CHIAVARI, Italy - Back in the day, long before Columbus discovered America and no one in Italy had ever 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 - like the Gonzaga, Dukes of Mantua.
Renaissance chef Bartolomeo Stefani, who worked for the Gonzaga Dukes in the mid-1600's, would create sauces for his rich patron Duke Carlo II using raisins, nuts and exotic spices from far-away places like Africa and India.
Chef Stefani knew it was an honor and a privilege to be part of the Gonzaga Court and he knew it was in his 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 Chef 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.
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.
Chef Stefani described the table of honor at the last banquet held at the Ducal Palace for Queen Christina 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 of the Mount, two cherubs supported a crown with the Swedish Coat of Arms of Her Majesty. As each course of served, it was preceded 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 at celebratory events like the visit of European royalty to Renaissance courts in Italy, 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. A variation of this nut sauce is still served in Italy, particularly in Liguria, and it is a perfect example of the use of local ingredients. Pasta, raisins, nuts, lemons and basil would have all been readily available but the Parmesean cheese and butter would have come from the nearby province of Emilia Romagna. Exotic cinnamon and nutmeg would have been brought to Italy by ship from Africa and transported to Mantua by mules, making them very costly ingredients.
Here’s Chef Stefani’s nut sauce recipe, which is still served today.
MACCHERONI ALLA GONZAGA
Ingredients for 4 Servings
¾ lbs (320 g) penne rigate
1 tablespoon of raisins
Peel of 1 lemon
½ cup (60 g) almonds
¼ cup (30 g) walnuts
¼ cup (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. Do not let it come to a boil. 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.