by Professor Lindy Grant
Pomegranate season – my local Turkish shop sells delicious pomegranates, and I can’t resist them. The fruits look so exotic, especially when there are still traces of pink petal in the gaping navel at the top of the fruit. It’s not that difficult to extricate the seeds from the thick pithy shell that protects them, and the seeds look like little crimson jewels, rubies and garnets, as they fall onto the plate. I think they are delicious too. I recommend pomegranate, porridge and honey as the ultimate superfood breakfast. I suppose putting them with porridge is a bit wicked, but the pomegranate brings a touch of the exotic, the arabesque, and a hint of Mediterranean sunshine to the Autumn breakfast bowl.
The pomegranates in my local Turkish shop come from southern Spain, and as I eat them, I think of Blanche of Castile, the thirteenth century queen of France, and mother of St Louis. Actually, I think about her most of the time – I rather feel as if she has moved in – since I am writing a biography of her. She is not altogether that sympathetic. Joinville’s Life of St Louis makes it clear that she was the original mother-in-law from hell. She was brought up to wield power; she enjoyed it, and was very good at it. This was just as well, for St Louis was a minor when his father, Louis VIII of France, died, and Blanche had to take over as regent for her young son. She was formidable, determined and intensely pious. But she loved pomegranates.
I have found two references to them on the royal household accounts so far. In 1239, she paid 33 livres for a year’s supply of pomegranates and pomegranate wine. 33 livres was quite a lot: Blanche paid 15 livres for an elaborate belt which she sent as a present to her sister, Eleanor, Queen of Aragon. More pomegranates are recorded on Blanche’s own household account. They were sent to her from Spain in the autumn of the following year – so just when pomegranates would be in season. Blanche was Spanish herself, daughter of King Alfonso VIII of Castile, and his wife, Leonor of England, who was herself a daughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Blanche was brought to France at the age of 12 in 1200, to be married to the heir to the French throne, as part of a treaty between her uncle, King John of England, and the French king. She never returned to her home country. Instead, she surrounded herself with Spanish clergy, and kept in close touch with her Spanish cousins. They exchanged rich presents, and several came to live at the French court. The French barons accused her, with some reason, of promoting the interests of her Spanish relatives, and lavishing generous gifts on them.
But her favouring of her Spanish relatives was not just a political strategy. The pomegranates suggest it was more personal than that. They suggest Blanche yearned for the country that she left at the age of twelve, with its warm weather, and exotic foods. Her baker, Master Walter, was probably Spanish, for she paid for him to visit his home country in 1234. She made sure that the French court had sugar – zucara – for its sweetmeats. As I scatter the pomegranate seeds on my porridge, I find myself wondering whether Master Walter made her delicious pastries with sugar and pomegranate seeds, soaked in pomegranate wine, or whether she had the jewel-like seeds served on silver platters or in delicate glass bowls. Probably not on porridge, anyway – but Blanche’s passion for pomegranates does make her seem human.