Italy's Alpine comfort food.
While researching the history of Trentino Alto Adige's classic bread-based dumplings, what do we come across but yes, another legend! This one dates back to medieval times, but even better, the first official account of a canederlo has been found depicted as an ancient afresco!
In the green hills of Appiano outside Bolzano, on a wall in the chapel of Castello di Hocheppani , a recently discovered affresco dating 1180 shows the birth of Christ featuring Mary, Joseph and a humble-looking lady. Possibly a midwife but known as 'the Watcher', she's crouched over an open fire with a pan of 5 dumplings, busy tasting them with a fork. Now, we frequent this beautiful part of Italy regularly to visit our good friend Marika, and we always stop somewhere for lunch, immediately ordering canerderli off the menu, but never have we noticed this particular affresco with Mary regaining her strength thanks to a dish of local dumplings after a rather monumentous birth.
Canederli are bread-based - simple food, born from kitchen scraps like cucina povera - the cuisine of the poor, and served in twos or threes. The word derives from the German and Austrian 'knödel' (dumpling) from 'knot' (lump) and although in the end they're nothing extremely special (we'll get to the recipe soon), this is yet another example of how the simplest of foods become the most sublime in Italy. Originally from Bavaria, the canederlo is eaten there accompanied by meaty stew while in the north Italian provinces of Trentino and Alto Adige, canederli are typically served on their own in broth or in butter.
Legend says the humble canederlo was once thrown together in desperation by an Alpine innkeeper after a group of 'hangry' mercenaries returned from their pillaging to demand food. With only stale bread, milk, eggs and leftovers in her kitchen, the clever woman hastily fashioned a plate of delectable dumplings that not only sated the group of grumpy men but sent them all into a deep and peaceful sleep, so the canederlo was born.
Don't you love a good legend?
Here's the innkeeper's famous recipe:
300 g stale bread, diced
1 cup (225ml) milk
3 eggs, lightly beaten
60 g (½ cup) white flour
3 Tbsp (minced) flat leaf (Italian) parsley
200 g diced cheese, e.g. Fontina, Raclette or Gouda, or 150g finely diced Speck
45 g (3 Tbsp) unsalted butter
1 ½ Tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp pepper
¼ tsp nutmeg
3 liters (12 cups) of vegetable stock
To serve them in butter
20 g (1 ½ Tbsp) (per serving) unsalted butter
10 g (2 tsp) (per serving) grated Parmigiano
1 small bunch of chives, thinly sliced
To serve them in broth
1 cup (per serving) additional vegetable stock
Some grated Parmigiano
Some chives or a sage leaf (optional)
Put the stale bread into a large mixing bowl. Add the milk, the eggs, salt, pepper and nutmeg.
Mix well and leave to rest for at least two hours, covered with a tea towel, in a cool place or in the fridge. Stir occasionally to ensure that the mix absorbs the liquid uniformly.
After two hours, add the flour, then the parsley and cheese/Speck. Mix gently.
Finely chop the onion and fry it in oil and butter for ten minutes at medium heat, stirring occasionally.
Let the onion cool, then incorporate it into the mix.
Let the mixture rest for another half-hour covered with a tea towel. It should look uniformly moist and slightly sticky.
Using your hands, form the canederli by pressing together enough of the mix to make balls the size of a golf ball (60 to 80 grams each). You should be able produce 14-16 balls out of the entire mix.
After making each ball, roll it in flour to seal the outside and prevent the canederli from sticking to each other.
When all the canederli are ready, re-roll them into flour and compress them a second time.
Have the vegetable stock in a large pot boiling on the stove.
Place the canederli gently in the pot, wait until the boil is resumed and boil the canederli for 12-15 minutes (they will be floating the whole time), then drain them gently.
If serving the canederli "dry", warm up the butter just enough to melt it. Place 3 canederli into each plate, pour the melted butter on them, then sprinkle with some thin-sliced chives or a sage leaf, grated Parmigiano and some freshly ground black pepper.
Note: once boiled, canederli can be stored in the fridge for up to 3 days or in the freezer for up to 2 weeks. If serving the canederli in broth, prepare more vegetable stock (as the one used for boiling will be cloudy because of the flour). Place two or three canederli into each bowl and pour over the broth Finish with grated Parmigiano and chives.
Canederli are made simply with bits and bobs from the kitchen, in fact, when you order them, they're often served as a 'tris' of three different types. Some of our favourites are green spinach or pink beetroot and another delicious autumnal version features porcini mushrooms. This is proper mountain food but is often fashioned as something more intricate, depending on where you choose to dine. The last plate of canerderli we enjoyed in Pian Cavallo had a crispy slice of pancetta placed on top - flavourful and delicious but far from the humble Watcher's pot or Innkeeper's recipe. Nevertheless, be sure to order canerderli if you spot them on a menu in Italy, although do note that you'll only find them north of Venice, and if we may give you two handy tips:
Always opt for butter (like us), not broth, and
Never use a knife to cut canerderli, only a fork because apparently it's an insult to the cook.
Buon canerderlo, and buon appetito.