Pici with garlic mustard pesto

In Food, Nature, Norfolk, Umbria
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Garlic mustard Alliaria petiolata

Garlic mustard, or Jack-by-the-Hedge, is a UK-native, biennial flowering plant in the mustard (brassica or crucifer) family. Although it’s self-pollinating, it attracts midges, bees and hoverflies. It is also one of the food plants of orange tip butterfly caterpillars. Fantastically, because it’s growing naturally all around our wildlife-oriented garden, it is suicidally edible — the flowers, stems, seeds, leaves and roots all have food uses. As if that’s not enough, it also has medicinal properties.

Growing with green alkanet (whose blue flower is also edible but is in heavy demand from our pollinators and so left for them to enjoy)
With developing seed pods and a visiting mining bee
Male orange tip resting on a garlic mustard flower head
Female large red damselfly on a garlic mustard leaf

In this case, I’m exploiting it for the mild garlic-with-a-hint-of-mustard taste of its leaves in a super simple, plant-based pesto recipe, served on our old Umbro-Tuscan handmade pasta favourite with seasonal Norfolk asparagus.

Pici, or bringoli

Or ‘pinci’, ‘lombrichelli viterbesi’, ‘pisciarelli’, ‘torcolacci’, ‘filarelli’, ‘lilleri laziali’, ‘ceriole’,  ‘stringoli’, ‘raguzzi’…depending which town you’re in. They’re possibly most widely known as ‘pici’ due to Tuscany’s popularity with tourists. However, in Anghiari, near the region’s northwestern border with Umbria , and Lisciano Niccone, our own little corner of the latter, these irregular handmade noodles are celebrated as ‘bringoli’. A summer sagra (food festival) is organised to consume them communally with various sauces (duck, goose, wild boar and summer truffle among the most popular) in each place.

Surely the simplest and easiest of pasta creations, and classic cucina povera, they require only flour, water and a little salt. Variations include the addition of olive oil, substitution of shredded spinach for water, and the bourgeois use of eggs. Below, I present a minimalist version using a mix of 00 and semolina flour, but bog standard white bread stock will do.

There are a number of instructional videos available online but, basically, you add water to the flour until it just comes together, knead the dough moderately hard until it becomes smooth and plasticine-like and then leave it in cling film, or under a damp cloth, for at least half an hour to rest without drying. It’s then rolled out until around 1cm thick, cut into strips and hand-rolled without flour into long, irregularly shaped lengths. This variation in width is a feature of the hand-rolling process and to be embraced — if you see bumpy bringoli or pitted pici, they haven’t been produced by a machine; rejoice.

Recipe — pici with garlic mustard pesto and asparagus

Serves 2

  • 3 cups washed young garlic mustard leaves with smaller ones to garnish
  • 1 cup walnuts (or, if you’re feeling flush, pine nuts)
  • Olive oil (enough to achieve the preferred consistency)
  • Salt, pepper and nutritional yeast to taste (can use Italian hard cheese such as parmesan, grana padano or pecorino if desired)
  • Asparagus spears, prepared
  • 125g 00 flour and 75g semolina flour and a little salt
  • Additional semolina flour and/or coarse ground semolina to prevent the pasta sticking to itself

You can add additional garlic if you wish but, as the name implies, the plant has a delicious, mellow garlic taste that I feel would be overpowered by adding a raw bulb.

While the pasta dough is resting (see above), blend or crush together the pesto ingredients to the required taste and consistency.

Steam, blanch or char the asparagus and cook the pasta in a large pan of salted water until al dente. Drain and toss in a generous serving of pesto. Add the chopped asparagus and garnish with the small garlic mustard leaves.

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