SARONNO, Italy - Back in the day, long before Columbus discovered America and no one in Italy had ever even heard of a tomato let alone tasted one, they used to use other ingredients to create sauces for pasta. In those days pasta was a luxury dish reserved for the very rich. In the powerful courts of the Renaissance princes official court chefs, like Bartolomeo Stefani of the Court of Gonzaga in Mantua, threw in handfuls of raisins, nuts and exotic spices from far-away places like Africa and India and created unique sauces for the pasta of his rich patron, the Duke of Mantua.
It was an honor and a privilege to be part of the Gonzaga Court and it was in Chef Stefani’s best interest to keep the Duke happy. It was no secret that the Gonzaga Dukes had clawed their way to the top and were not particularly gentile or tolerant. While Stefani couldn’t see the infamous Torre delle Gabbia from his kitchen in the bowels of the Ducal Palace, he knew that those who lost favor with the Duke stood a strong chance of ending up locked in the open cage on the top of the tower and left there to die of thirst, starvation or exposure to the elements, whichever came first.
|The Gonzaga Family by Andrea Mantegna|
But Chef Stefani was a pretty smart cookie, if you’ll pardon the food pun. He published cook books and made a reputation for himself in the Renaissance culinary world. In one of his books, published in the late 1660’s, he talks about a series of banquets the Duke of Mantua held for Queen Christina of Sweden, who had stopped in Mantua on her way to Rome. The Queen had recently converted to Catholicism and wanted to receive communion from none other than Pope Alexander VII who traditionally celebrates the Christmas Eve Mass at the Vatican.
|Queen Christina of Sweden|
He describes the table of honor at last banquet held like this:
“In the middle of the table stood a triumphant sugar carving of Mount Olympus, complete with a miniature altar. At the very top, two cherubs supported a crown with the Coat of Arms of Her Majesty Queen Christina. As each course of served, it was proceeded by yet another elaborate sugar sculpture, one more beautiful than the other. The banquet became a spectacular theatrical event.”
The connecting thread for all of the dishes served in the Renaissance courts at celebratory events like the visit of European royalty, was the liberal use of sugar and sweet spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. Sugar in particular was a very expensive commodity which only the rich could afford. Therefore the sweeter the dishes the wealthier the host, and by presenting a parade of sugar sculptures for the Queen’s delight, the Duke of Mantua was making a very “bella figura” indeed.
One of the dishes served to Queen Christina at that famous banquet was pasta with nut sauce. Nut sauce is still served in Italy, particularly in Liguria, and it is a perfect example of the use of local ingredients, in this case pasta, raisins, nuts, lemons and basil, which would have all been readily available. Parmesean cheese and butter would have come from the nearby province of Emilia Romagna, but the cinnamon and nutmeg would have been brought by ship from Africa and transported to Mantua by mule trains, making it a very costly ingredient indeed.
Here’s Chef Stefani’s nut sauce recipe.
Maccheroni alla Gonzaga
Ingredients for 4 Servings
320 g of penne rigate
1 tablespoon of raisins
Peel of 1 lemon
60 g almonds
30 g walnuts
30 g hazelnuts
Pinch of nutmeg
Pinch of cinnamon
Vegetable broth, q.b.*
A knob of butter (melted)
Grated parmesan or grana padana cheese q.b.*
Pinch of salt and pepper
Extra virgin olive oil q.b.*
(*q.b. quanto basta – Italian for ‘as needed’ or ‘to taste’.)
Finely chop (or pound in a mortar or use a food processor) the raisins, lemon peel, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts. Add the nutmeg and cinnamon and continue working until the ingredients are thoroughly blended – use a little olive oil to help the process. Add the remaining olive oil and melted butter and enough broth to create a sauce that is fluid, but dense.
Cook the macaroni al dente. One minute before the macaroni is ready, put the sauce in a non-stick pan and heat very gently, diluting it with additional broth if needed. Taste for seasoning, add more salt and pepper if necessary. Add the macaroni to the sauce, mix gently and serve with a sprinkle of grated cheese.