20 November 2014

AUNTIE PASTA: The Surprising Cuisine of Turin

With the sky still an early morning pink, crates of dark green artichokes, 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. Working nearby, brawny butchers in white coats and blood stained aprons pull large beef hindquarters and pork carcasses from the back of rumbling refrigerated trucks and hang them on large hooks behind their counters in the immense glass and wrought iron market building. 
 Porta Palazzo, City Market of Turin, Italy
But even before the butchers start to sharpen their knives or farmers stick price cards 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? How about these 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.

Just ask Turin native Chef Roberto Donna of Washington, D.C.’s four-star Galileo restaurant. He knows firsthand how creative the chefs in his hometown can be.  He’ll also 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, no one is ever really surprised when first time visitors can barely keep from swooning at the dinner table.
Butcher Stall, Porta Palazzo Market, Turin, Italy
In part it’s the luck of the location. Turin is in the extreme northwest corner of Italy, in the province of Piedmont, away from the tourist heavy routes that favor Rome, Florence and Venice. Even in recent years as Piedmont, home of the Slow Food movement, has become a Mecca for food lovers, Turin continues to hover below the radar.

As gourmands track elusive white truffles in Alba and frolic through the vineyards of Montferrato, the tables of Turin are largely ignored. Even after the 2006 Winter Olympics brought more than a million visitors to the city, the cuisine of Turin remains a mystery not just to foreigners, but to Italians as well.

You'll Find Eveything You Need at Porta Palazzo Market
If you are lucky enough to spend time in Turin the first thing you’ll notice is Torinese cuisine is not like the food in any other part of Italy. For one, chefs tend to reach for butter and lard instead of olive oil. Olive oil has only been used in local cooking since the 1950’s, brought north by southerners who immigrated to Turin to work in the automobile industry. And more than in any other part of Italy, local dishes incorporate a variety of savory sauces. 

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 presents 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. 

Probably the two 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 Torinese cooking and when they are in season – between November and February – they are liberally showered over just about everything. 
Creamy Fontina Cheese Flavored with White Truffles
In a traditional Italian meal, appetizers are followed by a first course, usually pasta. 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 Torinese dialect) often served with a reduced veal stock and a veil of grated parmesan cheese. It is interesting that the Torinese prefer fresh egg pastas, rather than pastasciutta, dried pasta, that is so popular throughout the rest of Italy.

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’ll find rich and creamy risotto, riso all piemontese, rice served with meat sauce, and riso e ceci, a rice and chick pea dish on local menus. Other non-pasta choices are chestnut flour gnocchi served with a fonduta di Castelmagno (Castelmagno is a town southwest of Turin that is famous for its cheese), or baccalĂ  (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.
Creamy Risotto with Slivers of Truffles 
The city’s signature dish is bollito misto, a mix of boiled meats served with three sauces: bagnet verd, a parsley sauce spiced up with anchovy, garlic and olive oil; bagnet ross, crushed tomatoes, garlic and hot peppers, and saussa d’avije, a 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. tongue, tail and dangly bits, but today the more exotic dangly bits are slowly being eased out. This boiled meat dish is on the menu at least once a week in most Turin restaurants and served from a rolling stainless steel cart, each meat kept warm in its own broth filled compartment. And you don’t have to worry about what you will be served for you can ask for the meat that you want. 
Bollito Misto, A Torinese Favorite 
Other classic 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 menu, along with beef and veal, free range poultry and freshly caught fish instead of fish farm fish. 

The food in Turin may just change the way you look at Italian food forever. In a country where no culinary rock has been left unturned, it’s nice to know there is still a small corner where you can find new taste experiences.  

Ravioli del Plin with Butter and Sage
“When I was growing up in Turin,” says Chef Donna, “my two favorite foods were ravioli del plin and the chocolate and hazelnut cream pudding called bonet. My list of favorite foods has grown since then, but ravioli del plin and bonet are still at the top.”

Here are some typical Turinese/Piedmontese dishes Chef Donna recommends first time visitors to Turin and Piedmont try.  

The Chef Recommends

 Acciughe al Verde
acciughe al verde, anchovies served with basil and parsley pesto spiked with hot peppers
vitello tonnato, razor thin slices of rare roasted veal served with a rich tuna sauce. This is most often thought of as a summer dish, but when the weather outside is frightful, the sauce is served warm.  
fonduta, made from fontina cheese from Aosta, butter, egg yolks, milk and white truffles from Alba. (only available in the winter).

 Golden Talglierini 
taglierini al rosso d’uovo – rich egg noodles, (12 egg yolks to each pound of flour), served with butter and truffle shavings, or sometimes with a sauce of butter, oil, onions, tomatoes, and finely chopped chicken livers
raviolini del plin – tiny ravioli may be offered with a creamy cheese sauce (fonduta) or a reduced veal stock, or even served in broth. The sauce depends entirely on what they are filled with.

Main courses
 Brasato al Barolo
brasato al Barolo – the classic Piedmont beef slow cooked in rich red Barolo wine
bollito misto – a mix of boiled meats traditionally served with three piquant sauces
fritto misto – a mix of flash fried bits of meat, fish and vegetables. The mix depends on what is fresh in the marketplace 

Everyone's Favorite, Chocolate Bonet  
bonet – the Chef’s favorite chocolate and hazelnut cream pudding.
nocciolini di Chiavasso – a tiny cookie made of toasted hazelnuts, sugar and egg whites, traditionally served with a zabaglione sauce. These cookies were originally called “noisettes”, which is the French word for nuts, but the name was changed during Mussolini’s reign in the 1930’s.
torta gianduia –  chocolate cake with chocolate and hazelnut cream filling and frosting.


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1 comment:

  1. Having just come back from a day in Torino, I now realise that there's a lot more to taste. What a tantalizing post.