Celebrating 400 Years of Shakespeare


Today – the 23rd April 2016 – is the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare. Recently, I went to see the amazing National Theatre Live performance of As You Like It (starring Rosalie Craig as Rosalind). The imaginative and daring staging of the forest did full justice to the ambiguity of Shakespeare’s vision of the Forest of Arden. The dim lighting, the sharp angles of the trees, and the ominous sounds of woodland animals evoked a strong sense of the anti-pastoral within which the characters celebrated their pastoral freedom from the court. Within this indeterminate space  – where the “winter wind” bites sharply – a group of lords fleeing the urban world gather for a meal of wild fruit. This meal is both a recognition of nature’s provision and of the difficulty of surviving only on what can be scavenged. This is one of the reasons why I love Shakespeare – he can never be pinned down within a neat web of interpretation. There is always something to debate and discover about his imaginative worlds.

There is no recipe this week. Instead, we have a quick quiz to test your knowledge of Shakespearean sustenance. Which of these foods actually appear in his plays?

1. Peacock and swan stew
2. An ill roasted egg
3. Cheese and garlic
4. Fish with chickpeas
5. Dormice
6. Pigeons, hens and mutton – in one meal!
7. Sea urchins
8. Dates and quince in pastry
9. Saffron pies
10. Ostrich, cumin and honey

shakespeare 2

Answers: all these foods were eaten in the Renaissance period, but they don’t all appear in Shakespeare’s plays. The ones which do are: an ill roasted egg; cheese and garlic; pigeons, hens and mutton; dates and quince in pastry; and saffron pies.


A Literary History of Chocolate: Part 2

Similarly to England, in the early eighteenth century Italy saw the arrival and diffusion of the tea, coffee and chocolate, and the latter two in particular become particularly popular, with the creation of ‘botteghe del caffè’ (coffee houses), where you could also taste the miraculous chocolate drink – attitudes towards it were of course mixed, with one physician (Dr Giovanni Batista Felici) at the Tuscan court in 1728 proclaiming chocolate as cause of shortening human lives, and must never be mixed with ‘hot’ ingredients, such as cinnamon, vanilla, pepper, cloves, ambergris, and achiote. Because of chocolate ‘certain serious and taciturn persons […] become for a while the greatest chatters, some lose sleep and get hot-headed, others become angry and shout. In children it awakens such an agitation that in no way can they be quiet or sit in one place.’ According to the same doctor, chocolate was only good against consumption or tuberculosis (!), but of course not because something is good for one illness means it is necessarily good for health! About thirty years later (1760-1), again in Italy, in the pages of Gazzetta Veneta Gaspare Gozzi praises chocolate as:

Excellent drink however you prepare it, it is refreshing and energizing, precisely to restore our strength and give more vigour. It manages to contrast our bad moods, fortify our stomach, brain and all other vital body parts, it softens all serious matters falling from our brain to our heart, it helps digestion and against wine-induced stupor.

Gazzetta Veneta obviously was a magazine based in Veneto, the area of Venice, and it was especially Venice in Italy in the 18th century which was particularly associated with chocolate and coffee-houses, and with noblemen and intellectuals sipping their days away at the cafes, with a cup of either hot drink and leafing through newspapers.

It was Carlo Goldoni in particular (1707-1793), a famous Venetian lawyer and playwright who celebrated the drinking of chocolate in Venetian and Northern Italian scenarios in his plays. He is mainly remembered for his reform of the Italian theatre and for his witty comedies, which are still commonly performed in Italy: his characters often sip cups of hot chocolate over breakfast, at the beginning of scenes while waiting for action to take place, or while pleasantly conversing with other characters.

At times, hot chocolate also gives way to comical scenes, as in La locandiera (The Mistress of the Inn, 1753), where two guests (Cavaliere di Ripafratta, a misogynous aristocratic ‘knight’, and Marchese di Forlipopoli, a penniless ‘marquis’ and in love with the innkeeper) at the inn run by the protagonist, Mirandolina, in Florence, ironically “duet” over a cup of hot chocolate. In Act I, Scene XI, the Cavaliere had asked the servant to bring him a cup of hot chocolate with his mail. Just when the servant eventually gives him his chocolate, the Marchese tells him his farmer is giving him quite a lot of trouble, and so the Cavaliere feels compelled to offer him his cup, only to find that is the last hot chocolate at the inn (Act I, Scene XIII):

Enter the SERVANT with the chocolate.

CAVALIER: Oh I am sorry… Get me another, right away. (To Servant.)

SERVANT: At present there isn’t any other in the house, your lordship.

CAVALIER: You must get it. If you would be so good as to accept this… (To Marquis.)

MARQUIS: (Takes the chocolate and drink sit without ceremony, keeping on talking and drinking at the same time.): This overseer of mine, as I told you… (Drinks.)

CAVALIER: And I shall go without. (Aside.)

MARQUIS: He promised to send me by post… (Drinks.) twenty sequins… (Drinks.)

CAVALIER: Now he comes with a second thrust. (Aside.)

MARQUIS: And he has not sent it to me… (Drinks.)

CAVALIER: Maybe some other time.

MARQUIS: The point is… the point is… (Finishes drinking.) Here. (Gives the glass to the servant.) The point is that I’m in great difficulty, and I don’t know what to do.

[…] The Marchese asks the Cavaliere to lend him twenty gold coins, and with his eloquence the Cavaliere manages to only give him one gold coin, and yet what he regrets the most is having had to give up on his cup of hot chocolate:

Act I, Scene XIV.

CAVALIER (alone): Fine! The Marquis wanted to extort twenty sequins from me and then he is contented with one. After all it doesn’t matter much if I do lose a sequin, and if he didn’t pay it back he wouldn’t bore me any more. What displeases me mosti s that he drank my chocolate. What impudence. And then, “I am who I am, I am a gentleman.” Oh most polite gentleman!

The last cup of hot chocolate available at Mirandolina’s inn is indeed most precious and the Cavaliere let the Marchese have it, who did not even say thank you!

In La bottega del caffè (The Coffee House, 1750), hot chocolate is even used in the dialogue between two characters, Eugenio, merchant with a gambling addiction, and Lisaura, a dancer, giving way to a crescendo of sexual innuendos not unlike that of a Catherine and Petruchio (Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew), a great entertainment for the audience at that time, and nowadays (Act I, Scene XII):

LISAURA. I am your most humble servant.

EUGENIO. Dear Madam, when did you get up from your bed?

LISAURA. Just now.

EUGENIO. Have you had your coffee yet?

LISAURA. It is still early. I haven’t drunk it yet.

EUGENIO. Would you like me to order it for you?

LISAURA. Thank you very much, but please don’t worry about it.

EUGENIO. Not at all, I am surprised you haven’t had it yet: hey, boy, bring some coffee, or chocolate, to that lady – anything she likes, I am paying.

LISAURA. Thank you, thank you, but I make my own coffee and chocolate at home.

EUGENIO. Your chocolate must be pretty good then.

LISAURA. Actually, it is perfect.

EUGENIO. Can you make it well?

LISAURA. My servant is quite talented.

EUGENIO. Would you like me to give your chocolate a little whip?

LISAURA. Ah, you shouldn’t worry about it.

EUGENIO. I will come and drink it with you, if you let me.

LISAURA. It is not for you, Sir.

EUGENIO. I like everything; come on, open the door, we’ll spend a nice hour together.

LISAURA. Please excuse me, but I don’t open the door that easily.

EUGENIO. Hey! Do say, would you rather me come for the back door?

LISAURA. My visitors come publicly.

EUGENIO. Come on, open the door, let’s not make a scene.

(Nico’s translation)

From this quick exchange between Eugenio and Lisaura, we already understand how it was common to drink hot chocolate in the morning (while it is too “early” for coffee), and that it could easily be made at home (Lisaura has it made by her servant, for instance) or order it (Eugenio offers to get it for her). The whole dialogue then escalates to a vocabulary of sexual hints, with Eugenio insisting on coming into her house, offering her chocolate and to give her chocolate ‘a whip’, with Lisaura always rejecting his propositions, as she is not one to open ‘her door easily’…

Chocolate, over most its history, had been a drink for the elite, rather than for everyone: it was only with the Industrial Revolution that we witnessed to chocolate’s change from a costly drink to a cheap food, and indeed changing from its typical liquid form to the one we know best these days: solid chocolate bars, chocolate pralines, truffles, and so on. Chocolate becomes a food for the masses rather than just the elite. The development of modern medicine also helped with the increase of people consuming chocolate in the nineteenth century: chocolate was finally released from beliefs of its therapeutic virtues, which meant that ‘anyone, anywhere, was able to take chocolate whenever they chose, in any form they preferred […], [n]o longer did they have to fret over whether chocolate or its flavorings were “hot”, “cold”, or “temperate”, “dry”, or “moist” (Coe 241). So if the eighteenth century saw the spread of chocolate as a drink across Western and Southern Europe, the nineteenth century turned chocolate into a much more common food, but mainly in its new, solid form. And yet, despite its increase in diffusion, popularity and affordability, chocolate does not seem to feature very prominently in nineteenth-century texts. Was it perhaps too enjoyable, too “lascivious” almost, for literates from that time, especially in rigid Victorian England?


Goldoni, Carlo. The Mistress of the Inn (La Locandiera). Wisconsin Dramatic Society, 1912.

Goldoni, Carlo. The Coffee House (La bottega del caffè). My translation of Liberliber text.Cioccolata_025cr

Italian Style Hot Chocolate

250ml milk

50gr granulated sugar

20gr potato starch

30gr cocoa powder

1- Sieve potato starch and cocoa powder together , then add sugar in a small saucepan.

2- Add milk gradually, and whisk so as to get a smooth mixture.

3- Place the saucepan on low heat and keep stirring with a whisk.

4- Be careful, your hot chocolate should never boil! Your hot chocolate will be ready once it thickens (around 5 mins) – remove from the heat and pour in a nice cup with whipped cream on top, if you like!

At an Early Modern Banquet: Marchpane in Romeo and Juliet (c. 1595)

By Gašper Jakovac

Early Modern marchpane

Early Modern marchpane

Both Petrarch and Romeo enter the labyrinth of love fiercely, suddenly, and in a very particular place and point in time. The juxtaposition of their encounters is, however, characterized by stark discrepancies. Whereas the former meets his beloved for the first time in the Church of St. Claire in Avignon, on ‘the day the sun’s ray had turned pale / with pity for the suffering of his Maker’ (The Canzoniere, 3.1–2), the later beholds his object of affection in a rather more secular, worldly milieu, during a masked ball in the Capulet household. Place and time, or rather distinct spaces and social occasions, shape the expectations of our lovers. Petrarch is tricked: he is visiting a church on Good Friday, a period of solemnity and mourning, when one does not anticipate the need for keeping ‘guard against / Love’s blows’ (3.5–6). On the other hand, the feast at the Capulets is designed precisely to encourage sociability and courtship. It is a chance for ‘lusty young men’ (1.2.27) to delight in company of ‘fresh female buds’ (1.2.30), an opportunity for Paris to woo Juliet, and for Romeo to either get a glimpse of Rosalind or distract himself by other beauties of Verona.

There is something distinctly Dionysian about the ball and, when reading Lord Capulet’s warm-hearted welcomes and his brief exchange with his older cousin about their long-gone dancing days, I am always reminded of the grey-headed Cadmus and Tiresias, dancing, fawn-skinned, in Euripides’ The Bacchae. However, the unforeseen and unexpected workings of love are common to both scenarios. If Petrarch’s mind is bent on the suffering of our Lord, and thus seemingly indisposed for love, Romeo considers himself already pricked by Amor’s arrow and is therefore equally baffled by what he is experiencing when meeting Juliet: ‘Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! / For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night’ (1.5.50–1).

Shakespeare, however, continues in Petrarchan mode, or, at least, the language he uses immediately evokes unmistakably Petrarchan idealisation and sanctification of the beloved. But although Juliet imagines herself to be a stone image of a saint that does not move and should, therefore, remain physically unresponsive to Romeo-pilgrim’s pursuits and, as Laura, unattainable and distant from her lover, she does not participate in the game of wooing only ‘literally’, by ‘co-writing’ with Romeo the sonnet on pilgrims and saints, but also physically, by offering him a kiss. Shakespeare thus employs Petrarchan discourse only to subvert it – Romeo is not a poet sanctifying his unattainable lady, but rather a real-life suitor at a party devised to facilitate romantic relationships amongst the youths of Verona. Shakespeare positions the elevated encounter between Romeo and Juliet into a realistic, although skilfully ironized, representation of early modern household sociability.

Capulet’s ‘old accustomed feast’ (1.2.20) is not just a gathering of friends, but has a noticeable tinge of that traditional all-inclusive hospitality, which Shakespeare would have experienced when entertaining the court or touring provincial England with his company and performing at noble households. All, even those not invited, are welcome to enjoy Capulet’s generosity. The Montagues’ intrusion is therefore not really an intrusion, but rather a permissible transgression – commonly recognized strifes and social distinctions are during Capulet’s ball temporarily suspended. It is therefore not surprising that the master of the house should reproach Tybalt when he seeks quarrel with Romeo and firmly reiterates the rules of hospitality: ‘I would not for the wealth of all the town / Here in my house do him [Romeo] disparagement’ (1.5.67–8). However, effects of Capulet’s generosity in relation to individuals occupying different positions within the social hierarchy are rather less discernible. The actions of the social elite are penetrated from below only at the very beginning of the scene, in a short exchange between servants where the only item of food eaten during supper is mentioned: marchpane. ‘Away with the joint-stools, remove the / court-cupboard, look to the plate,’ orders the first servant to his sluggish underlings, and then, ‘Good thou, save / me a piece of marchpane’ (1.5.4–6), he adds, being afraid that all banquet leftovers will disappear too quickly.

An almond pastry called marchpane, which is not unlike marzipan and practically identical to pasticcini di mandorle native to Sicily, was a paramount Elizabethan banquet sweet of the well-off. Recently I have come across a list of expenses for Elizabeth Neville and Roger Rockley’s wedding banquet in 1536, where guests were entertained with a play and a masque, followed by a feast of 110 meat dishes. After a long list of various fish, fowl, and venison, a tart, gingerbread, marchpane, and another rather elaborate dessert of apples and cheese strewed with sugar and sage are mentioned. Household handbooks from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries routinely provide recipes for marchpane paste and how to cut and mould it into various animal shapes to impress ones guests at the dinner table. One such manual, Delightes for Ladies (1602) by Sir Hugh Plat, begins with a prefatory poem, which parodies classical epic by singing of sweets and preserved food instead of arms and man. In any case, a good number of verses are dedicated to marchpane, which clearly indicate its importance:

I teach […]
To make both marchpaine paste, and sugred plate,
And cast the same in forms of sweetest grace.
Each bird and foule so moulded from the life,
And after cast in sweet compounds of arte,
As if the flesh and forme which nature gaue,
Did still remaine in euerie lim and part.

If Capulet’s hospitality enables Romeo to meet Juliet, it also permits his servants to enjoy the culinary delights of their master’s table. Furthermore, first servant’s order to let ‘the porter let in Susan Grindstone and Nell’ (1.5.7) may even suggest that servants have their own party planned and that uninvited Montagues are hardly an exception. It seems that the brightly coloured and perfectly formed marchpane ending up in the unwashed hands of the pantry servants hovers emblematically above the scene. It is a premonition of a much more fatal trespass, a kiss that sealed a ‘death-mark’d love’ (Prologue, 9).

Nico's marchpane

Nico’s marchpane

Marchpane (makes about a dozen)

Ingredients :
125gr ground almonds (or whole almonds, to grind)
125gr granulated sugar
4 tbsp rosewater
A few sliced almonds

1. Grind the almonds with a pestle and mortar, or a blender,  unless already ground.
2. Mix the almonds with the sugar.
3. Add the tablespoons of rose water, gradually, and stir with a wooden spoon until the whole mixture becomes of a darker tinge.
4. Shape the dough in little round balls with a sliced almond on top of each, and place on a baking tray, previously lined with baking parchment.
5. Bake in the oven at 180° for 10 to 15 minutes.  They are ready when they are a bit golden on the surface and they have hardened a little!
6. Our Renaissance marchpane was baked, probably to make it easier for banquet guests to pick it up with their hands and eat it, as that would make it firmer. Baking it would also make it last longer. If you want to make marchpane from the Southern Italian tradition instead, you can stop at step 3 and then put the marchpane to rest in the fridge.  You can then use it to cover sweets and cakes, or just eat it as it is!

Petrarca, Francesco, Selections From the Canzoniere and Other Works, ed. by Mark Musa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
Plat, Hugh, Delightes for ladies to adorne their persons, tables, closets, and distilatories with beauties, banquets, perfumes and waters (London, 1602).
Shakespeare, William, The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (London, 1623).

The ‘bitten macaroon’: Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879)

In the world famous Norwegian play A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen has Nora, the protagonist, eat macaroons from the very first scene: Nora has just got back home from her Christmas shopping, and stealthily eats some macaroons — with this very small yet important action, the audience immediately understands that the macaroons hide more relevance than that they actually show. Our attention is drawn to these small Christmas sweets, which appear at the beginning of the play, uncovering important aspects of Nora’s personality, and then they disappear — and yet it is precisely the flavour of those macaroons which we can taste throughout A Doll’s House: the intense flavour of a person’s search for, and finally discovery of, their identity.

When I first read the play in school, years ago, and consequently saw it performed, I did not give much thought about what these “macaroons” might have been: for a long time I probably thought they should be macarons – the French, colourful meringue-based sandwich biscuits. Recently, I found myself re-reading this play in preparation for some teaching, and in a conversation with Amy (which lay the foundation for the creation of this blog!), we could not help wondering, what kind of macaroons does Nora actually eat in A Doll’s House? In the English-speaking world, there seem to be at least two types of macaroons: almond macaroons, and coconut macaroons. Even in the original text, Ibsen says makroner, namely the generic term for ‘macaroons’ in Norwegian, and so Ibsen interestingly avoids using the specific terms kokosmakroner (coconut macaroons), or mandelmakroner (almond macaroons). Nowadays, kokosmakroner (coconut macaroons) are a typical Norwegian Christmas sweet, and so, since A Doll’s House is set a few days before Christmas, it would not be entirely wrong to suppose that Nora should be eating coconut macaroons, after all: if so, what does this tell us about the characterization of Nora, and the play’s setting? Coconuts, obviously, are not native to Norway, and how common would they have been even in Oslo, in 1879? The French decadent poet, Charles Baudelaire, about 20 years earlier, spoke of ‘Les cocotiers absents de la superbe Afrique’ (‘Le Cygne’, ‘The Swan’, II, l. 43): the absent coconut trees of splendid Africa, which Baudelaire’s beautiful ‘négresse’ (not such a politically correct term these days!) seeks out in Paris, missing in her heart her home land, and its familiar scenery. In the poem by Baudelaire, the coconut trees have always carried, to my mind, a sensual element, both in the sound of the French word itself, and in the fact that the African woman of the poem could have missed anything else from her home land: animals (camels? elephants?), or any other tree (papyrus?), and the choice of coconuts, more than anything else, does revive the image of their luxurious leaves in one’s mind, as well as the unmistakable combination of its sweet and yet thirst-quenching flavour with its chewy flesh in one’s mouth.

According to the Cambridge World History of Food (2000), coconut first became known in Europe as early as 1500, and even if nowadays it is very easy to purchase coconuts and coconut derivates in Europe, both in its fresh and desiccated version, and coconut milk and water are becoming increasingly popular, it is still something we associate with hot countries, and the Tropics: the association of Norway with coconuts is not one spontaneously springing to mind. Yet, desiccated coconut was first produced in the early 1880s, when it started being manufactured. If the play was written in 1879, though, then Nora cannot be eating macaroons made with coconut, after all – preparing them with freshly grated coconut would have been (if at all possible) rather expensive. Almonds, on the contrary, had been cultivated in Europe for centuries by then, are mentioned in the Old Testament, and almond flour appears in many European recipes from the Middle Ages. In our indecision, we decided to make both recipes, hoping that at least one of the two would be the one in Ibsen’s mind (and mouth) when writing A Doll’s House..

Almond macaroons (makes about 15):

125g ground almonds

175g caster sugar

1 tablespoon cornflour

2 medium free-range egg whites

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

flaked almonds to decorate

  1. Mix the ground almonds with the sugar and the cornflour in a bowl.
  2. Whisk the egg whites with the vanilla extract, in another bowl, until frothy.
  3. Add the whites to the dry ingredients, and stir together with a wooden spoon.
  4. Spoon the mixture onto the baking tray (don’t forget to line it with some edible rice paper, according to the original recipe, or we used Teflon, a non-stick coating, which worked fabulously! Extensive experiments have demonstrated it is better not to use silicone sheet, or baking parchment) to form roughly 15 discs, no wider than 5cm across, as they tend to spread while baking. Place an almond flake in the centre of each disc.
  5. Heat the over to 160°C and bake the macaroons for 20 minutes, or until they become golden.

Coconut macaroons (makes about 12):

400g desiccated coconut

1 egg white

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

a pinch of salt

300ml coconut milk

100g dark chocolate

  1. Whisk the egg white with the vanilla and salt until frothy.
  2. Add the desiccated coconut.
  3. Add the coconut milk and mix with a wooden spoon.
  4. Leave to stand for half an hour. In the meantime, heat the oven to 180°C.
  5. Stir the mixture again and then wet your fingers with cold water and make small pyramids with the coconut dough and lie them onto the baking sheet, lined with baking paper.
  6. Bake for 30 minutes until the peaks are golden brown. Leave the macaroons to cool and dip the bases in melted chocolate.
  7. Leave to set on some non-stick baking paper.