Al­though as­so­ci­ated with Italy, the clas­sic potato dumpling is also an in­te­gral part of cook­ing in Nice and the sur­round­ing vil­lages, says Rosa Jackson

France - - Contents -

Rosa Jackson re­veals how potato dumplings are given a twist in Nice.

Visit any fresh pasta shop in Nice and you will see dark-green gnoc­chi shaped like tiny baguettes, plump in the mid­dle and pointy at each end. Their un­usual shape led them to be dubbed merda de can in the lo­cal lan­guage, trans­lat­ing less po­et­i­cally as ‘dog poo’.

A lo­cal anom­aly, these gnoc­chi re­sulted from the abun­dance of Swiss chard in the re­gion, which made its way into many thrifty dishes. If gnoc­chi seem more Ital­ian than French, Nice and its sur­round­ing moun­tains have a long as­so­ci­a­tion with Pied­mont and Lig­uria that brought the adop­tion of many dishes – though some Niçois boldly as­sert that these pil­lowy potato dumplings orig­i­nated in their city.

Earthy flavour

Gnoc­chi are firmly embedded in the lo­cal cul­ture, ap­pear­ing along­side the beef stew called daube or as a stand-alone starter or main course, topped with bolog­nese, pis­tou (pesto with­out pine nuts) or per­haps a creamy Gor­gonzola or mush­room sauce. Be­cause of their more dis­tinc­tive, al­most earthy flavour, merda de can re­quire lit­tle em­bel­lish­ment: del­i­cate Nice olive oil and grated Parme­san can be enough, though tomato or mush­room sauce also makes a good match.

If gnoc­chi and merda de can are easy to buy in lo­cal pasta shops, many fam­i­lies up­hold the tra­di­tion of mak­ing their own on spe­cial oc­ca­sions. I had a chance to roll and shape gnoc­chi in the vil­lage of Coaraze out­side Nice with farmer Claude As­cani and her 96-yearold mother Mar­guerite, who deftly flipped the lit­tle dough balls on a fork to cre­ate the dis­tinc­tive in­dent and ridges that al­low the sauce to ad­here.

Fluffy gnoc­chi start with large, floury pota­toes – the Bin­tje or Mona Lisa va­ri­eties sold in France work well – which may be boiled whole in their skins be­fore be­ing peeled, or baked in the oven on a bed of coarse salt, as I do. The idea is for the pota­toes not to ab­sorb wa­ter as they cook. If I am adding chard leaves, I cut off their stems be­fore blanch­ing them in boil­ing wa­ter for a minute or two, rins­ing them in cold wa­ter and squeez­ing out ev­ery bit of ex­cess wa­ter.

Once the pota­toes are mashed – or ide­ally passed through a food mill, which cre­ates a light, smooth tex­ture – most cooks will add one egg per kilo­gram of pota­toes, which helps the gnoc­chi hold their shape. For green gnoc­chi, the chard is chopped up very small and added at this point. The tricky part for the novice is de­ter­min­ing how much flour to add: as a gen­eral rule, 300g (11oz) of flour per kilo­gram (2¼lb) of pota­toes works well, though ex­pert cooks will ad­just the quan­tity as needed, de­pend­ing on the dough’s tex­ture. “I thought she had used too much,” Claude ad­mit­ted when we made gnoc­chi with her mother, “but they are just right.” The key is to cre­ate a dough that is soft but not sticky, which makes it easy to shape.

Next, the dough is di­vided into chunks and rolled by hand on a wooden board to cre­ate long, thin sausages, keep­ing in mind that the gnoc­chi puff up a bit as they cook. With Mar­guerite, we lined up three of these sausages and used a pas­try cut­ter to form gnoc­chi-sized pieces. We then rolled each one on the con­cave part of a fork so that one side was ridged and the other in­dented, Mar­guerite work­ing at three times the speed as the rest of us. Green gnoc­chi are in­stead rolled one by one be­tween the palms to cre­ate their pointy ends.

Af­ter one minute’s cook­ing in a gi­ant pot of boil­ing wa­ter, Mar­guerite’s gnoc­chi were ready to serve with a pesto of wild herbs we had picked in the gar­den. An Ital­ian guest nod­ded ap­prov­ingly: “These are just like the ones we eat in Pied­mont.” I am not sure that I shall ever match Mar­guerite’s ex­per­tise, but hav­ing learned by her side I am con­fi­dent at com­ing close.

THE PER­FECT MERDA DE CAN (Green gnoc­chi) Though gnoc­chi are not dif­fi­cult to make, they can be time-con­sum­ing, so it’s best to en­list a helper or two as Mar­guerite did.

• 1kg/2lb floury pota­toes • 200g/71/ 2oz chard leaves (weighed with­out their stems) • 1tsp salt • 1 egg • Around 300g/11oz flour • Coarse sea salt

1. Pre­heat the oven to 200°C/400°F. Cover the bot­tom of a roast­ing tray with coarse salt and place the pota­toes on top. Bake for about 1hr, un­til cooked through to the cen­tre. Set aside un­til cooled enough to peel, but do not let them cool off com­pletely. 2. Mean­while, bring a large pot of wa­ter to a boil, add 1tbsp of salt and blanch the chard leaves for a cou­ple of min­utes. Lift out the chard with a slot­ted spoon, rinse it in cold wa­ter and squeeze out the ex­cess mois­ture be­tween your hands. Chop very finely. Keep the pot of chard wa­ter to cook the gnoc­chi. 3. Peel the pota­toes and mash them or pass them through a food mill. Place the pota­toes on a wooden board or your kitchen work sur­face, and mix in the egg and chard us­ing a pas­try cut­ter or your hands. Do not use a food pro­ces­sor or mixer, as these would turn the pota­toes into glue. Add the salt, then the flour about a third at a time, un­til you have ob­tained a dough that is soft but not sticky. Use a lit­tle more or less flour as needed. 4. Roll the dough by hand into thin sausages about 1.5cm wide and cut each one into 1.5cm lengths. Roll these be­tween your palms so that the cen­tre is thicker than the ends. Set aside and sprin­kle with flour. 5. Bring the chard wa­ter to a boil and add the gnoc­chi in batches so as not to crowd the pot. When they float to the top, lift them out with a wooden spoon and place di­rectly on a serv­ing plat­ter or on in­di­vid­ual plates. Top with the sauce of your choice.

ABOVE: Farmer Claude As­cani and her mother Mar­guerite make gnoc­chi the tra­di­tional way

Food critic and cook­book au­thor Rosa Jackson lives in Nice, where she runs the cook­ery school Les Petits Far­cis and writes about food for pub­li­ca­tions world­wide.

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