From ciupeta, the crown-topped bread of Ferrara, to pane co' santi, the walnut and black pepper bread of Tuscany, to marteller schnittla-pag, the horseshoe-shaped chive loaf of the Tyrol, Italian breads are among the most fanciful and diverse in the world. Topography, history, agriculture and a high degree of localism have combined to fill the boot, like a giant Christmas stocking, with an extraordinary array of bread shapes, types and flavors.
Yet even amid all this farinaceous wealth, the breads of the Modenese mountains stand out. There, in the foothills of the Apennines, one finds loaves made of chestnut flour or perfumed with chestnut leaves, hearth cakes cooked in ornamental molds of clay and tiny pebbles, and a host of fried breads of the bet-you-can't-eat-just-one variety. Fortunately, people would be insulted of you even tried.
These distinctive fried doughs or batters are generally served as snacks or appetizers, alongside platters of prosciutto, salami and small dishes of pickled vegetables.
But sometimes, as in the case of the colossal borlengo, they can also be served without accompaniment. This most dramatic of the mountain breads, a transparent pancake almost a foot and a half in diameter, shatters like a potato chip when you bite into it and leaves morsels of garlic, rosemary and parmesan cheese melting in your mouth. It needs no embellishments.
The borlengo, in one version or another, has been around at least since the medieval period and from almost that time has been the subject of ferocious disputation -- our chili with beans, chili without beans or barbecue controversies are mere billing and cooing in comparison. But in Italy, this passionate and polemical focus on food comes with the cultural territory, and the battle of the borlenghi is waged on several fronts:
* Its creation -- was it born out of privation and need or in a wild flight of culinary imagination?
* Its ingredients -- should the genuine borlengo contain eggs?
* And by far the most important, its true provenance -- did it originate in Guiglia, in Zocca or in Vignola?
The rivals in this three-way custody battle support their claims with, among other things, local legends.
The Guiglese, whose claim is said to be the oldest and possibly, therefore, the strongest, tell their story this way. In the year 1266, Lord Ugolino and his soldiers and followers were trapped in his castle on a bluff high above the town. Surrounded by 7,000 enemy troops, all food supplies cut off, they still -- to the bewilderment of their adversaries -- managed to survive. What trickery was afoot?
Ugolino, a generous lord and considerable gastronome, frequently opened the castle gates to the townsfolk and, in a gesture of largess, dispensed spiced wine and the ancient flour-and-water ash cakes known as focacce. Now, in crisis, with only a small amount of flour left to feed his army, he began to water down the basic focacce dough. With each day of the siege, he added more water until finally the dough had become a milklike batter that produced a bread so thin it was called a burla, a joke (whence the name borlengo).
Whatever truth there may be in the particulars of this legend, the new food (whether it was transported by those who ultimately escaped from the castle or shortly thereafter developed in other places as well) was one whose time had come. It spread quickly through the mountains, even becoming a favorite snack food at medieval fairs. Was it at one of these revels that an enterprising borlenghi maker decided to improve sales by enlarging the crisp bread to its present dazzling dimensions -- making it an even bigger, even funnier, and even more appealing joke?
If once borlenghi were merely a savory adjunct to celebration, now, at least in Guiglia, they are instead the occasion for it. Over the last 15 years, both as a means of publicly restaking its claim and, of course, in memory of the clever Ugolino, the town has sponsored a Sagra del Borlengo, a feast, as is proudly stated, of il buon' borlengo di Guiglia.
Held every spring in a town square that looks out on the lush green of the Vignola Valley, the fete marks the end of the borlenghi-eating season, which, by custom, is fall and winter. A huge tent fitted out with cooking equipment and long, family-style tables, is set up to accommodate the few tourists and throngs of Italians out for a Sunday drive. In it, the borlenghari, a group of men more than 30 strong (the making of borlengo, in Guiglia, is traditionally the province of men, other breads the province of women), are stationed at individual gas-fired braziers. There, to the oom-pah-pah of the band and the clucking of chickens strolling through the parking lot, they proudly (and with great brio) demonstrate their ancient patrimony, the 700-year-old "trick" that once confounded Ugolino's foes and has been an occasion for crossed swords, and good eating, ever since.
Served with or without cured meats and pickled vegetables, the borlenghi of Guiglia make a wonderful afternoon snack, an unusual picnic food (to be fried over an autumn campfire), or a lusty prelude to an informal dinner. Whatever the occasion, accompany them with a light Italian red wine, so much a part of eating borlenghi that it can almost be considered a recipe ingredient. In the Modenese mountains, the choice would be lambrusco -- young, sparkling, violet-scented, and particularly well-suited to rich food. But as the lambruscos available here tend to be rather less attractive, you may prefer to try something different -- a sangiovese, santa maddalena, or a more easily found dolcetto or valpolicella classico.
Although it is often the simplest foreign foods that are most difficult to duplicate at home, it is possible to adapt the borlengo to the American kitchen, save, of course, in size.
These crisp breads are going to be among the more curious things you have ever cooked. They will shimmy, split, steam, thicken, thin out, cloud up and clear; they will look funny, ragged, uneven, and have tears in them, and each one will be different from the others in more ways than would seem possible within the small span of a skillet. They may even sometimes seem to have little minds of their own. This is all as it should be; not to worry.
Borlenghi require a certain amount of patience; the great amount of water in the batter (the thinner the batter, the crisper the result) takes time to evaporate, and because the borlengo should be cooked on relatively low heat, the process can't be hastened very much. Fortunately, however, borlenghi can be cooked ahead of time and reheated briefly -- really the most practical way to handle them and done regularly in Italy as well. Use two pans of approximately equal size (an inch or two difference won't matter) and make them two at a time to speed things up.
Although, in general, borlenghi don't require much fuss or attention, they do require a bit of special care to ensure that they cook evenly. Ideally, to provide even, concentrated, broad-base heat, they should be cooked over embers as they were for hundreds of years (the gas-fired braziers used in Guiglia were especially designed to provide a modern and more convenient way of providing the same kind of heat). Failing that, the pan must occasionally be checked, and, if necessary, moved so that the portion of the borlenghi cooking unevenly is positioned over the heat.
If you have a butcher who puts up his own lard or if you are willing to make it yourself, the result will be considerably tastier than if you use commercial lard, although you certainly can make do with it. Likewise, if you prefer, the dish can be cooked in butter, but it just won't be the same, neither in taste nor authenticity. The primary cooking fat of the region is lard, not butter.
The pickled vegetables can be found in Italian delicatessens and even in some supermarkets -- look for peperoncini or the assorted vegetable mix called giardiniera.
How many borlenghi you serve will depend, of course, both on the occassion and on whether you are serving them with meats or on their own. Allow at least two per person as a light snack or appetizer, increasing the number of borlenghi, or adding meat, to make a more substantial course.
Borlenghi are not food for the fastidious. They are eaten with the hands and are wonderfully messy. Wrap a paper napkin around each one before you serve it. BORLENGHI ALLA GUIGLIA (Makes 6 to 8 borlenghi) FOR THE CONDIMENTO: 1/2 cup high-quality lard 2 tablespoons minced garlic 3/4 teaspoon salt Freshly ground black pepper to taste 2 sprigs fresh rosemary FOR THE BORLENGO: 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon cake flour 6 cups water 2 tablespoons beaten egg 1 teaspoon salt 6 ounce-wedge parmesan cheese, freshly grated (about 12 tablespoons)
Melt the lard over very low heat in a small heavy-bottomed saucepan or skillet. Add the garlic, salt, and pepper; stir, and add rosemary sprigs. Keeping the heat as low as possible, "poach" the garlic in the lard for 15 minutes, without letting it color or begin to fry. (If your range doesn't allow you to turn the heat down sufficiently, take the mixture off the heat as necessary to keep from coloring, and return it when it has cooled slightly.) When the garlic is soft and delicate tasting, remove it from the heat and set the mixture aside.
While the condimento is cooking, combine both flours with 1 1/2 cups water and the egg. With an electric mixer, beat mixture on medium speed for 3 to 4 minutes. Stir -- do not beat -- remaining water into mixture. Add salt. Batter will be very liquid, just slightly heavier than milk. Strain through a fine sieve to remove any lumps. Set aside for 15 to 20 minutes.
With a pastry brush, push garlic and rosemary to sides of their pan. Set a 10- to 12-inch heavy bottomed nonstick or very well seasoned skillet or griddle over medium-low heat. Heat just until the point at which a droplet of water thrown into the bottom of the pan will hiss but not skitter. (It is critical that the pan not be too hot. If it is, the batter will grab the surface of the pan and start to sizzle. It is better to err on the side of too cool than too hot.) While the pan is heating, stir the batter thoroughly, making sure to stir up any flour that has settled on the bottom of the bowl. When the pan is ready, immediately brush the bottom with a very light coat of the condimento, dipping your brush in the clear well you have made in the center (it is all right if a tiny bit of garlic gets into the pan). Be sure to coat the bottom thoroughly. Immediately pour the batter into the pan, using about 2/3 cup for a 10-inch pan, 3/4 cup for an 11-inch pan, and 7/8 cup for a 12-inch pan. Make sure the batter spreads out evenly.
Within seconds, the bulk of the batter will have thickened and formed an opaque layer in the bottom of the pan, and will look like almost-cooked egg white. (The whey-like residue at the top will take a few seconds longer to coagulate.) As the water in the batter heats, it will start to evaporate and steam pockets will form underneath the borlengo. At this point, it will look like a shiny, bubbling moon map. After 2 or 3 minutes, several bubbles will be split open by the force of the steam, causing small jagged 1- or 2- inch rents to appear. (Be sure to keep the heat low at this point -- if the steam builds up too much of a head, its force will create huge tears.) Don't worry about the rents -- they will have a connective filament over them when the borlengo has been cooked.
As the water continues to evaporate, the mass in the pan will develop a matte, rather than a shiny, finish, and it will start to thin out. Check the borlengo periodically to be sure it is cooking evenly. If it isn't, rotate the pan or move it to the left or the right to center the heat under the portion of the borlengo that needs it. The thinning out is a gradual process -- a borlengo will take 20 to 30 minutes from start to finish -- and is best done over low heat. But if you are impatient, after the borlengo has cooked for about 15 minutes, you can turn the heat up to medium, watching carefully to prevent more than a few brown spots from forming. (A borlengo should be the color of a potato chip. A few spots are all right, but too much browning will change its taste and crisp-chewy texture.)
When the borlengo has dried out completely and has formed a brittle but still somewhat pliable round, run a fork or a spatula gently around the edges to free them and then slip the spatula underneath. You should be able to see the spatula through the borlengo. Turn the borlengo over. If you are going to serve it immediately, brush the top side of it with a light coat of the condimento, dipping your brush into the part with the garlic in it. Cook for another 60 seconds or so, and when the condimento bubbles -- you will see it forming tiny bubbles on the borlengo -- sprinkle it with about a tablespoon, or more to taste, of parmesan cheese. Fold the borlengo in quarters -- part of it will crack and part will bend -- and serve immediately.
Repeat the entire procedure with the next borlengo, making very sure to stir the flour up well and to cool the pan (in Guiglia, this is done by swinging the pan through the air) and to remove any crumbs before proceeding.
If you are making the borlenghi ahead of time, do not brush the borlengo with the condimento. When it has finished cooking on the second side, remove it from the pan, lay it on a piece of paper towel and cover it with waxed paper. Repeat the process, stirring the flour and cooling the pan, until all the borlenghi are made. Later, just before serving, set the skillet over medium heat. Stir up the condimento to combine the ingredients, and then lightly coat the pan. Lay a borlengo in the heated pan to rewarm and crisp. After a few seconds, turn it over and brush it lightly with the condimento, sprinkle with parmesan cheese, and serve as described above. Repeat until all the borlenghi have been heated, finished, and served.