For centuries, there has been an abyss between the quality of food eaten by the poor masses compared to that eaten by the rich: in the countryside, pellagra reigned for centuries, being the consequence of the lack of food for nutrition and vitamins. Farmers lived solely on corn, potato, or buckwheat 'polenta', accompanied by potatoes. In the summer, this 'polenta' was eaten together with stewed wild pears with melted lard, with turnips, or even just by itself. In winter months - if they were lucky - , day after day, polenta was eaten with sauerkraut, which had by then become popular, made from the tips of head cabbage. Originally from China, cabbage made its way to all parts of the Trentino Alto Adige region. Cabbage was always grown in abundance and preserved over the winter months by being cut into thin strips and being put in a wooden vat, arranged in layers seasoned with salt, cumin and juniper berries, then left to macerate for at least two months. This cabbage dish, for the poor people, was a staple that lasted during the long winter months and was eaten along with 'polenta', lard, minestrone soup, and, when available a morsel of cheese or home-made butter, since any other treasured product like cheese, eggs or mushrooms would have been saved for selling , to supplement the meagre subsistence living. It was only after the II World War, with the industrialisation of Italy, that a better standard of living was brought to this area , renowned for its hard working peoples of century-old traditions.
The world of the courts, the rich prelates, the Count-bishops and the powerful men of this land, closed within its boundaries, was a different story, of course; these men ate the meat from the animals of the Alps. Bartolomeo Sacchi known as "Il Platina" (1428 -1481) in his book "De honesta voluptate et valetudine" (Of real voluptuousness and worth) wrote concerning this matter: "Those who claim that the hare ('lepre') takes its name from its fastness of the feet, as related by Varrone, are mistaken since the word is ancient and of Greek origin. There are two species of hare, the large, and the small. The large one lives out in the open, in the Alps, in the hills and flat-lying fields and offers to men the pleasure of the hunt. The smaller one lives most of its life underground, in underground tunnels from which it takes its name. This latter cannot be caught unless it is made to come out in the open. In the winter, the populations of the Alps eat hares, even large-sized ones." Trentino cuisine reached its moment of highest splendour during that period of reform which served to counter balance the Lutheran Reform, or the Council of Trent, which, due to various events and suspensions lasted from 1545 to 1563: it was the moment in which rich renaissance dishes triumphed, in which banquets lasted for days on end, in which the sumptuousness of the courts - independently of whether for lay or religious feasts - were customary. This was a moment of the reunions of cardinals, bishops, and prelates, all in the city of Trento. The festivities were arranged by special banquet chamberlains, chefs, and the preparation of foods came from all over the known Renaissance world. Even today, the 'Pasticcio di Maccheroni' (a type of 'maccheroni pie') is a dish for grand occasions, probably originally from the court of the city of Ferrara, but already cited in the 'Libro de arte coquinaria' (the old book of culinary art) by Maestro Martino who lived and worked in Rome.
Martino had been chef to the Reverendissimo Monsignor Camorlengo and Patriarch to the city of Aquileia. around the middle of the 1400's. From his work, he passed on the following recipe: "First take as much the lean meat as you wish, pound it and chop up small with a knife, then take the fat of the calf and mix well with the aforementioned lean meat, adding to this some good spices according to the common taste or to thy master's taste. Then make the crusts of pastry as you are accustomed and put in the oven to cook. When they are cooked, take two egg yolks, some good 'agresto' (juice from white, unripe grapes), a little quite fatty broth, and a little saffron, and beat all these things together well and add to the pie. If you don't know how to make a crust, then cook in the pan as if you were making a tart. In the aforesaid crust you can put one or two small chickens or pigeons, or capons any other bird, whole or cut in pieces. "
Nowadays, 'maccheroni' are first partially cooked in salted water, then dressed with a rich pigeon meat based sauce, and finally covered with a pie crust and, to complete the preparation, put into the oven. Game was certainly the most luxurious trophy for the food for the rich banquets. For centuries, both fowl and game were hunted in the highlands of the Trentino. In particular, the capture and hunting of the woodcock in certain areas, at certain times of the year and at particular times of the day, was the pride of every hunter. Woodland animals such as fallow deer, chamois and roe deer were often grilled on coals or prepared in savoury pies mixed with butter, milk and cheese, as indicated by an old recipe for the 'cosciotto di caccia' (leg of game): "Grill the leg of a roe deer or chamois or any other strong flavoured animal (kid, for example), on hot coals , after having pricked it with aromatic herbs like sage, rosemary, wild thyme, and cumin, making sure not to add fat. Separately, prepare a mixture of boiled, mashed potatoes, pepper and grated Alpine cheese such as Asiago, then make small cylindrical finger size dumplings, pass them in white or yellow flour, and simmer them in salted water. When they rise to the top, the dumplings are cooked, put them in a tureen with lots of butter, the cut up roasted meat, mixed in with the grated cheese and milk. Set aside for the meat to take on flavour, and keep at low heat, (next to the fireplace) and serve."
Different types of meat like beef and lamb were the base of the menu of most family festivals. Salting beef is an ancient method for curing and preserving, and salted beef is still a speciality of the area today. The cut of the meat and the ingredients for its treatment were essential for its outcome: salt, pepper, garlic, bay leaf, rosemary, juniper berries, and white wine. In this pickling mixture the beef must be preserved for 20 days, placed in wooden casks. After this time, it is finely sliced to then be cooked on slate grills and accompanied either by boiled beans with a touch of olive oil or beans cooked in a saucepan with sauerkraut.
Pork is without doubt the most widely worked and eaten meat in the Trentino; it is used for the production of a whole range of kinds of sausages and salamis which are consumed, today, as in the past, throughout the whole year thanks to the favourable climatic conditions of the area. Every part of the pig was used, from the leg to the blood, to the tail to the skin and rind.
However, the courts did not disdain the peasants' food either, if we are to believe the Renaissance writer Bartolomeo Scappi when he writes in his book about barley soup, a typical dish today in Trentino, an area which cultivates a wide variety of grains.
Scappi writes "How to make a common 'orzata' (or orgeat, barley water drink).
Take some common horse-feed barley, it must be fresh with no sad odours: beat it in the mortar to remove the husks; boil in a clean pot with no sad odours, with water, stirring and skimming with a wooden spoon until cooked. Remember that to cook this barley takes longer than to cook the cleaned barley, and for every two pounds of barley, eight pounds of water must be passed through the sieve. It should be known that sometimes, in Rome, you can find a certain type of broken barley from Germany, which is yellowish and which is used both for the barley water drink and the barley soup.
Pope Maximus Pious the IV would often drink them back in '64." So, through the papal courts, various exchanges of products and preparations took place: we may remember the importance assumed by the famous Council of Trent concerning culinary uses and customs, the importing of products, especially of wine, essential for all the various ceremonies. These were years of great movement for the city of Trent, with contacts above all with the most important exponents of the Catholic Church which were to be held in the highest respect, according to extensive rules and regulations. Mention of this is made by Vincenzo Cervio in his book entitled "Il Trinciante"(The Steward), published for the first time in Venice in 1581. Together with many other indications, there are chapters entitled "On How to Receive a Pope, a King, and any other great Prince as much as from the local environs as from other particular 'signoria'/ Signori particulari."
In this chapter Cervio relates, amongst other things: "one must set the table for the illustrious cardinals, however many they are, they always want for the most part to eat together only amongst themselves. There must be at least two carvers and two stewards with twelve gentleman squires who wait on the table. Two stewards with two assistants, two errand boys , along with a Bottle man with two boys who are needed for fetching the wine, the ice and the fresh water in constant haste running back and forth between the table and the supplies.
A separate secret menu is needed for the cardinals, hence two cooks, two assistants, two errand boys, and a pastry chef with his assistant." He continues to pay a lot of attention to detail, for example to the ceremonies for the most important figures of the church he says "A separate table is needed for the prelates, who usually assemble in at least ten, twelve or more, in a separate private chamber.
They should be served in the same aforesaid manner, with their own gentleman waiters and with other persons and officials, which should be enough. And they will be served the same menus as the cardinals with two or three dishes depending on the specific status of the prelates who are present. Another table long enough for at least forty gentlemen who are made up of the captains of the guards, the body guards, the chaplains, the grooms, the heralds, the Papal attendants, and any other gentlemen in assistance to His Holiness.
The German, Mattia Giegher followed in the same steps as Vincenzo Cervio, with his book "Li Tre Trattati" (The three treatises), well known in the northern part of our country, and especially in the Trentino area. Geigher or the "Bavaro from Mosburc" worked at the service of "nazione alemanna de' Signori Legisti dell'Universita' di Padova" (The German nation of the Sires of the Law scribes at the University of Padova"). Geigher writes in the Italian language, as he is inspired by Italian authors, customs and traditions, and lastly is conscious of Italian taste. The primary value of his work is taken from the exceptionality of the illustrations which were made by an Italian engraver who depicts with great precision the art of setting the table, with no detail left unattended tofor those numerous questions asked about the important art of table manners. But in the middle of the seventeenth century, the pendulum of the great culinary traditions swings from Italy to France, and Trentino remains excluded and isolated from the new influences, for which it finds itself unprepared.
The Trentino cuisine maintains its traditional foods: sausages and salamis, pork, the cheeses, polenta, sauerkraut, the 'canederli' in all its variations, and the "salada" (salted) beef , an ancient dish known from the time of the Council of Trent, that important historical period that saw the city of Trent as a sort of capital of the universe.
It wasn't until the 20th century, when this area became part of the kingdom of Italy, that the Trentino cuisine actually started adding to its diet dishes typical to the rest of Italy; for example, the 'pastasciutta' (pasta dishes). Trentino has its roots in 'canederli' and 'gnocchi', rather than in homemade pasta. The "smacafam", is a savoury torte filled with garlic and covered with fresh luganega pork sausage. This is a typical dish during the MardiGras Carnival, that goes well with a glass of good wine in good company , appropriate for all social classes.
The "gröstl" is another poor man's dish, useful for recycling leftover meat. The dish is made with coarsely cut up pieces of up meat sautéed in butter with chunks of boiled potatoes covered with finely chopped chives. Boiled potatoes sautéed in butter, mashed and then covered with chopped parsley are also a typical trentino style dish.
Among the richer dishes let's not forget Hare-Trentino style, a sweet and sour 'salmì' recipe found only in this area .
The hare meat is marinated it in wine and vinegar for at least 24 hours with all sorts of spices, plenty of onions, pine nuts and sultanas, then pan broiled in a pot.
Stuffed chicken is another favourite speciality of the area. The stuffing is prepared with walnuts, pine nuts, bread doused in milk, liver, eggs and boiled meat. It can be served with various sauces, but especially with the fruit 'mustard' of mandarin oranges, which is tasty and also beautiful to see. There only a few types of fish: salmon trout from the streams which is smoked and cooked in various other ways. Eel Trentino style is cut up and sautéed in butter with onions and spices. Baked dried cod made with potatoes, butter, oil, garlic, onions, celery, milk, salt and pepper is another favourite dish served with polenta. The Trentino desserts are very similar to those in Alto Adige, with one exception - The strudel is made with apples only. Trentino 'krapfen' can be baked instead of deep fried , giving the doughnuts a lighter touch. Bread pudding pie is a typical Trentino dessert, made with stale bread soaked in milk , then mixed with fruit, flour, sugar and walnuts . The 'Fregoletti' pie is made with white flour, butter, sugar and almonds. 'Zelten', the Christmas speciality , is made with rye flour in Alto Adige , whereas in Trentino it is made with a white flour, eggs, yeast, candied fruit, and plenty of dried fruit, all covered with split almonds.
The cuisine from the Trentino is strongly characterized by its geographical position, its climate and its history. Despite the wave of tourism, it has remained deeply rooted to its origins, like the tradition of eating meat accompanied with fruit mustard (to take one of the most obvious examples). The Trentino has jealously conserved its recipes of yesteryear.