Pici. But you can call them Pinci
Pici, pinci, appicciare...what are you talking about?
That would have been the response of any number of Florentines, had they been asked if they knew what pici were, if they had ever tasted pici. Until a few decades ago, this wonderful pasta was completely unknown outside of the Val d’Orcia. My dear Sienese friend Stefano Tesi, a diehard member of the Dragon contrada (Siena’s sixteen districts, or contrade, all have their own symbolic animal), tells me that they were a fairly rare sight even there, and that you only ate them outside the city walls.
In the Val d’Orcia, however, pici go back to the dawn of time. As with all good Tuscan traditions, all or almost all of this incredible valley’s towns and villages are uncompromising when it comes to upholding their heritage. But my favorite pici creation myth is the one that ascribes them with a Chinese origin as a means of explaining their old name of pinci.
That name, however, was a little on the vulgar side: in the Val d’Orcia, pinco denotes the male reproductive organ. Once it had spread beyond the Montalcino area, its name was adapted to pici as a concession to common decency.
Good Florentine that I am (from the surrounding countryside, but no less Florentine for it), I wanted to see if I could serve as something of a pici ambassador in Florence. In addition to Stefano Tesi, I sought out a dear friend who lives in the heart of the Val d’Orcia, where he produces flour and incredible cereals. And yes, at the Molino Val d’Orcia, Amedeo Grappi and his assistant make pici!
There’s always something to learn. This is what I learned:
1) The dough used for pici is made with water and tipo 2 (quite a coarse and dark) flour, plus semolina. Some people add a very small amount of egg, but for purists that’s a bit like putting cream in a carbonara.
2) Appiciare is a verb that means ‘making pici’, like how incocciare refers to the making of Trapani couscous.
3) Pici are found all over southern Tuscany, and even in northern Lazio (where they go under a different name); but their spiritual home remains the edge of the Valdichiana, the land of the legendary Aglione. Many regard this as the quintessential pici sauce.
4) Pici are an incredibly versatile pasta. They go with pretty much all sauces that involve game and poultry.
5) In modern times, pici “fusions” have become all the rage: with pesto or cacio e pepe, for example. But never, says my Sienese friend, should you ever see a trace of green in a pici dish!
6) As always, the best thing to do is to go personally to the place that’s famous for a particular food. Apart from anything else, the Val d’Orcia is an amazing part of the world; it’s also a true gastronomic treasure trove. Pici are one of many delicacies that await you there.
I’ve very much enjoyed bringing you the pici, if only on the page. As soon as I have a bit of time, I’ll go back to our friends to learn the art of appiciare: I’ll tell you how it goes, of course.
Until next time,