Crespelle alla Fiorentina: Catherine de' Medici & the great crêpes debate

The origins of foods and recipes are often the subject of heated nationalistic argument. I won't go as far as to say that wars have been fought over who has the right to call puff pastry their own, but who knows? Swarthy men with fiery tempers working long hours on their feet over smoking pots, knives in hand—the concept probably isn't too farfetched.

Sometimes benign and good-natured, sometimes bloody and fomented, the rivalry between Italy and France has been there for centuries. So when an alliance between the two was born by way of the marriage of Florentine lass Caterina de' Medici and teenage King Henry II of France in 1533, it proved a fertile field for cross-cultural pollination.

Compared to Medici-bankrolled Florence, 16th century France was practically a backwater. Or so it seemed to young Catherine who possessed a sophisticated palate and—eyeing the natives' trencher-and-shank cookery askance—brought her own culinary posse to the French court. This included several pastry chefs, a gelato-maestro, three cooks from the Tuscany's Mugello region, among others. She brought the fork with her, too, no doubt having been scandalized by the French mode of hacking at victuals with knives or tearing at them with hands and incisors.

One of the delicacies she introduced to the French was the Tuscan salsa colla or colletta (colla = "glue"), which was a sauce of milk tinged with meat broth and spices and used to bind flavors together in various dishes. This sauce essentially became the Frenchified velouté and later dropped its carnivorous guise altogether, becoming the creamy white marvel of chemistry that was re-christened béchamel in honor of one Marquis Louis de Béchameil (by all appearances a useless fop who didn't know a ladle from a riding crop or a scullery from a hole in the ground). By the strange, circuitous routes of history, this delicate, delightful sauce has long since made its way back to the Bel Paese—sporting a French accent, as it were—and is there called besciamella. It's the glorious glue that snakes between layers of lasagne in Emilia-Romagna, and locks spinach-and-ricotta-filled crêpes in a lover's embrace in Florence's own crespelle alla fiorentina.

And speaking of crêpes, it seems Catherine brought those to the great Gallic palooza, too. French or Italian, the word's origins come from the Latin crispus, meaning rolled or curled, and from the more modern Italian crespo ("kinked, creased"; a word with which I was unfortunately made all too familiar by my Florentine hairdresser). Now I know you're probably thinking that crêpes are as French as Louis Malle and a bright blue pack of Gauloises, but ask any Italian and he'll tell you evenly and with no trace of rancor whatsoever that the French are full of sh** and crespelle belong to the Boot. In the 5th century, long before Catherine threw off her stays in the Louvre and contemplated her new home, legend has it that an alarmed Pope Gelasius—seeing the thronged French pilgrims newly-arrived in Rome, hungry for both bread and redemption—had cartloads of flour and eggs brought in and voilà! A future vehicle for Nutella was born.

But regardless of which flag you care to fly over this piece of culinary terroir, we can probably all agree that a crêpe—whoops, strike that—crespella by any other name would taste as sweet.

You'll find crespelle alla fiorentina as a frequent special at Burrasca during the winter months; it's warming and comforting and absolutely delicious.

—Elizabeth Petrosian

Ravioli Class!

Join us on Sunday, March 6 from 2:00 - 4:00pm and learn how to make our delicious ravioli delicati: fresh pasta filled with ricotta, spinach and herbs. Cost: $55 per person; 10 spaces available. You'll taste the finished product and take your ravioli home with you, along with the recipe.

Please email Elizabeth at mangia@burrascapdx.com to sign up.

Peposo: the dish behind the Duomo

 Image credit: Ron Reznick: digital-images.net

Image credit: Ron Reznick: digital-images.net

What do Florence's Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral (aka the Duomo) and a hearty Tuscan dish of stewed beef, the peposo alla fornacina dell'Impruneta, have in common? Read on.

Once upon a time, in Impruneta—that rolled-up-sleeve sort of town that insinuates itself into the vineyard-strewn hills just south of the Tuscan capital and which, since at least 1098, is famous for its rich clay soil and the terracotta it produces—a group of rough-hewn, bestubbled laborers in the brick furnaces were hard at it, hunger licking at their insides like flames, and, as Italians throughout history are wont to do, discussing their options for lunch.

{Though our protagonists may be medieval men, you can bet that the Tuscan they were talking differed little from that of today. Get a group of contemporary toscanacci together and you'll hear much the same speech: those aspirated, throaty c's that sound like a bellows in the hands of an over-enthusiastic chambermaid; the muscular cadences and roughly-chopped syntax, spiced up with good-natured ribaldry and liberally seasoned with blasphemous-yet-benign oaths and abundant raucous laughter}

Eventually, the foreman—a pragmatic, no-nonsense sort of fellow in charge of loading the hot kilns that spit forth their bounty of red tiles, bricks and orci (earthenware pots)—wipes the sweat from his brow with an oily rag and calls over an errand boy. Handing the lad a few coins, he barks, "Fetch some beef. The cheapest you can find." Cattle—particularly the ancient, revered race known as Chianina—being plentiful in Tuscany, this was an easy enough task. And while the nobler cuts were earmarked for those with plenty of florins in their pouches, the poor-man's cuts, such as muscolo, were within a laborer's reach.

The boy presently returned with a good quantity of meat. It had been abundantly seasoned with pepper so it'd keep, and the foreman added even more (hence the name peposo, deriving from pepe [pepper], meaning a peppery dish). He cut it into small chunks with a crude pocketknife and threw it into a large terracotta pot. Knowing the sinewy beef would need to cook at length in order to soften into something less resembling hide and more forgiving to medieval dental work, he grabbed a full flask of the ubiquitous red wine—Impruneta being in Chianti country, after all—and up-ended its entire contents into the pot. He then placed the pot just inside the maw of the roaring furnace, where the heat was mellower, and left it there to slow-cook for hours.

 Terra cotta urns, or  orci , of Impruneta

Terra cotta urns, or orci, of Impruneta

Later, when the scent of the simmering meat had become almost too much to bear with any pretense of fortitude, and fatigue made them stoop like willows in the rain, the men dragged the pot from the kiln's mouth like an unwilling molar and hunkered down around it, reaching in with great chunks of bread and scooping the meat up into their mouths. That heretofore tough cut of cow now yielded to their hunger like an impatient virgin; it was butter-soft and dripping with a velvety, wine-dark sauce which their rustic bread soaked up like perfect absolution. They washed it down with still more wine, clapped the foreman on the back, and were satisfied. And from this auspicious beginning the humble peposo of Impruneta was to go on to achieve something very grand, indeed.

 

Brunelleschi's dilemma

In 1420, when scaffolding enshrouded the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence and the great cupola was under construction, the workers—perhaps understandably—tended to blow off the steam that comes from sweating over such a colossus of engineering by climbing down to take their meals and disappearing for what was, to Brunelleschi, a rather alarming amount of time into the rough-and-tumble osterie hidden in the sinuous alleys nearby. They would come back thoroughly soused, mount the scaffolding unsteadily, sing bawdily, and recommence their work with visibly diminished dexterity. The brilliant architect hit upon a solution: since the four million-odd terracotta bricks used in the dome's construction were being fired round-the-clock and brought in daily from the kilns at Impruneta, he ordered a continuous supply of generous potfuls of peposo and had them delivered along with the brick shipments and hoisted up onto the scaffolds, together with countless loaves of bread and a carefully rationed (and watered down) quantity of vino. The men thus lunched under their boss's watchful eye, high above the teeming city, leaving Florence's taverns to the riffraff.

And so it was that the rich red earth of Impruneta helped nourish Brunelleschi's vision, just as the peposo—born of Impruneta's kilns—nourished the men who would help him realize it.

 Peposo at Burrasca. Brunelleschi would be pleased.

Peposo at Burrasca. Brunelleschi would be pleased.

Our peposo is served as it often is these days in Tuscany: with polenta. It's a wonderfully warming and deeply comforting dish, perfect for winter. Come see us and taste for yourself the savory foundation upon which Florence's incomparable Duomo was built; there's no telling what fabulous things you'll accomplish with a bellyful of the stuff.

—Elizabeth Petrosian

 

 

Come celebrate olio nuovo!

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Join us and Oregon Olive Mill at Red Ridge Farms in a Tuscan-style celebration of the season's freshly-milled olive oil.

From 5:00pm - 7:00pm on Tuesday, November 24th, Oregon Olive Mill's olive oil ambassador will be on hand at the restaurant, offering tastes and talking everything olive oil, and we'll be featuring traditional dishes and nibbles like fettunta, zuppa lombarda and pinzimonio that highlight the glorious qualities of this excellent, locally-produced, earthy, peppery, green-gold goddess. Don't miss it!

Handmade Pasta and Ragù Class - November 15

 

Join us Sunday, November 15 from 2:00-4:00pm at the restaurant, where Paolo will help you channel your inner nonna, teaching you his down-home secrets to making fresh tagliatelle and a rich, flavorful Tuscan-style beef ragù (a dish the Willamette Week recently named among the city's best pasta). Learn something new or sharpen your skills just in time for all those upcoming holiday dinner parties and family celebrations.

Cost is $55 per person. Class is hands-on and includes pasta and ragù to take home, as well as recipes. Space is limited to 10 people; reservations required, contact Elizabeth: mangia@burrascapdx.com