Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Art and Love in Renaissance Italy AND a wafering iron

One of the exhibits on display until Feb. 16th at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art is called "Art and Love in Renaissance Italy," and it's well worth a visit. I loved the artwork, but even made a culinary discovery that I'll tell you about in a sec.

First let me recommend the show. It's a real treat to see all these beautiful works of art - from ceramic plates to dowry chests to paintings and drawings - that were created during the 15th and 16th centuries as expressions of love.

Expect to see typical depictions of "Venus and Cupid," as in the detail above by Lorenzo Lotto, as well as other less controversial paintings and art objects. But don't say I didn't warn you when you come across quite a few pieces of art featuring phalluses (phalli?)- including an engraving that must be four feet wide, with enough appendages to satisfy a brothel.

OK, so this is a family blog - onto the culinary part.

One of the items in the exhibit looked exactly like something my husband found when we were living in Rome. There it was, this cast iron implement with two rectangular plates that closed shut via two long long handles. It was leaning against a street post outside the church of San Sabino in the Aventine neighborhood. Intriqued, and an intrepid scavenger, my husband schlepped it back to our apartment, and then back to the U.S. at the end of our stay.

It was sort of reminiscent of a pizzelle iron, but the space between the two plates was too slight to accommodate a batter. Engraved on one part of the inside were the intertwined initials "C" & "R". The year "1939" was engraved on the other half. We just weren't sure what it was used for.

My husband experimented, slathering the iron with some olive oil and placing a piece of crustless Wonder Bread sprinkled with some minced rosemary in the middle. He squeezed the two halves together and cooked them for a few minutes over an open flame. What emerged was a crusty, crispy cracker that made a nice accompaniment to a glass of wine. But somehow we didn't think they had Wonder Bread in the Renaissance.

We finally found out what it really was when we saw a nearly identical one dating from the 16th century in the Met's exhibit. The one at the Met has round plates, not rectangular. We learned that such implements are called "wafering irons," and were used for making wafers that were served at the end of festive meals. Recipes for them are found as early as the late fourteenth century, according to the exhibit's catalog. The wafering iron in the show was used to provide personalized wafers for a wedding feast, and then kept to commemorate the event.

I just had to try a pizzelle recipe on my own wafering iron, even though my gut feeling was that the batter would indeed squirt out when I pressed the two plates together. As a backup, I had my REAL pizzelle iron warming up in case this didn't work. Well, guess what? It worked, but not so well that I'll be churning these out for the next ceremony held by C & R. The plates really have no space in between, so all the batter kept squeezing out, leaving me with a very thin and very crispy, easy to break pizzelle. No complaints, they tasted great. But I'll leave the wafering iron by the fireplace, where it makes a nice conversation piece. I'll continue to use my pizzelle iron and will post a recipe shortly.
It's hard to see the imprint in the center where the initials C&R are intertwined on one side, and the date of 1939 on the other.

Now the question remains. Who was C? Who was R? Did Carlo marry Rita in 1939? Or Riccardo wed Camilla? Or did Carlotta Ruspoli become a nun in 1939? I guess we'll never know.


  1. GREAT post and story! I loved this! How cool!
    You are the only person I know that can tie in such an obscure "junk" find with a wonderful Italian story and recipe to boot! Unreal!
    I have to get to this exhibit!

  2. I LOVE monograms, being an antiques dealer & collect anything with beautiful initials.
    I guess I will have to go on ebay now and find one of these.
    The wonder bread wafers are too beautiful.
    We saw the exhibit at the MET, but I missed the iron.
    What a great post!

  3. What a fun story! So apropos for the two of you. It really made me smile.

  4. Loved the exhibit, loved the wafers!


  5. I am overdue for a visit to the Metropolitan museum. It sounds like an interesting exhibit!

    The wafering iron is so unique! I wonder why is was propped up outside a church? The Wonder Bread actually looks good!:)

    We went to see Lucia di Lammermoor at The Met last night and Villazon was still ill! Giuseppe Filanoti replaced him, and after a slow start ended magnificently!

  6. I have to say I just love the look of the wonder bread wafers! The design is absolutely beautiful!

  7. What a beautiful object. A very interesting post.

  8. That is fantastic!!! This post is just further fueling my desire to get some more Italian antiquing in before returning to the US this summer.

  9. It's always nice when you can not only be informed, but also get knowledge, from these type of blog, nice entry. Thanks

  10. Oh my, but Linda, you are in possession of something I have sought for years, an authentic Abruzzese Ferratelle iron! Can you feel the envy all the way from California?? I do not know what happened to our family's iron, but sadly it is lost to time. The irons are exactly what you have described and pictured. They are made of iron (ferro), often scavenged from railroad tracks, and so the wafers made in them are known as Ferratelle. The handles are long in order that that one can hold the tool over an open fire without burning one's hands. They were a treasured gift given to a bride; often the date of the wedding was engraved on the iron along with the family initials or crest. Think of the wafers as pizzelle. They have many other names throughout the boot. For Ferratelle one uses a dough rather than a batter. In order to adequately cover the rectangular surface of the iron, one fashions the dough into a rope and then winds it into a figure eight. There are many endearing stories that go along with Ferratelle, none more so than the dictates regarding the cooking time. Tradition and tutte le nonne d'Abruzzo dictate one say an Ave Maria to cook the first side, give the iron a flip, and say a Pater Noster to cook the other side. I just can not tell you what a smile your post has brought to me, maybe even a tear or two, also. Grazie mille.