Food in fairy-tales: imagination and historic recipes

2017-04-03 Once upon a time there was the witch’s apple in Snow White. And the pea under the princess’s mattress. Vasilisa the Beautiful’s cabbage soup, Rapunzel’s salad and Pinocchio’s tripe.
High school Latin and Greek teacher, freelance journalist and “sirenologist” Elissa Piccinini has just written a book with her friend and colleague Camillo Bacchini, a literature teacher, called “Ricette da fiaba”: fairy-tale recipes. Published by Elliot Edizioni and beautifully illustrated by Francesca Rossetti, the volume is inspired by the best-known Italian and international fairy-tales and is part essay and part recipe book.
When did you first get the idea for the book, Elissa?
A couple of years ago, at a dinner party I hosted. As Camillo and I share the same interest in fairy-tales, I suggested the idea, and he agreed right away. We started out with Giorgio Cusatelli’s essay “Ucci, ucci. Piccolo manuale di gastronomia fiabesca”, which is all about the symbolic value of food in fairy-tales, and went in an original direction of our own.”
Your book reads like a menu.
We start with bread in fairy-tales, where there are houses made of bread and focaccia, then go on to magic first courses to see what is boiling in the cauldrons, enchanted meat, ‘Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman’, marvellous fish that talk and magical snakes, amazing sauces, enchanted vegetables and legumes, in search of the magic bean, enchanted sweets with which to make oneself a lovely companion, and, last but not least, potions. These sections, introduced by a few pages of essays with a vast bibliography on the importance of a dish or ingredient in the world of fairy-tales, each contain seven or eight recipes.”
Each of these recipes is linked with a fairy-tale.
That’s right. And for each dish, I sought out the closest recipe, geographically and chronologically, to the collection of fairy-tales from which it came. For example, we have capon stuffed with “Three citrons”, a tale written by Giambattista Basile in sixteenth-century Naples, with a recipe inspired by the famous sixteenth-century recipe book by Bartolomeo Scappi, who was cook at the Vatican kitchens in the days of Pope Pius IV.”
What other recipe books did you use?
For Perrault’s fairy-tales, I used an eighteenth-century French recipe book by François Pierre de La Varrene. While for the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm, I drew on a nineteenth-century recipe book. For Calvino’s folk tales, I drew on traditional Italian cooking manuals such as the one by Pellegrino Artusi and the “Cucchiaio d’Argento”; while for Afanasjev’s Russian fables, I drew on nineteenth century Russian recipe books.”

What magical foods are we likely to find in fairy-tales? Elissa Piccinini, who co-authored “Ricette da fiaba” with Camillo Bacchini (Elliot Edizioni), with illustrations by Francesca Rossetti, tells us all about them

We continue our interview with Elissa Piccinini, co-author with Camillo Bacchini of “Ricette da fiaba”, published by Elliot Edizioni with illustrations by Francesca Rossetti, an artist who uses a delicate hand with a touch of spice here and there.
Elissa, a high school Latin and Greek teacher, a freelance journalist and “sirenologist” (author of “Le sirene esistono”, published by Otto Libri), has always been particularly interested in fairy-tales – as is Camillo – and also became interested in cooking some years ago. She collected the recipes and contributed to the essays contained in the book.
Elissa, I see that every recipe in the book has a section where readers can write their own notes.
Just as fairy-tales are an oral phenomenon, transformed over the years by slow rumination of traditional knowledge, these recipes should be viewed as suggestions, to be used as a source of ideas for creating dishes of your own. When I cook, I never follow a recipe exactly as it is written, but customise it somehow.”
What is the significance of food in fairy-tales?
In fairy-tales food is always linked either with the idea of abundance or with need. Fairy-tales mention food when it is lacking, as in Hansel and Gretel or Tom Thumb: a society of need, in which people eat the very last crumb and drink down to the very last drop, because waste is not conceivable and succulent foods are basic foods. After all, Little Red Riding Hood carries bread to her grandmother. Then there is the society of wealth, especially in Basile’s sixteenth-century fairy-tales, which often speak of sumptuous banquets featuring hyperbolic descriptions of the food, a sort of fantasy about food. “The Land of Cockaigne”, a land of plenty made of food, appears in many fairy-tales. This topos and archetype has been in existence since the days of ancient Greece; Lucian of Samosata wrote about it in the second century after Christ in ‘A True Story’.”
What foods are magic?
Fish does not appear very often in fairy-tales, but when it does, it’s always a magic fish. Fish also has sacred connotations, as it has been linked with Christological symbolism since antiquity, because the Greek word for fish, iχθύς, is an acronym for “Jesus Christ, Son of God the Saviour”: this gives the very name of fish magical value. In a number of fairy-tales the idea of the fish that must be eaten in its entirety occurs, because every part of it has value, as in Italo Calvino’s “Seven-headed dragon”. Fish can often talk, like the magic shrimp that predict the future in the Brothers Grimm’s “Rosaspina”. If fish are eaten, they are usually fried, baked or stewed, such as Pinocchio’s stewed mullets.”

Here is the fairy-tale menu proposed in “Ricette da fiaba” (Elliot Edizioni), illustrated by Francesca Rossetti, from first course to dessert, complete with magic potions. Elissa Piccinini, who co-authored the book with Cammillo Bacchini, tells us all about it

What would a fairy-tale lunch or dinner be like? Batwing chips? Pasta with witches’ teeth pesto sauce? Fairy tongue escalope? Frog’s eye fritters?
We find out in our interview with Elissa Piccinini, co-author, with Camillo Bacchini, of “Ricette da fiaba” (Elliot Edizioni), illustrated by Francesca Rossetti.
Besides fish, Elissa, are there any other foods traditionally seen as having magical properties?
Vegetables come second in terms of magical significance, and this might be because they are connected with the womb of mother earth, the origin of all life. In fairy-tales there are magical beans from which the beanstalk grows that leads to the world of the giants. Legumes frequently appear as evidence: scattered around, for instance, so that they all have to be picked up, down to the last one.”
What are fairy-tale menus like?
Italian fairy-tales feature a lot of pasta, minestrone, lasagne; in other countries, fairy-tale foods include sweet millet, fava bean broth, barley soup, and grains other than wheat. Meat appears, especially in princely banquets, but cooked in very simple ways: roast, on skewers, boiled. The most complicated desserts, such as zeppola (fried pastry puffs), cassata, and blancmange, appear in Basile’s collection of fairy-tales, but there are lots of sweets in the Afanasjev collection too: fritters, puddings, spicy Christmas cookies.”
What about the drinks?
Wine, beer and water appear in folktales. In my book I took the liberty of adding recipes for two potions I made up myself: the potion of eternal youth of the evil queen in Snow White, and the digestive potion of the orc in Tom Thumb. They are actually two very healthy juice concoctions!
Did you take the recipes in your book as they were from historic recipes or revise them to suite modern tastes?
“em>As the original recipes are rather heavy, rather distant from today’s idea of nutrition (containing lard and so on), I include some suggestions at the end of the book for replacing ingredients: white flour can be replaced with whole wheat flour, sugar with natural sweeteners, animal fats with vegetable fats. This is my addition to the book.”
Many folktales address the interesting theme of the automaton made of food.
It’s the theme of creating a sort of Golem out of food rather than clay. Just think of the gingerbread man, with the little old lady who makes him her son and chases him after he has been baked in the oven, symbolising the mother’s womb. Or Basile’s fairy-tale “Smalto splendente”, in which a woman makes a handsome man out of sweet dough with her own hands, and he magically comes to life. But on the day of their wedding, the creature is stolen by another woman out of jealousy, and is only restored to his loved one after various adventures.”

Mariagrazia Villa

Illustrations: Francesca Rossetti


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