Magazine article The Spectator

Good Enough to Eat

Magazine article The Spectator

Good Enough to Eat

Article excerpt

You are, they say, what you eat. But what you eat can also be art - by which I don't just mean that cookery is more than just a craft or a science (which may be true). What I have in mind is food used as a medium by genuine artists more often associated with media such as paint or bronze. Edible art, in fact, is a venerable idiom, some of the manifestations of which make the rampant food mania of today look positively restrained. It would make an unusual alternative, in artistic houses, to the suggestions of Nigella, Delia and Jamie.

Food is, of course, one of the grand subjects of art. Wander into the Dutch galleries, say, at the National Gallery and there you will find depictions of plates piled high with oysters and lobsters, deliciously crumbly cheeses, fruit, wine and napkins. Greed is one of the prime emotions to which painting appeals. Indeed, it may well be hunger that gave rise to art in the first place, if the theory which holds that prehistoric man painted bison and deer on the walls of caves as a magical aid to catching and consuming the same is correct.

But the connection goes deeper yet. There is an ancient and forgotten tradition of art that doesn't just look like eatables, but is actually constructed of edible materials. Art that you can chew, swallow and digest. It is in the nature of the media involved that edible art does not last as well as marble or fresco. Quite apart from the difficulties involved in preserving butter or salami, a lot of it is eaten soon after its creation. But notable works of art made from such materials have undoubtedly existed. One is described by Vasari in his little-read Life of the 16th-century Florentine sculptor Giovanni Francesco Rustici.

This Rustici, an associate of Leonardo da Vinci, was fond of jokes and japes (one of which was to train a pet porcupine to lie under the table at his feet like a dog, then rise and rub itself in a friendly but disconcerting fashion against the legs of the guests). He was also a member of a dining club of artists called the Company of the Cauldron. On one occasion the members each produced a piece of edible art for a feast. Rustici came up with a group of Ulysses and his father, modelled and carved out of chicken.

The great painter Andrea del Sarto went one better. He produced an octagonal structure, similar to the Florentine Baptistry. `The pavement,',Vasari relates, `was a vast plate of jelly, with a pattern of mosaic in various colours; the columns, which had the appearance of porphyry, were sausages, long and thick; the socles and capitals were of Parmesan cheese, the cornices of sugar, and the tribune was made of sections of marzipan. In the centre was a choir desk made of cold veal, with a book of lasagne that had the letters and notes of music made of peppercorns, and the singers at the desk were cooked thrushes standing with their beaks open.'

Sounds delicious, but a little rich, and difficult for the amateur cook to produce at home (though the doughty television chefs of yesteryear might have had a go: `Here's a socle that I carved earlier'). Looking at it another way, for a unique piece of gastronomic Renaissance sculpture such as that, the Getty would be happy to pay many millions. Unfortunately, however, the whole thing was sliced up and munched nearly 500 years ago. …

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