Crazy Thrushes and Horsemeat from Zagorolo – I Tordi Matti

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.

1 2 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.3 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.4 Here were some cuts of ordinary meat …5 5a I love that a bucher can sell wine and biscuits too …7 Bread even …. The notice behind says that the meat is “national”, i.e. Italian.8 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.9 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”.10 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.11 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.12 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.

13 Ascenzio told me to brown the tordi matti in a little olive oil on both sides.14 15 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.16 I decided to place a lid over the saucepan for the first ten minutes.17 18 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?19 They look “charred” but actually weren’t … it’s a combination of the meat itself plus the red wine.20

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 Landsknechtpronounced [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.[1][2]

About myhomefoodthatsamore

Community celebration via food, wine and all beautiful things.
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12 Responses to Crazy Thrushes and Horsemeat from Zagorolo – I Tordi Matti

  1. Great article, Jo! Very interesting – and humorous, as usual!

    • Well … life can be very serious, can’t it … and if we don’t infuse a bit of lightness into what we read …. adddio!!!! (with three “d” s)- It’s a beautiful sunny day, I hope you are basking somewhere in the sun!

  2. This was a variety post. I got some education about the butcher and horse meet, history lesson and some language lesson. I don’t think I have eaten horse meat before, but I can imagine it being tougher to cook. However, I have heard that the meats from active/athletic animals due to their muscle-mass are more flavorful. What is your husbands opinion?

    • Bless him, he is quite easy to please!!! There is a tradition of eating horse meat in Italy. It was thought to be ‘healthier’ or contain more iron or something, and thus good for anaemic people or sickly children, that kind of thing. It was never part of my family’s traditional food range so I really can’t comment on your query. I think the meat is slightly “sweet”, even if full of flavour.

  3. I am actually quite fond of horse and rabbit meat. Both have more character to me than their usual ‘counterparts’, beef and chicken. So many people are turned off by the idea… but I figure if we are going to kill animals for food, why not eat them all? It’s not that we stick to the ‘dumb’ ones. A pig is apparently an extremely intelligent animal, too, as is the octopus, another kind of ‘meat’ that I love.

    • Oh dear Frank, you have touched a nerve! I know that if I had to butcher the animals myself … I’d be a vegetarian, for sure (even though I saw my grandmother and others butcher chickens and I carry on eating them!). You are absolutely right … what can I say? It’s just that horse and bunny make me feel queasy and so what’s the point of eating it, if you know what I mean. Re the pigs … a friend whose family raised them, told me that they somehow intuited that they would be butchered the following day and would “cry” all night! My own mother bought a lamb to fatten for Easter when we were living in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). I was away in boarding school so this is hearsay and family lore. Anyway, my younger sisters of course “turned” the lamb into a pet and so my mother bought another one soon after. La stessa cosa — same thing. My sisters pleaded and pleaded with her that they couldn’t possibly eat their pets! The result was that a goat was bought and slaughtered instead. I wasn’t there but who knows how I would have reacted. The film “The Giant” — there is a brilliant scene where the children are looking at the turkey on the Thanksgiving dinner table which had erstwhile been their pet. A friend of mine who is all zen and decent, etc, told me that killing animals in the wild had some “meaning” for the hunter, that diminished the brutality of the killing. A lot of gratitude was involved and the act itself became elevated to ritual. This is a very interesting topic and I haven’t even mentioned vegans!!!!

      • Yes, indeed, the key is that rabbits and horses are our pets and friends, which makes it impossible to eat them for many people. Not many people keep pigs as pets. And yet pigs suffer, too. If we were truly compassionate, we’d all become vegetarians. I think about it sometimes… but I have to admit, I like meat! I do try to eat much less of it, though.

  4. Karen says:

    I haven’t eaten horse but my husband did when we were in a restaurant in Verona that was famous for serving horse meat.

  5. Alanna says:

    One treat we always enjoy in Tunis: horse merguez. There aren’t many places to find it any more, and as you know, I consider myself a hypocrite as I, too, would be hard pressed to butcher. I never knew about Zagarolo’s horse meat tradition!

  6. Yes … and Ma says that my Nonna used to make them too, so obviously it wasn’t just Zagarolo.

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