Cooking Peasant Style in Emilia Romagna

Why does “peasant cooking” get such a bad rap? In Italy, peasants seem to eat better than patricians in many other countries. That is certainly the case in Romagna, based on my recent trip there at the invitation of #lovingromagna.

Admittedly the organizers had an ace: they are related to Nonna Violante, a famed local chef who gives cooking lessons at her family’s hotel in Bellaria- Igea Marina, a beach town eight miles north of Rimini. Nonna (the appellation means “grandmother”) was born there in 1939 and has been holding court in the kitchen of the Hotel Elisio for decades. She is entirely self-taught, which means that her cooking is based on local recipes handed down for generations. No vegan, Paleo, or low carb dishes in her kitchen, or in any true Romagnola kitchen for that matter: the focus is on fresh food, locally sourced, cooked and consumed without delay.

Nonna Violante

Nonna Violante preparing the lesson of the day. She goes by feel; mere mortals have to measure.

Since Romagna is the eastern half of Emilia-Romagna, arguably the most famous food region in Italy, one might expect a cavalcade of renamed lasagna, tortellini, mortadella, and cotoletta Bolognese, all washed down with sangiovese. But that is not the case. Romagnola cooking has its own distinct character. A local food expert described it as “a less sophisticated Emilia in some ways and a poor version of Venetian cooking in others.” There is more seafood (all that coastline) and less butter (not so many cows).

Anti-clerical sentiment runs strong in this part of Italy, which helps explain the origin of strozzapreti, one of Romagna’s most famous culinary offerings. Strozzapreti means “strangle the priests”: while the explanations for this name vary (angry housewives twisting the pasta in their rage against the clergy; greedy priests downing it too quickly and choking to death; overtaxed husbands imaging what they would like to do in lieu of feeding a priest during a home visit), the underlying attitude is clear.

strozzapreti with pesto.

X marks the spot for strozzapreti with pesto.

The twisting motion that transforms tagliatelle dough (flour, egg or egg white, water, salt) into strozzapreti looks easy when Nonna Violante does it. For lesser mortals it is not an easy technique to master. But the result is very easy to eat, with a simple fresh tomato sauce and a sprinkling of fresh-grated Parmesan.

Passatelli are less challenging technically, but you need a special tool to make them. The passatelli iron looks like a garlic press on steroids. It transforms leftover bread crumbs and Parmesan (plus eggs and nutmeg) into a fragrant accompaniment for chicken broth. The cook’s role is to work the dough into a soft, supple ball before it gets pressed or “passed through” the iron – hence the name.  The iron handles the hard work of uniformity and consistency.

Making Passatelli

Working the dough for passatelli.

Romagna’s best-known contribution to Italian cooking is the piadina, a flatbread that is served at meals and for snacks, with savory or sweet fillings, depending on the creativity of the chef and the hunger of the consumer. The most traditional recipe, as adroitly demonstrated by Nonna Violante, is with wheat flour, baking powder, warm water, and lard, but a vegetarian can substitute olive oil for the latter and produce an equally tasty result.

Making piadina

The basis for that Romagnola staple — piadina (non-vegetarian version).

The classic piadina Romagnola is filled with squacquerone di Romagna (a local DOP cheese, soft and creamy), slices of prosciutto crudo, and a sprinkling of rucola. Sounds simple, but the result hangs on the absolute freshness of every ingredient, so this sandwich must be consumed in loco. The importance of the piadina is underscored by the Festa della Piadina held in Igea Marina at the close of the summer season. The main streets and piazzas of the town are lined with stands selling piadinas of every kind – fish, spinach, herb, jam, Nutella – as well as the classic varieties. Cooking shows,  displays of typical products for kitchen and table (passatelli irons, anyone?), live music, and street entertainers engage the crowds who turn out for this annual event.

making piadina

Filling the piadina with savoury greens

Wherever there is food in Romagna, there is wine. The area hosts two separate wine routes: the strada dei vini e dei sapori dei colli di Rimini and the strada dei vini e dei sapori dei colli di Forlì e Cesena (the routes of wine and flavors of the hills of Rimini and of Forlì and Cesena, respectively). The former begins at Bellaria-Igea Marina and includes 34 vineyards as it meanders inland from the Adriatic, leading through picturesque towns like Santarcangelo to the Conca Valley, an area dotted with sangiovese and trebbiano grapevines as well as olive groves (for the local DOP olive oil). Our recent trip included a stop at Tenuta Carbognano in Gemmano di Rimini, owned by a young, enthusiastic couple, Marco Grossi and Ornella Petz.

sangiovese grapes

One of 11 varieties of sangiovese grapes, the warhorse of winemaking in Central Italy.

They have been operating only since 2005, but are already listed in Italy’s most prestigious wine guides. They grow all 11 types of sangiovese on their three-hectare vineyard, as well as cabernet, syrah, and some ancellotta grapes (a variety found mainly in Emilia-Romagna). If you come here, you can taste their four wines and one spumante brut, as well as olive oil, but they prefer advance notice because they are so small.

Written by and photos by Claudia Flisi for Claudia visited Romagna as a guest of #lovingromagna in September 2015.

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