Friday fish: fried salt cod with polenta and onions

merluzzo con polenta e cipolle-3The day was 5th January 1432. It was approaching mid-morning. The sun had just begun to peak above the horizon. The Venetian merchant Pietro Querini and his crew were on lifeboats. The sailors’ voyage from Crete to Flanders had been cut short by a violent storm in the North Sea, leaving them shipwrecked. Lost at sea for several weeks, they could finally discern land in the brightening distance. Icy winds and snow rendered its appearance less than hospitable, let alone habitable. Querini made a vulgar joke about having reached culi mundi  or the ‘arse end of the world’.

Luckily for the Venetians, the seemingly rear-ended island of Røst[i] turned out to be inhabited. And, over the next few months, they would look on in amazement as the local fishermen beheaded, gutted and dried vast quantities of their catch, gadus morhua (Atlantic cod). Querini was particularly impressed by the colossal hesje (wooden racks) along the shoreline, from which the cod were hung in pairs by their tails to dry. The resulting stockfish,  hard as wood,  retained all the nutrients – protein, vitamins, iron and calcium – from their fresh counterpart. Several centuries previously, this preserved food had sustained the Vikings in their sea voyages from Norway to Iceland, Greenland and Canada. The shipwrecked Venetians, representatives of one of Europe’s most important trading and economic powers of the era, had discovered a valuable new commodity.

In 1497, another plentiful source of Atlantic cod was ‘discovered’ on the banks of Newfoundland. The Lofoten Islanders’ method of preservation of drying, however, did not suit the damp and misty conditions of this terranova.  When cheap salt from France, Spain and Portugal became available to the northern European seafaring nations, another method of preservation, salting, was adopted.

merluzzo con polenta e cipolle

Church-imposed giorni di magro or ‘lean days’ – all Fridays, the forty day period of Lent and other important days of religious observance – meant that meat consumption was effectively forbidden for almost half the year. Fish was the permitted substitute for meat. Consequently, there was great demand from the Italian peninsula and islands for cheap, long-lasting stoccafisso (stockfish) and baccalà (salt cod). Italians have become less strict about observing ‘lean’ days and Lent but a Good Friday meal would still be unthinkable without a fish (often baccalà or stoccafisso-based) dish. For this reason, that demand for this once precious foodstuff continues.

The Venetian bacalà mantecato and the Messinese pescestocco a ghiotta are some of Italy’s most famous cod-based dishes. Less well-known but not at all less delicious is the Piedmontese fried salt cod dish with polenta and onions[ii] my mother-in-law is fond of making at this time of year. The cooked onions’ pungent yet sweet notes complement the mild flavoured cod perfectly. It’s also one of those rare dishes that allows the humble old onion to be enjoyed as a vegetable in its own right. This venerdi santo[iii], I’m planning on serving it as a main course. Here is a recipe, inspired by hers and Beppe Lodi’s, for making it. Please note that its three components – baccalà, onions, polenta – all need to be prepared separately, so you may want an extra hand or two in the kitchen. Stirring polenta requires an awful lot of elbow work! There is the option of pre-cooked polenta that is ready in five minutes. In my opinion though,  you’ll be sacrificing a lot in taste. Also, you’ll need to do the shopping for this dish a few days before. Salt cod requires 2-3 days of soaking for it to be thoroughly desalinised.

merluzzo con polenta e cipolle-2Ingredients (serves 4-6)

  • 1600 g water
  • 400 g polenta
  • 1 kg salt cod, soaked for 2-3 days with frequent water changes
  • Flour, for coating the cod
  • 500 g onions[iv], sliced
  • Olive oil, for frying
  • Salt

Method

Bring water to boil in a large non-stick saucepan. Add salt and polenta meal in a slow and steady stream. Reduce heat to the minimum and cook polenta for 35-40 minutes, ensuring that you stir often with a wooden spoon.  Once the polenta is cooked, carefully pour it on a large wooden board to serve.

In the meantime,  drain and pat-dry cod with a tea-towel and carefully remove its skin.  Cut it into pieces about measuring 6cm x 3cm. Dip pieces into a bowl with flour, ensuring that are coated all over. Heat a frying pan with olive oil and fry each piece of cod until nice and golden on all sides. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels.

Finally, heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a large and wide non-stick pan. Add sliced onions and a pinch of salt. Leave to simmer on low-medium heat covered. Check onions every few minutes or so to stir them and check their state and colour. When they are golden brown, add the pieces of fried cod to the pan so they absorb the juices and flavour of the rendered onions.  Leave to simmer together on low heat until polenta is ready. Transfer cod and onions to a serving dish or directly on top of the polenta.

[i] An island located in the Lofoten archipelago, north of the Norwegian mainland.

[ii] Beppe Lodi calls this dish  merluzzo con polenta e cipolle. In Piedmont, the word for fresh cod – merluzzo – is used instead of the term for the preserved type of cod (e.g. baccalà or stoccafisso). In the northeastern regions of Veneto and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, you will also find that stockfish is referred to as bacalà (with one c) and not stoccafisso, like elsewhere in Italy. Traditionally, Venice’s bacalà mantecato and Vicenza’s bacalà alla vicentina are made with stockfish, NOT salt cod.

[iii] ‘Good Friday’ in Italian.

[iv] I used cipolle bionde or yellow onions, but I don’t see why you can’t use white or red ones either.

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Thursday gnocchi…

egg free potato gnocchi-8There’s an old Roman saying that goes giovedì gnocchi, venerdì pesce, sabato trippa (‘Thursday gnocchi, Friday fish, Saturday tripe’). Most Roman eateries – from tavole calde to Michelin-starred fine dining establishments – continue to abide by this proverbio with their chalkboard menus planned accordingly. And, as The Guardian’s Rome-based correspondent John Hooper has found, telling a Roman waiter that you’re actually not in the mood for gnocchi on a Thursday equates with going against the universally accepted order of things. Like Hooper and other expats, I indulge in more than my fair share of chuckling at this slavish devotion to arcane rules like these. On this point though, I think i romani may be on to a good thing. Since returning to work, I’ve struggled to plan ahead and be organised in the kitchen on workdays. Pasta all’olio, onion soup and canned beans have saved dinner on many an occasion! A designated food for each day of the week may well be of help then. Somehow though, I don’t think Thursday will be our household gnocchi day, at least if it means making fresh, made-from-scratch ones like a good  Roman trattoria would. Perhaps we’ll do Saturday or Sunday gnocchi instead. Is that okay Romans?

The word gnocchi literally means ‘little knots’ and they come in a variety of forms in Italy. There are gnocchi alla romana, baked round discs of cooked semolina. In Trentino and Alto-Adige (South Tyrol), you’ll find leftover bread-based canerdli or knödel. Some varieties of gnocchi have cheese, vegetable and even fruit flavourings. But, as the food writer and adopted romana Rachel Roddy tells us, Thursday gnocchi means potato gnocchi in the Eternal City.

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Both my nonne or grandmothers learned to make these delectable dumplings after migrating to Australia. Neither of them came from Italian regions  – Calabria and Sicily, respectively –  where there is a tradition of making gnocchi.  When they made them though, it was like they’d been doing it all their lives. Curious, I liked joining in.  I tried my hand at flicking the little squares of dough along the grooved wooden board for giving the dumplings their characteristic ridges.  Every time we made them, I had to relearn the thumb-flicking technique they insisted on using along the board. My clumsy attempts made them laugh. It had to be done properly though. Well-formed gnocchi rigati were essential for getting a tomato sauce or ragù to cling afterwards.

Along with potatoes and flour, my nonne have always added egg to their gnocchi. However, since my father became a vegan, we’ve all been trying to find ways to veganise many foods that he enjoyed in his omnivore days. As it turns out, that stalwart stovetop companion of mine, Pellegrino Artusi, has an entirely egg-free recipe for making potato gnocchi. His introduction to the recipe also includes one of his typically charming anecdotes. After a woman puts her gnocchi to boil and starts stirring, she asks where they have gone.  It was not ‘some little sprite who had carried them off’, as the woman suspected.  Rather, she had not used enough flour to keep her dumplings together and they had liquefied. Personally, I found that I did not need to use all the flour that Artusi specified (and no, my gnocchi didn’t disappear on me!) but I do recommend having his  quantity of 150 grams on hand anyway. You can use the remaining flour for dusting your work surface and the trays you leave your gnocchi to rest on.

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My nonne generally served their gnocchi with a simple tomato sauce or ragù. Since moving to Turin, I’ve also come to appreciate them with sage leaves sizzled in butter or with a Castelmagno cheese and cream-based sauce.  My husband adores them with pesto. These and many more all work well with homemade gnocchi. I look forward to sharing some sauce recipes soon. In the meantime, here’s my egg-free gnocchi recipe, with special thanks to Artusi, my nonne and these lovely ladies.

Ingredients (serves 2 as a starter)

  • 400 g floury potatoes, washed and dried
  • 150 g flour, sifted (you may not need to use all this)
  • Salt

Method

Boil the potatoes whole in salted water until tender. Drain potatoes thoroughly and while they are still hot, peel them.  Pass them through a food mill, sieve or potato ricer (mashing them with a fork or potato masher works well too). Transfer riced potatoes to a flour-dusted work surface and add fistfuls of flour to the mixture.  Keep adding flour and gently knead (you’re not making bread so there’s no need to stretch gluten!) until the dough is consistent and no longer sticks to your hands and work surface.

Remove a large fistful of dough from your ball and roll it out into a 2-cm thick snake. Cut the snake into pieces about 1-1.5 cm in length. Roll the gnocchi along a gnocchi board or gently press them on a fork) to make their characteristic righe or ridges. Lay gnocchi on a dusted tray or tea-towel.

Bring a large saucepan to boil, add salt and gently place the gnocchi in the boiling water. When they bob to the surface, remove them with a slotted spoon. Transfer them to a plate and pour your sauce of choice on top of them. Serve immediately.

egg free potato gnocchi-2

 

 

Chocolate and hazelnut baci

Simplicity is not my strong point. In fact, I often complicate matters for myself, whether it’s at work, at home and in the kitchen. Long, multi-step preparations. Laborious cookery techniques. Trying to procure unusual and/or obscure ingredients. When I have the means, time and space available, wonderful things can be made. Sometimes though, the best foods are the simplest. A recent toddler-free (thank you nonna and nonno for babysitting!) morning visit to Cherasco, a medieval hilltop town in Piedmont’s Langhe region, reminded me of this.

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TP and I were walking briskly along the portico-lined footpath of the town’s  main street. There was a damp chill in the air so we tried to keep moving as quickly as possible. Still, I managed to squeeze in admiring glances at the doors and windows of the palazzi along the cobblestoned street as we raced by.

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‘I’m sorry but can we stop for a moment so I can change my camera lens?’ I asked TP. My fish-eye lens wouldn’t capture close ups of the finestre and porte I had fallen in love with.

Si, d’accordo’, TP sighed, placing his woollen-gloved hands in his coat pockets. Clearly determined to protect himself from the dreaded umidità or dampness, he began marching on the spot while I made my photographic pit stop.

cherasco-6I took off my gloves, placed them in my pockets and rummaged through my camera bag. My bare hands achingly longed for the tattered lining of my navy blue leather gloves. Loose-fitting guanti, however, don’t lend themselves well to fiddling with exposure dials and aperture settings. I was screwing on my 28-80mm lens when TP suddenly stopped muttering about the cold. He was excited now and pointed out a sign about 20 metres ahead of us. Baci di Cherasco, it said.

cherasco-9Once my lens was firmly fitted onto my camera body, we made our way to the sign and the shopfront of Pasticceria Barbero underneath it. This was the place, where, in 1881, the confectioner Marco Barbero is said to have invented the dark chocolate and hazelnut ‘kisses’ the town is famous for. Local legend has it that after making a batch of torrone (nougat), Barbero had a lot of roasted hazelnut chunks leftover. On a whim, he dipped these in some dark chocolate. The result: simple yet delectably addictive chocolate and hazelnut nuggets. I’m currently averaging about five of them with my afternoon coffee!

cherasco-10Back in Turin, I looked up all the recipes I could find for chocolate and hazelnut baci. I  was very tempted by a baci recipe which called for hazelnuts, cocoa and cocoa butter. Unless you’re professional chocolate maker though, cocoa butter is not easy to find. So, in the name of simplifying home cooking, I made these scrumptious smooches with an ingredient readily available at the local supermarket – tablets of dark chocolate.

Ingredients (makes about 22-25 baci)

  • 300 g dark chocolate, chopped
  • 150 g hazelnuts, roasted, peeled and roughly crushed

Method

  • Put chopped chocolate in a stainless steel bowl and place it over a pot of simmering water.
  • Stir until the chocolate melts and is nice and smooth. Turn off heat and remove stainless steel bowl from pot.
  • Add crushed hazelnuts to melted chocolate and stir until well combined.
  • With the aid of two teaspoons, carefully remove a spoonful of the mixture from the bowl onto a lined tray. To prevent the chocolate and hazelnut from spreading too widely, form a barrier with the spoons on opposite sides of the bacio for several seconds. The bacio should be about 1.5 to 2cm in diameter and approximately 1 cm in height.(Alternatively, you could always use mini cup-cake holders!)
  • Repeat procedure with remaining chocolate and hazelnut mixture.
  • Place tray with baci in the refrigerator overnight.
  • Remove baci from refrigerator and store in a lined, tightly sealed container. Best consumed within a month of making them.

And, if you’d rather leave the baci-making to the professionals, here’s where you can find Pasticceria Barbero:

Via Vittorio Emmanuele II, 74

12062 Cherasco, CN

Tel. +39 (0)172 488373

http://www.pasticceriabarbero.com/

 

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Lettuces, Rags and Lies for Carnival

Vuoi una bugia? (Do you want a lie?)” my flatmate asked me one February evening, indicating a platter with some flat, sugar-coated fritters on them.

bugiedicarnevale-8“A lie?” I replied puzzledly. I had arrived in Turin recently with what I thought was a reasonably good level of Italian. I couldn’t, however, see the connection between the serrated-edged pastries on the kitchen table and falsehoods.

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“I’m sorry, but I don’t understand why you’re calling those things bugie,” I stated matter of factly.

bugiedicarnevale-7

An after dinner snack and a few laughs at Piedmont’s (and Liguria’s) name for the ubiquitous fried pastries made during the Carnival period ensued. Later on, I would learn that fibs had nothing to do with the origin of their name either. That would appear to derive from the Italianisation of the Piedmontese busie and Ligurian böxie. The pastries also went by other amusing epithets elsewhere in Italy. Care for some lattughe (‘lettuces’), cenci (‘rags’) or chiacchiere (‘gossips’) anyone?

bugiedicarnevale-10

The word carnevale derives from the Latin carne levum, meaning ‘flesh farewell’. Like many Christian festivities, Carnival appears to have pagan roots. It is as much an agricultural festival as it is a religious one.  Traditionally, the gargantuan feasting characterising the celebrations represented a precious last opportunity to exhaust the larder and meat supply before the food shortage imposed by the passage from winter to spring. Lent, the forty day period of piety and abstinence which follows the excesses and revelry of Carnival, coincides with what would have been a precarious time for those who depended on the land for their survival.

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Bugie – or whatever you prefer to call those flaky, deep-fried sheets of sweet dough – are symbolic of this farewell to all that is grasso or ‘fat’.  Using up supplies of pork – the meat of the season – and pork-derived products was an integral part of the festivities, so, in the past, they were fried in strutto or lard. Until the postwar economic boom (and subsequent anti-fat health scares!), lard was the cooking fat used by most Italians. Now people generally fry their bugie in vegetable oil.  And, with the abundance of food now available year round, not to mention more relaxed attitudes to observing Lenten diet restrictions, their symbolism as a goodbye to fleshy indulgence is less obvious. Regardless, I still look forward to the time of year that bugie begin appearing in the vetrine of local pasticcerie. In fact, I’ve become so fond of these flaky, melt-in-your-mouth fritters that I’ve taken to making them myself at home. Here is a recipe, based on Pellegrino Artusi’s for making bugie,  or – as he called them in the dialect of his adopted region of Tuscany – ‘rags’.

bugiedicarnevale-11

Ingredients (makes 12-15 bugie)

  • 240 g flour, plus extra for dusting
  • 20 g caster sugar
  • 20 g butter, melted
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 shot grappa[i]
  • a pinch of salt
  • water, room temperature
  • vegetable oil (or  lard!), for deep-frying
  • icing sugar, for dusting

Method

  • Sift flour, caster sugar and salt together in a large bowl.
  • In a small bowl lightly beat eggs, melted butter and grappa together. Add wet ingredients to large bowl and mix together.
  • Knead mixture on a lightly-dusted work surface until dough is smooth and elastic. If mixture feels a little bit dry add a bit of water at room temperature.
  • Wrap dough in cling film and allow to rest for at least 30 minutes in refrigerator or another cool place.
  • Divide dough into two balls.
  • Take one ball and roll dough out with a rolling pin until it is 1-2mm thick. Repeat procedure with second ball.
  • Cut flattened dough into rectangles [ii] measuring about 4 x 8 cm with a serrated pastry wheel, then make two parallel incisions about 2 cm long in the middle of them.
  • Heat vegetable oil to 170 degrees in deep frying pan. Fry about three bugie at a time.
  • Remove bugie and place on tray lined with paper towels to drain excess oil.
  • Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle icing sugar liberally on top of bugie.

The post Lettuces, Rags and Lies for Carnival was inspired by this month’s #BlogPiemonte topic of  Carnival.  Don’t forget to check out what my fellow bloggers had to say about this festivity:

At Carnival anything goes on Uncorkventional

Carnevale in Piemonte Means Bugie! on Italianna

Carnevale… with kids? on Langhe Secrets

Ivrea: THE Carnival in Piedmont on Turin Epicurean Capital

No Snow? Try Carnevale! on Living in the Langhe

The Oldest Carnevale in Piemonte on Once Upon a Time in Italy

The Treasonous Past of the Famous Carnevale Figure Gianduja on The Entire Pizza

Use the hashtag #BlogPiemonte and follow the conversation on Twitter and other social media!

[i] If you don’t have grappa, any other distilled liqueur works well.

[ii] I also like cutting them into rhombuses! When I make them this way, I make a single incision in the  middle instead.

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Of pigs and panissa

Traditionally, winter is pig slaughtering season in Italy. These days, since the majority of Italians no longer live in the countryside and can easily buy pork and other meats from their local butcher or supermarket, this custom has become less visible. In the past though, the pig played an extremely important role in the domestic economy. Rural households across the peninsula would raise and, after a year, slaughter a pig at wintertime, to ensure they had the provisions necessary to feed themselves. Today, we can appreciate the pig’s value in rural society from this Calabrian proverb: ‘Those who marry are only happy for a day, but those who slaughter their pig are happy for an entire year’.

No part of the animal went to waste. Blood freshly harvested from the pig was used to make a variety of sweet and savoury dishes such as sanguinaccio and migliaccio. Jellies and gelatin were made with extremities like trotters, tail,  ears and snout. Fat was cured to make lardo (cured fatback) and a variety of salumi. That fat was also treated for making strutto (cooking lard) and sugna (a sealant preservative for food).  Going the whole hog was essential to ensuring a larder for much of the rural population.

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The season and my recent reading about raising and slaughtering pigs in Karima Moyer-Nocchi’s wonderful book Chewing the Fat: An Oral History of Italian Foodways from Fascism to Dolce Vita (thank you Anna for this recommendation!) have inspired me to write about one of my favourite Piedmontese primi. Notable for its use of rice, beans and pork-derived ingredients, la panissa (its name in the city of Vercelli) or la paniscia (as it is called in Novara), is the ultimate winter comfort food.

The word panissa appears to have its origins in the Latin paniculum, which translates to ‘made of millet’. Gianfranco Vissani has hypothesised that panissa was once a common peasant millet-based gruel or soup.  After the spread of rice cultivation in Piedmont in the 1500s, rice began to be used instead.   When provisions permitted, the gruel was enrichened by the addition of lardo, cotenna di maiale  (pork rind) and salumi.

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The cities of Vercelli and Novara are home to Piedmont’s most famous interpretations of this starter.  Variations exist, but generally, the vercellese version is made with risotto rice (such as the Arborio, Carnaroli or Baldo varieties), locally-grown Saluggia or Villata beans, onion, red  wine, lardo,  pork rind,  broth and salam d’la duja, a salame aged in a layer of sugna. The paniscia novarese also includes risotto rice, borlotti beans, onion and red wine but the broth is thicker and more soup or minestra-like with its cabbage, carrot, celery and pork rind. In some versions, a mortadella-like sausage made of pig liver is used instead of the salam d’la duja too.

I’ll be precise with my measurements (they are for four people by the way) but I’d prefer not to call what follows a recipe per se. Rather, it’s a summary of the principles for making a more vercellese-inspired panissa. Though not difficult to make, planning ahead is essential with its four fundamental cooking stages: beans, broth, soffritto and risotto. As Giovanni Goria, author of La cucina del Piemonte collinare e vignaiolo, says about its preparation, “Ci vuole santa pazienza.”[i] Basically, it’s not the kind of dish you can whip up at the last minute…

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  1. Beans – Bring 300 g beans (if using dried beans, they should have been soaked for twelve hours previously) to boil in a large saucepan. Cover and cook on low to medium heat until cooked and tender (they should be cooked through but not at breaking point!). This should take about 1 to 1 ½ hours. Turn off heat. Using a slotted spoon, strain and transfer beans to a large bowl. Cover and put aside.
  2. Broth – Bring 100 g fresh pork rind, 2 stems of celery, 1 leek, 1 carrot, a sprig of rosemary, salt, pepper and olive oil to boil in a large saucepan. Cover and cook on low to medium heat for 2 hours. Turn off heat. Bring to boil again when it’s time to prepare the soffritto.
  3. SoffrittoHeat 4 large spoonfuls of olive oil [ii] in a pan. Add one medium to large finely chopped onion, 50 g chopped lardo and a salami or fresh sausage roughly ground to pieces. Fry until onion has softened and the lardo starts melting down.
  4. Risotto Add 380 g rice and toast it until it turns a pale translucent colour. Pour in a glass of red (Barbera or Gattinara work well) wine. Let the wine evaporate. Add a couple of ladlefuls of broth.  Continue adding broth whenever the liquid evaporates. While nearing the end of the cooking time – the rice should still be al dente at this point –  add the cooked beans, ensuring that they are stirred in thoroughly. Taste for salt and season accordingly. Turn off heat. No mantecatura[iii] of butter for this guy. He’s swimming in fat as it is! Leave to rest so any excess broth is absorbed. Bon appetito!

[i] This translates to ‘the patience of a saint is required’.

[ii] You could also use 50 g butter or 50 g strutto (cooking lard).

[iii] At this stage, risottos generally call for a mantecatura of cold butter that is stirred in to make that characteristic creamy and smooth texture. Goria, however, thinks it’s unnecessary with panissa and I agree with him!

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My Kitchen Shelf: Pellegrino Artusi’s Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well

pellegrino_artusi5Ever since I got serious about researching Italian food, I’ve found that there’s a book that, well, refuses to be left to collect dust on my kitchen shelf – Pellegrino Artusi’s Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. Since its publication in 1891, this book has become one of, if not THE go-to-source for Italian home and professional cooks.  I’ve always found the story behind the book, not to mention its eccentric author, just far too interesting. I’d therefore like to start my new series of My Kitchen Shelf posts about the Italian recipe compendium that has become one of my favourite stovetop companions.

Pellegrino Artusi was born into a wealthy merchant family in the Romagnol town of Forlimpopoli  in 1820. Educated in a seminary school in the neighbouring town of Bertinoro, he spent his twenties living in Bologna where he frequented many student circles (it’s not clear if he actually attended the university there). In 1850, he returned to his hometown  to take over his father’s business. His family’s lives, however, were changed forever the following year after a group of bandits lead by the notorious outlaw, il Passatore (“the Ferryman”), took all of the town’s wealthy families hostage in the town theatre. The bandits pistol-whipped Artusi, stole as much as they could and raped several women, including Artusi’s sister, Gertrude. She never recovered and was later sent to an asylum in Pesaro. Haunted by the attack, the family moved to Florence where,  Artusi, now considered the head of the family, worked as a textiles merchant. He travelled widely, with his commercial interests taking him to cities such as Naples, Rome, Padua, Milan and Turin. Unlike most of his compatriots, he got to know the territory of the Italian peninsula well.

In 1870, Artusi was able to retire comfortably and live off his family’s inheritance. This left him time to dedicate to hobbies such as literature. He spent a lot of time pottering around libraries and wrote two largely unnoticed books about the poets Ugo Foscolo and  Giuseppe Giusti.  In 1891, after completing his compendium of 475 ‘scientifically-tested’ recipes, he was told it had no future by a literary scholar acquaintance and several Florentine publishing houses.  Undeterred, he printed a thousand copies of Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Cooking Well at his own expense. The book failed to make any impact until Artusi sent a copy to the celebrity anthropology professor, Paolo Mantegazza. The professor immediately recognised the merits of Artusi’s opus and endorsed it in his lectures. By 1910, the initial 475 recipes had been expanded to 790 in its 14th edition.  After his death in 1911, it continued to be a bestseller and a kitchen companion in literate households across the country. It truly was ‘a Cinderella story’, as Artusi calls it in the preface to his book.

So, why did a cookbook dedicated to the mutton-chop sideburned author’s white cats become the most influential in Italian history? Basically, Artusi’s cookbook was the first since Italian unification in 1861 to provide his audience with a template for a national gastronomic identity. Up until then, French-influenced cookery dominated recipe books, reflecting the Italian nobility’s preference for the cuisine of its transalpine neighbour. Recipe books  were often written in French by professional French-trained chefs.  Artusi’s recipe sources, on the other hand, were generally literate housewives from various parts of the country who corresponded with him. His sober yet genteel approach to cookery appealed to the small but emerging Italian urban middle class at the turn of the twentieth century.

His book also became popular because it was written in an Italian that his middle class readers were beginning to understand, read and write in. In 1861, a mere 2.5% of the population spoke what we now know as being standard Italian. In fact, several historians argue that Artusi did more to contribute to the unification of Italy, at least in linguistic terms, than anyone else. He rejected the previously in vogue French cookery terms in favour of Tuscan ones such as cotoletta (cutlet), tritacarne (meatmincer) and mestolo (ladle), terms Italians continue to use to this day.

The book is not without its faults.   Artusi’s instructions about quantities, temperatures, preparation methods and cooking times are often vague. As a result, readers may find his recipes difficult to follow. Like other upper-middle class gentlemen at the time, Artusi himself was highly unlikely to have gotten his hands dirty in the kitchen. That task fell to his faithful servants, Marietta Sabatini and Francesco Ruffili , who painstakingly worked on all the recipes that eventually made it into his seminal publication. The imprecision in his recipes may well reflect his lack of hands-on cooking knowledge.

Artusi’s map of Italy’s foods has also been described as distorted, with Tuscany, Romagna and Bologna (the regions and city Artusi knew best) being overrepresented. A cursory glance at his recipe compendium confirms that Sicily only gets token treatment and there is virtually nothing to represent Sardinia and the Mezzogiorno south of Naples. When he does document dishes outside Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna he is not shy either about disguising his biases against certain local culinary specialties. For instance, he dismisses  Neapolitan maccheroni as being appealing only to people who like ‘swimming in tomato sauce’.

Moreover, Artusi made it quite clear that his book was addressed to the ‘comfortably-off classes’ and this shows in the many meat-laden dishes he writes about. In the late 19th century, Italy had a very  low rate of meat consumption at barely 16 kilos per capita per year. Compare this figure with  40 in Germany, 55 in the United States and 58 in the United Kingdom. Much of the population subsisted on a poorly balanced diet. His narrow class outlook and apparent indifference to the undernourished rural poor have therefore been criticised too.

Few, however, would dispute the personal charm of the man. A true eccentric, Artusi had no qualms about wearing his huge mutton-chop whiskers, frock coat and top hat long after they had gone out of fashion. His book is peppered with witty, self-deprecating jokes and a refusal to take himself and the cookbook genre too seriously. ‘Beware of books that treat this subject,’ he jokingly warns his readers in the book’s  preface. An engaging narrative, amusing anecdotes and historical tidbits more than make up for the apparent lack in precision in his recipes.

Artusi was generous too.  A life-long bachelor, he left the bulk of his estate to fund a home for Forlimpopoli’s poorest inhabitants after his death in 1911.  Future book royalties went to Marietta and Francesco, his servants.  It’s easy, in short, to forgive him for the slants and oversights in his work.

Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well isn’t necessarily a record of what the majority of the Italian population was eating in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It would be best, therefore, to describe it as a reflection of what people aspired to eat during that period. There’s no denying though, that Artusi – in his own conservative way – revolutionised the cookbook genre in Italy. His book provided the young nation with a template for a national cuisine and a language of food and cookery terms to communicate in. He was also instrumental in giving a voice to the previously hidden culinary knowledge of women and home cooks. Female writers such as Ada Boni would eventually come to dominate the cookbook genre in Italy in the 1920s and 30s largely thanks to his transmission of his female readers’ culinary know-how.  Italians have a lot to thank him for. Stay tuned in the next month as I share a couple of recipes from this monumental Italian cookbook.

Sources and suggestions for further reading:

Pellegrino Artusi, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well

John Dickie, Delizia! The Epic History of Italians and Their Food

Massimo Montanari, Italian Identity in the Kitchen, or Food and the Nation

Karima Moyer-Nocchi, Chewing the Fat: an Oral History of Italian Foodways from Fascism to Dolce Vita

Gillian Riley, The Oxford Companion to Italian Food

I also came across this youtube clip entitled Pellegrino Artusi. L’unità d’Italia in cucina. It features interviews with historians Alberto Capatti and  Massimo Montanari and chef patron of Modena’s Osteria Francescana Massimo Bottura on the significance of Artusi. There are subtitles in English!

 

La focaccia della befana

focacciadellabefana-18In Italy, the festive season does not end with New Year celebrations. So, if you’re hoping that I’ll be posting about  something a little bit lighter after all those deep fried zeppole I posted about just before Christmas, I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong place. There’s still Epiphany, otherwise known as the Twelfth Day of Christmas, which falls on the 6th January. A public holiday in Italy, this feast day commemorates the physical manifestation of God as a human being in Jesus and the visit of The Three Kings to the newborn Christ. And this occasion is by no means lacking in rich foods to celebrate!

Unlike in other European countries, Italian folkloristic traditions on this day don’t centre directly around The Three Kings.  Instead, you’ll find figurines of a broomstick-riding old woman called Befana hanging from mantelpieces and shop windows in the lead up to Epiphany. The story goes that Befana provided The Three Kings with shelter while they were making their journey to visit the baby Jesus. Busy with her housework (Befana was said to be the best housekeeper in the village), she declined the opportunity to accompany them and bring a gift to the Christ child.  Later, she realised her mistake and she now makes up for it by bearing gifts to other children in the night between the 5th and 6th January.

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Some believe that Befana’s name was derived from the Italian mispronunciation of the Greek epiphaneia. Another school of thought claims that her name has its origins in bastrina, the word for the exchange of gifts that took place at the beginning of the year in honour of the Roman goddess Strenia. This pagan custom was later adopted by Christians. In fact, the word strenna or strenna natalizia once meant Christmas gift in Italian.

Today, Italians make all sorts of sweets in Befana’s honour. Probably the most eccentric ones are those candied lumps of ‘coal’  symbolising that dreaded gift she brings to naughty children. In the past year though, I’ve come across several recipes for la focaccia della befana, a flower-shaped, brioche-like focaccia that is made in Piedmont for Epiphany. So, as a lover of baked goods (and local ones at that!), I felt this was the sweet to make for this occasion.

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The customs surrounding la fugassa d’ la Befana (this is its name in the Piedmontese dialect) are very similar to King Cakes made in France for Epiphany. Like la galette and le gâteau des Rois, many fugassa recipes call for the insertion of a portafortuna or good luck charm in one of its  petals. In the past, this was generally in the form of a fava or bean. Beans have long been considered a symbol of fertility and health and whoever found the one hidden in the fugassa would have good luck. These days though, a ring, a coin or porcelain charm (anything resistant to the heat of being baked will do!) can be used in its place. Interestingly enough, in some Piedmontese recipes, two ‘beans’ – one white and one black – are inserted. In this case, however, pecuniary obligations rather than good luck are bestowed upon the finders; the white bean finder pays for the fugassa and the black bean finder covers the wine costs!

The following recipe for la fugassa d’ la Befana is one I’ve come up with after a couple of weeks of experimentation. The dough is very buttery so I recommend using a dough mixer if you have one. Also note that a simple egg yolk glaze with nib sugar sprinkled on top can be used instead of the richer almond glaze I’ve suggested here.

Buona epifania and wishing you all a peaceful, convivial and food-filled 2016 !

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Ingredients

For focaccia

  • 30 g milk, room temperature
  • 8 g active dried yeast
  • 350 g strong bread flour, plus extra for dusting
  • 4 eggs
  • 80 g sugar
  • A pinch of salt
  • 150 g butter, chopped into pieces
  • 50 g sultanas
  • 50 g candied orange peel, chopped
  • 1 good luck charm (optional)

For almond glaze

  • 100 g sugar
  • 1 egg white
  • 40 g almond meal
  • 30 g almonds, slivered

Method

  • Dissolve active dried yeast in milk.
  • Add milk mixture, flour, eggs, sugar and salt to dough mixer bowl. Knead for 10 minutes ensuring that you add the pieces of butter one at a time. Towards the end of the kneading time, add the sultanas, candied orange peel and good luck charm.
  • Transfer dough into a large bowl and cover with cling film or a damp tea-towel. Leave to rise in a warm place[i] until dough has almost doubled in size.
  • Preheat oven to 180 degrees.
  • Remove risen dough from bowl and transfer to a clean and lightly-dusted work surface.
  • Form a ball with the deflated dough then flatten it form  a circle with a thickness of about 2-3cm.
  • Transfer circle of flattened dough onto a large lined oven tray.
  • Place a drinking glass in the centre of the circle and make an imprint with it.
  • Make 4 symmetrical incisions into the dough ensuring that you do not cut beyond the imprint made in previously. Repeat this step until you have made 16 incisions in total.
  • Curl the 16 ‘petals’ around each other.
  • Cover, leave to prove and prepare almond glaze by beating egg white, sugar and almond meal until well combined.
  • Spread almond glaze all over focaccia.
  •  Sprinkle slivered almonds on top of glaze.
  • Bake for about 30-35 minutes or until almond glaze is crisp and dough is golden brown.

[i] You could also leave the dough to rise in a cold place (such as a fridge) . The dough will take longer to rise (you’ll need to prepare the dough the night before you plan on baking the focaccia) but chilling it will make it easier to shape afterwards.

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