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April 27, 2007

Fusilli and Bistecca...Delizioso!

Tilde rolls fusilli

Sometime after lunch, we hopped into Tilde's Alpha Romeo and paid a visit to the butcher, Luigi, to get some Podolica bisteccas.

Podolica is one of the "autochthonous" breeds of Italian cattle. Italians are very proud of their cattle. They even have a magazine, called Taurus, that talks about nothing else but Italian cattle breeds. (I am a subscriber.) The most famous is Chiannina--the lumbering alabaster-white cow of Tuscany. Podolica is from the south. It's raised both for its milk and for its meat, and like so much from Italy's south, northerners tend to sneer at it. They rave about Chiannina, Marchigniana, and Maramma beef, but no one says a thing about the lowly, grey-faced Podolica. I wanted to have a taste for myself.

Podolica bistecca

Luigi brought a massive Podolica loin out of the fridge, where it had been aging, and hacked off three huge bisteccas with a cleaver. He then forced some of his own soprassata on me, along with a big chunk of pancetta and a five-liter drum of his olive oil. (Tilde said that Luigi makes excellent olive oil, but that hers is sweeter.)

Italians eat their meals in a series of numbered courses: the antipasto, followed by the primo, followed by the secondo. The huge bistecca was the secondi. For the primo, we would have pasta: fresh fusilli in a simple tomato sauce. I was supposed to help make it.

Real eggs

In Cilento, fresh fusilli isn't anything like the dried store-bought twirls we're all used to. Each fusillo starts as a little cylinder of dough that's smushed around a thin steel rod and then rolled out into a ragged looking tube. Somehow, the metal rod is then removed and the fusillo remains intact, ready to be boiled. (At least it does when an Italian person rolls it out. Foreigners aren't so lucky.)

You can't start rolling fusilli without fresh fusilli dough, however, and here things begin to get complicated. The only measurement Tidle was able to say with any degree of exactness was the amount of flour: 100 grams per person, 80 percent hard flour, and 20 percent soft flour. I don't know the difference between hard and soft Italian flour, but I can say that the soft flour resembled what we call all-purpose flour. The hard flour had thicker grains.

Eggs and flour

Tilde decided to use three eggs. She gets her eggs from a farm and has to clean the gunk off with steel wool, but she says if you use store-bought eggs, the pasta will not only not taste as good, but you will have to adjust the number of eggs. Sometimes you even have to adjust the number of farm eggs, depending on how big they are, how moist, and so forth.

Tilde weighed the flour, dumped it onto a pastry board and formed a crater in the middle, into which she cracked the eggs in, whipped them with a fork, then began folding in the flour. Slowly, she added little driblets of water to the mix, though the exact amount was impossible to say. "It's a matter of feel." The mixture looked like dough. Tilde kneaded it with the heels of her hands until it was "uniform," then rolled it like plasticine into a long, thin snake of dough. With a knife, she cut it into little cylinders. We were ready to roll fusilli.

Mixing it all up

The sad truth is, this is something I am not capable of doing. Tilde demonstrated and I imitated. This happened over and over, but whereas Tilde was able to remove the fusillo from the rod, I was not. The dough did everything it was supposed to: it spread out, and formed a beautiful tube of pasta. But it clung like glue to the steel rod. Tilde's daughter Wanda gave it a try. For her, it worked. Then Tilde did another, effortless like all the others. We tried a sightly thicker rod. Tilde says some people find the thicker rod easier to work with. I am not one of those people. Each of my fusilli was turned into an accordion. Tilde stepped in and took over.

Starting the roll

Next step in rolling

Finished fusilli

That was actually fine with me, because I was mainly excited about eating the fusilli. Which I did, and then followed with an enormous grilled bistecca, cooked over a wood-fired grill and seasoned only with salt. On the plate, there was nothing other than bistecca. Next to it, a glass of Tilde's father's red wine. I asked Tilde as to what she thought of the bisteccas. "It has the taste of true meat," she said, chewing thoughtfully. "There's no other way to describe it." Tilde was right.

Now read the recipe!


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