The Medieval Review 11.02.15

Montanari, Massimo. Brombert, Beth Archer, Trans. Cheese, Pears and History in a Proverb. Arts and Traditions of the Table. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. Pp. 116. $26.50 ISBN 978-0-231-15250-1. .

Reviewed by:

Paul Freedman
Yale University

Even in an age of narcissism and first-person journalism it isn't customary for reviewers of scholarly literature to put themselves forward before getting around to reviewing the book at hand. Nevertheless I feel compelled to say at the outset that this short study (90 pages plus bibliographic references), for all that its subject is completely new to me, encapsulates almost uncannily my own interests over the last few years as it concerns gastronomy (especially its social symbolism), seigneurial representations of the peasantry (along with some attention to peasant opinions of their masters as well), and the peculiar power and durability of proverbs. Montanari starts out as if he is going to offer a micro-history of one somewhat puzzling maxim, but the book turns into something considerably more complex as it describes the reversibility and circularity of our perceptions and articulations of reality.

Along with the late Jean-Louis Flandrin, Massimo Montanari has been a pioneer in the study of medieval as well as modern cuisine. He has discussed changing fashions in food and how these tastes were shaped by considerations of social distinction. Food conveyed social claims and status in the Middle Ages and this remains true now even if the specific items have taken on new symbolic meanings. One era's fish waste might be another's caviar; organ meats and root vegetables are suddenly chic after decades of lowliness.

We begin with an old but still current Italian aphorism: "Do not let the peasant know how good cheese is with pears". The ensuing investigation analyzes this bit of advice whose actual meaning is not at all clear, despite the widespread popularity of the saying throughout Italy and similar formulations elsewhere in Europe. Proverbs are usually supposed to be distillations of folk or lower- class wisdom. Sancho Panza is given to proverbial observations, so much so that the usually oblivious Don Quixote curses him and asks for sixty thousand devils to take him away along with his irritating sayings. Sam Gamgee doesn't annoy Frodo to the same degree in Lord of the Rings, although he makes frequent down-to-earth gnomic observations, sometimes citing his father's authority for them. Yet the humorous warning about cheese and the pears expresses contempt for ordinary people voiced by a person of superior rank even if historically its use was not limited to the privileged classes but rather was always well-known to peasants.

The combination of pears and cheese is hardly counter-intuitive nor an intrinsic mystery. As early as the thirteenth century a French saying asserts that God never made such a blessed marriage (Onques Deus ne fist tel mariage / Comme de poire et de fromage). Montanari notes that in 2007, a town in Friuli famous for its cheese was twinned with one in Emilia-Romagna noted for pears. The first introduction of an anti-peasant aspect to this pairing comes in the late sixteenth century: "May you never know, peasant, what it is to eat bread, cheese and pears" (Non possa tu mai villano sapere / Cio ch'è mangiar pane, cacio e pere).

However tasty pears and cheese are, setting them side-by-side is odd for a proverb with explicit class implications because cheese was a typical peasant food while pears were aristocratic delicacies. Montanari devotes the first part of the book to the medieval attitudes towards the two items. Cheese was avoided by the upper classes as a crude and unhealthful peasant staple until the fifteenth century when in Italy a fashion for dressing up simple dishes and hierarchical ranking of certain cheeses as prestigious made cheese more common in aristocratic entertaining. Noble consumption of cheese remained distinct from peasant patterns since for the latter cheese was a main ingredient of a meal while for the well-off, cheese and fruit comprised a small course to close a meal.

Unlike cheese, pears were always considered desirable, as were all tree fruit. They are, or at least seemed to be, particularly delicate, easily bruised and spoiled and so prized for their fragility. In fact, however, some varieties are tough enough to be stored in winter, but these hardy fruit were avoided by those with some choice in the matter. Pears were commonly gifts made between nobles, so that for example the Gonzaga dukes of Mantua gave away their own early-ripening precoce di Moglia pears to their friends.

Different in social cachet, pears and cheese were nevertheless equal objects of medical disapproval, cheese because of its heaviness and supposed indigestibility (common to most peasant fare such as beans or root vegetables), and pears because of their humorally cold nature which endangered the stomach. Doctors reluctantly allowed the consumption of cooked fruit while cheese also achieved a grudgingly accorded medical respectability. Cheese came to be seen as variable in its properties and so capable of being matched with different personal temperaments as argued by Pantaleone da Confienza in his late-fifteenth century Summa laticiniorum whose composition marks the advance of cheese into elite consideration.

The turning point of Montanari's intricate book is the introduction of the social differentiation of gastronomic taste. The notion of fixed, class- appropriate foods is particularly important to the seigneurial image of the lowly, even bestial rustic. It's not only that peasants depend on porridge, dairy products or onions for their sustenance, but that this is their "natural" fodder. Even when given the opportunity to consume better fare they cannot tolerate refined food any more than nobles can readily digest the crude provender of agricultural laborers. There are many medieval stories about well-off peasants who marry into the upper classes and cannot adapt themselves to the diet appropriate to their new status. Montanari cites the example of the wily Bertraldo, a successful rustic who met a bad end at court because of the exquisite food he had to eat. Once he fell ill he begged the doctors to bring him beans simmered with onions and turnips cooked under ashes, but as they did not comply, he died. Other examples have a happier ending as the upstart peasant's wasting indigestion is suddenly relieved when he is provided with beans and peas with soaked bread, or cheese, or leeks and onions.

Taste and social status are, in fact, malleable and shifting despite the efforts of medieval anecdotes to present food preference as fixed by nature and class. On a basic level it would seem that cheese is a rustic staple while pears are an aristocratic fancy, but the ascent of cheese to a position of gustatory prestige shows that reputations can change. The real fear seems to have been that the more successful peasants would be able not only to tolerate but enjoy things deemed inappropriate to their rank. The proverb about the pears and cheese expresses a common noble and urban dislike of peasants not so much in their traditional rural squalor but as socially mobile and newly enfranchised.

The proverb is a bit more complicated, however. It is not as if the peasants didn't know what pears were, after all. Medieval and early modern rustics were responsible not only for cheese-making but for taking care of fruit trees as well. Pears were not like spices, purchased as imported luxuries and so relatively (but by no means completely) unavailable to the lower orders. Even if peasants had somehow discovered that cloves were delicious, they could hardly have done anything with this knowledge, while if they knew how felicitous the matching of pears and cheese was, they would start stealing, holding back or otherwise appropriating the pears in their custody.

There are still additional layers to this seemingly simple saying and in a final section Montanari shows us something about the flexibility of this maxim and indeed of all proverbial wisdom despite, or because of the aphorisms' pithily authoritative statements of the way the world is. It is not enough to find out the "origin" of a saying but to see who says it, who can say it and with what polyvalent overtones. If the peasants already know about pears and cheese, then in their enunciation the proverb has a rather amusing set of meanings that might range from the fatuousness of upper-class claims to special knowledge to expressing the comic degradation of worldly wisdom too widely disseminated (consider the fate of the modern American cliché that the three most important price factors in real estate are "location, location, location," which once counted as serious advice but is now risible).

This brief summary of the ins and outs of Montanari's argument only peels the skin off the proverbial pear. Cheese, Pears, and History is a marvelous book whose brevity reveals twists and surprises in its carefully reasoned observations and conclusions.