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Shakespeare & Beyond

Renaissance cooking: Food historian Francine Segan and a recipe for 'pears' in broth (they're not really pears)

Francine SeganFrancine Segan is a food historian with a taste for the Renaissance. She’s the author of six cookbooks, including Shakespeare’s Kitchen (2003) and the Opera Lover’s Cookbook, which was nominated for a James Beard award.

This year she’s been spending a lot of time in Italy researching 16th- and 17th-century Italian recipes. We caught up with Francine to ask her about Italian cuisine, adapting Renaissance recipes for modern cooks, and her love of Shakespeare.

Scroll down to see Francine’s delightful recipe for “pears” in broth (actually pear-shaped meatballs with a surprising fruit tucked inside.)

What’s been one of your most unexpected discoveries about Italian cuisine from the 16th and 17th century? And how does it compare with English food from that time period?

I made one of the most unexpected discoveries in Ferrara, a UNESCO World Heritage city, in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. Ferrara is host to the world’s oldest continuous Renaissance Festival, dating back to 1259, an annual tradition with donkey and horse races through the historic center of the town. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to get a true taste of the Renaissance there when I tasted “pasticcio alla ferrarese,” a savory-sweet macaroni pie, made according to a centuries-old recipe at Cusina e Butega. First created in the 1500s during the rule of Duke Ercole II d’Este who was married to Renata, daughter to the King Louis XII of France, it was served during many court events then, and now is still a town favorite, especially during Carnivale. The pie’s dough, which is slightly sweet with hints of sugar and lemon zest, is filled with a rich meat sauce combined with creamy béchamel accented with aromatic nutmeg, truffles, or porcini mushrooms. The combination of flavors is perfectly calibrated and really underscores the fact that the Renaissance was not only a high point in art and literature, but cuisine as well.

Italian cities are home to several Shakespeare plays, among them Romeo and Juliet. What kind of dishes might the star-crossed lovers have eaten at the merry feast in Verona where they met?

Romeo and Juliet would have eaten many of the classic dishes still popular in Verona, including “bolito misto”—mixed boiled meats—served then as today with “peará,” a bone marrow and breadcrumb sauce with lots of black pepper. Another dish they would have enjoyed is “pastisada”—a braised horse-meat recipe that dates to the 5th century AD. (Yes, horse meat is still popular in Verona and other parts of Italy today!)

In 2003, you published a cookbook called Shakespeare’s Kitchen with recipes from the Renaissance period, updated for the modern stove top and oven. What were some of the challenges you faced in adapting and modernizing these recipes?

It’s impossible to turn back the clock and prepare dishes precisely as they were in Shakespeare’s time because spices, meat, fish, and vegetables have altered over the years with improved cultivation. However, incredible flavors permeate Elizabethan cooking and while some of the ingredients need a bit of effort to track down, it is worth the effort. Some of my favorite ingredient discoveries while working on Shakespeare’s Kitchen are verjus—vinegar of the moment made from unripe grapes—and long pepper—similar to black pepper but with lovely complexity, with hints of cardamom, nutmeg, and cinnamon.

Cooking techniques have also changed considerably since Shakespeare’s time. We no longer boil in cauldrons suspended from cranes over a hearth or bake in iron boxes and brick ovens. However, it is possible to achieve a fairly close approximation of the foods eaten 400 years ago by taking Shakespeare’s advice to “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts” (King Henry V).

Do you have a favorite Shakespeare quote about food?

I love so many of the quotes about food in Shakespeare’s plays that it’s impossible to pick just one. Some of my favorites are:

“Now we sit to chat as well as eat.” (The Taming of the Shrew)

“I drink to the general joy o’ the whole table.” (Macbeth)

“This night he makes a supper, and a great one.” (King Henry VIII)

“This night I hold an old accustom’d feast, / Whereto I have invited many a guest.  Such as I love.” (Romeo and Juliet)

“The daintiest last, to make the end most sweet.” (King Richard II)

“So are you to my thoughts as food to life.” (Sonnet 75)

“If music be the food of love, play on / Give me excess of it.” (Twelfth Night)

“If sack and sugar be a fault, / God help the wicked!” (King Henry IV, Part I)


‘Pears’ in Broth

from Shakespeare’s Kitchen by Francine Segan

Serves 6

Renaissance chefs enjoyed delighting guests with amusing culinary tricks. They would sculpt all sorts of shapes using meat, marzipan, and dough, and even go so far as to hide live birds in a pie so that when the pie was cut into the birds would fly out.  The rhyme “four and twenty blackbirds” was true!

Here meatballs are shaped like tiny pears. There is also an added surprise inside—each meatball is filled with a grape, which adds a great fresh taste and nice crunch.  Add some ready-made canned stock and you have a simply delicious, simple Renaissance feast!

8 ounces ground veal or pork

1/4 cup dried breadcrumbs

1 large egg

1 tablespoon finely chopped thyme

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

1/2 teaspoon salt

12 small green seedless grapes

12 sage or parley leaves, with stems

1 1/2 quarts chicken stock, warm

1. Combine the veal, breadcrumbs, egg, thyme, parsley, and salt in a bowl. Divide the mixture into 12 equal portions. Wrap each portion of meat around a grape and form a pear shape.

2. Preheat the broiler. Place the pears upright on a well-greased pan, and broil 4 to 5 inches from the flame for 4 minutes, or until done. Using a toothpick, gently embed a sage leaf into the top of each pear.

3. Place 2 “pears” in each serving bowl and gently top with the warm stock. Serve.