You might think that – here in the Garfagnana, home to The Factor House – winter would herald the limit of the land’s largesse, leaving only memories of a summer when we were obliged to make ever more inventive use of unceasing amounts of invitingly coloured and lusciously fragrant fruit and vegetables. But, no – changing pace a little, and slowing perhaps in productiveness – the orto (vegetable patch) goes on magicking all manner of tasty things.
In gardens throughout Tuscany bright orange globes hang in trees now denuded, almost like baubles carefully placed there specially for Christmas. These are cachi (persimmon), one of only two fruits that I’m aware of which are better left until slightly mushy and on the turn (the medlar is the other). Best savoured on their own, or perhaps with organic natural yoghurt and a drizzle of acacia honey.
Walnuts – one of the Garfagnana’s specialities and particularly full-flavoured in these parts – were harvested back in October. But we have been using them ever since – perhaps mashed along with a few pine nuts, some peppery new season extra-virgin olive oil, a handful of freshly-grated aged pecorino (local ewe’s cheese) and a sliver of garlic – as a dressing for homemade ravioli stuffed with roasted butternut squash and fried sage leaves.
And who can forget the ubiquitous chestnut? Their use here is tinged with unhappy memories for the oldest generations: wheat was beyond the means of large swathes of the population during the extreme poverty of the first half of the 20th century, and chestnuts were the only freely available alternative which could be ground into a flour substitute. They can make rather dense cakes – local castagnaccio, made with chestnut flour and olive oil, is a particularly chewy example. However, necci (chestnut flour pancakes), rolled and stuffed with vanilla-scented sweetened ricotta, are not to be missed – and often available as local street-food during the winter sagre (festivals).
No canter through the components of our winter table would be complete without the truffle. As a treat we sampled some of the deeply pungent white summer truffles (first available, somewhat counterintuitively, in October) grated onto potato gnocchi dressed with a light parmesan cream sauce. From late autumn and throughout winter black truffles are in season, and these go extremely well blended into salami. A particular favourite is mortadella (a large heat-cured pork sausage from Bologna) with truffle – selfishly eaten all on its own.
RECIPE: Cavolo nero ripassato in padella
Cavolo nero (black cabbage) is a loose-leaved ancient variety of cabbage grown in Tuscany for centuries, and has long, lean, dark green – almost black – leaves with a rich and intense flavour. Remove the tough parts of the stems from a generous bunch (about 250g) of cavolo nero (kale can be substituted). Immerse in a large pan of generously salted boiling water and simmer for about 10 minutes. Remove and plunge into a bowl of iced water to fix the colour. Remove, squeeze out as much water as you can and then roughly chop. In a frying pan heat a generous glug (about 3 tablespoons) of extra-virgin olive oil over a medium-high flame. Add a couple of large cloves of garlic, finely sliced, a pinch of dried chilli flakes and a generous pinch (about half a teaspoon) of fennel seeds (if you’re not keen on the fragrant aniseed aroma of the fennel seeds, then you could use finely chopped rosemary instead). Once the herbs are all sizzling (about 30 seconds) add the chopped cavolo nero, stir well and sauté steadily for about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and adjust salt. In the meantime grill (ideally on a cast iron griddle) thick slices of good hearty bread – sour dough, while not strictly Italian, works well here – and then serve topped with generous amounts of the cavolo nero, a drizzle of new season extra-virgin olive oil and a spritz of lemon juice. The perfect winter antipasto. Buon appetito!
Cavolo nero really is an incredibly versatile leaf. Cooked as above it can be served as a vegetable alongside roast meats or grilled chicken. It is also often stewed into a winter minestrone, thickened with the addition of a few cannellini beans or a hunk of chewy Tuscan pagnotta (round loaf).