I often say that I don’t have great memory for things, I often forget people’s names, recipes I do a hundred times, birthdays or worse, appointments; however, I do think that, in some ways, I have a sort of good food memory. I remember every single detail of a dish I have tasted in the past, its flavours are all hidden inside a small drawer in the back of my mind and it’s just a matter of time before it comes back to me as present and strong as possible. I often feel like the food critic from Ratatouille, a simple dish makes me travel back in time and allows me to remember every single detail of it. The exact moment when I tasted or experienced those flavours first. I love food and gastronomy so much because I’ve always associated them to special experiences; it could be a restaurant with outstanding dishes that somehow inspires or surprises me or it could be a simple homemade dish shared with friends or family that in some way becomes really dear to me.
My very first memory related to food and its conviviality can be traced back to the first time I had polenta, Abruzzo style. I was about the same age as my sister Athina, my whole family was invited to have lunch at a friend’s house in Tagliacozzo.
We drove there with my favourite car, my dad’s grey Crysler, that had seats you could put down and had a sort of small table in the back. I spent the whole time (illegally) watching the road from the back window of the car, pretending to make a big dining table set for all my dolls. That was already pure happiness for me. Once we got there, the first thing I remember was the immense garden, there were so many goats and geese scattered around. I remember I stayed outside and played a bit before getting inside. Once in the house, I discovered the huge fire pit right in the heart of the kitchen. It was so large that it had seating for over three people inside it, almost like a cave. When I saw it for the first time, I just could not believe my eyes and thought that it was the coolest thing in the world. At that time, if you had asked me what I would have liked my house to look like in the future I would have said: with a big fire pit like in Tagliacozzo!
Alceste and Irene are the centre of the house, together with their wonderful family. Federica, their daughter is one of my mother’s best friends; she’s a passionate and smart lawyer, one of the strongest women I know. I adore their whole family, and I love to see how close to each other they all are. They somehow remind me of our family. I remember how impressed I was with their house, so beautifully organised to host as many friends and children as possible. Every time they would invite us we would be over 40 people and they would cook incredible polenta for all of us, it put a huge smile on their faces.
Every time you walk inside the house, Irene, who’s the best host I know, immediately pours you some prosecco or red wine and takes you to the cellar, where usually Alceste is slicing some special fresh ham, sausages or coppa he made in the previous months. Small fried pizza dough with pork coppa (a special salume made with pork scraps from its head). The coppa usually melts on the hot pizza, leaving you mouth watering before even eating it. I still think that meals like that are not about just eating and drinking, those are experiences to be treasured; There’s so much to learn and understand about the traditions and culture of a territory. Food and its traditions are real knowledge.
Alceste is very passionate about cooking and food in general, he knows a great deal about it, especially hearty, typical recipes from Abruzzo and his polenta is the best you can possibly find. He starts cooking early in the morning, preparing some wood in the fire pit and placing a huge copper pot on it, he then waits patiently for the water to boil and adds the yellow flour that he buys from a local producer. He waits calmly for a long time, stirring occasionally until the polenta becomes stiff. As a matter of fact, that’s the main difference between our polenta and usual polenta, our version is much firmer and often chunkier, definitely more rustic and rich in flavour.
It should be sliced with a fine silk thread and not scooped onto the plates. Federica says that the secret to it is cooking it over the fire, giving it a sort of smoky flavour.
When the polenta is finally ready, Alceste wets a cloth and turns the whole pot upside down on it. He immediately cuts the polenta into rectangles, then thin slices, and serves it on typical wooden plates. He then garnishes the polenta with some generous tomato and pork sausage/sparerib sugo and sprinkles of parmesan.
We would then usually visit the village of Tagliacozzo, which is one of the most picturesque towns of Abruzzo.The weather was always freezing and a bit hazy, but that didn’t stop us from walking around and discovering a few places. Federica recommended us to visit one of the best norcineria in Tagliacozzo, a norcineria is another word to intend a salumeria, a place where all kinds of salumi are sold.
Federica always gives us wonderful Christmas hampers filled with all types of hams, sausages and dried meat and I must say they’re all delicious and usually don’t make it till new year’s eve. The shop was right in the centre of Tagliacozzo, I loved the old fashioned sign outside which made it look really promising, even before I walked in. Once inside I felt like I’d discovered Aladdin’s cave, with different kinds of gold in it; it was filled with all sorts of dried and fresh meats; delicious hams or salami, coppiette, lonza, guanciale, prosciutto… anything you wanted, it was somewhere in that room. I love the look of the place, it is so tiny and crowded with all kinds of delicious products.. I love to see the prosciutti all hanged up and covered with this white fabric, almost looking like brides (the kind I would marry) It was so crowded that you had to be careful not to knock your head on a guanciale or a ham.
Our excitement went a bit too far, we suddenly ended up sampling every single cut (well, somebody had to do it) and brought back home dozens of things, that luckily lasted in our fridge more than three days and allowed me to experiment and make a few more recipes.
I got so inspired after our special lunch that I decide to replicate their fried pizza at home and accompanied it with all those goodies from Tagliacozzo. Athina followed me into the kitchen and asked if she could help and I said yes of course. I was having a casual Sunday morning, sipping red wine and frying those small pizzas. My father was slicing some delicious ham to accompany the fritters and my mother was helping me to slice caciocavallo. My father had been asking for fried calzone since his birthday, so I had no choice but to do it and make filled versions with cheese and raw sausage and I must say they tasted really good. Artù was running around like a shark, barking like crazy because he could smell the feast going on the table; I did casually throw some leftover ham under the table and he thanked me for that. We had a great lunch and I felt like we were in Tagliacozzo once again. I think I will forever remember how special that day was and now I wait anxiously for next years’ polenta reunion to happen once again.
Pizzette fritte inspired from Alceste and Irene’s
- 500 of flour,
- 300 ml of water (room temperature) ,
- 1 sachet of active dry yeast,
- 1 teaspoon of sugar,
- 4 tablespoons of olive oil
- frying oil
In a small bowl, combine a few tablespoons of the whole amount of water and mix it with the sugar and yeast. Wait until the surface becomes bubbly. In a large bowl, place the flour and add the mixture of yeast and water; add the olive oil followed by the rest of the water. Mix it well together, then add the salt and continue until the dough becomes soft, elastic and consistent. Let it rise at room temperature until it doubles in size ( about 2/3 hours).
Work the dough again and divide it into small balls, flattening them with a rolling pin until quite thin. Fry them in the heated seed oil until golden and crisp. Drain them from the oil excess and top them with any shortcuts you like. If you wish to try, they can be delicious also folded like calzoni and filled up with caciocavallo and sausage. Incredible !
Alceste’s polenta all’abruzzese
- about 4 lt of water
- 1 kg gr of corn flour
- 300 gr of Bramata flour (Coarse ground maize flour for traditional polenta)
- 40 gr of salt
- 2 tablespoons of olive oil
Boil the water in a classic copper pot called “paiolo” (over the fire would be better). Once the water starts to boil, add the salt and the two types of flour while stirring continuously; the process should be slow and quite vigorous in order to avoid clumps. Stir occasionally until the polenta become stiff and starts to unstick form the sides of the pot. Turn the pot upside down on a wet cloth and let it cool down a few minutes before slicing it with a thread and placing it onto the plates.
Serve it with Ragù or in this case, spareribs and sausage sugo.