For the past week we’ve been residents of the beautiful Medieval town of Lucca in Northern Tuscany and students at the International Academy of Italian Cuisine. Situated a short cycle ride outside the city’s defensive walls, the school is run by Gianluca Pardini – a specialist in traditional Tuscan cuisine and a bit of a local celeb by all accounts! Gianluca is a member of the “Slow Food Movement” so we only use seasonal ingredients, sourced as locally as possible – which in these bountiful Tuscan hills usually means from about a mile or so down the lane!
Every day, working alongside two master chefs and twelve other students, we prepared (and then ate!) a four course meal in the typical Italian style: Antipasto, Primo, Secondo and Dolce.
Menù del giorno
No more than a few morsels – just enough to get your juices going – these dishes were always simple arrangements of just a few ingredients and (as we’re near the coast) often themed around whatever catch was available fresh at the market that morning.
A few of our favourites included fennel and orange salad with pan-fried squid and anchovies, tuna carpaccio with redcurrant sauce, or just a simple arrangement of chilled fresh seafood. When serving raw fish Gianluca would either chill the fish to near but not quite frozen to kill any bugs, or marinate it in a mixture of lemon juice, white wine, white wine vinegar and salt for four hours (of course, the fish must also be fresh as a daisy!).
This course usually features one of Italy’s greatest exports; pasta plays a major part in Tuscan cooking but is far more complex than the store cupboard staple we’ve come to know. It turns out there are different shapes for different sauces, different flours for different textures and even different ravioli shapes depending on which town you come from! But once you’ve mastered the theory it’s really fun and super easy to make, as long as you don’t mind getting your fingers sticky!
The basic pasta recipe goes like this:
100g dry ingredients (OO flour/semolina) to 1 egg (this also is handily the quantity for a 1 person serving). The semolina can be added to make up to half of the dry ingredients, or removed altogether for a more delicate pasta. As we were serving ours with a hearty pigeon ragù we went for a 50:50 mix to create a rustic style pasta.
Next, the fun part: It is obligatory to pour your dry ingredients onto a marble or wooden slab, make a well in the centre, crack the egg into it and then slowly bring the whole thing together using your fingers. (Okay, you can use a bowl or even a food processor if you must but Gianluca will not be happy!).
Once your ingredients come together to form a dough it’s time for your pre-dinner workout as you now need to knead your pasta baby for a full 10 minutes (no cheating!).
Then you can wrap your dough in clingfilm and leave it to rest for half an hour while you debate which shape to make. We’re told that the general rule is that a thicker shape is used for a heavier sauce – so papadelle would suit a heavy meat ragù, whilst a vermicelli would be perfect with a delicate, creamy sauce. Before cutting the pasta you need to roll it out (either through a pasta maker or using a rolling pin) so that you can almost see your hand through it. Then cut it to your style and sprinkle with more flour to stop the spaghetti sticking back together.
We made spaghetti “alla chitarra” to go with our pigeon ragù. This traditional method involves pressing sheets of pasta through a ‘guitar’ to create strips of pasta which are wider than the normal spaghetti (almost tagliatelle).
See, Easy! Cook the pasta for 3 minutes in boiling water until “al-dente” and serve with your delicious sauce and great big glugs of olive oil.
The main dishes of the region reflect the fact that Lucca is positioned between the mountains and the sea. Game and meat traditionally hunted in the forests – rabbit, wild boar, guinnea fowl, quail and pigeon – all feature heavily on menus here, along with plenty of sea food.
We made a delicious assortment of desserts throughout the week – coffee semifredo with hazelnut praline, lemon tart with limoncello syrup and spiced chocolate salami to name but a few! However, “Torta di erbe” was something completely new for us. We had spied this green tart in the windows of pastry shops in Lucca and assumed it was a savoury dish – some sort of spinach pie perhaps? In fact, it turns out this is a very traditional desert and a speciality of Lucca. To make an authentic bake you’ll have to do a bit of foraging (or weeding!) as the dish is made using a mixture of wild and cultivated greens. Although it sounds an odd combination, the leaves take on the flavour of the spices, marsala and other goodies – plus I’m sure this has got to count as one of your 5 a day!
Torta di Erbe
For the pastry:
500g plain flour
200g caster sugar
20g olive oil
1tsp baking powder (Gianluca insists this gives pastry a good crunch!)
Grated zest 1 lemon and 1 orange
4 egg yolks
For the filling:
1.5kg of a mixture of chard, spinach, dandelion leaves and nettles
400g stale bread
handful each of orange and lemon candied rind
50g grated pecorino cheese
20g chopped parsley
1 tsp grated nutmeg
1 tsp ground black pepper
120g pine nuts (plus a few to decorate)
6 egg whites and 1 whole egg
Marsala wine (to marinate the raisins)
First make the pastry. We did this the old fashioned way on a large marble slab using only our fingers. To do this, just tip the flour and baking powder onto the surface and make a well in the centre. Add the sugar, zests, butter and egg yolks and oil and rub the butter into the sugar and eggs with your fingers until there are no lumps left. Then start to incorporate the flour into the wet ingredients.
The mix should start to form a sticky dough. Use more flour to stop it sticking to the side but as soon as it is all combined well, wrap it in clingfilm and let it rest in the fridge while you make the filling.
Put the stale bread in some water to soak and put the raisins in the wine to soak.
Wash your greens and then boil these until they have wilted (which won’t take very long). Then you need to squeeze all of the water out of the cooked leaves and and once cool enough to handle, chop the whole lot as finely as you can and put in a large mixing bowl.
Take your bread out of the water, drain away any excess and chop the bread into crumbs and add to the greens. Take the raisins out of the wine and add these to the bowl, along with the rest of the filling ingredients. Mix well and leave covered to rest while you prepare the pastry.
Grease a fluted 20cm tart tin and dust with flour. Take the pastry out of the fridge and roll out to form a circle. Warning: this pastry is very soft to work with, it will help if it’s cold but you need to work quickly! Put the circle in the bottom of your tart tin and roll a long strip to run around the edge of your pastry case. Join this to the base of the tart. It doesn’t matter if the top edge of the pastry looks a little messy at this point. Next, pour the filling into the pastry case (about 2/3 full). Take the remaining pastry above the filling and using a knife, cut and fold this all the way around to form little spikes.
Then roll out some left over pastry into thin strips and lay these on the top of the tart in a diamond pattern. Decorate with the extra pine nuts. Cook for about an hour at 160C. …enjoy with a coffee or glass of desert wine!