A (sort of) 17th Century Italian(ish) Salad
plus a recipe for Lemon-Caper Dressing
I’ve been thinking about 17th century Italian salads. Specifically a salad described by Giacomo Castelvetro in his 1614 book A Brief Account of the Fruit, Herbs & Vegetables of Italy:
“Of all the salads we eat in the spring, the mixed salad is the best and most wonderful of all. Take young leaves of mint, those of garden cress, basil, lemon balm, the tips of salad burnet, tarragon, the flowers and tenderest leaves of borage, the flowers of swine cress, the young shoots of fennel, leaves of rocket, of sorrel, rosemary flowers, some sweet violets, and the tenderest leaves or the hearts of lettuce. When these precious herbs have been picked clean and washed in several waters, and dried a little with a clean linen cloth, they are dressed as usual, with oil, salt, and vinegar.”
My first thought after reading this passage was: This could have been written this morning by Alice Waters.
My second was: I would like to make this salad.
I’ve had Castelvetro’s book out on the kitchen table for the last several weeks. It’s a detailed glossary of 17th century Italian fruits and vegetables, with descriptions, instructions, and observations by the author on how to cook and eat them. Although written in Italian, the book was intended for an English audience. It came to my attention when I interviewed food historian Karima Moyer-Nocchi. She had mentioned it during our conversation, and the recipe for herb-stuffed eggplant that she shared was based on Castelvetro’s suggestion for how to use what would have been, at that time, an unfamiliar vegetable.
It was only after my conversation with Karima that something clicked in my head and I glanced over at my bookshelves to see the spine of the very same book she had referenced peering out at me at eye level. I had completely forgotten that I had bought a copy at Omnivore Books, in San Francisco, years ago.
I don’t mean to say I own an actual 17th century edition of the The Fruit, Herbs, and Vegetables of Italy, whose full Italian title is the longer and more cumbersome Breve racconto di tutte le radici, di tutte l’herbe e di tutti i frutti, che crudi o cotti in Italian si mangaino (Brief account of all the roots, of all the herbs, and of all the fruits, which raw or cooked, are eaten in Italy). My copy is a 1989 translation by British food historian Gillian Riley, published in the U.K. by Viking with a foreword by Jane Grigson. It’s the first (and possibly only?) English translation of this charming book.
A Brief Account is divided into four chapters, according to season, and contains more than a hundred entries. The first, from the Spring chapter, is on hops:
“I start with hops, the first shoots to appear at this time of year. We never eat them raw, but serve them as a cooked salad…seasoned with salt, plenty of oil and a little vinegar or lemon juice and some crushed, not powdered pepper.”
The last, from the winter chapter, is on truffles:
“Truffles will keep for a whole year. This is how it is done: after roasting then in the ashes, peel your truffles and cut them into small pieces. Put them in a little pot of olive oil, so that the pieces are completely covered, and then close it tightly. Store the pot in a dry place. When you need some, take out as many as you want, and heat them in a pan with fresh oil, salt and pepper. Don’t forget to serve then with a squeeze of lemon or bitter orange juice—they need nothing else.”
In addition to Castelvetro’s charming insights and instructions, A Brief Account contains various sidebars, such as “How to get a large crop of good thick asparagus,” “The secret of how to preserve melons,” and “The right way to make a good salad” (more on that below).
The British edition also contains pages and pages of reproductions of beautiful botanical illustrations, paintings, and sketches from around the same period, plus a few examples handwritten text. There is a partial list of seeds, written in Castelvetro’s hand; and a list written by Michelangelo (with doodles in the margin) documenting his frugal meals, which included stewed fennel and a dish of spinach.
I can’t believe I let this book sit on my shelf for so long.
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Born in Modena to wealthy parents, Castelvetro spent much of his life exiled from Italy due to his opposition to the Roman Catholic Church, according to Riley’s introduction. He served for a time as Italian tutor to James VI of Scotland (later king of England) before returning to Italy and settling in Venice, where he edited manuscripts of Italian fiction and poetry. There, he was tracked down by the Roman Inquisition and imprisoned, but eventually released at the request of Sir Dudley Carlton, the English ambassador. He spent the last years of his life in England, where he taught Italian at Cambridge but struggled to find much-needed financial support from wealthy patrons. He died, apparently, in poverty.
In her introduction, Riley speculates that Castelvetro’s taste for “simple vegetable dishes, carefully prepared” may well have developed during his formative years, which were spent traveling with an uncle who had digestive issues. The purpose of his book seems to have been two-fold; it was a love letter to the food of the home country he missed; and it was a genuine attempt to get the people of England to eat more fruits and vegetables.
Here’s Castelvetro in his introduction to Spring:
“I often reflect upon the variety of good things to eat which have been introduced into this noble country of yours over the past fifty years. The vast influx of so many refugees from the evils and cruelties of the Roman Inquisition has led to the introduction of delights previously considered inedible, worthless or even poisonous. Yet I am amazed that so few of these delicious and health-giving plants are being grown to be eaten…This moves me to write down all I can remember of the names of the herbs, fruit and plants we eat in Italy, my civilized homeland, and to explain how to prepare them, either raw or cooked, for the table, so that the English no longer need be deprived through lack of information of the delights of growing and eating them.”
I could go on quoting Castelvetro and his insights about what we now refer to, so unromantically, as “produce.” So much of what he wrote remains relevant.
But let’s get back to the salad. I love salad; we have it most nights as a side to whatever else we’re having. And while I am a devoted reader ofI am, in my own personal salad journey, often guilty of thoughtlessness. Which is to say, I grab whatever head or bag of lettuce we have in the fridge--some forlorn leaf lettuce, a handful of arugula, half a head of radicchio--slosh it around in water, spin it dry, and toss it with oil, vinegar, and salt. Not that different, really, from what Castelvetro describes, but what's missing is the intention, the enthusiasm. Even now, 400 years after he wrote A Brief Account, I can hear the reverence in his words.
In a stroke of serendipity, I happened to (re)discover this book and Castelvetro’s salad musings just as my local farmers’ market re-opened for the season. Several of the vendors were selling bags of tender mixed greens, what the Italians call “misticanza.” I picked up a mix at the Twin Springs stand that included three types of baby mustard greens (mizuna, tatsoi, and red giant mustard), plus purple radish microgreens and arugula—not a typical 17th century Italian combination, but it was tender, with savory and spicy notes and I felt it captured the spirit of what I was aiming for.
To make the salad more like what Castelvetro described, I added mint from the garden, plus sorrel, sunflower sprouts, and a scattering of edible flowers—chive, dianthus, violet—that I bought from a new vendor at the market. I had no luck finding borage or salad burnet, an herb with a cucumber-like flavor. I also had no rosemary flowers, as my rosemary plant can’t decide whether it wants to live or not. So I clipped a couple of heads of flowers from a giant mound of sage that is doing its best to take over the entire herb garden, pulled off the small purple blossoms, and scattered them on top with the other flowers. If you have never tried sage flowers, by the way, you are in for a treat, for they are as tasty as the leaves of the herb, but more delicate. (I like to batter and fry the flowering stalks, the same way I fry sage leaves and zucchini blossoms.)
I dressed the salad as recommended by Castelvetro—in the book, he references a short proverb:
Insalata ben salata,
poco aceto e ben oliata
Salt the salad quite a lot,
then generous oil put in the pot,
and vinegar, but just a jot.
(translation by Gillian Riley)
Castelvetro did not give amounts, and I didn’t measure (I usually don’t). But I’d estimate that for four big handfuls of greens, I used about 4 tablespoons excellent but not too aggressive extra-virgin olive oil, a generous pinch of sea salt, and somewhere between 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons wine vinegar. (Many of you know that my favorite online sources for Italian olive oil and vinegar are Gustiamo and Olio2Go.)
Readers: What’s your favorite way to dress a simple insalata mista?
Castelvetro had more to say about salad in his sidebar “The right way to make a good salad.” Here are a few snippets:
“It takes more than good herbs to make a good salad, for success depends on how they are prepared…
So, you must first wash your hands, then put the leaves in a bowl of water, and stir them round and round, then lift them out carefully. Do this at least three or four times, until you can see that all the sand and rubbish has fallen to the bottom of the pot.
Next, you must dry the salad properly and season it correctly…So I insist the first you must shake your salad really well and then dry it thoroughly with a clean linen cloth so that the oil will adhere properly…*
Never do as the Germans** and other uncouth nations do—pile the badly washed leaves, neither shaken nor dried, up in a mound like a pyrmaid, then throw on a little salt, not much oil and far too much vinegar, without even stirring. And all this done to produce a decorative effect, where we Italians would much rather feast the palate than the eye.”
*I used a salad spinner, then patted the greens dry with a clean towl.
**Apologies to any German friends reading this!
Finally, before moving on from salad, Castelvetrano described a rather different salad, which he called “olla podrida.” The name is taken from the Spanish name for a rich stew of meat, chickpeas, and vegetables, though the salad is nothing like that:
“In Italy, we make another salad with the outlandish name of olla podrida because as well as the profusion of salad ingredients I have just described, we go on to add white endive, blanched chicory shoots, the cooked roots of these two vegetables, raisins, angelica, stoned olives, salted capers soaked in tepid water, some little Genoese capers, thin slices of salted ox tongue, small pieces of candied citron and lemon peel, spring onions if they are in season, radishes, horseradish, and the white shoots of alexanders.”
I haven’t made this salad (though if I did I might use bresaola as a stand in for salted ox tongue). I did, however, add radishes, radicchio, spring onion, and even a scattering of candied citron that I had made last winter, to a second version of my 17th century salad. I was suspicious about the citron, but it works, sort of like scattering sultanas or bits of dates on the salad, only better.
The mention of salted capers and candied citron and lemon peel put me in mind of a sweet-sour lemon caper dressing, so I whisked some up. It’s a nice alternative to oil, vinegar, and salt. Just be sure not to overdress those tender spring greens.
RECIPE: Lemon Caper Vinaigrette
Makes about 1 cup dressing
1 tablespoon non-pareil capers, drained
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar, or 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar plus 2-3 teaspoons honey
1 heaping teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon fine salt, plus more as needed
2/3 to 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon minced shallot
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Place 2 teaspoons of the capers, the lemon juice and zest, white balsamic vinegar (or white wine vinegar and honey), mustard and salt in a bowl or glass measuring cup. Or, if you have a stick blender, use the container that comes with it. If using a whisk, gradually whisk in the oil—as much as needed to emulsify the dressing and mellow the harshness of the lemon juice and vinegar. If using a stick blender, blend the ingredients together until emulsified.
2. Stir in the minced shallot, black pepper, and remaining teaspoon of capers (if the capers are not tiny, coarsely chop them before adding them to the dressing. If not using immediately, transfer the dressing to a jar, cap tightly, and refrigerate.
NOTE: A couple teaspoons of finely chopped tarragon would be a nice addition to this dressing.
On Tuesday, I’ll be sharing a pasta recipe with paid subscribers that would be perfectly at home with a 17th century simple mixed salad. It’s from‘s new book, Cucina Povera. I’ll also be giving away a copy of this beautiful book, which is filled with recipes for humble but delicious dishes from all over Italy.
As always, thank you for reading, subscribing, and sharing.