This month, my parents and their friends in central Italy are busy singing folk songs with fellow May singers called maggerini. Traditionally, workers would gather on 1 May, Labour Day, and sing at farms in the locality in exchange for farm produce: salami, cheese, vegetables, eggs, ricotta, poultry, nuts, dried fruits – a bounty by anyone’s standards. In the postwar period, it became linked with the Partisans and resistance to Fascism. To this day, the maggerini rewrite verses to update popular songs with current issues – you can imagine what the subjects are this year.
Today, a week later, is La Ribotta, when the singers gather and eat what they were given the week before. It is a spectacular feast and the recipes below are an homage to that celebration. When I went, it was a bit like living in an Asterix comic. I think the Abruzzese dish, Le Virtù, demonstrates the Italian reverence for seasonal produce – each vegetable given the spotlight in a careful cooking. We will take the trouble and enjoy celebrating simple things this season.
Salami, broad beans and pecorino
If I had small fresh, crunchy broad beans I’d be tempted to eat them raw. It’s worth hanging on, though, and the breadcrumbs will provide the crunch you lose on cooking them. Serves 4
bread 2 slices
garlic ½ clove
dried chilli 1
fresh broad beans 300g (shelled weight)
salami 1, small
Heat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4. Blitz the bread to crumbs, drench with olive oil and roast for 5 minutes, or until crisp. Set aside on a paper towel until needed.
Slice the garlic as thinly as possible. Place in a small pot with 4 generous tbsp of olive oil and the dried chilli, and fry from cold on a medium heat. Once the garlic begins to get sticky, turn off the heat and set aside.
Bring a small pot to the boil with the vinegar and roughly 4 times as much water. Boil the broad beans for 3 minutes, before removing them with a slotted spoon to the garlic and oil. Season well with salt and pepper.
Serve the salami sliced with hunks of cheese and the broad beans sprinkled with breadcrumbs.
Le Virtù (The Virtues)
This is a vegetarian version of Le Virtù that hails from the region of Abruzzo in central Italy. It uses the end of the dried beans from winter and marries them with the first fresh vegetables. It’s comforting, but vibrant. I usually try to keep the pot count to a minimum, but this one is worth the effort. It is simple food, just with many, many components. You can, as ever, use pre-cooked beans and you don’t necessarily need all of them. Serves 8-10
For the beans:
dried borlotti beans 100g (or 200g cooked)
dried cannellini beans 100g (or 200g cooked)
dried chickpeas 100g (or 200g cooked)
brown lentils 50g
garlic 3 cloves
sage 1 bunch
For the fresh egg pasta:
‘00’ flour 200g, plus extra for dusting
For the starch:
dried pasta 250g, preferably a mix of shapes for texture, broken into pieces
For the spring ‘virtues’:
celery 1 head
red onion 1
garlic 4 cloves
parsley 1 bunch
bay leaves 2
fennel seeds 1 tsp
rosemary leaves 1 tbsp, chopped
tinned plum tomatoes 4, drained of juices
fresh peas and/or broad beans 200g (shelled weight)
young courgettes 2 (200g), thickly sliced
chard or spinach leaves 200g
Soak the dried beans and chickpeas in individual bowls of cold water overnight. You do not need to soak the lentils. Cook the beans, chickpeas and lentils in fresh water that covers them by 5cm, again in individual pots (as they all have different cooking times) with a clove of garlic and a few sage leaves each. Test doneness from 40 minutes onwards, adding more water where necessary. Once the beans are cooked, transfer to a large soup bowl and season with salt and pepper.
Make the fresh egg pasta by using your fingers like rakes. Mix the flour and eggs in a bowl. Once shaggy and mostly mixed, knead together to make a dough. Knead the dough on the bench for 5-10 minutes, until smooth and springy. Cover and set aside to rest for 30 minutes.
To roll the pasta, divide the dough in 2, keeping the other half you are not using covered. Lightly dust the bench with flour, flatten the pasta a little and roll with a wooden rolling pin. Lift the pasta and turn it through 90° frequently to avoid it sticking to the bench. Apply light dustings when necessary. When the pasta is very thin, no more than a couple of millimetres, cut into short strips several centimetres wide. Set aside – not piled up or it will stick – and repeat with the other piece of dough. You can use a pasta sheeter instead, should you have one, or indeed cut up store-bought fresh pasta.
Place a large pot over a medium-low heat. Dice the celery, onion, garlic, a handful of the parsley and sweat in 3 tbsp of olive oil with the bay, fennel seeds, and chopped rosemary. When yielding, soft and sweet, add the tomatoes and cook for a moment more. Turn off, then add all the pulses.
Bring another large pot of salted water to the boil and blanch the broad beans or peas, then courgettes and finally chard and remaining parsley, removing them with a slotted spoon when al dente to the pot with the other vegetables.
Top up the water if necessary before you cook the dried pasta. Turn the other pot back on to medium. Three minutes before the pasta is ready, add the fresh pasta. When cooked, drain the pasta, reserving a little of the cooking water. Add a scant cup of the water to the other pot, add everything together with the cheese and stir gently to amalgamate for a few minutes, before serving with a soup ladle and plenty of extra olive oil and more grated cheese.
Frittata rustica al forno
More vegetables than eggs, this is a dish bristling with herbs and spring vitality. Add the best of what you have. Serves 6
red onion 1
garlic 1 clove
tinned plum tomatoes 2, drained of juices
basil or mint a few sprigs
parsley 1 small bunch
potatoes 200g, grated
chickpea flour 20g (or wheat flour)
peas 50g (shelled weight)
pecorino or parmesan 100g, grated
sausages 4 (450g), good quality pork
sage 8 leaves
Heat the oven 180C/gas mark 4. Line a large baking tray with parchment paper. Wash all the vegetables. Snap or trim the hard ends off the asparagus. Slice the courgettes as thinly as possible. Slice the onion and garlic. Cut the leek into 2, lengthwise, and then again into ribbons. Thinly slice the tomatoes. Pick the herb leaves.
Grate the potato into a large bowl and add all the eggs, 2 tbsp of chickpea flour, half the cheese and a good pinch of salt. Whisk well. Add the peas, courgettes and soft herbs.
De-skin and crumble the sausages and begin to fry the meat over a medium heat in several tbsp of oil. Add the onions, quickly followed by the garlic and sage. Once the onion is translucent and the sausage meat has begun to release its juices, add the asparagus and toss. When hot, add the leek. Season with pepper.
Add the contents of the pan to the eggs and mix very well.
Fill the baking tray with the mixture, arrange it a little, and bake for 15 or so minutes, topping with the remaining cheese and a little more oil halfway through cooking.
Allow to rest before serving. This is still a fork and knife affair: you definitely want to eat it sitting at a table, preferably with a hunk of bread to round up stray asparagus fronds or leek ribbons.
Sweet ricotta pie
A great match for black coffee and good for breakfast. Serves 6
butter 115g, plus extra for greasing
shelled almonds 80g, skins on
demerara sugar 60g
wholemeal flour 150g
golden caster sugar 80g
plain flour 2 tbsp
single cream 150ml
Dice the butter. Process the almonds in a mixer with a pinch of salt and the demerara sugar until fine, but not a paste. Add the flour and butter and quickly pulse until like breadcrumbs. Drizzle in 3 tbsp of cold water and pulse again until the pastry is formed. Add an extra spoon of water only if necessary. Finish bringing together by hand and set aside in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
Cut the pastry into pieces, squash them into a smallish buttered cake pan with a removable base to make a shell (mine is 18cm wide and 7cm high). Place in the freezer, while you heat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4.
In a large bowl, whisk the ricotta with the caster sugar until light and fluffy. Then add the eggs, one by one, beating all the while. Finally add the cream, flour and a pinch of salt.
Fill the pastry shell and bake for 30 minutes. The pie will have slightly risen, and the top should be lightly scorched. Cool completely before serving.
Joe Trivelli is joint head chef at the River Café