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Peppers from Piedmont - or Elizabeth David?

"This recipe is quite simply stunning: hard to imagine how something so easily prepared can taste so good." Delia Smith

These are the peppers of Carmagnola - a town near Turin in the Po valley on Italy's north, which is the Piedmontese, and possibly Italian capital of peppers. Well actually it's just one of the four varieties grown there.

I looked this up because I didn't understand why the dish I am talking about today is called Piedmontese peppers. Because Piedmont is in the north of Italy - the large north-western bit bordering France and Switzerland. Now I don't know about you but I think of capsicum as a Mediterranean thing - well, in the case of Italy as southern Italian - particularly Sicily. But no it seems that Piedmont and Carmagnola in particular is the place to go for capsicum. The website Flick on Food has quite a detailed history of the area as a capsicum growing area.

And that history only goes back to the early twentieth century. So this dish is not ancient. Well it couldn't be ancient anyway because, of course, the capsicum did not get to Italy until after the Americas were discovered. And that's the other thing - when you look up Piedmont food you rarely find Piedmontese peppers. Bagna cauda is the thing when it comes to peppers and Piedmont but not this particular dish. It's not in my Italy the Beautiful Cookbook for example, nor The Silver Spoon, which I think is supposed to cover just about every Italian dish.

So where does it come from? I mean it's so simple, and, in a way, so obvious that you would think that every Italian nonna had a recipe. Well, having now investigated a bit, I am beginning to wonder whether it's an Elizabeth David invention. It appears in Italian Food, which was first published in 1954, and it is mostly to her that all subsequent recipes refer. It features in the posthumously published At Elizabeth David's Table - a must have cookbook for those who were not around when the original books came out, for here are all of her best recipes collected in one place - with the occasional picture as well - like this one. Her recipe is simple, but with no notes as to where it came from. It's very simple and short, so as it seems to be the source for all subsequent variations - here it is:

"Cut some red, yellow or green peppers in half lengthways. Take out all the seeds and wash the peppers, If they are large, cut each half in half again. Into each piece put 2 or 3 slices of garlic, 2 small sections of raw tomato, about half a fillet of anchovy cut into pieces, a small nut of butter a dessertspoon of olive oil, a very little salt. Arrange these peppers on a flat baking dish and cook them in a moderate oven - 180ºC for about 30 minutes. They are not to be completely cooked: they should in fact be al dente, the stuffing inside deliciously oily and garlicky. Serve them cold, each garnished with a little parsley. Allow 1/2 to 1 pepper per person."

I think a flat dish to bake them in might be a bit of a disaster as the oil is probably going to spill out. Indeed subsequent recipes speak of the juices from the tomatoes and the oil being the best thing.

Personally, I first came across it in Delia Smith's Summer Collection, as, apparently did the vast number of people who rave about this dish today. Indeed sometimes it is referred to as Delia's peppers. She calls them Piedmont roasted peppers and gives a coherent explanation of their origin:

"Its history is colourful too. It was first discovered by Elizabeth David and published in her splendid book Italian Food. Then the Italian chef Franco Taruchio at the Walnut Tree Inn near Abergavenny cooked it there. Simon Hopkinson, who ate it at the Walnut Tree, put it on his menu at his great London restaurant Bibendum, where I ate it - which is how it comes to be here now for your to make and enjoy."

Abergavenny, London - not very Italian. So I went back to Elizabeth David's introduction to the second edition of her book in which she describes how after a year of travelling around Italy she had so much material that much had to be discarded. It is unlikely therefore that this recipe is an invention all her own. Most likely it comes from some Italian nonna in an obscure village in Piedmont - well she and a whole host of nonnas who adapted the basic roasting of capsicum into something delicious, with the addition of garlic, tomatoes and anchovies, not forgetting the olive oil of course. But bless you Elizabeth David, and then Delia for bringing it to our attention.

Simon Hopkinson - one of the other names mentioned above actually demonstrated the dish on YouTube - see below.

Of course something so simple has a myriad of variations. How much tomato do you put in each pepper, what kind of tomatoes, and do you peel them? Do you put the garlic in first or last? When do you put the anchovies in? Are the anchovies optional? Is there butter too? Do you use basil and when do you put that in? How long do you cook them? - Elizabeth David says al dente - others say much longer, until charred and soft. And can you use green peppers? Most would say no, but others, including Elizabeth David say yes. I think I'm with the no crowd here. They are indeed, not quite fleshy enough. So here are two (and recipes) of the fundamentally original variety: Stuffed peppers from Rachel Roddy - oozing with juice, and Piedmontese peppers from Lyndsey Bareham.

Mind you, once cooked Rachel Roddy is not above messing with them some more:

"Forget the annoying October puddle right outside your door, the best puddle is the one of precious roasting juices, oily and rust-tinted, whose sweet and smoky complexity reminds us that autumn is a consequence of summer, and that puddles can be enjoyed. The last half – wallowing in its puddle with the same appreciation my son has for his – tastes the best, especially squashed on a piece of toast with a fried egg on top." Rachel Roddy

And others mess with it too. Robert Carrier's version includes breadcrumbs all mixed up with the garlic, chopped tomatoes and anchovies, before being pressed into the capsicums, (no picture of course) and delicious. magazine's Piedmontese style peppers also adds cubes of ciabatta to their mix. Then there are those that add cheese - Nigel Slater adds feta and olives as well to his Baked peppers with tomatoes and feta. Bon Appétit adds ricotta to their Roasted red peppers and cherry tomatoes with ricotta and Skye Gyngell (and others I have to say) adds bucatini as well as pesto to her Peppers Piedmontese. Beverley Sutherland Smith tossed her tomatoes in a mix of olive oil, honey and balsamic vinegar before adding to the peppers - no garlic or anchovy though - and no picture either. So as you can see it's really a dish that is ripe for improvisation and which probably nobody makes the same way twice.

Perhaps most intriguingly of all somebody at The Guardian turned theirs into a kind of rice salad - Piedmontese pepper pilaf but alas no picture.

Spring is here, although it's not very springlike today, so summer is not very far away. Hopefully by summer I shall be able to return to shopping at the Queen Victoria Market where peppers are sold in glorious abundance. I look forward to buying a heap and making a biggish tray of these delicious morsels that can be brought out at a moment's notice when somebody unexpectedly drops by - which hopefully we shall be able to do by then. Vaccinations are galloping ahead - our two granddaughters aged 12 and 14 had their first jab today.

If you haven't ever made them do give it a try - those strips of grilled peppers are lovely, but these are even better. As long as you have lots of bread to mop up the juices. Simon Hopkinson for one was very lavish with the olive oil.


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