Tag Archives: Trentino-Alto Adige

ZELTEN from the Trentino, Alto Adige region of Italy

I have never made traditional dishes for Christmas obligatory and my menu choices depend on the people I am sharing Christmas with. Last year it was fresh seafood – oysters, prawns and crayfish – simply served and delicious. This year main course is likely to be duck with cherries marinated in grappa. What comes before and after is to be yet decided.

When my parents were alive, our family Christmas meal was likely to be a combination of offerings from Sicily and Trieste, either a caponata or an insalata russa for the finger food, a good brodo  with tortellini for firsts, while the second course varied from year to year, and perhaps there was a cassata or a zuppa inglese for dessert. Only fish on Christmas eve was obligatory, but there was never a set Christmas menu, as there tends to be in many Australian or Italian households.

You won’t find me cooking turkey because it is too much like chicken, for me. As for dessert – I am not a fan of Christmas pudding and the only parts of pavlova I like are the berries and cream. I have made too many cassate (plural of cassata) and panforte on too many occasions to repeat them or appreciate them as I once did at Christmas.

This year, probably the only traditional Christmas dish I’ll be eating is Zelten, a typical sweet, fruit and nut bread/cake of the Trentino-Alto Adige region of Italy.

I’ve looked at numerous recipes and background information about Zelten and found that there are many variations in the recipes. Zelten began from humble beginnings, a bread dough enriched with the typical local dry fruit and spices, the quantity and quality of fruit being poor in some (as in Trentino) and extravagant in others (as in Balzano).

The numerous recipes I read varied greatly. For example, walnuts are the principal nut used in all the recipes, but some variations contain almonds and/or hazelnuts/ pine nuts. Apart from figs and dried grapes, there are recipes with dates and/or unspecified dried fruit. To me using dates and mixed fruit do not sound typical of Tyrol.

All recipes include flour, either wheat or rye (some use very little flour, other recipe have large amounts of dough, some use bread dough). There are varying amounts of eggs, butter, sugar, yeast, milk or none of these. The fruit can be steeped in rum, but some recipes specify grappa, so as you can see the recipes vary greatly and some are much more modern.

I can understand the many variations of Zelten in Tyrol and why the recipes differ from family to family and location. Tyrol (German: Tirol) is historically a multi-national region located in the heart of the Alps of Austria and Italy. It is segmented by the compass into North, East and South Tyrol. North and East Tyrol lie in Austria and South Tyrol is in Italy, it is also known as Südtirol or Alto Adige). Bolzano, is the capital.

I was in this region two years ago and enjoyed its many special features: stunning scenery especially in the Italian Alps and the Dolomites with their extraordinary mountainous and rocky peaks, the distinct architecture of cities and ancient villages where people speak German or Austro-Bavarian-German and Italian, and obviously, the culinary delights that reflect these cultures.

Zelten comes from the German selten and it means sometimes/on occasions, and as the name indicates it was only prepared on special occasions like Christmas, in winter with only dried fruit and nuts available.

I finally settled on making a version of a Zelten from South Tyrol and Bolzano, characterized by of large amounts of fruit – mainly figs and a selection of other dried fruit, pine nuts and almonds. I conducted some research into the fruit that is grown in the region and omitted apricots, peaches or plums because these stone fruits are more recent additions to the orchards. I used dried apples, pears, sultanas, strawberries (there are wild strawberries in the woods), a few dried plums and only a little orange peel as I did not imagine citrus to be very common in the area.

I chose grappa rather than rum, and plenty of it to soak the fruit and to moisten the cake once it was made.

I used no butter, eggs, milk or yeast and I used rye flour because wheat does not grow well in wet and cold climates. I used honey and not sugar.

I divided the mixture and baked two round cakes.

Eventually, I combined a couple of recipes and came up with:

750g dried fruit – 400g were figs, the rest as described above
350g nuts – 120g walnuts, the remainder almonds and pine nuts
200g honey
grappa – about ½ litre to soak the fruit and another ½ litre to soak into the baked cake
ground cinnamon, cloves, grated lemon peel
rye flour

I combined coarsely cut fruit and chopped nuts in a large container with a cover, added the grappa and left it for four days, stirring it occasionally.
I added the honey and spices and gradually mixed in as much rye flour as it would absorb. The principal recipe suggested to use 5% of the total weight of the ingredients, I calculated this to be about 230g. I mixed a teaspoon of baking powder to the flour as the only leavening, there was no leavening mentioned in the recipes that I sighted that used rye flour.
I lined two round baking tins with brown paper and baking paper. The recipe did not specify heat or time, but I baked them at 200 degrees for 60 minutes. Although my cakes are round, my understanding is that in different parts of Tyrol oval or heart shapes are also common.

I wrapped the cakes in  calico( pudding cloth) and I have been dousing it  with more grappa daily.

I took a cake to friends last night and we cut it. It is heavy, not sweet and steeped in grappa. It does taste good.

Back goes the calico wrapping. With all that alcohol and  fortress -like wrapping, the Zelten will last for a long time.

Grappa is made with grape skins. The wines and grappa from this region is unique.

Recipes of food mentioned in this post.

ZUPPA INGLESE, a famous, Italian dessert

CASSATA Explained with photos

SICILIAN CASSATA and some background (perfect for an Australian Christmas)

CAPONATA Catanese (from Catania) made easy with photos

INSALATA RUSSA (Party time; Russian salad)

 

Polenta and its magic

This post is in praise of polenta, a simple and versatile  accompaniment for many moist braises. It is particularly popular in the north eastern regions of Northern Italy – Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli Venezia Giulia and Veneto. However, this is not to say that some polenta is also appreciated in Piedmont, Valle d’Aosta,  Tuscany and Lombardy.

The most common polenta is coarsely ground yellow corn and it is simply cooked in water and salt.  Polenta taragna is a mixture of cornmeal and buckwheat, a popular grain in Italy’s Alpine region, especially in the Valtellina in Northern Lombardy.  Because wheat is difficult to cultivate in the northern regions like Val d’ Aosta and Trentino-Alto Adige, buckwheat is grown and mixed with wheat flour to make  pasta (called pizzoccheri) and in gnocchi . Buckwheat is called grano saraceno , this is because the Etruscans and Saracens introduced the buckwheat grain to Italy. I visited this region last year and particularly enjoyed this combination.

Once cooked, I prefer to spread the polenta in a pan suitable to go into an oven, I drizzle it generously with olive oil and bake it .

The polenta can then be cut into slices and served with a wet dish.

I prefer to bake the polenta, it allows it to form a  delicious crust. I am not one for last minute preparations….there is enough to fuss about once friends arrive.

Polenta does not have to be baked, it can just be scraped onto a board and cut at the table prior to serving. In fact, this is how my aunt in Trieste always presented polenta after she cooked it in her heavy bottomed copper pot.

Here are a few dishes that can be enjoyed with polenta:

Polenta is perfect with braised mushrooms.  First sautéed at a high temperature with onion and /or garlic and then finished at at a lower temperature (covered with a lid) with some flavoured  liquid – I like  to use stock and wine. Herbs are a must.

This is a saucepan of my beef Goulash.…  a favourite dish served with polenta and as cooked in Trieste, once part of the Austrian- Hungarian Empire.

Polenta is excellent with baccalà. There are many regional recipes for baccalà , for example: alla Vincentina (from Vicenza),  alla Triestina (from Trieste), alla Veneziana ( from Venice)  and various other cities in Northern Italy.
The recipes are not too dissimilar and basically are “white” with no or little tomato (tomatoes in the cooking of Southern Italy).

Baccalà  Mantecato is a creamy spread popular in the Veneto and around Trieste in Friuli Venezia Giulia. Baccalà  Mantecato is often presented  on crostini di polenta – cooked polenta cut into batons or croutons and then either baked or fried.

The baccalà is poached in milk, the flesh removed from the bones and whipped with extra virgin olive oil and garlic.

Polenta with sauerkraut, very popular in Trieste where I lived as a child. The photo below is of Ponte Rosso and the Canal Grande in Trieste. The statue is Nino Spagnoli’s  James Joyce and placed on the bridge over the Canal Grande. 

Sauerkraut  can be cooked slowly as a side dish for meats.

Sauerkraut and pork sausages are very popular in Trieste.

Polenta is also popular with pork sausages cooked in a tomato sugo. I also like pork sausages braised with borlotti beans.

There is nothing like seppie – inkfish braised in white wine, parsley and garlic and served with polenta. Sometimes white polenta (made from white corn and called polenta bianca ) is favoured with fish, rather than the polenta gialla (yellow, made from yellow corn).

Below in the photo are two typical dishes of Trieste, seppie in umido (on the left)  and some iota.

Below is a photo of an ink fish. Inside will be a sac of ink that once removed can be used to flavour the dish.

It is not always obvious that they are ink fish, in Australia they are also often sold as squid.  Not all of them will have a sac of ink; this photo is in a market in Venice….  you can tell that they are ink fish.

Here is a photo of polenta as an accompaniment to tripe I relished in a Trattoria in  Sienna, Tuscany….it was only last year.

Polenta makes a fabulous accompaniment for pan fried or char grilled red radicchio . This used to be a favourite way to serve polenta by my mother.  A little tomato salsa on the char grilled version is very tasty.

And this is polenta with broccoli (or broccolini) with bagna cauda . I first ate it in a restaurant in Hobart and it was presented on a bed of soft polenta – called polenta concia in Italy; this version of polenta is cooked in milk, sometimes stock and has butter and Parmesan cheese added to it once it is cooked. It does not have to be Parmesan, various local regional cheeses are used – Asiago from Trentino and the Veneto, Fontina from Valle d’Aosta, Taleggio from Lombardy and the Italian Alps, etc. Bagna cauda on polenta is not a traditional dish, but I did enjoy this innovation and replicated it at home, .

Polenta is also good with sarde in saor. The sardines are fried then left to marinate with onions and vinegar. Sometimes raisins and pine nuts are added. Although I have made this many times, I do not have many photos. This is often the case with other things I cook. Sometimes I am just too busy to take a photos  before I present food or I forget to do it.

Also common is polenta pasticciata (sometimes spelled pastizzada as in the Veneto dialect and it means messed up/ fiddled with) . Layers of cooked polenta are alternated with flavourings. The most common is with sugo (tomato and meat braise) or  braised mushrooms or salame, pancetta, and various cheeses …..or whatever you like to fiddle with.

The version above is with Fontina,  Gorgonzola and some braised button mushrooms cooked in white wine – I was just dealing with leftovers, not a traditional dish, but tasty.  The layers of polenta are then baked: it is very much like a baked lasagna.

Polenta is easily found and it does not have to be imported from Italy.

Cooking polenta is easy.

1 polenta – 4 water ratio, salt.

Bring water and salt to a boil in a large saucepan; pour polenta slowly into boiling water, whisking constantly until all polenta is stirred in and there are no lumps. I use a whisk.

Reduce heat to low and simmer, whisking often, until polenta starts to thicken, about 5 minutes.  This is where I swap the whisk for a long handled, wooden spoon; the polenta will begin to bubble and can spit so the long spoon or an oven mit is necessary.

Stir the polenta regularly , at least every 5 to 6 minutes. Polenta is done when the texture thickens and is creamy and it begins to pull away from the sides of the saucepan. It may take up to 30 minutes.

Links to some of the recipes:

GULASCH (Goulash as made in Trieste)

CHICKEN GOULASH (Gulasch di pollo from Trieste)

SEPPIE IN UMIDO CON POLENTA (Cuttlefish or Squid With Black Ink And Polenta from Trieste)

LUGANIGHE CON CAPUZI GARBI; Sausages and sauerkraut, and yes, it is Italian regional cuisine

PIEDMONTESE favourites  (bagna cauda)

TASMANIA, FOOD, ART, HOBART and Bagna Cauda

MARINADED FISH and a recipe for PESCE IN SAOR – PESCE IN SAOR

FUNGHI AL FUNGHETTO (Braised mushrooms)

WILD MUSHROOMS; Saffron Coloured, Pine Mushrooms and Slippery Jacks