Despite having a wonderful job that allows me to travel frequently to some of the most spectacular vineyard locations around the world, such as admiring Pinot Bianco vines against a dramatic backdrop of the Dolomites or maybe tasting outside a cellar on an isolated promontory in Campania with views across the bay to Capri, I am still an enthusiastic armchair traveller – especially if it’s about a foodie destination! Travel Guidebooks jostle for space with Recipe Books on my overcrowded bookshelves and so what nicer on a mizzling grey March morning, than to be invited to a recreation of a little gourmet part of Lazio in the heart of the Surrey countryside – without having to take a plane to Rome!
The kind invitation to the cookery class was courtesy of Bookings For You , who represent some gorgeous holiday rental properties throughout Italy, France and Croatia and one of their partners is Palazzo Tronconi, who came to the UK this week to introduce themselves.
Palazzo Tronconi is hidden away in a small unspoilt medieval village, Arce in Lazio about halfway between Rome & Naples. Owned by the very enthusiastic Marco Marrocco, he was joined on this gourmet experience by Leonardo Grimaldi, Head Chef who runs cookery courses at the Palazzo and Giuseppe Marcuccilli, Master Baker.
Marco is also the winemaker and very passionate about the natural aspect of winemaking. His vines are all cultivated not only organically but also bio-dynamically following the principles of Rudolph Steiner, but as Marco pointed out, far too many people are sceptical of biodynamics – so he prefers to let his wines be tasted first, stand on their own merits – and only afterwards tell the consumers about biodynamics! I’m a great believer in biodynamic wine but was slightly concerned when I saw all the references to natural wine, and feared that I might be presented with ghastly orange wines ( a wine fad I hope fades soon)! Thankfully, Marco shares my lack of enthusiasm for this fashionable style of wine, and instead makes his wines naturally and as I discovered later, wines that paired so well with the food.
Head Chef Leonardo decided to demonstrate five different dishes to showcase not only some great local products from their region, but also his own philosophy that less is more when you have great products, keep it light and uncomplicated. Wishing to truly recreate his food, they travelled to Rome Airport with five suitcases stuffed with homemade jam, carefully wrapped eggs, olive oil and even bringing their own pasta pan!! As this was in a Fiat Panda, it puts an Italian slant on the old joke “How Many Chefs can you fit in a Mini!!!. It was impressive how much of the produce local to their region were DOP certified (the peppers, eggs, garlic, even the potatoes!). A shame that endless paperwork & bureaucracy seems to have delayed so many of our own traditional British foods from gaining this seal of authenticity and protection.
To welcome us, tantalising aromas of freshly baked bread courtesy of their Master Baker Giuseppe wafted through the kitchen and which to kick start the taste buds, was drizzled generously with Palazzo Tronconi’s olive oil – rather delicious with a fresh green herbal character, reflecting that the olive groves are also cultivated following biodynamic principles.
The antipasto was a modern take on an Italian classic, baccala mantecato, dried salted cod cream, which was a staple in the past for villages in the hinterland, miles from the coast and fresh fish. Having been soaked for several days to remove the salt, Leonardo kept the mashed potato and flaked cod apart and layered it in a “cheffy” tier, unlike the usual blend of the two. But the real genius was the dusting of their local pepper from Pontecorvo, which gave an elegant kick to the finished dish.
Two of the grape varieties planted at Palazzo Tronconi are only found in a 50 km radius, so truly indigenous and the others are also not well known. The vineyards were planted in 2011, and 2016 is their fourth harvest. To start, we opened a bottle of their Fregellae, a white blend of Maturano, Pampanaro and Capolongo. I’ve only ever encountered the red version of Maturano last year in Rioja at Contino, Pampanaro in a fairly rare Castel del Monte wine in Puglia and Capolongo was a new one on me! Fregellae is named after a powerful Roman Colony that was based near their village of Arce. A glorious rich golden hue thanks to 30 hours of skin contact and one third of the wine being aged in acacia oak barrels, the wine has a wonderful food friendly sapidity plus good minerality. In line with the natural wine ethos, he does not use selected yeasts but carries out wild yeast spontaneous fermentation. Marco served his white wine noticeably warmer than is the norm (he suggests serving at 12 degrees) as colder temperatures bring the tannins to the fore, which can cause a bitter taste. A complex wine with attitude and character, which needs food and was the perfect foil for the salt cod.
Sophia Loren once famously said of her appearance “Everything you see, I owe to Spaghetti” and true enough pasta is the lifeblood of Italians. Marco was horrified that Chef Leonardo was only cooking 80 grams a person – far too little for an Italian! But Chef had two pasta dishes to show us – a classic Carbonara sauce and then a modern Deconstructed Carbonara. Like lots of people, I have had the unfortunate experience of variations of Carbonara (not all pleasant!), with the addition of cream and even once in Manchester with Mushrooms as well! Now, everyone to their own style of pasta sauce, but please just don’t call it Carbonara if it has cream in it! Using wonderful dried Rigatoni pasta from Otranto in Puglia (a beautiful coastal town to visit if you ever in the region!), made in the traditional way. When buying dried pasta, look out for Pasta Sbronzo on the label, which means the moulds used to shape the pasta are made of bronze and as with this producer, Benedetto Cavalieri, the process they use eliminates the mechanical destruction of the gluten, which is why this style of pasta tastes so much better than the industrially produced quality and also the slightly rough surface of the rigatoni means that the sauce clings to the pasta so much better! With so few ingredients in the sauce, they all have to be of excellent quality, hence why Chef carried over 20 eggs lovingly packaged in his airline luggage! They are Aconaetana, which is a style of wild hen, truly free range and given to laying eggs in hard to reach places such as up trees! Named after the town of Ancona, with white shells – the best substitute would be free range duck or goose eggs. Combined with the Guanciale and very generous amounts of Pecorino Romano and some Parmesan, it was totally sublime!
The deconstructed version, with the ingredients layered in individual serving bowls – the fried guanciale which was then dehydrated into crumbs, the eggs & cheese whisked until a zabaglione style mousse – very tasty but I’ll stay in the traditional camp!
Main course was a little later than planned as there was so much discussion going on and interrogation of the Chefs over use of Extra Virgin Olive Oil and I was chatting to Giuseppe who as Master Baker and being trained in my spiritual Italian home of Turin, had some great ideas for grissini – including one made with Vincotto (thick syrupy grape must) – which will be on the menu these weekend at my place!
As we prepared for the main course, there was an unexpected visitor in the garden, a sparrow hawk chasing his prey into the conservatory window – an unusual but effective method of killing his lunchtime pigeon. In line with true sustainability, the Chefs were heard discussing if it was time to change the main course to pigeon!
The local pig is the Caserta Black Pig, similar to those in Spain who yield such delicious Pata Negra. The pigs take twice as long to grow and mature as the more widely raised white pigs, and this difference in the flavour and texture was clear on tasting the main course of black pig stew which had been cooked for over two hours in Marcos own red wine, Zitore. Named after a pet name for Uncle Salvatore, this lively red is made from the Lecinaro grape variety, which means plums in the local dialect due to the large berry size of the clusters. It’s not a well-known variety (even the exhaustive Wine Grapes Book by Jancis Robinson which features 1368 different grape varieties did not have it listed!). Usually this variety gives paler red wines, more leaning towards Pinot Noir in colour, but the climate conditions of the 2015 vintage gave this wine a much deeper black cherry shade. On the nose, red fruits, slightly peppery followed up by a delicious chewiness, plums with a touch of vanilla and the perfect combination for the black pork stew, for which the official tasting terminology seemed to be “lots of yummy noises!”.
To finish off this gastronomic insight into the food & wine of the region once known as Ciociaria, Chef brought with him some of their homemade strawberry jam from the Kitchen Garden at Palazzo Tronconi. Firm pears were cored, filled with the jam and then poached in their red wine Mocevo. The natural fruit sugars from the resulting wine syrup was lightened by a judicious grating of organic lemon zest (their own of course!).
The passion and natural hospitality of the Palazzo Tronconi team shone through, including their humour and their pride in their region’s food & wine. Sartorially speaking, there was an amusing contrast between the professional chef’s whites of Leonardo & Giuseppe with the more relaxed winemaker style – the rather un-Italian footwear choice of Marco – flip flops & socks! But what a wonderful day to celebrate the produce of this little known region. Just one note to self, remember never discuss Italian Football with a Chef who has a knife in hand!!
The 18th Century Palazzo Tronconi has just five guest rooms in its agriturismo. In May, they are opening a restaurant at the property, headed up by Leonardo. If you like exploring places off the beaten track, this might just be for you with the Abbey of Montecassino, Roccasecca Castle and Casamari Abbey just a short drive away. Also there are good foodie days out such as a rather early start for a visit to a buffalo mozzarella producer. So next time I am in Rome, I’ll be checking out the property and naturally to try the Marcos wines in situ and paired with yet more delicious dishes from Leonardo & Giuseppe!
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