Two completely different traditions have made up the cuisine of Piacenza along the centuries, namely "peasant" or country cooking and sophisticated, aristocratic cooking. The country cooking, or cuisine du terroir, is the better known of the two: its recipes have come down to us with few changes through the years, particularly from the post-war period, and represent the core of any traditional menu of the town.
This cuisine is closely linked to the country labours and produce of the Po valley, the hills and the mountains. It is made up of simple and hearty dishes for big appetites, cooked with fresh market produce, and resulting in unsophisticated, but tasty meals, which satisfy the palate with the minimum of expense and the maximum of caloric intake.
The second, more elaborated cuisine, a favourite among the clergy and the aristocracy, has either disappeared or altered down the centuries, following the social and economic changes of the times. Very little is left of what once filled the tables of the wealthy nobility and clergy of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Piacenza being a border town, its cuisine has therefore been greatly influenced by the neighbouring regions, particularly Lombardy and Liguria, and by the gastronomically richer and more inventive "heart" of deep Emilia.
Typical first courses include several types of anolini, otherwise called cappelletti, similar to tortellini, but made from a square of pasta rather than a circle so that they form a peak; anellini (ring-shaped pasta); bomba di riso (ball of baked rice with a core of meat); malfatti or maltagliati (irregularly-shaped pasta); different kinds of risotto; tortellini; gnocchi di patata (potato dumplings); and panzerotti (tiny stuffed pancakes).
Pride of place in any traditional menu is given to the tortelli di ricotta e spinaci (homemade pasta stuffed with ricotta cheese and spinach, made with very thin sheets of pasta dough rolled up in the shape of a plait), and to the well-known pisarÈi e fasÚ (bread dumplings and beans), which not even a casual visitor can afford to miss. It consists of gnocchetti in a sauce of olive oil, butter and lard with garlic, onions, pepper, and, of course, Borlotti beans; a forerunner of modern macrobiotic cuisine, it combines the nutritional properties of cereals and pulses. Those gourmets touring the valleys will also be able to taste delicious fresh mushroom and truffle risottos.
As for the second courses, they include several kinds of roast and boiled meats, game and poultry, and other less common dishes like faraona alla creta (guinea fowl cooked in a terracotta dish), bacon and peas, polenta e merluzzo (polenta with cod) or pulaita e quai (polenta with quails). Typical winter dishes are minced horse meat, to be eaten raw or cooked with diced vegetables (picula ad cavall), braised meats, and for those who look for a vegetarian alternative, the frit cui bavaron (leek omelette). A traditional dish not to be missed is the burtlÍina or burt-lena in its many variations: a savoury pancake that can be eaten warm on its own, or stuffed with ham and/or thin slices of soft, tasty cheese from the Appennines.
The dessert menu includes several types of cakes (apple and plum tarts, almond and potato cakes and cakes made with chestnut flour), the Lent turtlitt (sweet tortelli like mince pies), croccante di nocciole (crunchy bars of caramelized hazelnuts), as well the buslanei (little ring-shaped biscuits) and the buslanei (a ring-shaped cake), traditional country cakes to dunk in white wine at the end of the meal (particularly the buslein), or in milk for breakfast (buslanei).
Other country dishes with strong flavours, still served at traditional fÍtes, are the different types of polenta with cheese, stracchino (a kind of soft cheese), potatoes, and ciccioli (scraps of pork fat); riso con latte (rice and milk); and zuppa con l'olio (olive oil soup).
As for the wines, our province boasts a long-standing wine-making tradition dating from Roman times: there is a story about Cicero, who, around two thousand years ago, during one of his speeches at the Senate, reproached his enemy Lucius Calpurnius Piso for drinking one glass too many of the "delicious Piacenza wines". In the last few years, many of these wines have been given an image boost, resulting in a sales increase, and some of them - like for example Gutturnio, a very fine red wine, Monterosso, a white wine from Val d'Arda, and Trebbianino, another white from Val Trebbia - have received the D.O.C. certificate (Denominazione di Origine Controllata).
Other typical wines are Barbera, a robust red wine, Bonarda, a sweeter red, and the whites from Valtidone, as well as the ever-present sparkling Malvasia, a delicious accompaniment to desserts.
Equally ancient and rich is our cheese-making tradition. It is mentioned in several Roman and medieval documents, to say nothing of the floods of words written from the sixteenth century onwards by educated scholars and connoisseurs to extoll this or that product.
The two typical cheeses from the Piacenza area are grana, made in the lowlands next to the river Po, and ribiÚla, produced on mountain pastures. Grana, whose much-disputed origins are still uncertain (Piacenza, Lombardy, and Emilia have been fighting over them for centuries), is a typical cow cheese of the Po valley, hard and with a round shape, whereas ribiÚla can be made either with sheep milk only or with a combination of sheep and cow milk. It is eaten fresh, or can be stored in glass jars, covered with a layer of oil, and left to ripen until its taste becomes rather pungent. To be mentioned also the different types of ricotta cheeses and the mountain cheeses, which are often sold on market stalls or during village fairs.
A traditional, and justly renowned, hors-d'oeuvre consists in a dish of salumi (cured pork meats), produced in the province of Piacenza. The two most typical products are salame and coppa, whose quality is now upheld by a newly-created seal of quality, but equally tasty are pancetta (bacon) and spalla cotta (cooked shoulder). The rare and delicious culatello - a produce of Parma - is made in the far east corner of the province, at Villanova sull'Arda, on the border with the province of Parma
Elisabetta's love of good food
The politics of power has always been discussed around a sumptuously laid table. This is also true of Cardinal Giulio Alberoni, Minister of King Philip V of Spain and his wife Elisabetta Farnese, who interspersed his correspondence with requests for food from his hometown. It was precisely from the territories of the dukedom of Parma and Piacenza that the cardinal had the best ingredients sent to Spain in order to prepare the royal banquets, and thus satisfy the keen appetite of the crowned heads of the timeThe queen in particular was very fond of food. According to the cardinal, "she eats for two, and I would content myself with eating in two meals what she eats in one. She drinks twice in a meal from a capacious glass. She keeps drinking my wine, but, without her knowing, I have it diluted with a third of water".
The list of ingredients asked for by Cardinal Alberoni includes triffole (truffles), salame, ribiola cheeses, and anolini: the cardinal reported that the homesick Queen told him that when she savoured such delicacies, "it seemed to her as if she was still in her own good country", that is Piacenza, her hometown.