The area between France, Switzerland and Italy is known as the Valle d’Aosta. Given the altitude here, the Mediterranean diet becomes alpine and it is the climate that sets the menu. Butter and cheese, particularly fontina – the foundation for all fondues, fillings and sauces – dominate dishes. Fontina has a soft and smooth taste and delicate flavour, which is accentuated with higher temperatures. Soups from the past have survived to combat the cold, their ingredients consisting mainly of milk and chestnuts, turnips and rice, toma cheese, onion and bread. The winters are long and it is hard to preserve meat, so mocetta, a ham of venison, goat or ibex has become popular and goes well with red wine.
Piedmont is characterized by its scent of vines, woods and the country. Here, small towns have achieved the rank of capitals thanks to the wonderful products they make, such as Carrù, with its legendary cattle, Alba, with its prized white truffles and Barolo wine, and Asti, with its fleshy square peppers. In Piedmont cities boast special dishes, for example Turin has its majestic fritto misto (deep-fried meat, seafood and vegetables), and Alba has its tempting agnolotti del plin (stuffed pasta) or Vercelli with its panissa, a rice dish. Piedmont is a major producer of rice in Italy, thriving thanks to the abundance of water. The use of gravy as a sauce is a typical and unforgettable Piedmont specialty, and even the most ordinary menus list tajarin (long, thick pasta) with butter and truffles.
The lakes in Lombardy have been a holiday destination for visitors for centuries on account of the attractive scenery and historic villas. Lakes Garda, Maggiore, Como, Varese and Iseo contain some twenty fish species. As well as fresh caviar, sturgeon, perch, carp and trout, this lush landscape has facilitated another major Italian export: rice. Although once known as polentoni, the symbolic dish of the inhabitants of Lombardy is rice and not polenta. Rice in this region becomes risotto, a gastronomic masterpiece envied throughout the world. For over five centuries it has featured prominently in the cuisine of the Mantua area and Lomellina, a vast triangle of land between the Po and Ticino rivers, (where Leonardo da Vinci designed the effective system of canals and irrigation fields). Cities in Lombardy are renowned for many local products; head to Milan for its classic saffron risotto topped with succulent ossibuchi (veal), or to Brescia for its historic polenta taragna, no longer a humble dish thanks to the addition of puina (fresh ricotta) and bagoss (a cheese produced only in Bagolino), while Mantua is known for its intriguing pumpkin tortelli.
In Trentino polenta is eaten all year round; for centuries maize was the main food of the local population. Today polenta is now served with many differing types of foods and sauces. The choice of the flour however is still important, as each type gives different results. The most famous is grown in Valle del Chiese, where the prized local Storo variety of maize is grown with its distinctive orange cobs that produce flour with slightly coppery tints. Almost every valley has its own recipe on how to transform the precious flour into a tasty polenta. In the western areas of Trentino the mixture of flour and water is enriched with sauces added during cooking, creating dishes that take the name of carbonera (mixed with cheese, butter and salami) and macafana (flavoured with spressa, a low-fat cheese of the Giudicarie valleys, and chicory). In the east of the region polenta is instead dressed when cooked with sauces of mushrooms and pork products, slices of grilled fresh, tosèla cheese, fermented white cabbage (sauerkraut) or freshwater fish.
The landscape of the entire Adige Valley, from Val Venosta to Rovereto, is marked by tidy rows of apple trees whose fruits have won the highest European accolades for regional food products. The Alto Adige region makes use of their excellent resources of apples and delicious smoked speck (ham), in an array of sweet and savoury dishes such as strudel and canederli (dumplings). Making speck requires the best legs of pork, skilfully boned and treated with salt, pepper, pimento, garlic, juniper berries, sugar and, according to area, with rosemary, laurel, marjoram and coriander. This is followed by smoking, for which the types of wood have to be chosen carefully; in Val Pusteria red fir and pine are used and in other valleys silver fir or beech. The maturing of speck is an art and experts only have to tap the surface with their knuckles to understand whether the meat has the right consistency. According to tradition it is eaten as a snack with a slice of Tyrolean brown bread and glass of young red wine.
Along the enchanting Liguria coast with its two Rivieras, Prà basil is a key ingredient. Crushed in a mortar with oil, garlic and pine nuts, and almost always Parmesan cheese, it becomes pesto, an extraordinary sauce that makes every pasta dish a treat and gives minestrone a delicious smell. Pesto is a particular specialty of Genoa, where it now has PDO (protected denomination of origin) status. Fishing and farming is popular in Liguria, the sea supplying all kinds of fish that are eaten fresh or salted and preserved. An agricultural area has been formed in the narrow strips of stony land which slope steeply down towards the sea, where olive trees and vines produce light and aromatic olive oil and the amber-coloured Passito wine, Sciacchetrà. Cooks in Liguria have created ostensibly simple dishes, yet focaccia, farinata, fresh pasta with and without fillings and the country-style cakes and tarts are examples of pure culinary craftsmanship.
Emilia-Romagna is an extremely fertile region with many delicious dishes, in particular the large number of types of pasta with fillings, such as tortellini. In every town and city dazzling delicatessens display unique balsamic vinegars from Modena and Reggio, Parma hams with the five-point ducal crown branded on the rind, and the increasingly rare San Secondo shoulder of ham. The air from Versilia absorbs the aroma of pine trees, then loses its saltiness along the higher areas and finally takes on the ideal dryness for seasoning ham. The wealth of products in Emilia-Romagna also include the pink and aromatic Bologna mortadella cheese, the world famous Parmigiano Reggiano from Reggio Emilia and Parma, pumpkin cappellacci (stuffed pasta) and the succulent salama da sugo (salami) from Felino. Fried gnocchi is a popular snack in Emilia, although originally created in Modena its appeal later spread throughout the region. The countryside offers an array of fresh fruit such as goccia d’oro or “drop of gold” plums.
The legacy of Venice’s trade and its special geographical setting astride the eastern world and central Europe has had a strong influence on the regional cuisine of Venetia. This has led to a liking for combined savoury and sweet flavours, such as soar - a sauce of white onions, pine nuts, sultanas and spices such as coriander, pepper or cinnamon. This is the method by which the Venetians prepared sole for the Redentore feast (the 3rd Sunday in July). A classic Venetian dish is cuttlefish cooked in wine and eaten with the ubiquitous polenta. Many Venetian recipes have a rustic spirit, originating from life on the farms. A region with very deep rural roots, Venetia was densely populated until recently with geese, guinea fowl, hens and ducks. Homebred poultry are still the main ingredient in elaborate traditional dishes such as anara col pien (duck with stuffing).
Very few regions of Italy have, in such a small area, such widely differing landscapes, natural environments and climates. The Friuli-Venezia Giulia region encompasses the Julian Alps, with the Canin caves and the glacial temperatures of Fusine, and the boundless stretch of sand of Lignano Sabbiadoro and the Trieste coastline. The cuisine of Friuli-Venezia Giulia is surprising in its rustic lack of pretension, offering a varied range of dishes, from the many comforting soups of cereals, leaf and root vegetables and pork products to the range of flavours of smoked and un-smoked hams from San Daniele, Sauris and Cormòns. The hills of San Daniele del Friuli are a short distance from the foothills of the Alps, with the Tagliamento River below. Here, the cold air from the North and the warm air from the Adriatic meet and mix along the river. The result is moderate yet constant wind conditions, with the right degree of humidity – ideal for maturing ham. While all the fish from the Venezia Giulia sea area is served up in a wide variety of fish stews and shellfish dishes, Friuli, with its splendid stretches of vineyards, produces bottles of extraordinary wine, warming in the winter and refreshing in the summer.
Tuscany is as much about the ancient olive groves, rustic farmhouses and lines of cypress trees as it is about the beautiful paintings, exquisite sculptures, medieval towns and architectural masterpieces. Tuscany's reputation for quality, simplicity and flavour is recognized around the world, and over the centuries Tuscan dishes have remained faithful to their origins. Tuscan cuisine is the legacy of two distinct traditions: those of the countryside and the city. Peasant cooking was born out of poverty and necessity, and is characterized by the resourcefulness of a culture that adapted and learned to make the most of what the land had to offer. The Siena hills offer distinct pecorino cheese, whilst the Apuane Mountains are renowned for the increasingly rare lardo ham. The chianina, Tuscan prize cows from the Val di Chiana, are foddered not to give milk but solely to produce its succulent meat, which is flavoured by Casentino, the oil of the Lucca, Chianti or Siena areas. From the city comes the cuisine of the nobility, with all the trappings of wealth and grandeur that one would expect from cities as splendid as Florence, famed for its fiorentina steak.
The silvery olive trees in Umbria produce light fragrant oil, that goes wonderfully with all vegetables. It gleams on legumes, pours off skewers of pigeons, sputters in pots with pheasants and in pans with all the species of fish from Lake Trasimeno: eels, pike, perch and tench. Food stores have the aroma of ham, salami and sausage. The fame and tradition of Norcia charcuterie are so enduring that the name norcino, the person who processes pork, has become the standard Italian name for a pork butcher. The rare white truffle is found in the upper Tevere valley in the Orvieto area and in the Apennines. In keeping with the rural spirit, they are regularly used for flavouring simple yet delicious omelettes and not just restricted to haute cuisine. At a higher level on the Torgiano hills, visitors are drawn to the extensive vineyards to eagerly await the great red wine. Another rare and typically Umbrian delicacy, also from mountain areas, is the Castelluccio lentil. This is a tiny legume just two millimetres in diameter which grows exclusively in the clayey highlands of Castelluccio. These ingredients have survived due to the geographical isolation and the lack of transport links in this high-altitude area.
Marches lies on the Adriatic coastline and lays claim to the spectacular Riviera del Conero and San Benedetto del Tronto, Italy's fish capital. Off the coast of Marches there are fish of all types; hidden black and white truffles beneath the ground around Acqualagna and meadows and fields busy with scattered cows, sheep, lamps, pigs and olive trees. The Marchigiani bring to table an incredible quantity of soups, fish stews and grills from the enchanting Porto Recanati, olives stuffed and fried golden brown from Ascoli, pasta with various fillings and truffle-flavoured maccheroncini. Then there is the salami and special cheeses such as the soft casciotta from Urbino or the di fossa, which matures underground, wrapped in white cloths.
Lazio is the region of Rome, Italy’s capital. Roman cuisine can be rural, famed for its staple dishes of lamb and kid, but also features aromatic salads of mixed leaves and curly puntarelle with anchovies. Steaming rigatoni and bucatini (thick, hollow pasta) feature on menus all over the city and, in the older parts, coda alla vaccinara: tripe and pork ribs. An essential feature of the cuisine of Rome and the rest of Lazio is spaghetti alla carbonara with eggs, pancetta and pecorino. Vegetables play an important part of Lazio cuisine, notably chicory, lamb’s lettuce, watercress, pimpinella, sow thistle, buck’s horn plantain and the more common rocket salad. Particular use is made of wild or field vegetables, easy to pick during long days spent in meadows and eaten on the spot or taken home to be used in salads, soups, side dishes or omelettes. In the area of the Castelli the aroma is that of mushrooms served on fettuccine, that of the real milk of the ricotta cheese still packaged in baskets, and of the porchetta of Ariccia, considered the best locally. Eating in a cool place is still commonplace, either in courtyards under a pergola or else in one of the many terraces and restaurants in town squares, almost always opposite a church or fountain.
Abruzzo and Molise
Although now two separate regions, Albruzzo and Molise - sandwiched by mountains and sea - share a culinary tradition that goes back for generations. These regions are still populated by shepherds and, as a result, produce lamb, mutton and kid cooked in the traditional way alongside expertly manufactured cheeses. Navelli produces outstanding saffron and in the area of Fara San Martino the extraordinary water is ideal for mixing with durum wheat to produce pasta whose flavour does not need sauces. The trees in the woods in Molise provide the shade for the ripening of extraordinarily large quantities of truffles and the sea provides huge amounts of fish, all suitable for stews.
Campania is a region with deep-rooted traditions. Here, fragrant San Marzano tomatoes take pride of place on Neapolitan pizza and pasta. Mozzarella was first made in the Cilento area from the milk of the buffaloes, which arrived in Campania from the distant east centuries ago. Eaten uncooked, mozzarella and tomatoes are a perfect combination, and melted, makes a great pizza. The production of quality pasta requires a variable climate such as that on the Amalfi coast, where the dry sirocco wind alternates with the cold, northerly wind. Gragnano, a village perched among the mountains inland of Amalfi, is the capital of Campania pasta. About a dozen of the many master craftsmen who insist on producing pasta in the traditional way (durum wheat, slow drying, strictly bronze dies) have survived, grouped together in the Società dei Pastai Gragnanesi. Campania produces tonnes of fragrant vegetables which flood the markets where the very green friarielli (turnip tops with a wonderfully bitter taste) are a great success, where aubergines are at their best and where lemons from the Amalfi coast become the daintiest of salads or bottled to make a delicious limoncello for sipping.
Puglia and Basilicata
These two sister regions have extraordinarily beautiful scenery, from the charm of the Tavoliere plains with expanses of fertile earth, to the enchanting Parco del Pollino in Basilicata, where the sun rises over the Ionian sea and sets over the Tyrrhenian sea. In both regions the flavour of olive oil is very important; there are tens of thousands of olive trees and an abundance of olives. The oil, with its strong aroma and well-defined flavour, is not just an essential ingredient but also gives dishes their special edge. The large-scale production of PDO extra-virgin olive oil has allowed many extraordinary local types of oil to flourish, such as the Collina di Brindisi, Dauno, Terra d’Otranto and Terra di Bari oils, with their strong yellow to dark green colours, rich fruity bouquets with distinct hints of grass and powerful, full bodied and tangy flavours. After the liquid gold of olive oil is the white “gold” of milk, the basic ingredient of the wonderful cheeses from Puglia, from the smoked fagottini from Foggia to the legendary burrata from Andria - whose outer layer of mozzarella contains a heart of fresh cream. Many other ingredients are shared between these neighbouring regions, such as pork, lamb and broad beans, which are a basic ingredient for soup, salad, and macco, a delicious purée. In both areas the cooking is simple, the flavours still genuine and the abundance of vegetables supply all the markets in Italy.
“Calabria” in the ancient language of Byzantium means “land of all goods”. Situated between the Ionian and Tyrrhenian seas along the 250km stretch of Italy in the south, Calabria is a coastal and mountain region. Its cuisine alternates rich and rustic dishes (pasta with concentrated sauces of pork and lamb, or pitte, the Calabrese version of stuffed pizza) with other delights from the sea (swordfish caught between Scilla and Bagnara) and the land (grandiose mixed salads and dishes of tomatoes and peppers, pumpkin and courgettes). In the full light of its sun Calabria presents two, very different flavours – the burning heat of the omnipresent chilli pepper which adds a kick to any dish, and the soft sweetness of raw Tropea onions which are also transformed into chutney, an ideal accompaniment for soft ricotta cheese and the sweet figs from Sibari.
In Sicily the food moves with amazing ease from one extreme to the other; from savoury to sweet and to sour in a medley of flavours. Of note is the intriguing citrus fruit salads with slices of juicy oranges or lemons dressed with a drizzle of oil, black pepper and a pinch of salt. The pasta with sardines from Palermo and Catania both include typically Sicilian ingredients, “baked” first by the sun in the open air. Thus tomatoes become little slices of sun, while aubergines, or “le belle” as they are known, are the prima donnas of a caponata, a true triumph of vegetables in a pan with the tanginess of capers. Fish is used in simple and humble dishes including that of the fragagghia (small fish washed up by rough seas), or in rich fish dishes using the best swordfish and tuna. In terms of desserts, Sicily is Italy’s most extraordinary, tempting and ancient cake shop, with its cannoli filled with creamy ricotta, cassata that has become legendary, and a hundred versions of almond paste. Not forgetting the granitas, sorbetti, spongate and the scumuni with gianduia and Bronte pistachios and Avola almonds, the main ingredients in a tempting variety of desserts and sweets. Table wines from the Nero d’Avola to the Grecanico and the Inzolia, or the dessert wines such as the historic Marsala, are the perfect accompaniment.
A bittersweet flavour is associated with one of Sardinia’s symbolic fragrant liqueurs, mirto (myrtle). With shiny leaves, white scented flowers, round blue berries, the myrtle shrub grows wild on the island. In Sardinia delicious Catalan-style lobsters of Alghero are a ubiquitous dish and the flavours of acidic orange blossom, sharp thyme and eucalyptus, and of precious saffron characterise the cuisine. Sardinia is much more than attractive beaches and seascapes; it also offers cuisine that respects the original, strong flavour of meat such as kid, mutton and piglet. Fiore Sardo and Pecorino Sardo pecorino cheeses are widely eaten; produced from whole sheep’s milk, lightly smoked and stored in mountain caves for up to a year, these cheeses can be eaten fresh with asphodel honey or melted on a grill, or can be eaten when mature and crumbly as a pleasant appetiser.
(c) Editoriale Domus 2008
The Silver Spoon
Vegetables from an Italian Garden
Recipes from an Italian Summer
The Silver Spoon for Children
The Silver Spoon: Pasta