Few, if any, lands are richer in the tradition of the hunt than Italy, whose lakes and forests, fields and streams abound with game. None is richer in the tradition of preparing these products of the hunt for the table. Much of the Frenchman's skill with a plump partridge or a delicate perch, say Italian scholars, was brought to him by Catherine de M�dici, who took the lore of Italy's kitchens to France in 1533 when she became Henri II's queen.
From this historic perspective, it is perhaps not surprising that the No. 3 bestseller (ranking just behind Lampedusa's The Leopard and Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana) in Italy's bookstores these days is a cookbook—a cookbook devoted to the preparation of game. But there is an added sauce piquante of coincidence in that its author is not only a marchesa and Italy's No. 1 sportswoman as well as one of its finest cooks, but that she lives in a feudal castle presented to her husband's family by the Medicis themselves some 550 years ago and that her name, in English, means "of the stove."
Slim, dark Maria Luisa Incontri Lotteringhi della Stufa has hunted, fished—and read—as long as she can remember. "One day," she recalls, "my father said to me, 'Maria, stop studying and start cooking.' " And so, beginning with lessons at a fashionable cooking school in Florence, the marchesa embarked on the hobby that led in time to the publication of a number of books, including the current slim but succulent volume Girarrosto (The Turnspit).
"Wild game as a food," she explains in her introduction, "is not appreciated as it should be. Too often hunters scorn their catch as food while respecting it as game, sometimes because the treasure of their hunt is not properly prepared. Too many of us are expert cooks when it comes to preparing beef, veal or poultry, but we lack completely the ability to get from a piece of pheasant, venison or quail the enjoyment that these fine animals can offer."
The Turnspit's 120 pages are full of culinary advice designed to overcome this deficiency. Its recipes range from directions on how to prepare the elaborately theatrical galantine of pheasant pictured by Photographer Jerry Cooke on the page opposite to a relatively simple formula for a marinade that will take some of the toughness out of too recently shot venison. Between recipes, the marchesa manages with charm and wit to include a spicy seasoning of game lore. "In the 16th century," she writes in a chapter on quail, "Antoine Mizaud, a French doctor, advised all husbands to conserve the heart of a male quail and all wives to conserve the heart of a female to insure happy domestic relations." In Imperial Rome, she notes, a live quail running loose in the bedroom was thought to inspire pleasantly lustful dreams.
Whether or not quail are responsible, human relations at Il Calcione, the Stufas' 1,500-hectare estate in the heart of Tuscany, seem about as happy as they can be. Photographer Cooke, who journeyed there last month to sample the marchesa's pheasant, describes the scene: "The castle itself, which dates back to approximately 1000 A.D., lies in the midst of the lushest Tuscany countryside. When I was there the harvest was in full swing, but on the roads all around hunters on motor scooters sputtered along with their guns strapped to their handlebars and dogs sitting behind on the jump seats.
"Even the house, ancient and beautifully furnished, yet completely modern in its equipment, seemed dedicated to the hunt. There are hunting paintings and prints on every wall and guns of all kinds, ancient and modern. A slight disturbance that I asked about at lunch turned out to be caused by a carpenter who was building some wooden stairs for a wild pigeon shoot."
In the midst of all this the marchesa spends her time hunting, fishing, raising championship greyhounds and experimenting—to the infinite delight of her husband the marchese—with new and old recipes cooked mostly on a vintage wood-burning stove. She has two assistant cooks, but once each year, on New Year's Eve, a very special dinner is served at the castle prepared by the marchesa alone. The dessert is always the same—a New Year's cake topped with a model of Il Calcione in spun sugar. Not a difficult dish in itself, but since it must be prepared at the very last minute, it "does," says the cooking marchesa, "present grave problems to an evening gown."
PHEASANT WITH SCOTCH WHISKY
1 pheasant, cleaned and quartered
4 tablespoons butter (less for a small bird)
� cup Scotch whisky
� cup chicken consomm�
1 tablespoon potato flour
1 cup heavy cream