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.
Serves 3 to 4
For the pasta:
2 cups (200 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
Photos by Emiko Davies