Bistecca alla Fiorentina
Truffle and mushroom gnocchi
Gnocchi are little balls of boiled dough that could be made out of semolina, polenta, flour or cornmeal. They existed in ancient Roman times, likely from Middle Eastern origin during the expansion of the empire, and were formed with eggs and semolina. However, after the introduction of the potato in the 1500s, gnocchi from the northern parts of Italy are now most commonly made by combining mashed potato, egg, plain flour and salt into a dough, then forming the ridged dumplings and boiling them in salted water until they float to the surface. The name is thought to come from either “nocchio” which means a knot in wood, or “nocca”, which means knuckle. Both options seem a little obscure to me, so I’m not surprised the true etymology remains a mystery! I served my gnocchi with a creamy sauce made with porcini mushroom and black truffle. I was a latecomer to truffles, but I am now a fully dedicated devotee, to the extent that I have eaten a tiny scrape of truffle paste with an egg and cooked vegetables for breakfast every day for the last few years. Truffles are fungal tubers that usually grow next to tree roots. Ancient Greek and Roman writer Plutarch hypothesised that truffles were formed by lightning strikes to the soil; Cicero poetically labelled them children of the earth, while the more practical Dioscorides named them tubers, and indeed the Latin word “tuber” ultimately gave rise to the name. Truffles fell out of fashion during the Middle Ages, and then had something of a renaissance in, well, the Renaissance. Perhaps the eternal puzzlement over the identity and origins of truffles is because of the difficulty of cultivation, which modern science has revealed requires growing seedlings of particular species, such as beech, birch, hazel, hornbeam, oak, pine or poplar, that have been inoculated with truffle, in soil of a specific pH (7.5-8.3), and a delicate level of irrigation and drainage. The trees then need to grow for several years, with the truffles finally appearing between the soil and leaf litter if all conditions have remained ideal. Dogs or pigs are then used to detect the truffles by smell, and there is a delightful table of pros and cons for using either species on “how to” truffle cultivation websites. The take-home message is that female pigs have a natural affinity for truffles, due to an adrostenol-like compound in them that is similar to a boar sex pheromone, whereas dogs need to be trained to hunt them. Pigs, on the other hand, are likely to eat the truffle as soon as they detect them, and this can be detrimental to the harvesting process. I feel increasingly that the truffle pig is my spirit animal the more I read about them.
Carbonara is famous the world over, although often with heretic transgressions embedded in the recipes. For instance, cream or garlic must never, ever be included in a traditional carbonara – no exceptions. Now that we’ve addressed the elephant in the room, we can move onto how to make carbonara properly. Trust me, it’s much more delicious the original way (and actually easier!). First, the pasta is cooked to al dente in salted boiling water, for which I used bucatini, common in Lazio, which is the region containing Rome. Bucatini is similar to spaghetti except that it has a hole running through the middle, with “bucato” meaning “pierced” in Italian. While the pasta is cooking, gently sauté some cubed guanciale (a type of thick bacon) and in a separate bowl whisk together as many egg yolks as there are people, plus one extra whole egg, along with some cheese (such as pecorino Romano) and pepper. Once the pasta is cooked, drain and stir it and the guanciale quickly through the cold egg and cheese mixture, away from heat, and the hot pasta will delicately cook the egg and cheese to a smooth, creamy (not curdled) consistency that lovingly embraces each strand of pasta. The use of a long thin pasta like spaghetti is essential so that there is enough boiling hot surface area to properly and evenly cook the egg. So, that’s the end of the recipe. So simple! So quick! So delicious! Carbonara has to be one of my all-time favourite Italian recipes, and is one I regularly make with my Italian friend when we’ve had enough of the world (although we sometimes add onion to the bacon, don’t tell her granny!). The name may come from the Italian word for charcoal burner “carbonaro”, possibly because it was created to feed charcoal workers, or perhaps as a tribute to the secret revolutionary society of carbonari (charcoal men) in the 1800s, whose wikipedia page makes the delightful claim that “they lacked a clear immediate political agenda”. Too much carbonara to focus, perhaps? Then again, the dish comes from central Italy, specifically Rome, and in central dialect “carbonada” means bacon, so perhaps the etymology is simple after all.
One of the most famous areas of central Italy is the scenic Tuscany, and the Tuscans are known within Italy affectionately as “mangiafagioli”, literally meaning “bean-eaters”. Ribollita is one of the many delicious reasons behind this name, being a heart soup made traditionally from the autumn harvest of vegetables, beans and bread. Where in other regions pastas form the prime piatti (first course), Tuscans favour hearty bean soups instead. Legend has it that ribolitas name, literally meaning “reboiled”, comes from the actions of the working class servers at the elaborate banquets of nobility. These wiley peasants would sneak away pieces of discarded bread soaked in juices from the feast, and then later boil them up with beans and vegetables (carrot, cavil nero, celery, potatoes etc) from their land to form a hearty soup. Then again, the name may simply derive from the utility of reboiling any leftover vegetables from a meal in the previous days to create a new meal. This dish has surely endured the centuries due to its convenience and low cost, with generations of homecooks (including this one) wearily sighing at the prospect of venturing out to buy fresh produce, instead cobbling together old pantry staples and pronouncing it “ribollita” to the joy of eager diners. Bean soups had a foundational role in the Roman empire, before the influx of products and influences that increased the consumption of meat and introduced bread to the people. Bean soups such as ribollita and minestrone are often classified as “cucina povera”, literally “poor kitchen”, which describes dishes that have roots in the rustic cuisine of the poor masses. Indeed, the English word “frugal” is rooted in latin “fruges” which refers to cereals, vegetables and legumes. This “poor” style of cuisine is contrasted with “cucina nobile” referring to the noble fare of the aristocrats. I don’t know about the ancient Romans, but I quite disagree; I felt like a queen eating the delicious ribollita!