Cheese, Pears, and History in a Proverb (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History)
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"Do not let the peasant know how good cheese is with pears" goes the extremely well known yet hard to decipher saying. Intrigued by this proverb, which has endured since the Middle Ages, Massimo Montanari launches an adventurous history of its origins and utility.
Perusing archival cookbooks, agricultural and dietary treatises, literary works, and anthologies of beloved proverbs, Montanari finds in the nobility's demanding palettes and delicate stomachs a deep love of cheese with pears from medieval times onward. At first, cheese and its visceral, earthy pleasures was treated as the food of Polyphemus, the uncivilized man-beast. The pear, on the other hand, became the symbol of ephemeral, luxuriant pleasure& mdash;the indulgence of the social elite. Joined together, cheese and pears embodied an exclusive savoir faire, especially as the notion of taste as a natural phenomenon evolved into a cultural attitude. Montanari's delectable history straddles the line between written and oral tradition, between economic and social relations, and it thrills in the vivid power of mental representation. He ultimately discovers that the ambiguous proverb, so wrapped up in history, is not a repository of shared wisdom but a rich locus of social conflict.
epigraph in the classical style. In 1564, one hundred pears (exactly like the gift of Rurizio—the number has an obvious paradigmatic value signifying plenty) are assembled by the “illustrious prince-bishop of Trento, Cristoforo Madruzzo,” to be sent to the imperial palace in Vienna. During these same decades, the Gonzaga dukes of Mantua gain much appreciation for their custom of sending boxes of precious fruit to their aristocratic friends. Particular prestige is attached to the “precoce di
moscatella pear, stresses its delicate flavor but observes, “all the same, many reject it because doctors condemn it” for the reason that no sooner picked than it rots. Once again we have the theme of perishability, the ephemeral nature of pears. The point is that this very factor, although it aroused diffidence in doctors, was one of the reasons for the social prestige of pears. Questions of taste and fashion conflicted with those of health. Eating pears meant taking risks. To avert them
challenge to his master: often and almost every night he crept into the orchard to steal the fruit. The theft is not described as a sudden act of daring but a deliberate provocation of the knight by the peasant, almost as though to demand a withheld right. Even if we should avoid overloading the story with too much meaning, we cannot disregard the impression that this represents, and at the same time exorcises, an early form of the class struggle in which the peasant is not only a victim but also
authorities of Tours presented bréhémont to counselors of the queen of Sicily (p. 321); the consuls of Saint-Flour offered “gleo” cheese from Alvernia as a Christmas gift to their bishop (p. 326). For the quotations from fifteenth-century cookbooks, see C. Messisbugo, Libro nuovo nel qual s’insegna a far d’ogni sorte di vivanda (Venice: Eredi Giovanni Padovano, 1557), c. 5 (first edition, under the title Banchetti composizioni de vivande, Ferrara, 1549); B. Scappi, Opera, (Venice: Tramezzino,
Le sottilissime astuzie di Bertoldo, p. 43. For the diffusion of the proverb on the division of pears in Spain and France, see Thesaurus proverbiorum Medii Aevi. Lexicon der Sprichwörter des romanisch-germanischen Mittelalters, ed. S. Singer (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1998), 6, 7, 2, 3, 2, 2, p. 53. For the versions quoted in the text, see J. Morawski, Proverbes français antérieurs au XVe siècle (Paris: Champion, 1925), 2058: “Qui o seignor part poires il n’a pas des plus belles” (whoever