Summer, Travel

About looking, an eulogy to slowness and a Dutch apple cake inspired by Flemish paintings

Dutch apple cake inspired by Flemish paintings. The Freaky Table by ©ZairaZarotti

Recently I found myself giving some thought to data accumulation, in my case photos, ideas, recipes, notes of all kinds.
The more my life becomes exciting and animated by new travels, adventures and opportunities, the more my hard disk (and not only that) gets filled with things.
Things I cannot forget to tell, things that can be useful to me later.
I recognize my own hoarding nature also from the shelves which are loaded with props and stacks of vintage clothes that make my home everything except a Zen or minimal kind of place.
The idea of the essential has not yet reached myself, although the Bauhaus motto “less is more” contains a great truth in a small sentence that I have always liked very much.I collect things, not only material ones, that can inspire and teach me, show me beauty and sometimes even ugliness. I need them to feed what I do – in this case writing and telling, even visually.
That’s why, before sharing new contents, I usually wait until the inspiration is so strong that it makes it impossible for me to do anything else.

Dutch apple cake inspired by Flemish paintings. The Freaky Table by ©ZairaZarotti

This process takes time and it’s not at all automatic or regular; there may be good and productive days and other days where it is better to let go and dedicate myself to something else. Inspiration needs to be fed in the same way we give our body good food to recharge and survive.
I love writing, and not just about food, but also stories inspired by my world, my lifestyle, what is around me, what I do and see. I often prefer not to write or share anything for months, rather than make mediocre contents of which I am not 100% satisfied just to fill a hole – to fill an absence.
In the same way, just to give the idea, I’m also that kind of person who rather than hearing myself speaking just to fill a silence, prefers to keep quiet.
In the blogging world, though – and the social media that, in fact, are today what really feeds the market that is behind any form of blogging – slowness is not contemplated, quite the opposite indeed. Speed gets rewarded, often at the expense of content itself. Everything is consumed quickly and replaced by what’s new, by what comes next.

The Freaky Table by ©ZairaZarotti

I think about the Instagram feed and how the swipe-up function – which I myself use dozens of times a day – swallows minute by minute millions of pictures, the result of someone’s time and work, leaving room for new content and thus creating a sort of endless vortex, a black hole in which everything disappears.
The function itself of stories, which quickly fade and self-delete themselves after 24 hours, is precisely the maximum apotheosis of this system. What remains at the end, most of the time, is absolute nothingness. It is not only a matter of content itself, but also of what remains to us, of what has been shown to us. The issue of timing, in my opinion, has a great influence on the fruition of content, whether interesting or mediocre this may be.
The vaguely noir humor of all this – if I can say so – is that I was thinking about it in front of the Flemish masterpieces of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, in The Netherlands. You’re watching some close-ups of them in this post: these paintings  have arrived intact under our greedy eyes after more than 4 centuries of history.
They’re not only intact, but also so surprisingly mysterious, that even today, in front of such mastery (and technique), we – men of the future with technology in our pockets – still wonder about their meaning and try to approach their secrets.

The Freaky Table by ©ZairaZarottiThe Freaky Table by ©ZairaZarottiDutch apple cake inspired by Flemish paintings. The Freaky Table by ©ZairaZarotti

Although it wasn’t my first time at Rijks museum, I allowed myself a different time to look, to go beyond the surface, back in time, to the eyes of those artists who laid their gaze – I imagine for so many hours – on those canvases, and before that on the incredible Dutch light, to understand it and report it in such realistic way.
I think about the time that perhaps a young Vermeer spent in the shady rooms of some shed-roofed house in Delft, watching how the late afternoon light gave an almost sacred aura to all those simple gestures of everyday life, which had never been told.
Precursor of photography, of the suspended gesture – that pouring milk, today trend on Instagram -, Vermeer not only looks at things with an extremely contemporary look, but his eyes – and with his own also those of many other Masters of the same century – look at the detail beyond the form.
Their glance go inside things, inside the bodies of the men they painted as if they held their breath, inside the eyes of the animals that reflect the world around, and sometimes even inside food, revealing its secret ingredients.
I find myself looking at an incredibly inviting apple pie, which appears in several paintings, as if it had been the culinary trend of the time. In the filling I get to see pine nuts, raisins, walnuts and orange peel. The pastry seems fragrant, freshly baked, and I wish I had a slice. When I get home I will make one, I think.

Dutch apple cake inspired by Flemish paintings. The Freaky Table by ©ZairaZarotti

The Freaky Table by ©ZairaZarotti

Dutch apple cake inspired by Flemish paintings. The Freaky Table by ©ZairaZarottiThe Freaky Table by ©ZairaZarotti

The crowd of people who push to take a picture of the paintings distracts me.
I wonder if the desire to photograph them today is a desire of possession. In my case – I don’t refrain from doing the same – yes, it surely is. I don’t know if mine is a real desire to understand, or simply eagerness to accumulate, making – in my own way – immortal a scene that in itself has already been made immortal by the author who made it.
I decide to avoid overthinking it, and paradoxically and a bit also by habit, I post some pictures on my Instagram stories among the pleased comments of my followers, who will see them disappear 24 hours later, just like some of the many images on which we stumble upon every day, pretty much by chance.
I often look impatiently, too, jumping like a grasshopper from one image to another, and I wonder how this quick way of looking affects (my) our collective visual imagery.
Is this perhaps the reason why the Masters of painting like Flemish ones no longer exist? Are there still eyes in the world which are able to see that way? How much the eyes like Vermeer’s have seen, and for how long? Could this be the point of it all, just a matter of time?

Dutch apple cake inspired by Flemish paintings. The Freaky Table by ©ZairaZarottiThe Freaky Table by ©ZairaZarotti

I’m still far from understanding, I think. Maybe I am also out of time. Too slow, I have been told. You should post at least twice a month on the blog and at least every day on Instagram, I have been told. Why should I? Because if you want to make a business of this, you have to ride the wave and always be ahead of the game, otherwise it is not enough.
“Do less” I have also been told, it’s fine anyway. Do less  – not in the sense that “less is more”, which I like so much, just less, because a post becomes old precisely when it comes out, a bit like the newspapers.
What about pictures? Does it also apply to images? In the age of Instagram stories and in the current way of blogging, apparently it does.
But you know what? I may also be out of time, but I claim the right to do things slowly, to look with patience, inside things like Vermeer and the Flemish masters of the laid tables , who after 400 years still amaze us for having been able to look beyond time, the divine that permeates light, showing it to the world. Something that even today, perhaps, some of us are still able to see.

Dutch apple cake inspired by Flemish paintings. The Freaky Table by ©ZairaZarotti

Dutch apple cake inspired by Flemish paintings
For the crust
  • 125 g unsalted butter, cubed, room temperature
  • 150 g brown sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 3 eggs
  • 500 g flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
For the filling
  • 3 firm apples (Pippin, Gala, Golden Delicious or Pink Lady quality)
  • 1 cup of seedless red grapes
  • Finely grated zest of ½ orange and ½ lemon
  • ½ lemon juice
  • 50 gr brown sugar
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • ⅚ tbsp bread crumbs + 1 knob of butter
  • 1 shot (30 ml) Cognac, Brandy or Rum
  • 125 g sultanas
  • 125 g chopped walnuts
  • 60 g pine nuts
  1. Preheat the oven at 150°C.
  2. In the bowl of a food processor, mix the butter and brown sugar together until creamed. Sprinkle with salt and add 3 eggs.
  3. Pulse until the eggs are well-incorporated. Add half of the flour, pulse until well-incorporated. Then add the baking powder and the remaining flour little by little and pulse only until the dough comes together into a ball. Wrap it into the plastic wrap, and let it rest in the fridge while you prepare the filling.
  4. Peel and core the apples, then cut them into small-size pieces. Cut in half the grapes.
  5. In a bowl, mix the apple pieces and the grapes with the orange and lemon zest, lemon juice, brown sugar, liqueur, sultanas, walnuts and pine nuts.
  6. Quickly toast the bread crumbs into a pan together with cinnamon and a knob of butter, then add it to the filling. Mix well all together and keep aside.
  7. Grease a cake pan (I use a 20 cm pan), and cover the bottom with parchment paper.
  8. Reserve ⅓ of the crust mixture for the pie’s topping. Pour the rest of the mixture into the pan and firmly press the dough against the bottom and all the way up the sides of the cake pan, til you have completely covered it up to the edges.
  9. Add the apple filling and press down with a spoon to compress it. You can add more filling in the middle, to get a kind of little hill. You should keep around 1 centimeter in height from the filling's surface to the surrounding crust edge.
  10. Using a rolling pin on a floured wooden board roll the remaining crust mixture to get a round sheet (approx. 5-6 mm thick) with the dimension of the cake. Gently lift it with your hands and put it down over the apple filling.
  11. You can use first your fingers and then a fork or a toothpick to merge the two edges of crust, into a single zig-zag unified edge all around.
  12. Bake in the oven at 150C° for 50 minutes. Start watching over the pie after 35 minutes. If it gets too dark on top, cover it loosely with a piece of aluminum foil.
  13. Let the pie cool before removing the sides of the pan. Unmold, and use a very sharp knife to cut out pieces.

Dutch apple cake inspired by Flemish paintings. The Freaky Table by ©ZairaZarotti

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  • Avatar
    Reply Jacqui 27/07/2018 at 17:08

    It is beautifully and thoughtfully written indeed Zaira. And ur capture is absolutely like those paintings. It embodies all that you says and ur soul.

  • Avatar
    Reply Libby Moon 27/07/2018 at 21:36

    I absolutely love what you have written in your latest blog. Your words resound with thoughtful integrity and inquiry. Your veneer like image so powerful. Beautiful. Thank you for your words. Thank you for your challenges. I love your work and how you see the world. You have an extraordinary gift with images, thought and rhetoric. I am inspired. Much love Libby Moon

  • Avatar
    Reply Libby Moon 27/07/2018 at 21:39

    Correction. I see I have printed Veneer instead of Vermeer….Libby

  • Avatar
    Reply guglielmina cevenini ( Giorgio Barletta ) 28/07/2018 at 16:55

    FOTO STUPEFACENTI !!! Sono bellissime e lo saranno ancora tra 50 – 100 anni proprio come i dipinti….
    Zaira ,così dolcemente, lentamente non mollare

  • Avatar
    Reply Amandine 29/07/2018 at 14:40

    How can I miss that piece of art … I’m speechless Zaira, those pictures are a pure beauty with so many little details, I can’t stop watching! I loved reading your blog post, you wrote everything I had on my mind lately. I need so much time to mature my creative work and sometimes I tried to push myself to be more « efficient » like we are supposed to do in here, but it’s always a disaster. Slowness is the key for me, I need to take my time to do something else for a few days, to get myself lost in nature and then maybe the inspiration will come.

    Thank you for those words it was very comforting to read and you are a true inspiration!
    Hope you have a lovely Sunday, mine will be much better if I had a few pieces of your gorgeous apple pie ❤️

    Ps ( So sorry for that awfully long comment )

  • Avatar
    Reply Rosemarie 30/07/2018 at 16:00

    What beautiful words, sentiments and images you have bought to life Zaira!

    This is a post that encapsulates perfectly what I’ve been feeling about blogging and social media lately. Thank you for the reminder that it’s ok to, quote Max Ehrmann,’go placidly amid the noise and haste…’

  • Avatar
    Reply Ines 02/10/2018 at 20:35

    I hear you.

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