Mantua: Luccio in Salsa

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Pike - Photo © Tin2
Pike – Photo © Tin2

Pike has always been the much sought-after bounty of fresh-water fishermen. Unfortunately it is becoming increasingly uncommon as it eats live prey, lives in fresh running water, grows very slowly and cannot be farmed as it does not support captivity. If by unlucky chance it happens to enter a tank, it will immediately try to kill itself by beating its head against the border. This fish vaunts its liberty; it gives up only after a fierce struggle to show its dignity as a prey. The permanent present of pike on the menu of Mantuan restaurants can thus be interpreted as a search to valorize tradition because this fish is becoming rarer; supplied by the informal market channels of acquaintances between fishermen and the restaurant circuit, in the context of environmental balance, it symbolically demonstrates the link between capture and the presentation of a meal.

Luccio in salsa is definitely a very old recipe; it is even mentioned in the Stefani treatise: The pike must come from the river or from good lake water, not murky; among all fishes, this is nutritious  served with garlic, lemon juice and vegetables; when cooked on the spit, larded with anchovies and served with caper sauce, prawn tails, sugar and rose wine vinegar  (Brunetti, 1965:46).

And surely the fish from the lake and river at Mantua have always been a notably available food, at no cost: the city is constructed as a fortress, surrounded by waters; therefore freshwater fish have taken first place in the kitchen and have become an important element in the cuisine of our province. Contrary to meat, therefore, fish could be consumed almost daily and often its transformation into food did not require very great elaboration.

In the times of the Gonzagas, and even until recent times, there were no deep-freezing methods. Meat and sea fish required a lot of care and profound metamorphoses: sauces, spices, the marked taste of some fruits, overcame (and cancelled) the taste of the prime element, probably no longer fresh. Lake fish, on the other hand, thanks to its abundance, has continued to be prepared respecting its sweet and clean taste.

For this recipe, too, there are evident internal differences linked with the specific nature of the territory: in the area around Canneto, towards the Cremona border, peppers are not used as an ingredient; at Le Grazie and at Rivalta, on the banks of the Mincio, the pike, dressed with the usual sauce, is sprinkled with slivers of Grana cheese. Pike and Grana return in a recipe that some Mantuan families preserve even today, in which the pike, previously simmered in water and lemon juice, is dressed with only olive oil, grated Grana and a dusting of nutmeg, clearly recalling the ancient recipes.

The restaurants we visited have partially modified the original traditional recipe, following their creative spirit. Instead of the classic method of simmering the fish, it can be steamed; in place of the hot sauce poured directly onto the fish, it is dressed with fresh oil and covered with the drained ingredients: to the original composition we can add tomato pieces to make the dish fresh and pleasant; finally the overall flavour of the recipe can be changed by adding the zest and juice of a lemon, giving a sharp taste to the dish. One last recipe for pike is that named “all’aiona”, dressed with parsley and chopped garlic and fresh olive oil.

Luccio in salsa is the “second” course that mostly characterizes Mantuan gastronomic traditions: this is why most of the restaurants serve this dish all year round, served hot or cold according to the seasons.

Luccio in salsa is usually accompanied by slices of grilled polenta: a strange combination with freshwater fish, but which Mantuans cannot resist for ancient habits.

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