zucchini season, how we shop, and a recipe for lombrichelli pasta

It was a funny kind of summer in Italy.  Cooler than normal (no complaints here), punctuated by tragic headlines (making it feel not quite the right moment for holidays), but given a sort of rhythm by the patter of day to day life in a small town.

I often wonder whether there is a spike in sales of real newspapers in Italy in August, for me extra time is a luxury spent walking to the edicola (Lubriano still has one), buying a paper, and maybe stopping in at Stefano’s for a kilo of sausages on the way home.  Like every summer the newspapers have devoted pages to the problems surrounding seasonal fruit and vegetable picking in (predominantly) southern Italy. Achingly low wages, horrific conditions and the rotten system of corporalato; where a flagrantly outside-of-the-law chief transports (mainly foreign) workers to the farms, only to deduct an exorbitant percentage from their already low wages for the (unsafe) transport and (meagre) lunch.  Fingers are pointed in all directions (the supermarkets! the farmers! the middle men!) but as Carlo Petrini from Slow Food wrote in a piece for La Repubblica, we are all involved, even if unknowingly.  We pay too little for fresh produce, and what we do pay is badly distributed, premiando the supermarkets (that take roughly 50% of the sale price) and punishing the farmers (who end up with as little as 5%).  It’s easy to think this is just happening in places like Italy, but it’s not, it’s happening everywhere, even in high wage heaven Australia.

Living in a small town with a fruit (and wine) shop where at least half of the produce is local, makes a buono, pulito e giusto (good, clean and fair) summer so easy it feels like I am cheating.   But back in the big city, where shopping at daily markets that stubbornly cling to the opening hours created back when women cooked and cleaned and men came home for a hot lunch, is a luxury far beyond the time-poor office worker.  The freelancers amongst us are the lucky ones, we get to shop at the market and go to a real butcher with the all the grandmas.  But this is the part that alarms me – the  Roman markets – where some of the produce is still sold by the farmers that actually grew it – are frequented from Monday to Friday almost exclusively by pensionerswho fortunately often shop for two or even three generations of the family at once, but whom will no longer be with us in ten or fifteen years.  As Roman municipalities draw up plans to renovate daily produce markets, bringing hygiene standards up to scratch, is anyone actually thinking about how to renovate/rejuvinate/reinvigorate how the majority of people actually do their shopping? Will today’s forty somethings who shop at the supermarket will go back to the market once they are retirees?  Where is the strategy for how to get people back to the markets to buy local, seasonal and packaging free produce?

For markets to survive, they need to come into the 21st century, and on far more than just a hygenic level.  Opening hours!  Let the 9 to 5 workers shop for real produce at least one evening a week.  In 2014, under then then (and much missed) Mayor Ignazio Marino an ordinance that made opening neighborhood markets till as late as 10pm was passed.   The catch was that all of the stall holders needed to agree on the extended hours, and as far as I know they are still arguing.   Mercato di Testaccio has its fantastically fun night openings every couple of months, but these are more of a party than a shopping experience.  People come to spend their euros on beer and street food, not a couple of kilos of fresh produce.

At the daily markets it is still almost impossible to pay in any form other than cash.  The people who are paid part of their salaries in coupons are piling the conveyer belts of the supermarkets high with packaged meat and imported apples, while the vendors at the market miss out on the huge opportunities in the non cash sector.  The smart vendors, who have installed pos machines, will reap the rewards, but how long will it take for the growers and smaller stands to get on board.  I’m the first in line at the supermarket when I have no cash on me, need a proper receipt for tax reasons or need to shop at night.

My mum always said that she would never move house because she was 200 meters from a daily market, but even in the 1980’s Camberwell market had late night shopping on a Wednesday so that working folk could do some of their fresh produce shopping during the week.  I feel so strongly about the survival of the markets because I grew up in a great market city and moved to another.  Markets are more than just part of the urban fabric of cities all over the world (think of India!  think of Asia!), they are the link in the chain between grower and consumer that has the possibility to safeguard heirloom and indigenous species, to respect the growers and make local/seasonal/fresh accessible.  Supermarkets aren’t all evil, well, most of them are, but the COOP in Italia has by far the highest ethical and sustainability standards and has entire sections devoted to local fresh produce, cheeses and cured meats.

First a rant, then a recipe.  Rustic pasta with zucchini.

Various people have asked me for my recipe for pasta con zucchini, a tried and tested staple on my summer lunches playlist, which I recently wrote about and photographed with Lorenzo Pesce for Ci Piace Cucinare magazine.   If you live in a place long enough, and make a dish long enough, it becomes your own.  In my Italian kitchen – this is it, and Alberto and Emma wolf it down with the kind of gusto reserved only for lasagne and tagliatelle con ragù.  My touch is grating the zucchini, which allows them to melt down into a creamy kind of sauce.  Until recently I always made them with pasta asciutta – dry pasta – but recently I’ve started making them with simple flour and water noodles from alto lazio called lombrichelli, which are basically a cousin of Umbrian Umbrichelli and Tuscan Pici, which the Tuscan kitchen goddesses Emiko Davies and Giulia Scarpaleggia introduced me to.

Zucchini are so summer, and even though cured pork isn’t particularly, they make such good partners.  I like to use small tender zucchini, so if you have a vegetable patch, make sure to pick them before they grow too big.

lombrichelli con zucchine e guanciale   rustic pasta from lazio with zucchini and cured pork cheek

ingredients for 4 people

400 g plain flour (00)
200 ml tepid water
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
pinch salt
ground semolina flour for dusting

8 small zucchini
1 clove garlic – peeled and squashed
1 small dried chili
150 g guanciale (cured pork cheek) or pancetta – diced
extra virgin olive oil
100 g grated pecorino
salt
pepper

The home made pasta can of course be substituted with dried pasta, I like casarecce and mezze maniche.  To make the dough I like to work in a large bowl. Mix the flour and a good pinch of salt with a fork, then slowly pour the tepid water and the olive oil into the flour, mixing continuously, until everything comes together in a shaggy dough that is neither too sticky or too crumbly. You may need a couple of extra teaspoons of water to incorporate all of the flour.

Turn the mixture out onto a lightly floured board and knead – approximately 5 minutes – until you have a homogenous and elastic dough. Shape into a ball, cover with a damp tea towel or plastic wrap and rest for 20 minutes, at room temperature.

Meanwhile make the zucchini sauce. Grate the zucchini using course setting. I like to leave just one or two of the zucchini and cut into long fine julienne to add some texture to the sauce, as the grated zucchini will eventually break down.

Over a moderate flame, heat a generous pour of olive oil (it should just cover the base of the pan) in a good large high-sided frypan. Add the whole peeled and squashed clove of garlic, the diced guanciale and a small broken dried chili if you like. Let the garlic release its flavour and the guanciale colour a little before adding the grated zucchini, and a sprinkle of salt. Gently sauté the zucchini taking care not to burn; once the zucchini have started to cook they will take on a brighter color and nice glossy sheen.  At this point add a couple of ladlefuls of water from the cooking pot to keep the zucchini moist and continue to let them soften and collapse.

Bring a large pot of water to the boil – roughly 1 litre for each 100 grams of pasta. Flour the work surface – wood is best – with some ground semolina flour. Roll out the dough to about half a centimeter, and cut into long ‘lombricchelli’ using a ridged rolling pin or a pizza cutter. I bought my lombrichelli cutters at a mercatino, unsure at the time even what pasta they were for, but these nifty italianissime utensils are still available in specialty cooking stores and online. Dust both the board and the pasta cutter well before rolling the ridged rolling pin over the pasta with considerable force. If you are cooking with kids you will need to help them press right down in order to cut the pasta. If you don’t have the groovy ridged rolling pin use a pizza or pasta cutter and cut long half a centimetre long ribbons. Make sure that the lombrichelli are well dusted with ground semolina flour as you work.

Continue to cook the sauce, and as the pasta cooks skim off the cooking water and continue to add to the zucchini sauce.  Now the gluten from the cooking water will help to thicken up the sauce a little, which should be a good creamy consistency. Don’t let the sauce dry out, keep it liquid by adding water form pasta pot.

Add a tablespoon of salt to the boiling water and cook the pasta for 5 minutes. Drain the cooked pasta, throw the pasta into the pan with zucchini sauce and toss together well, adding half of the grated pecorino.  Salt and pepper to taste before serving, finishing with more grated pecorino and a drizzle of olive oil.

Thanks to the photographers who’s photos enrich this piece.  Lorenzo Pesce for finished dish from our piece for Ci Piace Cucinare.  Preparation photos by the lovely Olivia Williamson from her time at Latteria Studio. Lubriano photos my own.

3 thoughts on “zucchini season, how we shop, and a recipe for lombrichelli pasta

  1. I am genuinely surprised there are no comments here, on this lovely post, Alice. Yes, the recipe sounds good (and I think that lombrichelli would work now, that is winter, with grated pumpkin, or even, totally different, with sauted brussels sprouts and chestnuts (and bacon and onion)… but what I really like about this post, is its content what it says about food production/the value we give to food and community and sharing. I agree: too often what we pay (in terms of food) does not really reflect the real costs of food production: I was talking to the milkman at my local farmers’ market and he told me that to produce quality milk, that is good for us and the animals too (i.e. without exploiting the cow to an early death basically by having her constantly artificially pregnant & milking) the price of 3 english sterlings a later is realistic.. .this is a lot for many people, I agree.. but it must also be said that we live in an age of careless, mindless, extravagant (food) consumption: we should value what we eat, by eating less but with more awareness. Long live the markets and the small shops, even if, a t the same time, they must realise they cannot live in a time wrap: they must modernise, keep up with changing needs, like offering new services (in Milano I could buy for instance already prep bag of vegetables for minestrone, in rome already cut up puntarelle ecc…)..keep up this kind of good sharing alice. ciao, stefano

    1. Grazie Stefano! When I was at university I wrote a piece for the student newspaper about saving the planet via reduce-reuse-recycle and when I showed the piece to my creative writing teacher she blasted me for my preachey tone. 30 years on and I’m still sensitive about taking a position, and working on not sounding ‘come un prete’. I like that there are people out there like you who like talking about the issues out there in the world of food production. And who believe in positive grassroots pressure, like buying that 3 pounds a liter milk. And yes! winter lombrichelli with pumpkin and chesnuts! ciao from Rome, Alice

  2. Grateful for the time we have spent in the very same small town where you buy il tuo giornale; proud to support our own local farmers’ market (albeit on the other side of the world); and happiest you have shared with us all the recipe for this dish – one of the things that always makes me think of you (along with orata and straccetti), Alice. I planted my zucchini just last weekend, and now cannot wait for the first fruit!

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