13 February 2014

AUNTIE PASTA: The Surprising Cuisine of Turin

TURIN, Italy – With the sky still an early morning pink, crates of dark purple eggplant, yellow pears and fragrant fennel are stacked willy nilly, cluttering the streets as fruit and vegetable vendors at Turin’s great food market, Porta Palazzo set up their market stalls for the day. Brawny butchers in white coats and blood stained aprons pull large beef hindquarters and pork carcasses from rumbling refrigerated trucks and carry them to their market stalls in the immense glass and wrought iron building nearby.
Piazza San Carlo, Turin, Italy
But even before the butchers start to sharpen their knives and price cards are stuck into the produce boxes, local chefs are on the prowl, menu ideas running through their minds. How many crates of Swiss chard do you have? Never mind, how about the beets, will you have more tomorrow? The day’s menu depends on what they choose. The only thing certain is that the food they’ll prepare is unlike any you have ever eaten in Italy.

Chef Roberto Donna of Washington, D.C. knows first-hand how creative the chefs in his hometown of Turin can be. He’ll tell you that with such incredibly voluptuous and seductive ingredients as white truffles, porcini mushrooms, Piedmont beef, fresh brook trout, and an abundance of game, and locals are never really surprised when first time visitors can barely keep from swooning at the dinner table.
 Chef Roberto Donna
Turinese cuisine is unlike the food in any other part of Italy. Local dishes incorporate a much larger variety of savory sauces which are more traditional in French cuisine than in Italian. And chefs tend to reach for butter and lard rather than olive oil, which is also more French than Italian. Olive oil has only been used in local cooking since the 1950’s when it was brought north by southern Italians who immigrated to Turin to work in the automobile industry.

Another difference is that appetizers play a much larger role here than in other parts of Italy, both in the size of the portions and in their sheer creativity. In Chef Donna’s definitive cookbook, ‘Cooking in Piedmont’, he offers twenty-six recipes for appetizers including such non-appetizer sounding dishes as rabbit salad, stuffed roasted peppers, veal tongue in a spicy red sauce, a duck liver flan and spicy polenta served with fried quail eggs.
Bagna Caoda
Probably the best known Piedmontese appetizers are bagna caoda –literally a hot bath -of oil, garlic, anchovies and butter served as a dipping sauce for winter vegetables, and fonduta (from the French fondre, to melt) a fondue of creamy Fontina cheese flavored with white truffles. Truffles are used extensively in Turinese cooking, and when they are in season – between November and February – you’ll find them  generously sprinkled over just about everything.

Two of Turin’s most popular pasta dishes are tajarin, golden egg noodles served with melted butter and a shaving of white truffles, and Chef Donna’s favorite, ravioli del plin, (del plin means to pinch in Turinese dialect) are often served with a reduced veal stock and a delicate veil of grated parmesan cheese. It is interesting that the Turinese prefer fresh egg pastas, rather than pastasciutta, dried pasta, that is so popular throughout the rest of Italy.
 Ravioli del Plin
The best rice in Italy, some say the world, grows in the wide flat lands between Milan and Turin so in addition to pasta you may find a rich and creamy risotto, rice served with meat sauce, and/or a rice and chick pea dish on the menu. Other non-pasta choices are chestnut flour gnocchi served with a cheese sauce called fonduta di Castelmagno (Castelmagno is a town southwest of Turin famous for its cheese), and baccalà (salted cod), served with saffron flavored polenta. And then, as the Italians say, Coraggio! – Courage! It’s time to move on to the main course.

The city’s signature dish is bollito misto, a mix of boiled meats served with three sauces: bagnet verd, or green sauce made from parsely, anchovies, garlic and olive oil; bagnet ross, a red sauce of crushed tomatoes, garlic and hot peppers, and saussa d’avije, a yellow mustard sauce sweetened with honey and crushed nuts.

In the past, traditionalists insisted that bollito misto contain seven vegetables, seven types of meat, and seven types of ornamenti, i.e. tongues, tails and dangly bits, but today the more exotic dangly bits are slowly being eased out. You'll find bollito misto on the menu at least once a week in most Turin restaurants. The boiled meats are served from a rolling stainless steel cart and each type of meat is kept warm in its own broth filled compartment. Your waiter will give you a little of everything, but if you are squeamish about eating dangly bits you can always ask for the meats that you want.
Serving Bolitto Misto - No Dangly Bits Please
Other classic Piedmontese dishes include brasato al Barolo, Piedmont beef slowly braised in Barolo wine, and finanziera, a stew of cock’s crests, chicken livers, veal, peas and porcini mushrooms. In the fall and winter you’ll find venison, roe deer (a small European deer), quail and even tagliata di renna, slices of reindeer meat, on some menus along with beef and veal, free range poultry and freshly caught fish instead of fish farm fish.

In a country where no culinary rock has been left unturned, isn't it nice to know that there is still a small corner of it where you can find new taste experiences? The food of Turin may just change the way you look at Italian food forever.

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