Verona and its territory
The city of Verona is positioned on the two banks of the river Adige which at this point characteristically snakes through the plains and the foothills of the Monti Lessini.
The province of Verona extends between the highlands of the Pre-Alps, hills and plains which are characterised by agriculture and, to some degree also pasture land. There is a large production of cereal (wheat, corn, rice), sugar-beet, fruit, vegetables and quality grapes which are used in the production of superior wines such as Bardolino, Soave, and Valpolicella.
Verona, after various historical events, becomes part of Venice in 1405. This age-long dominion, interrupted by the Imperial occupation of 1509-17, comes to an end in 1797 with the entrance into the city of the French under Bonapart. In 1814, it passed definitively under Austria’s rule, to remain thus until 1866 when it was united with Italy.
The Venetian and Austrian-Hungarian cultures are, therefore, at the base of many customs which reflect greatly also onto the gastronomy and the art of the cuisine. This is a cuisine which differs notably between the poorer type, which is still in use in the mountain areas today, and that of the towns and cities, which is tied to the ancient and rich traditions of Verona.
In the mountains reigns polenta which is eaten as an accompaniment to all kinds of food. When one talks of polenta, the first type which comes to mind is the yellow kind which is, in fact, one of the principal foods. In the traditions of the Veneto region, however, polenta already existed before the arrival of maize and it was made with fava beans, chick peas, millet and buckwheat. The discovery of maize was made by the Venetians in the course of their maritime wanderings, and the discovery is linked to the openness of these people to experiment with what they found on the long voyages which they confronted whilst carrying out their commercial activities. So polenta was the basic food of the mountain populations for many centuries; it was consumed with milk, cheese, mushrooms, eggs and, on feast days together with the products which derived from the butchering of the pigs. Pigs were reared by almost all of the families, providing the only source of winter nourishment.
In alternative to polenta, there were potatoes which are particularly tasty up in the mountains and which are cultivated in various different qualities: white, yellow and red and which were boiled and used, in the days connected with festivities, to make potato gnocchi (little potato dumplings). This is a use which is still widespread even today and they are dressed with melted butter and grated cheese or also – but in those times only on feast days – with meat sauce made from roast veal.
Another rich quality distinguishes the town cuisine: a cuisine which makes generous use of the various meats – beef, veal, pork, of farmyard animals and of game. Duck and guinea fowl rule the tables of the whole of the Veneto region, and in particular those of Verona where they are accompanied, as are also other meats, by the «peverada» sauce of the Veneto. It is prepared with stock (broth), spices, breadcrumbs, butter, charcuterie, a lot of pepper and, in Verona ox marrow, and in Treviso goose or hare liver. Some substitute the pepper with grated horseradish. Either way it is made, it is a noble flavour: the legend goes that a cook of the court was successful in tempting Rosmunda’s appetite after she had partaken of the cruel drink forced on her by Alboino. Rosmunda was the daughter of Cunimondo, King of the Gepidi: prisoner of war and then wife of the Lombard king Alboino after he had defeated Cuninmondo’s troops. According to the legend, Cunimondo had entered into war with the Lombards because Alboino had kidnapped Rosmunda. Upon his defeat, Cunimondo was killed and a cup made out of his skull from which Alboino forced Rosmunda to drink, with the words «Drink, Rosmunda, from your father’s skull!». Rosmunda did not wait long for her revenge, and a few years later, she had her husband, Alboino, killed.
We do not know for certain that it was the «peverada» to give Rosmunda back her appetite, but the sauce is certainly a very flavoursome one which is also served with boiled meat which is a sumptuous dish in the Veronese area due both to the wide choice of different meats presented and also for the way it is cooked. This method does not give particular importance to the broth, but takes care to preserve the flavours of the meat, which is always a mixture of different types: from beef and veal to farmyard animals, mutton and not least of all pork sausages. Each meat is cooked on its own in a different saucepan and for a different amount of time. The roast meats, especially roast veal, are not to be overlooked either: we bring to mind the «stinco al forno» (roast shin-bone), cooked very slowly so that it becomes very tender and a real delicacy, accompanied by polenta, roast potatoes or mashed potatoes. And then there is the game, cooked in a thousand different ways, amongst which we bring to mind the salmì, which gives the larger birds a particularly exquisite flavour (but the wine used must be of a very good quality).
In this land, the relationship with wheat flour is also deep rooted and linked above all with the production of fresh pasta; in particular the «bigoli», a type of home-made spaghetti which is sometimes made with the wheat flour rich with its own bran or also with the hard durum wheat. Bigoli are most frequently dressed with a sauce made from pieces of various meats flavoured with onion, and sometimes also with the cooking juices from a roast, and then sprinkled with plenty of grated cheese; a well known variation is also that of boiling them in duck broth and then dressing them with a sauce made from the duck giblets flavoured with butter and oil. Amongst the first course dishes, many are also rice-based. In the Lower Veronese area bordering with Lombardy, towards Mantua, there are vast rice cultivations which centre around the town of Isola della Scala. The quality of the rice produced locally, and protected by the DOP (Denomination of Protected Origin) guarantee, is the ‘vialone nano veronese’ which is an exceptional rice for risottos. The classic recipe of Isola della Scala is a flavoursome risotto with the addition of ‘pasta di salamella’ and generously sprinkled with Grana Padano cheese. At Isola every year, during a festival, all the restaurants in the area compete with each other over the same recipe. A jury awards a prize to the best risotto. The high quality of the ‘vialone nano’ rice has led to the creation of forty different dishes, amongst which the best well known are «risi e bisi» (‘rice and peas’) and «risi e figadini» (‘rice and chicken livers’).
Amongst the antipasti it is worth remembering – other than the charcuterie to be found in the whole region – the typical «sfilacci di cavallo», a very tasty dried meat to be eaten with oil and lemon, like bresaola.
Amongst the cheeses, it is worth remembering the «monte veronese» cheese, a cheese which has many similarities with Asiago cheese. It is a cow’s milk, partially cooked cheese of which there are two types: one made from whole milk, and the other from partially skimmed milk, defined as d'allevo (raised). The typical area of origin of the milk and of production of the cheese includes the whole of the northern part of the province of Verona.
As far as sweet dishes and cakes are concerned, the most common are the «offella» and the «pandoro» (literally ‘golden bread’, a type of cake).
For the Veronese, the «offella» is not simply the dry biscuit as in the areas around Milan and Pavia, but it is a sumptuous cake with a great tradition which has its centre of production at Bovolone, an busy district in the Lower Veronese, towards Rovigo. It is a soft and fragrant sweet type of leavened bread, rich with butter and lightly covered with a crunchy sugar-icing. It is of ancient tradition, and could be considered to be the official ancestor of the pandoro. It is really a cake which belongs to the Christmas period, but it is now made all year round. To understand just how intimately this cake belongs to the history of the area, it is enough to say that in the area of Bovolone, the cake shop is known as the "offelleria".
The offella is a cake which is exclusively found in that particular area, whereas the «pandoro» has crossed the borders from Verona and has become a product of the national Italian confectionery industry. It is a cake typically eaten over Christmas and its use has now extended to being part of festivities all year round. It is also very difficult to make at home; only confectioners, and, of course industries, are able to make it in the correct way. It must be high-sided, soft and light in texture and sprinkled with icing sugar.
Wine is, and has always been, not only produced but also drunk everywhere in the region, and of a very good quality. Pleasant, delicate, fresh and in general "beverini" (‘light drinks’), that is, such as not requiring lengthy refining, Veneto wines are still notably different from one zone to another. From the classic Veronese Bardolino del Garda to the famous Soave, from the fragrant and austere Amarone to the spumante (sparkling wine) of the Conegliano area. Whether in the taverns of the towns, or, even more so in those of the countryside, or in commercial cellars or in those of friends where you will be offered wine and good company, the taste for life shines confidently out of the glass.