MOSTRA/MERCATO or “Show-and-Sell”
Not “show and tell” but “show and sell” is the theme of the Italian mostra mercato. These markets – generally open-air – can feature just a handful of vendors or hundreds and anything on display can be bought – and in some cases, tasted. For us, no better way to warm up a chilly November night than at the Mostra Mercato del Tartufo near Valtopina, tiny Umbrian mountain village located, appropriately, in the heart of black truffle territory. For the last two week-ends in November, over seventy vendors/producers – from all over Italy – fill the huge tents set up outside the town, offering visitors tastes of not just truffles but of the culinary highlights of the Italian cuisine and the Mediterranean diet: olive oils, olives, honeys, breads, cheeses, sundried tomatoes, endless varieties of legumes, nuts, dried fruits, wild boar salami, capocollo and prosciutto.
Contests among prized truffle dogs (the best snout wins), concerts, guided hikes in the surrounding countryside, conferences, guided olive-oil tastings, art exhibits, and wine-tastings draw visitors, as do the evening dinners featuring truffles in almost every dish from bruschetta to grilled lamb. Each year, another of the twenty regions of Italy is honored guest: this year, Trentino/Alto Adige’s turn and the wine-tasting events featured top Trentino wines.
We dropped in on a Saturday afternoon with our farm friend, Peppa. She surprised us by setting aside her usual rural frugality to make some purchases: hot red peppers (to pulverize for her pasta sauces), sun-dried tomatoes (to grind for patÃ©), ciauscolo (a fresh salami from the Marche region) and wild boar mortadella. She tried an olive oil from Trevi and judged it “buonissimo!”
We laughed as Peppa earnestly debated the secrets of prosciutto-aging with a vendor from Norcia. She accepted a taste, scrutinizing the color as she did, sniffing the profumo. As Peppa, contemplatively chewed, I asked the norcino why the meat of his prosciutti wasn’t redder in color. (Note: This man, the norcino, was actually from Norcia, though not all norcini are: any pig-butcher in Italy is called a “norcino” or “man from Norcia”, testament to their centuries-old skill in transforming the pig into prosciutto, capocollo, sausages and salmi). He replied, “Because no one any longer gathers acorns to fatten the pigs before slaughtering.” Ha. I knew we had him. Peppa threw back her shoulders, stuck our her chin and said, “IO, si!”
To read more about our farm friend Peppa, and her lore, click here
….and here is one of Peppa’s recipes, incorporating HER prosciutto (from her acorn-fattened pig):
Spaghetti alla Peppa
Ingredients for 4 (approx)
spaghetti (I use about 1 lb for every 5 persons)
1 garlic clove
1/2 onion, white or yellow
a few slices of prosciutto, thickly cut (Peppa cuts away the last chunks near the bone of her prosciutto – and then freezes these little cubes for pasta sauces) and then chopped into dice-sized pieces
1 chili pepper
olive oil, salt, pepper (q. b. or “quanto basta“, ie, “as much as you need” – and remember that this is the most common annotation in Italian cookbooks!)
1 zucchine (if handy – or try this recipe with another vegetable, eg, bell pepper or an eggplant. NB Peppa made this recipe up – so as to utilize per prosciutto cubes and a zucchine a market woman had popped into her shopping bag)
Drop prosciutto cubes (about a cupful) into boiling water for a few minutes to tenderize a bit. (Peppa sometimes puts her prosciutto cubes into a bowl of water for a few hours..and then goes out to feed all her animals while the prosciutto is “softening up”)
Warm about a cupful of extra virgin olive oil (of course, Peppa uses her own!) in a large frying pan. SautÃ©e garlic clove with diced 1/2 white onion. Add a cupful of water so that this mixture does not fry. (Olive oil is heart of the Mediterranean diet – and healthful – but not when fried). Add a bit of hot red pepper (taste it on your tongue for “spiciness”). Simmer this mixture for just a few minutes. Cut zucchine into small strips, about 2 in., and at end. Simmer just an additional minute (do not let zucchine get too soft). Mix into spaghetti which you have cooked in salted water until al dente. Add grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese and black pepper to taste. Add salt if needed, q.b. Serve.
Hints: when draining pasta, always save the pasta water, ie, the brodo. Use some if needed to make your sauce more creamy. Save what’s left and wash your dishes in it (a tip from my dear Sicilian mother-in-law, Signora Vincenza: the starchy water cuts the grease of sticky pans)
Peppa advised me to mix this pasta dish – and all pasta dishes I serve – in a wide, deep frying pan. “The big bowls you use are too deep. So is the pot you make the pasta in. You can mix your sauce better if you mix it in a large frying pan”.