08 March 2012

AUNTIE PASTA: Over the Moon in Lunigiana

SARONNO, Italy - The Lunigiana is a strange kind of place that even many Italians have never heard of. It’s like an insiders secret, located in the provinces of La Spezia and Massa Carrara, It’s half in Liguria and half in Tuscany, going from the Apennine mountains to the Magra River.
The Lunigiana, A Well Kept Secret
The story is that before the territory was settled by the Romans, the Etruscan lived here. No news there, most of the towns, particularly in that area got their start exactly the same way. The story is – and you know how these stories are, often more fiction than fact – that the borders reflect the medieval diocese of Luni, which no longer exists. It is really was part of Luini, then Lunigiana was once the most important urban center on the northern Tuscan coast.
The Moon, The Bear and the ???
It is said that the area was called Luini because the people who lived there worshiped the moon. Luni is close enough to luna which in Italian is the word for moon, so it could be true. To add fuel to that fire, the symbol of modern day Lunigiana is a crescent moon held in the paw of a bear.
 Stele in Piagnar Castle Museum
Along with traces of both Roman and Medieval settlements, there are wondrously interesting stele, late pre-historic and Bronze Age stone statues which have been found in large numbers in this area.    
More Stele
From time immemorial, the ‘panigaccio’ and ‘testarolo’ have been a simple and low cost dishes eaten in the entire territory of Lunigiana and the Garfagnana. Panigaccio and testarolo are not the same thing as I initially wrote and now stand corrected by Andrea. He told me that panigaccio are a little like foccacia while testaroli are cooked like crepes, then cut into diamond shapes or strips and served like pasta. That part I knew because I've cooked, and made, testaroli, it was the panigaccio that confused me. He said that he used to eat panigaccio topped with a little cheese or ham. Nice to know and I stand corrected.  
Testaroli with Pesto
The recipe for testaroli is simple. Equal parts whole wheat or buckwheat flour and water, (buckwheat is best and white flour is not recommended) mixed to a consistency of heavy cream. Two cups of flour should be enough for four people. The cooking technique is basically the same as cooking crepe, with one small addition. Before you start to cook the batter, take a half of a peeled potato or half of a peeled onion, stab it with a fork, dip it in extra virgin olive oil and run it over the hot oil before you add the batter. Do this before you cook each one. These crepes are not quite as thin as French crepes so they take a few seconds longer to cook.
A Stack of Panigaccio
I prefer to use a large frying pan rather than a crepe size pan since I’m only going to cut them up anyway it’s easier to make a couple of big ones than a bunch of small ones. When the testaroli are cooked, lay them out on a clean dishtowel to cool. They don’t keep well but you can roll them up in cooking paper and freeze them to use another time, or cut them into wide short strips or diamond shapes and drop them in a pot of salted boiling water for a few seconds. Lift them out with a slotted spoon, drain them, put them in a dish and top with pesto and a little grated parmigiano reggiano cheese. Eat immediately. 

Where is this place, anyway?
On this map, the Lunigiana is the small yellow part between La Spezia and Massa Carrara. The first time I saw testaroli was in Parma, in an old shop that sold a little bit of pasta, a few cans of tomatoes, a couple of bottles of wine and some kind of a large, brown pancake. The shop owner seemed a bit perplexed when I asked him what they were, I guess he never had anyone ask him that before. At any rate, he said, they were testaroli and to cook them you just cut them up any old way, and boil them for a few minutes, drain them and top them with pesto. So I did. Once again it was love at first taste. 

Simple dishes like testaroli really speak to the heart of Italian cuisine.Many of the dishes Italians prepare in this day and age of high speed trains and the internet, were developed centuries ago. They are the thread that connects the Italy of today with the Italy of yesterday, and that is one of the reasons why, for me, Italy is so special.
And can I add one small rant regarding pesto? American Chef Michael Chiarello suggests adding a pinch of vitamin C powder (ascorbic acid) to your pesto to keep it from discoloring. He adds ascorbic acid to his pesto because his pesto is made so far in advance of serving there is a danger of it discoloring. But if you are making pesto at home there is absolutely no need for it.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your lovely article on Lunigiana. It is truly a wonderful and undiscovered part of Italy! It has lovely food, and gorgeous, pollution-free countryside and loads of medieval castles to visit.