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.
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and “miglio” in Italian) and flavoured with chopped dry elderflowers; over the course of the centuries the millet has been replaced by polenta flour, but chopped elderflowers have remained a key ingredient.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 →
It is Carnevale right now and most Italians would not pass the opportunity to munch on the delectable seasonal deep fried pastries called chiacchiere (pronounced kiah-kihe-reh). They are crisp, not overly sweet, feather light and shatter as soon as you pop one in your mouth. They are insubstantial and irresistible, at any time of the day. Continue reading →
Trentino Alto Adige is a strange corner of Italy: more Heidi’s playground than your typical sea & sun postcard from Italy. On the north-east border with Austria, its gorgeous Alpine scenery, flower-festooned wooden houses and German street signs give its past away: Trentino was part of the the Austrian-Empire, from the early 19th century to just after the first world war. This is reflected in its food: gulasch suppe, sauerkraut, apple strudel are common dishes.
Torta di grano saraceno is one of the most famous cakes from the area, a buckwheat and nut sponge cake, generally filled with a sharp berry jam (blueberry, black currant or raspberry jam). Continue reading →