CHRISTMAS IN TUSCANY II
The other filled pastas, the tortellini and the capelletti, are usually filled with some sort of meat mixture: either a mixture of lean veal and pork ground very very fine, spiced with parmesan, garlic and parsley or possibly ground beel mixed maybe with mortadella, flavoured with rosemary, bound with red wine, enriched with parmesan and nutmeg. There are many varieties in these fillings and the pasta is usually served in a bowl of well-flavoured bouillon. They can of course come with a pomaruola or sugo, but personally I find that a heavily flavoured sauce masks the taste of these delicious ravioli.
After her Christmas dish of home-made tortellini Silvana likes to serve faraona, a guinea fowl. This game-like domesticated fowl with its tiny head and beautiful dappled grey black plumage is rather noisy and likes to perch in trees, so Silvana, who has work enough already without the care of wayward animals, does not have them in her farmyard. Instead Orlando will buy a pair from a neighbour who specialises in them. Orlando enjoys the guinea fowl in salmi, so first Silvana makes a soffritto of odori to which she adds a bay leaf or two. She browns the fowl which is cut up into pieces and then adds them to the soifritto and lets them cook for a few minutes; then she adds the chopped liver of the fowl and a chicken liver and on top of this she pours some red wine. The bird is then left to cook until it is tender and the sauce is reduced. She puts the pieces on a hot dish and covers them with spoonfuls of the rich, thick sauce.
As well as serving the Faraona in Salmi, Silvana might prepare a dish of turkey breast cooked with prosciutto and groviera, a Filetto di Tacchino al Prosciutto. To make this dish for Orlando, Sauro and herself she will buy three fillets of turkey breast which are neatly trimmed and flattened. She will cook the fillets in a large flat pan with a little unsalted butter; after she has turned the fillets once so that they have changed colour on both sides, she lays on each fillet a slice of parma ham and on top a thin slice of groviera or fontina cheese and leaves the pan to cook on a very gentle flame. The dish is ready when the cheese starts to melt down into the buttery pan. Their own prosciutto and pecorino cheese are not suitable for this more elegant dish, which needs the paper-thin, sweet slices of the best prosciutto from Parma and a cheese which will melt into softness.
Another speciality of this winter season are the cardi, cardoons, or what are known locally as gobbi. These are the long greenish-white thistle-like vegetables which are eaten in the south of France as the special Christmas Eve food and are called cardoon. They are to be seen growing in rows in the country gardens, their grey-green artichoke-like leaves sprouting out of earth or rags that have been wrapped and banked around the long stalks to bleach them. The cardoons need careful preparation before cooking. First the long inner stalks, (it is better to discard any very tough damaged outer ones), must be stripped of the silvery incipient leaves and membranes as these are extremely bitter and will spoil the delicate flavour of the dish. When this has been done and the stalks are cut into lengths of about two mches they must be immediately put into acidulated water to prevent them turning colour and spoiling the appearance of the dish. The water can be made acid with lemon juice or wine vinegar. After this preliminary treatment the cardi must be cooked in boiling salted water until tender. This takes about half an hour, longer, if the stalks are tough. After this the vegetable can be treated in different ways. Silvana likes to put layers of the cardi in between layers of grated parmesan and bake them in the oven. Occa- sionally she will dip the pieces in beaten egg and flour and deep fry them in olive oil until they are crisp. Both methods are very delicious. The cardoon has a subtle taste of the heart of artichoke, the tender part that one never seems to be able to get enough of when eating the summer vegetable.
Cardi alla Besciamella, cardoons in a bechamel sauce, are also an excellent way to serve this delicious vegetable. To serve four to six people you will need one large cardoon, 50 g or 2 oz of butter, 50 g or 2 oz of flour, half a litre or a scant pint of milk and 50 g or 2 oz of grated parmesan, salt and pepper.
Prepare the cardoon as already indicated and cook it for at least thirty minutes in boiling salted water. It will be sufficiently cooked when it is easily penetrated with a fork. With the butter, flour and milk make a bechamel sauce, season it with salt and pepper and if you care to, add some of the grated cheese. When the cardoon is tender drain it well in a colander and add it to the bechamel; mix the vegetable well into the sauce. Tip the sauce coated cardoons into a buttered oven dish, then on top sprinkle a thick layer of the grated cheese. Put the dish into a medium oven until the top has melted and starts to brown.
On Christmas day Orlando, Silvana and Sauro will usually have a quiet lunch together, enjoying the special dishes such as the Faraona in Salmi and the Filetto di Tacchino. They will exchange gifts; this is the time when Sauro will be given a new bicycle, or some such important present. But on the whole Christmas for the Cerottis is not the extravagant gift-giving celebration that it is elsewhere - Silvana and Orlando appreciate a quiet day in their otherwise crowded year. Later in the day they may go visiting or receive relatives.
Over the long holiday period the fattoria will be full of guests for lunch and dinner. Silvana will certainly serve the cardi in one of its forms. Just as certainly the tinello in the long dining room will be laden with piles of sweet home-made biscuits, bowls of walnuts, clementines and dried figs. There will be several large pannettone, some filled with candied fruit and some with small pieces of bitter chocolate embedded in the light sponge. Silvana will also serve the delicious zabajone when the spirits flag and delicate glasses of vin santo to moisten the almond biscuits. Orlando will open an impressive number of bottles of spumante d'Asti to toast their guests and all the friends who will drop in to wish them well for the new year that is dawning.