Treviso and the Trevigiana borderlands

The title Trevigiana Borderland has never had any political or administrative significance; it was used, though – mostly in the Middle Ages and above all at the end of the XIV century – to describe Venetian rule over the inland areas. From 1339, the city of Treviso was almost continually under the domination of Venice, up until the fall of the Republic in 1797. It then passed to Austria and was liberated by the Italian army in 1866.
Treviso, capital of the province, stands in the Venetian plain, at the convergence of the rivers Sile and Botteniga, thirty kilometers (20 miles) from Venice. Its territory is bounded by the rivers Sile, Zero and Musone to the west, by the Livenza to the east; it is crossed by the Piave, it extends between the hills of Asolo, Montello and Valdobbiadene, the ridges of the Grappa and of the Bellunesi alpine foothills and the low-lying plain below, a rich and productive land. The fertile soil, given over to agriculture and animal raising, participated in the glory of Venice, which has left its mark on its culture, so much so that it has been called the Joyful Borderland, due also to its playful and pleasure-loving inhabitants which characterise it even today.
In this region there is a preoccupation with food, a passion for gastronomy which leads dedicated bonviveurs and intellectuals to discuss recipes they have just invented or unearthed from old documents, from which come ideas for a range of further variations and refinements. The passion for gastronomy for which Treviso and its borderlands have been credited, recognised by many experts, has lead them to become the leading gastronomic city and province in the whole of Italy. A cuisine well rooted in tradition, but also actively involved in an ongoing search for new recipes, a cuisine which goes well with the joyful character of the Trevigiani who have earned the name ‘joyous borderland’ for this region.
A dish which has pride of place in Trevigiano cookery is boiled meat. The ‘classic’ dish promoted by butchers is made with many kinds of meat: cuts of beef, chicken, tongue, calves head, cotechino or bondiola (types of pork sausage), sometimes corned tongue. The beef and chicken are cooked together, obviously for different times, even though some firm-meated pullets also require a longer cooking time. Beef and chicken make a very tasty broth, which can be flavoured with an onion studded with six cloves arranged in a star-shape, with two stems of celery with leaves, or with a small celery root (celeriac), with two good sized carrots, with two bay leaves. Some people add two cloves of garlic. About four hours’ cooking time is needed to ensure that the meat reaches the desired degree of tenderness. Tongue and calfs head are cooked together to one side. Corned tongue is boiled first for an hour, changing the water for the final cooking. Corned tongue can also be cooked with the calves head, to which it gives a little of its particular flavour. The cotechino and bondiola pork sausages are cooked separately. The boiled meats are served with a wooden bowl filled with coarse salt for each to sprinkle on the boiled meats, according to taste. The meats are served together with a glass jar containing "acetini" (pickled vegetables), another with pickled onions, and another with pickled peppers.
A poorer but tasty version of the rich and costly boiled meat, is the ‘ossada’: veal and beef bones, rich in marrow jelly; sometimes pieces of tail and calves’ feet may be added. The whole boiled dish is served on a large plate, accompanied by the bowl of coarse salt and with horseradish grated directly onto the individual plates.
When the cold weather arrives and the early morning dew becomes frost, the people of the Trevigiano console their hearts through their stomach with a fortifying soup which is nearly always made from tripe. Comforting and restorative tripe, offered on the happy wedding mornings, to the friends who come to fetch the groom or the bride; it is like the beginning of a gastronomic ritual which then lasts through the whole of the day. Morning tripe dishes to be found in the inns of the towns, advertised by special boards with the writing “oggi trippe” (‘tripe today’); it is this tripe, in fact, which the country people, having concluded their business, their "timonella" or their “birocin” (wagon) being pulled by their trusty pony, and the brokers of the town with their "tabari" (‘cloaks’) or their "ponçelete" (heavy overcoats with fur collars made from sheepskin or, more commonly, from rabbit) can be seen savouring with great satisfaction, almost as if a reward for their having completed their business. After this, follows a quarter measure of old or young wine which could soon become a litre or more, leading to good cheer and to an inclination to doze. But, up until half a century ago, these were quiet times, with little traffic on the roads, and the patient pony was able to carry his sleeping master home, whinnying to wake him only once arrived at the stable-door, to ask for carrots or oats or maybe even just for hay and water.
Tripe with «pasta e fasioj» (pasta and beans) could be the symbol of the food of the Veneto, and particularly of the Trevigiana area since it would seem that it is in the heart of the Marca Gioiosa (the Joyful Borderland) that the inns are the custodians of the oldest and most authentic recipes for tripe soup «sopa de trippe», which as a rule should be "in bianco" (just with oil or butter). Tripe, which has its special reputation since Burchiellati’s day.
Besides the thick soup found in the Trevigiano, tripe is still today cooked as a sauce, sliced into thin strips, flavoured with a mixture of finely chopped onion, garlic, plenty of carrots, celery, parsley, basil, rosemary and sage with lard and oil. It is then moistened with white wine, covered with tomato sauce thinned with water or stock; then it is sprinkled with grated nutmeg and left to simmer slowly until the tripe is tender and the sauce has been reduced. It is served with plenty of grated Parmesan cheese.
Pasta and beans is a classic dish of the gastronomy of the Veneto, and especially of Treviso; it is a soup which needs slow cooking with plenty of flavouring. The base of it is a mixture of gently sautéed, finely chopped onion, carrots, celery, rosemary and bay leaves, and then slices of potato can be added to thicken it; next, to enrich it, are added pork ears, trotters and tail. Finally, when the soup is cooked, it can be awarded the addition of the traditional «tirache», a dialect term for braces, which in the common local culinary slang describes a quality of fairly dense textured tagliatelle made from wheat flour, mixed without eggs and which can be substituted both by egg spaghetti and tagliatelle, or even by rice.
There is a wide range of food made from pork in the whole of this region. In fact, in the Marca Trevigiana the pig plays an essential part in the food of the area, especially in the country. Until not so long ago, it was almost the only meat available to the country folk; whereas boiled meats were the daily fare of the nobles and merchants in the towns, in the country they were only eaten at festivals or weddings. Every part of the pig was used. After the exciting ceremony on the day when the pig was killed, for several days, the assorted sausages and salamis were collected in the main kitchen to be dried in the heat and the smoke of the fire. There were festoons of "luganeghe", the "rosto" type and the kind for stock and large sticks were hung parallel to the beams for hanging the dripping sausages and salamis: the musetti, cotechini, bondiole, soppresse, the ossocolli and the bladder stuffed with lard. With the pig’s blood they made «baldoni», or puddings, or tarts, or «el sangueto» to be cooked in pieces like Venetian style liver. The part of the pig’s neck, the meat of which was darkened by the blood which ran down when the pig was hung head downwards, was used for the preparation of «martondele» which are meatballs seasoned and rolled in polenta flour; they are garnished with a sage leaf, wrapped in a square of pig caul fat and cooked on the grill or in a pan.
The «bondiola» sausage is typical of Treviso, and is similar to cotechino (fresh pork sausage) or musetto, a compound of finely minced fat and lean pork, including the rind and parts of the head mixed with a blend of spices and stuffed into the pig’s intestines. Another type is made of tongue, with at the centre a piece of pickled pork tongue. The bondiola should be cooked slowly and served as a main course accompanied by cooked vegetables or mashed potatoes. The «luganega» is also worth mentioning; there are many varieties of this type of sausage. There is a rice luganega («luganega da risi»), made especially for using in risottos, a compound of pounded belly pork flavoured with the typical Treviso herbs and spices, including pepper, two kinds of cinnamon - "regina" and "Goa", ground cloves, nutmeg, mace and coriander. There are also luganegas made with other parts of the animal, and also with chicken livers and lights: these are the «salsicce de rosto», to be cooked on the grill. The rice luganega is used to make risottos, which in the Veneto region are never served ‘dry’ – but more like a reduced thick soup. The slices of luganega break up during cooking and flavour the rice. Some cooks add a piece of uncooked luganega halfway through the cooking, so it does not break up and is served in the centre of the dish.
But where the cuisine of the Veneto is at its most superb, is in the recipes which utilise the animals and fowl of the farmyard; poultry, ducks, pigeon, geese, turkey and guinea fowl. There are many specialities: in Treviso one simply must try the ‘roasted goose with celery salad’; at Asiago, the ‘roe buck with sultana sauce’. But everywhere can be found young poultry and small turkeys (“paete”) cooked with various sauces, such as that typical of the cold season which traditionally accompanies roast turkey with a base of pomegranates.
We remember particularly, of all the range of gastronomic delights prepared from the farmyard (duck, goose, turkey, guinea fowl, etc.), the recipe provided by Giuseppe Maffioli in his book La cucina trevigiana (Trevigiano cookery) for «terrina di faraona» (guinea fowl paté). «Our humble meatloaf can always turn into a true French ‘terrine’, even taking on a better appearance, or alternatively it can become a pie covered with a shell of pastry, the same proposed for the "pastizzo de macaroni" (macaroni pie). The guinea fowl is cooked as if for a salmì, but adding white wine and the livers of the guinea fowl, and of either chicken or veal or pork. The breast meat is set aside and the bird is boned and the meat put twice through the mincer; the carcass is boiled up again with the cooking liquid from the fowl, with a portion of calf’s head, a cooked ham (or roast pork) equal to the weight of the cooked guinea fowl. It is cooked until it has the texture of a paté. Bread is then added which has been moistened and which will soak up the cooking liquid. This then also put twice through the mincer. The two compounds are mixed together - binding them together with an egg, a spoonful of cornflour and a dash of Cognac or Calvados and one hundred grams of cheese such as Emmenthal or grated Parmesan. The cheese is only added if the paté or the terrine pie is to be eaten within a week, because otherwise, if left for longer, it imparts an unpleasant flavour. The pancetta used for covering and the butter from the cooking should be enough; if necessary, the cooked ham can be minced together with a little of the fat of the cured ham. Line a dish, with a lid, with slices of lightly boiled lard and then in this place a layer of the above mixture, a layer of sliced breast, another layer of the mixture, another of breast, another of the mixture. Cover the dish with more slices of lightly boiled lard and put into the oven in a bain Marie, covering with aluminium foil. The time need in the oven will vary depending on the size of the dish. After one hour, turn off the oven and leave the dish inside it to cool. It should be served as an antipasto, cold and cut into one centimetre thick slices. It is the ideal accompaniment for porcini mushrooms in oil or sweet gherkins in brine».
Similar to the recipes of the farmyard animals, are also those for game, dominated by the hare; a sumptuous dish being «civet di lepre», for which Maffioli recommends the following recipe. «Cut the hare into pieces, and, obviously, the number of pieces will depend on the size of the hare. Place them into a large terrine dish with pepper, salt, bay leaves and dried, crushed thyme; add also a finely chopped onion, or even two and moisten with five spoonfuls of oil and two of grappa or of another type of liqueur (gin is preferable). Mix together and leave in a cool place for three hours. Chop one hundred and fifty grams of pancetta into thin strips and fry in oil and butter; once it has browned a little, add two onions cut into fairly thick slices. When they have become golden, add two spoonfuls of flour or (better) one of cornflour and mix together. Stir in the pieces of hare and mix well, covering with red wine. Season with salt and pepper and add a bouquet garni of as many types of aromatic herbs as possible, with a couple of cloves of garlic, crushed with the fist. When the hare is cooked, remove the pieces and keep warm. In the abundant cooking juices, cook some spring onions and small porcini mushrooms or champignons, sautéed in butter; arrange the pieces of hare in an oven dish along with the spring onions and the mushrooms and cover with all the cooking sauce. If you wish, the spring onions or the mushrooms may be substituted with peeled sweet chestnuts which have been softened in the meat juices».
Amongst the fish, trout is the most refined, and is prepared in a variety of dishes, as well as a smoked version. The Marca Trevigiana area, with its mountains and the rivers which run down them, is particularly adapt for trout and this province, in fact, vaunts the most significant production. The waters of the area are the perfect habitat of a selected type of trout which is highly productive both in terms of quantity as in quality. The Valle del Piave, with the streams and rivers which flow into it, the Livenza and the Sile river which unwinds, clear, from the valleys of Santa Cristina rich in fresh water springs, into the plains, unpolluted at least in its first part, with the small mountain lakes of an intense blue; these are all waters which run through a countryside which is, for the most part, still protected and preserved.
But there is no lack of eels, crayfish, pike, sturgeon, catfish etc. etc. either, although these fish in the traditional regional cuisine are more considered as "mangiare di magro" (a food eaten when abstaining from eating meat) than as delicacies.
And finally, the frog, which was a food of the poor but appreciated also by the rich. Maffioli writes «On certain nights, it is still quite frequent for frog catchers to be about, with a lantern to dazzle them, and the frogs, who cease their night-time singing, allow themselves to be caught in the little net, or to be skewered by the "schiral". Their pleasant nocturnal chatter and their croaking all disappears and the nights are sadder, leaving the protagonist role to the crickets with their singing and to the love dance of the fire flies. The frogs live in both running water and in stagnant water; during the day, they stay wet in the water and at night they climb up onto the edges of the ditches, in amongst the grass, nourishing themselves with insects and little animals smaller than themselves, including their own tadpoles and the smaller, younger frogs. The period for reproduction goes from April to May and the various passages from the egg to the tadpole and then to the frog in its final form, last four months. There are frogs all around the world and it has been calculated that there are about two hundred species in all, very similar between themselves. In Italy, there are six species: the "Rana Esculenta", the "Rana Temporaria", found in the Pre-Alps and the Alps, the "Rana Arvalis", often found in the areas of Venezia Giulia and Istria, the "Rana Latastei" and the "Rana Agilis" found all over Italy but more especially in the north, whereas the "Rana Graeca" is more common in the central Apennines. The "Rana Viridis" or "Rana Esculenta", with the "Rana Agilis" are perhaps the most widely spread and the most sought after, also because, for gastronomic purposes, the kind of frogs required are greenish, flecked with black spots and with lighter tones on the stomach. The green colour may become a more olive-green or even grey-brown and, instead of spots, there may be streaks. An adult frog may measure from six to eight centimetres (two to three inches), and sometimes, in the Veneto region, it is possible to come across some really large frogs which are twenty centimetres (over seven and a half inches) long, originating from North America, which are called "Rane Toro" (Bull Frogs); how they came to be here is unknown, however, for whoever may happen to come across one, it may be useful to know that these big frogs would appear to be edible and have a delicate flavour like that of the Angler fish (monkfish) and of chicken, and that they may be cooked in the same way. In Medieval times, frogs had bad press, as they were considered, whether whole or with only part of their innards, as ingredients for magic potions and generally used by witches. In more enlightened times, frogs became a common food and were even recommended to women who, including them in their diet, it was said would have a purer and more transparent complexion.. In times of abstinence and fasting, frogs had an important role, being transformed into soups, - "potacetti", "guassetto" – into risottos and fried into crispy mouthfuls. Frogs also have a part in some frugal, meatless dishes, sometimes combined with the pulp from crayfish, or with the fresh or brackish water "saletti". Curiously, certain recipes of ours correspond to certain classic recipes of French cuisine, in fact, for example it so happens that frogs
"alla provenzale" correspond maybe to the best known Veneto recipe. Where frogs are concerned, the different humble folk, at the most widely flung latitudes and longitudes, discovered each for themselves the same ingredients for accompanying them: garlic, onion, parsley, aromatic herbs, mushrooms, flour, breadcrumbs, wine, oil, butter and eggs, treating them according to delicate recipes which were generally reserved for both fish and for chicken. See, for example, the way of preparing them in fricassee».
Snails were also considered to be a meatless food, and Maffioli offers us an informative page concerning their use. «If dressed with “pure oil”, the snail was a traditional meatless dish eaten on Christmas Eve and on any other such type of ‘vigil’, its use was not only for food, but (the snail shell) also for a small oil lamp which, when filled with oil and with the application of a wick, supplied a little flame for the illuminations, as was used up until not so long ago for the festival of Santa Augusta in Serravalle, the more northern of the two little towns which go to make up the town of Vittorio Veneto. The beautiful effect of bright, flickering writing extolling the guests of honour or the various Patron saints was composed by the use of the snail shells. A derivation of this is that, here, snails are generally served without their shells and also in surprisingly abundant quantities. Snails here are also named differently, land snails are known as "schiosi" (s-ciosi), "lymeghe", "bogoni" and "bovoloni", while "caragoi" and "garusoli" are the relations living in the sea. The most simple sauce used for them all has a base of parsley, garlic, oil, ,salt and pepper, both for the land gastropods, served without their shell, and for the ones from the sea, with their shell. To make the snails tasty, one may also add some finely chopped anchovies, which enhances the flavour, or else a little white wine and some lemon zest. The same method was also used for cooking veal’s or lamb’s lung with all the relative attached trimmings, known as "piscaia". The shells could even be stuffed with small pieces of chicken’ s lung or “dureo” (gizzard) formed into the shape of the snail itself – this was known as "lumeghe scampae" - which, with the appropriate cooking, looked very much like the wild ones. To make the sauce, in which to dip the unfailing polenta, go further and to make it more tasty and colourful, some tomato was often added with finely chopped garlic and even some onion. Snails cooked with garlic, parsley and oil could be enriched with beaten egg which was then scrambled and served quite fluid. As well as with parsley, snails can be flavoured with other aromatic herbs, also used in generous quantities and transformed into a green and fragrant purée. This purée, which should be at least double the quantity of the snails, can also be made up of spinach or of spinach mixed with Swiss chard and enriched with finely chopped walnuts (or pine nuts). White, black or red pepper can be added for more spiciness and, in general, innkeepers abounded in making them spicy since this brought on more thirst. For dishes where meat was included, snails were prepared with diced or finely chopped lean pancetta (spiced bacon) or even with pieces of sausage, aromatic herbs and the other additions were always the same, only that a good splashing of white or red wine, or a drop of vinegar were practically obligatory. If this were the case, in some areas finely chopped fennel seeds and a pinch of "dosa" or just some nutmeg, especially on the dishes including spinach, were added.
Meat and fish do not exclude an abundant crop of herbs and vegetables: from the primroses (an omelette is excellent), to watercress, asparagus and radicchio trevisano. And not forgetting, of course, mushrooms, which various qualities are cooked in various ways.
Fruit is also prepared in many different ways, strawberries, cherries, apples and especially peaches which become a real dessert when they are knowingly cooked with cinnamon, cloves and sweet white wine. These fruits are used for making a number of types of preserves (the strong-sweet flavour of the traditional mostarda, for uniting the flavour of apples to that of mustard), jams and syrups as well as different types of tarts. We also make a mention of walnuts, about which Maffioli writes «The walnut was a quite common tree in the Veneto countryside; in a certain sense it was the noblest and most respected and was considered almost a magic kind of tree due to the nut kernels which, when fresh, remind one of the human brain. There was who believed that it was risky and unlucky to stand in the shade of a leafy walnut tree, and even worse to fall asleep in it, especially if the shadow was generated by moonlight. It was said that witches met with the devil under the large walnut trees which grew isolated in the heart of faraway forests, certainly not under those growing in the farmyards which also served as up-in-the-air hen houses reached by means of a ladder. Trees which, at dawn, echoed with the crowing of the cockerel. Respectable, the walnut, for all that it yields: the walnut, first of all, which with its oil gives an important supply of calories, assuming the role in the north which in the south was assumed by the olive. And hence the popular sayings which show their appreciation for the walnut "Pan e nose disnar de spose" (‘Bread and walnuts, food of the brides’) and "Santa Crose (14 settembre) pan e nose" (Saint Cross (14th September) bread and walnuts), as if to say that autumn, with its cooler weather, could be consoled by a nourishing food. Walnut wood was valuable for making "talami" (bridal beds) and kitchen cupboards; walnut tree roots, having an attractive grain, was used for veneering furniture made from less noble woods. But the large, stout walnut trees were also used for building solid tables, in particular those shaped for use in convents and monasteries. The oil was especially appreciated as a cold, uncooked dressing, due to its agreeable flavour, but it was delicate and easily went rancid. It was also used in medicine as an emollient and a healing oil and, due to its characteristic of drying quickly, soon it was also used in painting; the recipes for the colours used in the great Veneto paintings of the 1500’s and earlier often include walnut oil amongst the ingredients. The fresh walnuts, picked, or rather “bocchiate” (made to fall by use of a pole) on the night of San Giovanni, when they are not yet ripe, were, and still are, used for preparing that "ratafia' de nose" (ratafia of walnuts) which in Fasiolo or in other places in Emilia Romagna, is called ‘nocino’. The Veneta version is particularly spicy, with cinnamon and cloves which are left to steep for a month together with the fresh walnuts cut into four segments with their green hulls, and immersed in alcohol or grappa with a very high alcohol content. After a month, the mixture is filtered, the aromatized alcohol is weighed and an equal weight of sugar (or honey) is added, along with the same quantity of distilled water. This is then left for another month after which time everything is filtered. This drink has the reputation of being an excellent digestive. Walnut oil has disappeared although sometimes it is possible to find it at the chemists, the dried walnuts, however, are easily found and can be used either in a traditional way or according to one’s fantasy».
And then there are the sweet chestnuts which, for a long time, were a basic sustenance for mountain folk. «There was a time - writes Maffioli – and not even so long ago, in which sweet chestnuts were like bread for the people of the lower mountains. Autumn was their big season when the people would go into the hills to “beat them” with poles and, armed with thick gloves, they removed the chestnuts from their prickly husks and, one by one, put them into a sack, or else they collected them still closed in their husks which, once at home and removed from the chestnuts and dried out well, were used to "mantegner le bronze sul fogolaro" (keep the embers glowing in the hearth) while emanating a pleasant, bitter aroma. The prickly husks containing the chestnuts were collected in enormous baskets made of "strope", the same baskets sometimes used for keeping together the broods around the sitting hen; these were then transported down to the valley using the "bec", big wooden sleighs pulled by people, but, rather than pulling it was more like a continual braking, given the steep slopes of the country tracks of the hills and the lower mountains. The chestnuts were kept in the "granaro" (granary), a guaranteed reserve of food which was also a festive one, especially if accompanied with wine, perhaps new wine, still sweet and a little turbid. This combination of "castagne vin novo" (chestnuts and new wine) was the protagonist of all the Autumn festivals and fairs; lots of little coal stoves would be brought out with the "farzose sbusae" and the chestnuts kept warm, only just cooked, in a basket underneath a woollen blanket. People would go to the Fair or to the Festival at the outskirts of the city or in the centre of the town: a litre of "vin dolce" (‘sweet wine’), not yet very strong, adapt for children, and a "scartozzo" (paper cornet) of chestnuts, and then back home, but at that point not to eat dinner, but, at the most, to drink a little milk flavoured with "fondi e de orzo" (coffee grounds and barley). Then it was time for bed to discover again in those childhood and adolescent dreams the giddiness of the merry-go-rounds, the ups and downs of the roller-coasters, of the flying ‘careghini’ and of the incomparable and beautiful fairground horses, whilst the echo of the little organs and carillons still echoed in your ears. Happy times in which the horizons of our desires were limited and, before going to sleep you maybe sucked on the last piece of "tiramola" saved as the last consolation of the day. At home, the chestnuts were probably more likely to have been boiled and, maybe if the cook had the patience, they would have been flavoured with fennel seeds. Once the time for chestnuts was over, there were still the "stracaganasse", dried chestnuts for munching and also for cooking in a number of different and pleasant ways, especially for the elderly missing a few teeth. They were most usually cooked in milk and sometimes even in wine. The dried chestnuts could also be boiled and then softened and made into creams and delicacies, flavour-wise taking on the role of a poor man’s almond. Such sweets not destined for refined desserts but as an evening dish for eating after the habitual milky coffee drink mentioned earlier. Fresh chestnuts could even be served as a soup, as a “cream”, and I have distinct memories of having tasted a soup in my green years which was made from chestnuts and mushrooms».
As far as desserts are concerned, apart from the ‘imported’ ones because they are now part of the food industry, we remember foremost the traditional ones belonging to the festivals, dry cakes such as the «bianchetti», the «ossi da morto» (-‘bones of the dead’ – so called due to their particular shape), the «zaletti», the «lingue di gatto» (‘cats tongues’) etc. etc. We then move on to the more elaborate types like the «torta fregolotta» (now diffused in the whole of northern Italy), the focacce, the «zuppa inglese al caffe'» (a kind of coffee trifle), the «bavarese» (a type of blancmange) and the different types of sorbet.