Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Pici and the Big Garlic

Pici all'aglione and other delights
Val di Chiana

People who dine out in this part of the world inevitably come across a local dish called pici all'aglione. Pici are a form of thick, hand-rolled spaghetti, which originate in the southern part of the province of Siena in the Val di Chiana; some even claim they were eaten by the Etruscans. 

The Tomb of the Leopards at Tarquinia, dating to the 5th century BCE

A banquet is depicted in the Tomb of the Leopards at the Etruscan necropolis at Tarquinia. It appears that a servant is bringing to the table a bowl containing a long, irregular sort of pasta which has been identified as an early version of pici.
Honestly, I have peered at the image above but cannot make out this bowl of pici...

the slightly rough texture of handmade pici is visible here

Pici are made of flour, water and a little olive oil and salt, with occasionally an egg added. 

pici made with egg look prettier but the eggless sort is the norm
 Pici can be a vehicle for many sauces including meat ragoûts and duck, but apparently the authentic one is all'aglione, a simple tomato sauce enriched with garlic.

pici all'aglione
 However this is not just any garlic, it turns out. Until recently we believed the word 'aglione' to be a friendly way of describing a large quantity of garlic; in other words, signalling a very garlicky sauce.

aglione tends to be a bigger variety of garlic, yellowish in colour and more delicately flavoured

But we have been enlightened. When our market greengrocer asked whether we preferred aglione to aglio, all was explained at last.
Aglione is actually a special variety of garlic, Allium ampeloprasum var. Holmense, originating in 
Val di Chiana and Val d'Orcia in southern Tuscany. It has a good, round flavour, which is more delicate than normal garlic, and is prized for being particularly digestible. 
The heads of this variety of garlic tend to be larger than regular garlic and the cloves are creamy-yellow in colour.

Allium ampeloprasum var. Holmense

Aglione can cost four times as much as regular garlic, also because it is a rarer variety

It also has the property of softening and dissolving when cooked so that you can simply crush entire cloves in the pot with a wooden spoon. 

To make a simple aglione sauce, cook some aglione (a clove per person) in olive oil and half a glass of white wine in a covered pan until the garlic is soft and you can squash it with a wooden spoon (about 15 minutes); add fresh or bottled pelati tomatoes, some salt to taste and simmer until reduced (about 20 minutes). 
That is all. Add to your pici and enjoy. 


Monday, September 2, 2019

Unsung Local Heroes III

Otello Miliani: a Testament to Hard Times

Otello Miliani
This post is compiled thanks to a volume published in 2017 by the CGIL, or Confederazione Italiana del Lavoro under the aegis of the Greve in Chianti city council. The interviews included in the volume were almost all carried out by Maria Giovanna Bencistà. I here translate and summarize an account from 2015-16 when Otello Miliani was almost 80, which runs over 37 tightly-spaced pages, interspersing it with salient details from the other interviews.
the territory around Badia Passignano; today practically a grapevine monoculture, in Miliani's childhood this land was dedicated to mixed farming

Otello Miliani was born in 1936 at Poggio al Vento, near Badia Passignano in the Val di Pesa, into a family of sharecropper farmers (who worked under the mezzadria system). His story, growing up, is typical of his time, yet simultaneously striking in its exceptionality. When he was born there were 13 family members in the house with the grandfather as head of affairs (capoccia) and the grandmother as head of the household (massaia) according to an age-old tradition.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

an Historical Florentine Pudding

Lo Zuccotto

Recently a friend brought a pudding to Le Ripe which I had heard of but never tasted.

The pudding casing, made of spectacularly red sponge slices, hid a half-chocolate mousse, half-cream filling studded with candied peel and chocolate kibbles

 Formerly known as Caterina's Helmet, this Florentine pudding hails from the days of the Medici.
 In the late Renaissance at the height of the family's fortunes, Caterina de' Medici, Lorenzo il Magnifico's daughter, as queen of France, apparently asked Bernardo Buontalenti to invent a new dolce to celebrate the Spanish ambassador's arrival. 

Saturday, August 3, 2019

The triangular square

Piazza Matteotti, Greve in Chianti

Piazza Matteotti, looking south
Greve in Chianti is arguably the liveliest, most interesting and possibly most hospitable town in Chianti, but its square is indubitably the most attractive sight in Greve. Roughly triangular in shape, it is also distinctive for its porticoes around all three sides and the chain of terraces above, from where residents, restaurants and bed and breakfast places enjoy the view.

the beautiful porticoes of Greve: shade in summer and shelter in winter

Where monks still tread

Badia Passignano: the Abbey

Plumb in the middle of the Antinori wine estates in Chianti sits the Abbey of San Michele a Passignano, in its nest of cypresses.

The abbey was founded in 890 and joined the Vallombrosans (a branch of the Benedictine Order), in the 11th century, under the aegis of Saint John Gualbert or San Giovanni Gualberto (for more on his Vallombrosans see a previous post, Of Monks and Forests). The abbey has been renovated several times and resembles more a castle than a monastery. 

the forbidding western bastions of the monastery, softened by caper bushes

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Simply good food in Florence

The Republic of Fabio Picchi

In 1979 Fabio Picchi opened his first restaurant in Borgo La Croce, a neighbourhood east of Florence's historic centre, in via de' Maggi and via del Verrocchio, next door to the Sant'Ambrogio mercato comunale, or public market. These days you will find 6 or 7 different establishments run under the name or variants of Cibreo all in and around via de' Maggi and via del Verrocchio.

assortment of herbs and flowers in former tomato tins, on display on the terrace
The name: cibreo is a homely Tuscan ragout or stew of chicken giblets once made by Fabio Picchi's mother; the leftovers were minced with artichokes and added to spinach pie. Apparently it was scrumptious although it is not on offer at any of his restaurants.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Pisa's High Line

Seeing the city from the heights

Since 2018 Pisa has opened to the public a walkway along its ancient city walls. We tried it out recently and recommend it if you have an hour or two to spend in the city and are looking for a novel perspective.

The walkway runs for three kilometres between Torre di Legno Piazza del Rosso, not far from the Arno river, and Piazza dei Miracoli. We highly recommend following it in this direction, as the views of Pisa's most famous monuments are enjoyed best this way. If it is summer, preferably choose the morning, so that you have the sun behind you.