Artusi’s February: Agnolotti
I noticed that this month’s list of Artusi’s suggestions for the perfect lunch included Agnolotti (Artusi spells it “Agnellotti”), a traditional meat-filled pasta from Le Langhe in Piemonte, a gorgeous region in the north western corner of Italy for which I have a soft spot. Home to famous red wines such as Barolo and Barbaresco, the hearty, country dishes speak of the land, the hills and the traditions of the area.
Being recipe no. 8, it appears at the front of Artusi’s cookbook and he, curiously, calls it Tortellini all’italiana – Italian tortellini. What I find so interesting about this is that he has chosen this version of meat-filled pasta to represent a whole nation who were not yet used to calling something “Italian,” especially when it came to food, and this reminds me of the importance that this book had on finding a language that defined pan-Italian cooking by bringing together dishes from all over Italy. Artusi was very careful about not including dishes that were “too regional” or using names of dishes that were too colloquial, and in this way he created a food language that made dishes recognisable in households from the top to the toe of the peninsula.
The editor of the 1970 edition of Science in the Kitchen (the best version to have, if you can get it), Piero Camporesi, even goes as far as to suggest that it was Artusi’s cookbook that helped bring the country and its diverse dialects together into one national language, that it did more than any politician could do. Gillian Riley in the Oxford Companion to Italian Food paints this picture: “While the questione della lingua was being debated by academics, innocent housewives throughout the land were consulting their ‘Artusi’ every day, and his literate, slightly colloquial, Florentine version of Tuscan… became reassuringly familiar.” Artusi also includes, at the front of his cookbook, a glossary to explain the vernacular Tuscan words he often uses.
February’s menu looks something like this:
Soups and broths. Tortellini all’italiana (Agnellotti), no. 8
Boiled meats. Chicken and veal with a spinach sauce no. 448
Cold dishes. “Pane di lepre,” hare terrine no. 373
Entremets. Cockles in hollandaise sauce no. 498
Stews. Milk-fed veal cutlets with truffles, Bolognese style no.312
Roasted meats. Roast woodcock no. 528, with salad
Desserts. Savarin, no. 563 o French style custard no. 688
Fruit. Pears, apples, various dried fruit.
Like any decent casalinga recipe, there are as many versions of Agnolotti as households. In some parts of the Langhe they traditionally used home-grown rabbit as a cheap substitute to pork or the more expensive veal. As you go from Alba towards the Alta Langa, the shape of the agnolotti change slightly from rectangular to a “pinched” plin. Artusi’s Tortellini all’Italiana, which interestingly, would today be best known by their original Piemontese name, Agnolotti, describes a “poor” version of this recipe:
8. Tortellini all’italiana (Agnellotti)
- 300 grams of pork loin
- 50 grams of grated parmesan cheese
- 3 egg yolks, plus one egg white
- 1 small lamb’s brain
- 50 grams of marrow bone
Researching this dish also gave me an opportunity to consult my other favourite regional cookbook, Nonna Genia. This ingenious and thoughtful book by Beppe Lodi includes, along with stories and theories on this cucina poplare, the most traditional recipes from the Langhe area of Piemonte – it is essentially a collection of recipes that grandmothers never wrote down because they knew them by heart. After a couple of trips to the Langhe last year that left me with oh-so fond memories (including an unforgettable evening in a trattoria named after this book), this cookbook was a must have for me.
The Nonna Genia version of Agnolotti is very simple and easy for modern cooks to replicate. It is essentially a roast piece of meat (you can use veal or pork and obviously this works great with leftover roast), flavoured with rosemary and garlic, and chopped or pureed with sautéed cabbage. The eggs whites that are leftover from the fresh pasta ingredients are used to bind the meat and vegetable filling so you do not waste a thing – Langharese cooks were geniuses in not wasting food. I’ve seen some sources that say cheese never gets put inside agnolotti but my two most trustworthy cookbooks on traditional dishes both call for a handful of grated parmesan cheese, so I’m going with that.
Nonna Genia’s Agnolotti:
- 500 grams of pork
- Fresh sprigs of rosemary
- One small head of cabbage
- A knob of butter
- Finely grated parmesan cheese
- Salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste
- 4 eggs
- 400gr flour
Roast your pork with the rosemary and garlic. In the meantime, blanch your cabbage leaves and chop them; colour in a bit of butter. Chop the roast meat finely (or puree) and mix with the cabbage, the whites of the 4 eggs, a handful of grated parmesan, salt, pepper and nutmeg.
To make the pasta, make a well in the centre of the flour (in a bowl or on a clean surface) and add the four beaten egg yolks. Mixing by hand, incorporate the yolks into the flour until you have a smooth, elastic ball of pastry. Let it rest for at least half an hour before rolling it out.
To describe the process of filling and creating these lovely little parcels, I think this cute video can do more in a minute and a half than I can in paragraphs.
Boil them for a few minutes, or until they float, and serve them immediately with a sauce made of melted butter and sage and plenty of cheese grated on top. Some recipes also suggest a meat ragu to match the meat filling. Beppe Lodi recounts at the end of his recipe that his father introduced him to the habit of dousing the freshly boiled agnolotti in some dolcetto (a local red wine), to be eaten right away!
Either way, these go best with a nice glass of red wine and, if you can get it, go for a wine made with Nebbiolo, a Piemonte native.