Friday, October 30, 2015

Carolina's fruity sauce

This week we are hosting Carolina Stupino's guest post about Piedmont flavors and in particular: cugnà.
Born in Turin to a wine producing father and a food loving mother, Carolina always enjoyed good food. Over a decade ago, she moved to the UK  to study and work as a journalist. Since then her goal in the kitchen  has been to bring the flavours of Northern Italian cuisine to London, to recreate the dishes of her childhood with the ingredients she could find over there. That’s been the starting point of a gastronomic journey which brought her to explore different cooking traditions from around the world. But without ever losing sight of her origins. Carolina is also the author of Tastes of Carolina

From Piedmont to England, with a fruity sauce in my heart

The steep stairs, the echo of my steps, my breath growing heavy and the increasing smell of cooked fruit and spices upstairs. It’s one of the last warm weekends in September, when the shadows grow longer and the light slowly loses the burning heat of summer, enveloping the landscape in a warm, yellow hug. I am still at primary school and went to our country home in Neive just for the weekend. The annoying awareness that soon will be time for the car journey back to Turin and another school week to start is nibbling at my heart. But I am excited because I know that unmistakeable aroma coming from a bubbling pot of cugnà, a fruit sauce traditionally eaten with cheese or boiled meats, which I love to spread as well on bread, just like a jam. Nothing beats that to end a weekend spent roaming through vineyards, picking grapes and fruits and cracking fresh hazelnuts.

The fruit sauce is prepared with Dolcetto grapes, from which a wine of the same name is made in our region, the beautiful Langhe with their rolling hills covered in vineyards. Dolce in Italian means sweet and the name Dolcetto comes from the sweetness of the berries, not, as many people erroneously assume, from the wine, which is dry and intensely fruity. These sweet grapes are combined with ripe black figs, tart cooking apples and pears, cinnamon and cloves to make a sauce that needs no sugar or thickeners, because the naturally occurring sweetness of the grapes and figs, and the pectin of the apples provide everything you need.

I am generally not a lover of sweet and savoury combinations, but I make two exceptions: salted caramel and cugnà with cheese. I’m not such a fan of cugnà and bollito, the mixed boiled meats, for whom I prefer other more blatantly savoury sauces. But there is something addictive in the way the light acidity of this fruit compote cuts through the fattiness of the cheese. 
Langhe is famous the world over for its cheeses and sitting down with a selection of them, a dollop of cugnà and some bread or grissini to nibble on, is almost like a ritual. In my days in Neive, where my father runs Castello di Neive, a winery - also makes an excellent Dolcetto, I enjoyed going over to the deli and buying all sorts of local cheeses. My favourites are the spicy and dry Castelmagno, a sort of intense version of Parmesan cheese, the creamy Robiola di Roccaverano, made with the milk of a rare goat, and Raschera and Toma from the nearby Alps, where cows still roam free in summer months.

Once I moved to London, for a few years I hardly ever had cugnà, except for the odd jar sent over by my mum. But a while ago I set out to make my own British version, which I pair with some tasty local cheeses. The ones you see in these pictures are a Stilton Blue, a Bath soft and some Italian Parmesan. Cheesemaking in the UK is undergoing a sort of renaissance, with literally hundreds new and old cheese recipes being developed or rediscovered. In London, I really enjoy visiting the Neal’s Yard Dairy stores in Covent Garden and at Borough and at every farmers market I visit, whether in London or anywhere else in the country, I always spend a while at the cheese stall chatting to the producers and tasting their products.

My British cugnà has also seen the influence of my living here in a melting pot of cultures. Gone is the traditional cinnamon and in are Middle Eastern and Asian spices that give bite and aroma to the sauce, without clashing with the cheese.
So here is my recipe for English style cugnà. You can make this literally anywhere, provided you can get hold of ripe fresh figs. I hope you enjoy it. 

Makes about 1 Kg of cugnà


1kg black grapes
10ml water
a tiny pinch of salt 
700g ripe figs, chopped
1 large bramley apple (or any other cooking apple will do) peeled, cored and chopped in 1cm pieces
1 pear, peeled, cored and chopped in 1cm pieces
1 tbsp honey
1 tsp coriander seeds, finely crushed in a mortar
1tsp cumin seeds, finely crushed in a mortar
3 cloves, finely crushed in a mortar
1 star anise
1tsp grated fresh ginger
100g toasted and lightly crushed hazelnuts and walnuts (optional)


Cut the grapes in half and place in a saucepan, lightly squash with a spoon and add the water. Gently bring to the boil, add a pinch of salt to help draw out the moisture quicker and stir. After about 10 minutes, add the rest of the fruit, squash again with your spoon, cover and leave to cook on a low heat for about half hour, stirring occasionally. 
When the apple looks cooked, stir in the honey and spices. Cover again and cook on a low heat for an hour and a half, stirring from time to time and squashing the larger pieces of fruit with a spoon. 
When the sauce reached the consistency of a compote, you can add the toasted nuts. Nuts are incorporated in this sauce according to the most traditional recipes, and I like to give my cugnà a little crunch, so I used some already toasted Piedmontese hazelnuts and some shop bought walnuts which I lightly toasted in a pan before lightly crushing in my mortar and adding to the pot. 
Stir in the nuts, bring to the boil for a further 5 to 10 minutes and you should now  have enough to pour into three 350g sterilised jars. If kept properly sealed and stored, cugnà will last you for years. Enough to taste all the cheeses of Piedmont and England combined.

Carolina Stupino

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PS for all the cat lovers out there: Carolina has a gorgeous black and white kitty named Archie. Naturally, you can also follow Archie on his Facebook page

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