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food / travel

In Mantua, Discovering The Italian Origins And Delicacies Of Halloween

Italians have ancient claims on the origins of the ever more global holiday of Halloween. In Mantua, where Jack-O-Lanterns -- called "lumere" -- light the roads to cemeteries, others may be more interested in the delicious dishes made wi

Pasta with pumpkin is on every menu in Mantua (alessandraelle)
Pasta with pumpkin is on every menu in Mantua (alessandraelle)
Luca Bergamin

MANTUA - Halloween, Made in Italy. Actually, locals say it was invented here, in the northern Italian city of Mantua. For centuries, the night between October 31 and November 1, residents have hung carved pumpkins with a candle glowing inside: along roads leading to the cemeteries, on windowsills and on trees to scare the wayfarers. Mantua's Jack-O-Lanterns are called "lumere," and are celebrated with a big party attended by people dressed up as witches and wizards on October 30. The following night, according to the legend, the candles inside the carved pumpkins will help the souls of the dead to find their relatives who are still alive and have prepared for them a meal of pumpkin tortelli.

In the first century AD, the Latin poet Martial celebrated pumpkin in his Epigrams. "You'll eat it as an appetizer, then as a side dish, and finally as a dessert… there are bland flat cakes, candies of every kind of shape and size, and pastries…" The giant squash are one of the most important ingredients of Mantua cuisine. Nothing must be thrown away. Leaves, pulp, seeds and flowers are all ingredients for cooking delicious food.

In the 18th-century Corte Sguazzarina in the village Castel Goffredo, at the foot of the slopes surrounding Lake Garda, there are pumpkin cooking classes. Pumpkin can be served as a hors d'oeuvres with mustard and parmesan, in cakes with herbs, in risottos with mushrooms and sausages, in cannelloni with lard, in breaded veal cutlet, in cookies with spices and in cakes with chocolate and almonds.

Over all, tortelli are the most beloved pumpkin dish. Tortelli are stuffed pasta which was the favorite food of Isabella d'Este Gonzaga, Marquise of Mantua, who, according to legend, inspired the recipe to the chiefs of her court. Today, every Mantua housewife has her own recipe and shapes tortelli in squares, rectangles, small bags and candies.

From the poet Virgil to Michelin stars

Vera Bini, chef of the Michelin-star-rated Aquila Nigra restaurant, serves up the tops in tortelli. "Pumpkin has an almost human quality," Bini says. "Its life lasts from October to March and you have to figure out when it is just at its best." Bini says the secret for the best stuffing for tortelli is mixing amaretto, apples, mustard, nutmeg, parmesan, and good pumpkin, adding a dressing of butter and sage.

The ancient Romans used to eat pumpkin. Probably even Virgil, one of Rome's greatest poets, who was born close to Mantua, appreciated it. He is currently been celebrated with an exhibition in the 16th century Palazzo Te in Mantua.

The exhibition is showing for the first time in Italy the face of Virgil, which was portrayed in a mosaic discovered in 1896 in the Roman villa in the ancient city of Hadrumentum, in Tunisia. In the mosaic, Virgil has a slightly receding hairline and a pensive look. The muses of history Clio and of tragedy Melpomene stand on either side of the poet. On Virgil's lap there is a volume on which is written his epic poem Aeneid.

Virgil has always been the most famous and beloved Mantua native. But now, the Lovers of Valdarno are challenging his supremacy. They are two human skeletons, dating back to the Neolithic era, which were found in a necropolis in the village of Valdaro in 2007, huddled close together, and are now on display at the Mantua Archeological Museum.

Just outside Mantua, you can sail the channels covered by millions of green lotus flowers in Mincio Park. In the park, grey herons fly free with Mantua's Basilica of St. Andrea and the medieval towers as a backdrop. The fishermen's boats along the Mincio River carry you to the small village of Grazie dedicated to the Virgin Mary and famous for its sanctuary adorned with odd ex-votos and statues.

But if possible, it is best to arrive in autumn, when the Halloween pumpkins are displayed in downtown Mantua, and locals burn the cane thickets along the river. The view of the red sky over the valley will continue to enchant poets and writers for centuries to come.

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photo - alessandraelle

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