On My Way to Lunch in Castellina in Chianti. Pasta and Authenticity.

February 1993.

Today is un giorno festivo according to the bus timetable, which simply means it’s Sunday, a holiday, a holy day, as opposed to all the other working days of the week. I’ve arrived in Castellina in Chianti, a small village 15 kilometres from Siena, after a slow but pleasant bus trip through rolling Tuscan hills dotted with small historic settlements with names that resonate more loudly than they should: Ficareto, Colombaio, Quercegrossa, Croce Fiorentina, San Leonino. I mentally translate every printed word that flashes by: names of villages and rivers, traffic directions and road signs, as figs and doves, large oak trees and Florentine crosses, saints, wells and fountains overload my thinking. This habit is mentally exhausting. Last night’s drift of snow left no visible sign in these hills, but it’s still cold and bleak. I’m wearing a thick brown coat- one that I purchased from the bi – weekly market near the medieval wall just outside the centro storico in Siena. It’s my bag lady coat, coarse and graceless, but warm. I feel like an outsider, an imposter, and terribly lonely: this coat doesn’t help. I’ll blame the coat for my sense of estrangement, given that all the Senese look so elegant in their long, fur trimmed woolen coats, not unlike those well- behaved citizens in a medieval Ambrogio Lorenzetti fresco. Not to mention the local taste for expensive, narrow, fine leather or reptile skin shoes, elegant and totally impractical, which don’t fit my broad Australian feet. The stall holders at the Sunday market in Castellina in Chianti are now packing up: I’ve arrived too late to pick up a little antique hand worked pillow case or vintage ceramic plate. The village looks deserted and uninviting. I’m not sure why I came, or where to go, not having done much research before making this lone journey. A church bell chimes in the distance signalling that it’s already past one pm, a reminder to the secular that it’s time to eat. Distant church bells can be comforting or dispiriting, arousing a sense of belonging or sadness. Today’s bells ring melancholy. A sense of cognitive dissonance overcomes me: it seems that the more I learn this language and bathe in the familiarity of Italian sounds, the less certain I feel about my place here. The empty streets loudly announce that everyone else is already seated at a table, either in a family home or warm restaurant, coats now hanging on pegs by the front door, primo piatto about to be served, a bottle of Chianti Classico proffered, as loud and excitable conversation fills the room. The choice on the menu won’t be novel or foreign: Italians are far more comfortable with regional food, or even more precisely, the food of their paese, the local village or district, food that is cooked simply and according to tradition. That’s what is so appealing about Italian food. At times, I’ll admit, Italian regional cuisine can become stubbornly insular and unbending too. Campanilismo, a word derived from campanile, the village church bell, suggests a rigid adherence to one’s local food, method of cooking, ingredients, dialect and ways of doing things: it’s about local pride. The bell tolls for many reasons.

I’m feeling anxious now and walk more desperately. The town is much smaller than I anticipated. If I’m not seated at a table by 1.15, I may miss out on lunch altogether. I’m looking for a small restaurant or trattoria, one that isn’t too well patronised by noisy extended families in elegant clothes, having attended, or pretending to have attended, church. Pretending to attend church is an art form in Italy, a performance that I greatly admire. You don your Sunday best, make a brief appearance at the church with the family, double or triple kiss your friends at the front steps, enter and sit down for a bit, pop out the front for a smoke (male), or chat loudly with your friends in the mid to rear rows (female), while ignoring most of the action at the front altar. The reverberating monotone of the priest echoing around the walls, ‘Santo, Santo, Santo il Signore Dio dell’universo. I cieli e la terra sono pieni della tua gloria’, produces a ready response from the front two rows of pews. High pitched, croaky voices pray in unison, the pious and the permed: small boned and ancient women kneel, rosaried and devout, as they prepare for their future in paradiso.

I peer through the window of a small and very plain looking trattoria and see a tangle of bright yellow pasta lying on a wooden bench, liberally dusted with flour. A plump middle aged woman in a plastic cap adds more to the pile- pasta freshly rolled and cut for today’s lunch. The menu board says Tagliatelle al Burro e Salvia. ( tagliatelle with butter and sage). I don’t read any further, I don’t need to know what’s on offer for the piatto secondo. I walk straight in.

October 2019.

When the eggs are plentiful and spring vegetables and herbs announce their readiness to be picked before bolting to heaven, I think back to that simple meal in Castellina in Chianti. It was elegant yet comforting, it’s success arising from restraint. Freshly made egg pasta is a joy to make and consume soon after. It requires only 2 ingredients: eggs and flour, along with a bit of kneading, resting, rolling and cutting and that’s all. No salt, no oil, no sourdough starter, no colours, no heavy artisan type flours, no chia seeds and no fuss. The sauce should gently coat the strands. Ideally, you want the fresh eggs to sing, their golden yolks colouring the mixture. At this time of the year, fresh pasta is almost saffron in colour, the eggs are so good. In the case of Tagliatelle with Butter and Sage, the sauce comes from lightly browned butter in which you crisp a few sage leaves. You could add a grating of nutmeg. It is served with grated parmigiano. Authenticity, although a fraught concept, requires you to stick, as much as possible, to the traditions of a country’s cuisine, if you have the ingredients on hand to do so. Once you start fiddling with a recipe, expect the results to speak a different language. Restrained is a good word to describe the elegance of Italian food. I hear those bells ringing. Time to make fresh pasta.

Vigevano. The Renaissance in Lombardy

I’ve been working on this post for more than a year. Like many other posts written about Lombardy, this one got left in my draft pile. We spent one day in Vigevano, but as most of our time was taken up touring the fabulous Castello Sforzesco, along with a very good lunch, I feel I was cheated. When I return to Vigevano, I’ll stay in centro in a little apartamento overlooking the most beautiful Piazza in Italy, if not the world, the Piazza Ducale. Dream on.

In a country brimming with Renaissance architecture, it would be hard to choose which town might be considered the most beautiful, the most ideal Renaissance city. Maybe we could just settle for a short list? What is the framework for making such a claim? Do we choose on the basis of architecture, famous art, sculpture, painting, churches, piazze, harmonious urban landscape, civic pride or all of the above? Tourists in search of the Italian Renaissance in situ might put Florence near the top of the list, given that city’s fame. I personally find Florence dark, uninviting and not so harmonious when it comes to all things Rinascimento. Florence is crowded and many tourists are happy to see the fake David and Donatello, wander over the Ponte Vecchio, traipse through the Uffizzi for hours, catch a Masaccio or Giotto in one of the smaller churches, get in the queue to wander through Duomo, swoon if your name is Stendhal,¹slurp a gelato in Piazza della Signoria, wolf down an overpriced panino or pasta, then claim to have ‘done’ Florence.

The perfect piazza alla Bramante.

The Humanist writers of the 14th and 15th centuries were part of the great advertising think tank of the Florentine Renaissance. This hype culminated in the writing of Giorgio Vasari, evident in his Le Vite de’ Più Eccellenti Pittori, Scultori, ed Architettori.  (Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, sculptors and Architects). Published in 1550, ‘Lives‘ was the first art history written, presenting a distinct Florentine bias. I often get the feeling that Vasari’s prejudice is alive and well, nearly 500 years later. Florence has a great deal to offer in terms of understanding many aspects of the Renaissance, but other less famous cities do so equally and are more pleasant to visit.

Piazza Ducale, Vigevano

Up until recently, the city of Urbino in the Marche region sat at the top of my “Best Renaissance city” list. Under the rule of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino from 1444 to 1482, the town of Urbino flourished. Federico da Montefeltro was a successful condottiere, a gifted diplomat and an enthusiastic patron of art and literature. Ruling for four decades, he set out to reorganise the state, making the city of Urbino ‘comfortable, efficient and beautiful’. Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano, the Book of the Courtier, published in 1528, which outlined the standards for the modern European gentleman, was founded on Federico’s court. It was the Renaissance place to be in terms of language and letters.

The famous portrait by Piero della Francesca, Dyptich of the Dukes of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza, 1465-1472 circa. And what an amazing match of the two most important Renaissance families of that era.
Piazza Ducale Vigevano

Vigevano is a small town in Lombardy that could also claim the same title of Città Ideale of the Renaissance. The central part of the town, the Piazza Ducale, leads the eye in every direction- along the arched colonnades, through the inviting side streets, upwards towards the apartments overlooking the piazza, and then back down towards the Cathedral and further along into the grand Castello Sforzesco.

Vigevano is located around 35 kms from Milano in the Lomellina district of Lombardy. I was seduced by the graceful Piazza Ducale. Designed by Bramante, this is one of Italy’s most beautiful piazzas. The building was instigated by Duke Ludovico Sforza (il Moro) and work began in 1492. It was intended to serve as a stately forecourt to the castle and did so for some time. It is shaped in an elongated rectangle measuring 134 metres by 48 metres and is enclosed with arched porticos supported by 84 columns. The porticos have carved capitals, each one carved differently.

Castello Sforzesco

The castle, which rises up at the town’s highest point, dates back to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The castle was built in two consecutive stages, one under the Visconti and the other under the Sforza. The Visconti era is marked by  paranoia in design, as seen in the strada coperta, a secret exit from the castle. The latter architectural additions under the Sforza are marked with grace and openness. The artistic contribution of Donato Bramante cannot be understated-  his arches seem to balance lightly on stiletto shoes. So light, so graceful. During this period, the castle became one of Europe’s richest Renaissance courts, not unlike that of Urbino. Both leaders, Montefeltro and Lodovica Sforza were allies and skillful diplomats.

Stables, Castello Sforzesco
Falconiera, Castello Sforzesco

There is much to see and experience in Vigevano. A castle covering more than 2 hectares, a fine cathedral, a museum dedicated to the history of shoes ( Vigevano is the shoe making centre of Italy) and much more. But my main reason for wanting to return is simple. It’s that beautiful piazza that takes the prize: it is the centre stage of Vigevano. Theatrical, seductive and yet restrained, it invites you to take a stroll, to cross over, or to take shelter under Bramante’s arches in inclement weather, to whisper, to meet up with your lover, to be incognito or conversely to parade and strut about in your new shoes. Like all the best Italian piazze, Vigevano’s Piazza Ducale gives meaning and depth to that little Italian word, Centro.

La strada coperto, Visconti paranoia in Castello sforzesco

¹ I also suffer from Stendhalismo  when visiting Duomo in Firenze.

 

On a Broomstick with La Befana.

The Befana comes at night, With her shoes all tattered and torn, She comes dressed in the Roman way, Long Live the Befana.”

These lines sound so much better in Italian (see below) and it’s one poem that all children learn by rote and then recall as adults. La Befana is one of the most loved figures associated with Italian Christmas: the celebration is still popular throughout Italy. It’s nice to see photos of Italian women of a certain age getting into the spirit of Befana, dressing up as witches, while family groups attend the many winter feste and sagre dedicated to La Befana on the evening of January 5, 12 days after Christmas day.

Orion and the Seven Sisters. Photo by my brother Michael, whose celestial photos can be found at https://regionalcognisance.wordpress.com/.

For those who don’t know the story, the legend of La Befana is associated with the Epiphany which occurs 12 days after Christmas. Befana was an old woman who was asked to accompany the Three Wise Men on their journey to bring gifts to the new-born baby Jesus. She declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, Befana had a change of heart, and went in search of the three astrologers and the new born Jesus. That night she wasn’t able to find them, so to this day, La Befana goes out searching for the little baby on the night of the Epiphany, on January 5-6. Befana is a corruption of the Italian word of epifania, and is derived from the Greek, επιφάνεια, meaning appearance or manifestation. She is depicted as a kindly old witch wearing ragged clothes and riding a broomstick. She enters the house via the chimney and brings a sack of gifts for the children, sweet things for the good children and a lump of carbon or garlic for the naughty ones. See my earlier posts about Befana, here, here and  here.

Image courtesy of my brother Michael at https://regionalcognisance.wordpress.com/.

But there’s still something odd about the Christian aspects of this legend. Why a witch and why is she flying on a broomstick above Italian villages and cities? As it turns out, there are many pagan and folkloric threads to the story, each one providing more clues. Like many Christian stories, this one has been appropriated from ancient times and tacked on to a Christian legend about the birth of Jesus.

Moon and Tree. Courtesy M Robinson at Mick’s Cogs

‘The origin of the Befana is probably connected to a set of pagan propitiatory rites, dating back to the X-VI century BC, and is linked to seasonal cycles, to agriculture, and is related to the harvest of the past year, now ready to be reborn as a the new year’.¹

In the Roman era, the twelfth night after winter solstice symbolised the death and rebirth of nature, and was celebrated. They believed that the twelve nights after solstice represented the twelve months of the Roman calendar: female figures flew over the cultivated fields to promote the fertility of future crops, hence the legend of a “flying” figure. According to some, this female figure was first identified as Diana, the lunar goddess linked to game and hunting as well as to vegetation and the moon. Befana is also linked to minor deities such as Satìa and Abundìa, symbols of satiety and abundance. There may also be an association with an ancient Roman winter festival in honor of Strenia ¹, the goddess of New Year, a time when gifts were exchanged. (the word strenna meaning gifts is derived from this).

Other precursors include Holda and Perchta, nocturnal witches of Nordic mythology, and in the Veneto region, Erodiade. It is customary in these areas to burn an effigy of La Befana. Good, evil, mother, witch, goddess, housewife, grandmother, hag, crone, the modern, often cartoonised character of Befana, has emerged from a rich store of pagan and Italian folklore. In a sense, the Christian element is just one minor thread.

Seen in Trastevere, Roma, November 2017. The real Befana?

As for La Befana who comes dressed as a witch in the Roman style, historians specialising in Italian witchcraft and folkloric traditions have more to say. A story perhaps for next year’s post on this topic?

La Befana nell’orto d’abbondanza. Madre, nonna, dea, strega, casalinga, vecchia, contadina, amica, cuoca.

There are at least 12 versions of this little Italian poem, but this is the one I learnt many years ago. See opening paragraph above for the English translation.

La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
col vestito alla romana:
Viva viva la Befana!  

¹https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strenua

 

 

 

 

One week in Pavia. Part 1, Ponte Coperto

Over the summer holidays, I plan to polish off a few of my unfinished posts from 2018. Some of these concern Pavia in Lombardy, Italy. Instead of finalising these posts months ago, I’ve found myself crawling back down that rabbit hole of historical research, one of the great side benefits of travel.

In hindsight, we should have stayed longer in Pavia: a week was not long enough to explore the historical centre of town as well as the nearby villages and surrounding countryside. Pavia is a university town, and like many others, we found the student population added vibrancy and life to the city. The city is small enough to explore on foot, with castles, towers and churches from the Longobardian era through to the late medieval Visconti and the Renaissance Sforza periods. The Lombardian countryside, especially the wine growing district of the Oltrepo, provided glorious hill-top views of vineyards and wineries, with nearby small village trattorie. The nearby villages of the Lomellina area, known for their famous rice fields dating back to the 13th century, border the Ticino and Po rivers and are a short drive from Pavia. Dotted along the way are yet more red bricked, austere Visconti castles and solid brick Romanesque churches, as well as inviting rural pasticcerie, each one famous for a particular biscotto. Other side trips included travelling along the Via Francigena, the ancient camino that in medieval times connected Canterbury to Rome. Another day was spent in Vigevano, the most beautiful Renaissance town in Italy, challenging Urbino (in the Marche region) for that title. The little water-mill, the Mulino di Mora Bassa, contains a permanent exhibition dedicated to beautiful replicas of Leonardo’s machines, for those who are interested in the technical genius of Leonardo and his contribution to agricultural and hydraulic equipment.

Ponte Coperto,  Pavia

The Ponte Coperto ( covered bridge) dominates the entrance to Pavia, spanning the Ticino river. The river divides the city in two- Centro Storico on one side, the historical centre of Pavia, and the more suburban Borgo on the other. Borgo was once inhabited by fishermen and washerwomen but is now gentrified and charming, and provides some convenient Airbnb apartments as well as parking.

The Borgo district, now gentrified.

Il Ponte Coperto has had a few incarnations throughout history. It was built in Roman times and then rebuilt during in 1354 during the Visconti era. This medieval bridge was bombed by the Allied forces ( American/British) during WW2 and replaced between 1949 to 1951. The bombing occurred on three occasions, making it impassable during the 1940s. The new bridge was meant to be a replica of the old medieval bridge, but with some modern necessities. Indeed the modern bridge appears quite ancient and ‘authentic’ on the surface. Many of the original features have been included, such as a chapel, arches and a covered roof. The footings of the two earlier bridges can still be seen in the river near the current bridge.

Old Covered Bridge, Pavia, built in 1370s, damaged by allied bombing in 1944.  Source, G. Chiolini.  G 
The old Covered bridge after the Allied bombing in 1944. courtesy G. Chiolini

Of course there’s a story about the rebuilding of the Ponte Coperto: things are never straight forward in Italy when it comes to restoration and bureaucracy, even more so when dealing with a 600 year old bridge, known and loved for its strength and medieval beauty. Several experts estimated that the damage caused to the bridge by the Allied bombing was not so severe as to prevent a complete restoration, “as it was and where it was”. A lively debate took place around Pavia, involving engineers, historians and architects, the city council and in the general population, between the supporters of the old bridge and its “executioners”. Over a period of three years, the debate continued to rage until the old bridge was finally demolished in 1948, and replaced by the current copy. The current bridge was built 30 metres downstream from the old bridge, and is perpendicular to the river, unlike the old bridge which was shorter and wider and on a diagonal. The new bridge is taller, the new arches are thinner, and are constructed in reinforced concrete and veneered in red brick, a building material utilised in many medieval buildings throughout Pavia. The two portals are completely different. Even today, some consider this bridge a caricature of its former self. But of course, in the eyes of the casual visitor, the bridge looks like it fits in well and even appears to be an ‘old’ bridge. The same questions will always arise about the pros and cons of Restoration versus Renovation or Remodelling. There’s always a Disneyland aspect when attempting to copy an ancient building. At dusk, when the foggy mist of November hovers over the Ticino, then glides through the bridge after dark, making the air wet and cold and eerie, the bridge feels ancient. There are moments when you feel those medieval spirits crossing over the Ticino on their way to midnight mass in centro, with whispered stories of goats, Archangel Michael and a pact made with the devil.

Remains of the Old Covered Bridge

A few links relating to questions in this post.

https://www.liutprand.it/articoliPavia.asp?id=67

http://www.pavialcentro.it/en/monumenti/dal-ponte-coperto-san-giorgio-montefalcone-leggende/ponte-coperto

Pasta of the week: Pizzoccheri della Valtellina

One of my favourite winter pasta dishes is Pizzoccheri della Valtellina. The combination of buckwheat pasta, savoy cabbage or other greens, with fontina cheese and a buttery garlic sauce is so comforting and nourishing on a cold day. I bought some buckwheat flour recently, fully intending to make my own buckwheat tagliatelle but then I heard a little voice whisper, ”Don’t create a rod for your own back.” My home-made version will have to wait. Meanwhile, a timely box of Pizzoccheri turned up in that famous pasta aisle of Melbourne’s Mediterranean wholesaler. Organic, made in Valtellina in Lombardy, and labelled I.G.P ( Indicazione Geografica Protetta), who could resist the real thing.

Pizzoccheri della Valtellina

Pizzoccheri della Valtellina.

Recipe for 6 people. Adjust quantities accordingly, but I usually measure around 175g of pasta for 2 people and keep the whole garlic clove.

  • 500 g Pizzoccheri della Valtellina
  • 250 g potatoes peeled and cut into small cubes
  • 200 g Savoy cabbage, silver beet or Cavolo Nero ( I like to mix these for colour and use those that are growing in my garden )
  • 160 g Fontina cheese
  • 160 g grated parmesan
  • 200 g butter
  • 1-2 cloves garlic
  • salt/pepper

Method

Cook the potatoes in a large pot of salted water for 5 minutes. Add the Pizzoccheri pasta and the roughly chopped greens and boil for 12-15 minutes. Meanwhile melt the butter and cook the finely chopped garlic gently. Slice the fontina cheese and grate the parmesan. Heat a large serving plate and your pasta bowls. Once the pasta and vegetables are cooked, strain them and layer into a large serving bowl, along with the cheeses, alternating until the ingredients are used. Pour over the garlic butter and season. Serve.

The cheeses melt once layered through the hot pasta while the garlicky butter adds another tasty layer to the sauce. Simple and sustaining. Fontina cheese is a must in this recipe.

 

 

Secret Osteria, Lake Como and a Special Risotto

Wander around the little lanes and back streets of the smaller and less touristy villages of Lake Como and you will find some real gems. One perfect but modest osteria can be found in Cernobbio, a village accessed easily by bus or ferry. I  prefer the ferry option, not only for the wonderful views of the Palazzi and gardens along the way, but just to hear the ferryman call out the names of the villages en route, “Torno, Moltrasio, Blevio, Cernobbio”, lazily trilling those ‘r’s and the nautical sounds of whistles, ropes and gangway planks landing.

Lake Como ferry on the way to another small village.

The day we went to Cernobbio, the wind was icy and the ferry was almost empty: we were well rugged up for the day. It was early November and most of the large gardens had closed for the season. Among our fellow travellers was a young chap, honey blond hair perfectly groomed, sporting a mustard coloured scarf carefully arranged over the shoulder of an expensive and conservative blue outfit, tanned ankles bare above sockless and effeminate boating shoes, with a newspaper tucked under one arm. Too affected to embody the insouciance of a Castiglione courtier, la bella figura gone awry. An aimless and idle palazzo owner perhaps? He was the only other passenger to leave the ferry at Cernobbio. The place looked deserted.

We wandered around Cernobbio: it had that empty, out of season look. Although not accustomed to taking coffee at 11 am, it seemed like a sensible thing to do, given the weather. And this decision led to a most wondrous find, the Osteria del Beuc, a small worker’s cooperative and restaurant up a back lane in Cernobbio. This is where all the locals were hiding on that cold November morning. At one large table, a group of older men in sensible jackets were grazing on morning snacks to go with their pre- lunch wines. A few tables away, couples were partaking of coffee but there was a sense of expectation in the air. More people were beginning to arrive. I glanced at the paper sheet listing the menu of the day. The gregarious waiter/front of house/barman advised that I should book immediately as there was only one table left for 12.30. Good advice. I ordered a Spritz and settled in for some more people watching, buoyed by the glowing euphoria that only a Prosecco laced with Campari can produce at such an ungodly but most welcome drinking hour.

By 12.40, the place was packed. The elderly gentlemen reluctantly vacated their morning table and wandered back to the safety of their separate homes, wives and a home cooked meal. The table was then replaced with a large group of hungry young office workers. Smaller tables were occupied by elegantly dressed couples, some accompanied by small, pampered dogs on leads: the place was alive as the enthusiastic waiter theatrically went about his business.

But then, dear reader, you didn’t come all the way with me to Cernobbio to simply ogle the locals, although if you’re a bit like me, you probably enjoy a bit of people watching as you travel through life, inventing scenarios and stories for each one. The food at Osteria del Beuc is well priced and seriously very good. Honest and simple food cooked perfectly. The lunch menu came with prices for one, two or three courses, 9€/ AU$14, 12€/AU18/ €14/AU22, which included a 250 ml carafe of wine per person. Of course I went for the three course option. 

For il primo, I had a composed salad of endive, spinach and soft white cheese, beautifully dressed while Mr T had a zucchini frittata. Then came a creamy risotto dish, perfectly cooked, nicely moistened, cooked in red wine, with rosemary and Taleggio cheese, the latter still visible and just beginning to melt. Sadly there is no photo, but if there were, it wouldn’t look great- just a pile of wet white rice on a plain plate. And yet it tasted sensational. The bread supply was generous. A fairly ordinary chocolate mousse followed. This didn’t detract from the overall delight of the meal and the venue: I have come to expect unimaginative desserts in Italy and should remember not to order them, unless there’s a visible nonna on site who may have just baked a homely torta of fruit or nuts.

I have worked on recreating that lovely risotto dish and will continue to refine it. The Cernobbio version retained a lovely creamy white appearance and perhaps used less red wine and a little less rosemary than my version. Every time I make this, my heart flies back to Lake Como. Below is a version but feel free to play with it to suit your palate.

Risotto, red wine, rosemary and taleggio. Large serving for two or three. Ugly but good.

Risotto al Vino Rosso, Rosmarino e Taleggio. Risotto with Vino Rosso, Rosemary and Taleggio.

Ingredients for two smallish serves. Adjust quantities to suit your appetite, bearing in mind that it’s a rich dish and best served with a simple salad before or afterwards.

  • 150 g Carnaroli rice
  • 1/2 red onion, very finely chopped
  • 150 ml good quality red wine ( the one you’ve opened for dinner is best)
  • 350 – 400 ml vegetable stock ( it’s always better to have extra on hand)
  • 20 gr butter
  • 40 gr or more of Taleggio ( substitute Stracchino if on a budget)
  • 40 gr grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano or more to taste
  • a teaspoon of very finely chopped fresh rosemary
  • salt and white pepper to season

Method

In a small saucepan, warm the vegetable stock and keep it on a low heat. In a separate cast iron casserole, choosing a suitable size for the measure of rice you are using, add the butter and saute the onion gently until soft and pale golden. Add the rice and toast for a minute or two. Then add the red wine and heat, stirring, until it is fully absorbed. From this point, begin to add a ladle of hot stock to the rice and stir through on low to medium heat. Don’t stir too vigorously: an occasional stir is enough. Once that stock is fully absorbed, continue to add more ladles, one at a time, for around 20 – 25 minutes, as per the usual method of risotto making. The only way to judge the readiness of the rice is by biting it. If the centre is still hard, continue cooking. Once ready, turn off the heat, and add the rosemary and Parmigiano and half the Taleggio chopped into smallish chinks. Stir through then cover with a lid and leave to steam for a few minutes. When ready to serve, add the remaining Taleggio to the dish.

For Helen Legg.

Osteria del Beuc, Via Felice Cavallotti, 1 – 22012 – Cernobbio, Como, Italia

 

 

Linguini with Mussels and Wild Fennel

My pursuit of the best dried pasta continues. In my last post in this series, Pasta della Settimana, I mentioned the importance of bronze dies in the manufacturing process. This method of extrusion has a distinct effect on the taste as well as on the ability of the cooked pasta to hold sauce. Compared to stainless steel or teflon dies, pasta made in this way has a rougher surface and an improved taste. The words ‘Trifilatura al Bronzo‘ is  a label used on retail packages to indicate this production method.

While trying to keep to a budget, bearing in mind that a weekly pasta meal is often considered a cheap option for many families, especially those with hungry teenagers, I shall keep my various pasta recommendations to under AU$5 per 500 g packet, an arbitrary line in the sand. There are many cheaper alternatives around and some are very good. You need to taste a few different varieties to distinguish the difference. It seems a crying shame to make a lovely slow cooked and expensive beef ragu, or an indulgent seafood marinara sauce, only to plonk it on the top of some tasteless industrial pasta.  So this week, my pasta brand is heading up a notch in price to AU$4.75 for a 500 g packet. The Gentile brand of pasta comes highly recommended by my helpful friend at the Mediterranean Wholesalers, a bloke who doesn’t mind a chat about food, travel and recipes. Gentile pasta is made in Gragnano, a commune famous for pasta making, located between the Amalfi coast and Naples, in Campania, Italia.

Gentile pasta from Gragnano.

“Gragnano’s main street was laid out expressly to capture the mountain breeze mixed with sea air back when pasta makers hung spaghetti on drying rods like laundry. More recently heaters are used to dry the pasta at low temperatures (approximately 122 degrees Fahrenheit) for two days and it is shaped with bronze to give it a rough texture, producing a pasta with nuttier aroma and chewier mouth feel.” ¹

The Orecchiette Napoltiane made by Gentile di Gragnano is quite different in shape from that of Puglia.

The history of pasta manufacture in Gragnano makes interesting reading in itself, and there are a few short films set in the various pasta factories of Gragnano, the better ones noted below. Italian online magazines also love to list their top 10 brands of manufactured pasta: Gentile pasta often features in the top 5 artigianale paste, after Masciarelli and Felicetti and Pastificio dei Campi. The first two brands are available in Melbourne but at a price!

Mise en place: Gentile pasta, wild fenel and chilli.

My recipe for Pasta of the Week uses Gentile Linguine. Of course you can use any other linguine that comes your way. I am enjoying working through Gentile’s range and can’t wait to try their famous Fusilli, the flagship of Gentile’s production, made by workers who roll up each noodle with a knitting needle below their forearms, giving it a helical shape which is then made even more appealing by the diversity of each individual fusillo.

Linguini con Cozze e Finocchietto, Linguini with Mussels and Wild Fennel Fronds. Ingredients for 2 people.

  • 200 g Gentile ( or other brand) Linguini
  • 1/2 kilo of fresh mussels, de-bearded and cleaned
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 finely chopped fresh chilli
  • 2 tablespoons EV olive oil
  • a dash or two of white wine
  • some grinds of white pepper
  • 2 branches of wild fennel.

Method. In a wide and deep frying pan, such as a non- stick wok, add one tablespoon of olive oil, one peeled garlic clove, and a slurp or two of dry white wine. Add the cleaned mussels and cover with a lid, heating on medium until the mussels open. Take out the mussels and reduce the liquid a little. Strain the liquid into a small jug, leaving behind the grit.

Remove the mussels from their shells, leaving two in the shells for decoration. Chop the mussel meat but not too finely. Depending on the size of your mussels, aim to chop each one into quarters.

Cook the pasta in a pot of salted boiling water, but only cook for half of the suggested time.

In the wide frying pan used previously, heat 1 tablespoon of EV olive oil, then add one finely chopped garlic and chilli, being careful not to overcook them. Immediately scoop out the pasta from the pot, and add to the pan. Don’t worry about the water clinging to the strands- this adds to the sauce. Now add some of reserved mussel juice and stir well. The pasta needs to cook for another five minutes in this way, a little like making a risotto. Add more mussel juice and also some of the starchy pasta cooking water. After five minutes, the pasta should be cooked to al dente and some rich sauce will have formed. Test the pasta for doneness. Add the chopped mussel meat and the chopped wild fennel fronds, to the pasta, along with a few grinds of white pepper. Toss gently. Serve, adding the reserved mussels in the shell for decoration along with some more fennel fronds. Mmmm Bellissimo.

Pranzo per due.

Notes.

¹ Gragnano wiki

I am indebted to a recipe found on Speck and the City,  but have made various changes along the way. This site is rather more adventurous than most Italian cooking sites and worth a good look.

The following little videos are set around Gragnano. One with George Depardieu visiting the Gentile pasta factory with some very annoying French dubbing over the Italian. Turn the sound off and enjoy watching George and the Fusillare. The second shows some fascinating ancient mills of Gragnano. I know where I’m off to on my next trip to Italy.

The Classic Pasta and Fagioli

There are so many versions of Pasta e Fagioli in Italy and on the web, it almost seems superfluous to add my two bob’s worth on the topic. Anyone who has an Italian nonna makes a more traditional/better/regional/authentic version. During winter, Pasta e Fagioli, (pasta and beans) is one of the most useful dishes to know. Is it an entrée, a soup or a main dish? It can be all of these but given the heartiness and distinct lack of brothy elements, I tend to make this dish as a piatto unico, a stand alone dish, to be served with bread, a few drops of new oil, and perhaps some Parmigiano. Most versions are thick with beans and pasta and very little broth: some are made slowly with fresh borlotti beans, while less desirable versions are thrown together with canned beans, canned tomato and cheap industrial pasta. It is a timeless classic rustic dish, Cucina Povera Italiana, made in the past through necessity using simple ingredients stored for winter. Today, it satisfies that need in us all for comfort food on a cold winter’s day.

Like many other Italian dishes, this one also starts with a classic soffritto, that holy trio of flavour, emerging from the slow sauté of carrots, onion and celery. The soffrito vegetables must be chopped very finely so that they almost disappear once they are cooked. Another element often added at the soffrito stage is pancetta and lardo. I omit these ingredients given my dietary preferences but try to find other umani elements to flavour the dish, either through rich stock, herbs, garlic or even anchovy fillets, reduced to a salty mash. I also reserve a little deep vegetable stock to thin the mixture.

First pressed and just delicious. The first harvest of Cobram’s new oil. Only for dressing up.

Ingredients

  • 200 g borlotti beans, either fresh or dried
  • 250 gr tomato passata or finely diced tomatoes
  • 80 gr onion finely chopped
  • 30 gr celery finely chopped
  • 30 gr carrot finely chopped
  • 1 garlic finely chopped
  • 1 small branch fresh rosemary
  • 3 Bay leaves
  • 10 g EV olive oil
  • black pepper
  • fine sea salt
  • 100- 200g of pasta ditalini, depending on your preference for a thick or thinner version.

Method

Cook the beans. If using dried borlotti, soak overnight then cook in water for around 80 minutes. Add the bay leaves to the water but no salt which may make the beans remain hard. If using fresh borlotti, there’s no need to soak them and they should cook in under 30 minutes, depending on their their freshness. Keep the cooking water.

When the beans are done, make a soffrito with the onion, celery and carrot. Add the oil to a large heavy based soup pot and gently saute these vegetables until soft and golden, adding the chopped garlic and finely chopped rosemary towards the end. (Traditionally, the garlic would be added to the cooking oil first, cooked until just golden then fished out before adding the soffrito ingredients. If you don’t love garlic as much as I do, consider that method. I like to keep the garlic for more flavour)

Add the beans and a little of the cooking water. Then add the tomato and heat through gently. Remove two ladles of the mixture and puree with a hand mixer. Return this back to the soup pot. If too thick, add a little bean cooking water or vegetable stock.

Add the pasta, and cook until al dente. Watch the pot at this stage as the pasta and beans have a tendency to stick when this thick. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.

Serve in lovely wide and shallow bowls with a drizzle of fine oil and some good bread.

Bread of the day with Pasta of the week.

Other Pasta of the Week ideas:

Maccheroni Rigati with Sweet Pepper Sauce

Ditalini with Cacio and Eggs

Gnocchi Sardi with Gorgonzola, Silver beet and walnuts.

Pantacce with Borlotti Beans and Rugola

 

 

 

 

 

Sourdough Panmarino. Memory and Beatrice d’Este

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.

Ophelia, Act 4, Scene 5, Hamlet.

The most exquisite and evocative bread of my sourdough repertoire is Panmarino. Now that’s a big call I know but it might have something to do with the fragrant mixture of Rosemary and Salt, the soft comforting texture of the bread, or the dramatic diamond encrusted star on its baked dome. I have only recently converted this yeasted bread to sourdough, and must make sure that I don’t make it too often. I prefer to think of it as a festive bread, perhaps best associated with reminiscence and memory. It would be a lovely bread to make for the anniversary of a loved one. Pray you, love, remember me.

This bread was first popularised by Carol Field in her classic work, The Italian Baker.¹ According to Field, it was invented by a baker named Luciano Pancalde, the baker with the perfect hot bread name, who created this bread as the encapsulation of one he had read about in a biography of the d’Este family of Ferrara. I really like this idea on many levels. That he read about a Renaissance bread, visualised it, then recreated it makes it rather special but that this bread was eaten at the courts of my favourite historic family makes it even better. I plan to come back in my next life as Beatrice d’Este. In the meantime, I’m enjoying a virtual memory. Rosemary does that. It’s the time traveling herb.

Beatrice was here. Castello Sforzesco. Vigevano.

The recipe listed by Field is for a yeasted bread: it is easy to make, and it tastes good too. But to my mind, the bread made in the Renaissance courts of the d’Este family would have been made with something like a biga or lievito madre. Using my standard sourdough starter, a very fine traditional Panmarino can be made. Some of the recipes I have drawn on suggest a long gestation time of 4 days. I’m happy with a 24 hour time frame, given a ready starter, one that has been refreshed over a day or so. I also like to add a little wholemeal to mine, in keeping with a loaf of the past.

Slices and keeps very well, if it lasts.

Sourdough Panmarino, un pane per la bella Beatrice d’Este.

I have simplified this bread for speed and ease of making. I’ve played with the proportions of starter and am happy with the results so far. If you would like to follow one source of this recipe, see here. Before making this recipe, refresh your starter three times over a day or so, then start the process in the morning.

  • 150 g bubbly active sourdough starter
  • 150 g water filtered or tank, at least not chlorinated
  • 150 g whole milk
  • 500g baker’s white flour or a mixture of baker’s white flour, ie 400g and wholemeal plain flour 100g
  • 5 g diastatic malt 5g  ( optional)
  • 10 g sea salt
  • 40 g olive oil
  • 20 g or less chopped fresh rosemary
  • salt flakes such as Maldon for the shaped loaf

Directions.

Weigh the the starter, water and milk then add to a large mixing bowl. Add the flour (s) and malt and mix roughly with your hands. It will look like a shaggy pile. Cover with a shower cap or plastic film and leave for 20 minutes or so.

Mix the chopped rosemary, olive oil and salt and work this through the dough with your hands. You will feel the gluten begin to develop. Cover with cap. Leave the covered dough at room temperature.

Do some stretch and folds every 20- 30 minutes, inside the bowl at least three times. You will feel the dough become smoother each time. Now leave the dough on the bench, covered, for 8 hours. It should be well risen by this time.

Place the covered bowl into the fridge for an overnight rest, coinciding with a rest of your own.

In the morning remove the dough from the fridge, have a peep at it, then let it come to room temperature, again still covered.

Using a bread scraper, place the dough onto a large silicon mat or good bench top, adding a small amount of fine semolina to the work surface. Stretch and fold the loaves a few times again, then shape the dough into a nice boule shape. Let this sit for 30 minutes or so, then place the boule into a round shaped and dusted banneton. Cover for 30 minutes to an hour. It will rise a little more.

Meanwhile preheat your oven to 225c FF. Turn the bread out onto a sheet of parchment paper, then lift the paper with the dough and place inside an enamel roaster/baking tin. Using a lame with a sharp blade, slash a star shape on top of the loaf and sprinkle generously with salt flakes. Cover with the lid of the roaster and place in the oven for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, remove the lid and continue baking for a further 20 minutes.

Remove the bread to a wire rack and let it cool completely before slicing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Panmarino, star burst greater on the sourdough version. Better crust.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Yeasted version.

Thanks Maree for alerting me to the sourdough version of this bread.

Waiting for Beatrice d’Este, Vigevano

‘Then, when a memory reappears in consciousness, it produces on us the effect of a ghost whose mysterious apparition must be explained by special causes.’  Henri Bergson. Of the Survival of Images. Memory and Mind. 

Heaven and earth!/ Must I remember. Hamlet, Shakespeare

A Visit to Testaccio, Rome

Testaccio in ancient times was the centre of trade along the Tevere, and in the centre of this suburb stands Testaccio Hill, which is made up entirely of broken clay amphorae or vessels, a kind of Roman midden pile, providing archeological evidence of ancient everyday Roman life. I would love to go digging in that pile of remains, a highly unlikely prospect. In the meantime, I went digging for culinary treasure at the Testaccio market, a venue often heralded as one of Rome’s food havens.

On the way to Testaccio Market
Testaccio, a Roman working class suburb with great bars and restaurants. Gentrification here we come. Just like Brunswick, Melbourne, complete with hipsters too.

Testaccio is a plain looking working class suburb that is on the turn. The bars and restaurants look more appealing than many of those located in the tourist traps around Rome, though they are being discovered and some are beginning to blandify their offerings to suit small tour groups run by American food bloggers. In one such establishment, Flavio Al Velavevodetto, I had the best Carciofi alla Giudìa, that classic Roman Jewish dish of deep-fried artichoke, and a rather insipid Pasta e Ceci, redeemed only by the cute bottle of their own freshly pressed olive oil, which went straight into my handbag. The restaurant is carved into Monte Testaccio and you can view amphorae shards in the hill through carved out arches in the rear wall.  Perhaps this is a worthy reason to visit in itself.

The best of Rome’s Carciofi alla Giudea at Flavio Al Velavevodetto
Not like Nonna used to make. Pasta e Ceci at Flavio Al Velavevodetto

The Testaccio market building is modern, fairly ugly, and not particularly appealing. However, If you have an apartment in centro and are after fresh ingredients, this is the spot to shop. Other offerings include an outdoor cafe, a shop touting a list of so-called Strit Fud snacks, a concept I still find jarring in the Italian context, and a wonderful little corner bar offering a tall glass of Prosecco at any time in the morning for €2

Prosecco for breakfast at Testaccio Market.

 

I was intrigued by the padrone of the prosciutto shop, who hand cut his special cured meats. A small crowd gathered as he carefully shaved off thin slices of Cinta Senese, that Tuscan pig with its own DOP.

Hand cut Prosciutto
The art of hand cutting prosciutto
Cinta Senese

While the produce is fresh and appealing, the market was, for me, underwhelming. We needed that glass of Prosecco.

Rome you seduce me

and begging me to return

Obsessed, I obey.

 

For Unlikely, at WordPress and Ronovan’s weekly Haiku