Il Versante Gastronomico
I sentieri del gusto
In Sabbioneta you can sample and buy pumpkin tortelli, sbrisolona cake, Filos biscuits, salamis, cheeses, Lambrusco wine, melons, pumpkins and many other products of the Mantua soil.
The great never-ending story of Sabbioneta does not end with the sublime architecture of the "ideal city", or the unbridled historical events in a context that made Vespasiano Gonzaga Colonna the protagonist of a season of splendour and glory; it does not end in the streets and squares of "Novella Roma", or in the fabulous artistic contents of Palazzo Giardino, the Gallery, the Teatro all'Antica or the Ducal Palace. The emotion, amazement and awe broaden into something less ethereal yet still humming with life and packed with astonishment.
Journeys into flavour force us to pause; the desire for aromas, flavours and colours leads us to an estrangement or immersion in another universe scattered with the sweetest of tastes linked to a tradition that's behind us only in temporal terms, but which still binds us to a condition of pleasure which should not be missed.
The delicious food of Sabbioneta performs a comedy every day among the ancient palaces, in the sun-baked or foggy countryside, in the silent remembrance of an occurrence that speaks of history but also of everyday life.
Nothing eye-catching, heavenly or divine. Nothing that might make the visitor hesitate, suspecting that it's only talk. Sabbioneta's cuisine is made of simplicity, so much so that we even reject the term "typical", because it is primarily a matter of actions, rituals and memories of a period distant but still living, and of the indelible nostalgia that drives us to return to a path lost in time.
It may seem impossible, but the food and wine of Sabbioneta is different from the strictly "Mantuan" cuisine. Here there are some idiosyncrasies which might even be described as "linguistic", owing to the level of communication and attention they attract.
Appetisers are a modern invention. Apart from the "Olympic" bevr in vein, in the past there is nothing to indicate eating in advance of lunch or dinner. However, if your ears prick up at the melodious name Bevr in vein, your thoughts will inevitably turn to the delicious fragrance of a plain bowl of marubini pasta, where the grated grana cheese melts and mixes with the dark local Lambrusco and the broth, the reinvigorating and cultured expression of an axiom of flavour which prepared - and prepares - the stomach for more substantial fare.
But the seasons change, as do the tastes of the times we live in; and testifying to a condition of wellbeing that we wish to confirm through food, the deceptive stage of the appetiser came along, so we want to eat before we eat.
Although it has no roots in tradition or folkloric significance, it nevertheless reveals an affectionate shift towards something that cannot be ignored in our origins and family history, bearing in mind the role of cured meats in the past two centuries. To do this, we can simply return to delicious memories of the “maialate" (pig killing, with all its rituals) of bygone days, in which the pig played a starring role.
And so, the table fills with excellent products called home-made salami, cicioli or grepole, lardo creamed with garlic and parsley, coppa, pancetta and culatello; along with a steaming slice of polenta, these will take the perhaps unknowing food pilgrim to a banquet of the gods.
The sublime first courses of Sabbioneta's cuisine are simple yet complicated to prepare. The simplicity comes from using everyday ingredients, while the complexity lies in turning these into a pleasure fully expressed in an explosion of flavour.
Pumpkin tortelli were once eaten a couple of times a year, becoming, for example, a key dish for Christmas Eve; today they are eaten whenever we feel like it, evidence of their considerable power of flavour and communication. Pasta sheets, amaretti, chutney, grana cheese, nutmeg... and little by little they're ready to fulfil their task of bringing pleasure to the palate.
And the meat-filled capelletti or agnolini, known here as marubini? Swimming in a fabulous broth of capon or chicken and beef, and generously sprinkled with the grana that has graced Mantua's tables for centuries? So good they make you forget about all your worries.
And the tagliatelle in an abundant duck sauce, strictly fresh home-made pasta, finger-licking good? And the rice with pumpkin? And the potato gnocchi? Actually, the question marks are deceptive, because everyone knows which mouthwatering delight they refer to.
The Sabbioneta area is blessed with clear, fresh watercourses, so carp, tench and catfish are a traditional dish visitors linger over in disbelief at how such a simple thing can give so much palpable pleasure.
But there's also braised donkey meat or beef with polenta; snails and frogs served with fragrant and delicious frittatas. And there's more... the excellent cotechino, an ancient testimony of poor food that's rich in creativity and flavour.
And what can we say about the sweets, of which the queen is the legendary sbrisolona, made with yellow and white flour, almonds, butter and sugar, combined with the wisdom and love of a past now distant, as this cake's origins go back to the dawn of time...
But here in Sabbioneta, a great favourite is Filòs, home-made biscuits that evoke the flavours of old, quiet and fragrant cooking, made with walnuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts and chocolate, ready to immerse the eater in the mood of coming together that gives them their name, a reference to the ancient custom of families gathering in barns at the end of the working day, a timeless ritual that gave rise to extraordinarily close relationships and folklore.
What's more, we must not forget Dolce delle rose, Anello di monaco, Elvezia cake, zabaglione and, the most delicious autumn treat of all, Sugolo.
And lastly there are the wines, such as our dark red Lambrusco, mentioned by Virgil himself and the flagship wine of our region. The wonderful wine that dries the mouth, irredeemably stains tablecloths and napkins, and accompanies our traditional recipes, made with simplicity but passion in a climate so attentive and rigorous it borders on impossible.
Yes, because the cuisine of Sabbioneta is anything but ordinary.