Regional Italian Food

Pizzoccheri Valtellinesi (Buckwheat Pasta with Potatoes and Swiss Chard)

By • January 28, 2014 • 9 Comments

Every Tuesday, Italian expat Emiko Davies is taking us on a grand tour of Italy, showing us how to make classic, fiercely regional dishes at home. 

Today: Lombardy's favorite winter dish -- buckwheat pasta with potatoes and Swiss chard.

Not far from Lake Como are the steep valleys and mountains of the Valtellina. We're in Lombardy, just north of Milan and just south of Switzerland. It's a beautiful, mountainous area, where the food is hearty and strictly local. 

Take the cheese, for example. Used in many dishes, but especially essential for this pasta dish, Casera is a cow's milk cheese produced from milk that comes from herds in the Valtellina valley, specifically in the province of Sondrio. It's made according to a tradition that goes back to the 1500s. Bitto, the area's other important cheese, is only produced from summertime milk from herds roaming the hills of the Valtellina valley. This, along with the small percentage of goat's milk added to the cheese, lends it its unique flavor. It's the only cheese in the world, apparently, that can be successfully aged more than 10 years. 

 

It goes without saying that although the seemingly humble ingredients of this pasta dish -- handmade pasta that resembles short tagliatelle made of buckwheat flour and water, plus sturdy winter vegetables -- might deceive you into thinking this is a plain dish. But when you add several huge handfuls of cheese and a good dose of Alpine butter, melted to a glorious frothy, golden brown hue with slivers of crisp garlic, you have yourself a rich, satisfying dish that will leave you wanting for nothing.

This might be why the locals are so protective of this recipe. The combination of potatoes and savoy cabbage is the most classic way to serve pizzoccheri, but depending on the season and availability, either Swiss chard (silverbeet) or green beans can be used instead. Aside from this one variation of the vegetables (and perhaps a few differences over the exact age of the cheese or the way in which the garlic is fried), this is the recipe and the locals are proudly, vehemently opposed to any changes.

The pasta is usually handmade, hand rolled, and hand cut. It's quick to make (no need to set up the pasta rolling machine, just a simple rolling pin and a sharp knife will do), and it's surprisingly easy to handle -- but if you don't have time, you can also find dried pizzoccheri in good Italian delis. The use of buckwheat flour for the pasta (together with just a small amount of plain wheat flour) also reflects some ancient traditions of the area; buckwheat is featured in many dishes from mountainous regions where wheat doesn't grow locally, like this buckwheat and apple cake from the neighboring Alto Adige.

This recipe comes from the Accademia del Pizzocchero, so this is as official as it gets. The original recipe called for double this amount to serve 4 people -- but it's a very hearty dish, and I found that halved (which are the proportions below), the recipe was still enough for 3 hungry people or 4, if you're planning on serving this with other dishes. I also found the proportion of butter to be quite overwhelming so have reduced it slightly from 100 grams to 70 grams.

While the traditional cheeses used in this dish are either Valtellina Casera or Bitto, it may be difficult to find these unique cheeses outside of the region. A close, if unorthodox, subsitute would be Gruyere. A medium-aged fontina could also do the trick. 

Pizzoccheri Valtellinesi (Buckwheat Pasta with Potatoes and Swiss Chard)

Serves 3 to 4 

For the pasta:

2 cups (2
00 grams) of fine buckwheat flour
1/2 cup (50 grams) of plain flour
About 1/2 cup (125 milliliters) water
Pinch of salt

For the pizzoccheri:

3 1/2 ounces (100 grams) of savoy cabbage or Swiss chard (about half a bunch)
4 1/2 ounces (125 grams) of potatoes (2 to 3 small potatoes)
1/3 cup (70 grams) of unsalted butter
4 1/2 ounces (125 grams) of Valtellina Casera DOP or Bitto (Gruyere or Fontina in substitution), shaved
2 ounces (about 60 grams) of Grana Padano, grated
1 clove of garlic
Freshly ground pepper

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Emiko Davies

Jump to Comments (9)

Tags: Italy, Regional Italian Food, Lombardy, pasta, vegetarian, cheese

Comments (9)

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14 days ago Rachel H

I loved the pizzoccheri that I had at a couple of restaurants in Valle Intelvi and tried to replicate it rather unsuccessfully (with the dried pasta) but using a different recipe. Do you find the fontina gets too clumpy though? I've only made it with gruyere. Have you tried using any other types of cheese aside from the ones listed in your recipe?

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13 days ago Emiko

I don't find it too clumpy, though I shave it thinly so that it softens but doesn't lose too much shape. Have not tried with different cheeses though! Gruyere is a great substitute.

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7 months ago kr

I love it. Although I use swiss cheese sometimes b/c it's more accessible. I also love the Polenta Taragna. You can get those in the States, btw! I get the ones from Valtellina on a website called Italian Harvest. So good, but will have to try making my own.

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7 months ago gourmandgardener

Uh, we have cheese cheddar in Wi that has been aging for 40 yrs, Just sayin'

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7 months ago gourmandgardener

cheddar cheese

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7 months ago Ecca

Wow, this really make me proud of being born in that area!
The "Pizzoccheri" is the most known dish from Valtellina, then as you said before you have "Sciatt", "Polenta taragna" and "Taroz". I actually live in Valchiavenna which is famous for the white "variant": the "Gnocchetti bianchi di Chiavenna", made with milk and white flour and covered with the same mix of Pizzoccheri (butter, garlic, chees, black pepper and sage), excepeted for cabbage! You should check also the "Biscotti di Prosto" and last but not least...the "Bresaola" :)
Thanks for sharing a piece of my country :)

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7 months ago Ecca

(Sorry for all the mistakes I did in writing my comment!)

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7 months ago SteveP

One of my absolutely favorite dishes. I do think the Savoy cabbage is the most traditional of the vegetables in there.

I spent some childhood years in the province of Varese, not so far away. To be sure, the dish is known around us, though I'd hardly call it Lombardy's favorite winter dish (you'd have to fight Lombards from other areas of the region over that!). :)

I love the buckwheat in other foods in Valtellina as well. The polenta tarragna for one, and then there is schiatt. Wish I were there now...

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7 months ago Emiko

Yes, as mentioned, the savoy cabbage is the most classic. And you're right, to be more precise, it's perhaps the Valtellina's favourite winter dish (but Lombardy is better known outside of Italy) :)