When autumn comes to Tuscany, you will be able to enjoy Castagnaccio, a torta rustica made with chestnut flour and olive oil that has ancient origins. In the 1500s it was well known in Tuscany as cucina povera, a dish prepared by poor, peasant farmers and shepherds. Chestnuts were plentiful in the hills of the Apennines and easy to harvest, not only for its nutritious flesh but also for chestnut flour. Chestnuts (castagne) are rich in protein, calcium and vitamin A.
This torta can also be called baldino, ghirighio, toppone or pattona, depending on where you are in Italy. Local variations may include other ingredients, such as rosemary, orange peel and fennel seeds. There is even one romantic legend that says when its perfumed with rosemary, Castagnaccio is a powerful love potion--making and serving it the object of your affections will make them fall in love with you, and ask for your hand in marriage. Perhaps this is more than just a dish served during Natale, but also appropriate for Valentine's Day!
In its earliest conception, it was an easy way to make a portable food (like an energy bar) that stored well for long periods, helping sustain poor contadini during long, harsh winters. According to Ortensio Landi (1553) in his “Commentario delle più notabili et mostruose cose d’Italia e di altri luoghi“ ("Commentary on the most notable and monstrous things of Italy and of other places"), he traced its origins to a man called Pilade from Lucca.
By the nineteenth century however, the addition of pignoli and dried fruits morphed this spiced cake into a dessert deserving of the Christmas season and its popularity spread to Liguria, Piedmont and Emilia Romagna and even on the nearby French island of Corsica. Today you will find castagnaccio just about everywhere in Italy during Natale festivities. Keeping with Tuscan tastes, typically, no sugar is added because of the inherent sweetness in the chestnuts themselves and the addition of dried fruit and raisins. Castagnaccio is often served with ricotta, honey or sweet wines such as Vin Santo.
8 ounces chestnut flour
3 tablespoons golden raisins (sultana).
3 tablespoons pine nuts (pignoli)
1/4 cup finely chopped walnuts (better: use chopped, roasted chestnuts)
zest of one orange
2 - 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil for dough
1/4 teaspoon sea salt.
2 tablespoons sugar (leave this out if you want a more historic recipe)
2 cups cold water (less or more, depending on humidity)
1 - 1/2 teaspoons dried rosemary (or use the leaves of 2 sprigs of fresh rosemary)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil for oiling the pan and drizzling on top of the finished torta.
Optional: You can soak the raisins in rum, Amaretto or orange liquor instead of water for a more adult version.
Pre-heat oven to 350F.
Soak the raisins for 15 minutes, then squeeze out the excess water. Set aside.
Sift the chestnut flour into the bowl of a stand mixer, add the salt (and sugar, if you are using any), then mixing on low speed, gradually add water until you have a smooth textured batter. The batter should form ribbons when it falls from a spoon.
As it continues mixing at low speed, add the olive oil, the raisins, pignoli, orange zest and chopped walnuts/chestnuts to the batter.
You may use either a 9" round pan or a small flat, rimmed baking sheet (as you would brownies) to bake your castagnaccio. In either case, the pans should be well oiled with EVO (Extra Virgin Olive Oil).
Pour and flatten the dough mixture into you pan and flatten with a spatula. (This is a rich torta, so you don't want it too thick.)
Sprinkle with rosemary leaves, then drizzle with EVO.
Bake in the oven on the center rack for 30 minutes or until a nice, medium-dark brown color. You'll know it's getting done when the top starts to show overall cracks.
Set aside on a cooling rack before serving.
Serve with a glass of Vin Santo, and a dollop of fresh ricotta on the side, and drizzle both with a Tuscan honey of your choice.
Calling all Milanese! Attenzione a tutti i Milanesi!
The new Starbucks is opening today on Piazza Curdusio in Milano! The location is in the old post office...
Please... visit the store, order one of their "coffees" and perhaps shoot a video of your visit and post it here on GVI...
Tell us what you think about the "Starbucks Experience". Take photos of their menu and prices--and their giant sized offerings. Are the high prices (and high sugar & fat content) really worth a few couches and free WiFi?
GVI wants to know, and will include your impressions in an upcoming article.
Let's really take a look to see if Italians really want Starbucks in the land of Moka pots and espresso.
You know, I always thought I'd have a problem eating weird things if I ever traveled in the Orient. I'm a person with a fairly narrow palate... I admit it. Even my 14 year old, Lucas has a much broader palate than I do. I like what I like and won't try what I know I don't like. I'm old enough to say that I have tried lots of stuff--for instance, I hate caviar and cooked spinach makes me gag. I know what I can't stomach. In my research and travels about Italy, I've come across things that I wouldn't eat if you paid me. Some things I'll try--once--while others... well, you just sort of know to stay clear.
Still, we have to respect the culinary traditions of our Italian heritage and try not to be so grossed out by it. Food is fuel--fuel is food. In Italy, nothing goes to waste--not beast or flora. So, I hope you pardon me as I poke a little fun at some of Italy's oddest culinary creations--even though I may tease a bit, I still want to honor the complexities if la Cucina Italiana...
In ancient Rome peacock eggs, boiled ostrich and stewed parrots were common on menus.
Stuffed Mice There is a protected, fluffy tailed species of dormice (Glis glis or Ghiro)that have been eaten since the days the Caesars ran things. Down in Calabria the rodents are still stuffed and chomped on. They are stuffed with meat, nuts, raisins, onions and spices. You can imagine little squeaks as you take a bite. I have no idea what they do with all those cute fluffy tails.
Ghiri alla pizzaiola : Ingredients :. 2 Ghires, 50 g of lard, 50g of pancetta, gr 600 gr peeled tomatoes, 1 tablespoon of chopped parsley, 1 tablespoon of oregano, 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon of salt Engage the dormice lengthwise, peel them, quickly remove the bladder without breaking it and leave it in running water for a few hours. Rinse them and blanch in boiling water for a couple of minutes. Chop the lard and the bacon and put the mince in the belly of the dormice. Place them in a large pan, pour the oil and cover with chopped tomatoes, parsley and minced garlic, oregano and salt. Cook over moderate heat, keeping the pan tightly closed with the lid.
Riccota Forte (or Scanta) The Pugliese are a resourceful bunch. I know--mu Dad was from Puglia. Many of you may know that ricotta means twice cooked or re-cooked... basically, ricotta is a by-product of normal, everyday cheese making. You take the little bit of whey left over, add an acid, boil it and presto, you have ricotta cheese. It's a fresh cheese and should be eaten within a couple of days. When it dries out, the frugal Pugliese add salt, and let it dry even more into Ricotta Salada (one of my favorite cheeses).
But some go even further. Some just let it go bad... and stinky... and acrid, turning it into a Apulian delicacy called Ricotta Forte, or Scanta. Many think this acrid, foul smelling cheese is worse than any other stinky cheese they've even eaten--but in a good way. We tried it during our stay in trullo B&B outside of Alberobello. Yes, it stinks, and our host told us how it's just kept in a dark, un-refrigerated place (under his sink) to grow more bacteria and even sometimes microscopic worms--but we actually liked it! (But it did burn my eyes a tad).
It's the kind of taste that shocks your eyes open, assaults your nose but somehow in the end pleases your palate. It's also a surprise when you are first introduced to it in a plain jar that looks like it's your Aunt's 1950s era home brew face cream.
Enjoy. (Oh, just don't get it on anything sweet... I got it on some Nutella and bread by mistake and nearly got whiplash when I popped it in my mouth.)
Casu Marzu or Formaggio Marcio (Rotten Cheese), with Maggots
Casu Marzu is a sheeps' milk cheese from Sardinia and Corsica (they call it Casgio Merzu) that actually contains maggots--live ones. Most cheeses rely on fermentation and bacteria to develop their flavor, but this cheese relies on actual decomposition caused by the Cheese Fly larvae. The texture is an oozing, seeping liquid, essentially caused by... well... maggot poop. Some people eat this stuff with the larvae, some will tickle the cheese, causing the larvae to be disturbed enough to actually jump out... as much as 6 inches! The daring who have tasted it say this muck is so acidic that it leaves an after taste in your mouth for hours afterward. I recall a cheese like this in France years ago--I wouldn't go near that either!
Batarga From what I hear, battarga is definitely an acquired taste that's at least a thousand years old and perhaps more ancient than that. It's made from the roe (fish egg) pouch of either grey mullet or Atlantic blue-fin tuna. The roe pouch is manipulated by hand to get rid of any air bubbles and then cured in sea salt for several weeks. After curing, the result is a hard, dried salty slab which is usually (but not always) coated in beeswax.
To use it, you grate some on top of pasta or on top of crostini (toasted bread) and drizzled with olive oil. It also can be used as a main ingredient along with garlic for tomato sauce. It has a tremendously long shelf life and is often smuggled out of Italy due to its high price--up to $140 a pound! You can actually order some on AMAZON.
Colatura di Alici, Fish Sauce In ancient Roman times there was a fishy concoction called garum, a clear sauce made from salting and compression of various types of fish. The clear garum on top was used by the upper classes, while the sludge left over, called allec, was used by the lower classes to add flavor to polenta, porridge or on bread.
Today there is a modern version called Colatura di Alici made in one of my favorite villages on the Amalfi Coast, Cetera (click the photo to see it on Amazon). The first time I took a tour of Cetera at ground level on Google Earth I started seeing barrels and wondered why this village had so many. It's a fairly simple recipe...
catch and select fresh anchovies
clean and pack in orderly rows in a wooden barrel
layer lots of sea salt over each layer of anchovies
add weight on top to compress the fish
forget about them for about 4 to 6 months (a year is better and worth more $$$)
Drill small hole in bottom of barrel and let drip, drip, drip the clear liquid into jars
The golden liquid is prized in Italy and is used to flavor all sorts of dishes. Watch the video of Colatura being made...
Polenta Uccelli (Polenta with Songbirds, or Polenta e Osei) Yes, the same song birds that will awaken you on a misty Tuscan morning are being shot or captured in hanging nets by hunters to supply their illegal bounty to select restaurants throughout Italy. Yes, it is illegal, but those doing it consider the practice as being furbo (crafty). They make a living while carrying on a tradition. In Tuscany the birds are flambéed, in Sardinia they are boiled and preserved, in the Veneto rolled in pork belly and fried. Perhaps the best known version is in Lombardy where they are grilled or fried.
It seems this is an elite recipe item in Italy. Ladies and gents get dressed up in all their finery and make an event out of eating these little skylarks, goldfinches and other types of song birds. Our hot air balloon pilot, Stefano told us they shoot anything in Italy, especially song birds, so much so that some species are becoming endangered. Oddly, we flew directly over some "hunters" in their treetop blind, releasing pigeons only to shoot them a moment or two later.
The little tweetys are usually stuffed with pork, beef, rabbit or even other birds. They are served with their heads and beaks on top of polenta, an attempt to mimic a bird's nest.
To illustrate how much Italians love this special dish, certain pasticcerie have created a legal version: a dessert called Polenta e Osei, made to look just like the real dish. It's made of a soft light sponge cake filled with hazelnut cream that is rolled in a yellow fondant. On top are little chocolate birds made from chocolate marzipan. You can find this in the town of Bergamo. As for the real song bird dish, the macho thing is to pick up the birdie by the beak and leave nothing... devouring bones, beak and all. At least they are not as ruthless as a similar dish I saw in France years ago--where they drown the birds in the local brandy, then when eating drape a napkin over their heads and the dish to inhale the fragrances and crunch down on the bird, apparently head hidden in shame.
Pajata (Cheese from Cow's Intestines) This is either a Roman dish or what the Devil himself would order up. A young, milk fed (no grass feed) calf is slaughtered, and besides getting veal, brains and other delicacies from it, the intestines are used to make this delicacy--pajata. The intestines are washed, but not emptied. When cooked, the partially-digested milk inside turns into a thick, funky cheesy substance which is used as a pasta sauce, and often served on its own with crostata. No grazie!
Cieche (Baby eels) Cieche are baby eels that migrate upriver after being born in the sea. The name, Cieche (cieco) literally means blind – these babies have no eyes. In coastal areas of Tuscany, cieche are usually fried or boiled alive. Just be careful they don't jump out when you're trying to dump them into the boiling water or saute pan.
Tuscan Blood Torte Enough said. A torte or cake made from the blood of pigs? I've tried Argentinian blood sausage and British blood sausage, and if the flavor is anything close to what I experienced, I would never go near this stuff. But this recipe contains cocoa and has a chocolate taste, albeit a bit more... er... pungent because of the pig's blood it contains. The pudding used is similar to Sanguinaccio Dolce, a traditional recipe in the South made when a pig is slaughtered using the pig's blood, chocolate, raisins pignoli and sugar. This is an example of the Italian philosophy that nothing goes to waste, not even the last drops of blood.
Watch the video below from the Two Greedy Italians series where Gennaro shows how they make the pudding (at 9:45).
Vending Machine Pizza As all of the above proves, Italians will eat anything... even pizza made totally inside a robotic vending machine. Not THAT's a real crime!
Let's Pizza machines were initially designed and manufactured in Northern Italy. It offers a choice of four kinds of pies, and makes the pizza while you watch the whole process through windows--adding water to flour, kneading the dough, placing the sauce and toppings, and baking the pizza via infrared oven in just 2.5 minutes. It can produce 90 to 100 pizzas before it needs to be refilled. Ugh. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should!
Ok, so vending machine pizza isn't such a big deal, but how about (suspenseful music...) Gatto in Umido? This translates as "Stewed Cat"!
Calmati, Betty White... "Gatto in Umido" is simply Stewed Cat-Fish.
As I said, we all have to keep an open mind. I hope you enjoyed this look into the traditions of culinary Italy.
Did you ever wonder about the everyday life of Renaissance Masters, like Michelangelo? Did you wonder if they took long walks or picnics? Did they go to the local taverns to kick back a few brews and relax with the guys? Did they attend sporting events or shop for bargains at the local flea market? How about their food? What did they eat and how did they do their shopping?
Well, we can actually tell from this grocery shopping list written by Michelangelo himself in the 16th century. He ate anchovies, bread, two fennel soups, a herring (un aringa), four anchovies, tortelli, and wine (“un bocal di vino”), among other things. He drew the list as pictograms because his servant was illiterate. He would tell him what he wanted, "get the big loaf of bread, not the small one", but also sketch it so the servant could look at the images to refresh his memory while at the market.
Experts say the list is for three separate meals. He drew bread rolls as simple circles--an easy shape for his servant to remember meant - bread. For another meal, he wanted two rolls but for another, six. The herring is sketched by itself, and bowls are filled with salad and anchovies. Two dishes of stewed fennel are shown side by side (perhaps he wasn't dining alone?). For the wine, he drew a small wine carafe next to a larger one--perhaps two types, one being an after dinner, sweet wine? The tortelli (tortellini) pasta were not drawn at all. Perhaps his servant's wife made them, something he obviously would never forget if the Master asked for some.
Since the letter on the other side of the list was dated March 18, 1518, the meatless menu would make sense falling during the Lent period of fasting. Michelangelo couldn't eat meat, so it was bread, fish and veggies. Still, for its day, this was a nobleman's menu... Michelangelo was anything from a starving artist.
During this same year, Michelangelo had ordered many of his notes and sketches to be burned--the Renaissance method of shredding documents. It's amazing that this little take-out order managed to survive at all.
This grocery list is archived at the Florence museum Casa Buonarroti, where one can find many of the artist’s handwritten notes, doodles and sketches.
Anthony Bourdain passed through the sieve of humanity recently with both accolades and "I told you so"s. He developed a seedly, tattoed, chain-smoking, underbelly-of-life, Kerouac-inspired public persona, even though he lived the privileged life of celebrity and wealth. Part beat poet, part philosopher, part Lower East Side. Some say he was a cook who couldn't, so he wrote about it. He was a vagabond, for sure. You could see signs of the depressive personality in his presentations... grim expressions, smoking, drinking, pensive poses... always searching. Occasional laughter but never much joy or bliss. Perhaps he found it. Perhaps not.
He did show us the world and its food. That's something.
While exploring the villages of the Amalfi Coast, Voyagers are certain to notice that the lemons there are larger than they are used to. They are sure to come across the Sfusato lemon (about two to three times the size of a supermarket lemon) and will be further shocked when they are confronted with the giant-sized, Cedro Citron variety of lemons. They are beastly looking things, with a pebbly surface, strange shapes with a large nipple at one end, and are often as big as your head!
Cedri are primarily found in Italy, from the Italian Riviera down to the Amalfi Coast, though they are occasionally spotted in France, Isreal and even exported to Britain. There are three different citron types: acidic, non-acidic and pulpless. Of the different cultivars, the acidic Diamante is more common in Italy.
Cedro citrons are usually up to three to four times the length of common lemons and can measure between 10 and 15 inches in diameter. They can weight up to 3-4 pounds each.
The pebbly surface ripens from green to a bright yellow--both colors can be harvested, the peak season being fall and winter. Most--about 70%--of the lemon is white pith from 2-5 inches thick with a soft texture and almost sweet lemony fragrance. In its center is a small amount of segmented pulp with a few pale seeds. This lemon is fairly dry and not used for its juice and the taste is milder than a common lemon.
The pith can be eaten raw or cooked: in salads, atop bruschetta, in jams and preserves, in risotto or pickled. The rind of this citron is very aromatic and a bit sweet, and is used to produce "citron", or candied lemon (used in Italian celebration breads and cakes, like panettone). Some claim it can be a remedy for hangovers, coughs and indigestion. Since the Renaissance, the oils from the skin have also been used in perfumery and cosmetics due to their delicate and fragrant scent.
If cooking while in Italy (or if you can get some cedri at home), try these recipes:
Risotto alla Sorrento with Fennel and Sage
1 Cedro lemon 1-1/2 cups rice for risotto (Carnaroli, Vialone Nano or Arborio) 1-1/4 cups freshly grated parmesan 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus another tablespoon to finish 4 tablespoons Extra virgin olive oil 1 head of finoccio (bulbing fennel) - finely diced 3 stalks celery - finely diced 1 cup white white Vermouth 1 quart chicken stock 4 large julienned sage leaves (or 1/2 teaspoon dried-crushed) Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Heat the chicken stock in a small pot on a medium heat. You will be adding nearly simmering stock to your risotto during the cooking process.
Cut the cedro in half along its waist and then, using a sharp paring knife, cut the skin (the zest is thick on cedri) from top to bottom, cutting down around the sides until all is removed in flat sheets. Then julienne them into thin, long strips. Set aside.
Next, cut thin slices of the pith and cut into thin strips. Set aside.
Squeeze the remaining pulp to release the juice into a small bowl. Remove any seeds and set aside.
Place a heavy saute pan on a medium heat, adding the butter, sage and olive oil. When the butter is melted, add the diced fennel and celery, a pinch of salt and gently saute until the celery is softened.
Add the risotto rice, stirring until the the rice becomes translucent--about 4-5 minutes.
Next, add the Vermouth and cook until the rice absorbs it---2-3 minutes.
When the Vermouth has been absorbed, immediately pour a ladle of stock over the rice and continue stirring. As the stock is absorbed, keep adding one ladle of stock at a time. Stir as needed to prevent sticking, but not continuously.
About 10 minutes into cooking the rice, add the zest and pith of the cedro lemon to infuse their flavors.
Your risotto will be near completion when two things happen: When the rice is al dente (but not at all crispy); and when a "wave" is created behind your spoon when you stir in a circular motion. In my experience, risotto takes as long as an hour, although some claim to make it within 30 minutes. In essence, you want a bit of tooth still still in your rice, but you you also want to develop a creamy consistency from the starch melding into the broth.
When ready (al dente and creamy), remove the risotto from the heat and add the lemon juice, remaining butter and a little more stock (or water) so that the consistency is juicy and wet
.Stir in the rest of the butter and the Parmigiano Reggiano with a whipping motion. Serve immediately.
Candied Chocolate Cedro Strips Recipe
(A great holiday snack) 1 - 2 pound cedro 1 cup sugar 1 pint water 3-5 ounces bitter sweet chocolate
Cut the cedro in half, cut away and discard the fruit's center, leaving 1/2 thick of the outer skin and a bit of the pith.
Cut into 1/2 inch strips about 2-3" long and place intoa saucepan. Cover with cold water, then bring to a boil over a moderate heat and simmer for approximately 10 minutes.
Drain the cedro strips and repeat this process twice – blanching the strips three times in total.
Cover the cedro in the saucepan with the sugar and the water, place over a low heat and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Cook slowly for about 30 minutes until they become translucent.
Turn off the heat and allow to cool in the syrup. Next, drain and then discard the syrup and lay out the strips on a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Allow your cooled cedro strips to dry overnight. Do not cover.
The following day, place the chocolate into a double boiler with 1/2 water in the lower pan. Heat slowly over a medium heat, allowing the chocolate to melt very slowly. This is called tempering the chocolate, to guarantee its glossiness.
When melted, remove from the heat and dip half the candied cedro into the chocolate,laying the strips on parchment paper or a Silpat sheet to dry.
You can store these in an airtight container and serve at the end of a meal with fruit, nuts, biscotti and espresso.
Cucina--the Kitchen: Here is where you will find classic Italian recipes, our own family recipes, and stories about the history, techniques, tools and ingredients used in Italian cuisine. We will also include articles that will help you shop and cook in Italy. We are currently re-building our pages, so bear with us. If you can't find a recipe here, use the search (Ricerca) box and you will find what you need. Ciao.