Participants on our Advanced Salumi Course taste a vast array of salami, prosciutto, capocollo, soppressata and other cured pork delicacies, some not so delicate. For dinner they get to try other typical dishes of the areas where the course takes place. On our first night we’re in Versilia, the northern coast of Tuscany. Gabriella Lazzarini, one of my cooking teachers and a skilled chef, lives here near Viareggio and invites us to her home for a seafood meal, which is one of the highlights of the course.
Not only is it special eating in a private home, but Gabriella’s repertoire of local recipes is exceptional. She buys fish from the small family fishing boats called pescherecci that bring their catches to the molo (quai) in Viareggio. They fish off the rocks close to the coast, and the fish look strange to people who are used to seeing branzino (sea bass), orata (gilt-head bream), tuna and other large, usually farmed or endangered species served in most of the seafood restaurants here.
You don’t have to enrol in the salumi course to eat at Gabriella’s home. All Sapori e Saperi Adventure’s guests can choose a meal with her as one of their activities.
The other unique dining experience is on Saturday night after we’ve moved east over the Alpi Apuane to Castelnuovo di Garfagnana. We go to the Osteria Il Vecchio Mulino where our host is Andrea Bertucci, who is known affectionately as ‘Andreone’, which means ‘big Andrea’.
You can see that the love of his life is food. But Andrea doesn’t cook; in fact, his osteria doesn’t even have a kitchen. Andrea is a food collector. He finds the best products in the Garfagnana, and sometimes further afield, which he serves as a tasting menu. The nearest analogy is a tapas bar, but his place is more like a hybrid of a corner grocery, wine bar and a cheese and salami maturing cellar.
Since the menu depends on his latest finds, there are always surprises. In his tiny oven, not a microwave, he heats crostini and savoury tarts.
There’s usually a salumi board, but I suspect we’ll be salumied-out on the course and ask him for alternatives. On a two-burner electric hot plate he warms up local specialities prepared by his mother or friends. This time it’s polenta formenton otto-file, an heirloom variety of corn, with roe deer ragù.
Every time we thank Andrea and say we must leave, he produces another goodie: cinta senese salami, cured roe deer loin, fruit salad he made that very day, 15 February, which is San Faustino’s Day, the patron saint of singles. I’ve checked on Google and it’s true!
I always get excited about the winter Slow Food Soup Tournament. The 2014 dates of the Disfida della Zuppa have just been announced. The displays of skill of the competing zuppistiare a wonder and will satisfy the mid-winter yearnings of any hungry foodie. Compare it to eating the Ladies’ Moguls Freestyle Skiing.
I’ve written about zuppa in several blogs (if you’d like to read more, see below for the links), so this time I’m just going to tell you briefly what zuppa is and translate the email I received this morning soliciting zuppisti to enter the Tournament.
Zuppa derives from the 16th-century ‘suppa’ which means ‘a slice of bread impregnated with liquid’, a sort of crouton. The Lucchese zuppa alla frantoiana, the protagonist of the Tournament, supposedly originated at olive presses (frantoio means olive press). After you pressed your olives, you took your new oil to the fireplace in the frantoio where a pot of soup was simmering over the flames. The press’s owner put a crust of bread in a bowl, ladled the zuppa over it and you seasoned it with a drizzle of your oil. Since olives were pressed between November and January, the ingredients were winter vegetables. (Nowadays the fashion is for bitterer, more piquant oil and many olives are pressed in the second half of October before they’re completely ripe.)
This year there will be 11 matches before the semi-finals and the ‘Cup Final’. Anyone who makes zuppa can compete, whether mamma, son, aunt or professional chef.
The philosophy behind zuppa is deep and produces endless discussions at the matches. What are the essential ingredients? At past tournaments the consensus has been: dried beans, olive oil, bread and cavolo nero. In the realms of ‘freestyle’, you can add wild edible herbs, seasonal vegetables, whatever your family recipe includes or whatever takes your fancy. What’s not allowed? Unseasonal vegetables like zucchini.
In the light of this, Slow Food’s call for contestants is poetic and provocative:
Non è mai troppo tardi per partecipare alla disfida ed entrare nel’albo ufficiale degli zuppisti lucchesi.
Portate la ricetta della nonna, della zia, della trisavola, la vostra. Con erbi, senza erbi, con pane, senza pane, con cipolla fresca, senza cipolla fresca, ne abbiamo vite tante, ma non ancora tutte. La ricetta della zuppa è per definizione una ricetta che non esiste, se non nell’esperienza di chi la fa e ne custodisce i sapori, i profumi, gli aromi, i ricordi.
It’s never too late to participate in the tournament and enter the official annals of Lucca soup makers.
Bring the recipe of your grandmother, your aunt, your great-great grandmother, your own. With herbs, without herbs, with bread, without bread, with fresh onion, without fresh onion, we’ve nourished ourselves with many, but not yet all. The recipe for zuppa is by definition a recipe that doesn’t exist except in the experiences of those who make it and preserve the flavours, the fragrance, the aromas and the memories.
The jury is us the public, so if you’re near Lucca between now and the end of March and want a truly Slow Italian experience, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll book you in for the date of your choice. But hurry, the competitors are world class and the games sell out quickly.
Dates of zuppa matches
13 February: Ristorante pizzeria “i Diavoletti” di Camigliano, 18 February: Sala parrocchiale di Capannori, 21 February: Rio di Vorno, 26 February: Antica e Premiata tintoria Verciani – il Mecenate a Lucca, 28 February: Osteria da mi pa’, 1 March: Aquilea, 7 March: Osteria storica morianese da Pio, 8 March: Agriturismo Alle Camelie, 14 March: Sala parrocchiale di Carignano per il gruppo Equinozio, 21 March: Rio di Vorno per i Gruppi GAS Lucca Pisa, date to be announced: Pecora Nera
Links to my other zuppa blogs: Soup Tournament, Elegy to Soup, Soup Put to the Test, Souprize, Slow Food Disfida della Zuppa or Soup Tournament, Another Zuppa
If your lifelong dream has been to stuff a pig in a sack, your moment has arrived. French charcuterie, Italian salumi, Spanish jamón and English cured meats are all the rage. Not only are gourmet hams and salamis hogging (sorry, I couldn’t resist) the cold counters at fashionable delicatessens and stylish online shops, but every farmers’ market boasts a stall or more selling artisan salami made from rare breed pork. Want to learn to butcher a pig, salt a pancetta? Just type ‘charcuterie course’ into Google and you get 2,360,000 results for courses from Dorset to Down Under by way of Denver.
If you’re a butcher, chef or pig breeder wanting to make Italian salumi, your choice is more limited. Even though when you enter ‘salumi course’, you get 237,000 results, not many are designed for professionals. But the top four are and they’re us: the Saperi e Saperi Advanced Salumi Course. Everyone who comes tells me our course is unique: it’s aimed at food professionals; it takes place in Tuscany; it lasts for four days, short enough for a small-scale pig breeder to get away and long enough to cover the subject in depth; the price is moderate—you don’t have to sell the farm or the restaurant to come.
In my opinion, what makes the greatest difference is that we’re in Italy. ‘We’ is course leader Giancarlo Russo, native Tuscan, and course organiser me, adoptive Tuscan.
We know there’s no such thing as ‘Italian’ salumi, nor even ‘Tuscan’ salumi. Move 20 km and you find different styles and practices. We know if we use only one norcino to teach the course, participants will get a totally skewed idea of how salumi is made. They’ll think there are rigid rules, because each norcino is sure his method is best. Giancarlo is consultant to Slow Food on meat and contributor to the book Salumi d’Italia. He knows the vast range of salumi in Italy and that there’s no hope of covering all of it. What to do? We base the course in northwestern Tuscany and use three norcini more than 20 km apart. In his theoretical sessions Giancarlo covers some practices in other parts of Italy.
We’ve chosen our norcini carefully. All of them are at least third generation butchers, having learned from grandparents and parents. They are true artisans. They are aiming at excellence, not a uniform product.
They use the best maiale pesante (heavy pig of more than 155 kg) they can get, always Italian.
They don’t use starters, sugar or milk powder. They use a small quantity of potassium nitrate (E252), never nitrites. They dry their salami either naturally or in a drying cupboard and mature their products in a natural cellar.
They reveal all their secrets except the exact mix of spices, which is a family recipe.
You’re encouraged to take photos and videos. They want you to go home and make good salumi. Otherwise, they’d be wasting their time.
Our first norcino is Massimo Bacci from Versilia, the northern coastal plain of Tuscany. Massimo is a consummate salumi maker and a natural teacher. He’s clear and patient; he explains and demonstrates and allows you to tie a salami as many times as you need to get it right.
Massimo explains the stages in drying and maturing, and he produces the best lardo I’ve ever tasted, using the same marble basins as in Colonnata, higher up the mountain from him.
His 83-year-old dad pops in from the adjoining shop every 20 minutes to make sure his 60-year-old son is giving us the correct instructions. Their mortadella nostrale (a salami, not cooked like mortadella di Bologna) always comes first or second in the all-Italy artisan salami competition.
From Versilia we speed down the autostrada to San Miniato, a town along the Arno River between Florence and Pisa, where we visit Maurizio and Simone Castaldi, two brothers who learned their art from their father and uncle. We first came to them so we could include the fennel-flavoured salami finocchiona in the course. The finocchiona zone lies between Florence and Arezzo, south of our other two norcini.
During our first visit, we discovered that their strongest suit is the production of prosciutto, and we now include an in-depth study of prosciutto from salting to air drying.
Now we head to our third norcino at Venturo farm in the Garfagnana, the mountainous area north of Lucca.
We’re just over the Apennines from Parma and Modena in the Po Plain, so many of the products are the same. Ismaele Turri learned from his father, as well as working in a neighbour’s butcher shop from the age of 14. He’s a farmer and pig breeder. He slaughters two of his largest pigs in honour of our course.
Participants are guided from the butchering of the pig to all the various typical salumi of the Garfagnana: prosciutto toscano, coppa, guanciale, pancetta, salami, cotechino, soppressata, biroldo (blood sausage) and a few other surprises. Since we allow no more than seven people on the course, there’s lots of time for hands-on practice.
If you stay for the extension workshop on the Tuesday after the course, you watch a production run at the Rocchi family salumifico near Lucca. Their efficiency is a sight to behold.
At the end of the course we ask for feedback, which Giancarlo and I use to improve the course to meet the needs of future food professionals. Even experienced butchers who already make salami tell us they learn a lot on the course. Last year a couple who came on our first course got their salami accepted by Harrods. We’re proud to be the launchpad for such successes.
Scarpetta means slipper, but fare la scarpetta doesn’t have anything to do with making slippers. It means to wipe your plate clean with a piece of bread, something all my Italian friends do on informal occasions.
There are several opinions about its origin. It seems to come from southern Italy. Perhaps it’s a metaphor likening a shoe scraping along the ground picking up whatever it finds to the crust of bread mopping up the sauce in the plate. Or maybe it refers to ‘scarsetta‘ or poverty which obliges people to content themselves with whatever there is, usually very little.
A third opinion suggests that the fingers pushing the bread around cleaning up the plate looks like a shoe with a leg coming out above. Take your choice.
If you see something in Italy in winter with stems like giant celery, it’s probably a cardoon. The cardoon is the same plant as an artichoke, except that artichoke cultivars have been selected to have large edible flowers and cardoons to have large edible stems. In Italy they’re called or cardo or gobbo, depending on where you are, or cardo-gobbo if you’re in Piedmont and grow the Slow Food presidium Nizza Monferrato variety. Gobbo means hunchbacked and refers to the curved stems.
One month before the cardoon is mature, the farmer bends the stems over and covers them with soil to blanch them and give them a sweeter flavour. It’s very labour-intensive and now you see many straight stems because commercial market gardeners just slip a paper sleeve over the stems to make them turn white.
The stems taste very similar to the flowers, and since you get much more to eat from a stem, a cardoon makes a more economic and equally delicious side dish. Cardoons are usually steamed or boiled. You pull off the strings; I find a carrot peeler does the trick. Cut them into finger-length chunks, boil them in salted water (with some lemon peel to keep them from discolouring) until not quite tender and drain them. They’re then ready to stew in oil with some Italian sausage meat scattered over the top (Tuscans never missing a chance to add meat to a good vegetarian dish), a bit of stock and a sprinkling of parmigiano. Cover and cook on a gentle flame until done.
I read recently that dinner parties are going out of fashion in London. Not in Casabasciana. Last night the boar hunting team from our group of three villages threw one of their dinner parties to which I took some cultivated clients from Los Angeles. Toward the end of the evening, as we sat on hard wooden benches at trestle tables among the 263 other diners, they raved that it was the best evening they’d had in years. I admit, I was relieved. Being scientists by profession, they helped me analyse the intangible pleasures of an outdoor dinner in the unsophisticated setting of a village piazza.
The contagious spirit of community and togetherness. Even as foreigners, they felt welcome and accepted.
The inclusion of people of all ages — young, old, babies in strollers, teenagers with spiky hair.
The traditional dishes prepared by volunteers from the hunting team and our village who worked all day preparing them in the community kitchen.
Carlo’s high-spirited band composed of electronic keyboard, accordion and occasionally saxophone and tambourine, all doubling as singers and performing popular Italian music that drew the dancers to their feet. My guests couldn’t resist, despite not having danced together since their wedding 28 years ago.
The ebullient crowd, who having bought lottery tickets to benefit the village, cheered each winner enthusiastically, especially when a young man won the wild boar prosciutto cured by a member the team.
It was well organised, but not slick or staged. It was genuine.
There are many village parties up and down the valley, each with its own authentic character. Who’s going to join me at the next one?
Yesterday I took three generations of women to Vitalina’s dairy to learn to make ricotta and then to Beatrice Salvi’s hotel for a lesson in baking a traditional Garfagnana ricotta pie.
You can’t make ricotta unless you make cheese first, so the added bonus was they learned to make goat’s milk cheese too. Before we arrived Vitalina had spent 2 hours milking 70 of her goats. She heated 60 litres of unpasteurised milk to blood temperature and added rennet. By the time we arrived, the milk proteins had coagulated to a gel and were ready for Liz, one of the guests of Sapori e Saperi, to have a go at cutting it to separate the curds and whey.
Vitalina showed Maggie and Abby how to gather the curd which turned out to be harder than they thought, but they had fun feeling around for the curd at the bottom of Vitalina’s grandfather’s tinned copper pot.
Vitalina learned from her grandfather and father and makes goat’s milk cheese and ricotta twice a day. After a little experience it’s really very easy.
Notice that the curd is white but the liquid in the pan is yellow. That’s the colour of whey. Now the ricotta lesson begins. Vitalina turns the burner on high to start ‘recooking’ the whey. Ricotta means recooked and it can only be made from the whey. That’s why you have to get all the cheese curds out before you can make it. And by the way, almost all the fat comes out with the curds. While the whey is heating up, Maggie helps Vitalina press the remaining whey out of the cheese and Vitalina adds the whey to the pot.
When the whey gets near boiling, the albumin protein molecules in the whey denature, which means they open up to expose their connection points so they can attach to other molecules to form white strands, just like when you boil an egg and the previously clear egg white turns to solid white. The white strands are ricotta. Luckily they float so you don’t have to plunge your arms into boiling whey. You just skim them off the top and layer them gently in the ricotta mould.
Vitalina gives us some warm ricotta to taste. Everyone exclaims in unison: ‘Delicious! It’s nothing like the ricotta we buy in the States. This is so much better.’ Since ricotta is virtually fat free, they’re also bewildered as to why in the States there are two types of ricotta: full fat and fat free. I’m bewildered too and cynically guess it’s a marketing ploy. If anyone knows the answer, please leave a comment.
Clutching our precious ricotta we go to lunch at L’Altana, my favourite restaurant in Barga. The cooking is excellent, but what I love about it is that the staff are equally good. One of our group is coeliac, and as soon as I tell our waitress, she goes off and comes back with a menu on which the items without gluten are marked. Since the menu changes daily, she’s done it specially for us.
Then we walk to Villa Moorings Hotel where the owner, Beatrice Salvi, teaches us to use our ricotta in the traditional Garfagnana torta squisita, which means ‘very delicious pie’. First we make pasta frolla, a sweet pastry made of flour, egg, sugar, baking powder and melted butter. It’s the basis of most pastry in our area. The eggs come from Beatrice’s father’s farm. The yolks are deep orange, nearly red, and the whites are yellow and thick.
The filling is made of ricotta, eggs, sugar, chocolate chips and a little Sassolino, an anise-flavoured liqueur. Goat ricotta is ideal for filling ravioli, but Beatrice and I were worried that it would be too strong for the pie, and Beatrice had bought some industrial cow ricotta just in case. Everyone tasted both of them except Beatrice. She said she didn’t like ricotta! I’m afraid I’m a bit of a bully when it comes to tasting, and finally she took a tiny spoonful of our goat ricotta. I wish I’d got a photo of the smile on her face. The industrial ricotta was a tasteless paste by comparison. We used our artisan ricotta, and the torta squisita, topped with a thin meringue, was truly delicious.
Today is Saint Joseph’s day and in northern and central Italy we traditionally eat rice fritters. I bought some this morning at the bar-pasticcieria in Ponte a Serraglio. I couldn’t resist taking a couple of bites before I got home to take the photo. Every family has its secret recipe. These are light and airy, but the ones Eugenia made for the wild boar dinner Saturday night were lusciously creamy inside.
The celebration of Saint Joseph’s day is also tied to a pagan tradition allied to the annual agricultural cycle. It was the day of bonfires when all the dead remains of the previous year’s harvest were cleared up and destroyed in huge fires that burned throughout the night as a rite of purification and to welcome the spring. In the 20th century it was designated as fathers’ day and children made presents for their fathers.
What more could possibly be said about soup after my three blogs in 2010 about the Slow Food Lucchese e Compitese soup tournament (see links below)? Lots, judging by the animated discussions at the last elimination round last Thursday.
First, this isn’t a tournament in which any old liquid served in a bowl can be submitted to the judges (who are us, the public). It’s not the case that one cook makes cream of mushroom and another leek and potato. This is a competition only for ‘zuppa alla frantoiana’. The nearest we get to it in English is ‘minestrone’. But this doesn’t mean that every entry is the same. Quite the reverse. Every entry is startlingly different from the others.
There is general agreement on the four basic ingredients:
After that, it’s every cook on her or his own. The variations are numerous and depend on the family recipe — mamma’s or nonna’s or mother-in-law’s.
At the delightful rustic restaurant A’ Palazzo (Brancoli), the diners I could hear from my table seemed to have very refined palettes. One woman identified marjoram, perhaps too much, in one sample. Another definitely too much thyme. A big argument about fennel (seed and fresh). Should there be any? No, said some. Definitely, said others, but if there’s too much it covers the other flavours. A couple of my bugbears are no whole beans and too much bread (this isn’t pappa al pomodoro, after all).
The winner? Manuela Girelli of the Brancoli. I might have been even prouder than her husband — notice his big grin because it’s his mother’s recipe. Her zuppa tasted very similar to the one I make. Maybe I should enter next year’s tournament?
It was nearly lunch time when I went up to the village shop this morning. Opening the door, a wave of good smells washed over me. Since Renato was serving another customer, I peeked into the room at the back of the shop where I found Eugenia preparing ragù alla matriciana. As she lifted the lid from the pot, releasing even more intense aromas, she asked whether I knew the recipe and rattled it off for me anyway. The pasta was already boiling in the huge pan on another burner. Turning back into the shop, I bought my half loaf of bread and a stick of celery, all that I needed this morning, but before I could leave, out came Eugenia bearing a plastic bowl full of pasta alla matriciana. She wrapped it in a sheet of white paper and presented it to me for my first course at lunch. An authentic home-cooked ready meal!
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