69. Northern and Central Italy

As noted in cuisine 37 (Southern Italy), while the South of the country is characterised by liberal use of garlic, chilli, capers, fish, olives and olive oil, the North and Centre boast greater consumption of dairy products, such as cream and butter. Whenever I’ve tried to discuss splitting Italy in half, culinarily speaking, for the purposes of my project with actual Italians, I’ve been strongly informed that “you can’t do that; you need to split it into 20 regions, or at the very least, three: North, Central and South”. By this stage I’d already decided on the “80 cuisines” limit, and couldn’t justify taking away another country’s moment in the sun to give a third region to such a small area of the world. However, the Italians were right; their cuisine is so incredibly rich and diverse, with mind-blowing history and ancient cross-cultural influences due to its position in the middle of the Mediterranean and ancient western civilisation. There are so many Italian dishes I had to leave out of my challenge that I would dearly like to cook, eat and discuss. For example I feel like I’ve merely scratched the surface of the universe of pastas and breads, not to mention my complete disregard of polenta, and I didn’t even have the opportunity to showcase any Italian seafood dishes! Maybe one day I’ll cook around each of the 20 regions of Italy to remedy this neglect, but, for now, I must make do. One of the most striking things I’ve discovered about Italian cuisine is the huge gap between what we might consider to be authentic Italian cuisine in English-speaking countries and what is actually traditional. The food tends to be much simpler, with fewer ingredients than I would have expected from growing up in Australia, but at the same time it has a much wider diversity of meals than is represented in the typical Italian restaurant. This focus on quality-over-quantity, and fresh seasonal cuisine may sound familiar: it’s the basis of all modern cuisine and is constantly uttered on every fashionable TV cooking show. However, this is not a fresh concept. The importance of simplicity, as well as top quality and seasonal ingredients was conveyed in the poetry of Archestratus in the 4th century BC. Just further evidence that every generation needs to reinvent the wheel, but inevitably someone in history has already made the same discovery or innovation, sometimes millennia before!


Mix of antipasti

mix of antipasti.jpgAntipasto, literally meaning “before meal” is the first course of any formal Italian meal throughout the country. The ingredients themselves differ between regions, based on tradition and availability, but typically include local varieties of cured meats and cheeses, marinated, stuffed or fresh produce such as olives, peppers, artichoke hearts etc, or seafood such as anchovies. The combination should involve many aspects of taste (sweet, savoury, salty etc), as well as being texturally diverse. The dish is designed to whet your appetite and show off local delicacies, while not being so filling as to ruin the rest of the courses (hopefully!). The custom likely originated in medieval Italy, when spiced nuts and sliced ham were served at the beginning of a meal, with the aim to excite, but not fill, diners. The major task I undertook for this mix of antipasti was making a focaccia, an Italian bread typical of Liguria, which can be flavoured with ingredients such as olives, cheese, rosemary or caramelised red onions. I chose the latter two to flavour my focaccia, and made the dough by combining bread flour, oil, water, salt and yeast, then kneading infinitely and waiting patiently for several iterations of rising, punching down and rising. At the end of this process, when the dough has risen for its final time in its baking tin, it is traditional to poke holes into it with your finger, which prevents huge bubbles forming under the dough and provides wells for the oil and flavourings to fall into, keeping the bread moist. Similar breads were made in Ancient Rome, such as panis focacius, meaning “hearth bread”, with the “hearth” surviving as the root of the current word focaccia. I also made bruschetta, deriving from a word meaning “to toast”, which simply describes grilled bread rubbed with garlic and dressed with olive oil and salt. However, on top of this, myriad toppings can be added, for which I decided on the simple-yet-effective fresh tomato and basil. Grilled bread with olive oil is too old to have a clear origin story, but in my imagination it has been common sense since shortly after the invention of bread to use up pieces that have gone a bit stale by grilling them and slathering them in oil. It is somehow comforting to know that, despite the emerging technologies and changes in the world, this age-old trick to use stale bread will outlast us all.  Also in my mix of antipasti I included produce fairly characteristic of the north of Italy, such as fresh figs, mozzarella cheese, prosciutto di Parma (both alone and wrapped around pieces of rockmelon, a typical summer preparation), marinated artichoke hearts, salami, breadsticks, pecorino Romano (a hard cheese from Rome), marinated olives and capsicums, and fresh tomatoes, all on a bed of rocket.


Trofie al pesto, bucatini alla carbonara and maccheroni al ragù

trofie al pesto, bucatini alla carbonara and maccheroni al ragu.jpgThis meal represents my first foray into the concept of “flag meals”, where you display some typical food from a country arranged in the same design as its flag. For the green stripe, I made trofie al pesto, which is a typical meal from the region of Liguria. Trofie is a short, twisted variety of pasta that isn’t very common in Australia, and whose name derives from local dialect terms such as “strufuggiâ” meaning “to rub”, referring to the way the pasta dough is rolled to form the characteristic twisted shape. This typical Ligurian pasta is most traditionally served with green beans, potato and the most famous culinary export of Liguria, or more specifically its capital Genoa: pesto. Although attributed exclusively to Genoa in modern times, the predecessors of pesto can be traced back to the ancient Romans, who ate a paste made with garlic, cheese, herbs, olive oil and vinegar called moretum as far back as the 1st century AD, when a poem in the Appendix Vergiliana described a simple farmer preparing the meal for breakfast before going out to plough his fields. I made my pesto by food processing fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts, salt, parmesan cheese and olive oil into a paste. The name derives from the word “pestâ” in the Genoese dialect, meaning “to pound”, presumably referring to the struggles of the poor cooks prior to the advent of the food processor. This term can therefore technically be applied to any paste that is made by pounding in Italy, and the most famous variety with basil is therefore specifically called “pesto alla Genovese” (“Genoese pesto”). For the white stripe of the flag, I made bucatini alla carbonara. 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. Finally, for the red stripe of my pasta flag, I cooked maccheroni al ragù. Maccheroni, I am reliably informed by Italians, is one of the most popular pasta shapes in Italy, but is almost unheard of here in Australia for reasons unknown to us all. Macaroni, as English-speakers know it, likely came from the same word, but has come to mean small, often elbow shaped, tubes, rather than the majestic large cylinders in my photo. Although under linguistic disagreement, the word likely comes from a series of ancient Greek etymologies meaning “blessed dead” and “blessed, happy” – quite the mixed message! In Italian, “ragù” simply means a meat-based sauce that is usually served with pasta. There are regional variations as to the exact preparation of a ragù, with one of the most internationally renowned being “ragù alla Bolognese” i.e. meat sauce from the Bologna region of Northern Italy. Yes, herein lies the origins of the world famous “spag bol”, as Australians like to say, despite the fact that Italians would not usually eat spaghetti with ragù, preferring tagliatelle or tube-shaped varieties. Indeed, the international version of the dish is said to resemble ragù from Naples more than that from Bologna, despite the misleading name. The ingredients of the true Bolognese ragù include soffritto of onion, celery, minced or chopped beef often with a little pork, wine and a very small amount of tomato, which are added roughly in that order and then simmered together for an hour or as long as you have patience. As with many true traditional Italian recipes that I have discovered, in an authentic ragù, garlic is not usually included, following the surprising rule I learned when cooking for Southern Italy, that Italians would choose to cook with either garlic or onion in a dish, sometimes neither, but very rarely both.


Pumpkin ravioli, mushroom and truffle gnocchi and minestrone

pumpkin ravioli truffle and mushroom gnocchi and minestrone.JPGRavioli are dumplings, traditionally square in shape, with assorted fillings sealed between two thin pasta sheets. Ravioli first burst into written history in the 1300s, when a Tuscan merchant mentioned it in a letter. These early versions were predominantly filled with finely chopped green herbs, cheese and egg, and cooked in a flavoured broth. I made my ravioli with the help of my Italian friend Annalisa, as well as her excellent pasta-making machine to roll out even sheets. We coloured the dough orange with pumpkin, and made a filling of ricotta, pumpkin, nutmeg and black pepper. I served the ravioli with a very simple butter and sage sauce, topped with some freshly grated parmesan cheese. 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. I also made minestrone, which is a hearty vegetable soup that often has pasta or rice added. It’s the typical meal that uses up any extraneous ingredients you might have in the fridge, which could include beans, onions, carrots, tomatoes, celery or even some meat. The dish is thought to be so old that it predates the expansion of the Roman Empire, when simple vegetable soups were a foundation of local diets before the influx of products and influences that increased the consumption of meat and introduced bread to the people. Minestrone, deriving from the word for “soup” is a typical example of “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 Minestrone!


Risotto alla Milanese con ossobuco

Risotto alla Milanese con osobucco.jpgRisotto derives from “riso” meaning rice, and is a dish from northern Italy made with particular varieties of rice that, when cooked with broth and seasonings, form a creamy delicious dish. These rice varieties include arborio or carnaroli, which have high starch and low-amylose contents, as well as short or medium grains that absorb lots of liquid and release lots of starch to make a thick, gooey consistency. Risotti can be made with countless ingredients, but classically have a base of butter, onion, white wine and parmesan cheese, although even these are not set in stone. Legend has it that an enterprising glassblower first came up with the idea of using saffron, which he used to colour glass, in a rice dish at a wedding, to great acclaim. However, the true origins of the dish are unknown. Although usually served as a first (primo) course instead of pasta, in Milan it is customary to eat risotto alla Milanese as a second course, alongside ossobuco. To make risotto alla Milanese, I softened diced onion in lots of butter, then stirred in some ground saffron and added the rice, stirring until it was well coated in saffron and fat. I then added white wine and vegetable stock a little at a time, until the rice was al dente and creamy. I then stirred through some parmesan cheese and butter, and seasoned with salt and pepper. Very simple, but oh so effective; this is one of my favourite risotto recipes (except perhaps for seafood risotto!). To make the traditional Milanese ossobuco, I coated the raw cross-cut veal shanks in seasoned flour, then browned them in oil and butter. I sautéed a soffritto of carrot, celery and onion, further flavouring this mix with orange peel and marjoram, then added diced tomatoes, white wine and stock, reduced this liquid, returned the meat and simmered the mixture in the oven for a few hours until the meat was falling off the bone and the sauce was deliciously caramelised. I served the risotto and ossobuco with gremolata, which is a mix of finely chopped parsley, lemon rind and garlic. Ossobuco is Italian for “bone with a hole”, and indeed one of the most important aspects of this dish is the hole, or, more specifically, the marrow within, which is delicious and is reportedly full of nutritious iron. My Milanese friend has a long-held aversion to the textural aspects of ossobuco, so she won’t eat it, but she claimed that my version smelled exactly like her granny’s recipe. Good enough for me!

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