Milan, 28 December 2017
Many posts ago, I promised that I would render public the recipe for mashed potatoes which had been handed down for generations from mother to daughter on my mother’s side (at least, that’s what I would like to think; I certainly got the recipe from my sister, who in turn got it from our grandmother). I will finally unveil it today – but first, I will dreamily describe the meal which it accompanied, which happens to have been our Christmas lunch.
The centerpiece of the lunch, the pièce de resistance as the French would say, was two cotechini. For readers who have no idea what a cotechino is, let me first say that I completely understand; I too had no idea what it was before I had slices of one put on my plate some forty years ago, when I passed my first year’s end in Italy. Let me go on to say that it is a sausage – such an ugly term for this glorious dish! the Italian term salume is so much more elegant, I will use that.
It is made with pork meat, both lean (shoulder, neck, leg, shank) and fatty (throat, cheek, bacon) as well as rind. The meat portion is chopped coarsely, the rind finely. Nowadays, the lean meats predominate in the recipe, with about a fifth each by weight of fatty meat and rind added, but I suspect that in the old days there was much more rind since the salume’s name derives from cotica, the Italian word for rind. In any event, salt, pepper, spices and herbs, and even sometimes wine, are added to the mix. The precise types and amounts of spices and herbs are of course closely guarded secrets handed down from generation to generation in the hush of rural kitchens, but nutmeg, cloves and sometimes cinnamon are present in modern recipes. This fragrant mix is then squeezed into a casing of pig’s intestines. The resulting salume is cured for about a month, after which it is ready to eat. But first it needs to be cooked, which luckily is easy though slow: place the cotechino in boiling water over low heat for some four hours, first pricking the casing to allow the fats inside to ooze out. Et voilà! (I feel I must inform those readers who are pressed for time that there are now modern pre-cooked cotechini which can be ready for the table in half an hour, but I would really urge them to make time in their busy lives to purchase a raw cotechino and cook it the full four hours).
Today, the cotechino is a very respectable dish, but I suspect this is because it has been subjected to the culinary equivalent of gentrification. It must have started life as the ingenious response by poor people to the pressing need to use every bit of their pigs, even the hard, gristly, tough bits. In fact, the region of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, which until recently was a very poor region of Italy, has always claimed the paternity of the cotechino. In truth, though, it is found in substantially the same form throughout the whole of north-eastern Italy, and has spread west to Lombardy and south to the Apennines. Northern Italy was full of very poor people until comparatively recent times. Some years ago, riding the wave of sourcing your food locally, Modena has cannily parlayed the greater notoriety of its variant of cotechino into a certification of Protected Geographical Indication, no doubt much to the annoyance of all the regions in the north-east who believe that the cotechino was born in their region.
Well, I don’t object to this social upgrading of the cotechino. I’ve always thought that simple “peasant” food is much nicer than the fussy, overwrought creations invented for aristocrats with nothing useful to do with their lives and always looking for something new to excite their jaded palates.
In northern Italy, cotechino is the dish par excellence for Christmas and New Year meals. It is joined in this distinction by the zampone from Emilia Romagna, which is identical to the cotechino except for the casing used: the pig’s front foot rather than its intestines.
It is probably its role in year’s end festivities that has turned the cotechino into a respectable, middle-class dish. But I suspect that its place on the Christmas or New Year table in the first place is actually due to simple chance. In the old days, it was customary in the countryside to slaughter the household pig at the beginning of winter. The meat and offal were then cured or otherwise preserved to build up food supplies for the lean winter and spring months. Cotechino, which is cured within a month, would have been ready by the end of the year, just in time for the festive season. Thus did it happen to become, in my humble opinion, the centerpiece – the piece de resistance – on the Christmas or New Year table.
What of the side dishes to be eaten with cotechino? This year, we followed the time-honored tradition of eating it with lentils.
I personally think this is an excellent culinary pairing. Cotechino has rather a sharp taste, which is admirably offset by the relative blandness of lentils. The relative dryness of lentils also soaks up the cotechino’s tendency to excess fattiness. But I’m not sure this was necessarily the reason for which the pairing originally occurred. Since time immemorial, lentils have been the poor person’s food, so it seems natural to me that it should have been paired with cotechino, the poor person’s salume. It could also be that there was already a tradition of eating lentils at the new year. It seems that since at least Roman times there has been the belief that eating lentils at the new year will ensure your prosperity in the year to come. This credence is based on the shape of the lentils – they look like (very) small coins. I suppose this must be based on a belief in some sort of sympathetic magic: eat coin-shaped food and real coins will soon be clinking in your pocket. I wish it were that simple …
Which brings us back to where this post started: mashed potatoes.
We decided to add this to the basic pairing of cotechino and lentils. I feel that the gentle sweetness of mashed potatoes helps the lentils in its task of smoothing out that bite and tartness which is an essential part of the cotechino’s identity. I’m convinced that our mashed potatoes’ sweetness is enhanced by the way we prepare it (I say “we” because I have passed on the age-old secret recipe to my wife and daughter): mash the potatoes, preferably in one of those old-fashioned manual food-grinders, add enough milk to nearly liquefy the mash, add an extremely large nob of butter, stir. That’s it.
And so we all tucked into our Christmas lunch of cotechino, lentils, and mashed potatoes.
Well, it’s taken me a little time to prepare this post, but readers still have just enough time to rush out and buy themselves a cotechino for their New Year’s lunch or dinner. I suggest going to your nearest Italian Deli to see if they have it – you can buy a zampone if they stock that. If not, you might just have time to buy it on-line. But hurry! Time is running out!
cotechino di Modena IGP: http://www.pubblicitaitalia.com/eurocarni/2007/2/7179.html
mashed potatoes: http://www.cookingchanneltv.com/recipes/mashed-potatoes-with-roasted-garlic-and-mascarpone-cheese-1947695
cotechino, lentils, and mashed potatoes: https://cucina.doki.it/secondi-piatti/cotechino-pure-patate-bimby-tm31-ricetta
New Year’s dinner: http://www.grubstreet.com/2016/12/where-to-make-last-minute-new-years-eve-reservations-in-nyc.html