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.

Mother’s Day Pasta. Reginetta, Little Queen for the Day.

Mother’s day is something we reserve for the matriarch of our family, and so we will be celebrating the day with my 94-year-old mother. She doesn’t expect gifts but certainly looks forward to a visit and a good lunch. She recognises that her daughters and granddaughters are also mothers and so we toast each other on the day. The younger mothers in our tribe don’t give the day much thought, although sometimes random tokens of remembrance turn up. Gifts are not expected and never have been. I fondly recall the very peculiar little presents my children proudly gave me, after their father provided them with a few coins to buy something at the school mother’s day stall. The more memorable gifts were handcrafted items and cards, made under the guidance of a creative grade teacher.

Mother’s Day began in Australia in 1924, following the American institutionalising of the day in 1908. The commercialisation of the day sped up during the 1950s, and today it is a billion dollar industry in Australia. With a barrage of advertising brochures and catalogues infiltrating our household as the day draws near, an amusing pastime is to find the most annoying or stereotypical item proffered as a desirable gift for mother’s day. What about a new iron? And why aren’t irons offered as desirable gifts for men on the great¬†iron- man day, Father’s Day? If someone turned up here with a gift wrapped iron, I might show them the door, or more kindly, send them into the spare room to deal with the despised and forlorn ironing pile.

If, however, someone asked me around for lunch and made this pasta dish, I would be more than pleased, especially if they opened a bottle of King Valley Sangiovese to go with it. I made it for myself and Mr T this week. Mother’s and Father’s Day is everyday here. The pasta, Reginette, means ‘little queens’, a most suitable choice for Mother’s Day. Reginette also goes by the name Mafaldine, named after the Princess Mafalda of Savoy, Italy. If you are entertaining a queen for the day, I can recommend this rich and economical option.

Reginette con Zucca, Cipolle, Gorgonzola e Salvia. Reginette with pumpkin, caramelised onions, Gorgonzola and sage.

Ingredients. For two big serves. Multiply as required.

  • 200 gr Reginette ( or Mafaldine, a wide ruffled edged egg pasta )
  • One chunk of Kent Pumpkin, around 400 gr
  • 4 -5 brown onions, finely sliced
  • a small piece of Gorgonzola Dolce
  • sage leaves, a generous handful
  • EV olive oil
  • Black pepper.
  1. Heat the oven to 180c FF. Cut the pumpkin into 3 cm chunks and bake for 20 minutes or so until just done but not mushy. Set aside.
  2. Meanwhile, finely slice the onions, and caramelise them in a large deep-frying pan with olive oil and a little salt, until nicely coloured and reduced. This takes at least 20 minutes. Adjust the temperature as you go and stir about from time to time. Remove and set aside.
  3. Fry the sage leaves in a little butter so they turn brown and crisp. Set aside.
  4. Heat a large pot of salted water. When boiling, add the pasta and cook for 5  minutes or according to the information on the packet.
  5. Drain the pasta, retaining a little of the cooking water in a cup. Add the cooked pasta to the frying pan ( the onion frying pan will have some luscious bits left at the base). Add some pumpkin pieces and onions. Decide how much you need to add here. Less onions perhaps. Stir about over high heat, adding a little pasta water to sauce the dish, and try to keep the pumpkin pieces intact. Finally crumble in some gorgonzola and add the crunchy sage leaves. Add black pepper to taste and serve the lot in a large preheated serving bowl.

As this dish is rich and sweet, serve it with bitter greens salad, simply dressed.

More on other’s day catalogues and stereotyping: http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/life-and-relationships/parenting/mothers-day-is-a-bad-deal-for-women-and-all-mothers-know-it-20170511-gw2lvl.html

Tagliatelle with Butter and Sage

siena 2
Albergo with a view, breakfast table, Siena

It was in Castellina in Chianti, just north of Siena, in 1993, when I first ate Tagliatelle con Burro e Salvia. I remember the day quite vividly. At the time I was studying Italian at the Scuola di Dante Alighieri per Stranieri for a month and, as school attendance required me to be present only from 8 am to 1 pm, I had the rest of the day, as well as each Sunday, to roam around Siena and Tuscany, often taking the local bus to a small village, followed by a lunch and a stroll. It was on one of these jaunts that I ended up in Castellina in Chianti, and not long after hopping off the bus, I was drawn to a modest ristorante where a big pile of freshly made tagliatelle was laid out on display. I was in like a shot.

Tagliatele fatta a casa
Tagliatelle fatta a casa Morgana

Although seemingly a very simple dish, fresh tagliatelle with butter and browned sage leaves does require some hours of preparation. There is no point making this dish with dried pasta or even shop purchased fresh pasta. This is where I get bossy. The pasta must be freshly made up to two hours before. This is why it tastes so good and comforting.

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Tagliatelle con burro, salvia e parmigiano

Making pasta at home is an easy process if you have a little time AND a helper. I never make pasta on my own, but when young Daisy Chef is around, what seems like a tedious business becomes a joy. We flour up the benches, get the aprons on and make a load of yellow snakes. She loves to crank that handle and feed the stretched pasta through the wide cutting blades.

Rolling the pasta.

Taglatelle con Burro e Salvia- Tagliatelle with Butter and Sage

First make the pasta.

  • 300 g flour, preferably farina¬†doppio zero, or ’00’ flour
  • 3 large eggs ( around 60 g each)

Make the pasta dough either by hand or in a food processor. I simply place these two ingredients into the food processor and pulse until the dough clumps together. If it doesn’t, have another small beaten egg on hand and add it, bit by bit, until the pasta clumps. Don’t over process it.

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Feeding the pasta through at number 5.

Bring the dough together on a lightly floured bench and, without kneading, cover the dough ball in plastic for 20 minutes or so to rest. Unwrap the ball and knead the dough for around 5 minutes, turning and folding, until it is smooth. Wrap again in plastic and leave on the bench to rest for another 30 minutes or more, until you are ready to continue. In summer, this step may involve resting the dough in the fridge, but always bring it back to room temperature before rolling

Flour the bench well. Feed the dough through the pasta machine, twice at each number, from 7 to 5, then once on each number down to number 2. If the dough sheets get sticky along the way, dust them with more flour.

Feed the long sheets through the tagliatelle blade, then place them on a large flour covered tea towel and toss around so that the strands don’t stick together. Cover the pasta with another tea towel until ready to use.

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The fun part!
  • Boil up a large pot of water and add ample salt.
  • Cook the pasta until al dente- two minutes is usually enough but this will depend on how long the pasta has been resting.
  • Meanwhile, melt some unsalted butter in a wide frying pan and cook some sage leaves until crisp. Remove. Then add more butter to the pan to melt. Return the sage leaves. The butter is main sauce so be generous, around 40 g for two serves.
  • Drain the tagliatelle and toss through the butter and sage in the pan. Add some freshly ground pepper or nutmeg. Serve with lots of freshly grated grana padano or reggiano parmigiano.

    Daisy picks sage.
    Daisy picks sage.