One of the things that has always drawn me to Italian cuisine since I first began cooking was the tradition of La Cucina Povera, the poor cuisine. The translation sounds awkward but the idea is clear: many of the most famous and indeed most delicious dishes within the Italian canon come from the choices that Italians had to make in times of extreme poverty, and their ingenuity is what makes these dishes stand alone as classics. We'll be returning to this theme a lot in our blog posts, and below I'll begin with one of my recent favourites.
Legend around Central Italy says that during leaner years, the poorest among the already very poor would visit the communal oven at the end of the day to scrape off the remains of the day's flour. Naturally this flour was mostly burnt to a rather unpalatable crisp, but it did provide substance (which was a more important commodity than flavour). The burnt flour would be combined with any spare white flour that could be found, with the resulting dough known as Grano Arso (burnt grain) or simply Pasta Nero (black pasta).
If the legend is true, it's a touching story and again proves the relentless ingenuity of the Italian tradition. Even if it isn't true, it's still an intriguing thought. I mean, we like our steaks with a nice bit of char and we fight over the crust on a hard baked country bread, don't we? Massimo Bottura extols the virtues of the crispy bits of lasagna, with good reason. Is this really any different?
Yes and no.
First the tech specs. Aside from adding a little extra liquid, using a flour mix with 25% burnt flour changed nothing of the texture. It did however create an intense black colour akin to using squid ink.
As a chef I'm fascinated by colour and having a new way to create a deep black without squid ink is very interesting. Chefs all over the world all try their hand at a contrast dish at some point and we all want that dish that manages to use only black and white. This is however surprisingly difficult to do, particularly if you'd like to do it well. It's no coincidence that Michel Bra's Monkfish poached in Black olive oil, or Nobu's Black Miso Cod are among the best examples of this, and that Burger King's Japan's Black Cheeseburger is the stuff of slimy nightmares.
Back to the specs. As you might imagine, the flavour of the pasta that I made from the Grano Arso dough was bitter, though not in an unpleasant way. In fact I quite enjoyed it, and I am no great fan of overly bitter foods in general. However, it is quite different from the char of a steak or the crunchy bits in lasagna or bread because of the textural difference in the pasta itself. Without the mouthfeel of the crunch, the brain tends to be expecting something different. Experimenting with this type of pasta reaffirmed the interplay of taste and texture, and I found the dish to be most successful when paired with a fresh vegetable with some sweetness and a bit of its own crunch, like a firm pea or mange-tout lightly tossed in oil. I've also experimented with a sweeter sauce using raisins and a tomato base, which requires a lot more attention to balance and can get fussy, but is ultimately a combination with a surprising amount of depth.
The Italian tradition is a really pure expression of ingredients and technique, partly because of the legacy of La Cucina Povera. It's daunting to work with so few ingredients, but the results are often incredibly satisfying and really interesting exercises.