3) The old allure of Dolceforte

“Journeying is the food of the mind: I don’t know if I invented this phrase, or whether it was coined by someone more clever and famous than me. But anyway, I’m going to claim it for my own. Every time I take a nice long walk, I repeat this aphorism to myself, and I really do hold it as an absolute truth.

We walk around 5 kilometres (3 miles) per hour, and we can’t go much faster than that. The body certainly benefits from it (doctors past a certain age recommend walking as a cure for all ills), but it’s really the mind that benefits the most from that hour or so of gentle, lucid walking. The mind calms down, it thinks in the right way.

The story of today’s dish starts from this little excursus of mine. For on the slopes of Monterifrassine, a few weeks ago now, my thoughts turned to dolceforte, an old dish common throughout the Tuscan countryside. Delicious, slightly exotic, its sheer opulence is able to mask any potential displeasure that might result from meat that hasn’t spent much time in the fridge, or indeed any time at all. It’s a dish that my grandmother sometimes made, and which I have eaten in some old trattorias or at the table of some audacious friends. Alas, I have never found it totally satisfying. I’ve always considered it a rather unbalanced dish and, all things considered, quite hard work.

No doubt it was the tiredness from walking, but it occurred to me that dolceforte doesn’t really belong in the canons of proper dishes. I couldn’t have said why, though.

After a few days of studying the old recipes, consulting the two “bibles” of Tuscan cuisine in Artusi and Petroni, I ascertained that dolceforte should really be understood as a sauce, something to prepare on the side. It can then be lathered over wild boar or hare, if we’re talking about game; salted cod, if we want fish; or tongue, if we’re after some more grisly bits. The most inspiring suggestion I saw, however, was a drawing of a roasted duck, under which the tagline read ‘Duck in dolceforte’. That’s where my interpretation begins.

Let’s get rid of the misconception that sauce is something you prepare separately. No! Sauce is made with the bones of the animals, so we can really taste its essence; you then add the wine and the vinegar, and reduce them over a lively flame. Dark chocolate (not too dark: 45% cocoa is plenty) should be added sparingly – we just want an exotic touch, not a dominating keynote. Pinenuts should be lightly toasted and the grapes, if we really want to go the whole hog, should be Zante currants; otherwise plain raisins will do. Personally, I like my vinegar to be apple-flavoured, but it depends on your taste. The final touch is a couple of dried prunes, and that’s the bulk of the work done. Of course, it’s not an overly simple recipe, but if you follow your instincts, the results will speak for themselves. So now, I’m going to go into the more technical side of it, which is where I get really passionate.

Take a nice big duck and debone it. But the breasts and bones to one side, and keep the neck, the wings and the thighs. We need them all for this recipe, if we want a really good sauce at the end of it.

We make a base of celery, carrots and onions, frying them gently in olive oil over a low heat. Toast the bones in the oven, almost as high as it will go, for about 4 minutes, then take them out and toss them into the pan with the celery, carrots and onions. Turn up the gas and let them all brown, then cover them with water and let them simmer away for a while. (‘A while’ is a popular unit of Tuscan measurement, one which I personally love. It indicates vagueness about times and methods, but there’s a real unpretentious honesty to it).

When half, or even more than half of the water has evaporated, strain the rest of it off. Pour in half a glass of Ruffino Riserva Ducale and put it back on the heat; if necessary, we might also add half a spoon of corn starch, dissolved in water. Take the ensemble off the gas and throw in the softened raisins, toasted pinenuts and a touch of dark chocolate. Let it rest, and use the time to fry the duck breasts over a high heat, before letting them rest too.
Cut the breasts into strips, and dry them off with a bit of kitchen paper, then cover them in the dolceforte sauce. As a side, I recommend mangetout peas, as many as you please.

You can try Stefano Frassineti’s recipes at the Locanda le tre Rane - Ruffino in Poggio Casciano.