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