I tend to avoid the paranormal and I’m not fascinated by things that go bump in the night but there is one apparition that I get excited about and of course it has to do with Italy. But not just Italy, the Italy of my Italian friends in Gropparello. Gropparello is a comune in the Province of Piacenza in Emilia-Romagna, located about 130 km NW of Bologna . A few years ago I was on a road trip in search of some material for a chapter in my book on cooking in Emilia, (the legendary “breadbasket of Italy”) when I found myself at the door of a medievale taverna outside of town.
Little did I know the taverna was part of castle-fortress built by Charlemagne in the 8th century. Impressive and imposing, Castello di Gropparello was built from bare rock and overlooks a deep gorge (Gole di Vezzeno) and rock cliff with a view of a Celtic altar in the distance. Little did I know I would meet Rita who would become one of my dearest friends in Italy, a cooking companion, a source for one of my best selling olive oils and the current keeper of the castle. Rita Trecci Gibelli and her family have transformed the castle and surrounding wood into a site of gastronomic festivals and Italy’s first “emotional parc” Parco delle Fiabe (Park of the Fairies) where children and their families are guided through a medieval forest to discover the traces of fairies, gnomes, elves and witches, entering into a fairy-tale like experience that leaves Disney far behind.
And little did I know that although the fairies of the woods may be fiction within the castle itself lies a ghostly legend of “belief and disbelief with apparently inexplicable events that have occurred . . . trying to give rational explanations that there was and there could be the slow and gradual unfolding of this presence through clues, signs, posts more and more clear, clear, unambiguous, up to the revelation of something incredible”, la leggenda di Rosania Fulgosio.
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One day as I was reading my hometown newspaper I came across the reader’s Q and A section where someone asked the unlikely question “Does Anyone Know if Peacock Tastes Good”? I looked at it with some trepidation not knowing whether to reply. Answering it might have caused people to think I was part of some underground gourmet society like Brando and Broderick in the film The Freshman. But as a matter of fact I knew the answer to the question and the answer was “I do”!
On a recent trip to Italy, visiting our Italian cousins, we ate peacock at a friend’s house in Treviso, a Northern Italian city located in the Veneto. In Italy peacock is called pavone and prepared similar to pheasant. It was a Sunday afternoon and we were served a wonderful meal that lasted 4 hours at the country home of an Italian book editor who raised peacocks on his property. When we drove up to the fattoria (farm), that looked more like a villa, there were peacocks roaming the grounds. Little did I know they would be part of the afternoon meal. The meal consisted of several courses including a brodo make of peacock with nidi d’amore, little love nests of pasta filled with ground veal floating in the broth. This was followed by braised peacock, then goose and an Italian style meat loaf. Fantastici. The pavone meat was served on the bone and the legs were quite large, much bigger than a turkey. The meat was dark and very flavorful and did not taste gamey at all. In the beginning we were not told that we were eating peacock. I suppose our hosts weren’t quite sure how gli americani would react.
In Italy there is a culinary tradition of eating of all types of birds and although chickens, hens, capons and partridges were more commonly found at the table, eating peacock although not unheard of was reserved for the cultural elite. Served at lavish Renaissance banquets or at the dining tables of 16th century cardinals and popes, peacock was a popular center of the plate item among the aristocracy. The Italian scholar and cookbook author Platina, who dined with the Gonzagas in Renaissance Mantua, described peacock as “more suitable to the table of kings and princes than the lowly and men of little property”. Bartolomeo Scappi (1500-1577), cuoco segreto, private cook, to five pontiffs mentions roasted peacock as one of his favorite recipes often prepared with an extravagant use of spices. Once cooked, he suggests that the bird be reassembled with metal rods and have its feathers reattached come se fosse vivo, “as if it were still alive” for a spectacular display. The elaborate, ancient and eccentric preparations of peacock make eating it seem decadent and disturbing. Yet I felt neither during that meal in Treviso. It all seemed very natural and rustic and homey, sharing in the bounty of the family farm at the table with my Italian family and friends.
If you were wondering whether I answered the Q and A question in my hometown newspaper? I did. Did they publish it? No.