A soup by any other name

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Burrasca’s farinata

Those frugal, ingenious Tuscans. They’ve an uncanny knack for making silk purses out of sow’s ears, poetry out of the vernacular: we’re talking food fit for a pasha out of a poor man’s pickings.

Like our new dish, farinata. This is deep-winter comfort food all over Tuscany’s hill regions and comes in various guises: polenta incatenata (polenta in chains), farinata con le leghe (tied-up cornmeal porridge), farinata di cavolo nero (black cabbage cornmeal soup). According to Slow Food’s Ricette di Osterie di Firenze e Chianti, this is food for those with “courage to spare and a wolf’s hunger.” Indeed, it’s hearty stuff.

These rich, flavor-packed recipes all have something in common: the black cabbage (Italian kale) that is the fruit of Tuscan winters, cannellini or borlotti beans for cheap protein, and farina gialla (cornmeal), that low-rent rib-sticker dear to many a mountaineer’s heart. Country-folk would pretty much leave it at that but the well-heeled might add some pig in the form of ham bones, prosciutto or pancetta. It’s a dish meant to go the distance, too: the farinata would be cooked for the evening meal and the leftovers–after setting/solidifying–would be sliced thickly and pan-fried for breakfast the next day, to be eaten with bread. And if still some scraps persisted, they’d be sliced, fried and served in a spicy tomato sauce for dinner.

Our version is made of cornmeal studded with Italian kale, cannellini beans and leeks, punched up with garlic and rosemary. It’s served drizzled with extra virgin and cracked black pepper, and is guaranteed to warm your belly and keep that wolf’s hunger at bay. Promise.

Tortelli: queen of pasta in Tuscany’s Mugello region

I think of the various regions of Tuscany as having personalities and characteristics as do people, and, like people, some are more simpatico than others. The Maremma, for instance, is an ambling and amiable urbane cowboy with a touch of SoCal hedonism: John Travolta. The Chianti is an over-popular glam girl who’s gotten rather full of herself–she’s the homecoming queen, the Kim Kardashian of Tuscany. By contrast, the Mugello–that mountainous, undulating region north of Florence, whose rugged Appenine spine straddles Emilia-Romagna–is the pensive, strong and silent type: pure Wayne, Eastwood or Bogart.

It’s a beautiful region of thick forest, serene pastures, rolling farmland and lonely mountain passes. Its towns are peaceful, slumberous, wrapped in the solitary life as befits hill folk and those who live close to the land. It’s a place of hunters and foragers, of Nature’s willing bedfellows; a place that prizes hard work, reserve and fortitude and the kind of quiet perseverance of earthworms. Mugellani are typically hardy souls, with rustic appetites that heavily favor meat in the form of beef and all manner of pig. Wild boar, porcini and pecorino feature predominantly on their menus. And the pasta most familiar to all who call this wedge of Tuscany home is tortelli, which are essentially large ravioli with a flavorful potato filling. A very homey dish, whose absence at any family gathering or holiday meal would be unconscionable: it’s the Martin Luther to their Protestant Reformation, Mick Jagger to their Rolling Stones, Sam Gamgee to their Frodo Baggins. And since both sides of Paolo’s family hail from this region, I can say with complete lack of irony that I’ve probably eaten about 6,346 of these potato-stuffed pillows of bliss, and I shall never tire of them.

Paolo’s aunts in Luco di Mugello and Borgo San Lorenzo are justifiably famous for their tortelli–which are, in a word, awesome. Cooking for 40 or 50 family members poses no problem to these fabulous, formidable ladies, who hold forth in a kitchen the way Elizabeth I held court at Whitehall. Paolo’s own mamma also inherited the family’s flair for this regional pasta specialty, and it is from this group of women that the secrets to good tortelli were handed down, to be served up in our little yellow cart right here in Portland, Oregon.

As with many regional dishes, each family has its cherished recipe, but tortelli mainly fall into two camps: those with a potato filling that’s flavored with soffritto and tomato, or one that is flavored with prosciutto, sausage or pancetta. The topping is nearly always a ragù, though they are delicious with a simple sauce of butter and sage, too.

Eastertortelli

Just a *few* handmade tortelli for family Easter in Florence

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Burrasca’s tortelli with duck ragù

At Burrasca, our handmade tortelli are filled with potato amped up by soffritto, a touch of tomato and herbs, and we serve them in a rich duck ragù {we happily accommodate vegetarians by substituting a sauce of butter and sage–just ask!}.

Come try some and make Paolo’s aunties proud!

Peposo: the dish that built Brunelleschi’s Dome

While history would have us believe that behind every great man there stands a woman, I’d argue similarly that behind every great monument there is a food.

The laborers who built the pyramids were fueled by the flesh of some twenty-odd cattle and two dozen sheep and goats a day. The bellies of the motley international crew working on the Taj Mahal were stoked on rich meat curries and roti. And the cornerstones of the great cathedrals of Europe were heaved into place by the brute kilocalorie force of hefty animal rations and bread and rivers of ale and wine, more than any religious zeal or act of papal ego.

And that crowning glory of Florence’s own magnificent cathedral, Brunelleschi’s dome–the astonishing lid atop the great Renaissance treasure-chest–has a similar protein-centric backbone: the peposo alla fornacina dell’Impruneta. Our story begins….

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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 says “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 would keep, and the foreman added even more (thus 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.

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, 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 potfus of peposo and had them delivered with the brick shipments and hoisted up onto the scaffolds, along 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.

–by Elizabeth Petrosian

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Burrasca’s peposo

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

Glue sauce, the crêpes debate, and Catherine de’ Medici

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, wielding knives–the concept probably isn’t too farfetched.

Sometimes benign and good-natured, sometimes bloody and fomented, the rivalry between Italy and France has been going on for centuries. So when an alliance was born between the two 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 had a sophisticated palate and, eyeing the natives’ trencher-and-shank cookery askance, brought her own culinary posse to the French court (these included several pastry chefs, a gelato-maestro, three cooks from the Mugello region of Tuscany, among others). She brought the fork with her, too, no doubt having been scandalized at the French mode of hacking at victuals with knives or tearing at them with hands or 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 called besciamella. It’s the glorious glue that snakes between layers of lasagne in Emilia-Romagna, and locks spinach-flushed crêpes in a lover’s embrace in Florence’s own crespelle alla fiorentina.

And speaking of crêpes (or, ahem, more properly: crespelle), 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 Italian 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 m**da and crespelle belong to the Boot. In the 5th century–long before Caterina 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 and 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 crespella by any other name would taste as sweet.

–by Elizabeth Petrosian

Come try our crespelle alla fiorentina and chew on the issue with Paolo…. Ti aspettiamo!

Backstory: inzimino

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The origin of the word zimino (in + zimino signifying “in ‘zimino’ sauce”), as with that of so many foods, lies somewhere far back in the dusty recesses of history. Under murky layers that evoke the not-so-far-away Arab world, the exotic scent of cumin (cimino in outmoded parlance), or even the unleavened (azzimo) bread of the Jews–the word’s etymology has been the subject of some debate. The most general consensus is that the word is of Arabic origin: samin or zamin, which means fat, fleshy and seems linked to the concept of a fatty or rich condiment or sauce. Moreover, the traditional liberal use of spinach in this dish would also seem to point east, to Persia: wherein lies the august ancestry of this inky-green vegetable.

Though the precise etymology may evade our grasp, we know that the recipe is very old, traces of which go back at least as far as 1300. It was a classic piatto povero, or poor-man’s dish, making up for its lack of silk-purse ingredients by beefing up with vegetables and bread. Originally, the dish was strewn with bits of salted, dried fish such as baccalà (Florence being land-locked, after all)–a cheap ingredient that packed a flavor punch and stretched to help fill many bellies at a time. It is believed that the strong flavor of the fish demanded an equally muscular, spicy sauce in order to achieve the proper balance–clearly something even the most impoverished medieval Florentine was unwilling to forego. And so, with characteristic Italian ingenuity, a rich, zesty sauce was born–for which the Arab word zamin was most likely adopted and italianized over time.

Other versions in other regions have since evolved: in Liguria, Sardinia and even Corsica, some with chick peas instead of calamari (or totani or seppie), or swiss chard instead of spinach, and they are all worthy of our praise. But the classic, über-Florentine recipe remains that of squid simmered at length in a rich stew (or umido) of spinach, tomato and red wine, to be accompanied by garlic-rubbed toasted bread and–hopefully, ideally–shared in good company. It’s a bold, inky dish–as wine-dark as Homer’s Aegean–lusty and redolent of both earth and sea. It’s exactly the kind of thing a famished, humble laborer in the age of Petrarch would tuck into, and feel a richer man for having eaten it.

–by Elizabeth Petrosian

Come and try our version of this Florentine classic–ti aspettiamo!