Flavours and Traditions in the Lands of Matilda

On our historic itinerary in the footsteps of Matilda of Canossa, we cannot ignore the culinary tradition of the Apennines near Reggio, which has reached our own times richer and more elaborate, while continuing to feature the ingredients and flavours of years gone by. The importance of food, not just as a form of sustenance, but also as a real gastronomic art, the end result of much creativity and research, is shown in the priceless medieval and Renaissance recipe books that traditional cooking derives from. Dishes which find their origin in peasant tradition, but also in the recipes prepared at the homes of noble feudatories. In those times much use was made of game, pork (farm animals always included pigs from the Middle Ages onwards), field-grown vegetables, pulses and chestnuts, a high protein food. So never fear that after visiting a village or restaurant that you will be unable to find a restaurant or trattoria to continue your journey, in this case, through the delights of top-class home-made cooking. One must is the cappelletto, the king of pasta soups, always cooked in meat stock, and which, like Modena’s tortellino resembles that small crown which the 16th-17th century Italian poet, Alessandro Tassoni, compared to Venus’s navel.  

Then there are potato tortelli, a delicate mountain variant on green tortelli and those with pumpkin, served with meat sauce, and also tagliatelle and lasagne with porcini mushroom sauce. One traditional dish which can be found all over the Apennine range is gnocco fritto, which is made from a dough of flour, water and yeast naturally accompanied by choice mountain cold cuts such as fiorettino salami, canusina pancetta, and Canossa’s own culatello, which all date back to Matilda’s times. Lastly there is no shortage of roast or stewed meat and dishes based on mushrooms and truffles picked in the woods. Don’t miss out on delicious erbazzone, a typical savoury tart filled with Swiss chard whose mountain variant is called scarpazzone, and originated in the territory between Castelnovo ne' Monti and Carpineti, occasionally with the addition of rice. Then there are casagai, crisp fried polenta mixed with beans.  One interesting ancient culinary tradition linked to the use of mutton dates back to the Byzantine reign and continues mainly in the middle Apennine areas between Baiso and Viano. Here families still produce a local product par excellence: sheep ham, known as violino, particularly dark and flavoursome. To brighten up the meal, some sparkling Lambrusco to lighten the calories of a cuisine that is substantial.

However, it would be no exaggeration to say that there would be no cuisine from Reggio, or at least it would be very different, if there were no Parmigiano-Reggiano to add flavour to sophisticated and simple dishes alike. This cheese, safeguarded by its own consortium, is justly defined as the best in the world, and carries with it the lustre of a centuries-old nobleness. Tradition has it that it was born over eight centuries ago in the Enza valley, a territory between Parma and Reggio, but in the diocese of Parma, hence the name “Parmigiano” already used by Boccaccio and nowadays to be found everywhere. Just recently, a parchment was found of the Benedictine monks from Marola Abbey, dated 13 April 1159, in which the word formadio appears for the first time, the forefather of modern Parmigiano Reggiano. This is a rental contract for land and woods at Formolaria, today Frombolara di Carpineti, in exchange for money, goods and three portions of formadio. Another must is to taste the much-cherished Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia, produced as part of the most sophisticated gastronomic tradition, where knowledge handed down over the centuries has risen to become a real cultural heritage.

The monk Donizone, a contemporary biographer of Countess Matilda, in the XII century recalled a laudatum acetum which was transported from Canossa as a gift for the Emperor in a silver flask. The documented history of Reggio’s balsamic vinegar, or that from Modena, its more famous brother, dates back to the Renaissance, a period when the tradition began, initially amongst the nobles and later amongst the middle classes, of setting up a family vinegar works to age the cooked must of local grapes. But the gastronomic experience does not end here; there are still desserts to be tried such as traditional zuppa inglese, torta nera or torta in cantina, tortellini di castagne or monte bianco.  At this point your host cannot let you leave without first offering you a taste of Nocino, a typical liqueur made from walnut shells left to steep in alcohol and sugar. Now all that remains is to set off again on your journey to discover the vast ancient fiefdom of Matilda of Canossa amid festivals and historical re-enactments all in the name of the Grand Countess, which take place annually and involve entire village communities.

The most important is the one at Quattro Castella which traditionally takes place in May with various events that evoke the life and history of the Middle Ages and culminate in a historical re-enactment of the crowning of Matilda of Canossa as Vice-Queen of Italy, with a parade through the streets of the village featuring over a thousand extras in traditional historical costumes. At the beginning of September also the streets of Ciano d'Enza in the Municipality of Canossa have been turned into a theatre for over 20 years, telling of the dramatic encounter in the winter of 1077 between Pope Gregory VII, the Emperor Henry IV and Countess Matilda, staged by actors and extras in costume. Instead Frassinoro is transformed into a medieval village animated by shows, music and conferences during the Settimana Matildica.

One important event is the Province of Reggio Emilia’s Matilda of Canossa Prize, held at the Castle of Bianello di Quattro Castella, in commemoration of the Grand Countess, a brave, cultured woman, and a key figure in the meeting at Canossa between the Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII. This is acknowledgement of a female figure who stood up for women in political, economic, social, cultural and artistic fields. The prize is also designed to recognize all those women who courageously struggle and rebel against the injustices and prejudices that many have to endure around the world.