Torta langarola di nocciole (Hazelnut cake from the Langhe area, in Piedmont)

The hazelnut is not an ingredient one immediately associates with Italian cookery, yet they are definitely rooted in our food culture: or instance, I have never come across a gelateria that does not have nocciola (hazelnut) flavour, one of the best actually (and, as you know, gelaterie are everywhere in Italy), you can often spot a roasted hazelnut atop pasticcini, the diminutive Italian pastries, and biscuits, a signal that what you are going to taste contains the nuts. There is Frangelico too, a hazelnut liqueur from Piemonte that can elevate anything it is drizzled over to new heights, and, well, then there is Nutella, one of the most famous Italian foods, a mix of chocolate and (not so many) hazelnuts and other, more or less, insalubrious ingredients. If you travel to central Italy, in particular in the Tuscia region of Lazio and in Umbria, you will see vast, intensively cultivated hazelnut groves, which contribute hugely to the local economy but that are also cause for concern.  What was once a minor crop has become very important, to the point that Italy is now the world’s second-largest producer, for better or worse. Here an article in Italian too.

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Garibaldi biscuits – An illustrious Italian heritage for a quintessentially British biscuit

In 2011, there were 4,247 streets and squares named after Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882), out of 7,904 Italian municipalities; I have never been to an Italian city, town, hamlet that does not have a piazza or a via or a viale (a boulevard), named after him. The whole country is dotted with statues and busts of the bearded general, often on a horse, sporting a poncho and brandishing a sword, or with a kerchief tied around his neck and an exotic smoking cap covering his medium-long hair – an ageing dandy, who could now easily grace the cover of Vogue.

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Pan mejino o pàn de mèj o pàndemèinn Pan di miglio/Elderflower and polenta cake from Lombardy

Pan de mej - elderflower and polenta cake

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and “miglio” in Italian) and flavoured with chopped dry elderflowers; over the course of the centuries the millet has been replaced by polenta flour, but chopped elderflowers have remained a key ingredient.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 “Pan mejino o pàn de mèj o pàndemèinn Pan di miglio/Elderflower and polenta cake from Lombardy”

Torta Mantovana di Prato – almond and pinenut sponge cake

torta Mantovana

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. 

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Chiacchiere di carnevale – Carnival pastries

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 “Chiacchiere di carnevale – Carnival pastries”