Something of Dante and William Blake
By Tim Hazell
Dante Alighieri was born in Florence, Italy in 1265. He is generally acknowledged to be the greatest Christian poet. This son of a prominent Florentine family would later pretend to be descended from ancient Roman ancestry. Love is the central theme in all his work, profoundly transformed in the Divine Comedy, of which “The Inferno” is a part. This chronicle of the City of Man in the afterlife is also Dante’s journey through Hell. The poet charted his cosmos as a circle. Hell is seen as a condition of the soul after death, an image that stands for the temporal world as well, stripped of reassurances. The pulse of a chance encounter at dusk provides rhythms for this excerpt from “The Inferno.”
The wood that lay behind us, had I looked back,
When we encountered another troop of souls
Who looked at us the way that men will look
While I was being examined by them thus,
One recognized me, and took me by the hem,
Crying, “Why what a marvel!”…
Dante’s work is positioned at the close of the Middle Ages, on the brink of the Renaissance. He reflects changing mores in favor of promoting the idea that talent and creativity are essential mechanisms for the development of insight. Dante cautions that though personal achievements are rare commodities, they must serve a higher purpose or merely further the artist’s own self interest.
Eighteenth-century poet, painter, and engraver William Blake embodied the aspirations of Romanticism, which emphasized principles of order, harmony, and balance. His illustrations grace an edition of Dante’s “Inferno.” Blake’s luminous inner visions and religious fervor defined his distinctive style. “I do not behold the outward creation; it is a hindrance,” he explained. Although Blake lived close to penury and died largely unacknowledged, he is acclaimed today as a towering presence in English art and literature. Here is an opening stanza from “Auguries of Innocence,” the most famous of his lyric poems:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
For Dante Alighieri, medieval pleasures of the palate reflected artfulness and invention ushered in by cosmopolitan trends in European capitalism and new voyages of discovery. Recipes in William Blake’s eighteenth-century England are noted for the wild extravagance of their ingredients. Food textures for both were provided by the abundance of wild game, domestic animals, imported spices, fresh herbs, cheese, butter, and cream. The following recipes date from fourteenth-century Europe and England of the Romantic movement. “Brie Tart,” from Dante’s time, makes a hearty meal with an accompanying salad. “To Bake Fish and Shellfish,” from the era of Blake, uses cooked cod, salmon, and shrimp to create a fish pie extravaganza!
1 eight-inch unbaked pastry shell
1 lb. brie cheese, with rind, chilled
6 egg yolks
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon saffron
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon white sugar
1 / 2 teaspoon cinnamon
Bake pastry shell to harden for 10 minutes at 425 degrees. Cool. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Remove rind from chilled cheese, cut into small pieces with moistened knife and reserve. Combine softened brie cheese, egg yolks, ginger, brown sugar, saffron and salt until smooth. Pour into the pastry shell. Strew cut brie rind evenly over surface of the pie. Combine cinnamon with white sugar and sprinkle around pastry edge. Bake about 30 minutes until set and golden brown. Serve warm or cool.
Rich Fish Pie
1 lb. cooked fresh cod
1 lb. cooked fresh salmon
4 oz. fresh or frozen shrimp
1 teaspoon ground mace or ground nutmeg
1 / 2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon salt
Pinch cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 oz. butter
1 large or 2 small eggs
2 oz. fresh white breadcrumbs
Flake the cod and salmon into a bowl. Remove any skin and bones. Drain shrimp and roughly chop, adding to the fish. Add the mace or nutmeg, cloves, salt, cayenne and black pepper. Melt the butter in a small saucepan and pour over the ingredients in the bowl. Lightly mix and stir in the egg. Add half the breadcrumbs to bind the ingredients. Butter an ovenproof dish and fill with the fish/shrimp/spice/egg/breadcrumbs mixture. Scatter remaining breadcrumbs on top. Dot with extra flakes of butter. Bake in a pre-heated 375 degree oven for 30 minutes until firm, with crumbs crisp and brown.