The bus chugged up the hill, and stopped short near a large cascina (farmhouse) that has stood there since 1507. Back then, nobility lorded over the tradesmen who lived in adjoining quarters of the self-sufficient compound, built over ancient Roman ruins not far from Lake Como. Mulberry trees were scattered among the fruit and nut trees on the property, providing nourishment for the silkworms that were crucial to the region’s silk industry.
Hundreds of years later, the mulberry trees have vanished along with the silk trade that once flourished here. The nobles are gone, the masons, carpenters and blacksmith are long gone too. But the tradition of honoring the land continues. For the last thirty years or so, the lady of the manor who has maintained the tradition is Elena Laura Maria Manganaro. Elena, a schoolteacher, along with her husband, a professor of veterinary medicine, run the cascina with the help of their two sons, upholding the integrity of the land and traditional ways of their ancestors – from growing the fruit trees to cultivating an herb garden that holds at least 20 varieties of thyme. “Abbiamo tenuti viva la terra, la casa,” Elena’s husband Tony said. “We have kept alive the land, the house.” That includes making the flavorful, delicious marmalades sold under the “I Vallicelli” name.
I was able to enjoy those marmalades first hand, along with Elena and Tony’s most welcoming hospitality, when I tagged along with my friend Pietro Frassica, a professor at Princeton University, and about a dozen of his students one afternoon earlier this month for a truly delicious pranzo (lunch).
Pietro, a professor of Italian Literature and Cultural Studies at Princeton University, also teaches a class called “Italy, the Land of Slow Food” every other year. During the semester break, Pietro arranges for his students to travel to Italy and visit some of the farmhouses, artisan food producers and places that honor the traditional methods of producing food, including a day spent with Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food movement, at his University of Gastronomic Sciences outside of Torino.
On this particular day at I Vallicelli, we were greeted by Tony, who uncorked some bubbly and Elena, who offered some beautiful and delicious hors d’oeuvres. Small clear containers held a fluffy tomato, basil and olive oil base topped with a dollop of freshly made ricotta cheese mixed with marjoram grown in their garden. Similar containers with an olive pesto topped with ricotta were also set out, as well as a platter of locally made salumi and cheeses. A sampling of I Vallicelli’s marmalades, ranging from sweet apricot to savory onion, were available to complement the various cheeses.
While everyone enjoyed the nibbles, Tony headed to the dining room to start the polenta – not in a stainless steel pan on a modern stovetop but in a huge copper pot (paiolo) set inside a wood-burning fireplace that’s been there since the Renaissance. To stir the polenta, he used a large, smooth wooden bastone (stick).
The first course was a duo of tarts – one with spinach and ricotta, the other with onions. I was tempted to split them with my husband, knowing that more food was to come and my waist was already expanding, but before you knew it, I had eaten every last morsel of the savory, flaky tarts and did not regret one delicious crumb.
The creamy polenta, infused with the smokiness from the fireplace, was served alongside the main course, a dish called Grand Civet dei Vallicelli. And grand it was. The recipe requires the meat to be marinated from three to seven days, rendering it so tender it practically melted in your mouth. The traditional recipe, dating back to 1917, also calls for deer, but beef can be substituted in the absence of venison, which is what we ate for our lunch. It’s an elaborate recipe with many ingredients and many steps and the resulting complex flavor was remarkable – unlike any other braised meat I’ve ever eaten.
Next came a vegetable course, including one that most of us had never eaten – Jerusalem artichokes. They tasted vaguely like artichokes but looked more like small potatoes. I’m not sure I’ll be able to find them in Princeton, but was glad to have the opportunity to try them at I Vallicelli. Sorry I forgot to take a photo.
Just when you thought there was room for no more, out came a perfectly poached pear, simmered in red wine and spices:
And then came that exquisitely moist and delicious orange caramel torta, perfumed throughout with citrus, and plated with a dark chocolate candy cup filled with some of I Vallicelli’s home-made marmalade. It was a thing of beauty and it tasted every bit as delicious as it looked. After taking my first bite, I just wanted to run to a corner, close my eyes and be left alone with a fork and this divine concoction. Fortunately, Elena gave me the recipe and I can do just that in my own home.
Each course was served with wines meant to complement the food, including a sweet dessert wine with the torta. Four hours after we had begun, the meal was finished. It was truly a meal worthy of the “slow food” moniker, in every sense of the phrase.
Although the name “I Vallicelli” comes from the Latin meaning “shortcut,” obviously Elena and Tony take no shortcuts when it comes to producing a fine meal and fine marmalades. Simplicity however, is the secret to those delicious marmalades, Elena says. She uses only perfect fruits, not bruised ones, grown without pesticides, gathered by hand and cooked for the briefest time necessary, with little sugar and no preservatives.
It’s no wonder that the cascina (farmhouse) is included in the book “Grandi Cascine Della Lombardia.” It’s also no wonder that we all scrambled to purchase several jars of the marmalade to savor the experience back at home. Lastly, it’s no wonder that I baked that torta and I’m headed off to my corner right now.
Grazie mille Pietro for inviting me to join your students and especially to Elena and Tony for the warm hospitality you showed to all of us. It was a truly memorable afternoon and a meal we will remember for years to come.
Elena’s Orange Torta
For my readers in Italy, I’m also including the recipe in Italian, just as Elena sent it
2 medium size oranges
6 T. butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup flour
3/4 cup sugar
5 eggs, separated
1/4 cup Grand Marnier, or other orange flavored liqueur
For the caramel layer in the pan:
(Elena did not include this in her instructions, so I improvised. This will be poured directly into the cake pan.)
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
For the caramel sauce to drizzle on top
(Again, Elena did not include this – I’m improvising here too)
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup cream
2 tbsp butter
1 tsp vanilla extract
Place everything in a small pot and bring to a boil, stirring continuously. Lower the heat and cook on low heat around 10 or until the sugar is dissolved and the sauce becomes thick. Cool slightly before using.
Prick the oranges all over and put them in a bowl. Microwave for 10 minutes. Let them cool then chop up in a blender or food processor.
While the oranges are cooking, butter either a 10” cake pan or springform pan. Make the caramel by placing the sugar and water in a pan over high heat. The sugar will melt and start to bubble. Cook it without stirring. Just pick up the handle and swirl the sugar in the pot until it becomes golden. WATCH CAREFULLY. Don’t let it brown too much since it will cook more when you put the cake in the oven. Pour it into the prepared cake pan, being very careful not to touch the hot sugar. Put the pan in the refrigerator to cool while you prepare the cake batter.
Beat the egg whites until stiff and set aside. Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until thick and pale yellow. Add the softened butter and beat until mixed. Add the chopped up oranges, 1/4 cup Grand Marnier or other orange flavored liqueur, and 1/4 cup flour. Fold in the egg whites and pour the mixture in the prepared pan, over the caramel. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour in a hot water bath.
Let the cake cool for 5 minutes, then flip it over onto a serving plate. Make the caramel sauce and drizzle over the top. To serve, sprinkle with powdered sugar and bits of orange rind and decorate plate with an orange slice. Chocolate candy cup and marmalade optional, but highly desirable!
Torta all’ arancia
80 gr burro
25 gr farina
150 gr zucchero
Bucare le arance intere e cuocerle per 10 minuti in microonde . Lasciare raffreddare e quindi frullare a fondo.
Montare i 5 rossi d’uovo con lo zucchero fino che non si formano le bolle.
Aggiungere il burro, le arance frullate, una tazzina di Grand Marnier oppure Cointreau), la farina e gli albumi montati a neve ferma .
Fare uno strato di caramello in una tortiera piuttosto bassa.
Quando è freddo, versare l’impasto e cuocere a bagnomaria per 1 ora circa in forno a 180°C.
Decora con sottilissimi fili di scorza d’arancia fresca