Monday, October 31, 2011

November Porc - the movie

November Porc

It’s that time of the year again when the fog descends on the Bassa Padana (literally the ‘low Padana’ or put another way, the Po Basin), the locals brace themselves for the oncoming winter and pork mania takes hold. November Porc, a month of festivity dedicated to everything pork related, is held in the land of Giuseppe Verdi in the towns of Busseto, Sissa, Polesine, Zibello and Roccabianca, an area known throughout Italy for the outstanding quality of its cured meats. The festival was first held in 2002. It originated as a bet after a group of local salami makers returning from the October beer festival in Germany decided it would be a good idea to hold a festival of their own in November – hence, November Porc. 

The challenge for the organizers was how to sell a festival in November in an area that was renowned for its dense fog. Fog and cured meat products go hand-in-hand in the Bassa Padana. Local environmental, ecological and climatic conditions are considered paramount to developing the distinctive tastes and flavours of the area’s cured meats. Among the most renowned types of cured meat produced in the area are culatello – which many consider the King of Italian cured meats – various types of salami including strolghino (a type of thin salami made from the off cuts of the culatello), spalla cotta (a cooked ham), spalla cruda (a cured ham) and mariola (a cooked sausage).  

Amongst the highlights of this year’s planned festivities are a Mc Porc American-style sandwich van, several master classes in salami and Parmesan cheese making, the making of a gigantic mariolone – cooked salami – in addition to a world record attempt at making the longest salami strolghino – a title the would-be world record breakers held back in 2003. Other regular features will include street artists, live music and gastronomic stands. The official game of the festivities is the Tiro al Salame (throw the hoop around the salami), which was selected by a local youth cultural club known as The Connoisseurs of the Pig!

Yesterday’s inaugural ceremony was held in the town of Busseto in the Province of Parma. The streets were crowded, the air filled with the aroma of pork BBQ’s and in the early evening a dense, impenetrable fog made a dutiful appearance. I’ll be following future events throughout the month and reporting back every week. However, should you want to make a personal visit entry if free and the festivals are being held at the following locations:
5th and 6th November 2011 – Sissa, Parma
12th and 13th November 2011, Polesine, Parma
19th and 20th November 2011, Zibello, Parma
26th and 27th November 2011, Roccabianca, Parma

Friday, October 28, 2011

Espresso and cake

I drink 4 cups of espresso in the bar every day. A caffè macchiato in the very early morning followed by an espresso at around 10 a.m. I always go to the bar for a coffee after lunch and a final shot just after dinner. That’s my coffee regime and I’ve stuck to it religiously for 5 years. 

Italians drink a lot of coffee – estimated between 70-100 million cups per day. They rank first in the world for consumption, averaging 600 cups per person per year.  I figure I’m doing more than my fare share for the national squad. With 28 cups a week, I’m averaging in the region of 1,400 cups per year.

Italian coffee, as the world knows it today, dates back to the early 1900s when Pavoni began manufacturing coffee machines in Milan. Contrary to popular belief ‘espresso’ does not mean fast, but rather a drink prepared ‘expressly’ for the individual, deriving from the steam used to ‘express’ hot water through the coffee. The milestone came in 1948 with the introduction of the Gaggia Classic machine. The Gaggia used a hand operated piston to drive the water through the coffee under nine atmospheres of pressure resulting in a shorter beverage with a cream of essential oils – the Crema.

Espresso Cake
Torta di Caffé

Makes 1 loaf

Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 35 minutes

80g butter (softened)
120g caster sugar
2 eggs separated
100ml strong espresso coffee (cold)
175g self raising flour

Preheat oven to 180ºC.

Make 100ml of espresso coffee and allow it to go cold. Mix together the butter and 80g of caster sugar until light and fluffy.  Next, as you mix, add the egg yolks one at a time. Now, pour the chilled espresso into the mixture, stirring as you do so. Finally, add the sifted self raising flour. 

In a separate bowl whisk the egg whites with the remaining caster sugar until they are stiff. Gently fold the egg whites into the cake mixture and then pour into a greased lined loaf tin. Bake the cake for 35 minutes and check if cooked (you might have to give it an extra few minutes). Once cooked, remove from the tin and allow the cake to cool on a wire baking rack.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sliced bread and espresso

I went to Heidi land yesterday to do some food shopping. Anytime I have a craving or a need for something exotic – i.e. not Italian – I take a 90 minute drive north. I skirt around Milan on the always hectic and stressful tangenziale (ring road), past Como (with just a two-second view of the lake from up high on the motorway), down into the not so beautiful border town of Chiasso and, finally, into Switzerland, the land of good cheeses, chocolate, clocks and very bad coffee.

What brought me here, you might wonder? In just a few words, white sliced loaf.

Before you ask, and for those who are now thinking I’ve taken leave of my senses, good bread of the sliced variety in Italy is notable for its absence. What does come sliced is usually treated in alcohol and lasts for up to 3 months - not exactly fresh and certainly not something you want to put your Parma ham between! But hey, Italians don’t have a problem with that because they rarely eat sliced bread. I, on the other hand, can’t imagine life without the occasional BLT or little toasted soldiers to dip into my egg or a few slices of retro Melba toast to go with my thick autumnal soups. So, once a month, I visit the very Swiss Sermonata shopping centre in the border town of Mendrisio and stuff my boot with all manner of things I can’t get a few miles down the road in Bell’ Italia!  

A leisurely stroll around both the Co-op and Migros supermarkets resulted in a bill of just over CHF300. The exchange rate is awful at the moment so the bread wasn’t coming cheap! But needless to say, I didn’t just buy sliced bread! When in Switzerland, I like to take advantage of the very international shopping experience that Switzerland offers. You see, in my opinion, there’s no country in the world like Italy when you want a good restaurant. And there’s no country in the world like Italy when you want to do some Italian food shopping (as you’d expect). But, if truth be told, when it comes to buying anything let’s say, not Italian, well, suffice to say that I get into the car and drive to Switzerland.

Exhausted and with a pocket full of Swiss change and a boot loaded to the max with eight loaves of sliced bread, bagels, shortbread, assorted Chinese food stuffs, sweet potatoes, Swiss cheese and a basket of French cheese, pâté, madeleines and wine, I went into a coffee shop within eyeshot of the border checkpoint. I ordered a large café crème (coffee with cream), took a deep swig and almost choked.

As it happens I was standing next to a Swiss border guard who couldn’t help but notice the expression of disgust and incomprehension on my face.
“The coffee’s better there”, he said gesturing to the other side of the border. “I can’t”, he added by way of explanation, “we’re not allowed, not in the uniform”. I looked down at his cappuccino and immediately felt sorry for him. To work so close to the best coffee in the world and have to endure this every day: that’s some kind of punishment. I thanked him for the advice and left my drink unfinished. Life’s too short for bad coffee… besides, from where I was standing I could see a coffee bar in Italy that had a cup of espresso with my name on it! 

True coffee lovers, try out the following liqueur. It’s simple and I can guarantee you, it’s absolutely delicious!

Espresso Liqueur
Liquore al caffé

Makes 1 litre

Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: N/A
500ml strong espresso coffee
500g caster sugar
5cm piece of orange zest
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 vanilla pod
200ml alcohol (a strong clear grappa or vodka will work just as well)

In a heatproof bowl add the caster sugar and the freshly made (very hot) espresso coffee. Stir the mixture until all the sugar has dissolved and then add the spices and orange peel. Leave the mix to cool (this is very important). Once cold, add the alcohol (or grappa/ vodka) and stir. Pour the mixture into a demijohn/ bottle with at least a 1.5 litre capacity. Seal and set aside for 3-4 days in a cool dark place. 

To finish, pour the liqueur through a fine sieve into a bottle, discarding the spices and peel.  Although it can be drunk immediately, the liqueur will improve if you allow the flavour to develop for between 1 and 3 months.

TIP: Serve chilled after dinner or, alternatively, pour a shot of the liqueur over vanilla ice-cream for a delicious and simple adult dessert!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The artisan baker

Back in the Balham neighbourhood where I once lived, the demand for housing barely faltered throughout the recent recession. I heard from former neighbours that this was, in large part, down to the reputation of the local school – people wanted to live in the area because their children were guaranteed a place. I can understand this. I chose my home town here in Italy because it has a great bakery!

It’s no longer straightforward finding a good bakery in Italy. There was a time, I remember, when you could walk into any town and buy freshly baked local artisan breads. Most popular were the huge country loaves – pagnotta - dark crusty wheels, crispy to the touch, chewy and full of flavour - baked in wood burning ovens throughout the country. You could buy a piece, wrap it in a paper bag, place it in the credenza [sideboard] and it would last a week.

These breads originated from a time when people would take their dough once a week to the local fornaio – baker. Each loaf would be marked with the family’s personal signature – usually a wooden stamp - and it would be baked for a small charge. The loaves were large and made to last. The forno was a communal hub.

Thankfully, you can still find a pagnotta in Italy, but you will have to make the effort to find it. Alternatively, a recent survey estimated there are something in the region of 1,500 varieties of bread made in Italy which, taking into account regional dialects and shapes, can be broken down into 200 main types. So, if you take into consideration the ones we all know - the ciabatti, focacce, pane di Altamura, pane pugliese and panini all’olio etc of this world – it means there are still a good 190 waiting to be discovered.

Back in my home town Franco, an experienced artisan baker, makes 20 varieties of bread daily – and they’re all worth discovering.  Needless to say he starts work early – about 3 a.m., every morning, 7 days a week. And he’s been going steadily since he was 13 years old. He’s now over 50! Hardly surprising, it’s a regime that not many of the younger generation are willing to endure. Luckily Franco reassures me that he has no plans to call it a day. “Baking’s a game I still love to play,” he tells me. Some neighbourhoods might well revolve around the school. Mine revolves around the bakery.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Chestnuts and mulled wine

There are 3 ways in Italy to tell that chestnut season has started:
1. Bakeries start selling a cake called castagnaccio – a Tuscan specialty, although it is made throughout the Apennines wherever chestnut trees abound.
2. The local newspaper devotes an entire page to the whereabouts of the countless chestnut festivals that will invariably be taking place throughout the month of October.
3. Chestnuts dominate seasonal restaurant menus.

The small osteria where we had lunch was offering specials of creamy mushroom and chestnut soup, handmade pasta with a chestnut stuffing served in a sage and butter sauce and escallops cooked in a brandy and chestnut butter. Desserts included a sweet fried tortelli stuffed with, yes, of course, more chestnuts.

The Italian culinary calendar is a cyclical pastiche of frenzied seasonal outbreaks. In-season bingeing is the norm and, as if to prove the point, after lunch we walked 2 kilometers from the restaurant to the stone hamlet of Scaria, deep in the heart of the Val d’Intelvi, in the mountains above Lake Como. I could smell the chestnuts roasting on the fire long before I reached the festival. We’d parked some distance from town as we knew the event would attract a good crowd (plus I wanted to try and walk off lunch!). Chestnut festivals – or castagnata, as it’s known – are always popular in Italy. Nothing draws crowds quite like nostalgia and chestnuts are one of those special seasonal foods that are always served with a generous dollop of the stuff.  As the aroma grew stronger I was already envisaging the open log fire, the flames towering around and through the pan, fingers and hands blackened, chestnuts hot to the touch.

We passed the church and joined the crowd in excited procession up to the playground above town. In the center of the car park three castagnoli – chestnut roasters, for want of a better translation! – were sitting in front of an open fire shaking blackened long-handled pans over the flames. Every town in Italy has a different contraption for cooking chestnuts. This was not entirely dissimilar to the domestic version. The handles had been elongated to create safe workable distance from the fire and they were hanging from chains attached to a scaffold to take the strain out of shaking. But other than that it was very much as anyone fortunate enough to have an open fire in their home would go about roasting chestnuts. 

Everywhere, people were standing, a bag of chestnuts in one hand, a cup of mulled wine in the other. It was chilly, as you’d expect in the Alps this time of the year and so the hot wine was particularly welcome. It also worked wonders with my appetite. Before long I’d finished one bag of chestnuts and was queuing for a second. After all, the season would be over soon. Better to eat them while you still can!

Chestnuts ‘alla vampa’
Castagne alla vampa

Serves 4
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes

500g fresh chestnuts
50g caster sugar
100ml grappa or brandy

Make a small incision with a sharp knife on the flat side of the chestnut.  Don’t worry if you don’t have an open fire for roasting your chestnuts, they can be cooked in the oven.  Simply place them on a baking tray and roast in a preheated oven at 180ºC for about 15-20 minutes.  Give them a squeeze to see if they are cooked. If they feel soft they are done. Once cooked, peel the chestnuts and arrange in serving glasses/bowls.

Make a caramel by placing the caster sugar in a heavy-based saucepan and add a teaspoon of water.  Cook over a medium flame.  The caramel won’t take long to make so keep your eyes on the pan. When it turns a golden colour it is ready.  Pour a small amount of caramel over the chestnuts.

Finally pour a shot of your chosen alcohol, gently warmed in a saucepan, over the chestnuts and set alight!

TIP:  The caramel is very hot when you pour it over the chestnuts, so make sure your serving dishes are heat proof.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Turnip tops and veggies!

My sister’s in town. When she visits it’s always a trying time for me…because she’s a veggie. She turned green about 15 years ago, after a bet.

It’s a trying time because I live in a land where vegetarians are a rare breed and often misunderstood! A few years back when I was organizing my son’s christening party I specifically told the restaurant that there would be one vegetarian in the party. ‘No problem’, they said. ‘We’ll do a torta salata (a quiche) with the antipasto, mixed grilled vegetables and fish for her main and, of course, there’s the classic anolini (ravioli) with a cheese stuffing for the pasta’. All sorted, or so I thought.

On the day, however, the menu wasn’t quite as green as she would have liked. The torta salata was studded with pieces of ham. ‘But it’s only a little ham’, the waitress pointed out ‘to give the quiche some flavour’. She actually suggested my sister pick it out! And as for the pasta, the fact that it was swimming in chicken broth didn’t appear to phase our host either – ‘that’s how we serve them’, she pointed out. Even the grissini sticks were fried in lard! 

This is why, no doubt, my little sister likes to spend most of her time down south, in Puglia in particular. “The garden of Italy”, as it is known, owes its green reputation to fertile soils, hot summers and mild winters. A region that is segregated from the rest of the country by natural land boundaries, the Pugliese have developed their own distinct culinary culture, one that shares as much in common with Greece as it does with its regional neighbours.

For vegetarians, Puglia is a ‘garden of Eden’. Broad beans, pulses, artichokes, olives, tomatoes, aubergines, turnip tops, various kinds of chicory, wild and cultivated herbs are just a few of the local highlights. And they all work perfectly with the local varieties of pasta of which the most famous is orecchiette – literally, little ears. If you prefer ‘big ears’ you could always ask for pociacche or for little, little ears ask for chiancarelle. In fact, whatever variant of the local dialect you use to ask for your plate of orecchiette (and there are many), the one dish that best symbolizes the region’s cuisine is, of course, orecchiette con le cime di rapa – orecchiette with turnip tops. It’s one of those ritual dishes that I make every year to celebrate the arrival of turnip tops. Traditionally a couple of anchovies are added to the sauce along with the garlic but personally I prefer to leave them out.  

Orecchiette pasta with turnip tops
Orecchiette con le cime di rapa

Serves 4
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes

1kg turnip tops
300g orecchiette pasta
1 or 2 fresh red chili peppers
4-5 sun dried tomatoes
2 garlic cloves
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt & pepper

Wash the turnip tops.  Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and add the turnip tops.  Boil for 5-6 minutes until tender.  Drain the turnip tops, but retain the cooking water.  Bring the cooking water back to the boil and add the orecchiette pasta.  Boil the orecchiette for 10-12 minutes until al dente (check packet for exact cooking times).  In the meantime, place 3-4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a large heavy-based frying pan and add the garlic cloves which have been finely sliced.  Cook the garlic for a few minutes.  Roughly chop the turnip tops and add these to the pan along with the chopped sun dried tomatoes and chili.  Fry over a gentle heat until the pasta is cooked.  When the pasta is cooked, drain and add to the pan with the turnip tops.  Stir everything together well and taste for seasoning.  Serve immediately with a good sprinkling of aged pecorino cheese and a drizzle of olive oil.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Tuscan street food

A ‘five and five’. If there is a better name for a street food, right now I can’t think of it. The ‘cinque e cinque’, more commonly known as cecina or torta di ceci [chickpea cake], is a specialty of the Livorno region in Tuscany. It is also made in Liguria where it is known as farinata.

Cecina consists of a very liquid batter of chickpea flour and water which is allowed to sit for up to four hours. A thin layer, like a pancake, is poured into a large round shallow baking pan which is preheated with plenty of oil and cooked quickly in a very hot oven. Originally it was made by local pizza makers and the best ‘five and five’ is still that which is made in wood burning ovens. The ‘five and five’ got its name from the practice of buying 5 cents worth of chickpea cake and five cents worth of bread. The cake was eaten between the bread like a sandwich, hot with plenty of freshly ground black pepper.

Other types of street food made from chickpeas include panissa (or paniccia or panizza), a polenta made with chickpea flour which is allowed to cool, then sliced and fried. It’s especially popular in and around La Spezia. In Sicily, a delicious version is made called panelle. Slices of the chickpea polenta, flavoured with fresh parsley, are deep fried and served between pieces of bread, with a good squeeze of lemon juice.

Cibo di strada, or street food in Italy, should not be conflated or mistaken as fast food. There are important differences. To begin with, Italian street food specialties tend to be grounded in the local culture. The ‘five and five’, for example, may well be a Tuscan specialty, but it is only made in a small geographic area of the region. Also, good Italian street food, unlike fast food, is seldom mass produced. It tends to be the reserve of small groups of skilled artisans. And, finally, all good Italian street foods are served with a generous dose of tradition and a good story. Next time you are in Livorno look out for the little wooden plaques placed outside bakeries and pizza shops saying “‘5 and 5’, sold here today”! Alternatively, try the following recipe for yourself.

Chickpea cake

Serves 4
Preparation time: 5 minutes + 30 minutes resting
Cooking time: 15 minutes

500g chickpea flour
350g water
5 tablespoons olive oil
Salt & freshly ground black pepper

Place the chickpea flour in a bowl, add the water and a teaspoon of salt.  Whisk together well and set aside. Allow the batter to rest for at least 30 minutes.  Preheat the oven to 250ºC.  Place the oil in a 30cm round baking tin and place in the oven until smoking hot.  Remove from the oven carefully and pour in the batter.  Place the pan back in the oven for 10-15 minutes until cooked.  Remove from the oven and top with plenty of freshly ground black pepper.  Cut into pieces and serve in a bread roll.  Not strictly traditional, but I like to eat it hot with a couple of thick slices of tomato, mozarella and a generous spoonful of pesto sauce.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Stuff the pasta!

Sunday lunch in Italy is always an occasion. This week, in particular, I’ve had to make the effort – otherwise people will start talking.

Last week I was in a hurry. I had a lunch date with a couple of mushroom picking buddies. We’d planned to share a platter of beef carpaccio with fresh porcini mushrooms, a simple bowl of green salad, crusty bread and lots of red wine. It was clearly a boy’s day out – raw meat, garlic, raw mushrooms, wine - not one for the kids.  So in advance I made a quick dash to the local supermarket. Normally I’d drop into the local deli and buy some locally made fresh anolini – a local specialty, pasta stuffed with cheese, fatto a mano (made by hand).  But I’d left it too late, the fresh pasta was sold out and I had to settle for a (well respected) supermarket brand of stuffed pasta. Forgive me!

As it turns out, there was no forgiving. Stuffed pasta in Emilia Romagna, as my dining companions went to pains to lecture to me over lunch, isn’t just about feeding the belly – it’s about feeding the soul! It’s about keeping alive a tradition and a culture. If we all begin to buy packet pasta, they said, those traditions will be lost. The genuine article has to be handmade – not by a machine, however cleverly it’s marketed - but handmade.  In Emilia Romagna – the birthplace of fresh egg stuffed pasta - it’s as much about the skill of the people who make it. Stuffed pasta was originally designed as a food made for celebration – in one hand because it is time consuming and, in the other, because it requires a certain level of skill. And Sunday is, and always has been, considered a day of celebration. It’s not a day for fast food or quick fixes!

So I woke early this Sunday as a man on a mission. Having invited a couple of local gossips to Sunday lunch (I figured that would be sufficient to repair my reputation), I hit the market stalls early for fresh chard and ricotta which I’d use to stuff my pasta.   

Pasta ripiena, stuffed pasta, ravioli, tortellini, tortelli, agnolini, capellini, whatever you want to call them, whatever shape they happen to be – square, rectangular, triangular, round, half-moon shaped, parcels, sweets, shaped as hats,  – and whatever you happen to stuff them with – boiled or roast meats, cured meats, fresh cheese, parmesan, wild mushrooms, greens or herbs, cultivated vegetables such as potatoes, pumpkin, spinach, chard [the list, frankly, is endless] - the principle’s always the same. Stuff some freshly made pasta with whatever’s seasonal, boil it in salted water, dress with whatever sauce is deemed most fitting and enjoy!

But it’s only after you go to the trouble of making fresh stuffed pasta that you begin to appreciate the difference. It’s silky smooth, fresh tasting and utterly unctuous! And, every time you make it, you have the satisfaction of knowing you are keeping a tradition alive. That’s what it’s all about!

Chard and ricotta stuffed pasta
Tortelloni con ricotta e bietola

For the pasta
300g plain flour
3 large free-range eggs

For the filling
250g fresh ricotta
200g freshly grated parmesan cheese
500g chard leaves (alternatively, you could use spinach or wild greens)
Freshly grated nutmeg
Salt & freshly ground black pepper

Make the filling first.  This can be made the night before and left overnight in the fridge to allow the flavours to develop and to save time on the day.  Wash the greens and place in a large pan.  Place the pan over a medium heat, cover and allow the greens to wilt for 5-6 minutes. The water on the leaves should be enough. Just keep an eye and turn the greens over occasionally.  When the greens are cooked, remove them from the pot and place in a sieve.  With the back of a spoon, press down very firmly to remove as much water as possible.  Once drained, place the greens on a chopping board and chop finely.  Place the greens in a bowl, add the ricotta which has been passed through a sieve, the grated parmesan, salt (not too much as the cheese provides salt as well) freshly ground pepper and a grating of nutmeg.  Mix everything together well. Set the filling aside until needed.

To make the pasta, place the flour on a large work surface, make a well in the centre and break the eggs into the middle.  Starting from the centre, with the tips of your fingers, beat the eggs gradually drawing in a little of the flour.  Keep adding a little more flour to the centre, until it comes together and you can knead the dough. 

Knead the dough for a few minutes until smooth.  Set the dough aside, cover with a tea towel and let rest for 30 minutes.  If you have a pasta maker the next step will be easier, but if not just roll the dough out by hand.  Make sure you have a large enough work surface.  Rip off a piece of dough about the size of a clementine and pass through the widest setting on the pasta maker.  Do this a few times, folding the dough over on itself until the dough is smooth and silky.  Reduce the thickness on the machine and pass the pasta through.  Keep reducing the thickness and passing the pasta through the machine until you reach the last setting, dusting with flour along the way so that it does not stick.  If you are a new to making pasta, I suggest you roll the pasta to the second-to-last setting (it results in a slightly thicker pasta that will take longer to cook but it will be much easier to work).

Place the sheet of pasta on a work surface and place teaspoons of the filling in the centre about 4-5cm apart.  Once done, place another sheet of pasta over the top and with the side of your hand gently squeeze the pasta around the filling to remove any pockets of air and stick the two sheets together.  If you do not have a pasta cutter, simply use a small glass to cut round each shape.  Continue rolling, filling and cutting until all the pasta and filling is used up. 

To cook, bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and then add the pasta.  Boil for between 3-5 minutes (depending on thickness of pasta) and serve with a sauce of melted unsalted butter flavoured with a handful of sage leaves and plenty of freshly grated parmesan cheese.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Leftover bread, pasta and beans

Diversity is undoubtedly one of the joys of Italian food culture. Every region, every province and every town has its own particular twist on the national preoccupation – which is food. At provincial level there’s always a dish that has the last word, the one that speaks for the people. In my home province of Piacenza, that dish is pisareï e fasò. There is no adequate translation but to give a rough idea that’s pasta, or little gnocchi, made with breadcrumbs and served in a sauce of beans.

Pisareï e fasò is to the gastronomy of Piacenza what ragù alla bolognese is to the gastronomy of Bologna or risotto alla milanese to Milan. It’s a defining dish, a local heritage, one that is admired and protected just as one admires and protects a masterpiece.

Like all good Italian signature dishes, pisareï brings together all the characteristics of the local gastronomy. It’s a dish that was created by farmers and in which is reflected both the times and the territory. Small gnocchi-like pasta (gnocchetti) made with a mix of flour and breadcrumbs made from leftover bread – a clear indication that it originated as a dish of the poor – dressed in a robust sauce of borlotti beans and tomatoes, flavored with lardo or cotenna, again a clear sign that the dish has its roots in cucina povera.

Also like all good Italian dishes, it is served with a generous helping of legend! Local folklore has it that many years back, when a young man brought home his bride-to-be, his mother would only approve the union if the prospective bride’s right thumb had evidence of calluses. This, it was claimed, was considered irrefutable evidence of the bride’s ability to make pisareï and, by default, of her suitability as a housewife.

Today, nothing much has changed (although young women, I suspect, are no longer subjected to hand inspections when they meet-the-parents). Every restaurant in the province still makes pisareï e fasò and, truth be told, it is the dish, above all others, by which every restaurant is judged. And whether it’s a Michelin starred restaurant in the heart of the city or a local trattoria in the depths of the countryside, they are all gauged by the same preconceived notion of quality. 

Pisareï e fasò is also still made in homes throughout the province with every family adding their personal touch. A little more breadcrumb than flour in the mix for a more rustic version; using water as opposed to broth to soak the breadcrumbs to help balance the richness of the sauce; mashing some of the borlotti beans to thicken the sauce, the tricks and variations are endless. Yet, differences aside, there remains a consensus as to what makes a good plate of pisareï. It is not something that can easily be verbalized. It’s instinctive – you simply know it when you taste it.  

Pisareï e Fasò


For the pisareï
300g flour
100g finely grated breadcrumbs
Chicken or vegetable broth

For the sauce
1 small onion
40g lardo
250g borlotti beans
375ml chunky tomato sauce
1 garlic clove
Handful of parsley
Olive oil

To make the sauce
Place the lardo, parsley and garlic clove on a chopping board.  With a sharp knife, chop all the ingredients well.  It should almost form a smooth paste.   Place the lardo in a heavy-based deep-sided frying pan and add a few tablespoons of oil.  Heat gently and then add the finely chopped onion.  Cook the onion until soft and then add the borlotti beans and tomato sauce.  Season with salt and pepper and simmer gently for 30 minutes.  Take the pan off the heat and using a masher, roughly mash some of the beans until you achieve a thicker consistency in the sauce. Give everything a good stir and the sauce is now ready. 

To make the pisareï
Place the breadcrumbs in a bowl and pour over enough hot broth so that the breadcrumbs are soaked but not swimming in liquid.  You will need to do this by eye as different breadcrumbs will soak up different amounts of liquid.  Next place the flour on a board and add the breadcrumbs.  Knead everything together well.  When a smooth dough is formed, tear off walnut sized lumps from the dough and roll into 30cm lengths.  Cut each length into 1/2 cm pieces and with the side of your thumb make an indentation. 

To cook the pisareï, bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and then add the pisareï.  When they float to the surface scoop them out with a slotted spoon and add them to the pan with the sauce. Mix together gently until the pisareï are evenly coated in the sauce.

Serve with plenty of freshly grated parmesan cheese.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Beans on toast

Late last night, in between two back-to-back episodes of Spielberg’s Pacific, I got an inexplicable hankering for something I haven’t eaten in over a decade – beans on toast. Needless to say, I didn’t have a tin of Heinz baked beans to hand – I can get them from the local supermarket but I refuse, out of principle, to pay €2.50 for the privilege (anyone travelling through these parts from the UK any time soon please bear this in mind).

There was only one thing to do when faced with such a situation. Adapt. Because although it might seem that beans on toast was invented in the UK, I’d hazard a guess the idea actually originated closer to home (least, home as it is today). They just call it by a different name.

Bruschetta, crostini or crostoni are Italy’s answer to toast with a topping. The are minor semantic differences between the three, if you really want to be pedantic, but generally speaking they are treated synonymously. At it’s simplest bruschetta is made by rubbing a clove of garlic over a piece of toasted bread, drizziling liberally with good quality extra virgin olive oil and finishing with a generous sprinkling of salt.  It’s known in Tuscany as fett’unta (literally an ‘oiled slice’) and although the Tuscans would probably like to lay claim, it is just as likely to have originated in Lazio or Umbria or any other Italian region for that matter. Furthermore, a bruschetta can then be topped with any number of toppings – fresh tomatoes, mushrooms, beans, roasted peppers, cheese, the variations are literally endless.

Wherever it comes from, the principles are always the same. Good bruschetta relies on the quality of the bread and the quality of the topping. The rustic country loaves, once ubiquitous throughout Italy, are in my mind best suited to the job. Cut thickly, the bread can develop a satisfying crunch on the outside whilst remaining soft on the inside. I carved out two hefty wedges, brushed a little olive oil on either side and threw them on top of a smoking griddle.

While I was waiting I sliced half a red onion and threw it into a bowl along with a tin of cannellini beans. I added a tablespoon of fresh chopped chives, a good glug of olive oil and gave everything a quick mix. By the time I’d done this my toast was perfectly browned on either side. To finish, I rubbed the toast with garlic for some underlying flavour and topped with the beans and onions. To finish, another drizzle of extra virgin and a generous grinding of salt and pepper. So, with a plate of beans on toast in hand, I went back to Pacific, episode 2! 

Monday, October 10, 2011

Porcini mushroom, Taleggio and potato lasagna - Lasagna con porcini, taleggio e patate

To serve four you will need:

300g fresh porcini mushrooms
3 large potatoes
200g taleggio cheese
200ml single cream
30g grated parmesan cheese
2 cloves of garlic
handful of fresh parsley
Extra virgin olive oil
Unsalted butter
Salt & freshly ground black pepper

Clean your mushrooms with a brush. Do not use water unless you have to. Slice the mushrooms and potatoes into slices approximately 3mm thick.  Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and when boiling add the sliced potatoes and boil for 2-3 minutes.  Drain and set the potatoes aside until needed.

Place a generous knob of butter into a large frying pan with a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.  Add the porcini mushrooms and fry over a medium high heat for a few minutes.  Next add the crushed garlic and continue cooking for 5 minutes.  To finish, sprinkle over a generous handful of finely chopped parsley.

To assemble the dish place a layer of potatoes at the bottom of a greased or lined baking tin.  Place a layer of cooked mushrooms over the top.

Next dot cubes of taleggio over the mushrooms.

Mix the cream with the grated parmesan cheese and spoon this over the mushrooms and taleggio cheese.  Continue by adding another two layers of potatoes, mushrooms, cheese and cream. 

Cover the baking tin with foil and bake in a preheated oven at 180ºC for 15 minutes.  Remove the foil and bake for a further 10 minutes until golden and bubbling.  Serve hot with crusty bread to mop up the sauce.  Delicious!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Thanksgiving, tractors and turkey

In Canada, thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday in October. In the United States, it’s the third Thursday in November. In Vigolo Marchese in the province of Piacenza in Emilia Romagna, it’s the second Sunday in October (this year).

Thanksgiving in the town of Vigolo is not quite Thanksgiving as we know it, although there is turkey and chestnuts! The main event focuses on the blessing of the tractors. The blessing has been bestowed by the local parish priest every year for as long as anyone can remember. One of the local farmers, a cheerful, burly hulk of a man who was waiting next to his John Deer along with his two equally solid-looking sons told me that he still remembers driving on the back of his grandfather’s tractor to Vigolo for the annual blessing. That was over 50 years ago!

The likelihood is that today’s mechanized blessing is an evolution of the longstanding tradition of a formal thanksgiving for the annual harvest. It therefore has parallels with Thanksgiving in the American sense which owes its origins to the time when Europeans first started arriving in the Americas, bringing with them their own harvest festival traditions.

Agricultural harvests have always been occasions of celebration in Italy and, like all celebrations in Italy, they always involve food. Just a couple of weeks back the vendemmia, or grape harvest, was celebrated with an uphill barrel-rolling competition followed by grape pudding (known locally as mosto cotto) and a delicious sweet bread, made with dried grapes from the previous year’s harvest, served with a selection of local cheeses. A week later the chestnut harvest was celebrated through a myriad of chestnut festivals in towns throughout the region. In Vigolo, local farmers are simply celebrating the end of the summer harvest, a time to give thanks, relax and enjoy the fruits of their labour.

The main event takes place in the small piazza facing the medieval church and baptistery in the centre of town. It begins without warning, mid afternoon, with a loud rumbling sound like distant thunder. There’s a dull trembling in the ground, faint at first, but gradually building. Then they appear, a solid line of tractors, hundreds of them, every make, every model, every colour, slowly descending like a line of liberating tanks. The air fills with the smell of diesel as the tractors circle the small piazza. The noise is deafening and exhilarating at the same time. Then, as suddenly as the noise started, it ends. Engines turn silent and, perfectly on cue, the priest emerges, a bible in one hand and a vial of holy water in the other. All heads lower as a short benediction is read, his right hand is raised to the sky and the blessing is bestowed. A sprinkling of holy water, each tractor in turn and then it’s time for turkey.

It arrives, of course, on the back of a tractor. Five birds in all, roasted to a golden, crisp brown perfection. The aroma is heavenly, mixed with the smell of chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Wine bottles are opened and glasses are filled. A local butcher arrives with an armful of homemade salami. Thick wedges are cut and served on top of chunks of rustic country bread. There may well be turkey and chestnuts but ultimately, it’s a very Italian thanksgiving.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Left over bread cake - Torta di pane avanzato

Italians are big sticklers for never throwing away leftovers and this is one of many ways to use up leftover bread and anything lying around the cupboard. I bake this cake whenever I get an urge for something sweet on a saturday afternoon and it's also a great way to bring some order to the kitchen storecupboard. I hate all those half empty bags sitting around!

For this recipe you will need:
250g left over bread
about 750ml whole milk
2 free-range eggs
100g caster sugar
a handful of almonds
a handful of chocolate drops
a handful of dried cranberries

Rip up the bread into chunks and place it into a bowl.  Pour over the milk and allow to soak for 30 minutes, stirring the bread around from time to time.  You may need a little more milk if the bread is particularly dry.

Once the bread has absorbed all the milk, use your hands or a spoon to mash the bread and milk together.  Next, lightly beat the the eggs and add these to the bread mix.

Next comes the fun part.  Add all the other ingredients and in doing so, bring some order to your storecupboard.  I used open packets of almonds, chocolate drops and dried carnberries, but there are any number of ingredients you could use.  Substitute the cranberries for dried fruits such raisins or chopped apricots.  Add a few tablespoons of cocoa powder to make a chocolate version.  Use different get the idea.

Pour the batter into a lined baking tin and bake in a preheated oven at 180ºC for 40-45 minutes.  You'll know when the cake is done as it will brown and puff up.  Remove from the oven and serve warm with plenty of pouring cream. Alternatively, allow to cool and serve in slices.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Old Chestnut Shed

The town of Pontremoli
In a non-descript shed a few kilometers above the small town of Pontremoli in the far northern reaches of Tuscany, Alberto Bellotti throws another jagged bough on the fire pit. Flames immediately engulf the well seasoned chestnut wood. With a metal hook he reaches over and roughly drags a large, blackened cast iron pan into the centre of the inferno. With the same hook, he lifts a domed lid and drops it into place with the effortless precision of a man who’s done this a thousand times over. To the outsider it might seem like a lot of effort to make a few pancakes. But to Alberto it’s more than that; it’s about keeping a tradition alive.

I’m in an area of Tuscany called the Lunigiana – literally, the ‘land of the moon’. This is not the Tuscany of rolling hills, cypress trees and olive groves. In fact, such is the contrast with the tourist stereotype that whenever locals leave the area on a day trip, they still speak about ‘going to Tuscany’.  The landscape here is a breathtaking, fairytale land of castles, ancient mountain villages, Romanesque churches, towering mountains, forests and old stone bridges. The cuisine is different too. To begin with, the culinary influence of regional neighbors, Liguria and Emilia-Romagna, speaks out in many local dishes. But more importantly, the seasons and the mountainous habitat dictate the diet, most noticeable in the dependence upon lamb which graze in high pastures, cheeses made from the milk of sheep and goats, foraged foods, wild herbs and greens, mushrooms and, not forgetting, the ubiquitous chestnut. 

As it happens, the shed we are standing in is an old chestnut drying shed. From the outside it looks like an inverted ice-cream cone, slightly cylindrical at the base tapering off into a tall funnel-shaped roof with a hole at the top. The centre-piece of the room is a cavernous fire pit. In the old days, as the name implies, the hut would have been used to dry chestnuts. Throughout the fall, sacks of nuts would have been suspended from a rafter high above the fire. Once dry, the nuts would have been ground to make flour which in turn would have been used to make everything from local breads to a version of fresh pasta to polenta to castagnaccio, otherwise known as the ‘poor man’s cake’.

The Tuscans were masters in frugality. They made a virtue of it. In the same way that no self-respecting Tuscan would ever countenance throwing away good bread – or any leftover food for that matter – so too, even the flames of a fire would have been put to multiple use. In Pontremoli, along Tuscany’s mountainous northern border, one of those uses would have been making testaroli, the area’s most popular answer to pasta. After all, why waste a perfectly good fire? Alberto Bellotti is one of only three artisans left in the world who still make testaroli in the time honored fashion.  

To the uninitiated eye, the testarolo looks like a supersized pancake.  Made from a batter of flour, water and salt, the testarolo is approximately 40-45 centimeters in diameter and a few millimeters thick. Whilst it might well look like a pancake, there the similarities end. To begin with you can’t flip a testarolo as you would a pancake in your home kitchen. That’s because they are traditionally cooked in a testo, a cast-iron pan which weighs a hefty 25 kilos. Try flipping that!

The testo is most likely a Roman invention, with earlier versions been made from terracotta. It’s a piece of culinary engineering that was, you could argue, ahead of its time. Along with its dome-shaped lid, the pan was used not so much like a frying pan, but as you would an oven. To demonstrate, Alberto places the testo directly over the flames where it remains until it becomes smoking hot. He then drags it to the side, adds a ladleful of batter and replaces the lid. The residual heat inside the covered pan and time are left to do the rest. After about 90 seconds he lifts the lid, scoops out a perfectly cooked pancake and adds it to a growing stack.

Albert Bellotti
 The Irish, the Welsh and the Scottish once used a similar device known as the griddle (in Scotland it was called a ‘girdle’). More a hotplate, however, it would have been placed directly over the flames and used to cook breads such as Irish soda and potato breads, Welsh pancakes known as drop scones and Scottish oatcakes. The precursor to this method of cooking would most likely have been cooking over a hot stone.

Traditionally a testo could be found in every household in Pontremoli and indeed such was its importance that in 1391 the city levied a tax on them. They would have been used for everything from roasting meats to baking savory vegetable tarts. Today, you’ll still find a testo in many homes in the area but they’re generally assigned a decorative function.

A couple of things that haven’t changed in the Lunigiana are the appetite for testaroli and the preferred method of cooking. Testaroli can still be found on the menu of practically every restaurant in the region and they’re still habitually cooked at home. The method is simple. Once the pancake has cooled, the testarolo is cut into small diamonds, boiled and served hot, most often dressed in a basil pesto sauce made with a generous measure of the finest Tuscan extra virgin olive oil. Occasionally, in the fall, when local porcini mushrooms are in season, they are served with a creamy mushroom sauce.

Making testaroli in a chestnut drying shed is a dying tradition. Today Alberto only lights the fire when he has accumulated sufficient orders. After all, there’s no point in wasting good wood for a handful of pancakes. Frugality, truly another Tuscan tradition, is a hard habit to break.

If you want to read more about Tuscan food traditions and perhaps try a few authentic recipes from the editors of the Silver Spoon Kitchen, take a look at the book I authored, Tuscany, which was published by Phaidon in early 2011. Taking each of Tuscany’s 10 regions in turn, the book details the history and traditions behind the region’s cuisine, covering household staples such as Tuscan ribollita soup, pappa col pomodoro and the fiorentina steak, as well as favourites such as Tuscany’s cantucci biscuits.