A very good friend and fellow food writer Judy Ridgway has agreed to share some of her experiences of the cuisine of Ticino in southern Switzerland where she and her husband spend much of their time enjoying not only the wonderful scenery of the area, but the many local specialities including polenta, risotto and a wonderful chocolate cake made with leftover bread.
A little bit about Judy
As well as being an author and journalist Judy is one of the world’s leading olive oil experts. She lives part of the year in the UK and part in the Ticino region of Switzerland. She also spends time travelling in the olive oil producing countries, tasting the oils, meeting the growers and gathering traditional and local recipes to use in her articles and blogs. She is the author of more than 65 books on many aspects of food and wine. Her most recent book is “Catering for a Wedding”, published in May. She also has a new book coming out in September, written with co-author Dr, Simon Poole, about the amazing health benefits of olive oil entitled The Olive Oil Diet.
When I first arrived in the Ticino region of southern Switzerland I thought I had moved directly into Italy. The language was Italian and so was the food. But it did not take too long to find that first impressions can be deceptive. Yes, there is lots of pasta on the menus and plenty of pizza around but once you look beyond these symbols of Italian influence there is a traditional Ticinese cuisine to be found.
In days gone by this small region tucked into the southern foothills of the Swiss alps was extremely isolated and it took the building of the main road and railway through the Gottardo tunnels to bring in any kind of outside influence. The people were poor and mountain living precarious with only the flat-bottomed valleys to provide a small agricultural base. The diet was based on the three staples of polenta, bread and potatoes, served with cheese from the local cattle or with wild meat stews made with rabbit or mountain goat on high days and holidays.
Today polenta remains one of the principle foods of the region. However, polenta here is not the fine, yellow cornmeal mush of the rest of the northern Italian plain. In the Ticino there is
no separation out of the finer parts of the corn kernels and so the polenta is darker in colour and coarser in texture. It also has a stronger deliciously specific flavour its own. A real speciality from the Magadino plain north of lake Maggiore is Rosa del Ticino polenta made from a variety of corn with red grains. Polenta takes quite a while to cook and involves a good deal of stirring so most people buy it on the markets where it is made in the open air in large cauldrons, steaming away over a wood fire. Such cauldrons of polenta are also a feature of open air events where the polenta is served not with one of the many local cheeses but with a large slice of Gorgonzola.
You either love polenta, as I do, or you hate it. If you are among the latter Ticinese risotto is the answer. This is a slightly later introduction from Lombardy but the Ticinese have made it their own, growing rice in the Terreni di Maggia and using Ticino Merlot wines and saffron from the Valais to flavour the dish. (see recipe). One of the best ways to serve Ticinese risotto is with the local Luganighetta.
These are thin pork sausages shaped into a Catherine wheel and grilled on an open fire. They will be a feature on the menu of your local Grotto.
A grotto is not, as I first thought, a local cave or feature of the landscape but a rustic restaurant where much of the cooking and the eating is done outside. Only very traditional dishes are served and most of the ingredients are locally produced. Here you will find the salumi or air-dried products of the region and a range of goat’s and ewe’s milk cheeses which are quite different to the traditional Swiss mountain cheeses. Look out too for Ticinese Minestrone without the pasta found in Italian versions of the soup, Busecca, a tripe soup made with a vegetable soffritto and borlotti beans and Tortelli, or Torta del Pane, a cake made from stale bread.
There are literally hundreds of recipes for Torta del Pane. Every cook in the region has their own recipe for it. At one time it was served for breakfast, at lunch time and as an evening snack. Old bread, flavoured with amoretti biscuits is the base of the cake. These ingredients are mixed with eggs and a variety of other flavouring such as cinnamon, chocolate, raisins and pine nuts (See recipe) Stale bread in the Ticino usually means a wholegrain or dark bread. Not for the Ticinese the rather papery white bread of the Lombardy plains. This is the one area where the northern influences of German-speaking Switzerland come into play and the bread shops are a delight to behold with an array of two dozen or more different breads and rolls.
Finally, no Ticinese meal is complete without a glass of Ticino Merlot. This local wine comes in white, rose and red versions, all pressed from the local Merlot variety. In the grottos the wine is served in little jugs and poured into small earthenware bowls. In more up-market restaurants the wine comes in bottles and may have been aged in oak barrels to give more body to the wine. All the wines are rather different to Merlot wines from other areas.
They have a much more fruity and less furry character.
RISOTTO ALLA TICINESE
Risotto, here as in other areas is traditionally made with butter. However, if you want to cut down on your saturated fat intake or are vegan it can be made using the same amount of olive oil as butter. If you live in the Lugano area of the Ticino you can buy Swiss olive oil which is pressed from olives grown round the shores of Lake Lugano.
800ml Chicken stock
1 teaspoon powdered saffron
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
200g risotto rice
1 glass white Ticinese Merlot
100g freshly grated Parmesan
Place the stock in a pan and heat gently. Add the saffron and stir to dissolve the
saffron. Keep hot.
Gently heat the butter in another pan and fry the onion until it turns a light gold in
colour. Add the rice and stir well.
Add the glass of wine next and Turn up the heat. Stir again until all the liquid has
Gradually add ladlefuls of stock to the rice, little by little, stirring all the time.
The rice should be cooked but not too dense after about 20 minutes.
Remove from the fire and rest for a minute. Then stir in the parmesan cheese and
TORTA DEL PANE
Choose a wholemeal or dark bread for this recipe. Do not remove the crusts before weighing for the recipe. Do not bother with a knife or toothpick to test the interior of the cake as it should remain slightly wet.
200g stale bread
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
Grated rind of 1 lemon
1 small glass grappa
50g pine nuts
Set the oven to 170C and grease and line a small square tray-bake tin with baking
Cut the bread into cubes and place in a bowl. Pour the boiling milk over the top and
leave to stand for six hours or overnight. Crush the soaked bread with your hands,
taking time to work all the bits of crust into the mixture. Do not use a good processor
or the mixture will be too fine.
Add all the remaining ingredients, except the pine nuts, stirring between the additions
to get a smooth mix. Spoon into the prepared baking tin and sprinkle with the pine
Bake in the preheated oven for 45 minutes. Turn the heat up to 180C and continue
cooking for a further 45 minutes.
Leave to cook and then turn out to serve.