A genuinely delicious Italian gnocchi with Montasio Cheese, poppy seeds and speck.
By Kathy Bechtel
Gnocchi is a very traditional food found throughout Italy, and it’s a food common to all the regions we visit with Italiaoutdoors Food and Wine. There are so many different and interesting preparations, from the traditional potato, to buckwheat, ricotta, mixed with meats from prosciutto to spleen, cheeses, and all sorts of greens, not to mention squash and bread. It has been a way to put all your leftovers to use for centuries. But you will discover each region has some very distinctive preparations for gnocchi, and here is an easy and different one from Friuli-Venezia Giulia.
Poppy seeds are quite popular in the cuisine of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, but are seen very rarely in regions outside of Northeastern Italy. These seeds are obtained from the opium poppy. but have no narcotic effect. They can be used whole or ground, or pressed to produce poppy seed oil. Poppy seeds are used in many cuisines of Central Europe – Austrian, Czech, Hungarian, German and Slovac. There appearance in the cuisine of Friuli-Venezia Giulia is one more example of the influence of these areas on the foods of this region of Italy.
The city of Trieste lies on the Adriatic, and throughout history was a very active trading port, as Austria lavished money and attention on the principal port of the Hapsburg and then Austro-Hungarian empire. Here, spices of all types arrived to be carried north to Austria, Germany and elsewhere in Central Europe. These spices were often transported by cramars, traveling peddlers who lived in the mountains of Carnia in the northernmost section Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Originally settled by the Celts, who brought with them a talent for land management, and began by raising livestock in this region. When winter approached, and grazing was limited, these pig farmers would load up with spices, leave their families behind and made a difficult trek north through the Alps to Austria and Germany to pick up some additional income by selling their wares.
As many of these spices were believed to have medicinal benefits, these cramars became a sort of medicinal healer as well, selling mixtures of spices and dried herbs as remedies. Any of these spices that were not sold ended up being used in the kitchens of this region. You see them in many baked sweets, breads, and salad dressings, just as you do here in the US, but they also appear in pastas and sauces.
This recipe calls for speck, a cured pork leg produced in Friuli and neighboring Trentino-Alto Adige. Speck is very similar, and often confused with, prosciutto; and prosciutto can be a substitute for speck in this recipe. There are two ways in which speck may differ from prosciutto, but the operative word here is ‘may’; there are exceptions to both of these. First of all, speck is smoked and prosciutto usually is not. However, there are prosciutti that are smoked, like the Prosciutto di Sauris from Friuli. Speck is also deboned before curing, where prosciutto made for consumption in Italy is not. Prosciutti produced for export to the US are deboned, in order to pass US import regulations. So if you are purchasing speck here in the US, it will be smoked, where a prosciutto you purchase here is not. But in Italy, the difference will not necessarily be as clear.Print
Kathy Bechtel’s obsession with food and cooking began as a teenager. After years following a traditional career path as a telecommunications engineer, she left to attend culinary school and wine training, and is now combining her passions for food and wine, the outdoors, and travel as owner and Culinary Tour Director of Italiaoutdoors. In this role, Kathy leads small bicycle, skiing and walking tours that explore the authentic regional cuisines, local products and undiscovered wines of Northeastern Italy.