A few years ago we were on a road trip, as we very often are. With all the possible flight connections that could make our life easier, saving an enormous amount of time, whenever we can, we still choose to drive. I actually enjoy the road trips.
There is so much to see on the way and one is totally independent and self sufficient. Moreover, I tend to bring a lot with me back home, and I am not referring here to clothes or shoes. Theses days it is all about the food and unique produce that is hard to buy locally or take on a plane, not to mention the wine.
A moderate quantity of it will find its space in our car but anything over six cases we ship home. I also feel sorry for the car carrying so much weight on the return journey.
Well, we were heading to Switzerland from The South of France and we had to stop somewhere overnight. I chose a region that I had never been to before. I’ve heard of its grand red wines (Barolo, Barbaresco…and a couple of well known producers that are the main choice of London’s so called upmarket social scene) and the very much prized white truffle from the province of Alba.
At that time I didn’t know Italy that well (after a couple of years in Italy I am still discovering new places and learning constantly….but time works its magic….many things just make more sense and are easier to comprehend now) so I could not think of a better excuse to finally go to Piemonte.
It was almost the end of summer, warm, sunny and the vines of precious nebbiolo grapes almost at their prime getting ready for the harvest the following month.
By pure mistake (we wanted to arrive to our splendid agriturismo at a decent time) we took a convoluted country route. This time I was thanking the sat nav for it because the introduction to the area was just breath taking, with all the farms and architecture that takes you back in time to the film “1900” (Novecento, “Twentieth Century”), an Italian historical drama with its iconic cast of Robert De Niro and Gérard Depardieu.
Since then Piemonte has become a place for a yearly pilgrimage, a couple of pilgrimages a year in fact.
The wine we buy is mainly shipped, it never seems to be enough. On the first night we ate on the beautiful terrace of our agriturismo. It was here that I was introduced to “tajarin” pasta with porcini (ceps) muschrooms and advised not to add Parmesan cheese so it will not get in the way of the glorious and earthy aroma of the mushrooms, cooked to absolute perfection.
“Tajarin” is a piemontese version of humble “tagliatelle” (made of simple ingredients: fine flour 00, water and some eggs), famous for an astonishingly high ratio of eggs (sometimes just yolks), which results in rich, decadent pasta. In the past, “tajarin” was often served with a sumputous ragu of offal from home-raised poultry and rabbits, which is so typical of “La cucina povera” (poor man’s food using the humble resources available). A more simple way of preparing it, not to be confused with lesser Piedmontese, “tajarin” is served with butter and sage (my small twist on it is to add toasted hazelnuts and just a touch of grated lemon zest), or with wonderful porcini (ceps) mushrooms or with the region’s legendarily prized white truffles from Alba.
I don’t think it is appropriate to use the term: “Italian cooking”. Instead, “the cooking of Italy” and of its regions seems to me to a better definition of the true Italian food culture.
At first I would look at the fact that Italy’s sovereign states (having no common language, sharing few cultural traditions with practically entirely distinct styles of cooking) were only united in 1861.
The contrast of Italian regional food is further sharpened by the two dominant aspects of the landscape, the mountains and the sea, and of course the climate which plays a very important role.
At the footsteps of the Alps lies Italy’s major plain, which spreads from Venice (Adriatic coast) westwards towards Lombardy and into Piedmont. This is the dairy zone of Italy where the fat used for cooking is butter and the staple cereals are rice for risotto and cornmeal for polenta. Piedmont, isolated by mountain ranges in North West Italy, has developed a strong regional identity that is reflected in continued use of its own dialect and a unique local cuisine, cuisine unlike any other Italian region. It is rich, it relies on lard and butter rather than olives that don’t grow well in this climate. Although having said that, these ingredients bring silky texture and hearty aromas. Local meats, game and root vegetables are cooked on a low heat for a long time, slowly developing and releasing flavours as well as giving deliciously rich, tasty character to the food of Piedmont.
The cuisine is simple, tasty and its flavours stand out simply because the ingredients are delicious and of prime quality, they are sincere and uncomplicated.
It is said that Piedmont is best enjoyed during the autumn months, when the forests are at their most colourful and a heavy fog starts to settle over the land. I think the scenery is wonderful all year round, and in spring, just couple of weeks ago… I did not miss the haze.
The region is known for being the home of one of the most antique and precious cattle breeds called “la piemontese”. The meat is tender, soft and delicate. You eat it slowly and gently cooked in red wine from the region, or as a part of “bollito misto” (a platter of boiled meats where you can find such cuts as tongue, served with a green sauce called “salsa verde”).
In Northern Italy veal is readily available and in Piemonte a portion of raw beef tartar prepared with a knife with some shaved parmesan or egg yolk is a staple dish. Having said that, we can’t forget the famous “vitello tonnato”, thinly sliced cooked veal with a tuna sauce, and that is a different dish to the one of a similar sounding name “vitello tonnè” (where tuna plays no part).
After my latest trip to the region, I decided to make a lesser known version of veal rolls where you use an egg as a part of the filling , Veal rolls with ham and eggs / Involtini di vitella. The recipe is loosely adapted from a book which renews the respect for tradition and memories of the tastes of another time.
The region is prized for its cheeses many with the DOP denomination like castelmagno which I use for risotto with red wine (I usually use Barolo but also Barbaresco, Barbera, Dolcetto), gorgonzola (where Piedmont shares its denomination with Lombardy), robiola and toma piemontese. To the red wine risotto I also add toasted hazelnuts from Piedmont (IGP) with their very refined, persistent taste and crispy flesh.
Piemonte has not only stolen my stomach but of all wine regions has also stolen my heart.
In the meantime our wine collection has been growing…. I am contemplating life while enjoying this red liquid of Gods and thinking that the wines of Piedmont will need a new space on Hai mangiato…..I am reassured of that fact after having another bite of a cookie (made with the addition of corn flour), another spoon of ”zabaione with the addition of Moscato dessert wine” and everything is brought together by a glass of chilled Moascato dessert wine, from Piedmont of course.
Upon our arrival on a late January morning, Rome welcomed us with a wonderful, clear blue sky, strong sun ( something that we were not used to while living in UK or Poland) that was gently warming us up and calling to find a pair of sun glasses tucked somewhere deep in the bottom of our suitcases.
I love winter, and that crisp dry cold, the type of weather that makes you almost wish that it would last for ever.
Slowly lunch time was approaching and we were hungry, hungry for the flavours of Italy that are so varied across its regions. Twenty distinct regions with their own dialects, their unique dietary preferences and local recipes, developed through centuries of historical division and turmoil. The regions may be just few miles apart, but Italians will always insist that cooking from their region is superior to any other.
As we were not tourists anymore, I decided to use the kitchen immediately. It is not very hard here to find a local grocery store offering a wonderful selection of hams (cured or cooked), even greater choice of cheeses , grilled vegetables kept under olive oil (artichokes and aubergines being my favourite) and countless varieties of bread. A bottle of red wine from the local ‘cesanese’ grape and we were happy.
I have grown to actually love travelling across different parts of Italy, tasting different dishes, ways and methods of cooking as well as using seasonal ingredients, not to mention the wine. You can almost feel spoilt for choice.
Over the course of several of weeks I already had on my list a few Roman dishes that I was amazed and inspired by. It has been couple of years now and I still adore them and above all, I do enjoy making them and sharing them with others. So my choice of dishes to start my blog was an easy one. Plus, the fact that we had friends visiting was a perfect excuse and occasion for a feast!
“When in Rome….. do as the Romans do”.
To start the meal I made ”carciofi alla romana”, roman style artichokes.
When artichokes are in season (an artichoke is a vegetable that is not afraid of cold and in Rome I start buying them in autumn, through winter until the beginning of spring) they are on the menu of every restaurant serving local food. Initially I found them bit tricky to prepare. However, since practice makes perfect, peeling and cleaning them seems so easy now. Yes, there is a possibility of taking a short-cut and buying them already prepared at your local fruit and vegetable market. I find it rewarding preparing the artichokes by myself, plus I tend to cook almost the whole of the stalk. They carry so much flavour. Once the artichokes are ready they are stuffed with chopped fresh herbs and garlic. Traditionally ’mentuccia’ is used, a herb of the mint family that grows throughout central and southern Italy, but of course you can replace it with fresh mint. We have fallen in love with ‘carciofi alla romana’. Every so often I prepare the artichokes differently, however, we just love this blend of flavours with the slightly dominant fragrance of the artichokes. I can’t resist lifting the lid and smelling them while cooking….
As a mid course, “il primo” in Italian, we had pasta of course. I chose ”tonnarelli cacio e peppe”, tonnarelli type pasta with cheese and pepper.<
This plate of pasta is lesser known outside Italy, which is a shame, because it is absolutely fantastic and addictive. Its creamy sauce is obtained thanks to a rather generous portion of grated cheese: ‘Pecorino Romano’ (a hard sheep’s cheese). Every household and a restaurant will have they own, unique recipe. Very often ‘Parmesan’ cheese is added along with the ‘pecorino’ (which is a quite strong cheese) to soften and balance the taste of the sauce.
After pause between courses and chatting about various ways of preparing the “cacio e pepe” plate of pasta, there was the time for ”coda alla vaccinara” , an oxtail gently cooked (for a couple of hours) with few ingredients: loads of celery stalks (a key ingredient), tomato sauce, a piece of lard and white wine. You know it’s ready when you can easily peel the meat off the bone. It becomes so tender that it almost melts in your mouth. I particularly like this dish because it is a one those that is perfect when you have guests to entertain. Usually I prepare it a day in advance, no rush with the gentle cooking that this cut of meat needs. Apart from that it is a fabulous way of using a rather old fashioned cut and bringing it back to life.
Roman cuisine is based on simple and humble ingredients. Nobody has said it is light.
Despite the vicinity to the coast meat dominates the Roman diet.
You can’t call it a feast without a dessert.
We have passed the Jewish Quarter (Ghetto ) so many times before I finally discovered its biggest treasure, the home of “torta con ricotta e visciole”, a tart with ricotta cheese and sour cherries. This small corner bakery, not calling for too much attention , produces the best ricotta and sour cherries tart in Rome. What a wonderful and delicious example of Jewish – Roman food in the heart of the city. I have made many attempts and perfected the recipe for this tart and it is a success amongst our Roman friends. Of course I could have bought a ready made tart from the bakery “Boccione” and that would have been a wonderful treat for everybody too. But, since I made every course at home,I chose to serve my version of it. We loved it.