As you some of you may know, I recently joined the #BloggingPiemonte group. Members of this group have varying interests and backgrounds (I have included links to all the blogs involved in this initiative). We are, however, united by the fact that we all live in the wonderful north-western Italian region of Piedmont and often make it the subject of our blog posts. As part of being involved, we write on a common topic periodically. This June, the topic is ‘Authenticity in Piedmont’.
Anyway, after an intense initiation into motherhood in mid-2014, late last year I returned to the blogosphere with Piedmontese recipe contributions at Turin Italy Guide. Naturally this task involves a lot of research, something I genuinely enjoy as I love food, cooking and history. Looking back, I have used many adjectives to describe the dishes I have written about. However, I have found myself drawing the line at using the word ‘authentic’. I suspect I am one of those party poopers Diana warned about when announcing this month’s topic. That is, one of those people who consider the word a loaded concept. Basically, as an amateur historian and recipe collector, I cannot accept the argument that there was, is and will only be one way to make many of the region’s signature dishes.
A cursory glance at history is more than enough to confirm that culinary customs in Italy have not remained static. Through trade, invasion and conquest, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans and Spaniards are just a few of many populations in the past three millennia who have contributed to the evolution of Italian cuisine. The introduction of olives, grapes, rice, pasta, citrus fruits, and New World crops such as maize, tomatoes and potatoes are notable examples.
In an interview with the BBC, Massimo Bottura, chef patron of Modena’s Osteria Francescana said: ‘History has placed many layers upon the surface of this country and many cross-cultural influences have left their mark on its cuisine… Italian gastronomic history developed because our country was invaded, trampled and trodden on’. This is exactly what I have found with researching the history of Piedmontese recipes. They too, have developed and have been (and more than likely will continue to be) subject to evolution and change.
A case in point is the Piedmontese chocolate and amaretti pudding better known as bonet. The original version, which dates to the 13th century, did not include what is now considered an integral ingredient – cocoa. When cocoa became available in Europe after the ‘discovery’ of the Americas, it gradually began to be added to the pudding mixture.
And while we are on the subject of chocolate, what about gianduia? The cocoa-hazelnut mixture that characterises this chocolate was invented in 1806 due to the economic circumstances of the time – a blockade of the Mediterranean that rendered the costs of importing cocoa into the Savoy kingdom astronomically high. The torinese chocolate maker, Michele Prochet, had little choice but to extend the small amount of chocolate he had by mixing it with hazelnuts from the Langhe countryside. It went on to be considered a winning combination and is now a torinese icon.
Some people may also be surprised to find out that the mayonnaise in the salsa tonnata for the Piedmontese antipasto, vitello tonnato, is a very recent addition. 19th century recipes for this dish indicate that the tuna sauce was made with tuna, anchovies, capers, olive oil and lemon juice. Later on, crushed hardboiled eggs were added to the sauce. Now those hardboiled eggs are being increasingly replaced with mayonnaise.
In addition, I have found that people have their own unique formulas for making many other dishes here. When I was researching agnolotti, I came across so many different family recipes for the pasta dough as well as the stuffing. Panna cotta, that delectable softly-set pudding of obscure origin, can also be set, infused and served in a variety of ways, as many past and present recipes for it attest. Finding out your friends’ recipes (and secret ingredients!) for things such as ragù is one of the true pleasures of living here. Simply put, no one makes it in exactly the same way as anyone else!
Moreover, I am amazed at the extent to which various foods that were previously unavailable and/or unknown are increasingly being grown, consumed and incorporated into dishes here. For instance, the consumption of tofu, made from Italian grown soya, is gradually becoming more common. Many vegetarians here use it as a cheese and/or meat replacement in otherwise traditional Italian dishes. My husband, since visiting Australia and sampling the variety of Asian food my home country has to offer, has developed an appreciation of many Asian dishes and condiments and has taken to dressing his salad with extra virgin olive oil and soy sauce. Try it, they actually taste wonderful together!
The purists who insist on ‘authenticity’ may indeed cringe at the extra virgin olive oil – soy sauce pairing I described. I would not be at all surprised though if this seemingly unlikely combination becomes commonplace here at some point in the future. As history demonstrates, Italian culinary culture and traditions have always been in a state of flux and will continue to be. For this reason, I wholeheartedly agree with the food historian Zachary Nowak when he says that taste and nutrition should determine what we eat, not culinary mythologies about authenticity.
As you have no doubt guessed from some of my previous posts, I love yoghurt and yoghurt making. I would therefore like to conclude this defence of inauthenticity with a delicious and ‘inauthentic’ yoghurt and mint panna cotta recipe!
Yoghurt and Mint Panna Cotta
- 250ml cream
- 250 g strained yoghurt
- 90 g caster sugar
- 5 g gelatin
- mint leaves
- A heavy-bottomed saucepan
- A sieve
- A whisk
- A wooden spoon
- A cooking thermometer
- A bowl
- 4 ramekins (125mL capacity)
- In a bowl, soften gelatin sheet in cold water.
- Put cream, sugar and mint leaves in saucepan and allow to simmer (N.B. the temperature should not exceed 80 degrees). Remove saucepan from heat.
- Remove gelatin sheet from bowl and squeeze until all excess water comes out.
- Add gelatin sheet to cream mixture and stir until it dissolves.
- Add the yoghurt and whisk until smooth.
- Strain mixture through sieve and discard mint leaves.
- Pour mixture carefully into ramekins.
- Place ramekins in refrigerator and leave to set for at least 6 hours or overnight.
- Serve with berries placed on top of ramekins.
You’ll probably find that my fellow bloggers have interpreted the topic of ‘Authenticity in Piedmont’ very differently. Please visit the following links to read their spin on this concept:
Eptrad ‘That’s an Authentic Start’
Turin Epicurean Capital: ‘Living Turin style’
The Entire Pizza: ‘Forced to Live Authentically in Piemonte’
Wine & Truffles: ‘Authentic Living in the Alta Langa’
Living in the Langhe: ‘How to Become Authentically Piemontese in 5 Easy Steps’
Texas Mom in Torino: ‘Authenticity: The evolution of this Texas mom to an an Italian mamma’
Simply Italiana: ‘Finding Authenticity as a Foreigner in Italy’
ItaliAnna: ‘Piemonte = Authenticity’
Bailey Alexander: “Save Yourself by Saving the Planet: the real benefits of growing a garden”