In the recently released book At the Table of La Fortezza: The Enchantment of Tuscan Cooking from the Lunigiana Region, published by Rizzoli, author and Atlanta-based Entrepreneur Annette Joseph dedicated the cookbook to those who have influenced her: “This book is dedicated to all the slow food purveyors, food artisans, restaurant owners, family-owned businesses, and farmers who have taught me what it means to eat local.” On the menu at La Fortezza, the medieval fortress she and her husband bought in 2016, is an array of dishes that include both the subtle and hearty flavors for which Italy is renowned.
On the Menu at La Fortezza
The book’s lush photography by David Loftus makes this a mouthwatering trip to the far northwestern region of Tuscany known for its wild beauty. “Flanked by the Liguria coastline and the Apuan Alps, this region is very different from the rolling green hills that Tuscany brings to mind, she writes in her introduction. “It is blanketed with rugged farmland—big and green and filled to bursting with olive groves, chestnut forests, and vineyards.” Who else is ready to hop on a plane for Italy?
She sets the foodie scene by noting, “Lunigiana is wedged between two culinary giants: Liguria, on the northwestern coastline of Italy, is known for its seafood, focaccia, and pesto; and Emilia-Romagna, called the breadbasket of Italy, produces pork, prosciutto, Parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, and fantastic beef. The Lunigiana region brings together the delicate textures and unique flavors of both the coast and the mountains, and all of these simple delicacies make for delicious results in the kitchen.” The recipes that follow profoundly prove this point.
Some of these date back to the Middle Ages. “The preservation of traditional cooking methods is one of the reasons this area is recognized by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve,” Joseph writes. “As I came to know and appreciate the food here, I began to research traditional recipes, and happily spent the last several years tasting, testing, and adapting them for this cookbook, to share with you.” And I’m so thrilled she did.
In case you’re asking why I’m featuring a cookbook on The Modern Salonnière blog, drumroll, please: I’m going to begin working on my first novel by the end of the year and it stretches far back in time to the Middle Ages. You can bet I’ll be relishing the savory flavors in this lovely book as I’m time-traveling in my research. The dishes Joseph has prepared are divided seasonally since this is how Italians eat, and each recipe is prepared with the same attention to detail as Italy’s slow food culture demands.
Joseph notes that spring is an unpredictable season that may bring torrential downpours during which rivers “run wild.” Temperatures can swing from color to hot and everything in between, which means the kitchen garden must be planted at the perfect time. This generally means the first week of June at La Fortezza. Recipes in this chapter include Fried Zucchini Flowers; Artichoke, Red Pepper, and Tuna Salad; and Risotto with Romano Beans and Peas, which I recently fixed and can report that it is indeed delicious. She shares tips on making basic egg pasta dough in this chapter, followed by her homemade Tagliatelle recipe. Her advice on making chestnut pasta is also included here, as is a profile on Giovanna Zurlo, an artisanal chestnut flour purveyor.
Summer is the season when local food festivals take place in the villages dotting the region. By now, the kitchen garden is “fulsome and festive,” she shares, adding, “The summer heat kicks and tomatoes start to ripen and sweeten in the hot sun.” The pastiche she presents continues with, “The basil is abundant and spills over the beds, begging to be watered.” What would summer be without bruschetta and crostini? Hers with burrata and pesto; and Galletti mushrooms respectively; are joined by recipes for Minestrone Soup, Scalloped Potatoes, Breaded Sole with Dried Capers, Salt Cod Fritters, Limoncello Granita with Whipped Cream, and Braised Rabbit. Master gardener Gianluca Di Antonia is profiled in this chapter.
Joseph calls Autumn “the champion season” in the region: “It is the time when the most important harvests make place—the harvests of grapes and olives. When I see our vintner’s trucks rumbling down the hill—one full of people, dogs, and picnic baskets and another packed to the brim with colorful empty grape bins—I know it’s going to be a great week. Our vineyard is run by a family that has harvested on our property for many years—too many to remember, as they claim.” Joseph seasons her Boar Stew recipe with the red wine and the Risotto with their white.
Drool-worthy recipes in this chapter include Roasted Grape and Ricotta Crostini with Salami; Roasted Cauliflower; and Testaroli, a signature dish of the region that is often described as “the earliest recorded pasta” and is said to have originated in the ancient Etruscan civilization. Along with Artisanal Vintner Manolo Luchini, this chapter features the Testaroli Master of Pontremoli, Fabrizio Botta; Simone Mori, a Truffle Hunter; Cornelia Conti, an olive oil producer; and Butcher Modesto Bertocchi. The Modesto Porchetta recipe is one I will definitely be trying soon.
“By mid-November there are signs that winter is upon us,” Joseph says. “We use our forno for the very last time before the winds begin to whip and bone-chilling cold drives us indoors to light the fireplaces.” This is the time of year when they mill chestnut flour for bread, gnocchi, and Bundt cake. “The snow on the mountains is picture-perfect beautiful and it pulls me outside,” she adds, “away from our warm kitchen and fireplaces, to enjoy the season.” Roasted Potatoes are on the seasonal menu, as are Bavette Pasta with Anchovy, and Mussels in Tomato Sauce with Bacon-Breadcrumb Stuffing. Shown harvesting the mainstay for this dish is Paolo Varrella, a mussel farmer in La Spezia. The Oven-Roasted Trout in this chapter is a visual feast, as is the Lamb Shoulder. Shepherdess of Zeri, Cinzia Rossano, is profiled here, the photo of her walking through the woods behind her herd bringing the countryside to life.
Italian Treats and Retreats
At the close of her introduction, Joseph urges readers to find the best ingredients available to them as close to home as possible. “Plant a garden and eat what you’ve grown,” she adds. She provides a resource list in the back of the book for items that may not be sold in particular areas. “Here, I like to say that we eat a ‘zero-kilometer diet,’ which means everything we eat is right in our backyard. It’s a great rule to live by, and to live longer.” I couldn’t agree more. If you want to do a spot of wonderful arm-chair traveling to Italy, you can find out what’s on the menu at La Fortezza by purchasing the book through Rizzoli or on bookshop.org. If you’d like to skip the book and go directly to La Fortezza, Joseph offers Italian retreats on her website.
Saxon Henry is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise, and Four Florida Moderns. She received a review copy of this book from the publisher but her comments were in no way swayed by this fact and are authentically true.by