This is an old treat from Lombardy, now, alas, almost extinct. Originally, “pan de mej” were crinkly yellow flat biscuits made with millet flour (“mej” in the Lombardy dialect and “miglio” in Italian) and flavoured with chopped dry elderflowers; over the course of the centuries the millet has been replaced by polenta flour, but chopped elderflowers have remained a key ingredient. These biscuits were traditionally eaten on the day of San Giorgio, the 23rd of April, dunked in single cream: in Lombardy, San Giorgio was hailed as the patron saint of milkmen and, in long gone days, the 23rd of April was when milk supply contracts were renewed. I can vouch for the excellence of the combination of warm pan de mej and cold single cream. In my version, I follow Anna del Conte’s lead and bake a cake instead of biscuits and I use fresh elderflowers. This is a dry cake, exquisitely perfumed, whose restrained elegance and goodness should be revived. Continue reading →
As a teenager, I used to go skiing in the Alps, in Valle d’Aosta, the austere north-western part of Italy, crowned by dramatic peaks. On a sunny, crisp, late winter day, coming down the slopes was exhilarating. And exhausting after a few hours of fun. By late lunch, I was starving. We would generally find a safe spot and have a picnic – a slab of focaccia, stuffed with ham or mortadella, a coke and some chocolate. The local alimentari down in the village used to sell a great focaccia and I indulged often. I have never come across a bakery or alimentari in Italy that does not sell focaccia, though not perhaps always as good as the one I used to buy up there in the mountains. Now that I think of it, this is a little curious, because focaccia is actually specific to Liguria, in the north-west of Italy, but it has become a national food in the past few decades.
It is only in Liguria, however, that I have come across the lesser known focaccia d Recco, which is not a focaccia in the conventional meaning, but a flat bread, stuffed with cream cheese.
“Onions. An excellent thing, the onion, and highly suitable for old people and those with cold temperaments, owing to its nature, which is hot in the highest degree, sometimes moist, and sometimes dry. The most desirable of the many varieties are the white onions, being rich in watery juices. They generate milk in nursing mothers and fertile semen in men. They improve the eyesight, are softening, and stimulate the bladder. Headaches, which are sometimes caused by onions, can be cured with vinegar and milk. Those suffering from coughs, asthma, and constrictions in the chest, should eat boiled onions, or onions baked under the embers, served with sugar and a little fresh butter”
This passage is by the XI Century Baghdad doctor Ibn Butlann whose book Taqwīm as‑Siḥḥa (تقويم الصحة Maintenance of Health) was translated in Europe as Tacuinum Sanitatis and became one of the most important books on hygiene, dietetics and exercise, from the Middle Ages well into the Renaissance (the picture and text in the gallery are from the English edition of the book, The Four Season of the House of Cerruti, 1984, available on http://www.archive.org). Onions are indeed excellent and without them much Italian cooking would be lustreless.
A mystery cake: it is called mantovana, meaning from Mantua (in Lombardy) but it is in fact a speciality of the Tuscan town of Prato. It is a buttery and eggy cake with a tight, tender crumb, subtly perfumed with lemon zest and topped with almonds and pine nuts. There is no baking powered in the batter and this makes for a rather flat cake. It is one of those cakes that Italian 19th century cook books would define as da credenza, i.e. a dresser cake, one that that home cooks would keep in a dresser, on a platter or on a cake stand, covered by a napkin – as I do. It really is ideal with a mid morning coffee or with an afternoon tea.
It is very easy, and immensely pleasurable, to fall into the spell of the Mediterranean – the vibrant colours, the shimmering sea, the warmth of its people, the gnarled olive trees, the intoxicating sweetness of its figs, the lusciousness of its vegetables…
When it comes to Italian food then, there is a misconception that it is all olive oil, garlic, basil and tomatoes, so to speak. In fact, at least one third of the Italian peninsula, from the plains of Emilia Romagna up to the Northern Alps, is bathed in butter and lard and cooks much of its food, at least traditionally, “in bianco” – that is to say, without tomatoes. This homely supper dish, which emanates from the Emilia Romagna repertoire, makes the point.