Every year around the 24th of June, people from 180 countries around the world convene at Solferino, a tiny town of 2,000 inhabitants south of Lake Garda in Lombardia. Solferino is surrounded by farmland and has a beautiful Mantuan square, Piazza Castello (so named because there used to be an 11th century castle here). The guard tower and the church of Saint Nicola, once part of the castle, still exist. Piazza Castello is where the volunteers from 180 countries convene to form a procession.
On 24 June 1859 in Solferino, there was a particularly bloody battle between the Piedmontese army led by King Vittorio Emanuele II (allied with the French army of Napoleon III) against the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire led by Emperor Franz Joseph I. The battle was notable for its high number of casualties, close to 40,000 in a single day.The injured soldiers went to the nearby farmhouses to seek assistance. But the farmers, in fear of the safety of their families, did not allow them to enter their homes. A Swiss man, Henry Dunant, happened to arrive in Solferino that day on business to see Napoleon III. He watched in horror the aftermath of the battle. He noticed that the local priest and some women were bringing a few wounded soldiers (only within the immediate proximity) into the church. The church belonged to the Vatican state and therefore was neutral territory. As such, it was a safe spot for the injured from both sides to be cared for.
Dunant upon seeing this went to the nearby town of Castiglione delle Stiviere to gather local women to help him care for the injured.
After the battle, Dunant returned to Switzerland but could not forget what he had seen. He wrote the pamphlet “A Memory of Solferino” about the battle and how volunteers cared for injured soldiers while remaining neutral. Dunant came up with the idea for the Red Cross (its symbol is an inversion of the Swiss flag, a symbol of neutrality and protection). Dunant approached not the European political and military leaders, but their wives, knowing they would be the most sympathetic advocates of his cause. In 1864, the original Geneva Convention, an international agreement recognising the status of medical services and care for the wounded in battle, was adopted.
Today the Red Cross is the world’s largest independent humanitarian network rendering assistance to people in crises across the globe. Every year around June 24th, volunteers from all around the world come to Solferino to make the same procession from Solferino to Castiglione di Stiviere that Henry Dunant made with the injured soldiers in 1859.
We stayed in this area, known as the Colline Moreniche, for a few days to try out farm life, visit Lago di Garda and see Mantova.
The local Mantuan cuisine is famous for slightly sweet tortelli di zucca (pasta stuffed with pumpkin flavoured with amaretti (almond biscuits) and mostarda (candied fruit)), stracotto d’asino con polenta (braised donkey with polenta), luccio in salsa (salt cod cooked with capers, parsley, peppers and anchovies served with grilled polenta), bigoli al torchio alla mantovese (fresh thick spaghetti with tomato and sausage sauce) and risotto con salamella Mantovana (risotto with sausage).
The best restaurant we went to was Due Cavallini in Mantova not only for the food but for the atmosphere of sitting amongst locals under a canopy of wisteria, eating homemade traditional food.
Mantova is a worthwhile visit, not only for its cuisine, but there are many historical sites including the Palazzo Te, the Palazzo Ducale and its museum and the Basilica di Sant’Andrea church.
Nearby Mantova to the southwest is the town of Sabbioneta, an ideal Renaissance city built by Vespasiano Gonzaga Colonna (a member of the Gonzaga family, the ruling family in Mantova at that time and the inspiration for Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet) in the late 16th century. He built it as a town ideal for the common man (as opposed to the aristocracy). It is a World Heritage Site.
The visit had a bit of something for everyone- farm life for the kids, history and culture for us and great food for everyone.
Recipe: Risotto Alla Pilota
Riso Alla Pilota (risotto with sausage)
300 gr risotto
150 gr di salamelle mantovane (or substitute fresh pork sausage flavoured with garlic), casing removed
70 gr butter
70 gr Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese, grated
Salt and pepper
In a heavy bottomed saute pan or Dutch oven, add 350 ml of water to the pan. Bring the water to a boil over high heat. Add the rice in one go so that it forms a mountain in the pan, emerging from the water. Shake the pan from left to right so that the rice forms an even later without using a spoon. Cook the rice for 10-12 minutes and then turn off the heat. Stir the rice with a wooden spoon, cover the pot with a tea towel and place the lid on top. Let it sit for 15 minutes.
Heat a frying pan over low heat and add the butter and sausage. Let the sausage brown slowly, stirring occasionally and breaking up the sausage with the spoon . When the sausage is browned and broken up, add it to the rice and stir to combine. Add half of the cheese and stir to combine. Divide into 4 serving bowls and sprinkle the remaining cheese overtop.
Best for a taste of a real working farm:
Tenuta Le Sorgive & Tenuta le VolpiVia Piridello, 06 46040 Solferino (MN) Mantova Tel: +39 0376 854252
This is a family run holiday farm and restaurant. We got to know the lovely Vittorio Serenella who runs the lodging. Vittorio took our children to pick green beans, zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers and aubergine for be cooked dinner. They then fed the rabbits, chickens and horses. A real treat for city kids like mine. If you stay here, get the apartments. Beware that if you do not like the inconveniences of country living then this is not the right place for you.
Recommended dishes: bigoli al torchio alla mantovese (homemade spaghetti with tomato sausage sauce), gnocchi con crescenza e pomodori secchi (potato gnocchi with creamy crescenza cheese topped with sundried tomatoes), tagliata di manzo (sliced grilled beef with rocket) and torta sbrisulona (crunchy hazelnut and cornmeal biscuit)
In Castiglione di Stievere:
Hosteria ViolaVia Giuseppe Verdi, 32 46043 Castiglione delle Stiviere (MN) Tel: +39 0376 67 00 00 email@example.com
Closed Sunday dinner and all day Monday except in July
This is a lovely little upmarket osteria with delicious local classics.
Recommended dishes: sformatino di polenta consa alla zucca con Parmigiano e burro alla salvia (cornmeal, cheese and pumpkin pudding with sage butter sauce), agnolini di carne in brodo (meat filled pasta in chicken broth), capunsei gnocchi di pane e Parmigiano conditi con il burro di Malga Bagolino (bread and Parmigiano-Reggiano dumplings in butter), riso alla pilota con riso Vialone Nano di Grumolo delle Abbadesse e il pesto speziato della salamella mantovana (rice with sausage) and luccio in salsa alla Mantovana con battuto di acciughe e capperi su letto di patate schiacciate (pike with capers, anchovies and parsley served with polenta). The wine list features natural and biodynamic wines.
Best for food and atmosphere:
Trattoria Due CavalliniVia Salnitro, 5 Mantova Tel: +39 0376 322084
Closed Tuesdays, 21 July to 23 August and one week in January or February
This trattoria is a foodie destination in Mantua for its authentic local dishes. In the summer eat on the terrace under a canopy of wisteria.
Recommended dishes: tortelli di zucca (sweet pumpkin filled pasta in sage butter sauce), agnoli in brodo (meat filled pasta in broth), bollito (boiled tongue, chicken, beef and veal served with different sauces), grilled veal, pork, beef.
To the southwest of Mantova:
46018 Sabbioneta (Mantova)
Tourism office tel: +39 0375 221044
Sabbioneta is an ideal Renaissance city built by Vespasiano Gonzaga Colonna in the late 16th century as a town ideal for the common man (as opposed to the aristocracy). It is a World Heritage Site.