Pici Alla Crema di Limone #FoodieReads
Updated: Aug 27
I have been on a roll of reading historical fiction set in Italy during World War II. This post was inspired by The Cypress Maze by Fiona Valpy.
This novel has a foot in two timelines at the same Tuscan estate - Villa delle Columbe (the house of doves) - in 1943 and 2015. And one of the characters, Beatrice, was a young woman in World War II and now is the elder custodian of the property.
At the center of the estate's extensive gardens lies the eponymous cypress maze that hides some painful secrets from the era of Nazi-occupation. Beatrice first comes to Villa delle Columbe as a refugee of sorts; instead of being forced to flee her country due to war, she is unable to return to her country. So, she stays in Italy. And, with Francesca and Edoardo, she protects all of the children whose parents are casualties of the war in their Tuscan town, including a young Jewish boy.
Edoardo is murdered but the women continue their mission and eventually get their revenge on the Nazi-sympathizer who was responsible for Edo's death.
Flash forward to 2015, Tess, a recent widow, comes to Villa delle Columbe and Beatrice begins to unravel the tapestry of her secrets as they work together to keep the new owner of the estate from turning into a golf course.
This is a compelling, well-researched novel that is simultaneously a story of great sadness and a celebration of perseverance. If you enjoy historical fiction, especially those set in WWII, this is a must-read.
As most books set in Italy, there is a lot of food on these pages, especially with the prolific gardens of Villa delle Columbe.
Francesca instructs Beatrice... "'The first cherries are ripe, and we’ll need to pick them and pit them so Vittoria can make preserves. Then there’s asparagus to cut and sweet new peas and fava beans to pick in the vegetable garden behind the farmhouse. We’ll ask Vittoria to cook us a risotto with them this evening. The early summer vegetables are always a treat,' she says."
"'...we could go and pick some tomatoes. Silvana spoke of making passata this afternoon and I’m sure she’d appreciate a hand. Come with me – I’ll show you the vegetable patch'."
"'One of my favourite pastimes was hunting for edible fungi in the woods and, with the help of Silvana’s expert knowledge, my little tribe of mushroom hunters soon became adept at telling edible porcini from the red-tinged devil’s variety'."
The passage that inspired me into the kitchen...
"She set me to the simplest of tasks – pinching off pieces of dough and rolling them into long, thin worms to make a local pasta known as pici. It was while I was struggling one morning to get the pasta even enough for Silvana’s liking that Elisabetta wandered into the kitchen. She knelt on a chair beside me at the table and began to show me how it was done. 'Brava!' Silvana cried. 'Perfetto! Well done, Elisabetta.' 'My mamma makes this for us sometimes. She was born in the south, so my nonna taught her this way of making pasta,' Elisabetta said as she reached for another piece of the dough and deftly rolled it into the desired size and shape. Once cooked, the pici was satisfyingly filling, served up in bowls with a rich ragù."
Pici is thick, hand-rolled pasta that originated in Tuscany, near Sienna. It's usually made from just flour and water so it's a little more dense and chewy. And, as with most of my pasta doughs, I use weight measurements but have given volume approximations as well.
For this version, I made a salty, tart sauce made with lemons and anchovies.
serves 4 to 6
150 grams (approximately 1 cup) pasta flour or all-purpose flour
170 gram (approximately 1 cup) semolina flour, plus extra for dusting
1 teaspoon salt
160 milliliters (approximately 2/3 cup) warm water
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1/4 cup olive oil
5 or 6 anchovy fillets plus more for (optional) garnish
juice from 3 organic lemons (zested first with zest set aside)
3/4 cup breadcrumbs
2 Tablespoons fresh herbs (I used oregano) plus more for garnish
1/2 cup freshly grated cheese (I used parmesan) plus more for serving
Place flours and salt together in a mixing bowl. Gradually add the water, and mix with a fork until it just comes together.
Turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 8-10 minutes until smooth and elastic.
Wrap in plastic wrap and rest for 20 to 30 minutes. Now on to the fun part...
Divide the dough ball into 8 golf ball-sized pieces and roll them into 12" cylinders approximately 1" diameter.
Then take each cylinder and rub them between your palms until they elongate and become thinner. I like to use gravity and have the pici come off the back of my hand back to the countertop.
Toss the noodles in semolina and set aside until needed.
Bring a pot of salted water to boil. Add in the pici and cook for 2 minutes. Drain, but reserve at least two cups of the cooking water.
In a small mixing bowl, blend together bread crumbs, herbs, lemon zest, and grated cheese. Set aside,
In a large saucepan, heat olive oil. Stir in the garlic and the anchovy fillets. Cook over medium heat until the anchovies begin to fall apart, approximately 2 to 3 minutes. Add in the lemon juice. Stir in half of the breadcrumb mixture and stir to coat the breadcrumbs with the anchovy oil. Pour in two ladles worth of pasta cooking water and stir to combine into a sauce.
Add in the parboiled pici and continue to cook for another minute or two. The pasta should be fully cooked and the sauce beginning to thicken.
To serve, plate portion in an individual serving bowl. Top with 1 to 2 teaspoons of the breadcrumb mixture. Sprinkle with more herbs and cheese, if desired. Top with an anchovy fillet, if using. Serve immediately.