Pellegrino Artusi the Italian buongustaio and one of the first food writers to gather together recipes from all over Italy, describes antipasti – which literally translated means before (anti) the meals (pasti) – as cosette appetitose, appetising little things to be eaten before the first course.
I’ve seen and tasted wonderfully clever and complicated antipasti, but generally this nice habit appears to be a simple, unfussy and local affair for most Italians. There is always bread, maybe a bowl of olives and probably a few slices of local salami or cured meat. Around Rome at this time of year, you may be presented with a dish of broad beans fave, still in their pods so you can peel them yourself to eat with hunks of salty Pecorino Romano.
Sometimes there’s a local cheese or some vegetables preserved under oil. There might be a dish of fat white beans sitting in a puddle of good olive oil or some marinated anchovies. I’ve often had fried delights, zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella and anchovy, dipped in batter and then plunged into hot oil, or olives stuffed with seasoned sausage meat, breaded and fried until crisp. A favourite antipasti is crostini, small toasts spread with coarse patè, or bruschetta, bread warmed on a charcoal grill (or toaster if you live in an extremely small inner city apartment) heaped with roughly chopped tomatoes or – one of my favourites – simply rubbed with garlic and anointed with olive oil.
I’m immensely fond of such cosette appetitose. On more than one occasion a lack of control and foresight in their presence, nearly sabotaged the rest of the meal. I am an English barbarian afterall.
Three years ago, Vincenzo and the motley crew he drums with, played a concert in Supersano, a town in Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot. It was past midnight when we followed one of the young organisers in a fuel injected panda with a penchant for formula one corners, through the Puglian countryside in search of our post concert supper. Just when I thought I couldn’t take another hairpin bend in a sweaty tour van, we swerved into the forecourt of a Masseria – dictionary definition; a fortified farmhouse or manor farm with a large agricultural estate – which had been converted into an agriturismo and restaurant.
It was an extraordinary, vast, sprawling 16th century stone building, a proud, labyrinthine place. The hour, heat, humidity and our growling hunger were not particularly condusive to thoughtful reflection of the places austere beauty, but it was quietly acknowledged. We were led into paved courtyard surrounded by a high stone wall, then seated at a round table, large enough to accommodate all ten of us.
The meal that followed was one of the most memorable and delicious I have ever eaten.
First the bread, typical of the area, made from semolina flour, firm with an almost yellow crumb, bowls of olives and a salami called capacollo. There were various dishes of preserved and pickled vegetables sitting in pools of golden olive oil; sweet and sour small onion-like lampascioni, purple edged slices of grilled aubergine, soft, sweet red peppers and my favourite, tiny walnut sized artichokes. Then came the deep-fried zucchini flowers, some filled with mozzarella and anchovy, others with sheeps milk ricotta, and the rest just so, crisp and golden on the ouside, soft and forgiving within. That my friends, was the antipasti. It was clear to us all it was going to be a long night.
Next, i primi, two vast platters of home-made pasta, one with cime di rapa the other with a piquant ragu. As we helped ourselves then ate the pasta, they stoked up the charcoal grill in the corner of the courtyard ready to cook lamb, pancetta and fat sausages – I think, by this point everything was blurred at the edges. After the meat came green salad dressed with salt and extra virgin olive oil. To finish we slurped vast half moons of soft, sweet, white melon and bit into soft almond biscuits. We drank wine, lots of it, a Primitivo I think, water from the well in the centre of the courtyard and we ended proceedings with a strictly medicinal amaro.
Almost everything we were served was sown, grown, produced, pickled. preserved, fermented, brewed, baked, cooked at the Masseria.
At some point I (apparently) asked a formidable signora from the kitchen how to prepare the onions, the artichokes, the ragu and the biscuits. I say apparently because I don’t really remember this particular conversation, but I do have the notes to prove it took place. My handwriting, an unruly scrawl, suggests rather a lot of wine had been consumed by that particular point. We finished eating at 3 in the morning. I don’t remember leaving.
So, the first recipe, the carciofi sott’olio (artichokes preserved under oil.)
It’s hard not to admire the vast, unruly heaps of small, purple tipped, baby globe artichokes (carciofi) at Testaccio market. Every year I buy a few to eat raw in salad and every year I promise myself I will set some time aside, buy a few kilo’s to prepare and preserve under oil. This year I finally did. I’ve made two batches. The first was rather straightforward because Vincenzo my faithful fruttivendolo prepared the artichokes. I watched attentively because the next 3kg, the second batch were down to me.
Sleeves up, radio on. Working with half a lemon and a bowl of cold water acidulated with plenty of lemon juice. You take the artichoke in one hand and snap away the outside leaves until you reach the tender pale leaves which are only green/purple at the top. Then with a small paring knife you cut away the small stem and then scrape and cut away tough green from the base exposing the white heart – rub the exposed surface with lemon. Finally cut away the pointed tops and put the prepared artichoke in the lemon water.
You plunge the prepared artichokes (in batches to avoid over crowding) into a fast boiling solution of white wine, white wine vinegar, water and a little salt. Once the water cames back to the boil you let the artichokes roll around for three minutes before lifting them out with a slotted spoon, draining them and lining them up on a clean tea towel to dry for 24 hours.
The following day you tuck the artichokes neatly into scrupulously clean jars, not forgetting to punctuate each layer with a black peppercorn. You fill the jars with extra virgin olive oil so the artichokes are absolutely covered. ‘Cosi‘ said Vincenzo the fruttivendolo as he explained the procedure, holding his fingers about 3mm apart.
Finally you put the lids on the jars – tightly, then hide them away in a cold dark place for at least 10 days and up to 3 months.
Carciofi sott’olio (Artichokes preserved under oil)
- 3 kg small artichokes
- 500ml white wine
- 500ml white wine vinegar
- 200ml water
- extra virgin olive oil
- whole black peppercorns
- a selection of clean sterilized jars with lids
Prepare your artichokes – see above.
In a large pan bring the wine, vinegar and water to a fast boil. Then working in batches so the pan is not overcrowded, add some of the artichokes. Once the water comes back up to a fast boil, cook the artichokes for 3 minutes.
Lift the artichokes out of the pan with a slotted spoon, drain them, squeeze the excess water out of each one and the line them up – with the beautiful side facing upwards – on a clean tea towel to dry out for 24 hours.
The following day tuck the artichokes into scrupulously clean jars in neat, tightly packed layers, punctuating each layer with black peppercorn. Fill the jars to the top with extra virgin olive oil, making sure the artichokes are absolutely covered by at least 3mm of oil.
Put the lids on tightly, then hide the jars away in a cold dark place for at least 10 days and up to 3 months.
Once the artichokes are ready, spoon them and some of the oil into a small dish (try not to put your fingers in jar) and serve them as part of your antipasti. They are also wonderful on pizza, tossed with pasta, in a salad, or sliced thinly to tuck in a sandwich
Have a really good week.