The Lunigiana is a gorgeous area between Liguria, Emilia and Tuscany, to which it officially belongs. Historically, it was one of the first parts of Italy to know human habitation, as shown by the unique Stele Statues that have been unearthed here. Its beauty is only enhanced by the castles and hill towns that sprang up in the Middle Ages around the Via Francigena, the medieval pilgrimage route that cuts right through the Lunigiana, and the source of much of the region’s prosperity.
The Lunigiana’s most important town is Pontremoli, seat of the diocese and home to innumerable aristocratic palazzos. Looking over the river Magra, the town leads an active life both from a cultural – with the Bancarella Literary Award – and a culinary point of view. A great many famous dishes grace the menus here, from torta d’erbi to spongate and panigacci; from agnello di Zeri to marocca di Casola (a traditional bread made from chestnut flour); and of course, the testaroli, the dish that without a doubt best encapsulates the history of these parts.
The traditional testaroli recipe requires two cast iron discs, one on top of the other (these are the testi that gives the dish its name), with a very simple dough of flour and water poured in between them. That dough would traditionally be cooked in close contact not only with the metal but also with the burning coals, and so it would absorb all those smoky smells and flavors as it crispened into a sort of crêpe, usually about fifteen inches across. They would then be chilled and cut into diamond shapes about 2 inches wide, before being dunked in boiling water for a few seconds. Then they were ready for serving.
Now, here’s the rub! Tradition stipulates that testaroli be served with oil, cheese and basil; and the people of Pontremoli, quite rightly, do not stray from that tradition. My dear friend Marco Cavellini, a fiduciary of the Slow Food movement in Pontremoli (of which I have the privilege of being an honorary member), will not hear of any alternative: he maintains that this is the only possible way to serve them. That’s an opinion I respect.
But I’ve always been driven by curiosity, and over the years I’ve done a number of experiments with testaroli. I’ve found that they work well with other pairings, like fava bean pesto and pecorino, or cheese, pepper and artichokes. They even – and don’t tell Marco, or I’ll have my membership rescinded! – work with pumpkin, as well as with guttus, the great blue cheese from the Maremma.
This is all just to say that the Lunigiana is a wonderful area, full of superb produce. Its borders stretch from the sea to the hills, all the way up to the breathtaking Zeri mountain range in all its harsh beauty. It’s most certainly worth a trip or two to discover everything you can about this place. Much of the Lunigiana is little known, but its history and magic and undeniable.
[photo courtesy of Sandra Pilacchi]