Medieval Prawn Pie – Pastello de Gambari


Torte and pastelli were among the most popular medieval and Renaissance courses. Both the terms can be translated as pies, but they are two different preparations. Torta is made with a thin sheet of dough, similar to lasagna, with one or more crusts (usually two). The basic crust is prepared simply with flour and water, sometimes adding eggs, but in the Renaissance, the recipes become more and more complex. Pastello instead is made with a thick crust, about half a finger. Unfortunately, medieval sources do not describe the method to prepare this crust. Is it frequent in the medieval cookbooks: the authors write for other professional cooks who do not need to be reminded of the basic preparations. We find a complete description just in Renaissance sources. For this pastello, we used one of the many recipes written by Bartolomeo Scappi. There are many variants. You will find them described below with the original source.
A few months ago, we prepared a chicken pie following the recipe of an anonymous Southern-Italian author, conventionally called Anonimo Meridionale (14th century). Today we chose another recipe from the same source, a shrimp pastello: a rich and flavorful dish, with many ingredients, to rediscover the aromas of the late Middle Ages. We used here our homegrown saffron. For more information about this essential spice, we suggest reading the recipe for preparing a beef stew suited for peasants and rustics published here.
To follow each step of this preparation, in particular the crust, we suggest watching the video (with English and Italian captions). Below you will find the method, the original sources, our translations into English, and a note about ingredients and preparation. Enjoy!

1 kg shrimps, prawns, or crayfish
pine nuts
spices (black pepper, cloves, fresh ginger, saffron)
300 gr white wheat flour
90 gr lard or olive oil
one egg

Prawn Pie Dish.jpg

Preparation of the crust
Knead together flour, one egg, lard, two pinches of salt, and a bit of water. Let the dough rest in a cool place while you prepare the filling.

Original text
Habbisi apparecchiata la cassa del pasticcio, fatta di farina setacciata et impastata con acqua fredda, et uova, et sale, et un poco di strutto, la quale cassa non sia troppo sottile et più larga in fondo che in cima.

Prepare the cassa [crust] of the pasticcio [a variant of the word pastello, with the same meaning], made with flour sifted and knead with cool water, eggs, salt, a little lard. This cassa has to be not excessively thin and the bottom larger than the upper crust [the author refers here to a two-crust pasticcio].

Prawn Pie Preview 2.jpg

Note about the method
Other ingredients were used in the Renaissance to prepare the cassa of the pastello. Scappi and Messisbugo, another author of the 16th century, mention for example rose water, saffron, and sugar. Sometimes, the cassa is prepared without lard or eggs. Recipes for the lean days exclude these ingredients; other versions require butter, almond butter, or even olive oil instead of lard. Butter is rarely used in Italian medieval cuisine, at least, not in high-end recipes. Olive oil and almond butter are better to prepare a philological dish for the lean days.
Not always the crust is meant to be eaten. In this case, Scappi recommends using whole flour.
It is important using cold water, Scappi writes, to prevent the dough from leavening and ruining the outcome. This in summer: in winter, water has to be at room temperature.
Usually, the crust of the pastello is about half a finger thick. In this case, the medieval author specifies that this shrimp pie has to be quite thin, as a consequence, we prepared a thinner crust.

Preparation of the filling
Pound well in the mortar almonds and pine nuts leaving a few aside still whole to finish the dish. Grind black pepper, cloves, and saffron. Mince finely the ginger and pound it in the mortar with the other spices. Mince the marjoram.
Shell and clean the prawns, then parboil them in boiling water for about 20 seconds. Stir-fry in lard or olive oil about one-third of the prawns for one minute, pounding the others in the mortar.
Mix together the paste of almonds and pine nuts, the spices, the marjoram, and the prawns until you obtain a homogeneous filling, adding a little water if it is too dry.
Roll the dough and grease the cake pan with lard or olive oil. Place carefully the sheet on the pan and spread with the prawn filling, removing the excess crust. Finish the dish with the fry prawns, almonds, and pine nuts.
Bake the pastello in the oven for about 30 minutes. Let it cool for a while before serving.

Prawn Pie Preview

Original text
Se voy fare pastello de gambari, tolli li gambari et falli lessare, et poy trande le code et pista la mitade et con esso la maiurana, et l’altra mità fa soffrigere, et con quello che se pistano sì micti pignochi mundi et mandole fresche, s’elio sende trovano, et queste cose falle pistare tucte insemi, et mictice spetie molto fine et mictice saffarano pisto bene, et scia uno poco, et poy le mictinetti testi tucte queste cose, addò che non abiano sennò una crosta, per ciò che le dui croste asciuccharebelo troppo, et mictice le cose che sono soffricte et pignocchi integri et mondi, amandole sencere et fresche et monde, se se possano avere, et se non, sì se tolgliano delle nocchie, et de una scì se facciano tre con coltello, et quisto pastello vole essere sottile, et sì è bon.

If you want to prepare a pastello with shrimps, take the shrimps and make them simmer in water. Then, take the tails and pound a half of the shrimps with the marjoram. Stir-fry the other half. With the pound ones, add shelled pine nuts and fresh almonds, if you find them, and grind all together, adding fine spices and a little quantity of well-ground saffron. Place in the cake pan all these things in a single crust, because the pastello would become too dry with two crusts, adding the stir-fried shrimps, whole and shelled pine nuts, whole, fresh, and shelled almonds if you have them; if not, cut walnuts in three parts with a knife. This pastello has to be thin, and in this way, it is good.

Prawn Pie Thumbnail.jpg

Note about the ingredients
Gambari, as the modern Italian word gamberi, is a generic term which means different crustaceans: shrimp, crayfish, and prawn. In the medieval iconography, we find frequently crayfish, currently an endangered species in Italy. We used one-third of the prawns to finish the dish, differently from the suggestion of the author who writes to use the half.
The author specifies to grind the saffron. We suggest collecting the residual with a little water.
You can use fresh or dried marjoram. A different version of this recipe, contained in the manuscript called Anonimo Toscano, suggests marjoram and other unspecified herbs.
The author does not specify which spices to use, except for saffron. We used the most common ones at his time. Black, long, and white pepper were all at disposal of the medieval cooks.
You can substitute almonds with walnuts, cut into three pieces to finish the dish.

Medieval Recipes Playlist

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