I am just back from a two-weeks break in Tuscany where I stayed a short distance from Siena, in the area known as Colli Senesi. Gentle hills studded with olive groves, vineyards, oak forests and medieval towns, – this is the land of the famous Chianti wine. It is also home to some of the best Tuscan dishes and while I enjoyed many of them during my stay, it was pasta pici all’aglione that I wanted to eat every day. Luckily for me and my new pici addiction, I met Luciana, a wonderful lady from the pretty town of Buonconvento, who taught me the secrets of good pici pasta from Tuscany and how to make it.
To save time, many restaurants use machines to make pici, which still tastes good but nothing like the real deal. The first time I tried pici in a touristy roadside bar (duh!) in Monteriggioni, I was utterly disappointed: the pasta was uniformly thick, not long enough and over-cooked. Luciana later told me that it has to be al dente and uneven because it is hand-rolled. So, after that, before ordering pici, I started asking if they were “tirati a mano”, or hand-rolled. It is hard work, rolling each long strand of pasta by hand but that’s what makes it special.
… As I watch Luciana making pici she tells me that in her family this pasta was made on Sundays. In old days, the recipe called only for humble ingredients: flour, water and a pinch of salt. Luciana adds an egg for one kilo of flour and a drizzle of oil, “To make it stretch better,” she explains. She gently kneads the dough, flattens it, cuts a strip and starts rolling. Slowly, patiently, feeding one end of the strand into a bowl filled with fine corn flour. That’s another trick of hers, which helps to keep the pasta from sticking together. Each string, at least 70 cm long, is neatly folded on a clean cloth. “A few months ago I had to make pici for ten people. With a little help that took me more than two hours of rolling!” laughs Luciana. Her eyesight is failing but that doesn’t stop her from doing what she loves: cooking. I am entranced by the rhythmic movement of her hands working the dough and her beautiful Tuscan accent, which turns “c” into “h”: “hasa” instead of “casa”, “poho” rather than “poco”.
Pici pasta has Etruscan origins. In ancient Tarquinia, there is tomb dating back to the 5th century BC with a fresco depicting long uneven pasta being served at a banquet. Over the centuries it hasn’t changed much, only the sauces that pici is served with vary today depending on the area: wild mushrooms, ragu, bread crumbs, wild boar and even pike caviar. During my two weeks of feasting on pici in Tuscany I came to love the simple aglione sauce made with a rare local variety of garlic. Aglione has a huge bulb with only four cloves, each of them the size of a normal garlic head. It is milder, odourless and easier to digest. Most restaurant have pici all’aglione on the menu but only few use the real aglione garlic.
At the end of my stay I found the best place (ok, second best, after Luciana’s kitchen) place where pici all’aglione is the way it should be. In Locanda Paradiso (Via Porta Senese, 25, Chiusure) the pasta was perfectly chewy with a generous amount of fragrant garlicky sauce. Add to that delicious tagliere of prosciutto, salami and cheeses, carciofi di Chiusure (a local artichoke variety), a few glasses of Chianti and you have a perfect Tuscan meal.
Watch a video of Luciana rolling pici pasta below.