Sunday, February 10, 2008
Soncino: Donkey Stew with the Guelfs and Ghibellinis
On arriving in Milan, our friend Igor had a plan. We simply must travel out of town to a small town on the Lombad plains to try the donkey meat stew in Soncino. Local food traditions like eating donkey meat were falling by the wayside and are now being revived, much to the disdain of the British public and other pet lovers, who simply can not abide the idea of eating Eyore or any of Winnie the Pooh's other anmal friends. This, however, proved no stumbling block to us. It was Sunday in Milan, and we were going out of town for some down home ass-munching!Soncino is a beautiful, small medieval walled town on the flat Lombardy plains, near Cremona, right on the border betwen the Duchy of Milan and the Kingdoms of Brescia and Pavia. it wasn't the easiest piece of real estate to maintain in the fifteenth century, and was the scene of several major battles involving knights and pikemen and such, in which Milan came out best, leaving the town to the contending clans of Guelphs and Ghibellinis. These were two clan based political parties as much given to stringing each other up as to stringing up Brescians and Pavians. In times of war the two clans shared the one castle, which is preserved as a museum these days, albeit a victim of the nineteenth century trend of reconstructing old castles in the style of some romantic novel instead of basing it on any historic representation. "Castello di Mickey Mouse!" said our host, Alessandro.The real reason we were here is the local Trattoria, the Antica Rocca, (Soncino, Via Battisti 1, tel. 0374.85.672) which is rooted in local cuisine styles. And that means donkey meat stew is the house specialty.While we tried to decide what to eat - it was an easy question of ass or no ass? - we were served a plate of local wild onions ("little lamps") anchovies and dried tomatoes.Horse meat is quite common in Italy, and donkey meat is also a local specialty, although today most of the donkey meat is imported internally from Sardinia. Located about an hour's drive from Milanb, Soncino attracts a lot of sunday visitors from the big city out to try the local dishes and wines, and of course, donkey meat stew is the main attraction. We started our meal with a selection of proscciuto and salamis.Next up was a plate of gnocchi served in a sauce of ground duck breast meat with chiodini mushrooms in cream sauce. If you live a very good life on earth and don't harm innocent donkeys during your life, this is what they give you to eat in heaven.Notice that there isn't a hint of canned tomato sauce to be seen on this table. Everything was home made, and fresh to the season, which is a surprisingly mild winter. The house specialty - donkey stew - appeared next. time for some real ass munching!For all our horrified expectations, donkey meat turned out to taste like... meat. Nice texture, good red meat. The donkeys are actually imported from Sardinia, so we didn't even have to feel bad about any donkeys seen in the neighborhood. The sauce was the main flavor in the stew - a red wine reduction heavily herbed with juniper, bay leaf, and rosemary. Served up next to a lump of polenta, this made me feel like i could eat a herd of cute, adorable, lovey-dovey baby donkeys.A cup of good espresso and a glass of sambuca with three coffee beans inside to end the meal. And guess what? At about EU 25 from each of us, this is actually a lot cheaper than any sit down resto meal I can find in Budapest. Excelent value, and the world has to feed one less cute donkey! Soncino is also the location of the first printing press to have published the Hebrew Bible. The first of the Jewish Soncino family engaged in printing was Israel Nathan b. Samuel, who set up his Hebrew printing-press in Soncino in 1483, and published his first work, the tractate Berakot, in 1484. Eventually the Soncino family oved their operation to Istanbul, but today the house is a museum of the lithography craft, presided over by a very entertaining old curator.