Hot August has blasted the springtime color, but the Autumn chores beckon apace. Thomas Tusser advises in his “Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry” that the farmer or housewife should “Pare Saffron between the two S. Maries daies, or set or go shift it, that knowest the waies: What year shall I do it ( more profit to yield) the fourth in the garden, the third in the field.” August is the time, for the bulbs are currently dormant abd can be lifted and thinned without harm. However, saffron being a fall-blooming crocus, with the first rain the rows will be filled with purple blossoms, containing those precious colorful threads which colored so many things in the middle ages, and not all in the kitchen. I will offer a gently saffron-flavored “torta”, or pie, which travels well to tourney or war, and fills the empty belly most satisfactorily.
Pigliarai altretanto cascio como è ditto nl capitolo di sopra de la torta biancha, et grattalo. Et nota che quanto è più grasso il cascio tanto è meglio; poi habi de le vietole, petrosillo et maiorana; et nettate et lavate che l’avrai, battile molto bene con un coltello, et mittirale inseme con questo cascio, menandole et mescolandole con le mani tanto che siano bene incorporate, agiongendovi quattro ova, et del pepe quanto basti, et un pocho de zafrano, item di bono strutto overo botiro frescho, mescolando et incorporando tutte queste cose molto bene inseme como ho ditto. Et questo pieno mettirai in una padella con una crosta di sotto et una di sopra, daendoli il focho temperamente; et quando ti pare che sia meza cotta, perché para più bella, con un roscio d’ovo battuto con un pocho di zafrano la farai gialla. Et acconoscere quando ella è cotta ponerai mente quando la crosta di sopra si levarà et alzarà in suso, che allora starà bene et poterala levare dal focho.
TRANSLATION: by Redon, Sabban and Serventi in The Medieval Kitchen: Take as much cheese as indicated above in the [recipe for] torta bianca [white tart] and grate it. Note that the richer the cheese is in fat, the better; then take some chard, parsley and marjoram; and when they are cleaned and washed, chop them very well with a knife, and mix them together with the cheese, combining and mixing with your hands so that they are well blended, and adding four eggs and enough pepper and a little saffron, as well as good lard or fresh butter, mixing and blending all these things very well, as I have said. And put this filling into a pan with a bottom crust and a top crust, and put on a moderate fire; and when it seems to you to be half cooked, so that it will look more attractive, color it yellow with an egg yolk beaten with a little saffron. And to know when it is cooked, remember that when the top crust comes away and rises, then it will be good, and you may remove it from the fire.
REALIZATION: As you can probably tell from the text of the translation, this recipe is one of a series of torta from Maestro Martino. The “white tart” to which he refers is a very similar recipe for a sweet, gingery cheesecake, very like what we might find in a bakery today. The Bolognese torta, however, is a savory cake that is wonderful for lunch or dinner.
Begin with 18 ounces of cheese. Maestro Martino uses 1½ libra (see glossary) of fat cheese. He directs that the cheese be grated, so is using a solid cheese like Jack or Muenster. However, you will get a far more tractable mixture if at least 8 ounces of that total is high-fat cream cheese. Add ½ cup soft butter and beat relatively smooth. Finely chop a total of 1 cup mixed parsley, marjoram, and swiss chard or spinach, and mix with the cheese. Lightly beat four eggs and ½ tsp. powdered saffron. If you have saffron threads, they may be ground finer if you grind them with a teaspoon of salt or sugar in the mortar. Mix the saffron powder and 1 tsp. of pepper with the eggs, and beat into the cheese mixture. Line a large pie plate or small springform pan with pie crust, pour in the cheese mixture, and add a top crust. Unlike a fruit pie, no hole for a top vent is needed. Bake in a 375º over for about 90 minutes. After 45 minutes, beat an egg yolk with a few powdered saffron threads, adding a teaspoon of water if it seems too thick to “paint”. Use a pastry brush to paint the saffron mixture on the top crust. In the middle ages, this process was called “endoring”. Replace in the oven, reduce the heat to 325º, and complete the baking. This torta should be served cool or at room temperature.
The two “St. Mary days” referred to by Tusser are the Feast of the Annunciation on August 15 and the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary on September 8. Saffron was not an expensive imported spice. England has a town called Saffron Walden which was named after cultivation of the herb. That town is also located at a latitude north of Salem and south of Seattle, so feel free to plant a few rows for your pantry. It grows wonderfully here.
Libra: An Italian measure analogous to the Roman pound, which was about twelve ounces. Interestingly, in translation, “libra” means a balance scale, or instrument for measuring weight. It probably meant just a “standard amount”.