Flavor of Umbria – Gnocchi lesson

We are at Acquaviva, in Ficareto, Umbria, Italy. Umbria is known as ‘the green heart of Italy’ and remains very rural and agricultural; it is a land of steep foothills and windy roads, with scores of olive groves and vineyards hugging the curves of the green slopes. We are guests of the Gaiba-Gioffre family, who have lived at Acquaviva for about 40 years. Our accommodations were once a stable with living quarters above; over the years the building has been enlarged and, most recently, totally remodeled to serve as apartments for ‘agriturismo’ visitors.

Our group is composed of 9 UVa students who are completing a seminar class based on mindfulness – that is, cultivating the ability to play, to listen, to reflect and record, and most of all to enjoy culture and food and life at a leisurely pace. I was asked to lead the group at the last minute because my friend and colleague who taught the seminar had a medical situation that required immediate attention. I had 4 days to clear my schedule and leave the country, and fortunately I was able to do just that!

Our guide is Leonardo Gioffre, architect/artist/urban planner/entrepreneur and general inspiration. His love for the region is evidenced by his encyclopedic knowledge of history, architecture, and current events in Umbria. Fortunately for me, Leo has made all the arrangements for our trip, including setting up food-related outings and instructional sessions. Tonight we make gnocchi in the Great Hall near our apartments.

Leonardo’s mother Anna Gaiba brings in a pot of smooth and fragrant tomato sauce that she made earlier in the day. In her timid but respectable English she explains the process she followed for this tomato sauce, ‘sugo clasico‘, and goes on to explain the permutations that form other typical sauces. For the gnocchi sauce, she used carrot, celery, onion, and garlic chopped fine and cooked in a pan with bay leaves and with red wine ‘until the smell of wine fades’. (She uses the Latin name for bay, Laurus Nobilus; later in the week I learn the Italian name, alloro, when we smell bay on the breeze and ask what it is called.) When the vegetables are soft, she added chopped parsley and canned chopped tomatoes ‘because there are no fresh’ and stewed the sauce for the remainder of the day. When I ask about salt she makes a throaty sound between a laugh and a snort and says ‘of course!’. I suppose I was hoping for a quantity.

Leonardo uses a pressure cooker to prepare the potatoes for gnocchi – 1.5 kilos take about a half hour to cook all the way through (in their skins). He recommends using yellow potatoes, as they are starchier and have less of a tendency to disappear in the water during cooking. From his insistence and the tone of his voice, I understand that this has happened to him before. He explains that the pressure cooker is a rare example of faster being better – if the goal is to simply have something cooked through, the pressure cooker uses less time (and therefore less fuel) to do so. After peeling the still-warm potatoes, he puts each one through a ricer and then encourages the students to take over. The ‘riced’ potatoes go in the middle of a volcano-shaped pile of 2 kilos of type ‘O’ flour (equivalent to our All Purpose flour, I suppose). Leo uses his floured hands to gradually incorporate the moist, warm potatoes into the wall of flour, and as the mixture cools he also cracks two eggs into the dough to give it a better chance of surviving the boil. He kneads the dough, talking all the while about gnocchi, sauces ‘im bianco‘ or without tomato, sauces with meat, pasta shapes, and fielding any and all questions directed at him with humor and aplomb. Several in our group have not had gnocchi before, and I explain that it is a dish (like risotto) that is often executed imperfectly in restaurants.

Leo keeps adding more flour to the sticky dough; his mother looks and shakes her head and goes home for another kilo of flour. When she returns, they battle back and forth in rapid Italian and then he verbally chases her from the room. He gives a quick, deft demonstration of rolling the dough into a ‘snake’ about the thickness of a finger, then cutting it into small pieces, then pressing each piece into the tines of a fork to create a hollow side and sliding the other side off the fork to create a ridged side. The group dives right in, working the dough inexpertly but with enthusiasm. We pile the finished gnocchi on a large floured board which looks to be a leaf from a huge table; we have a wide variety of shapes and sizes, which doesn’t bode well for cooking but says a lot about individual expression.

While we roll gnocchi we sip some local wines. In the white realm, we drink Grechetto, which (if I understand properly) owes it’s fame to Greek cultivation. It is widely grown on these steep, sunny hillsides and is one of the first grapes harvested in the early fall. This one is bright yellow in color and lightly oaked, which for me makes it reminiscent of chardonnay (probably owing more to the oak than to the flavor of the grape). We also sample a blended red crafted at the cooperative winery down the road – this one is merlot, sangiovese and sagratino from 2004. Somehow it seems both lighter-bodied and more complex than the young, single-varietal Virginia wines I have been drinking. Later in the week Leo provides an overview of the DOC guidelines for wine production, which allow for a certain amount of blending between years but no addition of sugar to boost alcohol content. Hmm.

The gnocchi is cooked briefly in salted water, and then tossed with the sugo clasico that Anna made. To finish, we add an 18 month pecorino romano (sharp, delicious, and unbelievably spicy – one thin sliver is a mouthful of flavor) and parmigiano reggiano. For vegetable we are introduced to cicoria, which appears to be a wild chicory very similar to dandelion, and broccoli, which (from its tender look and taste) seems like it must be broccolini. Both are cooked with garlic and olive oil, and both are a bit bitter but very satisfying in an early spring, liver-tonic sort of way.

We are also introduced to the bread of Umbria, which is made without salt due to a papal tax on salt several hundred years ago. Leo explains that the unseasoned bread is meant to be eaten with highly seasoned foods; indeed, when I swab up the end of the sugo clasico with my scarpetta of bread and wash it down with my last swallow of wine, it all fits together. Goodnight.

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~ by a local notion on March 17, 2008.

One Response to “Flavor of Umbria – Gnocchi lesson”

  1. I’d like to know more about pressure cooker use in Italy. I teach pressure cooking here in the US and will likely be leading a tour to Italy (Umbria) at the end of September this year. Have you seen it used for anything else? Wsa he saying that using it is a good thing? I couldn’t tell.

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