on Cheese, Pears and History in a Proverb, by Massimo Montanari, trans. By Beth Archer Brombert (Columbia University Press)

Al contadino non far sapere quanto è buono il formaggio con le pere. “Do not let the peasant know how good cheese is with pears.”

PearsCheese.jpegA version of this Italian aphorism has existed since the thirteenth century. Despite its longevity, the proverb puzzled Massimo Montanari, a professor of medieval history and the history of food at the University of Bologna. It seemed anomalous “because its prescription derives not from the desire to communicate some kind of knowledge about reality but, on the contrary, from a wish to conceal it.” Since proverbs carried the popular wisdom of the peasantry, Montanari found the aphorism “all the more bizarre … something is not right here.”

PearsCover.jpgCheese, Pears and History in a Proverb may tease out an historical and sociological mystery of the Middle Ages, but it is animated by a contemporary impulse: we eat foods for their meaning as well as (as much as?) for their taste and nutrition. Francesco Serdonati, author of the oldest anthology of Italian proverbs, wrote, “He who is accustomed to coarse food should not seek dishes that are too refined, for such a change would be harmful.” Conversely, the nobility should eat foods that reflect their elevation. Although Whole Foods charges as much as thirty cents more per pound for conventional tangerines than Stop & Shop, I have paid the premium for reasons having nothing to do with the fruit itself.

But the status accorded to cheese and pears has shifted over the centuries. In the fifteenth century, physicians were still guided by Hippocrates and Galen. At a brisk trot, Montanari considers the separate histories of cheese and pears, the associations between them, and prevailing beliefs about their respective health benefits; the eating habits of nobility and peasants; the rise of fruit growing in the sixteenth century; changing attitudes towards “the rustic” and “the refined” in foods; and the rise of rich peasantry. The proverb ultimately becomes “the site of class conflict.”

Roland Barthes counseled semioticians to be playful in their analyses, but few have taken his advice. The tone of Beth Brombert’s translation validates the scholarly aspect of Montanari’s work, but she also preserves the liveliness of his mind. Obviously, Montanari solved his puzzle during research – but to give us the pleasure of sudden knowledge, he keeps the reader on the cusp of discovery, telling anecdotes, quoting poetry, citing early recipe and medical books, and briskly reasoning.

Petrarch.jpegIt is gratifying to find a poet in the middle of the mystery. In fact, the oldest mention of cheese/pears pairing may belong to Petrarch: Addio, l’è sera / Or su vengan le pera / Il casco e ‘l vin di Creti. “Farewell, it is evening / now come pears / cheese and wine from Crete.” In Petrarch’s time, humanists in Rome and elsewhere were discovering the pleasures of the rusticanum gustum, something of a fashion reflecting “the recovery of ancient texts and the model of life they proposed, which was the Roman ideal of sobriety and moderation … presented as ‘peasant’ values.” Petrarch’s doctor, Giovanni Dondi, tried to convince him to give up the particularly tart type of pear he craved, “held to be singularly unwholesome.” But the pear’s reputation for elegance outpaced the old fears about raw fruits. Charlemagne himself ordered the planting of pear trees on royal estates.

PearsPrimaDonna.jpegCheese passed through a similar long period of rising favor. Nevertheless, as Montanari states, “Cheese can be gentrified, but it nevertheless remains a plebian foodstuff. Pears can be considered a food of the elite, but it is foolhardy to think of them as an ‘exclusive’ food.” How then does the aphorism function?

A novel concept appears as the Middle Ages wane: good taste, “a cultivated knowledge that could be learned and taught … a mark of distinction, giving rise to the idea of denying knowledge to anyone who was not socially worthy.” But Montaigne objected, noting a “particular sense that teaches hens, before any experience, to be afraid of the sparrow hawk but not the goose or the peacock.” Doesn’t the peasant have a similar primordial knowledge of, let’s say, pears and cheese?

I’ll leave you to enjoy Montanari’s sleuthing on your own.

PearsParmPoster.jpegToday, cheese has its own caste system, from Parmigiano Reggiano to Velveeta. In 1968, the Food and Cultural Organization of the U.N. reported on the worldwide shortage of chymosin, an enzyme in rennet found in the stomachs of calves. Chymosin is required for cheese-making. Farmers were sending fewer calves to market. To solve the problem, the UN commissioned research on the development of chymosin expressed through a fungus bio-engineered with cow genes. This was the first GMO product allowed by the U.S. FDA. Today, more than 80% of cheeses are made with GMO-produced rennet – including the venerable cheeses of France and Italy where this fact is virtually unmentionable. To speak of it would alter the meaning of gruyere and gorgonzola.

[Published September 1, 2010. 116 pages, $26.50 hardcover, $14.58 Kindle edition]

Thanks for this link Ron.

Thanks for this link Ron. This book sounds terrific!

Dean and I are having cheese and pears for dessert tonight. :)