Fans of the television series Montalbano (was a big, hit in Italy and Australia) are likely to be enchanted with the beauty of the Sicilian landscape and the array of specialty Sicilian food featured in the series.
Commissario Salvo Montalbano is a police commissioner and he lives in the south-east of Sicily, near Marina di Ragusa where my relatives have their holiday houses. Montalbano’s beach house is in Punta Secca is a small fishing village, in the Santa Croce Camerina comune, in Ragusa province, Sicily.
Andrea Camilleri is the writer of the crime stories and the books abound with delicious Sicilian food references.
Montalbano is an extremely appealing character who loves to eat. He savours his food, relishing all that is prepared for him with appreciation and gratitude. He readily accepts invitations to the homes of others and has his favourite trattorie (small restaurants). Montalbano is a detective who uses food to cheer himself up, plan his next moves and to weigh up the evidence. In the evenings he anticipates what Adelina (his housekeeper and cook) has left for him to eat and he hates to be interrupted over his dinner, but the phone often rings. He often seems to be thinking of what he will eat next or what he has eaten and in the books, Camilleri describes almost every dish Montalbano eats. And every dish is traditionally Sicilian.
On my last trip to Sicily, I ate in a couple of trattorie in Palermo where Camilleri and his friend Leonardo Sciascia (Sicilian writer) have been frequent patrons. One of Camilleri’s favourite dishes must be pasta or rice with black ink sauce – there are references made in a number of the books in the Montalbano series. In Siracusa I ate ricotta ravioli with black ink sauce.
Camilleri lives and works in Rome but spent a great number of years in Sicily before he moved north. He was born in Porto Empedocle, which is not far from Ragusa, and although Camilleri has given the places in Sicily fictitious names, the locations are recognisable. For example the scenes in Montalbano’s beautiful house overlooking the sea in Marinella near the fictional town of Vigàta is really of Punta Secca in Porto Empedocle (see photo). Fiacca is Sciacca, Fela is Gela, and Montelusa is Agrigento. The police station is a building in Ragusa Ibla and all of these towns are close to Ragusa, where my relatives live. The trattorie and restaurants in these south-eastern part of Sicily where the series were shot, have capitalised on this – a traveller visiting this part of Sicily can always sit down to eat pasta (or rice – risu) cu niuru di sicci.
This is how I cook it.
pasta, 500 g (spaghetti, linguine or bucatini)
squid or cuttlefish, 600g, and 2-3 ink sacks
ripe tomatoes, 300g, peeled and chopped
tomato paste, 1 large tablespoon
salt (a little) and, chili flakes or freshly ground black pepper to taste
onion, 1 medium or/and garlic 2 cloves
white wine, 1 cup
parsley, 1 cup finely cut
grated pecorino or ricotta to serve (optional)
Clean the squid carefully and extract the ink sac (see pg…). Cut the squid into 1cm rings and set them aside. The tentacles can be used also.
For the salsa:
Sauté the onion and garlic in the olive oil. Addthe tomatoes, chopped parsley, salt, white wine and tomato paste. Bring to a boil and evaporate until the salsa is thick.
Add the squid ink, red pepper flakes to the salsa and mix well.
Add the squid rings and cook over a medium-high heat until the squid is cooked to your liking (for me it is only a few minutes). If you prefer to cook the squid further (as the Italians do), add a little water, cover the pan and braise for longer.
Present the pasta with grated pecorino (or topped with a little ricotta – you do not want to end up with grey ricotta, so do not mix through).
Although Sicily is relatively small, the food is very local and there are always regional variations:
Keep the squid white – sauté it in a little oil for a few minutes (add a 1 chopped clove of garlic and 1-2 tablespoons of finely cut parsley). Fold it through the dressed pasta gently and reserve some for on top.
·Add 1 cup of shelled peas at the same time as the tomatoes.
·Add bay leaves at the same time as the squid.
·Reserve some of the salsa and present the black pasta with a spoon of salsa and a spoon of ricotta on top.
Photos of Ravioli and Pasta are by Graeme Gilles, stylist Fiona Rigg, from my book Sicilian Seafood Cooking.
Time to write about Trieste again. Now and again I feel nostalgic for this city where I spent my childhood before coming to Australia.
Today is my son’s birthday and lately he has been cooking iota (he does not live in Melbourne), but he tells me that it is not as good as mine.
Iota is a very old traditional dish from Trieste. It is very strongly flavoured, thick soup and the main ingredients are borlotti beans, sauerkraut and smoked meats. It is not a light dish by any means, but very simple to make and most suited to cold weather. It is usually made at least 1 day before you plan to eat it – the flavours mature and improve with age.
This is not a dish that many would associate with Italy but if you look at the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia it is easier to understand why this recipe is very characteristic of the area around Trieste.
I was last in Trieste in December 2007 and visited an osteria in the old part of Trieste (la citta` vecchia – the port / waterfront, see photo) to specifically eat cucina triestina. When I told the signora that I was reliving the food of my childhood she could not do enough for me – I had iota, sepe in umido (braised cuttle fish) matavilz (lamb’s lettuce salad) and strucolo de pomi( apple strudel). White wine of course (characteristic of the area) and we finished off the meal with a good grappa. Nothing like Sicilian food, but enjoyable for different reasons – nostalgia has a lot to do with it.
I have seen iota written by a variety of spellings: iotta, jota, yota are all pronounced the same way. Some also refer to it as fasoi (beans) and capuzi garbi (sauerkraut).
In some nearby places close to Trieste turnips are sometimes used instead of saurkraut.
There are variations in the making of iota: some add smoked sausages (as I always do) some parsley, and some a little barley – the texture of barley is good.
I always buy my sausages from a Polish or German butcher. When I lived in Adelaide I used to go to the Polish stall at The Adelaide Market and now, at the Polish stall in the Queen Victoria Market. I also buy good quality saurkraut there.
Most Triestini add flour to thicken this one course meal, but I generally do not do this.
borlotti beans, 250g soaked overnight
potatoes, 250g, peeled and cubed
olive oil, ½ cup
ham hock or smoked ribs, shanks, 300-400g
pork, smoked sausages made from coarsely ground meat
garlic, 2 chopped
pepper and salt to taste
plain flour, 2 tablespoons
Place beans, salt pork, potatoes and bay leaves in large pot of cold water. Cover ingredients fully.
Simmer slowly (about 1 ½ hours). Add sausages about half way through the cooking.
Remove about half of the beans and potatoes and mash them. Add salt and pepper to taste and return them to the pan.
Add the saurkraut and cook for about 30 minutes longer (some Triestini cook them separately, but I see no point in doing this).
To thicken the soup, add the flour and garlic to the hot olive oil – use a separate small pan, stir vigorously and try not to have lumps. This is like making a French roux but using oil instead of butter. Some of the older Triestini use lard.
Happy birthday……. and I am sorry that I am not there to cook it for you.
Today in Venice, Venetians are celebrating the feast day of their patron saint (25 April, the date of the death of San Marco).
Risi e bisi the classic Venetian dish was traditionally offered to the Doge (do not know which one) on April 25, the feast of Saint Mark. This is not surprising, it is spring in the northern hemisphere and peas are one of the symbols of the season.
It is a public holiday in Venice and all sorts of events take place.
Although Venetians celebrate his feast day they also celebrate Liberation Day (liberation from the Nazis at the end of 2nd World War) and Festa del Bòcolo (is a rose bud) and it is customary for all women, not just lovers, to be presented with a bud. The very old legend concerns the daughter of Doge Orso Partecipazio, who was besotted with a handsome man, but the Doge did not approve and arranged for the object of her desire to fight the Turks on distant shores. The loved one was mortally wounded in battle near a rose bush. There he plucked a rose, tinged with his heroic blood and asked for it to be given to his beloved in Venice.
I grew up in Trieste (not far from Venice and in the same region of Italy) and risi e bisi is a staple, traditional dish.
The traditional way of cooking it does not include prosciutto but prosciutto cotto, what we call ham in Australia. Poor tasting ingredients will give a poor result; use a good quality smoked ham. As an alternative some cooks in Trieste use speck, a common ingredient in the region (it tastes more like pancetta). Some of the older Triestini use lard and only a little oil.
My mother also added a little white wine to the soffritto of onion and the ham, but this also would have been a modern addition. The butter is added last of all for taste. Use parmigiano – parmigiano is the cheese used in the north of Italy, pecorino in the south.
The secret is in using good produce, preferably organic, young and freshly picked peas (for their delicate taste) and a good stock.
My mother made chicken stock. If she had no stock, she used good quality broth cubes- very common in Northern Italian cooking. Use as much as needed.
peas (young, fresh), 1 kilo unshelled rice, 300g vialone nano preferably, ham, cubed 50-70g, onion,1 finely cut (I like to use spring onions as well) parmigiano (Reggiano), grated 50g extra virgin olive oil, ½ cup dry white wine, ½ glass (optional), parsley, finely cut, ½ cup butter, 2 tablespoons salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste PROCESSES Shell the peas. Heat the olive oil, add ham and onion and over medium-low heat soften the ingredients. Do not brown. Add the shelled peas, parsley and when they are covered in oil, add very little stock (to soften the peas), cover and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the rice, and stir, add the wine (optional) and evaporate. Keep on adding the hot stock, stirring the rice and adding more stock as it is absorbed. End up with a wet dish (almost soupy and all’onda as Italians say) and with the rice al dente. In fact, the dish should rest for about 5 minutes before it is served so take this into consideration (the rice will keep on cooking and absorb the stock).Addparmesan and butter, stir and serve.
Maccarruna (maccheroni in Italian) is sometimes used as the generic word for pasta and is still common, especially in Naples and Sicily. It is also the term used in ancient recipe books. Most pasta, of whatever sort, was labelled maccheroni until 1850-70, after which local folk names were widely adopted by producers and consumers.
There are many explanations for the origins of the term maccarruna. Some researchers believe that it comes from the term, maccare – to squash. Others believe that it comes from the word maccu – a Sicilian, thick soup specialty made with pulses and pasta. There are also Greek words: macron meaning long, or makaria a dough of barley and broth, or makar – it means ‘very happy’ – the state maccarruna eaters presumably experience. Whatever the origins of the word maccarruna, Sicilians consume large quantities of it.
There are many small shapes of fresh pasta made in Sicilian homes. The following are some of the favourite maccarruna.
Gnocculi, gnucchiteddi, cavati, caviateddi are the most common names for gnocchi or gnocchetti (Italian) shapes. Some are rigati (have ridges on the surface) and some are lisci (smooth). All have an indentation in the centre to ensure even cooking.
Gnocchi look like dumplings and in Italy can be made out of potatoes, bread, fine cornmeal or semolina and with wheat flour. Sicilians prefer gnocculi or gnucchiteddi (the smaller shape), made with durum wheat flour. They are called different names in different regions in Sicily. When my relatives in Ragusa make gnucchiteddi, they include 1-2 eggs for each 800g-1k of durum wheat flour and as much water as the dough absorbs, but the standard practice in other parts of Sicily is to use no eggs at all.
Pasta making is a family affair. The photo was taken during my last trip to Sicily. The extended family is shaping gnucchiteddi by using a very useful gadget that belonged to my great grandmother. As you can see it looks like a loom. Very fine strips of dough are rolled around a needle-like reed and then the reed (and the shapes) are rolled on the shaping device. This fuses the dough together and gives each of the gnucchiteddi, the grooves on the surface.
Laura and Nancy in the U.S. have a great food blog called ‘Jellypress’. They invite readers to share photos of old foodways called ‘Hands on’ and I have contributed to this very interesting section in their blog.
In Trieste, while the Sicilian relatives were eating their celebratory desserts at Easter, we were either eating presniz or gubana (alsocalled putiza) – both are made with similar pastry (gubana has yeast) and fillings containing different amounts of a mixture of nuts, sultanas, peel and chocolate. A little grappa or a little rum always helps.
The presniz or gubana are then placed into a round baking tin and coiled inside the tin so that when baked, the sides will join up and form a round shape when removed from the tin.
The preparation of gubana requires several steps in order to allow a sourdough to develop using very little yeast.
Pastry with yeast:
500 g flour 00
20 g of yeast
2 cups milk
130 g sugar
100 g butter
1 lemon, peel
1 egg yolk to complete
butter for the plate
FOR THE FILLING:
150 g raisins,
60 g Mixture: candied citron, candied orange, prunes, dried figs
150 g of walnuts
60 g of pine nuts
60 g almonds
100 g of dark chocolate
1 glass of grappa or brandy
2 tablespoons of breadcrumbs
30 g butter
grated zest of ½ orange and ½ lemon
Heat 4 tablespoons of milk and when it is warm, add the yeast and let it bubble.
Mix 100 g of flour with a teaspoon of sugar and the yeast dissolved in milk. Cover and allow to rise. When it has doubled in volume, add the remaining flour and remaining sugar, eggs, softened butter, a pinch of salt, grated lemon peel and milk. Work this into a dough. Allow to rest 24 hours.
Prepare the filling:
Soak the walnuts and almonds in boiling water, remove their skins and chop them finely.
Soak the raisins in alcohol for a couple of hours. Add the rest of the fruit cut into small piece sand soak for another hour.
Add grated chocolate peel and pine nuts.
Add 1 beaten egg (beaten with a fork) and soft or melted butter .
Roll out the dough on a towel in a thin rectangular shape (about 5 mm thick).
Fry the breadcrumbs in a little butter and when cool spread them over the dough.
Cover with the filling and leave a boarder around the edge (2 cm) . Roll it up on itself, in the shape of a coiled snake. Arrange on baking paper or buttered and floured baking tray.
Brush the surface with 1 beaten egg yolk, sprinkle with a little sugar and bake in a preheated oven at 190 ° C for about 45 minutes. Serve luke warm or cold (it cuts better and it is usually made well in advance of being eaten).
All you need to do is look at a map of Italy to understand why much of the cuisine in Trieste (Friuli-Venezia Giulia), is influenced by Austro-Hungarian and Yugoslav traditions.
The apple strudel that is celebrated throughout the year and is a standard dessert in the kitchens of Triestini, has yet again a variation of the pastry, some of the nuts, peel and chocolate, but also raw apple. My mother always used the delicious apples because they were the sweetest. In all three desserts, the pastry is rolled around the filling. See Strucolo de Pomi
One year I went to Sicily for Easter and brought a presniz for the Sicilian relatives to try. I had gone to considerable trouble, buying it from what was considered to be the best pastry shop in Trieste and handling it carefully so that it would not be damaged while travelling.
There was no enthusiasm when I put it on the table, most of the relatives were too full to try it (it was presented with coffee and liqueurs after the big Sicilian Easter lunch after all), and those who did try the presniz did not express any great enthusiasm.
Tradition and only Sicilian food is everything for most Sicilians and I could probably say the same about any other region in Italy.
The traditional desserts for Easter in most of Sicily are made with ricotta. Many have cassata, made with sponge cake, ricotta, chocolate and candied peel, others, like the Ragusani have cassatedde, small, baked ricotta filled tarts made with short pastry (cassatedde can be different shaped ricotta filled pastries in various parts of Sicily – some versions are smaller adaptations of cassata, some cassatedde are fried instead of baked). Very different, quite delicious and perhaps as interesting as presniz and gubana.
Having relatives in Ragusa who celebrate Easter in a big way, I am very familiar with the ‘mpanata ri agnieddu – a focaccia typepie made withvery young lamb (unfortunately) complete with bones and enveloped with a bread dough crust. This is the traditional specialty for the Easter Sunday lunch in Ragusa and it is not the type of pie where you discard the pastry – the flavourful juices from the meat and herbs soak into the bottom crust and are appreciated as much as the filling. My relatives make large round pies, but as you can see in the photo above, individual sized pastries could be made as well, but these are not as traditional.
Sicilian food like Italian food is regional so ‘mpanata ri agnieddu may not be eaten in other parts of Sicily.
The word ‘mpanata (impanata in Italian) appears in a Sicilian lexicon in 1785 andis highly likely to have come from the Spanish word empanada, a derivative from the word empanar which means to wrap or coat with bread – the semi-circular stuffed pastries common in the Spanish speaking countries and in Spain.
Although it is commonly accepted that empanadas are a Spanish innovation it is possible that ‘mpanate may also have been adaptations of the breads of ancient civilizations in Sicily. The Greeks were renowned for their breads. The Romans continued this tradition and over time the breads in Sicily were enriched with flavours and fillings. There are many names for these, for example the ‘nfigghiulata, fuazza, pastizzu, ravazzata, scacciata, scacce and sfinciuni.
You will not believe just how simple the Easter ‘impanata is to make.
You will need 1.5- 2 kilos of cubed, lean lamb (from the shoulder or leg). The lamb the Ragusani use is very young and they include some of the bones, chopped into smallish pieces. As we all know bones add flavour, but I do not recommend you do this unless you tell your guests to be careful of the bones.
To the meat add, parsley, chopped garlic, salt and black pepper and a dash of extra virgin olive oil.
Leave this to steep overnight.
The bread dough
flour, plain (durum wheat), 900g
yeast, 50gr (fresh) or dried yeast, follow instructions on packet
warm water, ½ cup
extra virgin olive oil, ½ cup
salt to taste
Dissolve the yeast in a little warm water and add to the flour. Mix into a dough, adding a little water until you get a firm consistency.
Sprinkle with some flour and leave under a tea towel to rise for about 1 hour.
After the dough has risen, add a little olive oil and knead again until the oil is totally absorbed. Traditionally, the Ragusani add lard – you choose.
Heat the oven 200 C
Roll out the dough to 1.5 cm thick. There will be two discs of dough to cover the filling. Make one slightly larger than the other – the biggest one will go on the bottom. You can use a large pie plate or just place it into a well-oiled baking pan so that if any juices escape they will be contained.
Add the meat in one single layer in the centre of the dough.
Cover the filling with the smaller disk of dough, moisten around the edges with water and seal the crusts (first fold the dough around the border and then pinch together). Make a couple of slits on top.
Brush with a little olive oil or with a little beaten egg.
Bake for about 1½ hours until the crust is golden.
After about 40 minutes, cover the pie with foil to keep it from burning.
Let the pie rest for 1 hour before eating to allow the meat juices to be absorbed by the bread dough on the bottom layer. For some, this is supposed to be the most memorable part of the pie.
A rice pudding is something I have always associated with English cooking – the very simple type of rice pudding my English mother-in law used to make with milk, a little rice, sugar and butter, topped with a sprinkling of cinnamon and then baked in a slow oven. But there are variations to this recipe even in England and not surprisingly there are rice pudding-type desserts made all over the world using either long grain, short grain or black rice, and cooked on the stove, or baked, or wrapped in leaves and steamed. Some eat them hot, others cold.
And even Sicilians have rice puddings, made like a rice custard – the rice is cooked in sweetened milk on the stove top and delicately flavoured with a cinnamon stick, almonds and candied fruit. Only the modern recipes include eggs, cream or butter, these probably used to enrich pasteurised milk. It is served cold. This particular Sicilian recipe has chocolate in it and in most references it is simply called Risu niru (Riso nero in Italian – Black rice). The flavours and origins of this particular Sicilian rice pudding are likely to be Arabic; they bought the more complex sweets and ingredients to Sicily – the cinnamon, sugar, and the rice, which they traded from Asia, the dried or candied fruits and more complex recipes that made greater use of almonds and pistachios. The Spaniards introduced chocolate much later to Sicily.
The type of rice used in the recipes is not specified, but in Italy originorio rice is the standard type with short, round grains and a pearly appearance, and similar to the short grain calrose rice.
This chocolate rice pudding is in honour of the Black Madonna of Tindari (on the north east coast of Sicily). Tindari’s history is one long cycle of conquest and colonisation. It was one of the last Greek colonies in Sicily; founded by the Syracusans in 396 B.C. Tindari also prospered under the Romans and became a diocese during the early Christian period before been captured by the Arabs.
There are many fascinating legends and miracles attributed to the wooden statue of the Black Madonna housed in Tindari. It is thought that the statue came from the Christian east, around the late 8th or early 9th Century. It could have been smuggled out of Constantinople during the period of Iconoclasm (which literally means image breaking – the destruction of images for religious or political reasons). In the Byzantine world, the production and use of figurative images, particularly in Constantinople and Nicea were banned. Existing icons were destroyed or plastered over and very few early Byzantine icons survived the Iconoclastic period.
One of the legends tells how a storm forced the ship carrying the smuggled statue of the Black Madonna into the port of Tindari. When the storm abated and the sailors tried to leave, they found that the ship would not move. They realised that it was the Madonna that was preventing them and so they off-loaded the statue in a casket. Local sailors found the Black Madonna and took her to the tallest spot in Tindari and there they built a sanctuary (rebuilt on a number of occasions). The sanctuary houses the statue and is richly decorated with mosaics. It has miraculously withstood the raids by pirates and invading armies – no doubt due to the defending, dark-skinned Mary. She is also credited with having protected believers from such afflictions as earthquakes and pestilence.
At the base of the statue is the Latin inscription: Nigra sum sed formos (I am black but beautiful) and riso nero is cooked and eaten in her honour – the chocolate is her dark, luscious skin, the almonds and fruit represent the stars in her gown and the coloured stones of the mosaics. Cocoa is used in the older recipes. In the more modern versions dark chocolate is added and melts in the rice custard.
The pudding is prepared in two stages, the basic rice cream is cooked and cooled before the other ingredients are added and shaped into a pudding.
INGREDIENTS (for the rice cream)
full cream milk, 9-10 cups (I like to use organic, unpasturised milk when I can get it. Modern versions of this dish replace one cup of milk with cream)
short grain rice, 1 ½ cups a little
salt, a little
white sugar, 1 cup
cinnamon sticks, 2
lemon peel, large strips from 1 lemon.
sugar, ½ cup
bitter cocoa, ¾ cup of (mixed together with a little milk) or 250 g block of good quality, dark chocolate, broken into small pieces
almonds, 1½ cups of (blanched, toasted and chopped)
candied or glace fruit, 1 cup – a mixture of chopped orange, lemon and/or citron, but save some of the nuts and fruit to decorate the top.
Pour 8 cups of milk and all of the ingredients for cooking the rice into a large (heavy bottom) saucepan and mix gently. Because rice has different absorption rates you may need to add the extra cup of milk as you cook it.
Simmer the contents gently and stir frequently until creamy and add the extra milk as you cook it if necessary.
Remove from the heat and take out the lemon peel (could taste bitter if it is left) and the cinnamon sticks. Cool slightly before adding cocoa and sugaror dark chocolate. Mix thoroughly.
Add some almonds and fruit, but save some to decorate the top.
Traditionally the pudding isshaped into a mound on a plate. Decorate the pudding with the almonds and candied fruit before serving.
A Sicilian prayer
Beddra ‘n terra, beddra ‘n celu, beddra siti ‘n paradisu; beddru assai, è lu Vostru visu.
Bella in terra, bella in cielo, bella sei in paradiso; molto bello e il Vostro viso
Beautiful on earth, beautiful in the sky, beautiful you are in paradise; very beautiful is your face.
Black Madonnas are found in various parts of the world. This photo below is de Nuestra Señora del Sagrario in the Cathedral of Toledo. She is beautiful.
I read your bit about pappardelle. We had pappardelle sulla lepre alla cacciatora at La Pentola dell’Oro in Firenze. It includes cinque cucchiai di aceto rosso ( 5 spoons of red wine vinegar).
your recipe which includes five spoons of red vinegar does not surprise me. There are recipes where the hare, rabbit and boar are soaked in water and vinegar before it is cooked to remove the wild taste – my mother always did this with rabbit. It bleached the meat and left some of the taste. I think that Anglo-Australians soaked wild rabbit in salt water.
I bought a rabbit at the butcher’s in Greve in December 2008 and was given three parcels, one with the rabbit, the other had the head and the third, the liver – these enrich the sauce. The other variation is the use of herbs – the addition of parsley, sage and rosemary.
There is of course the recipe for hare cooked with bitter chocolate. Now there’s a good taste!
I am not surprised by this, she loved Tuscany, drinks red wine and she and her husband are marvellous cooks so I am including a recipe for a typical sauce usually associated with this shaped pasta.
Pasta shapes are synonymous with certain sauces. Generally, thin sauces which contain a lot of oil (for example made with seafood or with a few vegetables) are better suited to long thin pasta shapes (spaghetti, spaghettini).
Thicker sauces, made with meat or with larger vegetables are better suited to shapes with large, uneven surfaces (rigatoni, penne). Their shapes help to trap the ingredients in the thick sauce.
Pasta shapes are also regional. While the south of Italy may prefer small pasta shapes for thicker sauces (fusilli, casarecci, orecchiette) other parts of Italy enjoy long, flat ribbons of pasta (tagliatelle, fettucine). Fresh ribbon pasta made with a large number of eggs is enhanced by sauces made with delicate subtle flavours, often with cream.
Tuscany and Umbria specialize in sauces for pappardelle and I hope that all of you who have visited these regions of Italy were able to eat some when there. Now Kate, I do not want you to get jealous, but when I was in Tuscany in December 2008, I enjoyed many primi of pappardelle, one in particular in Sansepolcro ( very close to Umbria) – the accompanying sauce was made from wild boar and it included pieces of chestnut.
The photograph is of Alex, my small friend: it was taken in Greve. He is outside of the butcher shop (we were staying across the road) and he is patting the stuffed wild boar which decorates the front of the shop. Wild boar is very popular in the winter months in Tuscany but I have also eaten some very fine boar meat in Calabria. I bought a hare in Greve and cooked it the same way.
Pappardelle are usually the favourite shape of pasta for strong sauces made with strong tasting meat especially game: either cinghiale (wild boar) lepre (hare), capriolo (venison), coniglio (rabbit), anatra (duck). If not game, maybe salsicce di maiale (pork sausages) or funghi (mushrooms), and preferably the wild ones stronger in taste. Often the pappardelle may have a fluted edge to prevent the sauce dropping away off the sides. These are sometimes called reginette (regina- queen, crowns) but once again, there is local variation in the names.
Sauces made with strong tasting meats as above are usually cooked slowly in a ragout (ragù in Italian) and made in the same way as a Bolognese sauce. Because of their rich taste and choice of ingredients they are autumn and winter dishes, most probably enjoyed with a glass or two of red wine.
Sometimes porcini mushrooms are also added to the ragù.
Sauté in extra virgin olive oil:½ onion, 1 carrot, ½ stalk of celery (all cut finely).
Add the hare, rabbit, boar chopped into sections complete with bones and brown (some add pancetta as well). If using sausages leave them whole but prick them, if using mushrooms slice into thick pieces.
Add 1 glass of red wine and evaporate briefly.
Dilute about 2 tablespoons of tomato puree in a little warm water and add to mixture. Stir carefully and add 1 cup of broth, salt, pepper, 3 bay leaves and a little grated nutmeg and simmer until liquid is almost evaporated and the meat is tender and falling off the bone (this could take 2-4 hours for the hare or boar). Continue to check on the liquid and add more as necessary.
Remove bones from the meat and return to the sauce. Some add a little cream and more nutmeg at this stage.
Dress the cooked pappardelle. Present with grated parmigiano, as a choice for each person. I for one do not add cheese to these sauces – I prefer the unadulterated taste of the ragù.
I have shopped at the Queen Victoria Market ever since I moved to Melbourne from Adelaide. I am always excited by new produce, whether it is new in season or because it is new to me. I saw the vlita at one of the stalls where I often buy my vegetables. I had never seen vlita before – sold as a very large bunch of a long, green leafy plant with its roots still attached. Greens leafy vegetables in January are not very common.
One of the stall owners is a Calabrese (from the region of Calabria in Southern Italy) so I assumed – incorrectly – that it was a wild green, traditionally eaten like spinach in Italy and one I was not familiar with.
As I continued my way down the aisle, the vlita was attracting a lot of attention, but from people of Greek heritage, not Italians. I was stopped four times and they were surprised to hear that I knew the name and that I intended to sauté it in olive oil with garlic. A couple of them mentioned the word horta.
Further down the aisle, I was stopped by yet another woman who told me these plants were much appreciated in her country – India. She said that she was more familiar with a purple tinged variety. So home I went with my various bits of information, determined to discover more.
Yes, vlita is a common weed in Australia, but it is a wild green and one of many gathered and eaten in other parts of the world including Greece, Japan, India, South America and Taiwan. The taste is a little like a beet or spinach, only more grassy.
Vlita belongs to the amaranth family and this variety is known as palmer amarynth.
The amaranthus tricolor or red amaranth is sold more in commercial quantities than the green variety and is a very attractive plant; the leaves are much more colourful than palmer amaranth and it is sold in many stalls which sell Asian vegetables.
Alternative names are een choi (Chinese) phak khom suan (Thai) radên (Vietnamese) bayam (Indonesian).
In different parts of Greece, it is usually served as a cooked green salad. Horta are leafy green vegetables or wild greens and vlita is one of these.
Some varieties of the plant are grown as a grain crop for their seeds – which are very nutritious and can be made into flour – and amaranth flour is becoming increasingly well known as a nutritious alternative to wheat, especially in America.
The young leaves and tender stalks are picked and eaten before the plant flowers. They were sold to me in large bunches with the roots attached – picked this way, they last longer.
Wild greens are called erbe spontanie in Italian (spontaneous herbs) and Sicilians are very fond of them. They forage for them and can also buy them at the market.
Weeds, like vegetables are seasonal and collected by many people. Some of these wild greens are also sold in markets.
Gira (or giriteddi), sparaceddi (wild asparagus) or amareddi are particularly popular.
Last October–December), when I was in Sicily there were lassine, sanapu, agghiti (wild spinach), urrania (borage) and wild fennel.
Wild greens/ Edible weeds can be cooked alone or mixed with other green leaf vegetables.
See TORTA DI VERDURA (A vegetable flan or pie).
Italians cook greens, as the Greeks do: blanched/ whilted and drained, then seasoned with salt, olive oil and lemon juice and presented hot or cold as a cooked salad.
My favourite cooking method (common mostly in the South of Italy) is to precook the greens in boiling, salted water, drain them well and then sauté them in olive oil, chilli and garlic. They can be eaten hot or cold.