Tasty and invigorating dish, the casserole occupies a prominent place in traditional winter cuisine, in particular the Lombard one. Its origins appear confused and can be traced back to different moments of peasant culture, but they have their roots in a poor and honest past. In fact, the dish represented the need to recover all that nature could offer, combining different flavors and aromas. We have traces of its advent since the early 16th century, but the first written records date back to the 15th century.
Cassoeula, historical origins of a peasant dish
Symbol of poor winter cuisine and of domestic reuse, the cassoeula is a peasant dish that takes advantage of winter ingredients, eliminating waste. For this the basic recipe, known as verse, contemplates the presence only of the first cabbage of the year and the scraps of pig slaughter, such as pork rinds, skin, feet and even muzzle.
Plate related to the Lombard tradition, it seems to have been born from the need to obtain energy and nourishment even with very few ingredients. The origins are still uncertain, but there are those who link its genesis to the feast of San Martino, as a symbol of the first winter colds. But many trace the birth of the cassoeula to the feast of San Antonio Abate, which is celebrated on January 17, a period dedicated to the slaughter of the pig. In addition to the first winter frosts, which make the cabbage tastier thanks to the high concentration of mineral salts and sugars.
A dish between religion, legend and peasant culture
As anticipated, there is no certain origin of this unique dish, certainly peasant needs take on a predominant role. But according to the legends of the time, the cassoeula was born in Milan out of passion during the early 1500s, under the Spanish domination, thanks to a soldier who fell in love with a cook serving in a wealthy local family. The girl, found without ingredients, accepted the suggestion of the young Spaniard: he proposed to use the pig scraps and vegetables from the garden, creating a dish highly appreciated by diners.
The origins of the dish travel in time and the first traces of its passage are present in the recipe book of Ruperto da Nola, father of Catalan gastronomy at the service of the Aragonese court of Naples, in the fifteenth century. However, the link between the cassoeula and religion is undeniable, in particular the figure of Sant Antonio Abate, often portrayed with a small pig sitting at his feet. It is said that the monks themselves reintroduced the figure of this animal, once considered a symbol of the devil.
Cassoeula, a recipe for every city
The recipe over time it has changed its appearance based on the province of origin: there are those who prepare it with the addition of always different ingredients. The basic structure – ie cabbage and pig waste – it can be added tasty simply by changing the area of Lombardy.
In Milan it is cooked with the head and ears of the pig, in some cases only chicken meat (bottaggio) is used. In Como it is prepared without chopped vegetables and feet, blending with wine, in the Varese area, on the other hand, small salami pasta salami are added, known as fabricate. In the Brianza area the vegetables are cut into large pieces and it goes well with polenta, while in Bergamo the dish is dry and prepared with savoy cabbage, pork ribs and cabbage. In Pavia there are only ribs, in Novara they cook with goose meat and also in Trentino there is a variant with sauerkraut and the addition of shank, pancetta, luganega or even cotechino.
Cassoeula is a long-lived dish, so much so that even today it finds space among winter recipes. However, the origin of the name is still very doubtful. There are those who bring it back to the dialect term used to indicate the ladle, or the “cassoeu”, and who to the pot used for cooking, or the casserole. But many think it is linked to trowel, that is the tool used by masons to spread the mortar and cement, but which they used to mix the dish once the construction of the house was completed.
There are also contaminations of the Lombard recipe in the rest of Europe, for example in Germany: here it is known as “Kasseler” and is prepared with smoked pork cuts and a side of savoy cabbage. In France, on the other hand, there is a cabbage and pork-based soup known as potée, or Alsatian variants with cautious and Polish with cabbage, meat and spices, known as bigos.
Cover image by Remulazz, via Wikipedia