For a woman like me, who struggles with bread management, Italy has been good. In part because bread is still bought daily from the local forno by weight: un mezzo filone, un quarto di pagnotta, un pezzo, un po, cosi, a way of shopping that, although no guarantee of perfect daily bread estimation, encourages bread thoughtfulness. But principally because if there is any old, stale bread in the kitchen, it’s not perceived as a problem, a doorstop or a guilty reminder of culinary mismanagement and wastefulness, but as an ingredient.
Old, stale bread is moistened back to life with a little cold water, squeezed dry, torn and then tossed with coarsely chopped tomatoes - fruity, fleshy and flavorsome ones, torn basil, maybe a little sliced red onion and then dressed with plenty of extra virgin olive oil, vinegar and salt. This marvelous muddle known as Panzanella is then left to sit – so the bread absorbs the tomato juice and dressing – before being served. For the Tuscan specialty Ribollita (which means re-boiled) a thick bean and vegetable soup prepared the day before is recooked, then served spooned over slices of stale bread – toasted or hardened in the oven – and blessed with extra virgin olive oil. In the case of Pappa al pomodoro (papa means mush, pomodoro, of course, tomato) ‘Mature’ bread is toasted and then cooked gently with garlic and excellent tomatoes in plenty of olive oil to make a gloriously good soup/mush. Every night in thousands of Italian kitchens stale bread is dampened with milk and then mixed with ground beef, parsley, parmesan and a grating of nutmeg to make Polpette (meatballs) to be simmered in rich tomato sauce.
And in Liguria, the narrow arc of a region on the coast below Piemonte, the Riviera di Fiori, stale bread is soaked in whole milk and then mixed with pounded walnuts, garlic, olive oil and freshly grated parmesan to make quite possibly my favourite (new) recipe this year, a glorious cream the colour of my Burbury trench coat, salsa di noci or walnut sauce.
I’d made walnut sauce before, I’ve posted about it in fact, but it didn’t involve stale bread and you see, stale bread is the key. As are good walnuts, the wrinkly lobes of the kitchen, the curious shaped King of nuts (the Queen of course is almond and the Prince, hazelnut but I digress.) Stale bread, from a coarse, country loaf and good walnuts, like those from Sorrento in Campania, creamy and with a wonderful oily, sweet, waxy texture but also slight bitterness and mild astringent nature. Curious nuts that look a little like something out of a specimen jar in a biology lab.
You can of course make your walnut sauce in a food processor. However, when it comes to this kind of sauce /pesto, the machine that has revolutionized our kitchens, lives and timing, can’t help but obliterates all the ingredients into a monotonous, textureless whole, the sauce equivalent of an airbrushed photo of, lets say Nicole Kidman: smooth as can be, but really rather boring.
I’d suggest using a pestle and mortar, or the plastic bag/ rolling-pin /think of someone immensely irritating technique to pound the walnuts into a coarse powder. Then use an immersion blender, for as briefly as possible, to blitz the pounded walnuts, milk sodden bread and garlic into a rough paste. Finally stir in the olive oil and freshly grated parmesan by hand with a wooden spoon. The combination of hand and machine produces a properly creamy sauce but one with real texture and personality. A sauce that is ready to be spooned into a jar.
And what good and surprising sauce. Well surprising to me at least! After a little reading it seems I am the last walnut lover to discover what the French (aillade), Italians, Turks (tarator) and Giorgians have known for centuries, the charm of walnuts, olive oil, garlic, usually bread and possibly cheese reduced a creamy, nutty, soft, intriguing and rounded sauce.
It may seem a little odd to smear bread on bread, but I like salsa di noci on hot toast or rounds of ciabatta (crostini) baked until crisp and golden in the oven. A great antipasti, best served with a glass of chilled white wine or in the coming months a glass of full-bodied, room temperature red. Walnut sauce goes brilliantly with roast meat, particularly roast chicken, a sort of nutty Ligurian take on one of my favorites: English bread sauce. But best of all is salsa di noci with pasta, ideally Pansoti – which literally means pot-bellied – triangular wild herb ravioli from Liguria. But until we learn to make Pansoti, we shall eat our salsa di noci tossed with al dente spaghetti, tagliatelle or thick ribbons of fettucine cooked with some fine green beans.
I think it goes without saying we are talking about good bread here, a coarse, country-style loaf, one which ages decently and gracefully. Ideally the olive oil should be a light and delicately flavored variety. Last thing, I have given specific quantities, but they are merely guidelines, use your loaf, keeping in mind the sauce should be creamy and thick enough to stand a spoon up in, but still soft and spoonable.
Salsa di noci Walnut sauce.
Makes a jar of sauce. More than enough to dress pasta for four and some left over for on toast the next day.
- 80 g of crustless, coarse country bread
- 200 ml whole milk (plus a little extra to loosen sauce if necessary)
- 150 g shelled walnuts
- 1 clove of garlic
- 40 g grated parmesan
- 5 – 7 tablespoons light extra virgin olive oil
- salt and pepper
In a small pan warm the milk gently until it is tepid and then remove it from the heat. Tear the bread into smallish pieces and add it to the pan. Leave to soak for 10 minutes.
In a pestle and mortar crush the walnuts. Peel the garlic and crush it with the back of a knife.
Tip the crushed walnuts, milk sodden bread and garlic into a bowl. Using an immersion/stick blender blitz everything into a thick coarse cream.
Add the olive oil and gated parmesan to the bowl and then – using a wooden spoon – beat the mixture firmly. Taste and season to taste with salt and freshly grated black pepper.
With pasta and green beans
For four people as a main course, I’d suggest 500 g of pasta (spaghetti, tagliatelle or fettuccine) and 300 g of fine green beans. Bring a large pan of well salted water to the boil. Add the beans and pasta to the pan and cook until the pasta is al dente. Meanwhile put roughly 3/4 of your jar of walnut sauce in a warm bowl and thin it slightly with a little of the pasta cooking water (use a ladle to scoop some out while the pasta is cooking). Drain the pasta and beans, saving a little more of the cooking water. Mix the pasta and beans with the walnut sauce, adding a little more cooking water if you feel it need loosening even more. Divide between four warm bowls and serve with more freshly grated parmesan and a glass of Pigato.