The Mantovano

The denomination “Mantovano” defines the area of the lower Po Valley in Lombardy which lies around the city of Mantua. The city rises on the right bank of the Mincio at the point where the river widens into a large lake: this semi-circular expanse of water surrounds the city from the north-west around to the east and it is divided into three sections by two bridge-dams - Lago Superiore (the Upper Lake), Lago di Mezzo (the Middle Lake), Lago Inferiore (the Lower Lake).
The territory in question is situated in the south-eastern part of the lower Lombard plains and is split into two parts by the river Po: the cispadane part, crossed by the Mincio, and the transpadane section, crossed by the Secchia river.
It is a flourishing agricultural area including production activities linked to the farming of livestock and other food industries, as well as that of crop farming. The culinary tradition of this region is due, therefore, on the one hand to the high yield of the land, and on the other to its history linked to that of the city of Mantua. This city, founded by the Etruscans, was under Rome’s dominion during which time, it is interesting to remember, it witnessed the birth of the great poet Virgil. In fact, Virgil left an epitaph for his tomb which begins with the words “Mantua me genuit”, Mantua gave me life.
The city and its territory underwent the fate of invasions by barbarians, the rule of the ‘count-bishops’, struggles between the local city-states and the emperor, enduring at length, for the countess Matilde of Canossa, the seige by Henry IV, until the surrender in April 1091. In 1176 the city fought in the famous battle of Legnano in which the Lega dei Comuni Lombardi (The League of the Lombardic City-states) defeated the emperor Federico Barbarossa .
Internal struggles in the city favoured the establishment of the ‘signoria’ (seignory): it was the Bonacolsi who were the first ‘signori’ (lords), being given this hereditary title in 1308 by the emperor. However, before twenty years were up, they were overturned by the Gonzaga family. For Mantua, the centuries of the Renaissance were an epoch of exceptional economic, artistic and literary flourishing. Through the merit of Gian Francesco Gonzaga (Marquis in 1433) the city assumed the standing of being the princely capital, renowned in Europe for the humanistic school of Vittorino da Feltre, the construction enterprises of Leon Battista Alberti and the pictorial art of Mantegna.
The city’s prestige was further increased by the splendid court of Francesco and his wife, the fascinating Isabella d’Este, and reached the height of its economic well-being under the brilliant government of Duke Guglielmo (1559-87). This well-being continued right up to the War of Succession (1627-31), which followed the death of Vincenzo II and which made up one of the episodes of the Thirty Years’ War: from this moment, Mantua’s fortune declined. In 1707 the dukedom of Mantua was passed over to the empire; during this period, the Austrian government promoted the welfare of the area, while also considering the importance of Mantua as a fortified stronghold in the Padana valley. During the Napoleonic era, in 1797, the city fell into the hands of the French, who amplified and modernized the defensive works. Having returned to Austria after the Treaty of Vienna (1815), Mantua was an active participant in the conspiracy of the Carbonari secret society and in the wars of independence, following the destiny of the region to which it belongs, Lombardy, until its entry into the Kingdom of the Savoia.

As far as the art of cookery is concerned, there are two aspects which are fundamental to this zone: on the one hand, the fertility of the land, and its rich produce, and on the other the great tradition of the courts. History and geographical location coincide also in the culinary traditions, therefore, to form the particular features of the territory in the panorama of Italian gastronomy.

The products of this land appear in the early literature of our Rennaissance, starting, for example, from the work of the Mantuan Teofilo Folengo (1496-1544) who offers, in the pages of the Baldus, a rich list of the gastronomy of the 1500s, if one refers in particular the twenty recipes supplied by the character Cingar when describing the cookery of Jove. In the description of the royal banquet, he makes reference to the “vernaccia di Volta”, the village situated in the morainic hills in the Upper Mantuan plains which, already in those times, produced wine fit for a king.

Mantuan cooking is defined as the cooking of ‘princes’ and of ‘the people’. In fact, even ‘everyday’ dishes, such as, for example, the famous “bigoli – a type of hand-rolled spaghetti-like pasta - with sardines”, the use of polenta (often eaten toasted with ‘salamella’ – spiced pork sausage -, salami, ‘cotechino’ - spiced pork sausage -, pork ‘ciccioli’ (cracklings), or ‘gras pistà’ – finely beaten lard with parsley and a little garlic; polenta is also delicious deep fried and sprinkled with sugar), feel the influence of the culinary art of the cooks from the Gonzaga court: which reached its maximum splendour at the times of the marriage between Francesco Gonzaga and Isabella d’Este (1490). The latter being a woman of refined Humanistic education and of great diplomatic capability who ensured a great reputation for the Gonzagas, due to the fact that her court and her splendid banquets were attended by the best names in the Arts and of the courts of the time: such as – just to name a few amongst of the most famous - Baldassar Castiglione (author of Il libro del cortegiano – ‘The book of the courtier’, a treatise in which the ideal figure of the perfect courtier is described), Ariosto, Leonardo da Vinci and Titian, who has left us with a superb portrait of Isabella d’Este Gonzaga, which today can be found at the Gemälde Galerie in Vienna, almost a symbol of the intense cultural life of this court which reminds one of that of the Medici in Florence.
So, sitting down to a meal today in the ‘Mantovano’ means revisiting the history of the city, also in its international context with the contributions from the historical events experienced: once the fortunes of the dukedom of Mantua had declined, this area of land entered to become part of the empire, experienced the French domination of Napoleon, and was governed by Austria.
From a careful analysis, it is possible to individuate the elements which are the basis of the Mantuan culinary tradition: the fresh pasta which is filled and of the home-made type, the pork meat sausages, the predominance of first courses, the cult for meat or fish stock, the use of sweet-sour flavoured sauces, the refined combination of flavours, the use of aromatic herbs, and, finally, the use to the maximum of any of the land’s resources.
As far as the sausages are concerned, the typical Mantuan ‘salamella’ is worth noting: this is strictly produced on a non-industrial scale and can be found in the small shops of the city of the Gonzagas, and the surrounding area. It is made from a mixture of lean shoulder ham and the soft fat from the trimmings of ‘pancetta’ (bacon) and of ham, flavoured with white wine, garlic and spices in various doses. This mixture is then packed in measures of about two hundred grams (7oz) into the sausage skins.
The ‘salamella’ can be boiled on its own and served on a dish together with a mixture of meats boiled in the Lombardic style, cooked on the grill or else crumbled up into a risotto.
In a gastronomy dominated by first courses, the ‘antipasti’ (or hors d’oeuvres) are given little importance. Nevertheless, the gentry of Mantua used to start a lunch with the “Sorbir d’agnoli” (‘agnolini’ – a kind of tortellino – in broth served in a cup, the broth being strictly made from meat) to which some would add a little Lambrusco wine, creating the “Bevr’in vin”. The tradition of opening the meal with broth served in a cup has remained up to this very day, being whether it is consumed before or after an ‘antipasto’ of sliced salami and ham, or whether before one of those famous meals which characterise Mantuan cooking. But the dish which is the symbol of the richness of this gastronomy is the dish of “agnolini”.
The Mantuan ‘agnolino’ is distinguished from the well known ‘tortellino’ from Bologna not only by the components of its filling, but also by its shape.
They are served preferably in broth, but it is also possible to eat them with melted butter and sage.
The richness of this dish becomes clear from the ingredients of the filling, which is strictly: lean beef cooked in a pot with onion, oil and butter, white wine, pork ‘salamella’ sausage and ‘pancetta’ (spiced bacon) cooked in butter; then all these ingredients are mixed together with egg, Parmesan cheese, pepper and nutmeg. The mixture must sit for twelve hours after which time, it is ready to be divided onto the small squares of fresh home-made type pasta and made into the ‘agnolini’ shapes; these are made by folding the pasta diagonally, pressing around the edges, folding the points backwards and pressing them one on top of the other, taking care that the little central dome-shape is not flattened.
Prepared in this way, the ‘agnolini’ may then be cooked in broth and served – in a cup adding some good Lambrusco wine, as an ‘antipasto’ (hors d’oeuvre), or as a first course with perhaps a scattering of ‘Grana’ cheese
The dish which characterises Mantuan cookery perhaps more than any other are the ‘tortelli con la zucca’ (a type of ravioli filled with pumpkin). These are eaten all year round in the restaurants, but traditionally it is really a dish eaten on Christmas Eve. The fertile land of the Mantuan plains produces an enormous quantity of vegetables, including pumpkins and melons which are constantly present in its gastronomy which – mindful of influences connected with its history – boldly makes use of the combination sweet/savoury.
The filling (which locally is generally known as ‘pesto’) is made, together with the pumpkin, an equal quantity of crumbled ‘amaretti’ biscuits and a quantity of ‘mostarda senapata’ (a mustard made from small pieces of apple mixed with mustard) and Parmesan cheese. This mixture is then flavoured with nutmeg.
The condiment recommended is melted butter with a little bit of sage, but the ‘tortelli’ may also be served with a tomato sauce enriched with some fresh ‘salamella’ or with tomato and basil.
Also amongst the first course dishes, it is worth remembering the ‘risotto alla villimpentese’ which can be found throughout the area and which is curious not so much for its ingredients (semi-fine Vialone Nano rice, not too lean pork, coarsely minced and seasoned with salt, pepper and two cloves of garlic mashed up in butter, grated ‘grana’ cheese and white wine), as for the process of its preparation: The rice, in fact, must be cooked in plenty of water for about six minutes, then lifted out of the water by means of a ladle. It should then be stirred and covered with a cloth, which should lie almost directly on top of the rice, and then over this a saucepan lid. The container should be left covered in this way, away from the heat for ten minutes. In the meantime, the minced pork is cooked in the butter for about ten minutes, with the addition of half a glass of wine. The condiment is added to the rice along with the cheese, and now the prodigious risotto is ready. The rice has been cooked just as it should be if, as they say at Villimpenta, one is able to count the grains. It is recommended that the risotto be accompanied by a good, sparkling, generous Lambrusco wine.
As far as the second courses are concerned, a mention must be made of the “lus in salsa” (pike in sauce), which is a characteristic and also very tasty dish obtained from boiling the pike with onion, carrot, celery etc. for flavouring and a little vinegar. The boned pieces of fish are then laid on a serving dish and left for about twelve hours, covered with the sauce made from capers and sweet peppers preserved in vinegar, parsley, garlic, onion, anchovies, oil and vinegar (to be then served with pieces of grilled ‘polenta’); but mention should also be made of fried fresh-water fish (eel, catfish, fried small fish from the paddy fields). If you prefer, however, to eat meat, we can recommend an antique dish – stew made from donkey’s meat accompanied with piping hot ‘polenta’ covered in a sauce of finely chopped vegetables cooked in red wine. This is a dish which can only be eaten in this particular area where the rearing of animals for alimentary purposes is still flourishing, and includes horses and related animals.
Another typical dish (but is certainly not exclusive to this area) is that of boiled meats such as: beef, chicken, hen, calf’s head, ‘cotechino’ (a type of spiced pork sausage), tongue, pig’s trotter.
Before moving on to the dessert in the Mantuan area, the custom is to offer a piece of ‘grana’ cheese which has the use of providing a break between the strong flavours of the second course and those of the sweet desserts. This is a very old custom which goes back to the days of the lengthy renaissance banquets in which the many different courses followed each other at a slow pace, for hours or sometimes even for days.
Amongst the desserts, the ‘sbrisolona’ (a ‘crumble cake’) is certainly the best known. Its ingredients are: white flour, cornmeal run through a sieve, almonds, sugar, lard, butter, egg yolks, grated lemon rind and vanilla.
The preparation consists of blanching the almonds in boiling water, peeling them and then chopping them finely. The almonds, the white flour and cornmeal, the egg yolks, the sugar, the vanilla and the grated lemon rind are then all mixed together. Lastly, the lard and the butter are added to the mixture, without having been melted. The mixture should be kneaded together to give not a smooth, homogeneous dough, but a lumpy mixture which should be poured into a baking tin greased with butter. The cake should be cooked in a hot oven for one hour. Sprinkle with icing sugar while the cake is still warm, but no longer hot from the oven.
Another cake worth remembering is the ‘anello di Monaco’ (the ‘Monaco ring’), which is similar to a ‘pandoro’ (a type of sponge cake), filled and in a ring shape, which is the traditional Christmas cake originating in Germany. Lastly, the ‘torta di tagliatelle’ should not be forgotten.
The above mentioned are the cakes which are easily found on sale, but, keeping strictly to tradition, there are also other desserts which today are still made in people’s homes which are very dry and therefore more adapt to being dipped in wine - the ‘chisoel’, the ‘mirtol’, the ‘bussolano’.