Saturday 2 October 2010


Food through history, I find fascinating (which is probably why I found Rheay Tannahill's book on the subject so disappointing - the title promised so much and the prose delivered oh so little). What more effective time travel can there be than having the identical sensory responses as somebody who delighted centuries ago in a particularly delicious tyropita, or daube, or mortadella?

Often, though, much guesswork is involved in identifying 'ancient' foodstuffs, since something as prosaic as what one has for dinner has rarely made it into the pages of venerable chroniclers over the aeons. Apicius and Archestratus are the notable exceptions - except that even their works can be misleading, since no mention of anything like pasta appears anywhere in Apicius, even though something approximating to the stuff has been identified from images on much earlier etruscan tombs. Presumably, Apicius just didn't think it worth recording.
And so, in practice, it's often a matter of detective work on the basis of the ingredients used (honey, anchovies, cinammon, cloves, bitter orange...are all redolent of antique kitchens) and sometimes of the techniques involved.

Testaroli is one such dish. These are large flour-and-water pancakes, which are cut into diamond shapes, approximately 2" across, heated briefly in hot water and then served, normally with a basil pesto. Apparently, if cut small, testaroli are called panigacci...but I have no idea how small they have to be in order to merit the name change. They seem - these days anyway - only to come from a place called Lunigiana, which is about an hour's drive north of here. Occasionally, I find them for sale, wrapped in plastic, in the bakers in Via San Francesco - but for Testaroli afficionados, I'm told, the only real ones come from one specific supplier in Lunigiana, who makes them fresh every morning. Which is where Paola's mother got a supply, several weeks ago, and we waded through dishes of them for dinner later that same day.

It's definitely sticks-to-tiny-ribs stuff, and everything about testaroli suggests they were a very early forerunner to both pasta and gnocchi - much simpler to make than pasta, but probably the latter became more valued, once somebody had worked out how to make it, on the basis of having a greater shelf-life.

The locals here regard them as something of a delicacy - but, then, that may be a reaction to having been served pasta every day of their lives, and simply relishing a change. I find them a bit stodgy, and definitely lacking the unctuousness of a well-made fresh pasta. They might have been just the thing to set up an etruscan for a good day's toiling in the fields, but personally I find they sit quite heavy on the stomach. Good to remember as an alternative, if I want to make pasta, but realise at the last minute that I've run out of eggs...but not something that generally has more than curiosity value, if truth be told.

To make them - and they are worth trying - simply blend 600g of flour with half a litre of water, plus salt to taste. This produces quite a thick batter, which in turn produces quite thick pancakes - about a quarter inch thick, cooked for three or four minutes on each side in a heavy frying pan which has previously been thoroughly oiled. When made professionally, special pans are used, which produce testaroli about 18" in diameter, although I suspect this is merely traditional, rather than fundamentally relevant to the finished dish. Serve them with any 'coating' pasta sauce you feel like - although, if you're being a purist, then it should really be genovese pesto, and nothing else.

Tonight's dinner:

Fennel sformatino with gorgonzola sauce.

Quails, roast and served with a rich sauce, on a bed of walnut and potato purée.

Pear and frangipane tart.

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