When Tuscan Women Cook
Graziella Capanni and Gaetana Caglione are not afraid of hard work which they have been accustomed to from a young age. From early in the morning when the first rooster crows to when the last dish is washed after the evening meal, they are all business and concentration in the farm kitchen of Spannocchia. It is their job as cooks to turn out simple Tuscan fare for the owner and his family, the many farmhands and visitors, who stay on the farm. Graziella, shy, and with a sweet baby face was born near Spannocchia and is older than Gaetana, who comes from the hills around Naples and has the rosiest cheeks that I have ever seen! Both learned how to make pasta when they were young girls, which for their generation was considered a right of passage, and that today is sadly no longer the case in Italy.
What they cook is just as important as how they cook. The meals are all decided by what is growing on the farm during the year and like good cooks they make use of everything.
I have let them know that they will be on television today and I can’t tell if their semi-smiles are out of nervousness or they are just trying to be demure about it. Graziella is cleaning celery, onions, carrots, and parsley to be minced into a battuto in the large stone sink at one end of the compact kitchen. Gaetana is preparing to make a ragu. The plan is to cook cinghiale, wild boar in a wine sauce, a typical Tuscan dish but Graziella and Gaetana look a bit puzzled when I go over the plan and ask me if I know how to make it! Together we wash and dry the boar meat which is butchered during the winter months and frozen. I show them how I season it with salt, pepper and flour while Graziella adds the battuto and aromatic herbs to a huge pot. As soon as the vegetables hit the hot oil the room is cloaked in the authentic cooking smells of Tuscany. We add the meat chunks and brown them well, then pour in wine made on the farm from Sangiovese grapes. We cover the pot and let it go while we turn our attention to making the tagliatelle, ribbon shaped noodles that will be served with the ragu sauce.
On a large, worn marble table, Graziella heaps a Mount Everest of flour, plunges her fist into it to make the classic hole in the center and cracks in thirty eggs! Next she puts on rubber gloves which puzzles me. I don’t want to seem rude but I have never seen anyone make pasta with rubber gloves on! I cannot resist asking her why and she tells me that it is a way to keep her hands clean when she is preparing so many different foods at the same time. That makes a lot of sense.
Together we knead the mass of dough into a huge golden yellow ball then cut and roll pieces of it through a hand crank pasta machine before cutting it into strands. This will be plenty to serve the thirty guests that are expected.
For Graziella and Gaetana the day is very intense. They will also prepare and cook spinach for tonight’s vegetable offering, peel fava beans to be served raw with Pecorino cheese, fry sage leaves to be served with an anchovy paste, and wrap dried prunes in prosciutto for an antipasto. They must think of dessert too and here is where the cleverness of these cooks really shines. A tin full of cookie crumbs, mixed with nuts cocoa and sugar and moistened with wine becomes something grand...salame dolce (sweet salame), a slice and eat no-bake confection that looks a lot like a slice of salami!
Another successful meal at the hands of these two accomplished self taught cooks has everyone in the dining room applauding their efforts as they cheerfully wave goodbye and head out the door to their own homes to begin the process again for their own families. Tomorrow when the rooster sounds his daylight wake up call, they will stand for long hours again in the kitchen, using their wit and cooking from instinct, and a sense of pride, while wetting the appetites of all who will be privileged to enjoy true Tuscan country cooking, cucina povera at its very best.
Graziella and Gaetana make the most of what is in season in the Spannocchia vegetable garden and larder and they are equally as enterprising when it comes to creating something sweet for hungry farm hands. They can take a box of plain cookies and turn it in no time at all into a classic Tuscan no-bake cookie they call salame dolce, or chocolate salami. These refrigerated logs have the appearance of salami when sliced. They are delicious and keep well in the refrigerator for weeks but I can guarantee you that they will not last longer than a day or two.
No Bake Chocolate Cookies
1 pound plain tea cookies such as Lorna Doone or Danish Butter Cookies
1/4 cup Dutch process cocoa (Droste)
1/2 cup sweet cocoa (Ghirardelli)
3/4 cup unsweetened baking cocoa (Hershey's or similar)
1 1/4 cups sugar
2/3 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
3 extra large egg yolks, slightly beaten
3 to 5 tablespoons brandy as needed
Granulated, coarse sugar
Reduce the cookies to fine crumbs in a food processor or in a paper bag with a rolling pin. Transfer the crumbs to a large mixing bowl and mix in the cocoas, sugar, and almonds.
Mix the butter with the egg yolks and stir into the cocoa mixture.
Mix everything well with your hands adding a tablespoon at a time of Vin Santo or brandy until the ingredients are wet enough to hold together without crumbling.
Cut a piece of plastic wrap at least 16-inches long. Spread the mixture along the middle of the wrap. Fold up one long side to start forming a 12 or 14x2-inch salami-shaped log. Bring the opposite side of the wrap up and compress the mixture into a log shape. Twist the ends to seal the log and re-shape it with your hands so it is even looking. Refrigerate several hours.
Spread a thick layer of sugar over a work surface. Unwrap the salame and roll it in the sugar to coat it well.
Rewrap the log and refrigerate it for several hours to make it easier to slice.
To serve, cut the log into 1/4 to 1/2-inch slices.