I have been fascinated by the Italian Renaissance for as long as I can remember. So much so that I feel I must have lived a previous life during the Renaissance. Though the Renaissance was not by any means all moonlight and roses, I love the food, art, philosophy, architecture, music, history, and ideas that came out of this period in history. I finally visited Italy for the first time last year and it was a dream come true–it was everything I thought it would be, AND more! Everywhere I turned, history came alive for me and I may as well have stepped back in time. I was moonstruck in Firenze, feeling giddy knowing I walked the same streets once traversed by the Medici Family, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci.
Because of my interest and lifelong interest in the Italian Renaissance and my love for culinary history, I decided to host an Italian Renaissance afternoon tea for the Victorian Tea Society.
As the hostess for this tea, I faced many challenges. The last-minute challenges I faced were timing and conversation, due to recent current events. Conversation and friendship are the most important components of a tea party and even our society guidelines gives suggestions for the hostess’ role in this regard quite clearly:
Art of Conversation/Sharing: Members to let hostess know in advance if they have something to share/discuss, keeping conversations on a pleasant and positive note. Any time a member or guest brings up an unpleasant topic (i.e., politics, religion, personal problems, negative issues, etc.), it will be up to the hostess to direct the conversation back to more pleasant topics.
Normally, this is not a problem with our group but hosting a tea fresh on the heels of the most derisive and divisive presidential election in our nation’s history, the topic of politics assuredly weighed heavily on everyone’s minds. How could I steer our conversation away from the events of the past week?
As soon as all my guests arrived, I announced that we would not discuss politics for the next 3 hours and concentrate only on “pleasant conversation”! Since the theme of the tea was the Italian Renaissance, I took the liberty to explain that one of the reasons I loved the Renaissance was the rise of humanist thought. Humanism started in Italy with thinkers like Petrarch, Machiavelli, Cosimo de Medici and then spread across Western Europe in the 14th-16th centuries. Renaissance humanists believed that by studying the classics and humanities, they could better understand people and the world. Secular and human interests became more prominent during this period, creating a new consciousness that promoted the virtues of intellectual freedom and individual expression which influenced everything from art, food, music, literature, law, and philosophy to politics. Humanism was important because it bridged the gap between medieval religious dogma/superstition and the modern scientific method and critical thinking (rationalism). As the hostess, I urged and invited my guests to embrace and embody the spirit of the Renaissance humanists, to learn from our history, and strive to become better human beings! And we would do this one Tea at a time! 🙂
Putting aside my last-minute challenges, my main challenge was to organize an afternoon tea around a theme that was not tea friendly or conducive to tea foods. I wanted to preserve the look, feel, and tastes of afternoon tea without compromising my theme. In the end, I got inspiration from the Renaissance master himself, Leonardo da Vinci, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
So the table would not look too empty, I made a simple centerpiece using candles with medieval designs (although they could pass for Renaissance) surrounded by rosemary branches, tangerines (during the Renaissance, these would have been bitter oranges), and pomegranates, ingredients heavily featured in Italian Renaissance cooking.
I served the food as a Renaissance feast so I didn’t use tea caddies for this tea party but I did enlist a co-hostess to help me serve the food (Thanks Lady S.!). This worked out well to help promote conversation across the table which is sometimes difficult with tea caddies in the way.
For the tea favors, I wrapped bottles of flavored olive oil and balsamic vinegar in paper that resembled Italian majolica, tin-glazed ceramics. The tin glaze created a white opaque surface that was ideal for painting and gave majolica its characteristic luster and bright colors. It was also non-porous making it ideal for storing liquids and for use as apothecary jars. Majolica was first developed in the 14th century with production peaking during the Renaissance and dwindling by the 18th century.
I had a lot of fun creating the menu and researching Renaissance food and cooking. I wanted to create a vegetarian menu that was as authentic as possible while upholding the idea of an afternoon tea.
I served 3 different teas, 2 hot teas and 1 iced tea. I bought the first 2 teas at the wonderful Oronero tea shop in Firenze. The first teas, Il Sogno di Michelangelo (The dream of Michelangelo), is an oolong tea with pinenuts, raisins, cornflower, sunflower petals, and safflower. The second tea, Palazzo Belfiore, was blended specially for a 15th century residence, now a guest apartment, with the same name. It’s a blend of two types of blacks teas (China and Ceylon), with notes of pomegranate, orange peel, safflower, and chocolate. The third and final tea was an iced tea, Persian melon white, from the St. James Tearoom. Though it’s not an Italian tea, I chose it to give a nod to Marco Polo and other merchants/traders/explorers of the Renaissance period who, I imagine, must have introduced exotic fruits like Casaba melon to Europe. The Palazzo Belfiore was, hands-down, everyone’s favorite tea of the day.
The first course was Ribollita, a famous Tuscan bread soup dating from the Middle Ages, when servants collected trenchers of uneaten bread for boiling in their own dinners. It is a hearty soup containing stale bread, cannellini beans, and vegetables. Tomatoes were not used in Renaissance cookery but this soup is so delicious that I wanted to share it. My friend S. originally turned me onto Ribollita at a previous New Year’s tea and it’s become a favorite in our winter rotation. Leave out the bacon for a vegetarian/vegan version.
Tramezzini are triangular-shaped Venetian tea sandwiches with fillings such as tuna, proscuitto/ham, asparagus, and hard-boiled eggs. Though they are not a Renaissance food, they utilize ingredients from the period and were invented as an alternative to English tea sandwiches. Usually eaten as a snack or for lunch, most tramezzini have some kind of meat in it but we made 2 vegetarian versions that pleased everyone: Paprika egg salad, arugula, and edamame (substituted for fava beans) and polenta crostini with mushrooms.
Meat, cheese, and egg pies or tarts were popular during the Renaissance. Spinach and herbs such as parsley, fennel, chervil, and ginger often appear in Renaissance recipes for egg pie. Lady B. served a delicious spinach and herb quiche (egg pie).
Panzanella salad is another recipe dating from the Middle Ages that makes use of stale bread. There are many recipes for Panzanella salad but leave out the tomatoes for authenticity. To learn about the origins of Panzanella salad, I refer you to Emiko Davies’ post on Bronzino’s Panzanella. Lady J. based her recipe on Davies’ suggestions.
Of all the dishes for the tea, the one that I was most excited about was the Spiced walnut linguine. It’s a pasta dish that can include any combination of popular spices from the Renaissance period such as cloves, nutmeg, saffron, cinnamon, allspice, coriander, and pepper and epitomizes the sweet-savory taste that is so characteristic of Renaissance cookery. Lady MH added some Parmesan cheese which contributed to the savory aspect of the dish. She also presented the pasta beautifully on mini ceramic plates which added to the Renaissance feel since Renaissance food was not very colorful, comprised mainly of neutral tones. I really enjoyed this dish and can’t wait to try making it myself!
I love savory scones and this tea was the perfect opportunity to incorporate it. Since I didn’t have much time to put this tea together, doing less was ideal. In this case, we didn’t have to make scone condiments to go with the scones. The idea for these scones were inspired by the cheese & sundried tomato scones I once enjoyed at Avoca cafe in Dublin, Ireland but I couldn’t find the recipe and came across Feta, olive, and sundried tomato scones instead which were just as delicious!
Biancomangiare, “white dish,” originated during the Middle Ages, perhaps with the Arab introduction of rice and almonds to Europe. Variations of the dish existed across early modern Europe (French blancmange, Turkish tavuk göğsü, Spanish manjar blanco, Danish hwit moos, etc.). I highly recommend checking out Emiko Davies’ beautiful blog post about The art of Renaissance comfort food, if you would like to learn more about the origins of biancomangiare. The biancomangiare I chose to serve at my tea is a vegan version based on various recipes for “Sicilian white pudding,” touted as the most traditional and famous white food in Italy.
(adapted from various recipes online)
4 c. unsweetened almond milk (store-bought or homemade)
6 Tbsp. cornstarch
1/4 c. sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp. rosewater or orange blossom water
Mix 1 /2 c. almond milk with 6 Tbsp. cornstarch to make a slurry and set aside. Put remaining 3 1/2 c. milk, sugar, cinnamon stick, and rosewater in a pot and heat to just under a boil. Add the cornstarch slurry and heat just until thickened (until mixture coats the back of a spoon). Pour the mixture into individual cups or one big pan. Chill at least one hour until firm like pudding. Garnish with chopped pistachios, pomegranate seeds, ground cinnamon, organic edible rose petals, mint leaves, unsweetened cocoa, etc.
Ricciarelli (almond cookies)
(Recipe from Fearless Fresh)
3 c. fine almond flour (NOT almond meal)
1 c. granulated sugar
1 1/2 c. powdered sugar, divided
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
2 egg whites
2 tsp. almond extract
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 Tbsp. lemon zest
Combine the almond flour, granulated sugar, 1 cup of the powdered sugar, the baking powder, and the salt in a bowl.
In a separate large bowl, beat the egg whites into soft peaks. Fold in the almond extract, vanilla extract, lemon zest, and almond-flour mixture. Stir until completely combined.
Use a tablespoon to scoop out a large ball of cookie dough. Roll the dough into a ball in your hands, then use the bottom of a glass to gently smash the cookie into a disk about ½-inch thick. Roll in the remaining powdered sugar and set on the parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough.
Let sit, uncovered, on the counter for about 45 minutes, or until the surfaces dry out just a touch. Preheat the oven to 250°F (121°C).
Place the cookies into the preheated oven and bake for 22 to 27 minutes, until they are golden brown around the edges.
Cool completely on a cooling rack, then store in an airtight container for up to a week.
And last but not least, a tea fashion show to illustrate how creative everyone was with their tea attire! Hair garlands, crocheted snood, hair bands, Renaissance style dress, and a dress with constellations, a tribute to Galileo.
Thank you ladies, for a wonderful and memorable afternoon! The food was delicious and I couldn’t have asked for better company. It was definitely one for the ages! 😉
Instead of ending my post with a quotation about tea, I’m going to end with some prudent words from my favorite Italian Renaissance masters, to remind us of our humanist duty to think for ourselves, continue to learn, and not blindly accept the dogma of the day.
“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”
“There are three classes of people: Those who see. Those who see when they are shown. Those who do not see.”
—Leonardo da Vinci
“You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself.”
“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.”
—Leonardo da Vinci