On Italian aunts and a simple dish of homemade pasta.
For one reason or another — Giulia’s research, in Modena, and my irresistible love of a holiday — we found ourselves staying for a week or so in Piacenza, with Giulia’s aunt, Lina.
Lina is a doctor — as well as an unbelievable cook and the warmest of hosts. Each time I’ve visited, she asks after my health and takes my blood pressure — and, when we are away, keeps in regular contact with Giulia about my well-being.
This is, apparently, a privilege reserved for me alone — on account of my being ‘cagionevole’, weak or sickly, a description with which I don’t really identify. Regardless, Lina, whilst attending to my ailments, chainsmokes long, slim cigarettes — MS Club Azzurre — that hang almost vertically from her lip.
She lives in a flat in the centre of this ancient town, one of that type of gorgeous Italian town that brings Brits to the peninsula. However, this particular town, Piacenza, avoids its share of Brits — owing to the fact that it sits next to Parma — a city that has built a stellar reputation for its food (Parma ham, Parmigiano, etc) .
This is something that Lina resents — not the absence of Brits, but her city’s more famous foodie neighbour — as she insists that many of the things that are rightly piacentino have been stolen by the aggressive parmense culinary culture industry. All that Piacenza indisputably claims these days is Gutturnio — a red wine, usually fizzy but better still, that hasn’t made it to the UK yet — a specific take on tortelli di zucca that, thankfully, leaves out the amaretto, and pisarei e fasò.
For her principled stance on this matter, I’ve come to see her as a spirited fighter for the oppressed. She and her sister (Rosa, Giulia’s mum) regale me of stories of political activism in the seventies. She attends local Marxist lectures which, by the quietness of the city, must be attended almost by her alone.
And I imagine, in a not-too-distant future when Salvini’s goons march the streets looking for migrants and leftists to beat up, that her grand and cluttered flat will be the headquarters of the local resistance.
Until that day comes, she’ll spend her days smoking, running rounds as a retired doctor, looking after her grandkids, and cooking.
When we returned from Modena in the evening each day, she’d prepared a meal. We ate well and played briscola together with her daughter. Until she, Lina, drank more wine than would let her play — and until that cigarette slipped ever further from her lip.
She cooked pisarei e fasò. Fasò is piacentino dialect for fagioli — beans — and this dish is served with fresh hand-made pasta, the pisarei.
It ain’t the sort of thing we would recognise as pasta, although my mum would still determinedly call it ‘macaroni’.
They are little balls of pasta dough — a bit like gnocchi — the same size as a borlotto bean. The idea is that they swim together in the dish, and you eat the beans with the indistinguishably sized pasta.
You’re not going to find these in a shop. So, you have to make them yourself.
This serves two.
For the pasta:
- 100g of ‘0’ flour (or plain bread flour)
- 100g of breadcrumbs
For the beans:
- Soffritto: ½ onion; ½ carrot; ½ celery stick; ½ leek — roughly
- Splash of white wine
- A squeeze of tomato puree
- 100 grams of dried borlotti beans
- Salt and pepper
- THE NIGHT BEFORE. This is the important moment — and this is the thing that prevents me from eating this dish more: soak the dried beans in room temperature water twenty-four hours in advance. If you don’t have dried borlotti, use a different type of dried bean. The trouble with precooked canned beans is that they are just going to melt when you cook them.
- ON THE DAY. Start with the soffritto. Chop the quantities of veg small — the smaller the better. Cook it in a pan in hot oil.
- When it looks like it’s cooked a little and it’s smelling good, turn the heat up on the pan. Stir the soffritto so it doesn’t burn whilst the pan is warming.
- Splash in the white wine, making sure not to drown the soffritto, and stir whilst the wine quickly evaporates away. Enjoy the smell whilst you’re doing this.
- Drain the dried beans and add them to the pan with some fresh cold water. (For some, vaguely superstitious reason, you shouldn’t add boiling water to uncooked beans — as they never become cooked. And you should never add cold water to beans once they are hot. There’s a word for this in Calabrese: the beans scavudano).
- Add a lid and bring it to the boil. When it’s boiling gently, add a squeeze of the tomato puree. Bring the temperature down and move onto the pasta. This can sit for a little while.
- For the pasta, add the flour and the breadcrumbs together in a large bowl. If you don’t have breadcrumbs, put some stale bread in the blender. (TOP TIP: always keep your stale bread).
- Add water to the mixture, stirring with your hands, until it becomes a workable dough. Not too dry, because it’ll break; not too wet, otherwise you’re just getting a sloppy mess.(If you find yourself with a sloppy mess, just add more flour and breadcrumbs. But watch out, because the more you add, the more people you can feed.
- When you can work the dough in the bowl, flour a kitchen surface or table and plonk the dough upon it. Keep working it together.
- When mixed, break off little chunks of the dough. It doesn’t matter how big these are, but make sure you can do the next step.Roll the chunk into an even sausage of dough, no more than 1.5 centimetres in width. Make sure it’s even.
- Then, taking a knife, cut the sausage into roughly 1cm wide pieces. Look at the picture. Now, concentrate. Roll your thumb across the top of each little piece of dough. I have made a gif to explain this difficult concept.
- Keep doing until you have done all of the dough.
- Boil the pisarei until, like gnocchi, they float to the surface. This’ll take no more than three minutes. Mix together the beans and the pisarei.
- Top with parmesan.
- Send a pic to your Italian mum.