Do you ever get periods when you are obsessed with some ingredient or flavour? Whenever I imagine to cook something right now, I think it would taste better if it contained some buckwheat. I am not sure what triggered it. It is a grain I’ve always found rich and complex and I’ve always been fond of. In the mountains around Milan, where I grew up, it is a common fare. It is a hardy, resistant crop able to grow in poor soils, and it actually likes the cool and rainy summers in the mountains. It does not need as much sun as ordinary wheat, a grain with which buckwheat bears no connection whatsoever, other than the name.
The grain probably reached Italy from Germany and France, where it arrived from Russia. Its origin lies somewhere in central Asia. Its Italian name – grano saraceno - is maybe a connection to the fact that it was new and exotic when compared to ordinary wheat, which has been grown in Italy for a very long time. Or possibly, it arrived in Italy brought by the Turks, courtesy of Venice, who called them Saraceni. We have no way of knowing. It did arrive in the mountain places earlier that the other exotic future staple, maize. Its nutritional value is actually better than maize, since it contains all essential amminoacids.
I find it deeply fascinating that this crop I’ve grown up with is actually used in quite a similar form in Japan, as soba noodles. Needless to say, I could eat soba every day. The Italian take on grano saraceno is way more challenging in terms of digestion, but it is equally tasty and quite in tune with the current festive climate. In the mountains of Valtellina, buckwheat is eaten as a rustic polenta, called taragna. Another speciality, called sciatt, are fried beignet with cheese cubes and grappa: I think I’m still ending digestion of the last ones I had, about ten years ago. The best known dish, pizzoccheri, are buckwheat tagliatelle. They are a perfect beginner’s pasta because they are easy to roll and they need to be cut irregularly. The dough is quite easy to stretch and it does not require kneading since there is barely any gluten. The only bit of attention needed is, because of the lack of elastic structure, they get very brittle when they dry, so be careful if you don’t cook them immediately. This is true also for store-bought pizzoccheri – they tend to crumble a lot.
Pizzoccheri are boiled with whatever green veg is around at the time of the year: spinach, chard, savoy cabbage. They are paired with a few potato cubes to make them go further, and dressed with a generous amount of butter and cheese, traditionally a mixture of parmigiano and casera. What brings the dish to the realm of pure gluttony to me is that handfuls of sage and garlic are fried in butter and added to the dish. This tiny details is what sells it for me. Here is the version adapted to the British climate, in which I managed to exploit the Christmas conjuncture and magically get some fresh sage. I used a gorgeous salted farm butter from Devon and some nice local medium cheddar I got from the market. Since cheddar contains way more fat than casera, I cut down the amount of butter considerably. You need a tasty cheese, with a slightly bitter note, but not overpowering. Cheddar was a bit bland, but not bad at all.
Pizzoccheri valtellinesi, British edition
Ingredients: (serves 4 as a main)
400 g buckwheat flour
100 g all-purpose flour
water, about 200 ml
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 small savoy cabbage heart
3 medium-small potatoes
about 80 g butter (you should increase it if you dare)
100 g cheddar, grated
50 gr parmesan, grated
a handful of fresh sage leaves
3-4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
For the pizzoccheri: mix flours and salt in a large bowl. Have a surface ready with plenty of flour and your rolling pin at hand, and be mentally prepared not to touch anything for a few minutes (this is sticky stuff). Add cold water a bit at a time while mixing with a fork; after adding about 200 ml put everything on the floured surface and mix with your floured hands, adding more water as needed. The dough is really prone to sticking to your hands, but solid – more like a soft, pliable paste than a puddle. Bring everything together in one ball – no need to knead, so long as it’s uniform. You can either let it rest a while or spread it immediately, using a rolling pin and flour as needed. Divide the dough in three or four balls, spread them with the rolling pin until they are about 2-3 mm thick (no problem if they are not perfectly uniform). Using a knife cut it into 10cm x 2cm matchsticks. These are short tagliatelle. I find it easier to cut a few wide 10 cm strips, superpose them, cut them into 2 cm strips and then spread them on flour again.
When ready to eat, cut the cabbage heart into thin strips – about 1 cm wide – and the potatoes to 1 cm cubes. Grate the cheese. Melt butter in a pan, add sage and garlic and let fry for a minute or two – the garlic should not burn at all. Set aside. In a big pot bring plenty of salted water to the boil with cabbage and potatoes, and cook until barely tender. Add the pizzoccheri and cook for another five minutes until the pizzoccheri are cooked through – mix very delicately since they tend to break. Drain the cabbage, potatoes and pizzoccheri. Arrange about half of them in a large oven dish, cover with half sage butter (you can either keep or discard the sage and garlic, I like to keep them because I love eating sage, but it’s up to you) and half of the cheese, a bit of black pepper, then add the other half or pizzoccheri, black pepper, butter and cheese. Serve immediately.