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Let's recreate a lavish spread of fine cheeses, pretzels, and the trappings of the good life on display in 17th Century Dutch and Flemish still life paintings. To support our channel, visit: http://www.patreon.com/artassignment.

Recipe for pretzels: https://www.splendidtable.org/recipes/pennsylvania-dutch-hard-pretzels

Thanks to our Grandmasters of the Arts Vincent Apa and Indianapolis Homes Realty, and all of our patrons, especially Patrick Hanna, M12 Studio, Jane Quale, and Constance Urist.

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(PBS Digital Studios logo)

Thoughout history, food has served as subject matter, inspiration, and of course, sustenance for artists.  Food has also been the art on a number of occasions.  This week, we delve into the first decades of the 17th century to consider the (?~0:17) of Dutch and Flemish still-life paintings that showcase a dazzling array of delicacies and treasures from around the world.  While they don't so much demonstrate the way people actually ate and drank, they're immensely revealing and rather easy on the eyes nonetheless.  

Instead of a cookbook, we're working from this catalog from an exhibition at the (?~0:40) House Museum in the Hague.  They chose an exquisite painting for the cover, this still life with cheeses, almonds, and pretzels by Clara Peeters from about 1615 and we're gonna focus on recreating this one.  She made a number of remarkable still life paintings, but I don't have access to these varieties of stunning flowers nor the culinary prowess to make this refined of a meat pie.  I think we've all seen enough of me arranging elaborate presentations of seafood after Art Cooking: Dali and I don't have the heart nor the wherewithal to come close to assembling this spread of birds.  In fact, what makes most of the meal still life paintings of this era so exceptional is what makes them difficult to reproduce.  

This was the Dutch Golden Age after all.  After fighting to free themselves from Spanish rule, the Dutch republic became an independent country over the course of the 17th century, dominating international trade and experiencing a period of unprecedented prosperity.  The Dutch East India Company, founded in 1602, brought in staples as well as luxury goods from around the world.  For those profiting off of these advancements, a diverse array of foods and decorations were readily available.

Oh, wait, are we cooking today? Right, right.  First up is the humble pretzel, which was eaten by both the elite and non-elite alike.  I've made some dough in advance using a recipe I'll link to in the description, which I let rise overnight in the fridge.

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We're gonna turn this out onto a work surface and divide it into smaller chunks of dough.  Then we pat one down with our fingertips to form a rough rectangle.  Roll it up and then start to work it out into a long rope.  When it seems to be long enough, loop it into the shape we see in the painting, or at least, do your best.  While I'm rolling out more of these, let's talk pretzels, or as the Dutch call them, zoute krakeling.

They seem to have surfaced in Europe sometime in the Medieval period and there are numerous and conflicting origin stories, but the general consensus is that this was food for fasting in the Christian faith.  We see it first illustrated in a 12th century manuscript and then it definitely appears as a Lenten food in Brueghel's masterpiece of 1559 of the battle between carnival and Lent.  We see them in this happy painting of a baker and his wife proudly presenting their wares.  Two other proud bakers announce the availability of their fine pretzels in this picture from around 1660 and then a variation of the same subject matter by a different artist a couple decades later.  

But anyhow, the pretzel was quite popular in the 17th century Netherlands, both in its sweet and salty iterations, and in both its soft and crispy forms.  You'll be pleased to know I got marginally better at making this shape as I went.  So after those have sat under a damp towel for a half hour to rise a bit, we take the important step of giving them a quick dip in an alkaline solution.  The real way to do this is to use a food grade lye, but we're doing a workaround of baking soda that has been previously baked in the oven at 250 degrees Fahrenheit for an hour.  Supposedly, this alters the chemical composition of the baking soda to make it perform more like lye.

We add about a quarter of a cup of this to water and bring it to a simmer and then you gently dip your pretzels into the solution for 10 seconds on one side and another 10 seconds on the reverse.  What happens here is that the starches on the surface of the dough instantly gelatinize and break proteins down into small peptide chains.  

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These will brown quickly in the oven, giving us that pretzel color and tasty flavor.  After that, it's back on to the parchment lined baking sheet.  Now we add some sea salt, not because we see any in the painting, but because it will taste oh so much better.  Salt was a luxury item at the time and was of course included in meal still life paintings quite frequently, stored elegantly in a fancy salt (?~4:30) like this, and when they're ready, we'll send them into the oven to bake at 325 for 50 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through and checking to make sure they've hardened to a crisp.

Next up comes cheese, and a lot of it.  You'll admire the gorgeous stack of cheese in our source painting, composed of a large half-wheel of gouda, a small sheep's milk cheese on top of that, and in front of that, there is a dark greyish green cheese that probably came from the island of (?~4:59) and got its color from parsley or horseradish juice.  The gouda proved fairly easy to source, yes, this is my version of the Dutch pronounciation, named after the Dutch city where it was traded.  It's an insanely delicious cow's milk cheese that gets better and crumblier as it ages and crystallizes.  Our cheese is younger, but you can see how Peeters has rendered her aged gouda with such detail and care, even showing the hole made by the cheese tester who scoops out a plug and then re-inserts it after testing.

For the magnificent greenish cheese in front, I could not find anything remotely similar.  A kind cheesemonger directed me to this (?~5:37) cheese, a Spanish goats milk cheese that has a slightly greenish rind.  Sorry, I tried.  The smaller squarish cheese on top I couldn't find either.  This whole project would have likely been easier if I was actually in the Netherlands, but we have an American sheep's milk cheese instead that has herbs on the outside and a creamier paste, but it's delicious and we're gonna be eating these, too.  You can find many grand cheese stacks in still life paintings of this time.

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Cheese was not an import item but produced in large amounts mostly in the Northern Netherlands.  It was consumed locally and relatively inexpensively, but the abudance and variety on display in these works would have certainly signaled luxury.  Cheeses evoked prosperity because it was a major export item and a point of pride for the Dutch.  Also, butter. With all those dairy cows around, you could make a lot of butter as well and on top of the cheeses, you'll see a plate with curls of butter.  

We have some French butter today, which is at least from the right side of the Atlantic and a handy little tool I never knew existed until now.  I'm quite confident this wasn't the way they did it then, but hey, we're achieving roughly the same effect.  Now we need to find our best approximation for the Chinese porcelain dish from the (?~6:50) period on the lower right of the painting.  There was an influx of Chinese porcelain during the early 17th century, brought in by the Dutch East India Company and snapped up by an eager audience with surplus income to spend.  

They called it Kraak porcelain, after the name for the Portuguese ships that delivered it.  By the time our painting was made, porcelain would have been quite common in the Netherlands, but still considered more special than the alternative blue and white ceramic-ware made in nearby (?~7:18).  Hey, we see you eating those oysters.

We'll be repurposing this plate that was my grandmother's and is decidedly not Chinese but made in Germany from an adapted Chinese design.  Into the plate go almonds, which would have been costly and came from the Mediterranean, although ours are from somewhere in the vicinity of the California coast.  Also raisins, which would have come from the South as well, and dried figs.  These were difficult to come by, but much more plentiful during this time of abundance and making more and more appearances in recipes of the era, and we can't forget bread.  

Painters included this little yeasty loaf hiding behind the wine.  This wouldn't have been uncommon at the time, but was regardless a luxury as it was made from wheat and most of the less fortunate ate a denser rye bread.

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I scanned our local bakeries for something roughly similar in nature and landed on this most exotic of breads that traveled all the way from a factory in Torrence, California.  It met the qualifications of being round and made from wheat, a classic American export of the 20th century.  There's also a lidded wine glass in teh painting, which is a facon de venise glass, made at the time by Italian glassblowers working in and around Antwerp. 

Wine was a near fixture in these paintings.  While the commonfolk mostly drank beer, wine was part of a good meal for the upper classes, usually imported from Germany, France, or Spain.  It not only signaled luxury but also gave painters the chance to show off their skills in rendering finely detailed glasses.  We're gonna use this lovely glass which has no lid and was hand-blown in America by an American.  We do our best.

Now it's time to start assembling our still life, which we're beginning by creating a dark backdrop, which Peeters and other artists often did, allowing the objects set against it to stand out, like this enormous 15 pound half wheel of cheese.  While I'm arranging, it's important to note that the Dutch did not invent the meal still life.   Frescos and mosaics uncovered in Pompeii from before 79 CE reveal fabulous still life spreads of fruits, fish, and foul, but this moment in Dutch history is when the genre solidified and flourished.  Beforehand in the region, food had been depicted in paintings of The Last Supper and in numerous kitchen scenes populated with people, banquets with diners gathered all around, and family portraits set inside of a laid table, but figures in these scenes gradually started creeping away into the distance and food more and more into the foreground.  Early independent meal still lifes tended to have a moral component, showing the difference between rich and poor and sometimes work in a landscape on the side.  In the first decades of the 17th century, we begin to see just the table and the delicacies without people and with less overt moral agendas.

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These were not meals as they were usually presented, but carefully selected and arranged objects determined with regard to color, form, texture, and luster.  We're using a copper pitcher instead of the ceramic (?~10:20) jug in the painting, but it gives a nice reflection, which was important in these still lifes, especially those by Clara Peeters.  In the pewter lid, you can just make out the white bonneted reflection of the artist.  While this later became a more common practice, Peeters was one of the first artists north of the Alps to paint self-portraits in reflective surfaces and she did this masterfully. 

We know precious little about this artist whose earliest known still life dates to 1607.  There are 40 known paintings attributed to her, identified because she thankfully signed them, in often clever ways like on the engraved silver bridal knife pictured in this work.  We conclude from the markings on her panels and copper plates that she worked in or near Antwerp, a city that reached its economic and cultural peak in the 16th century until it came under Spanish rule and many of its artisans and scientists fled North.  Her work was likely well known in its day and collected early on by important and royal patrons.  We believe this painting is probably a self portrait.  

As I try to finagle our objects into roughly the same arrangement of our painting, it becomes clear that while Peeters' items are incredibly realistically rendered, the view she provides us isn't photographic.  There's a sense of depth created with overlapping objects, but the space is collapsed in a manner we cannot duplicate, and all of her items are rendered in relatively equal focus.  

We can't say for sure what these paintings really meant at the time they were made.  They weren't considered the pinnacle of artistic achievement.  That was reserved for historical, Biblical, and mythological subject matter, but these paintings could have represented hospitality, hanging on the wall of the well-to-do and welcoming guests, or perhaps were non-perishable tableau of plenty that were given to others as gifts.

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They also could have served as warnings of the dangers of excess.  There are two figures engraved on the handle of Peeters' bridal knife, with the wrods 'fides', faith, and 'tempo', short for 'temperance', two of the seven virtues that were depicted mostly in female form, which calls to mind the Dutch saying that translates to something like "Dairy on top of dairy is the work of the devil," or if you want it to rhyme like it does in Dutch, "Butter on cheese, the Devil to please."  An urge to moderation, indicating that putting both cheese and butter on your bread is excessive.  Pfft.

There is also some thought that aged cheeses might be a reminder of decay, transience, and death.  Similar to the (?~12:49) paintings of the time, meant to evoke the fleeting nature of life.  What we do know is that these paintings illustrate with astounding workmanship the magnificent spread of goods available in the low countries during this golden age.  In our own time, where global markets bring goods from around the world to our doorstep with a mere tap of a screen, it's more difficult now than it was then to imagine the sumptuous world of plenty evoked by these items, although these actual foods will wither and rot, no scarcity or want exists within these fixed worlds, created by Clara Peeters and her contemporaries.  They are a glimpse into an extraordinary moment in history and they are oh so stunning to behold.

Want to see more unlikely mash-ups between art history and cooking?  Support us on Patreon.  Thanks to all of our Patrons for supporting The Art Assignment, especially Vincent Apa and Indianapolis Homes Realty.

(Endscreen/Credits)

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