The roots of the Rafaellesco, a classic majolica pattern from the Umbrian city of Deruta, can be traced back to the famous Renaissance artist Raffaello Sanzio. The borders of his frescoes were often decorated with symbolic decorations depicting dragons and mythical animals. During late 16th century Italian ceramicists adapted the stylized designs from Raphael’s frescoes, giving rise to a pattern that is still popular today. The benevolent dragons can be found on tiles, plates, bowls, platters, vases and cups with puffs of wind steaming from their mouths, granting good luck and fair winds to the seagoing merchants of the time.
Over 200 ceramic (ceramiche) workshops and shops are located in and around Deruta and throughout the area you can find chapels, palazzos and basilicas decorated with these exquisite hand painted works of art. One of the most notable is the sacristy of the Basilica of San Pietro in Perugia with the remains of a pavement made from Deruta tiles. Today travelers to Deruta can still browse the cobble-stoned streets to find a piece of majolica to begin or add to their collection. My choice – hand painted espresso cups and biscotti jars although I seriously covet large ceramic wall plates, astonishing statements of color and art that often tell a story (istoriato) or celebrate an occasion (piatti da pompa) and are as evocative as a Renaissance fresco .
Italian majolica is filled with symbols of pomegranates. Ceramic shops throughout Tuscany and Umbria “ceramiche artistiche vendenta” sell vases, urns, jars and pitchers featuring pomegranates paired with flowers, fruits and stylized dragons. Pomegranates are one of the oldest fruits known to man. King Tut took a pomegranate vase into the afterlife with him and the pillars of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem were decorated with pomegranates. Italian painters of the Renaissance frequently used the pomegranate as a symbol of plenitude, hope and spiritual fruitfulness. In Botticelli’s painting of the Virgin and Child with Seven Angels the Holy Child is pictured holding a pomegranate. The pomegranate plays such a prominent role in the painting that it has become known as the Madonna of the Pomegranate.
Throughout world history pomegranates have been used as a source of traditional remedies and modern research supports their role as an antioxidant-rich fruit. Throughout gastro-history the pomegranate has been a favored ingredient in most cultural cuisines including Italy where it is called il melograno. It pairs well with Mediterranean foods including radicchio, the red-lined lettuce of the Veneto that our family loved to sauté simply with olive oil and garlic.
Focus on the pomegranate as a theme for an Italian inspired Mother’s Day dinner. Begin with an Italian tablescape of Umbrian linens and a centerpiece of flowers and pomegranates. Start the meal with a Tintoretto , an aperitivo made with chilled pomegranate juice and sparkling Prosecco. Use the juice to make a radicchio salad and as a glaze for a wood-grilled pork tenderloin and end the meal with Panna Cotta di Melograno (Pomegranate Panna Cotta ).
Pomegranate Radicchio Salad
Trim the radicchio, discard the outer leaves. Wash inner leaves, dry well and coarsely tear into pieces. Combine with a dressing made from the juice of 2 pomegranates (or use POM Juice), 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil and 1 t green peppercorns in brine, rinsed.
Charlemagne, lanceolate, light green color, intense aroma – descriptions of an encounter with a medieval Tuscan dragon? – No they are the gastronomic backstory behind dragoncello, the Italian word for the herb tarragon. Native to Central Asia tarragon spread west into Italy after the Crusades. Culinary historians write that the herb was brought into Tuscany by Charlemagne around 774 and then grown in the gardens of the Abbey of Sant’Antimo, near Montalcino. Charlemagne stopped near Montalcino on his return to Rome. His army was suffering from the plague and he decided to make camp when an angel advised him to collect a particular kind of grass and infuse it with Brunello wine (not bad medicine). The army was cured and Charlemagne built an abbey on the site dedicated to the martyred Saint Antimo.
Herbs such as menta (mint) and dragoncello may not be as familiar as basil and oregano when thinking of Italian cooking but the regional foods of Siena in Tuscany and certain parts of Umbria make liberal use of these aromatic herbs in dishes like cannoli di ricotta al dragoncello e pecorino (short crust pastry stuffed with ricotta cheese, tarragon and pecorino cheese), gnocchi verdi alle erbette con menta e dragoncello (gnocchi served with a sauce made of mint, tarragon and parsley) and funghi porcini al dragoncello (porcini mushrooms flavored with tarragon). There is a popular Tuscan salsa called Dragoncello Sauce that is served with vegetables, fritto misto, beef, poultry and seafood. Certain regional olive oils are even described with grassy notes of dragoncello and sage.
You’ll need to travel outside the tourist flow to see and savor this side of Italy so make sure to look for local trattorie in towns like Colle di Val’ d’ Elsa, Siena, Artimino and Volterra. Here you’ll find profumato al dragoncello wafting through the air with delightful dishes that are particular to the region all without a fire-breathing dragon in sight.
*dragoncello means “little dragon” in Latin thought to be named for the pungent flavor or for the herb’s serpentine roots