So I’m sure you’re all glad to know that you’ve reached the third and final installment of my odyssey of Italian Holiday posts. Yup, today is it and then on Sunday, two short days from now, I will be embarking on my annual St. Patrick’s Day blog-a-thon! That’s right…I’ll be doing one blog with an “Irish-y” Recipe everyday up to March 17th – St. Patrick’s Day. I’ve found some great dishes to share with you this year. There has been an absolute run on Jameson’s, Baileys and Guinness in my house, so I hope you will remember to check back in to see what I’ve been getting up to. And speaking of great recipes, I definitely have a winner to share with you today, Pici al Ragu Di Cinghiale (Pici with Wild Boar Ragu)! I had this dish for the first time, oh and the second time, and maybe the third time during our holiday in Tuscany. Sooo delicious. Pici Pasta, for those of you who don’t know, ’cause I certainly didn’t before our visit, is a thick, hand-rolled pasta which originates in the Province of Siena in Tuscany.
Traditionally the dough is only made with flour and water, though in some areas it is made with the addition of an egg and some olive oil, as I have done here. Making Pici is a very forgiving introduction to homemade pasta for folks because traditionally it is not uniform in size and varies in thickness along its whole length. There is no special pasta making equipment necessary either, the pasta is simply rolled on the counter or between your hands.
I paired my Pici with a wild boar ragu. Apparently there are plenty of wild boar in Tuscany. There was some sort of wild boar dish on the menu in nearly every restaurant we visited. Even our Trekguyd in Cinque Terre mentioned that he had come across a wild boar or two while hiking on those trails which certainly got me to be a bit more alert. But here in good old Virginia, I think it has probably been quite a while since a wild boar sauntered by. Luckily I live very close to The Organic Butcher. I rang him up to ask if he had Wild Boar, expecting the person on the other end of the line to laugh at me and instead what I heard was, “yes, of course. How much are you looking for and how would you like it cut?” Wow, huh! But if you don’t have an organic butcher near you, feel free to substitute in some ground pork or italian sausage. The ragu will still be delicious I’m sure!
So I’m going to jump right into the travel blog portion of this post now. If you are totally over that, feel free to scroll down to the bottom at this point to get the actual recipe. After reluctantly checking out from the perfect La Bandita Townhouse, we set out for the tiny town of Castelnuovo Berardenga, which is located about 9 miles east of Siena, kind of at the end of the Chianti Wine Trail which winds south from Florence. We didn’t actually stay in the town, but stayed just a few miles out at the stunning Castello di Montalto.
The date of the original construction of the castle is uncertain; perhaps as early as the 7th or 8th century. We do know for certain that members of the Berardenga family were living at Montalto by the 11th Century. Ownership of this castle has only changed hands 4 times, the last time being in the 19th Century. The descendants of those owners still reside in the castle and have made portions of the estate available to rent. We stayed in the very romantic former gatekeeper’s lodgings, San Martino, so known for the fresco of St. Martin, located right above the castle gate.
The castle and grounds were absolutely beautiful. And although the owner had recently taken a fall, she took the time to check in and make sure that we had everything that we needed. We were very happy with the apartment, but were even more thrilled when we found out it came with a resident cat, Pinky, who seemed very content to hang out with us through our stay!
As I mentioned, the closest town to the castle was Castelnuovo Berardenga. Unlike some of the other places we visited which had seen their fair share of tourists, this town did not seem touristy at all. And although I had learned a few words of Italian, it really had not been necessary, up to this point. The first night we arrived, the castle concierge recommended that we go to dinner at a small trattoria only a short distance away. She said that it “was not touristy or expensive” and that “all the locals eat there”. Sounded great, so off we went. The restaurant, Il Bivacco, was wonderful. The atmosphere was very cozy, apparently the restaurant now resides in a renovated blacksmith’s forge. The food was tasty, plentiful and inexpensive. We ate there a couple of times over our visit. However, we did not hear a lot of English spoken at all, certainly not by our waiter. The very first night, being somewhat tired after driving the Italian highways, and being a bit weary of wine at that point (it can happen…), the husband said “I’ll have the big beer” to the waiter. Not being at all ready to order, I said “yes, that’ll be good”, and held up two fingers. So, you’ve probably guessed it by now, but the “big beer” was immense! I’m talking like a pitcher. Seriously, it took me two hands to lift it!! Not only were we laughing, but I think the folks at the neighboring table were quite amused as well. Though I should probably mention that the husband had no difficulty finishing “the big beer”. We were a bit more cautious after that…
Now that is one big beer!
Siena was very close, 15 -20 minute drive away from Montalto, so we couldn’t pass up visiting and I’m so glad we didn’t! I loved Siena! We visited the Duomo and I was completely floored! As I mentioned, we saw a lot of churches in Italy, but I was really unprepared for Siena’s Gothic Cathedral. Stunning, incredible, spectacular….none of those words seem to do it justice!
The black and white stripped walls which lead up to starry blue ceilings were inspiring (though I will mention that as soon as we entered, the husband did lean over and whisper to me “Who let Beetlejuice loose in here?”)
And we really lucked out because we were visiting outside of tourist season, which meant that the inlaid marble mosaic floors which are usually covered with plywood, had been unveiled. This was such a treat and is only done for a few months out of every year. The floors were crafted by about 40 artists and artisans between the 14th – 16th Centuries. They were just amazing and that was only the floors! Everywhere we looked we saw fantastic art by the masters, simply too many treasures to mention.
Siena’s she wolf
And as if the Cathedral itself wasn’t enough, the Piccolomini Library is attached to it. You remember the Piccolomini family I mentioned in the last blog…yup…them again. This library was built to house Pope Pius II’s (aka Enea Silvio Bartolomeo Piccolomini ) collection of illuminated manuscripts, which are certainly beautiful
but the frescos on the walls and ceiling come very close to stealing the show!
We spent hours in the Duomo and could’ve stayed for days longer and still not seen everything it had to offer. Before heading out to dinner though we did head over to the Museo del Opera to climb the 131 narrow, corkscrew stairs to take in the view from the Panorama del Facciatone which is located at the top of the Nuovo Duomo facade. It was a bit of a wait and a minor cardiac stress test to get up there but the views over medieval Siena were worth it!
Having recovered from Siena, we set out on the nearby Chianti trail to check out yet another winery, but this time rather than go with the old-established vineyards we decided to visit a newcomer, The Cantilici Winery located in Castagnoli, a small medieval hamlet close to Gaiole in Chianti. The drive to get there was truly enjoyable, very picturesque and all of the wine we tasted was excellent.
Our favourite was Tangano which is a blend of Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet grapes. Apparently “Tangano” is local slang for “really good-looking man”. We grabbed a few bottles to go and then headed over to the small local Osteria Il Bandito for lunch. What an unexpected pleasure. The atmosphere was charming and comfortable, the staff attentive and the food was fresh and absolutely delicious. What a delight!
Sadly, it was time for us to leave Montalto but we were very excited to head back to Florence. We did have a couple of days left to explore the city before we had to board our flight back home and were going to try to fit as much in as possible. We lucked out again and stayed in a fabulous hotel, Mulino di Firenze, located about 15 minutes outside of the city. The hotel offered convenient shuttles in and taxis were not really very expensive. (Keep in mind, I’m saying that with a Washington, DC point of view).
We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Florence and saw a lot more churches, visiting the Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore) as well as Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella. By the end of our time there we were without a doubt, “churched out”! And although Brunelleschi’s dome was impressive (yes…we climbed the 463 steps up to the viewing terrace),
the inside of the cathedral was rather sparse (especially after just being dazzled in Siena). We were much more intrigued when we visited the crypt which houses the remains of the 7th Century church of Santa Reparta on top of which the Duomo is built.
The little Baptistery was impressive as well. This building, the oldest in the city, was built on a 7th Century building and served as Florence’s cathedral until the early 13th Century.
Of all of the Florence cathedrals that we visited, I much preferred Santa Croce where the graves of Michelangelo, Ghiberti, Galileo and Machiavelli can be found.
Feeling that we had not yet climbed enough stairs on this holiday, we decided to trek up the 414 steps of Giotto’s campanile (bell tower of the Duomo), which offered great views of the city as well as of Brunelleschi’s Dome itself.
And yes…we did end up spending a bit of time having a few pints in an Irish pub! Go figure!!! I don’t know what to say…there’s only so much wine one can drink before….I guess you wind up in an Irish pub!
So that’s it for the holiday review. We had a fantastic time and hope to visit Italy again soon. Next time we are eyeing the Amalfi Coast with a requisite stop over in Pienza so we can pay a visit to La Bandita Townhouse! Until then, I hope you will enjoy this recipe for Pici al Ragu di Cinghiale. Believe me, unless your people grew up with an Italian nonna who made fresh pasta every Sunday, this dish will impress and with a bit of planning, is not very difficult to pull off. Buon Appetito!
Pici al Ragu Di Cinghiale
Ragu recipe adapted from: Bon Appètit
Pici recipe from: Jamie Oliver
For the Pici Pasta:
For the Spicy Wild Boar Ragu:
- 1 medium onion, quartered
- 2 carrots, peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 2 celery stalk, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 4 garlic cloves
- 2 teaspoons fresh oregano leaves
- leaves from 4 -5 sprigs of thyme
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1/4 cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley, divided
- 28 ounces crushed tomatoes (we used crushed tomatoes with spicy red pepper)
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2 pounds ground wild boar (can substitute pork if there is no wild boar to be found)
- Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 cup red wine
- 3/4 Cup finely grated Parmesan, divided
For the Pasta:
Place the flour in a large bowl. Add pinch of salt and stir to combine. Make a well in the center of the flour. Add the egg and olive oil to the well. Start to mix, slowly adding the 175 ml of water as needed. Once you have formed a firm dough, knead on a lightly floured surface until dough is smooth and elastic. Wrap in saran wrap and place in refrigerator to rest for 30 minutes.
Once the dough has rested, roll it out into a 1/4 inch thick rectangle. Using a sharp knife, cut the dough into long 1/4 inch strips. Roll these strips on the counter or between your hands to form long tubes, about 24 -26″ long. Don’t worry if they look a bit irregular, that is part of the beauty of this rustic pasta. Place the pasta on flour dusted cookie sheet and cover with linen towel until ready to cook.
When ready to cook, place pasta in large pot of boiling salted water. Cook for about 6 – 10 minutes, or until al dente. Drain pasta, but reserve 1 cup of the cooking liquid.
For the Ragu:
Place onion, carrot, celery, garlic, oregano, thyme, red pepper flakes and 1/4 cup parsley in food processor and pulse until it is finely chopped. Place in small bowl and set aside.
Heat oil in a large heavy pot over medium heat. Add ground wild boar, season with salt and pepper and cook until browned. Transfer to plate with slotted spoon.
Increase heat to medium-high. Add reserved vegetable mixture to oil and drippings in pot, season with salt and cook until golden, about 8 -10 minutes.
Stir tomato paste and 1 cup of red wine in a small bowl until combined. Add to vegetable mixture. Cook, scraping up any browned bits from bottom of pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until liquid has almost evaporated, 6 -8 minutes.
Add reserved meat, crushed tomatoes and 1 cup of water to the pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, adding more water or perhaps a glug or two of wine as needed to keep meat nearly submerged, until meat is tender, about 4 hours. Season with salt.
This ragu can be made 3 days in advance. Let cool. Cover and chill, or freeze for up to 2 months. Reheat before continuing.
Add pasta and 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta cooking liquid to ragu and stir to coat. Stir in 1/4 cup of the Parmesan. Add more reserved pasta liquid if needed. Divide among bowls; top with more Parmesan.
Pici al Ragu di Cinghiale brought to you by: Runcible Eats (www.leaandjay.com)