THE CONTADINA COOK
A gnocchi cooking class in a real Italian kitchen
In what’s defined as a hamlet here, really a dollop abutting a town that’s included in quite a big city’s district, and there’s no English. The Italian seems to be an unfathomable dialect. It’s what my sister’s neighbour speaks. But I do understand her food. Last year when I was here, she plied us with a succession of the country-style dishes she makes with effortless skill, plus delectable gifts.
This time it was a basket of pomegranates from her garden, brought over to my sister’s gate one morning, a two-portion gift of a cacciatore for us another day or a garlicky, rosemary-flecked potato and green beans dish, sometimes a bowl of fresh eggs. One day it was a whole dinner plate of farm cream she’d set upon her own kitchen table for us to enjoy with her earthily strong, perfect coffee and homemade almond biscuits. Last year, one of the neighbour’s gifts that impressed me was a basket of quails’ eggs. I used them to make us a salad of boiled quail eggs and dandelion leaf, dressed with olive oil and shavings of Grana Padano.
Almost every day, Angelina Gricoletti cycles past, a relatively small, bowed figure, shouting “Ciao”, on her way to procure from small farmers and to bargain with the local traders she knows. Some of them cycle with full panniers in the other direction to her. Or she walks by, waving, Italian fag in mouth, followed by Macci the cat, down the panhandle to the street where the households’ plastic, paper, dry waste and damp waste bins stand, each emptied on a different day.
My sister Mags has arranged with Angelina that I have a gnocchi lesson from her and that she takes pictures. She’s a contadina cook, making food that’s been handed down through families, usually in a single area, using very local, seasonal ingredients. It is the food many Italians eat, especially in areas that are not very urban and internationalised. It is food we envy others being able to make still, wherever we are.
Mags nudges me when we see Angelina, to say she’s wearing the top I once told her suited her pastel colouring so nicely.
This is Rorai Piccolo, named for a tributary of the Rorai River. The address is Via delle Acque. If you stand still, and separate the soothing sound of pistachio-coloured doves, the other sound is rushing water. The water level is not far below the ground level and it’s astonishingly tasty, fresh from the pump in the garden to the taps, having whooshed down from the mountain, beyond blindingly white stone walls standing everywhere, lining part of the driveway leading to Angelina’s.
Angelina eases into position behind her kitchen table, already half laid with a clean blue tablecloth. Behind her are two cooking ranges and a corner chimney above one of them, from where a ceramic duck droops its neck. The air is redolent of rich duck stock too. A wide pan of it barely simmers on the left range. Angelina faces me and the window in this little room. Behind me and between the window and the door is the TV silently showing soapies. Macci lies on a sofa just around the corner, listening to every move Angelina makes.
Mags translates from the dialect when Angelina tells me she has already boiled a kilogram bagful of potatoes in their jackets, then unjacketed them and riced the flesh with some salt. Mags whistles about the yellowness but Angelina says she also added one egg. I had already understood that she likes to use what she calls the yellow Dutch potatoes, for her gnocchi.
We have similar yellow potatoes in South Africa, a bit smaller and creamier than our usual russets.
Rather surprisingly, Angelina’s using “integrale”, flour or wholewheat. Usually, as she says, she uses plain Italian doppio zero or even finer triplo zero for her gnocchi. She says she is using what she has today. I like that sort of attitude to making food. I could learn. I’m usually armed with a long list of things to buy that I specially need to make some dish, when I could be shrugging like this and using up what’s already in the cupboard or fridge. But, wholewheat gnocchi? I learn later there’s not much of a ratio of flour to the potatoes anyway.
Quite a bit of the flour goes onto the table too. Measurements are a bit vague here because Angelina simply dips the hand without the gold marriage bands into the Molini Rosetti flour packet and mixes it in lightly with that hand. Or tosses it onto the table. I’d say what comes out of the packet for both purposes amounts to about a cup and a half at most.
She says that how much flour is added also depends on the potatoes. Some are wetter than others. “But you learn it by the hand.”
The potato mix is flipped onto the floury part of the table, Angelina folds it and kneads it lightly for half a minute. It still looks airy and she does say it should feel like a sponge.
With a serrated vegetable peeler, Angelina cuts a slim slice off the potato mound as though off an artisanal bread loaf. She rolls it into a slim sausage about two centimetres in diameter and, with the same floured knife, deftly chops the sausage into rounds, also about two centimetres long. Angelina tosses them onto the tablecloth, cuts off another slice and rolls another sausage, till the blue floral-and-checked cloth is full of round fat discs of potential gnocchi.
She shows us how people often press one side of a disc onto the textured side of a grater but doesn’t like to do that because her gnocchi absorb juices anyway.
Angelina turns her attention to the gas stove, where duck pieces have been simmering in a rich-looking stock. She puts some of this liquid into a bowl to cool and sets another pot of salted water to boil.
From a bottle without a label, full of amber liquid, “a present”, probably from one of the traders that cycle in her direction, Angelina solemnly pours each of us a tiny glass of a local type of straw wine. It’s before 11am and I’d prefer a little cup of her aromatic coffee but I don’t mess with food traditions, like putting corks in to cook with coq au vin. If one drinks a glass of whatever it is before cooking raw gnocchi, that’s fine with me. I toss it back.
“This is the season for the duck,” Angelina says in her carefully slow dialect, looking at me. The silent soapie alongside me has given way to “rock n roll” of all things and, more predictably, hip hop. But even that has halted for an ad about a little girl sweetly and obediently “going to bed like a duckling”. Presumably she first had a bath like one.
Angelina now bathes some of her gnocchi in the boiling water, “a few at a time so they don’t fight”, drains them when they rise to the top, into a bowl and then holds another plate over that bowl so that any extra water from the gnocchi leaks back into the pot. The drained hot gnocchi are tipped straight into the duck stock. The broth is at room temperature, apparently to stop the gnocchi cooking any longer. And so it progresses.
My mouth waters at the thought of the gnocchi lying around in those duck juices. In between boilings, Angelina scrubs the floury end of the table till it’s shiny-clean, padding around in pale pink sneakers, as clean as her workspace.
As soon as all the gnocchi is in the broth, Angelina swirls in some ready-crumbled local Grana Padano, which I see she bought at a local supermarket, unusually for her, I think.
When Mags and I have waved farewells to Angelina and Macci framed in their doorway, we race down the driveway with our warmed spoils from the cooking demo. Mid-gallop, we decide to eat them immediately, even if it is nowhere near lunchtime.
We’re tripping over each other with the urgency of getting our plates onto a patio table. Tucked inside Angelina’s gnocchi container are some tender, warmed duck pieces too.
I may not understand much of what Angelina Gricoletti says but I understand every contadina-style morsel of what this skilled cook has made, what’s on my plate, my fork and melting inside my mouth. The word “gnocchi” is slowly, slowly changing food meaning the longer I savour it. DM