The Mantuan capon trail
From large dinner tables of the Renaissance to the present day: the kitchen of Capon
As far as we know the capon has always been reared in country houses, or cooked in the kitchens of the poor people who lived in rural areas. In Renaissance time the capon was also the food the Lords liked to cook in order to prepare elaborate dishes at their banquets.
Capon rearing is mainly found in the southern area of the Province of Mantua, say, to the south of the river Po. As the place is situated at the border of other towns and regions, different cultures enrich this land with their different traditions and first rate gastronomic products. mong them, the capon has always been traditionally cooked to make the so-called capon broth on Sundays.
Its noble and ancient origins
In the VIIth century it seems that inhabitants of the isle of Delo were able to turn a cock into a capon and he who practised caponizing was called "deliacus gallinario", as we can read in Cicero`s and Columella`s writings. But the word "capon" is of Roman origin and it is first mentioned in one of Varrone`s writings.
Aristotele in his "Naturalis Historia" writes that a burning was made on the cocks by means of a hot iron, and he goes on explaining that if a cock was castrated after reaching sexual maturity the cock itself no more courted the hen and its comb became pale; but if it was castrated before sexual maturity, it could weigh up to 6 or 7 kgs. Varrone, in the "De Rustica" wrote that a cock was turned into a capon by burning its dew-claws at the extremity of its legs by means of a very hot iron. But we must admit that the cock went on having sexual activity as its testicles were a bit higher in the abdominal cavities under the kidneys.
Columella (Ist century A.D.) is a bit more precise when in his "De re rustica" he wrote that the testicles were removed, the dew-claws were burnt, and the wounds were covered with clay. We have more precise information only much later. In the XVIIth century Oliviero de Serres in his "Theatre d`Agriculture" said that only female farmers had the task of removing particular pellicles from the abdomen; the pellicles were identified as "testicles" by Valmont de Bomare in the "Dizionario di storia naturale" dated 1775.
In 1856, Mrs Millet-Robinet was the first woman who gave precise details about the procedure. She said that caponizing had to be done when the cock was about 4 or 5 months and on an empty stomach. A 5 cm cut was done with the help of the scissors and the testicles were removed from the abdominal cavity. Only the hands of a woman, generally the housewife, could be suitable to do this. Grappa or vinegar was used to disinfect the wound which was closed with some stitches by means of a needleful of slub . If the poor capon was able to survive it was a bit woozy for a couple of days before recovering; but the mortality rate was very high as such an operation was done when the fowl had already reached sexual maturity, contrary to what happens nowadays. Both dew-claws and comb were cut away in order to recognize the capon from the cock more easily, but also to prevent its comb from becoming pale and falling on one side.
In case of failure the fowl was called "galustar", its meat being of inferior quality in comparison with the capon, and it would have been cooked within a short time.
In the 1950s a new and much less painful caponizing method came from the States and it is still practised today. The cock is laid on one side and plucked only at the base of the thigh. Then a 3 cm cut is done by a bistoury between the 2 last ribs. In the 1950s another method called "chemical caponizing" consisted in injecting a little dose a synthesis hormone under the neck skin; later the injection was substituted by a pill. But this method was no more followed because it was bad for man`s health.
The capon and the Gonzagas
During the Renaissance time the capon had its great splendour. At banquets the capon was usually covered with golden leaves and decorated with its feathers and peacock feathers. It was a rare dish served on important occasions.
The Gonzagas, too, appreciated the tender and tasty meat of the capon as we know from their cook, Bartolomeo Stefani, who preferred capons raised in hen houses to the ones raised in industrial farming. In his book , "The Art of good-cooking", he writes about the special care the country women had in feeding the capons and this was why the capon meat was very tasty.
The women he refers to, probably lived to south of Mantua, at the border with the Province of Modena where it also seemed that the Picos from Mirandola bartered their capons with game coming from the Gonzagas. No doubt, the capons reared in this area were of high quality since the Gonzagas were very demanding and had people experienced in the purchasing of good foodstuffs.
Bartolomeo Stefani`s recipes are very famous and well known, such as: "boiled capon", "capon cooked with milk", "capon skin soup", "capon liver sauce" and "capon broth", of course. He also says that capon meat is suitable for elaborate as well as easy dishes; it is also very good to prepare small meatballs for people in convalescence, as well as sliced breast meat seasoned with herbs. The capon is generally boiled in water with some salt, but it is also good when cooked with lard on a spit . It also seems that the dust obtained from the dried innermost ventricle membrane has medicinal properties and it is good to pregnant women. It is said that when they drink it with broth or wine they feel much better.
The capon has always been raised in the southern Mantuan countryside and eaten by the poor farmers on special occasions, especially on Christmas. We would have seen capons scratching around in the farmyards . The hen-house had an important role for the economy of the family; it gave eggs every day and sometimes old hens to make a good broth.
Everything was under the control of the eldest housewife. While oxen, horses , donkeys and pigs had to be censured, the capons did not as they belonged only to the family and gave good food; for example, half an egg and some vegetables could be a good evening meal. And what about the excellent chicken or capon broth served with "agnoli"? Meat was eaten as a second course.
It was the typical food the people had on Sundays and on special festivities. The capon was often given as a present to important people, for example, to the priest after he had blessed the house and the cattle shed.
Mrs Delfina, a nice 95 year-old woman from Schivenoglia tells how also smaller-bred fowls were caponized.
They were the so-called "capunsei" which were given some "Lambrusco" wine so to make them drunk and be able to go after chicks instead of the hen
As already said, only a well experienced woman went from farm to farm to do this operation where the presence of men was forbidden, otherwise the intervention would be a failure.
Lanzoni from Villa Poma refers that caponizing was usually done on Saturdays since, in case the capon had died, it would be cooked the following day, that was Sunday. Male genital organs of the castrated cocks were cooked and then given to the boys as a good dish. The fowls were caponized when they were full-grown and in summer so to let them put on weight and be eaten at Christmas.
To the search for the capon
Now, though the economy has radically changed, capon meat is the symbol of feast and it can still be eaten on farm holidays to the south of Mantua.
Here about 100,000 capons are reared both in big and small industrial farming as well as in some hen-houses where they are free to scratch about in the grass and in the open air.
All the breeders try to satisfy the consumers demands since they care for good vegetable feeding and limited sanitary treatments.
Mr. Maurizio Lanzoni from Villa Poma rears about 40,000 pure-bred Hiline capons on his industrial farm. The chicks are given only vegetable feed and are caponized when they are 25–45 days old, according to the poultry bred. The mortality rate is very low, about 2-3% and they can survive longer than chickens, say, till they are 200 days old.
This is why the organoleptic characteristics of the capon meat are better: in fact its meat is white, tender and it does not become overcooked.
Mr. Gianfranco Cantadori rears pure-bred Hiline capons in the open air in his farm holidays in S. Giacomo delle Segnate. The animals are given vegetable feeding and the so-called "impastà" the last month.
The latter consists of a mixture of bran, corn and soya flours. In this area you can find small breeders who raise capons according to ancient methods and offer a very genuine product.
Mr. Simone Caserta, the owner of the farm holidays "Corte Baghina", raises about 100 capons fed with corn. They are ready at Chritmas when they are 12 months old.
Gianfranco Cantadori`s farm holidays "Le Caselle"
Capon galantine with pumpkin and apricot "mostarda" Ingredients: - one capon - 100 gr of fresh pistachios - 100 gr of carrots cut into small sticks - 200 gr of pork fillet cut into pieces - one glass of Marsala wine - one carrot, onion, celery, laurel, salt and pepper
Take off the capon`s skin without breaking it and bone the capon. Let the breast aside and mince the remaining meat, add Marsala wine, salt and pepper. Lay the capon skin on a leaf of greaseproof paper. Put half the minced meat in the central part, add the pieces of pork fillet, the breast, the small carrot sticks and pistachios. Cover with the remaining minced meat. Wrap all the ingredients in the greaseproof paper and in a cloth. Boil for 1 hour in a court bouillon with the carrot, onion, celery and laurel. After that unwrap the cloth and put into the fridge for 24 hours. At last cut into slices and serve with pumpkin and apricot "mostarda".
Ravioli filled with capon and artichokes Ingredients for 6 people: to make the pasta: - 400 gr of flour - 2 whole eggs and one yolk - 50 gr of cooked and chopped spinach Mix the ingredients and make a pasta, roll it out with a rolling-pin and cut the ravioli by means of a round mould.
To make the filling: Cut one capon into pieces and roast with seasonings, sage, rosemary and white wine. When it is cold bone the pieces and mince well. Then prepare a 300 gr sauce with the artichokes hearts, onion, white wine and some capon broth. Cover with a lid and stew. Mince and chop the ingredients, add 100 gr of grated Parmesan cheese, 2 eggs, bread crumbs, salt, pepper and some chive. Drop a spoon of the mixture into pieces of pasta and seal the edges well. Serve the ravioli with melted butter, chives and Parmesan cheese.
Sabbioni Farm – Suzzara
Boiled capon: Let the capon boil in beef broth but not for long. Then cut into pieces on a hot dish and serve with home made "mostarda".
Baked capon: Fill in the capon with bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, parsley, garlic, the minced capon`s liver and durello, one egg, salt and pepper . Put into a baking tin and add small pieces of butter, sage and rosemary.
Loghino Vallazza Farm holidays Owned by Sagoni Gloria from Magnacavallo
Capon in orange sauce Chop 3 carrots, 2 middle-sized onions, 2 stalks of celery and fry in half a glass of olive oil. Add salt, the capon previously cut into pieces, and seasonings (rosemary, sage and laurel) that will be removed when cooking is over. When the meat is nearly cooked add vegetable broth and white wine. The ingredients must be always covered by the liquid; cook over a low flame and with the lid on. Then add the juice of two oranges (oranges from organic farming) and the orange rind cut into small slices, after removing the white film. After that take the lid off, let the liquid boil away and turn the meat on all sides till it becomes a tawny colour. If necessary, add some wine and broth only to prevent the meat from sticking on the bottom of the pan. Take the pieces out of the pan, put the sauce into a smaller pan, (you can add some more orange juice), add a glass of vegetable broth and a spoon of starch. Stir, boil for about 10 minutes and filter. Put some very thin orange slices on a dish, add the meat and cover with the sauce.
WHERE YOU CAN FIND THE CAPONS
Bigi Donatella`s Farm holidays Via Curzia, 4 - Gonzaga (MN) Phone: 0376-58145
Loghino Sabbioni Farm holidays Owned by Fiorenza Nosari Via Selmanenti, 31 - Suzzara (MN) Phone and Fax: 0376-532377
Le Caselle Farm holidays Via Contotta, 21/a - S.Giacomo delle Segnate (MN) Phone: 0376-616391 - Fax: 0376-62944
Loghino Vallazza Farm holidays Owned by Gloria Luisa Sagoni Via Vallazza,6 - Magnacavallo (MN) Phone: 0386-55430