with grateful thanks to visittuscany.com
Lunigiana lies at the border of three Italian regions (Tuscany, Liguria and Emilia Romagna) whose food traditions and flavours have merged. Indeed, in the Lunigiana valley, you can savour traditional recipes prepared using centuries-old techniques such as the remarkable cooking “al testo”.
How does cooking with testi work?
“Testi” are cast-iron or terracotta pots typical of the Lunigiana area. They are similar to big pots made of a “sottano” (base) and a “soprano” (cone-shaped lid). The base diameter can vary from 40 to 50 cm making it quite a heavy utensil to use. In order to cook with testi, you need to place them on an open fire. Therefore, you require a special place called a “Cucina nera” or “black kitchen”, so-called due to the soot that deposits on the walls. In the past, stone shelters called gradili were used as a “black kitchen” so that while you were cooking with the testi, the smoke used to dry the chestnuts laying on the above mezzanine. Today, open-air places are commonly used to cook using testi. They are placed to heat upon an iron structure above an open fire. Once the testo is warm enough, it is moved to the side and covered with live coals and ashes to keep the temperature constant.
The best-known product is certainly the traditional Lunigiana testarolo. It’s also the simplest: the only necessary ingredients are wheat flour, water and salt. Once the quite-liquid dough is prepared, it’s poured on the sottano and initially left to cook uncovered. After a few moments, the testo is covered with the soprano. Once ready, the testarolo is cut into diamond shapes and placed in boiling water, with the heat off, for a few minutes. At this point, it can be seasoned to your liking. Traditionally, it was seasoned with oil and grated cheese. It is also wonderful with basil pesto or even with mushroom-based sauces.
A testo was also used for other recipes such as the traditional Lunigiana herb cake, typical of the upper Val di Magra. There’s no specific recipe: each family prepares their own version. If you use field herbs, the flavor is different in every season. The herbs, or chard, are cut, washed and salted while raw, then well squeezed and seasoned with oil and cheese. This mixture is placed between two layers of pasta, called sfoglia (puff pastry), very finely prepared with water, oil, wheat flour and salt. At this point, the tart is cooked inside the testo. Today, it is formed inside a pan, and then subsequently placed in the testo. At one time, however, it was placed directly on the cast iron and, in order not to stick the dough to the bottom, a very special and ecological “baking paper” was used: large chestnut leaves!
If testarolo and the herb cake are two rather peasant dishes, however among the variants of “al testo”, there is no lack of more elaborate recipes, such as the so-called meat al testo. The meat, already portioned, is placed on a pan along with potatoes and then cooked in the testo seasoned with oil (or lard), garlic, parsley, sage and rosemary. This type of cooking makes the surface crispy, as happens in the oven, but keeps the interior very soft and tasty, thanks to the steam. Among the most delicious meats is Zeri lamb, a native sheep breed, which over time has maintained its characteristics thanks to the isolation of this area of Lunigiana.
With Lunigiana testi, it is also possible to prepare other recipes. In addition to bread, we can also prepare focaccia and pizza that become crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside!