Pizzoccheri: Great on taste, not your waist

Ahh, is there anything that recalls Lake Como and the Valtellina region more than Pizzoccheri? The unrefined buckwheat pasta evokes the harshness of the mountains; paired with exquisite casera, reminding one of the alpine artisans. Some describe pizzoccheri as the soul (anima) of the Valtellina, and having visited 11 times, I have to agree.

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The taste of my second home.

Pizzoccheri are not only intimately associated with the valley’s character; they have also formed part of the Valtellina diet for at least 500 years, having been mentioned in Venetian food catalogues in 1548 under the name pinzoccheri.

Not only are pizzoccheri regional, but they are sub-regional — see here for a map of the Valtellina in relation to Lombardy and Italy. Furthermore, the dish necessitates a PDO cheese, Valtellina Casera, a semi-cooked cheese from the valley, deepening protectionism about Valtellina identity through official designation.

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As I type the cheese’s name, I can hear, across the 20,000 kilometres that separate us, my Nonna pronouncing it in her Bergamascan dialect – cah-szeour-ah. This, however, is diced fontina and taleggio.

On the recommendation of the recipe I’m using, I substitute fontina for the casera. It works — each mouthful is a vision of the valley, of its breathtaking sights, its earthy smells and textures, showing how powerful the link between food and memory can be, as in Proust’s famous Madeleines passage.

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Potatoes, cabbage and buckwheat pasta are boiled together in a pot, and are mixed with the cheese in a large dish…
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To which you add a garlic, butter and sage sauce.

When preparing the recipe, you are inevitably struck by the high calorie content of the dish, which is of course intentionally designed to be so — after all, it had to sustain the Alpinisti in sub zero temperatures as they scaled the mountains of the Valtellina. Unfortunately, this means that people are often reluctant to cook such recipes nowadays as our need for calorie dense food decreases.

As a fiercely regional dish, pizzoccheri have not spread much outside the mountainous Alps of Italy. In fact, I doubt I would know about them at all if my family didn’t live on the other side of the mountains that surround the Valtellina. Even less so around the world — while pizzoccheri are yet to reach the fame of pasta or pizza, in Melbourne I gleaned by hearsay that it is offered at Italian specialty restaurants, often as a special winter offering.

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Their loss!
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