By The Abode Team
The signs of the Renaissance are everywhere in Italy. Obviously. Grand piazzas and palazzos. Metal-spiked doors. Looming archways. And, of course, all that ever-present art in the churches and galleries. But in one city, you also get a taste of the Renaissance every time you enter a restaurant. Ferrara, in the northern region of Emilia Romagna, was once home to the Estense court, or House of Este, which ruled the city from the 13th to the 18th centuries. The court, on the bank of the River Po, was one of the most formidable cultural powers during the Renaissance. Writers including Boiardo, Ariosto and Torquato Tasso were employed by the court, and artists such as Bellini, Mantegna and Piero della Francesca worked for the Este family in their domineering, moat-surrounded castle in the centre of town. Their works have survived the centuries - but so have those of Cristoforo di Messisbugo, the court's master of ceremonies and steward.
Messisbugo was one of two celebrity chefs of the Renaissance, and his prowess with multicourse banquets to impress visiting heads of state and fill the bellies of the Este great and good, led to him writing one of the world's earliest cookbooks. His tome, "Banchetti, composizioni di vivande e apparecchio generale" ("Banquets, Recipes and Table-laying") was published in 1549, a year after he died. In it, as well as sample dinner menus and drinks pairings, he lists 300 recipes. And it's thanks to Messisbugo that that, nearly five centuries later, the Ferraresi are still eating the Estes' favorite meals. Because while every town in Italy has its signature dishes, Ferrara's are straight from the cookbook of that 16th-century court.
Lucrezia Borgia, who came to Ferrara in 1502 when she married the Duke, Alfonso d'Este - was said to be the inspiration for one of Ferrara's famous delicacies; 'The Coppia' - a spiraling, four-horned bread roll, a little like two croissants welded together back to back. It was supposedly created by Messisbugo for a banquet in honor of Lucrezia's long, blonde, curly locks. Legend has it that she also enjoyed a traditional dish called 'Salama da sugo'. The salama - made with different cuts of the pig including neck, belly, liver and tongue, with neck fat binding it all together - is seasoned with spices including cloves, cinnamon, red wine and Ferrara's ubiquitous spice, nutmeg. It's then aged in a pork casing for around a year, soaked in water for three days to soften it up, and then boiled for up to 10 hours. By that point it's as soft as jam and is scooped out and sprinkled on top of mashed potato! Then a bit of mostarda (a condiment a bit like a sweet chutney) is plopped on top along with its crowning glory; a cube of fried custard. This isn't a joke - in the old recipes, you really will find this dish served with custard! Can't say I'll be eager to try it depsite a love of custard.
And there is no proof that Lucrezia Borgia liked 'Salama da Sugo above all else, we do know, from her shopping list, that she adored apples ordering loads of apples of different varieties.