Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Val d’Intelvi and the perfect plate of antipasto

There’s a little known valley nestled in the foothills of the Alps between Lake Como and Lake Lugano. It’s called the Val d’Intelvi and it’s the place where I come when I need to get away from the crowd. In that respect I’m in good company. George Clooney was known to drive up here on his Harley Davidson from his house in Laglio on the shores of the lake. I know because many of the local bars and restaurants have a picture of George hanging pride-of-place on their wall, a memento of his visit. 

Relatively under-populated, the Val d’Intelvi is as far removed from the hustle and bustle that has come to characterise life below by Lake Como. Dominated by pine and beech forests, open pastures and peaceful villages, every time I visit I feel myself taking a step back in time. The winding mountainous road takes me past a series of charming largely unspoiled mountain villages. The Romanesque churches stand out, the legacy of the so-called Maestri Comacini, a group of master craftsmen, painters and sculptors who worked in the valley in the era of the Renaissance.

Arriving in Lanzo d’Intelvi, a small town at the northern end of the valley, I take to a good pair of hiking boots and begin the ascent to the Sighignola, known as the ‘Balcony of Italy’ (alt 1324 mt.). It's a beautiful day and the walk will take about ninety minutes, depending on the snow.  At the summit I’m rewarded with a magnificent view of Lake Lugano, the Alps, the plains of Lombardy and what I wanted most, complete solitude. There used to be a bar pizzeria here but it has since closed down. People stopped coming – perhaps it was too much effort. George was here though. I remember seeing his picture on the wall the last time I enjoyed a plate of polenta condita (a local dish of soft polenta covered in melted taleggio cheese topped with an egg) here.  

It’s a shame because there’s nothing like a long hike in the snow to sharpen the appetite. Not to mention, the polenta was very good. Luckily, half way down the mountain there’s a charming mountain lodge run by an old friend, Fabio. Fabio takes considerable pride in his food, serving little that he doesn’t either produce himself or is grown, sourced or produced locally. Whenever I visit I always opt for a platter of affetatto and a carafe of his house red. 

A platter of mixed affitati (mixed cured meats) is practically the national starting point for a good meal in Italy. At its very best, it can constitute a meal in its own right. The secret to making a good affetatto is twofold – keep it simple and keep it local. It doesn’t cease to amaze me how many restaurants (particularly those catering to the tourist trade) in different parts of the country content themselves with serving Parma ham and lardo di colonnata. Why they do so: because being the two most recognised cured meats, it’s the easy option.  I live in Emilia, arguably home to the best cured meat products in the country. However, when I travel to the Alps, I don’t want to see even the merest evidence of Prosciutto di Parma, Piacentine salami or culatello on my plate - however good these things may be. What I want is local!

Fabio’s platter of affetatto is testament to how it should be done. I’m presented with a large platter of bresaola, cooked salami, a locally cured game salami, lardo, a slab of nostrano (local) cheese and crostini with black truffle paste. Everything, except the cooked salami and the black truffle paste, was sourced in the surrounding valley. The salami and the truffle spread he made himself. The only thing missing is George himself!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Cannoli Day!

Yesterday I spent the better part of my morning making cannoli. It was Fat Tuesday and on Fat Tuesday, if anyone’s ever looking for me, they’ll find me in the kitchen knee-deep in lard and ricotta. Fat Tuesday in my calendar is cannoli day. Cannoli were, after all, a pastry traditionally made for Carnival and although in these days they are made all year round, I take satisfaction in feeling that somehow I’m doing my bit for reviving a tradition lost.

Then again, as far as cannoli are concerned, it’s not something I would attempt to do all year round. There can be no half measures with cannoli. It’s a painstaking endeavour and either you go all out or better you walk down to the bakery and save yourself a morning of pain. I made just shy of 50 cannoli! But I’m jumping ahead of myself. There’s reason in the madness so let me explain.

Cannoli are a Sicilian specialty. They are made from a disc of rolled fried pastry – known as the scòrza – stuffed with sweetened sheep’s ricotta mixed with candied fruit (and sometimes with the addition of pistachio’s, hazelnuts and pieces of chocolate). Some bakeries use cow’s milk ricotta and although an acceptable substitute, if you can find it sheep’s milk is preferable. The pastry is made from a mixture of flour, white wine, sugar and lard. It is thinly rolled around cylindrical metal tubes and deep-fried in lard. Again, some bakeries make a concession and use vegetable oil, but traditionally it was always cooked in hot lard. My personal view is that lard gives a better finish. The resulting pastry is crisper, which is what you are looking for with good cannoli.

The origins of cannoli are swamped with speculation and fanciful thinking. There’s general agreement that they originated in the town of Caltanissetta, a city and commune on the western interior of Sicily and that they have very ancient origins. The name Caltanissetta is said to derive from the Arabic Qalat al Nissa which roughly translates ‘Fort of the Women’. The area was for long occupied by the Saracens. One theory has it that cannoli were first made by the women working in a Saracen harem. At the time the dessert would have been banana shaped, filled with ricotta, almonds and honey - a not so subtle (but tasty no doubt) allusion to the virtuous qualities of the Sultan. Somewhat in contrast, you could say, one food historian has claimed that they were first made by nuns in a local convent. I can’t quite see any common thread in the two stories.

Legends aside, what is certain is that cannoli were traditionally made for Carnival. Also according to tradition, they should be offered as gifts to friends and relatives in multiples of twelve. To offer less would be to risk bad fortune – possibly the kind of fortune that befell the Don in Godfather Part III as he munched through a whole box during a performance at the Palermo opera house. So you see, not wanting to tempt fate, when I cook cannoli, I avoid half measures. Besides, they’re frankly too much effort for a couple of pastries! If that’s what you have in mind, like I said, you might want to consider the local patisserie. My calculations were as follows: a dozen for the old couple who live upstairs; a dozen for anyone [myself included] who cares for a cannolo at my local bar, and; two dozen for the house. I do have three kids so they won’t last very long!  

If you want to give it a go, here’s the recipe. However, bear a couple of things in mind. First, fill your cannoli just before you eat them. Otherwise you risk the filling seeping too much into the pastry and making it soggy. Second, some people do not like to use lard. This recipe will work with a substitute such as vegetable oil but the pastry will not be quite as crispy and therefore should be eaten soon after.On a final note, throughout I have used the plural, cannoli. In my view, cannolo, the singular is possibly one of the most redundant words in the Italian dictionary - who ever just eats one!

For the pastry
110g plain flour
15g lard or butter if preferred
15g caster sugar
40ml marsala or dry white wine
½ teaspoon dark cocoa powder
A pinch of salt

For the filling
400g sheep’s ricotta (or cow’s)
100g candied pumpkin or orange pieces
100g dark chocolate drops
180g caster sugar

Lard or oil for deep frying
Icing sugar for dusting

To make the pastry, place the flour on a large work surface and in the middle place the lard or butter, the sugar, a pinch of salt, the cocoa powder and the marsala or wine.  Bring everything together and knead to obtain and smooth dough.  Wrap the dough in a clean tea towel and leave in a cool place to rest for one hour.

While the pastry is resting you can make the filling.  Pass the ricotta through a sieve into a large bowl (the ricotta needs to be thoroughly drained).  Add the sugar and mix together well.  Stir in the candied peel and chocolate drops.  Place the filling in the fridge until needed.

Roll the pastry out to a thickness of 2mm (I find it easiest to do this with a pasta machine).  With a pastry wheel cut circles of dough 10cm in diameter.  If you find it easier you can also cut 10cm squares although the finished look won’t be quite the same.

Wrap each disc of pastry around a metal cannolo tube (these can be found in the shops or on line).  I’ve heard it said that you can also wrap the dough around the handle of a wooden spoon.  I’ve never managed to get this to work for me as the gap for the filling isn’t large enough.  Although I suppose you could try and make a smaller disc of pastry to make mini cannoli.  Which ever method you choose, make sure that you don’t wrap the pastry up too tight - it needs a little space to rise.

Fry the pastry in abundant oil which is hot but not smoking until they are a dark golden colour.  Remove from the oil with a slotted spoon and allow them to drain on kitchen paper.  Once the cannoli have cooled slightly remove the metal tube.  Repeat this process until all the dough is used up.

Allow the cannoli to cool completely before filling. I would suggest that you wait until just ready to serve so that the pastry does not become soggy.  Decorate each end of the cannolo with a piece of candied peel and finally dust with icing sugar.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A little sacrifice and deep-fried carnival delights

The aroma of deep-fried dough is drifting dangerously through my back door. If there was ever an excuse needed to clear my front path of snow, I needed look no further. It’s one of the highlights of my year. In the run up to Lent a few of my neighbours set up a makeshift stall on the street next to the bar. It’s so close to home I can practically hear the oil crackling! Within five minutes I’m standing holding a crumpled paper bag filled with hot fritelle (mini deep-fried sweetened dough balls) in one hand and a glass of the local white wine in the other. The thought of waiting until I get home – less than two minutes walk – is impossible to even contemplate. I’ve never been able to resist a warm doughnut. By the time I’ve finished the wine the paper bag in my hand is looking sad and empty and I’m feeling decidedly guilty, not to mention gluttonous. But then I remind myself… that’s the whole point.

With Ash Wednesday approaching and the Spartan challenge of Lent threatening on the horizon, the race seems to be on in Italy to make the most of the last few days of the Carnival season. From now until next Tuesday bakeries and cake shops across the country will be frying dough by the wheelbarrow-load. That’s because after next Tuesday – known as Shrove Tuesday or Martedi Grasso – if tradition has its way, there won’t be a fried pastry to be found anywhere in the country. So ‘get them while you can’, appears to be the mantra everyone is living by because next week we fast and sacrifice.

For Catholics, Lent was traditionally a time of stringent fasting--one full meal and two light meals a day coupled with an abstinence from meat and meat products. The word carnival derives from the Latin, carne levamen, or ‘to take away meat’. Although the restrictions have since been relaxed as far as Lent is concerned, Carnival remains another in Italy’s calendar of acceptable periods of excess.

Carnival has very ancient origins. Some say it originated in Roman times when Saturnalia, the Saturn festival, and Lupercalia, the feast of the full moon, were celebrated. Today there are all sorts of carnival party. Venice, of course, is the most famed. It was first recorded in 1268. Every year something in the region of one million visitors from across the globe descend on the city to witness the party. I went myself a couple of years back. It’s a great experience for anyone who hasn’t been but you have to be prepared to brave the crowds. I could almost hear the streets groaning under the weight.

Every town has its own take on the carnival. In Viareggio, spectacular floats parade around the city. In Ivrea in Piedmont the whole town comes out to do battle armed with 60 tons of imported oranges. A few kilometres from home, in the small market town of Fiorenzuola, they do the Zobia. It’s hard to explain to anyone not familiar with the custom. It’s everything Venice is not – except, that is, for the shared appetite for deep-fired pastries.

Here in Castello, however, the closest we get to a celebration is the makeshift stall outside the bar. Not that I’m complaining. There’s no queuing, the company’s good and the fritelle and wine are free. What’s not to like?

Carnival pastries
The typical dolci (sweets) of carnival are fried pastries that change name depending on where in the country you happen to live. They’re known locally and in Milan as chiacchiere, or little gossips. In piedmont they are called bugie (or lies), cenci (rags) in Tuscany, sfrappe in the Marche and crostoli or nastri di suore (nun’s ribbons) in other parts of the country. Despite the diversity of nomenclature, and leaving aside a few minor variations in recipe, they all amount to pretty much the same thing. They are pieces of pastry, cut into various shapes and sizes, deep-fried and dusted in sugar. So you have just six days left to get frying - after that, it’s time for a little sacrifice – at least, that is, until the 19th of March, the feast day of San Giuseppe, patron saint of friers!


500g plain flour
50ml olive oil
25ml white wine
4 free-range eggs, gently beaten
3 tablespoons caster sugar
½ teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
Zest of an unwaxed lemon
Oil for frying
Icing sugar for dusting

Sieve the flour and baking powder onto a large work surface.  Make a well in the centre and add the eggs, oil, lemon zest and wine. (I use the local white wine, a dry Ortrugo, which is slightly fizzy and I find works very well. However, it’s also commonplace to use either Marsala or the liqueur Strega.) Using a fork, begin incorporating a little of the flour into the wet ingredients. Bring everything together to the point where you are able to knead the dough with your hands. Knead for a few minutes until you have a smooth ball of dough.  Break off small tennis ball-size pieces of dough and roll to a thickness of 3mm (you can use a pasta machine for this set to its widest setting).  Cut the dough into rectangles with a fluted pastry wheel and make two incisions in the middle of the rectangle.

Fry the dough in hot oil for a minute on each side.  Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.  When cool dust with icing sugar.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Langhirano and a plate of Parma Ham

“Langhirano, Langhirano, Langhirano, let’s go to Langhirano” said Gigi as we pondered over a glass of wine on a Saturday evening, how we might usefully pass our time the following morning. It was a great idea. It certainly beat his other suggestions – too cold to go to the market, far too much snow to go walking the dog in the mountains.  Not everyone has heard of Langhirano. But immediately he said the name, I knew what he had in mind. Langhirano, otherwise known as the capitale del prosciutto, is the very epicentre of Italy’s love affair with prosciutto crudo (cured raw ham). True aficionados will make a point of only sourcing their ham from one of the many salumifici (cured meat producers) in the surrounding area. The ham produced in Langhirano epitomizes the principle of terroir – soil, climate, plant life and tradition interacting to produce something that is truly unique.

Italy makes over 100 different types of ham but it has to be said that Parma ham is the most famous. Other well known versions include San Daniele, the norcia hams of Umbria and Prosciutto Toscano. None of the above are necessarily the best, just the most widely exported and, arguably, successfully branded. The one thing that can be said with certainty is that all Italian hams, just like wine, are a close reflection of local territory.

Parma ham is made from the rear legs of Landrace or Duroc pigs. The hams are trimmed and treated to a slow salting process. The curing is completed by slow air drying, a process which takes at least 12 months. There are no artificial additives used in the production of Parma ham. In Italy the majority of hams are sold with the bone intact. Much of the ham that is exported is boned.

A good Parma ham should have a rosy pink flesh with a good balance of fat to lean meat. It should be sweet and tender albeit with a fairly dense texture. Most Italians, myself included, have serious misgivings about cooking with prosciutto crudo. The only exception that I can think of is saltimbocca alla Romana – although for that dish I wouldn’t use Parma ham specifically but another ham (arguably one from Lazio).One Italian food writer wrote that using Parma ham as an ingredient is a ‘crime against its personality’. I couldn’t agree more. Cooking Parma ham completely alters its character, taste and texture. Fresh Parma ham is subtle, delicate in flavour and melts in the mouth. Once cooked – apart from the fact that it becomes cooked ham – it loses its fragrance and character, the texture is transformed and it becomes ‘salty’. It is no coincidence that despite Italian culinary ingenuity, the best we’ve been able to come up with when it comes to Parma ham is to serve it fresh draped over slices of sweet melon or figs. They’re the perfect accompaniment and why, after all, would you want to tamper with perfection?

With the shopping taken care of, Gigi and I made our way into the centre of town. We figured we deserved a treat, after all our effort. The truth is, this is what we’d really come for. Langhirano’s a small town and everyone knows about the little trattoria in the main piazza. Needless to say, it specialises in the local ham and if you want to sample Parma ham at its very, very best, there’s arguably no better place in Italy. We ordered a plate of fresh ham served over slices of grilled polenta with mixed vegetables – along with a bottle of the local Lambrusco. I can’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday morning.

Mixed grains, vegetable & Parma Ham salad
Insalata di cereali misti, verdure crude e prosciutto di Parma

Like I said, there’s no better vehicle for Parma ham than a couple of slices of sweet melon or a few well-ripened figs. But good figs and melon are hard to find in the heart of winter. So while you are waiting for those long summer days, there are options. A good ham does not like to be accompanied by excessive acidity. Therefore, do not serve it with acidic vegetables – never with tomatoes. Gardiniere vegetables, cooked in a little vinegar but preserved in oil are perfect. Porcini mushrooms also work well with Parma ham. For the following recipe suggestion, try to find a good quality sweet orange.

Serves 4
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes

250g mixed grains including rice, spelt and pearl barley
2 medium sized sweet yellow peppers
4 small young courgettes
2 untreated oranges
12 slices of Parma ham
4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil

Boil the mixed grains in salted water until cooked.  You can purchase bags that contain all three grains and have an equal cooking time which makes things much easier.  If you can’t find this, just use one of your favourite grains.  Once cooked drain, transfer to a large mixing bowl and set aside to cool completely. To make the salad, chop the peppers and courgette into small dice and add to the bowl.  Make a dressing by mixing together the juice and zest of one orange with the olive oil.  Add this to the bowl and stir everything together.  Check for seasoning and add salt & pepper to taste.  To serve, I like to peel and finely slice the oranges and arrange them on a serving plate. Place the salad on top and, finally, finish with several slices of Parma ham.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Pancetta, bacon and the story of Carbonara

One of the most powerful and enduring memories I have of the time I spent working in Philadelphia as a short order cook is the aroma in the morning of bacon strips sizzling on the griddle. These days, just the sight of a frying egg is enough to send a sharp pang of nostalgia to my stomach.  Frankly, breakfast seems pointless and empty without it. Nowadays, every time I make a trip to London I load the boot, hoping it will be enough to see me through to the next trip. But it never is. My two young sons have developed a liking for it too!

The closest Italians get to bacon is pancetta. Of all the salume, it is pancetta that Italians most often cook with. Pancetta can come in many forms - smoked, unsmoked, rolled or flat. It is made from the belly of the pig and practically every region of Italy makes some form of pancetta. Here in Piacenza the local variety has achieved DOP status and is regarded as one of the best of its kind. The meat is simply seasoned by hand, rolled and hung to dry for a couple of months. The microclimate is left to do the rest. 

Although it might look like bacon, Italians generally don’t fry it in the pan and eat it between two slices of bread or with eggs. Usually it’s either eaten raw, in an affettato as an antipasto, or it is cooked with other ingredients. It is, however, used often, to the extent, you could say, that it’s something of a store cupboard staple.

The dish that follows, spaghetti carbonara is one of Italy’s ‘modern’ classics. 
It’s a recent invention as there’s no reference to it in cookbooks older than 50 years, at least not with this name. Like all Italian dishes there are competing claims to ownership and stories and legends which supposedly explain its origins. Truth be told, few of them appear very credible.

The name Carbonara derives from the word carbone – charcoal. So, one theory has it that it was a way of cooking pasta popular among Roman Carbinai - the men who worked in the bush, carbonising wood to produce charcoal. Others attribute it to the Carbonari - the underground Italian insurgents who fought for independence from the Austrians two hundred years ago. Another theory has it is that the dish was invented for the American soldiers who entered Rome after the Second World War.  When they frequented Roman trattoria’s they would ask for eggs, bacon and noodles for lunch. Hence, Roman chefs created a dish that incorporated the three ingredients. Although it’s a charming story, it doesn’t explain where the name came from!

I’ve been served some truly awful spaghetti carbonara in restaurants – mostly abroad, I have to say. One restaurant served it with peas and ham, another even threw pieces of chicken in the mix. Two or three times the pasta has come drowned in the best part of a tub of cream. And as if to disguise the shame, they tried camouflaging it in under a forest of chopped parsley. It’s strange, given that it’s such a simple dish to prepare. Now, to avoid disappointment, it’s a dish I only ever eat it at home.  There are a few acceptable variations on this dish. You can use either pancetta or guanciale (cheek), although it’s best you avoid using cooked ham. Also, I’ve been served this dish with grated parmesan cheese instead of pecorino but I have to say that whilst acceptable, it’s just not the same. Besides, good mature pecorino cheese is just as widely available these days. Whatever you do, however, avoid the Carbonara Cardinal Sin – leave the tub of cream and the parsley in the fridge – it certainly doesn’t belong here!!!

Spaghetti alla carbonara

Serves 4

320g Spaghetti, although the Romans also use Rigatoni
150g Pancetta or guanciale
30g grated pecorino cheese
2 or 3 organic free-range eggs (depending on size)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Chop the pancetta into cubes and cook at a low heat in a heavy based frying pan until the fat has dissolved. Don’t allow it to crisp and brown too much.   

In a bowl, beat together the eggs. Add the grated cheese and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. 

Boil the pasta in salted water until it is al dente, and then drain and add to the frying pan with the pancetta.  Switch off the heat, add the eggs and cheese and stir rapidly.  Don’t be tempted to over cook the eggs. The residual heat from the pan and the pasta will be enough to cook them through.  Serve immediately with an extra sprinkling of grated cheese.