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Salt and Shadow

Stories of food, ritual and what we grow. 

Have you ever noticed all of the lemons in Dutch paintings? Peeled, curling rind trailing… Dutch artists produced over a quarter of a million still life and genre paintings in the 17th century and half of them portrayed lemons. The lemon comes from the southeast foothills of the Himalayas, like all citrus fruits, and were spread through the Mediterranean and Europe by the Arabs.

Lemons were highly valued in the 16th and 17th centuries, and would have signified luxury and wealth in cold Northern Europe. They were cultivated in private indoor “orangeries”, or greenhouses by the noble class. The imagery of Dutch still life paintings would have depicted the preferences of the patrons and artists, rather than reality.

This is a gluten-free lemon cake I baked with lots of Meyer lemon juice and zest.

Pomegranates are believed to be one of the first cultivated fruits, based on excavations from the Early Bronze Age. They are native to Iran and the Himalayas, and were cultivated over the entire Mediterranean regions of Asia, Europe and Africa, and extending into China.

They often symbolize mortality or are associated with the flesh and blood, perhaps due to their sanguine color. Pomegranates were buried with the dead in Ancient Egypt to aid their passage to the afterlife. In the Qur’an, pomegranates grow in the four gardens of paradise. They’re woven into vestments of Christian priests, and also said to be embroidered on the robes of the Hebrew high priest. Buddhists see pomegranates as one of the three blessed fruits.

In Buddhist mythology, the demoness Hariti kidnapped and devoured children, until Buddha came to her and showed her what suffering she was causing. She then vowed to protect all children, and instead ate pomegranate to satisfy her thirst. In Greek mythology, pomegranates thought to be the fruit of the dead, and sprung from Adonis’ blood when he lay dying in Aphrodite’s arms. When Persephone is lured to the Underworld by Hades, he tricks her into eating six pomegranate seeds, thus tying her to him. Her mother Demeter was so saddened by her daughter’s absence that the world fell into a cold winter. Pomegranates are in season in September through November when everything transitions to the cold winter.

I’ve been fascinated by the recipes I’ve found for Persian Love Cake that are made of almond flour, and feature rose and cardamom, and sometimes pistachio. It’s a wonderfully fragrant cake, and I added zest from a mandarin I had to make it even brighter

Pistachio trees are originally from Central Asia, or present day Iran and Afghanistan where they grow well in the arid desert climate. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that humans were enjoying pistachios in Turkey as early as 7,000 B.C., and both almonds and pistachios are mentioned in the Bible. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were said to have been lined with pistachio trees. Legend says the king planted them for his homesick queen, who came from the sylvan mountains of the Median Empire.

Maybe this is where the Persian love cake comes from, a sweet labor to make our beloved feel comfortable.

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