Please join Valerie Stivers and Hank Zona for a virtual wine tasting on Friday, May 15, at 6 P.M. on The Paris Review’s Instagram account. For more details, click here, or scroll to the bottom of the page.
My hands smell like strawberries and chicken liver, and I’m drinking a Vernaccia, the “good white wine” of The Decameron. In the middle of cooking, I flip through my phone, scrolling through the orange banners announcing death tolls. It’s incongruous and heartbreaking. As a schoolchild, I used to thrill myself with the horror of the World Wars and spent hours in the library daydreaming over what epoch-defining disaster would happen to me. Vietnam was over. Nuclear fears were easing. It was the Reagan eighties and then the Clinton nineties, and it seemed impossible anything could change. But now the epoch-defining disaster is here, and I’m worrying about the health of my friends and family members, and worrying, too, about all the people grieving or suffering, and I feel uneasy about cooking and eating well under the circumstances. It’s possible that the relative abundance of Vernaccia and tasty giblets could soon dwindle in my household as well. Like everyone else, I’m wondering what changes will come next.
The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375), is a book that sits squarely on one of history’s great pivots. It was completed in 1353, four years after the black death wiped out an estimated 30 to 60 percent of Europe’s population, an event that scholars in the book The Black Death: A Turning Point in History? argue was catalyst for massive change, though they note that the plague also served as a crucible for shifts that were already underway but as yet unseen. Boccaccio, who lived in Florence, probably wasn’t an eyewitness to the plague, but his father was the city’s minister of supply, and The Decameron contains one of history’s best accounts by a contemporary of “the late mortal pestilence,” an occasion of “not merely sickening, but of an almost instantaneous death,” which mysteriously seemed to spread not just by contact with the sick but by touching their things or even looking at them. (Does that sound familiar?)
Boccaccio chronicles how “divers apprehensions and imaginations were engendered in the minds of such as were left alive,” with some deciding to “shun and abhor all contact with the sick and all that belonged to them” and wait in temperate isolation, while others maintained “that to drink freely, frequent places of public resort, and take their pleasure with song and revel” was the way to go. Nonetheless, “in this extremity of our city’s suffering and tribulation the venerable authority of laws, human and divine, was abased and all but totally dissolved.”
This horror, though, is only the book’s frame. A group of wealthy young nobles, seven women and three men, flee the plague-ridden city for a country estate, where they occupy themselves at “tables covered with the whitest of cloths” and picnic in idyllic glades. The aristocrats eat “dishes, daintily prepared,” drink “the finest wines,” and tell raunchy stories, ten per day for ten days, which are the main contents of the book.
And what stories they are: five hundred pages of pranks, adultery, buffoonery, murders, and kidnappings; sessions with a torture device known as the strappado; outraged fathers and horny daughters, lustful priests and crafty maidens, making up a vivid snapshot of medieval life. Florence’s geography is vibrantly rendered, and the characters are a gossipy who’s who of Boccaccio’s Italy: popes and bishops, courtesans, banking families, Black Guelfs, corrupt friars, and even his local painter friends Bruno and Buffalmacco and a particularly stupid companion of theirs, Calandrino. Virtue in these tales might not be where we’d place it—for instance, a wife’s right to deceive her husband in order to stick a fresh pestle in her mortar is viewed very gently here—but justice, by the book’s lights, is usually served.
In this world, the priests and the religious men come in for the roughest treatment, and one of the longest authorial intrusions concerns their greed and stupidity. Nuns fare somewhat better in that they’re assumed to be horny as hell, and one story contrives for a whole convent to have sex with the gardener. Authorial sympathy is with those who get laid by hook or by crook, who cheat and lie, who survive calamitous misfortune or die sticking to their guns. In one tale, a father sends his daughter her lover’s heart in a chalice. Unwilling to live without him, she sprinkles poison on the heart, eats it, “and so dies,” nicely getting even.
Often the stories serve as elaborate dirty jokes. Here’s one: A virtuous Italian noblewoman learns that the king of France has heard of her beauty and is coming to visit in order to have sex with her. The woman cannot turn the king away, so she orders her servants to prepare a many-course feast consisting of only chicken. To paraphrase what happens next, the king is puzzled as plate after plate of chicken arrives, and he eventually asks, “But madame, why all hens and no cock?” Her reply, in essence: “Because I’m never going to fuck you.” The king, impressed by her wit, departs voluntarily.
Besides its literary joys, The Decameron occupies a significant place in history as a document of the transition from feudalism to the Renaissance, with the black death lying between them. The former society emphasized religion, aristocracy, and courtly virtue; it was in decline even before the plague laid waste to European social institutions. The latter emphasized realism, reason, individuality, social mobility, and a return to classical scholarship. The book’s idealized frame reflect the older, feudal virtues, and its wily and effervescent contents presage things to come.
None of this is directly analogous to our time. The key engines of change during the black death were massive depopulation and the direct personal trauma of seeing one’s village become a charnel. Our business and social disruption looks different, but it seems likely that the coronavirus quarantine will have wide-ranging effects, that we’re in the process of destroying the old and building the new, voluntarily or no. It’s an interesting exercise to imagine our future along Boccaccio’s lines: The Decameron loathes sanctimony, tramples sacred cows, and punishes corruption. It takes elites less seriously and celebrates a cast of characters much more diverse than would previously have been allowed. By observing humanity and the world more realistically, it ushers in a new era of scholarship and reason—the Renaissance, no less. What it leaves behind is an orderly society, a traditional value structure, and a secure sense of property.
To me that sounds intriguing. One of the most interesting twists, because it’s the last thing I’d expect to come from the black death, is the return to classical scholarship. Boccaccio wrote The Decameron in the Italian vernacular, but shortly thereafter, he met the humanist scholar and poet Petrarch, who encouraged him to go full Renaissance by switching to writing in Latin. While we’re all fearing the future, it’s worth hoping that some good, lost things might come back to stay—in our case maybe “cooking for ourselves” and “slowing down,” not to even dream of burning less oil and preserving the mystically crystal-clear skies over our cities. Or perhaps those values are our feudal sacred cows, and new ones will emerge that we can’t yet imagine. It’s hard to see around corners.
The Decameron makes endless reference to the good food the characters are eating but is frustratingly silent on specifically what those foods are. In the spirit of the Italian noblewoman of the dirty joke, I made a five-course meal consisting entirely of chicken, and for pandemic thrift, I made it in tiny tasting portions, from a single chicken. I put bite-size bits of candied-fennel chicken on my new go-to ingredient, slices of roasted dried orange. Ideally, this would be done with toothpicks, but pandemic shopping didn’t allow me to secure any. I made satsivi, a Georgian dish of cold chicken in walnut sauce that I’ve always loved, and learned to poach a tender chicken breast in the process. Working off The Decameron’s hatred of religious folk, I made the Italian pasta strozzapreti, which translates as “priest stranglers,” and dressed it in a chicken cacciatore ragù of my own invention.
In one of the stories involving the bumbling Calandrino, his pals Bruno and Buffalmacco tell him a tall tale about a mountain “made entirely of Parmesan cheese, on whose slopes there were people who spent their whole time making gnocchi and ravioli, which they cooked in chicken broth and then cast it to the four winds.” For the broth, I embarked upon my first-ever attempt at clarifying a chicken consommé with a “raft” of egg whites. (Much easier said than done; plus, it creates a really noxious pan residue. The recipe that follows is for gnocchi in a simple chicken broth.) Most deliciously, I asked the nice men at the Vermont Butcher Shop, in Londonderry, to find chicken hearts for me. This was for Georgian kuchmachi, a heart-and-liver hash, which I intended in honor of the stubbornly individualistic girl (new values, Renaissance values) who eats her lover’s heart with a side helping of poison. I have always loved this dish in restaurants but never dared to make it at home. I found a base recipe from the UK-based food writer Olia Hercules and adapted it with ingredients I had, using pecans, strawberries, lemon juice, and molasses instead of walnuts, pomegranate arils, and pomegranate molasses.
Fittingly for The Decameron, if not for our hard times, all this food was extraordinary. And that was before the wine, which wildly elevated the meal. The Decameron is rife with references to wine, “good white wine,” which in places is mentioned as having a golden color. In one story, a baker named Cisti is explained to have an “exceedingly lofty spirit”—that a lowly baker could have a lofty spirit was a sign of the newly emerging class flexibility of the Renaissance. Cisti is “exceedingly rich” and “kept the finest cellar of wines, both red and white, to be found anywhere in Florence.” He lures a visiting pope (in town to try to settle the dispute between the White and Black Guelfs, as one did) to drink with him, another sign of social mobility. In that story, the vintage isn’t specified, but one mentioned several times by name throughout the book is Vernaccia.
Since no Italian noblewoman is without a spirits consultant, I have one, too: my friend Hank Zona, a New Jersey–based wine educator. “When they refer to Vernaccia,” Zona told me, “what they mean is Vernaccia di San Gimignano, which is one of the oldest known grapes/wines in Italian wine and was the hot grape/wine of that time period.” San Gimignano is in Tuscany, between Florence and Siena, about ten kilometers from the village of Certaldo, where Boccaccio’s father was born and where the writer lived in his later years. The particular bottle Zona found for me to serve with my meal cost $15.99 and was from Casale Falchini, a winery owned by the descendants of a vintner for Cosimo de’ Medici. Unfortunately, the closest bottle to my Vermont location was at Gordon’s Wines in Newton, Massachusetts. My mother, who lives near Newton, drove to Gordon’s for a curbside pickup and then met me for a masked drop near the Vermont border—an effort that was lavishly repaid by how the wine’s limestone taste, green-fruit notes, and almost fizzy acidic quality defined and brightened the layers of flavor in my food. It was a disruptor, maybe. Or it was newly discovered, a surprising but old and very good thing. May we find more of them in times to come.
Click here for more information on tasting Vernaccia and discussing The Decameron (no wine experience or reading required) with Valerie and Hank on Friday, May 15, at 6 P.M.
“Chicken Candy” on Roasted Orange Chips
Makes a tasting portion for two.
2 tsp sugar
a chicken thigh
1/3 cup fennel, coarsely chopped
olive oil, for drizzling
salt and pepper, to taste
1/4 tsp fresh thyme, plus more for garnish
To make the roasted orange chips:
A quick note: these should be prepared the night before you wish to make the “chicken candy.”
Preheat the oven to 350.
Take two oranges. Cut one in slices a third of an inch thick. Juice the other. Arrange the orange slices in the bottom of a baking dish, cover with orange juice, and sprinkle with a teaspoon of sugar. Cover with foil, and bake for an hour, until the peel is soft. Remove the slices from the baking dish, and arrange in a single layer in a roasting pan. Sprinkle with the remaining teaspoon of sugar. Cook uncovered for thirty to forty minutes more, until almost all the liquid has evaporated and the slices are sticky and slightly singed. Let cool and dry out overnight, uncovered. You’ll have more chips than you need; reserve for snacking.
To make the chicken candy:
Preheat the oven to 425.
Take the third orange and zest half of it, or enough to make about a teaspoon of zest. Do this carefully so that the peel remains intact on the other half of the orange. Slice, separating the zested half from the half with the intact peel. Juice the zested half. Cut the other half into slices, and then roughly chop.
Arrange the fennel and chopped orange on the bottom of a small roasting tin. Drizzle with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Toss.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the olive oil, thyme, teaspoon of orange zest, and reserved orange juice.
Sprinkle the chicken thigh liberally with salt and pepper, then dip it into the oil-and-orange mixture. Place on top of the fennel-orange mixture, and roast for thirty to thirty-five minutes, until deeply golden. Remove, and let cool enough to handle.
Pull the skin and meat off the roasted chicken thigh, and chop in roughly one-inch chunks. Cut the roasted orange chips into bite-size wedges. Assemble a mixture of chicken, roasted fennel, and roasted orange on each chip, and top with a few leaves of thyme. Serve warm.
Makes a tasting portion for two.
a chicken breast, skin on
1 tbs walnut oil
1/2 small onion, chopped
a garlic clove, minced
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1/4 tsp chili powder
1/4 tsp ground cumin
1/8 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
1 cup chicken stock, plus more to taste
1 tbs cider vinegar
1 tsp salt (or to taste)
chopped coriander, to garnish
Aleppo pepper, to garnish
Place the unseasoned chicken breast in a small saucepan just large enough to contain it, and surround with a tiny bit of water, about a quarter inch in depth. Put the cold pan on a burner set to the very lowest heat, and cover. Cook at barely a simmer—a sweat is okay—for fifteen to twenty minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. Allow to cool completely in the water.
While the meat is cooling, heat the walnut oil in a small sauté pan over medium-low heat, then add the onion and cook until wilted, about four minutes. Add the garlic and all the spices, and sauté for two minutes. Turn off the heat.
Combine the sautéed onion mixture, the chopped walnuts, and the chicken stock in the blender, and whiz until creamy and combined. The sauce should be the consistency of heavy cream or melted ice cream; if it’s too thick, add more chicken stock. Add the cider vinegar, and taste for seasoning. Depending on the saltiness of your stock, add up to a teaspoon of additional salt.
Remove the skin from the cooked chicken breast, and cut it into half-inch cubes. Place in a shallow serving dish, pour over the walnut-cream mixture, and chill, three hours or overnight. Serve garnished with chopped coriander and Aleppo pepper.
Gnocchi in Chicken Broth
Makes a tasting size portion for two. This recipe is adapted from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.
a chicken back or carcass (or a whole chicken for a more flavorful broth)
1/2 a carrot
a stick of celery
1/2 an onion
a bay leaf
1 tsp salt
3 egg whites
1/2 lb boiling potatoes, preferably yellow, with a nice flavor
1/3 cup flour
First, make a stock. Cover the chicken carcass with water, add the carrot, celery, onion, bay leaf, salt, and peppercorns, and bring to a boil, regularly skimming off any scum that forms on top. Once the water boils, cover, and turn down to a low simmer. Cook for two hours. Allow to cool slightly, then strain out the solids, and return to the pan. Bring to a boil, and reduce the volume by a quarter. Refrigerate until cold.
Next, make the gnocchi. Boil the potatoes, still in their skins, in abundantly salted water until they’re soft, around twenty minutes depending on size. If the potatoes are too al dente, they will be difficult to process.
When the potatoes are cooked, drain and peel as soon as you can handle them. Chop into large chunks, and put through a food mill or potato ricer.
Add most of the flour to the riced potatoes, and knead into a smooth mixture. Some potatoes will take more flour than others, so it’s best not to add all the flour at once. Stop adding flour when the mixture is soft, smooth, and still slightly sticky.
Shape into sausage-like rolls about as thick as your thumb, then cut the rolls into three-quarter-inch lengths.
With flour, dust your working surface, your fingers, and a fork with rounded, slim tines.
The following process for shaping the gnocchi sounds more complicated than it is. Hold a fork in your left hand, horizontal to the countertop, with the concave part facing you. With the other hand, place a dumpling just below the tip of the tines, and press it with your index finger, which should be perpendicular to the fork. While pressing the dumpling with your finger, flip it away from the tine tips and toward the handle. As it rolls to the base, let it drop to to the countertop. The dumpling will be somewhat crescent-shaped, with ridges on one side and a deep depression formed by your fingertip. This helps the gnocchi cook more evenly and makes the sauce stick better.
Drop the gnocchi, about two dozen at a time, into boiling salted water. In a very short time they will float to the surface. Let them cook about eight to ten seconds more, until they puff up, and remove with a slotted spoon.
To assemble, first lift off any fat that has solidified on the top of the stock. Warm about a cup of the stock in a small saucepan. Taste for seasoning. Ladle into two small bowls, add about a half dozen gnocchi each, and serve.
Strozzapreti (“Priest Stranglers”) in Cacciatore Ragù
For the pasta:
1 cup flour
For the ragù:
2 tbs olive oil
1 large chicken thigh (or two small ones, or a thigh and a leg)
Salt and pepper
1 clove garlic, minced
small chunk red pepper, chopped
small chunk yellow pepper, chopped
1/2 carrot, sliced
3 mushrooms, sliced
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp fresh thyme
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/3 cup white wine
1 cup crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup black olives
Parmesan, to serve
2 tbs parsley, chopped, to garnish
2 tbs basil, chopped, to garnish
To make the pasta:
First, a note on handmade pasta: I have found that the King Arthur 00 flour I use is consistently more absorbent than this recipe suggests. Pasta dough should be soft and pliant. Adding all the flour at once results in a stiff, dry dough. I mix in just enough flour that the dough comes together and then add more, slowly, just enough to keep it from sticking while I knead.
Pour a cup of flour on the countertop in a pile. Make a well in the center with your fingers. Crack two eggs into the well. Using a fork, whisk the eggs until they’re combined, taking care not to breach the integrity of the well. When the eggs are well blended, continue whisking, pulling the flour into the egg mixture in small increments. Shore up the walls of the well with your hands, if need be, pushing more flour into the center. Continue until the mixture becomes tacky and can be kneaded by hand. Do not combine all the flour into the egg mixture at this point. You’re looking for a soft, smooth dough, just dry enough to handle. Knead for ten minutes, until smooth and elastic. Cover with a damp towel, and allow to rest for thirty minutes.
When the dough has rested, flour a work surface, and roll the dough out into a large sheet, about two millimeters in thickness. Cut into long strips. Roll the strips back and forth between your palms to make the twisted-sausage shape of the strozzapretti. Cut in three-inch lengths, and reroll the ends if necessary. Place on a floured surface, uncovered and separated so they don’t touch one another—they’ll stick—until ready to cook.
To make the ragù:
Heat the oil in a medium sauté pan until very hot. Pat the chicken pieces dry, then aggressively salt and pepper them, and add to the pan. Fry without moving until crispy and browned, then turn and fry the other side. When the chicken is browned, remove and reserve, and turn the heat down to medium-low.
Add the garlic, pepper, carrot, mushrooms, red pepper flakes, thyme, and oregano, and sauté, stirring occasionally for three to four minutes until the vegetables begin to wilt. Then add the wine, scrape the pan to deglaze it, and bring to a boil. When the wine has reduced by half, add the tomatoes and black olives. Stir. Taste for salt, adding some if necessary. Return the chicken to the sauce, cover, turn the heat down to low, and simmer for twenty minutes, turning occasionally, until the chicken is cooked through and tender. Turn off the heat.
Remove the chicken from the pan, and let sit until it is cool enough to handle. Pull and chop the meat, and return it to the sauce.
In the meantime, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add the strozzapreti, and cook until al dente, about twelve minutes.
Serve a tasting portion of pasta, topped with a few spoonfuls of ragù, parsley, basil, and a sprinkle of Parmesan.
Strawberry Heart Hash (Kuchmachi)
Serves two as a side dish.
2 tbs olive oil
4 chicken hearts, quartered
a chicken liver, chopped, stringy bits removed
two big pinches of Malden salt
2 tbs onions, minced
1/2 a garlic clove, minced
2 tbs pecans, minced
1/4 tsp coriander seeds
1/8 tsp black cumin seed, za’atar, or dried thyme
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
2 splashes of chicken stock or water
1/2 tsp molasses
juice of 1/3 lemon
2 jumbo strawberries, diced
2 tbs parsley leaves, chopped
Heat a tablespoon of oil in a small sauté pan until very hot. Add chicken hearts and liver, and fry without stirring, until very browned and crispy. Then, stir and brown the other side. Salt liberally.
Remove the hearts and livers, and reserve. Add the other tablespoon of oil and the onions, and turn the heat down to medium-low. Fry, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent and beginning to brown.
Add the nuts and all the spices, and fry two minutes, until fragrant. Return the hearts and livers to the pan, add the chicken stock or water, and fry, stirring occasionally, for two to three minutes, until the flavors meld. Add the molasses, and fry a minute more.
Toss with lemon juice, strawberries, and parsley leaves, and serve warm.
Please join Valerie Stivers and Hank Zona on Friday, May 15 at 6 P.M. for a virtual wine tasting on The Paris Review’s Instagram account. You: Bring a bottle of Vernaccia, any Tuscan white wine, or either of the other Italian Vs—Vermentino or Verdicchio—and we’ll give you tasting notes and discuss the Boccaccio stories in which the wine appears. No wine experience or previous knowledge of The Decameron required.
Vernaccia is available at most quality wine stores. If it’s not in stock, it can likely be special ordered with advance notice. You’re looking for Vernaccia di San Gimignano by any producer; the one we recommend is from Casale Falchini. You could also check the liquor-delivery app Drizly or the chain Total Wine. A list of stores in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and New Jersey that had Vernaccia in stock at press time appears below. Anyone outside of those areas who needs help finding a bottle can email us (email@example.com).
179 Columbus Ave
New York, NY 10023
399 Lafayette St
New York, NY 10003
Beacon Wines & Spirits
New York, NY 10023
Chambers Street Wines
148 Chambers St A
New York, NY 10007
Garnet Wines & Liquors
929 Lexington Ave
New York, NY 10065
Sea Grape Wine Shop
512 Hudson St
New York, NY 10014
Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits
505 Park Ave
New York, NY 10022
Union Square Wines
140 4th Ave
New York, NY 10003
Warehouse Wines & Spirits
New York, NY 10003
153 Franklin St
Brooklyn, NY 11222
436 7th Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11215
In New Jersey:
343 W Mt Pleasant Ave
Livingston, NJ 07039
127 Central Ave
Westfield, NJ 07090
Stirling Fine Wines
1168 Valley Rd #5
Stirling, NJ 07980
Village Wine Shop
163 Maplewood Ave
Maplewood, NJ 07040
586 Morris Ave
Springfield Township, NJ 07081
Valerie Stivers is a writer based in New York. Read earlier installments of Eat Your Words.