Over the next couple of days, we're going to publish a couple of posts by our friend Alessandro Cagossi of both Reggio Emilia (Italy) and Morgantown (West Virginia). Today we'll start with the history of the Pumpkin Tortelli and tomorrow we'll post the actual recipe. Enjoy
History of Pumpkin Tortelli
By Alessandro Cagossi
Tortelli are a part of the gastronomic tradition of filled pasta – traditionally linked to the gastronomy of Northern Italy – and are similar to ravioli. The main feature of this recipe is the combination among the sweet flavor of pumpkin, the rather bitter amaretto cookies, the savory parmesan cheese and the chilly fruit mustard. Their unusual taste may be surprising to someone.
Pumpkin tortelli are a speciality pasta in a vast area close to the river Po, comprising the provinces of Mantua and Cremona (in Lombardy region), Piacenza, Parma, Reggio, Modena, and Ferrara (in Emilia region), and, in a lesser degree, Verona and Rovigo (Veneto). In Ferrara they are called Cappellacci, from the shape of the straw hats typically worn by country folk. Elsewhere, the name tortelli (or ritortelli, tortelloni) derives from the way the pasta is folded.
Pumpkin as a stuffing is a relatively recent recipe. Since the 1500s, once pumpkins were imported from the Americas, they were grown everywhere and were cheap, so even the poorest of the poor were always able to enjoy them. In fact, initially the tortelli probably represented a popular reprocessing with less expensive ingredients of noble agnolini, with the goal of getting a cheap but nutritious and savory meal.
The home of pumpkin tortelli recipe is disputed between Mantua and Ferrara. In fact, their origins hark back to the times of the Este court in Ferrara, famous also for the refinement of its cuisine: the master of banquets Giovan Battista Rossetti had already mentioned it in his recipe book in 1584. But the Gonzaga family, ruling in Mantua in the same epoch, also claimed for the paternity of the recipe.
In any case, as clearly shown by the map, it can be said that today the real perimeter of this culinary tradition (highlighted with orange color) is exactly around the river Po. The area running below the river Po is delimited at south by Mount Apennines that had worked as a sort of geographical barrier which inhibited the cultivation of the pumpkin and the subsequent diffusion of the recipe. For this reason, only in the flat areas of Emilia provinces pumpkin tortelli are diffused. Similarly, looking at the northern bank of the river, the farer you go from it, the diffusion of pumpkin tortelli decreases. In this regard, only in the eastern part of the Cremona province the recipe is known. As said, the recipe is also popular in the small southern cone of Verona province (because it lies between Mantova and Ferrara) and in the strip of Rovigo province which runs parallel to the Po.
Many variants came during the centuries modifying the traditional recipe, in terms of in shape, folding technique, ingredients and taste. For example, the recipe from Piacenza and Ferrara does not include amaretto, while the one from Cremona adds the fruit mustard. Some in the stuffing add crushed almond, or dried peach nuts. Others add dried grape, shredded mint-flavored candies, or boiled wine in a very original way! Since the 1800s, various sauces to accompany pumpkin tortelli became more popular, using butter, fried onion, garlic and tomato together with lard, bacon and sausage. In Piacenza, tortelli sometimes are served with mushroom sauce.
Even if ingredients vary among areas, usually familiar recipes are handed down from mothers to daughters, thus meaning that they tend to remain unchanged along generations. It means that pumpkin tortelli are always different from family to family, even if they are next-door neighbors.
The secret of any recipe is to balance these various flavors, properly dosing the amount of each ingredient.
Currently, most people from areas described above reserve pumpkin tortelli for special occasions. December 24, Christmas Eve (“La Vigilia di Natale”) is a day of abstinence from meat, so as a first dish pumpkin dumplings in butter and sage sauce are served.