All About Pici Pasta

“Lina – our adoptive grandmother – taught me and my daughter Julia (her cuddly granddaughter, as she calls her) how to knead and roll pici, the local pasta she used to cook on an old, rickety stove which she’d renamed, ‘The Beast’.

Dianne Hales, La Bella Lingua

One of the best books read by both the Chief Taster and myself last year was Iris Origo’s War In Val D’Orcia. This is a war diary written by an anglo-american lady married to an Italian landowner. They look after orphans and partisans alike. Origo observes Italians, Germans, allies, peasants and art collectors and sees the good and the bad in all. Being written as the action occurs (finally, the front line fighting moves across their lands) there is an immediacy about the descriptions, fear of the potential future is real and tangible – it’s a page turner.

In any case, wending our way up Italy from Civitavecchia we found ourselves close to the Val D’Orcia and we thought we’d go and have a look at the house where the children were sheltered and the woods where the partisans hid.

We weren’t disappointed – the house and gardens are truly beautiful – not something which really comes out in the diaries.

But it started to rain hard. We ran to the car and began driving towards Montepulciano, but the downpour was such that we could hardly see out of the windscreen. It was nearly lunchtime, we saw a restaurant to the side of the road and pulled in to La Locanda Di Fonte Alla Vena.

We thought we would have a simple tomato pasta. And it became clear that the pasta to have there was pici.

Pici pasta is very specific to the Val D’Orcia, made from the local high-density durum wheat and water only – there are no eggs in the dough. Most of it is organic, so it’s not treated with insecticides during storage. It looks a bit like fat spaghetti, but the strings are pulled by hand.

Regular readers of this blog will already know of the Roman epicure, Apicius, and some say the name of this pasta derives from his name. Others say it comes from the verb, ‘appiccicare’ – to glue or paste.

Because of the size of its girth, as well as its peasant provenance, pici pasta is usually served with a hearty ragù.

It often has a rough, brown hue.
It often has a rough, brown hue.

Cacio e pepe recipe – simple pasta with cheese and pepper

But it is just as good served simply, with cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper). This is simply made. Boil the pasta in oiled and generously salted water in the usual way (but longer – 22 minutes for pici). Drain vaguely – not too enthusiastically, and put the pasta into a warmed bowl. Mix in lashings of grated pecorino (sheeps’ cheese – or you could try Lord of the Hundreds) and enthusiastically grind in lots of pepper. The residual hot water melts with the cheese to form a creamy sauce.

Other good additions to pici:

  • Pesto, toasted breadcrumbs and anchovies
  • Breadcrumbs, red peppers and garlic
  • Tomato, chilli and garlic (aglione sauce)
  • Not authentic, since this is a Spanish recipe, but also excellent would be a romesco sauce
pici pasta
Cheese goes well, as does a hearty ragu

“First of all, umbrichelli are the quintessential pasta of Umbri. Thick, imperfect, hand-rolled ropes of flour and water dough, these reflect the Umbrian character: rough, austere, wonderful. In the region of Tuscany, the very same pasta is called pici, these, too, reflecting the Tuscan character: rough, austere, wonderful. Yet should one be fool enough to suggest the similarity of their pasta, less the Umbrian and Tuscan characters, one could well incite hours of fist-pounding, shrieked threats, the biting of forefingers…

…Italy is not a united country, but a group of individual ‘city states’, such as it was in the medieval.”

Marlena de Blasi, The Umbrian Thursday Night Supper Club

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