Despite my flying thoughts, I couldn’t help smiling as my fingers sealed a crumble of fresh cheese and sweet olive oil and Genovese onions into a pastry crust. The cramped little kitchens were humming like a beehive, the apprentices were working like hired mules, and I imagined I could hear the murmur of guests upstairs: the whisper of expensive silks, the peal of laughter from a happy bride. The clink of fine glasses, the crunch as salted nuts and honeyed dates and morsels of Ligurian cheese disappeared into the mouths of cardinals and wedding guests and bridegroom alike. The oohs and aahs that went up as the roast peacock, my roast peacock, came swaying in at last on the backs of two serving men, proud and feathered and sweet-cooked and not at all looking like it had been whipped together in a quarter of the time it needed (at least if you didn’t look too close).
Kate Quinn, The Serpent and the Pearl (Chapter One – Carmelina)
Oh, to be an apprentice in Carmelina’s Renaissance kitchen! Just one of the rich characters that brings 15th Century Rome alive in Kate Quinn’s fourth novel, The Serpent and the Pearl, Carmelina is a cook on the run. Desperate, she seeks sanctuary in her cousin’s kitchen, only to find herself picking up the pieces of the wedding feast he abandoned in a gambling fit when the city’s cards and dice called.
Just as strong but underestimated women do everyday, Carmelina saves the day, and, in turn, saves herself. I won’t tell you anymore, except to say that The Serpent and the Pearl is a story rich with food, history and passion. I kept turning the pages, engrossed by Kate’s vivid descriptions, tantalizing aromas and characters so real I spoke back to them more than once.
One of the apprentices in Carmelina’s kitchen turns out to be Bartolomeo Scappi, famous real-life Renaissance chef and author of Opera dell’arte del cucinare, one of the most monumental cookbooks of all time. Here is his recipe for a fresh cheese and onion tourte:
Grind struccoli [cheese made that day] or fresh provatura; they should be so well ground up that they become like butter; add a little sweet olive oil to them. Get parboiled onions that have been well beaten with a knife, and mix the ground cheese and ground pepper with them. Get a baking sheet that is sprinkled with grated bread and has a sheet of dough on it made of fine flour, water, and oil. On that pastry put the filling to a height of half a finger and, with a spoon, go on to sprinkle a little olive oil over it. Distribute the mixture on top in big pinches. Cover it over with another sheed of dough; splash that with plain water and sprinkle some oil on it with a spoon. Bake in an oven and serve hot with sugar over top. Instead of oil, you can use butter.
I made a few changes to Bart’s recipe. Five hundred year old recipes, although no doubt delicious at the time, always need a little help to make the leap forward.
The first thing I changed was the pastry. The tourte sounded a lot like a stuffed-crust pizza to me, so I added a small amount of yeast to the dough to give a bit of softness to Scappi’s crust, that was, to be honest, very similar to cardboard.
For the filling, I made some fresh ricotta (easy and delicious — you’ll find a link to my method in the notes below this recipe) , and combined it with some store-bought bocconcini. Cipollini onions are in-season right now, and their sweetness works perfectly, along with the fresh oregano and lemon zest I added to perk up the flavour a bit.
In fact, feel free to go rogue with the fillings. This lovely tourte will become anything you want it to…get creative and inspired to make your own version of delicious!
My fellow food bloggers were as inspired as I by The Serpent and the Pearl! We’ve put together a delicious Virtual Potluck of several dishes from the book. Before you scroll down to my recipe, take a little tour of the other blogs and dishes up for view:
- Capon with Garlic, Coriander & White Wine, Baked Apples – Little White Apron
- Peach Crostata– Inn at the Crossroads
- Elderflower Frittelle & Sugared Biscotti – Taking on Magazines
- Asparagus Zuppa, Zabaglione – Heather Webb
- Boar with Dates, Prunes, Cherries and Rose – Lost Past Remembered
- Hot Sops with Cherries – Kate Quinn
GIVEAWAY: I have a copy of The Serpent and the Pearl to give away! The contest is open worldwide, to anyone who loves a good read. To enter, simply leave a comment below. For a second entry, go to the Island Vittles facebook page, like the page (if you haven’t already), then leave a comment on the Serpent & Pearl link near the top of the page.
Entries close on Sunday, September 22 at 6pm PST. I will announce the winner (chosen by random draw) on Monday, September 23. Good luck!
: An aromatic tart with a soft pizza-like double crust and filled with Ricotta & Bocconcini Cheeses and Cipollini Onions. The contemporary plating above is garnished with basil oil and balsamic reduction.
- All-Purpose Flour – 3 Cups (750 ml)
- Salt – 1 tsp (5 ml)
- Sugar – 1 tsp (5 ml)
- Instant Yeast – ¼ tsp (1 ml)
- Water, room temp – 1 Cup (250 ml)
- Olive Oil – 2 Tble (30 ml)
- Cipollini Onions – ½ lb (225 g)
- Ricotta Cheese – ¾ lb (350 g), about 1½ Cups (375 ml)
- Bocconcini Cheese – 2 fist-sized balls
- Fresh Oregano, chopped – 2 Tble (30 ml)
- Zest of 1 Lemon
- Salt – 1 tsp (5 ml)
- Fresh Ground Pepper – ½ tsp (3 ml)
- Olive Oil – 2 Tble (30 ml)
- Prepare the pastry: Combine the flour, sugar, yeast and salt in a bowl. Add the water and olive oil to the bowl and mix well with your hand until a rough ball forms. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured counter and knead until smooth, about 5 minutes. Cover with plastic wrap and/or a clean towel and set aside to rise in warm place (in the oven with the light on works) for 1 hour. The dough should be slightly puffy and soft.
- While the dough rises, trim the root ends off the onions. Bring a small pot of salted water to the boil, dd the onions. Boil 5 minutes. Drain. When cool enough to handle, grasp an onion by its uncut end and push the onion out of its papery skin. Repeat with remaining onions. (You may need to use a knife on some to remove the skins.) Chop the onions roughly.
- Add the ricotta and bocconcini to the bowl of a food processor, and process until the consistency of cream cheese. Add the oregano, lemon zest, salt and pepper and pulse 2 or 3 times to combine. Scrape into a small bowl and set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 450° F (230° C) and move the rack to the middle position.
- Divide the dough in half and roll one piece into a 12” round on a piece of lightly floured parchment. (If the dough is too elastic, allow it to rest 5 minutes, then roll again.) Spread the cheese in a thick layer on the dough, mounding it slightly in the middle and leaving a 1” (2.5 cm) border all the way around. Top with the chopped onions and drizzle with olive oil. Brush the border lightly with water.
- Roll the second piece of dough into a 12” round. Lay this crust over top the cheese, matching up and pressing the edges together. Brush the edge of the top crust very lightly with water, then crimp the edges together tightly, using this video as a guide.
- Brush the top with water, sprinkle with a bit of kosher or coarse salt and move the tart and parchment to a baking sheet. Bake until golden brown, about 20-25 minutes, turning the pan once.
- Allow to cool 10 minutes before slicing.
To Serve: Makes a lovely lunch or light dinner served warm with a small salad. I picked a mixed bag from my garden – baby arugula and kale, mint and french sorrel – and dressed them lightly with lemon juice, olive oil, salt & pepper. Garnish with parmesan.
- No instant yeast? Substitute ¼ tsp active dry yeast. Use warm water instead of room temp, and sprinkle the yeast over the water and allow it to bloom for 5 minutes before proceeding with the recipe.
- Homemade ricotta is MILES better than store-bought and very easy/quick to make. Use this recipe and 2 Quarts (Litres) of whole milk to make enough for this tart.
Preparation time: 1 hour(s)
Cooking time: 20 minute(s)
Number of servings (yield): 8