Peasants and Pitchers

The Manner of Glass



“It is more delightful, polite and sightly than any other material known to the world…since from Glass there ariseth neither Rust nor Taste nor Smell nor any other Quality”

                                                               Antonio Neri L’Arte Vetraria

Crystal was the ultimate in stealth wealth. For the socially aspirational Renaissance citizen, it was also bewildering.  This perfectly transparent product, perfected by the masters of Murano in the fifteenth century appeared deceptively plain, its purity requiring no gaudy painting or gilding to advertise its quality. Owning and using cristallo was amongst the ultimate status symbols, but its appreciation demanded not only new aesthetic perception, but a different code of behaviour. As illustrated in the two paintings here, Veronese’s Wedding at Cana and Breughel’s Peasant Wedding, glass could pinpoint guests with vicious accuracy on the social scale. 

Glass was a key commodity in Venice’s mighty trading empire. From Trebizond to Tyre, through Egypt and the Western Mediterranean, the Greek islands to the wastes of the Arctic, Venetian merchants exchanged this curious substance, this “fourth state of matter” whose liquid molecular structure renders it transparent though its viscosity is so high it appears solid. In the suqs of the East, the Venetians established their funduqs ( from Arabic, whence derives the Venezian fondaco), and the glass they sold transformed the fortunes and the appearance of their home city. Venice herself was transformed in a vision of glass:

“It is as if the image of an Eastern city has been projected onto Venice’s amphibious site, like a transparent veil of coloured light from a magic lantern.”

In his 1530 bestselling conduct manual, Erasmus described Civility itself in terms of glass, as an “invisible wall” between actors in social situations. The progressive refinement of external manners were believed to demonstrate character and virtue as transparently as this curious new commodity. As Veronese’s “coppiere” (cupbearer) shows, glass required an elegant physical choreography, balancing the vessel delicately and using as few fingers as possible. In contrast to the guest at Breughel’s feast, swilling his wine greedily straight from the jug, the refined guest sipped moderately from their fragile goblet, a shallow bowl on a fashionable baluster stem. Raising the little finger and sipping discreetly while maintaining an erect posture were essential indicators of good breeding, which in turn illustrated the security of a prosperous, peaceful culture. No need for shared trenchers, swords on the table, or suspicion between host and guest- until the fifteenth century cups of wine would be presented by a servant bearing a lighted torch to show their contents, emptied and then returned to the sideboard to be washed by the bottigliere- but in Venice, the quality of the glassware was so fine that jugs and goblets could be left safely on the table. After all, cristallo was apotropaic, so the merest hint of poison would shatter the glass. Moreover, a Venetian cupbearer was not only of “honourable bodily stature and extremely clean in his life and his clothing”, but, according to Sigismondi’s Practice of Courtesy, a manual from seventeenth century Ferrara, able to “read” a glass and select the most appropriate wine for the guests’ health. Swigging was for barbarians. After visiting Venice, the French essayist Montaigne keenly adopted the new custom of glassware, remarking that “The German’s goal is to swallow wine rather than taste it”. 

Glass had become more than a luxury display item, it had become a signifier of moral qualities. “Drawing warily and agreeably the finger from the cup” necessitated clean hands and a gentle touch, which in turn evolved into an elaborate etiquette of courteous social exchange. Much to the disgust of conservatives in northern Europe, Venetian manners were dainty, considerate- feminine. The table was no longer something to roll under after a bout of boastful drinking but, as Veronese’s painting shows, a theatre for the display of rank and the exchange of elevated ideas. This new atmosphere of gentility made mixed dining appropriate for women, giving them, literally, a seat at the table. So as we celebrate Venice Glass Week this evening we might consider that glass not only revolutionised the way Europeans dined, but the way they thought and saw, not least of their companions in this sparkling new world.

Our dishes tonight are inspired by the vast reach of the glassmerchants’ trading routes. Beginning with Trebizond on the Black Sea, our combination of Plum and Date Pekmez with Tahini recalls the swirling colours of the Murano furnaces. Prawn Saganaki takes us to Crete, whilst refreshing Cucumber Soup gestures to the flavours of the Alexandria funduq. The woody hills of Mallorca, where glass was traded as early as the ninth century, are recalled in our Lavender and Honey Duck whilst for pudding we couldn’t resist a Baked Alaska, where some of the earliest pre-Colombian European artefacts were recently verified in the blue glass hoard of Punyik Point.

serves 4

1 kg Large Plum tomatoes (or tinned equivalent)
2 garlic cloves
1tbsp fresh oregano
2 slithers of lemon peel
250ml of white wine (for reducing)
salt and pepper
chopped mint
200gr of large prawns
splash of ouzo
120gr Chilled and cubed feta

-Scorch the top of each of your tomotoes, then throw them for 30 seconds into the boiling water, just until you see the skin begin to pull back. Dive it straight back into ice cold water and then peel.- (Or add your tineed and prepealed tomatoes, whatever you prefer).
In the meantime reduce the wine over a low heat until halved. Put to one side. Add the olive oil and garlic to a heavy based pan, toast until golden brown then add the tomatoes and all the other ingredients apart for the sauce, including reduced wine. Let this simmer over a medium heat, uncovered until the sauces reduces slightly. Blend everything together.

Preheat oven to Grill 240c. Prepare the gamberi, cleaning and slicing in two any large ones. Cube the chilled feta and slice the spring onions into 1cm diagonal pieces.

Add the prawns to a pan over a medium heat, and then we like to add a splash of Ouzo. Cooked off until only the slight aniseed flavour remains. Then stir into the warm tomato sauce. Lay everything into an oven proof dish and then dot the feta and spring onions.
Cook on high gril for 4-6 minutes, or until feta is slightly charred. Serve with fresh herbs and squeeze of lemon.

serves 4

4 duck breasts
Lacquer mix:
1 tbsp of coriander seeds
1 tbsp of Lavender
100ml light soya sauce
3 tbsp fish sauce
2 orange juice + zest
4 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick
1 tbsp of brown sugar
2 tbsp honey

Crush the coriander and lavender lightly together with a pestle and motar. Place together with all the laquer ingredients in a pan. Bring to a simmer and reduce by half.

Meanwhile, place the duck skin side down in a cool pan. Starting in a cool pan helps to render the fat before sealing the skin and making it crispy. When the pan is too hot it will seal to quickly and the fat will remain inside.

Turn on a low-medium heat. Once the duck fat has been rendered (10-12 mins). The fat will drain out and the skin will become crispy. Move the breast, skin side up, to a roasting tray. When the laquer has reduced, pour it over the breast. Catching any excess laquer and pouring it back into the pan. Continue to reduce for a few minutes and then spoon over a second layer. Continue doing this for another 6-8 times. It will take about an hour. If you run out of laquer add some water (approx 200 ml) and 1 tbps of sugar into the pan and continue.

Preheat oven to 220c. When ready to cook, place the duck skin side up, to roast. Medium rare (10-12mins). Let rest for for 5 minutes after taking it out of the oven.