VINCISGRASSI: ORIGINAL RECIPE AND HISTORY OF A TYPICAL DISH FROM LE MARCHE REGION
Vincisgrassi, the lasagna from Le Marche region
“Vinculus”; “crassus“. Princisgras. Vincisgrassi: 4 names and 3 different periods for a lasagna coming from Le Marche region. The basic ingredients? Fresh egg pasta, meat, ham (not always), butter, milk, cream, flour, nutmeg. Then, the choice of the type of meat, the additions and the use of truffle will depend on the Vergara (this how the matriarch was called in the region) and to the family tradition. On the other hand, it is impossible to codify History.
A rich dish, worthy of a gentleman
As with all that has been said for centuries, the roots are lost and worth less than the rite itself. Every matriarch, the peasant Vergara, prepared this sort of lasagna for weddings or, in the countryside, at the arrival of the “master” (the lands’ owner).
In fact, the eighteenth-century term princisgras is composed by “principe” (prince) and “grasso” (fat), since the dish was so rich that could be offered to a real gentleman. Lord who could also be the head of the family or the firstborn, as the ancient “princeps” stood for “first.”
And it is this, finally, the current meaning of the term: on Sundays or when a nephew returns from the university, the grandmothers used to prepare the vincisgrassi.
The vincisgrassi’s history is made of food and words. The plot, built in 2000 years, wraps itself in a tangle of sources and legends, as for everything that is traditional and creates emotional bonds. Food, especially when it is so rich, is a vehicle of feelings, a way for the landlord to deepen the relationship with his guests and to pay homage to them (in Japan this attitude has a name: ichizakonryū, and is related to the tea ceremony).
Apicius and the Roman laganum
3 eras, they said, for a century-old dish. The researchers, as often happens in Italy, went back up to Apicius, the Roman aristocrat so despised by Emperor Hadrian for his lust (strange man Hadrian: he chose as his successor Lucius Aelius Caesar who died before taking power: well, Lucius was a lustful man and on the bedside table kept a book called “On the celebrated glutton Apicius”, written by Apion).
Apicius wrote of a dish called laganum, and for once the relationship with the ‘De re coquinaria‘ seems concrete: the recipe appears very close to the current one. Less concrete, or at least arbitrary, is the relationship between the Latin ‘vinculus’ (link) and ‘crassus’ (fat).
Even if the name laganum might recall the lasagna, it is more similar to vincisgrassi than to the Bolognese dish, precisely because the difference between the two is linked to the filling. In Apicius, the dough is seasoned with something that today we would think of giblets (stern of a sow, cooked fish and chickens) and the filling of vincisgrassi is actually made up of sweetbreads. By the way: for us, giblets are synonymous of poor dishes while for the Romans it was quite the opposite. The term, in fact, derives from the Latin ‘regalis‘, that is “worthy of a king.”
The 18th century and the Princisgras
Among the Princisgras and the modern version, there is one main difference: the vincisgrassi of the III millennium are made of tomato sauce, while the eighteenth-century ones were white sauce and included truffles and entrails. So, in fact, the chef Antonio Nebbia from Macerata in 1779 writes a suitable manual “to the ‘young Servants, and Women of cooking, but also to all those who intend to practice such a craft” and want to learn to “cook every sort of food, both fat and non-fat.”
Precisely the treaty of Nebbia dismounts the central legend about the birth and the name of vincisgrassi, namely that the plate was born in honor of an anti-Napoleonic general.
1799: Alfred von Windisch-Graetz conquers Ancona and falls in love with the princisgras
It is said, in fact, that the Austrian general Windisch-Graetz, after having liberated the Doric city from the Napoleonic troops, tasted this creation of his cook and became his favorite dish.
As seen, however, Nebbia talked about this particular type of lasagna 20 years earlier, although it is likely that the legend of the general has shaped the name of today.
No more gourmands, cooks or generals. Modernity comes with the cinema
The fact is that Apicius, Nebbia and Windisch-Graetz were not the only ones to be impressed by the vincisgrassi. In 1952, Orson Welles stopped in Ancona, and there he tried the original dish from Macerata.
Rich, fat. Perhaps with white sauce or maybe not. That of Welles was a tasty treat, which he also sought a year later when he was in Italy to shoot with Totò “Man, Beast and Virtue.”
And the legend recalls another legend, let us dare: maybe we have to thank the vincisgrassi if, in the scenes in which he eats, the director of “Citizen Kane” manages to recite the inexpressible: that perfectly childish pleasure. The nostalgic pleasure that has the taste of grandmothers, after the Sunday mass, a reunited family, a Christian Democratic tradition, vincisgrassi.
The preparation of vincisgrassi is long. The most challenging part is that concerning the drafting of the fresh egg pasta. The dough is then boiled and dried with a cloth. Then the fun begins: layer by layer the tower of pasta and meat sauce is made. The most significant difference with the Bolognese lasagna is in the use of nutmeg vincisgrassi and cloves. Besides, the meat is cut more coarsely while the bechamel sauce is much thicker. Finally, the original recipe includes a white dressing and the use of chicken giblets.
As said, every Vergara has her own secrets. We offer you the preparation and the ingredients taken directly from Antonio Nebbia: “Take half a pound of ham, cut it into small cubes, with four ounces of fine sliced truffle; then add half liter of milk, dilute it in a casserole with three ounces of flour, put it in a stove and add some ham, and truffle, always stirring until it starts to boil, and let it boil for half an hour; then you will add half a pound of fresh cream, mixing everything; then prepare the tagliolini with two eggs and four egg-yolk inside;
roll out it not so thin and cut it like the Naples mostaccioli, not so large; cook with the stock and the water (half and half), adjust with salt; take the dish that you will use: you can make around the plate a board of fry-shaped pasta to retain the sauce, so that it does not go out when you put it in the oven, (…);
once the lasagna is cooked, cut and scatter over with the Parmesan, sauce, butter, and cheese, so you will repeat it as long as you have filled dish; must be advised that the last layer should end with the sauce, butter, and Parmesan then put it in the oven … »
(Antonio Nebbia, the cook from Macerata, 1781).
Photos by Steve Johnson
This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)