Giacomo Castelvetro's, The Fruit, Herbs, and Vegetables of Italy

By | Thursday, October 08, 2020 Leave a Comment

Isolation from the COVID-19 pandemic has lead me to read a number of books I hadn't previously made time for. Recently, Giacomo Castelvetro's, The Fruit, Herbs, and Vegetables of Italy (originally published in 1614, translated by Gillian Riley in 1989, with a forward by Jane Grigson) came to the top of the stack.

What a fun book. Castelvetro was an upper-class Italian who traveled throughout Europe, then, after returning home, had to leave again to escape the inquisition. He ended up in England as something of a courtier.

There he wrote this book to explain to English nobility that they ate too much meat and were missing out on the joys of fruits and vegetables.

The book is part naturalist, horticulturalist, gastronomic, and nostalgic. Arranged by season, he describes the fruits, vegetables, and herbs that were grown and eaten in various parts of Italy (especially those near his home province.) No item is described comprehensively. For some he describes the taste and how much people enjoy it - often with supposed medicinal values. Other entries provide instruction on growing the ingredient. Many provide preparation techniques (not precisely recipes). Some items contain comparisons of different varieties. For many items, the message is pure homesickness, lamenting that the beloved item is not available to him in England.

It really is a delightful journey. It reads as though Castelvetro showed up in a presentation hall somewhere with a carousel of slides and just started talking. One really hears his voice as he brings up a new image and tells us about it. You can imagine him conversing with his patron, Lucy, Countess of Bedford, describing chestnuts, "Next we have sweet chestnuts, which are so beneficial to mankind, but which you do not have here... we roast [them] in a perforated dish over the fire and leave them for a while under hot ashes... when roses are in bloom our ladies take quantities of these dried chestnuts and mix them with rose petals in coffers and baskets, where the chestnuts soon become soft and very fragrant." (pg. 126) Then click, the slide carousel advances, and we move on to sorb-apples.

This book is not for everyone. But, if you like this type of history, it is a beautiful example, very readable and genuine.

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