Monk’s beard – the strange, charming, totally addictive green that comes in nourished bunches with plenty of grits attached – is my current religion. The fact that its season is almost finished kills me but, at the same time, it makes me happy. It feels liberating, like I can finally move on onto the next obsessive compulsive seasonal eating craze. Two more weeks or so, and I’ll be free.
But for now, and for the past two months to date, monk’s beard has been a very frequent guest at our table. We’ve eaten it simply blanched and tossed in oil and lemon, then served alongside stupid easy and terribly satisfying slices of toasted bread with butter and anchovies. We’ve eaten it in multiple takes with spaghetti – either sauteed in a puddle of strongly-scented anchovy butter, then topped with a landslide of fried breadcrumbs; or with clams and lots of lemon zest. In both cases, the green strands of monk’s beard would entangle with the pasta creating an unbreakable marriage of complementary flavours and textures. What a great little thing it is.
The truth is, I am not a butter eater. In front of a loaf just out of the oven, I will reach for peppery olive oil and flaky salt. Butter can sit in my fridge, ignored, for months, until the baking itch attacks.
But since our last trip to Rome – where I ate my weight in gluten and dairy – I have been using that packet of butter surprisingly often. It was either melted into a puddle, mingled with anchovies and used to season pasta. Or eased in thin yet un-spread layers over toasted bread, and covered with whole, plump anchovies only seconds before the first bite. And anyway, as hazardous as this combination might sound, they are actually the perfect match – a classic case of opposites that attract each other.
Burro e alici (butter and anchovies) is a traditional Roman dish of poor origins, combining all the main nutrients in one simple and filling dish: fat from butter, proteins from the fish, and carbs from the bread or pasta. Cucina povera at its finest.
The bruschette are a very nice and quick option for aperitivo, especially if last minute. I like the butter to be in shavings that melt on their own over the warm bread, and whole anchovies for texture.
The pasta is not for the faint of heart, but I made it for an enthusiastic American who thought anchovies were the enemy only a couple of years ago. It has a strong, stubborn attitude, and attacks your nose with its fishy notes before you even taste the first forkful; but the sweetness of the butter will there, waiting to reward the brave hearts with its deeply satisfying lusciousness.
If I have to visualise the best scenario for an aperitivo, I see a Venetian square bathed in the warmth of a summer evening light. The square is not crowded, but lively with people gathering and forming small, chatty groups standing at the doorsteps of the most popular bars. I see a handful of friends around me, each of them with their drink in hand, all of us cheering, suddenly relaxed by the simple presence of each other as we chat the evening away. I see someone going back for a refill and some nibbles – perhaps some crostini or cicchetti. And one of them will certainly be eggs and anchovies.
Eggs and anchovies (meso ovo, in the local dialect) is a traditional Venetian cicchetto, which can be found in almost all the respectable bàcari in town. A poor dish, aimed at satisfying some serious peckishness with simple, easy-to-get ingredients, it has for long been one of the most democratic snacks to go with the glass of wine. they are as good consumed in a Venetian alley as they are at home, perhaps with a glass of
Now, if you don’t find yourself any close to a Venetian square, rest assured that they will be as good at home, better still with a spritz to keep the Venetian theme.
Few things feel more festive to me (as to most Venetians) than bìgoli in salsa. As strange as this might sound, this poor, anchovy- and onion-based pasta dish is hands down the most popular Venetian Christmas Eve’s first course. A big classic in the cuisine of Veneto, bìgoli in salsa used to be enjoyed on giorni di magro (fasting days) such as Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and Christmas Eve. Nowadays, you can find all year round in traditional osterie and local restaurants all over the region. However, it remains very much linked to fasting days in the local tradition.
Context. Bìgoli is a type of thick, fresh spaghetti that is originally from Veneto. Their origin seems to date back to the 1600s, when the whole region was under the domain of la Serenissima
. A pasta maker from Padova designed and patented a machinery (called bigolaro
) apt to make different shapes of pasta. Among them, thick bìgoli
gained people’s preference, and fast became the signature pasta shape of the Venetian republic.
Olive oil has been the main cooking fat and source of energies for the Italian regions of the centre/south and of those along the coast, where the climate was mitigated by the influence of the sea. This is, for instance, the case of Liguria, a region of the North-West consisting in a thin strip of land along the Tirreno Sea. Introduced first by Greek and Phoenicians, the cultivation of olive trees has seen a major expansion in the Middle Ages with Benedictine monks, who cultivated olive trees in the form of a local varietal, Taggiasca. Taggiasca olives are small in size and have a delicate flavour, and are still now the main varietal in the Ligurian PDO olive oil.
Exchanges of goods between bordering regions have always been crucial for local populations, especially for those who didn’t have direct access to the sea. Salt, in particular, was a most precious good, utilised for many purposes, but mainly as a preservative. “Salt ways” started from the coast and developed along the inner lands.
In time, more goods started to be transported and exchanged alongside salt. One of them is olive oil. As a matter of fact, the oil produced in Liguria started to be sold, together with salt and other goods such as preserved fish, to the people of Piedmont, who utilised it in various preparations as an alternative to butter. This is especially true for the Southern part of Piedmont, Langhe, a hilly area which wasn’t high enough to justify big dairy farming, but that could count on the oil coming from the South for cooking, seasoning and preserving.