Once upon a time....In a remote area of Italy's Lombardy region, there lives a count, Edoardo Visconti di Modrone, whose family's noble history dates back to the 1300s. His ancestor Gian Galeazzo Visconti was the first Duke of Milan. After living in London and then Milan, Edoardo decided to return to the family's countryside home in a quiet village outside of Pavia. The villa was once the family's vacation and hunting lodge. It was also used as a retreat by his great uncle, the screenwriter and director, Luchino Visconti. Luchino is most known for his films Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) and Death in Venice.
Count Edoardo in the Rice Fields (photo courtesy of Krista Bjorn of Rambling Tart)
Along with running the villa, Edoardo manages the rice farm, which has been in the family since the 1800s. Edoardo's passions for family, history and the local village called him back to the tiny undiscovered Lomellina Valley, situated just outside Pavia. On the estate, Edoardo has opened a restaurant and also a bar where locals have espresso, breakfast and snacks.
Of all the additions he's made to the estate, the thing which might make him most proud is the bar. His engaging smile grew even bigger as he explained how the locals come regularly to take their morning espresso and cornetto and linger throughout the morning reading the paper, playing cards, and chatting with each other.
His other "baby," Ristorante Corte Visconti, specializes in delicacies of the Lomellina area. The star attraction is the risotto, made with the carnaroli rice from the Visconti farm. The restaurant and estate offer their facilities for events and wedding receptions. Next to the event area, the church and its ivy-covered abbey add to the tranquil atmosphere. Edoardo hopes to turn the rooms of the abbey into suites for visitors and travelers who want to experience an unspoiled part of Italy.
Through an acquaintance, Edoardo invited me and my travel companions, Krista and Margo, to visit the estate and sample some of the regional fare at his restaurant. Although the fine china and pewter chargers, all engraved with the family crest, exuded nobilty, the timber ceiling and cozy plaid chairs gave the restaurant a comfy country charm. The balance of refinement and warmth that was displayed in the restaurant matched Edoardo's personality.
The food included traditional regional dishes, many are particular only to the area. Of course I had my favorites - the salami, the lard, the soufflé, every risotto dish - but all the dishes made by Chef Massimo Tacconi were a treat.
Salame di Varzi and a Bonarda wine: Both come from the Oltrepò Pavese, an area encompassing 15 villages in the Pavia Province. This "noble" salami from Varzi, one of those 15 villages, was much cherished by the Marchesi di Varzi in the 12th century, the bright red salami is infused with filtered red wine and garlic.
Salumi d'Oca e Finocchio (Goose Salami and Fennel): Also a product very typical of the area, and yes, you read correctly - goose. It seems in and around the nearby city of Mortara there was a big Jewish community. Because geese are plentiful in the area and Jewish tradition forbids the eating of pork, they started curing goose meat. The tradition continues today. It's quite good, too. I would say it's drier, and has a less fatty feel than pork salami.
Lard with honey and rosemary: This wasn't the first time I've had lard, but it was the first time I've had it drizzled with honey. The honey elevated the lard, already quite high on my list, to heavenly status.
Porcini Mushroom soufflé in a Parmigiano Cup: A light and eggy soufflé filled with the woodsy flavor of porcini. We devoured it all, even the parmigiano cup.
Primi Piatti (First Courses):
Risotto with Frog (risotto alle rane): Another specialty of the region. Because the land is marshy, making it a great rice growing area, there are a lot of frogs. Hence the use of frogs in the risotto. Again, not the first time I've eaten frog, but it was the first time I've had it in a risotto. It's flavor is really a lot like chicken, and it takes on the other flavors in the dish.
Risotto with Radicchio and Taleggio: I'm not a fan of radicchio nor Taleggio, so when I heard Edoardo order this dish, I thought I would try only a little. Well, to my surprise it was absolutely delicious. I know I had seconds, and maybe even thirds. The strength of the cheese diminishes the bitterness of the radicchio and brings the entire dish into a creamy harmonious balance. (I'm working on replicating this dish.)
Saffron Risotto with Sausage: Sausage was a yummy addition to the famous dish of Milan and the region, Risotto alla Milanese.
Note: Now I'm sure the first Duke of Milan, Edoardo's ancestor, Gian Galeazzo Visconti accomplished many things. He's credited for being the founding patron of the Certosa di Pavia, completing the Visconti Castle in Pavia and for continuing to fund the building of the Duomo in Milan. Although unsuccessful, he also attempted to become the first "king" of a united Northern Italy. Might I just add my gratitude to him for, in my opinion, an equally great accomplishment: being one of the first, if not the first, to import saffron from Asia and mix it into risotto.
Ravioli with Donkey Ragu: The dish couldn't compare to the creamy risotto dishes, but the sauce wasn't bad. Stewed donkey meat was used in place of beef to make a rich ragu.
Secondo Piatto (Second/Protein Course):
Duck in a Balsamic Vinegar Sauce: We were all pretty stuffed from the fabulous first courses, but Edoardo wanted us to try another regional specialty. As the area was, and is, quite a popular hunting region, duck, pheasant and guinea fowl make up much of the protein courses, especially in the fall. Duck legs were cooked in balsamic vinegar, and the reduction added a sweet coating to tame any gamey flavor from the duck.
Chef Massimo brought out a mille foglie (Napolean), a cuore caldo cioccolato (molten chocolate cake) and a panna cotta with caramel sauce. The three of us found our spoons fighting in the panna cotta dish for the last bites.
What a day we had, dining with a charming count, seeing his estate and learning about his fascinating family history. Add to that being able to sample so many delicious local dishes, and you can be sure it was a fairy tale of a day.
This post is part of Wanderfood Wednesdays - A group of travelers and food lovers who blog.