All right — Hands up who hasn’t seen Mary Poppins as a child (whether you loved or hated it doeosn’t count)? And don’t we all wish we could tidy up our rooms with a snap of the fingers?
The initial lyrics of the song “A spoonful of sugar” are: In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun, you find the fun and snap!, the job’s a game”. That wouldn’t exactly be my default approach to the dirge of certain duties but I do, yes, on the whole try to find at least some element of amusement when I have to tackle a situation that is not to my liking. The other day, for instance, when I accompanied my mother to meet a solicitor on business that is vexing the whole family right now, I noticed a butcher’s just opposite from where we had parked. And so the idea that we could visit the butcher’s after the meeting gave me a certain fillip, shall we say, and uplifted my spirits as we walked through the doors of the legal office. It gave me something to look forward to.
Has anyone espied the drawing of the horse on his billboard outside the butcher’s? The town of Zagarolo is famous for its horse meat. Here he is, the butcher, Mr Ascenzio (pronounced ash-shen-tzee-oh — and it’s not exactly a very common name by the way). He told us that is actually from the town of Palestrina but his wife is from Zagarolo and now it’s his home too. I loved his accent and his sense of humour. Here were some cuts of ordinary meat … I love that a bucher can sell wine and biscuits too … Bread even …. The notice behind says that the meat is “national”, i.e. Italian. This meat looked very ‘dark’ indeed to me. ‘Dark’ meat (i.e. meat that is well hung) is hard to come by in Italy on the whole. And indeed it turned out to be horse. And these rolls are made out of horse meat. These are not just any ol’ rolls. They are special and they are called “tordi matti”. Th town of Zagarolo is famous for its “tordi matti”. The thin slices of horsemeat are covered with pork fat, garlic, sage and parsely. Ascenzio asked me too sniff this mixture: it was deeevine, is all I can say. Fresh and fragrant and garlicky and aromatic all at the same time. The slices are then rolled and held together with a toothpick. The last and ‘secret’ ingredient that goes into the tordi matti is … coriander! Now that IS surprising. Italian food contains few spices on the whole, generally speaking — nutmeg and cloves and cinnamon being the three most used. So coriander is almost unique ! What’s even more surprising is that the coriander is home grown! I never knew that coriander could grow in Italy. Ascenzio posing with my mother. She charmed him too, the way she charms everyone. I had to drag her out of the butcher’s … and he told me off when I started badgering her to leave. These two got into deep conversation about history, family history and spices and how they could be incorporated into Italian recipes, and who were the ancient patricians who owned the feudal lands of Zagarolo etc etc etc. But again, dear Reader, isn’t that what going to shops as opposed to supermarkets is all about?
Anyway, I bought some tordi matti of course but before I proceed with the recipe, a little background.
A “tordo” is a thrush.
And the word “matto” (or “matti” in the plural) means “mad as in crazy mad”.
In German, the word “Drossel” means thrush.
Are you confused? Now what on earth has German got to do with this dish, you might ask? The Sack of Rome of 1527 has something to do with this dish! because, you see, there were German-speaking mercenaries called Landsknechte who were embroiled in the usual pranks and war games that Holy Roman Emeperors and Popes liked to play as they sacked their way throughout Europe. The Sack of Rome involved other towns and not just Rome. And the story goes that a poor and tired or wounded “Lanzichenecco” (Italian for Landsknechte) fell off his horse close to a family who were in hiding in the countryside around Zagarolo. He repeatedly uttered the word “Drossel”, that’s all he would say. His horse died almost immediately, and the family decided to put this outcome to good use … and butchered the horse for food. All they had was some lard and spices with them and that’s how they prepared the meat, roasting it over a makeshift grill in the woods, and offering it to the soldier too, who ate it and kept saying “Drossel, Drossel”. They realised he had gone mad, poor thing. The next day he disappeared … and once the political situation calmed down and the people could return to their town, a dish was born. The poor man had gone mad (“matto”) repeating the same word over and over again: Drossel, which translates as “tordo” in Italian. Hence: Tordo Matto.
I hope I am not driving YOU made as you read all this!
Tordi Matti are best grilled (that’s the proper way and that’s why so much lard goes into them) but Ascenzio told me that they can be cooked in a saucepan too. I followed his instructions.
Ascenzio told me to brown the tordi matti in a little olive oil on both sides. After they have browned, it is time to pour in some red (only red) wine. And then let the tordi cook for about 20 minutes. That seemed like rather a long time to me but Ascenzio said that horse meat takes longer to cook. I decided to place a lid over the saucepan for the first ten minutes. And this is what they looked like at the end of the 20 minutes, give or take another minute or two. Very dark, aren’t they? They look “charred” but actually weren’t … it’s a combination of the meat itself plus the red wine.
And I have to confess, also, that I do not eat horse meat. Nor bunny. Not because I am a vegetarian but because … I don’t know … I am just not ‘drawn’ to it. I even have trouble eating baby pork (even though I love porchetta). “Meat with a face” as Gareth Jones the food writer explained to me when I was commenting on this dish. But my husband, instead, does enjoy Tordi Matti, and pronounced the ones I made very good — and so I made him a happy man.
So to go back to my initial comment and the song in Mary Poppins. I am so glad we had to go to Zagarolo that day because … that’s how I got to meet Ascenzio and that’s how my husband got to eat his much loved Tordi Matti.
The address of the butcher is: Macelleria Ascenzio Nardi, Viale Ungheria 61b, Zagarolo.
P.S. For those of you who might be interested, the term “i lanzachinecchi” is still used in Italian today when speaking of barbarity and terrible destruction. The town of Frascati had a church erected in grateful memory of Our Lady (Mary, Jesus’s mother) because it is said that she appeared before them, frightening and scattering them. and stopping the town from being sacked.
(2) The German Landsknechte (singular Landsknecht, pronounced [lanʦ.knɛçt]), meaning “servants of the land”, were colourful mercenary soldiers with a formidable reputation who took over the Swiss forces’ legacy and became an important military force of the late 15th- and throughout 16th-century Europe. Consisting predominantly of German and Swiss mercenary pikemen and supporting foot soldiers, they achieved the reputation for being the universal mercenaries of early modern Europe.