Eat like an 11th century prince - A Canossa Christmas hamper

Matilde and her family did not only influence Italian politics, architecture, art and culture for centuries to come. They even played an important part in shaping Italian cuisine! The location of the Canossa lands, stretching from southern Tuscany to the Prealps, from the high Apennines to the vast and fertile Po plain, from Lake Garda to the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic Sea, clearly helped. Olive oil from Tuscany and Garda, salt, the oriental spices arriving through the port of Pisa...The chefs of Matilde's father, Margrave Bonifacio, a great warrior and hunter, were not short of options for curing and cooking his meats!

Having said that, the Canossa dynasty took particular pride in promoting the produce of their lands. Their delicacies were, quite literally, status symbols, gifted to other princes, the Emperor, the Pope, bishops, as statements of their power and prestige.

Matilde's official biographer Donizo, writing in her lifetime, records a very meaningful episode - and describes the first item we should include in a Canossa Christmas hamper: balsamic vinegar from Modena, which actually, according to Donizo, was first developed in nearby Canossa. Margrave Bonifacio sent this 'laudatum acetum' as a gift to Emperor Henry III, in a silver barrel.

Nowadays we would call it a PR exercise going wrong. Instead of impressing Bonifacio's munificence on his imperial lord, it unleashed his envy. The gift, according to Donizo, caused the Emperor to view the magnificently powerful and magnificently rich Bonifacio as a rival, probably setting in motion the intrigues that culminated in the mighty margrave's assassination.

In our 11th century hamper, the dark thick balsamic would be paired with parmesan cheese. The first record of this most famous Italian cheese appears in a farmland contract of the Benedictine abbey of Marola, deep in Matilde's lands. The reference dates from about thirty years after her death, which suggests the cheese may have first been developed in her lifetime, if not earlier.

Local charcuterie would take centre stage in the hamper, especially pancetta, salame fiorettino, and culatello, a delicate type of ham cured for at least 12 months, still typical o the Canossa area today. Like in Matilde's days, the charcuterie is paired with “gnocco fritto” bread, made with a dough of water, flour, salt and baking soda, cut into square or rectangular pieces and fried in lard. The dense woods of the northern and central Apennines were - and still are - rich in chestnut trees. Chestnut is still milled in Italy, especially in Matilde's lands, and the flour is used to make cakes, biscuits, breads ad even pasta! So chestnut and chestnut produce would definitely feature in the hamper.

Other delicacies typical of the Canossa era that still feature prominently on an Italian table are filled pasta - the ancestors of today's tortelli and cappelletti, which would have been served boiled in a meat broth, and Byzantine-influenced recipes such as chicken with almonds. Byzantine influences might be surprising but during the dark ages the Apennines saw the foundation of a few Byzantine monasteries and the monks had brought the culinary traditions of Costantinople with them.

Last but not least, a Canossa hamper would never be complete without a local wine, and I would chose the rich dark red Lambrusco grape, still harvested today around Matilde's strongholds from Canossa all the way to Mantova and Modena. It is having a bit of a renaissance at the moment, thanks to a new breed of artisan wine-makers committed to quality and traditional techniques.

It was probably served at the banquet hosted by Matilde to sanction the reconciliation between King Henry and the Pope. Fancy trying a sparkling red this Christmas?

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