Still Life with Pears, an Almond, and a Bee, by Giovanna Garzoni.
Recipe: Escarole Salad with Pears, Rosemary Almonds, and Pepato
The fruit still-life paintings of Giovanna Garzoni are riveting. Ever since I first discovered them about twenty five years ago in Elizabeth David’s book Italian Cooking (no longer available in the original hardcover with the illustrations, unless you search in a used-books resource like abebooks), I haven’t been able to keep my eyes off them for very long. When I lose my determination, I stare at one of them until I become so focused I get a little paranoid. When I’m hungover, they bring me hope. If I’m in a frivolous mood, they force me to dig deeper and just be quiet.
A lady painter in the mid 1600s must have had some particular hurdles to overcome, but this girl from Ascoli, in Le Marche, seems to have been a tireless worker despite any obstacles her sex may have caused her. She produced a lot in her seventy years, and she was rewarded with royal patrons, including Renaissance dukes, duchesses, and princes, among them many Medicis. She won them over with her meticulous, gorgeous tempera-on-vellum miniatures (minatures meaning not tiny paintings but rather paintings done in minute detail). She painted portraits, she painted flowers, but it’s the fruit work that draws me in, with its withered leaves, wormholes, and strategically placed voles and flies. These realistic, slightly spooky interpretations were a fashion at the time, but Garzoni’s were more so than most, more detailed and hence more surreal. This was decorative design at its scientific and artistic best.
I’ve created this salad in tribute to Ms. Garzoni, being inspired specifically by her Still Life with Pears and Almonds (the name it usually goes by, not acknowledging the bee in the title, as I did in my caption above). It seemed the thing to make while waiting for the first spring fruit to arrive (wait till you see Garzoni’s cherries).
A portrait of Giovanna Garzoni, painted the year she died, by Giuseppe Ghezzi. She seems to be holding a sketch for one of her royal portraits.
If you’d like to experience some of Garzoni’s fruit still lifes, check out either of two cookbooks. I already mentioned Italian Food, by Elizabeth David, originally published in England in 1954 and now hard to find in hardcover, with the illustrations. This was a groundbreaking book in its day, one that really woke up the clunky British palate. Its beautiful illustrations include many of Garzoni’s best fruit paintings. Florentines: A Tuscan Feast, by Lorenza De Medici, put out in 1992 and also now out of print, is another good place to go. This little book is filled with fruit-inspired Tuscan recipes and contains paintings exclusively by Garzoni.
Escarole Salad with Pears, Rosemary Almonds, and Pepato
For the almonds:
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
¾ cup blanched whole almonds
Freshly ground black pepper
A generous pinch of sugar
2 small sprigs rosemary, the leaves finely chopped
For the rest of the salad:
1 large head escarole, torn into small pieces
2 red d’Anjou pears, cut into slices
½ small red onion, very thinly sliced
¼ pound pepato cheese, shaved or cut into thin, wide slices
1½ tablespoons Spanish sherry vinegar
½ teaspoon light soy sauce
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
To make the rosemary almonds, heat the olive oil in a small skillet over medium-low heat. Add the almonds, and sauté, stirring them around frequently, until they just start to turn very lightly golden, about 2 minutes. Season with black pepper, salt, the sugar, and the rosemary, and continue sautéing until the almonds are golden and very fragrant, about another minute or so. Turn them out onto a large plate or a work space, separating them a little so they don’t stick together, and let them cool for a minute.
In a large salad bowl, combine the escarole, pear slices, red onion, pepato, and almonds.
In a small bowl, whisk together the Spanish sherry vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, and olive oil. Season with a pinch of salt (remember that soy sauce is salty) and black pepper. Pour the dressing over the salad, and give it a good toss. Some of the peppercorns from the pepato will inevitably fall from the cheese into the salad. I love when you bite into a whole black peppercorn (and these have been softened by the cheese-curing process, so they’re tempered). The pepper goes so well with the sweetness of the pears.
Serve right away.