On our final afternoon, after the epic pasta-making session with the little old ladies (who could totally kick our butts), we shuttled to nearby Forlimpopoli, home of Pellegrino Artusi (1820-1911).
Artusi worked in finance, which caused him to travel around the country. A great lover of food, he began to accumulate recipes from home cooks from regions all over the country, ultimately compiling them into a book, La scienza in cucina e l’ arte di mangiar bene (Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well) . Over the years it has been reissued and expanded, and is still in publication to this day. Artusi is regarded as the Escoffier of Italy, but the main difference is that Escoffier documented the recipes of great professional chefs; Artusi was far more interested in the food of the people.
Ironically, the one food he omitted from is inaugural work is the most basic food from his own region. Piadina is the classic flatbread of Romagna, a simple convergence of flour, lard, salt and water. Only, this is Italy, so it's 0-grade flour, special lard from the local red pigs, and the Pope's salt. In one town it may be made thinner, in another thicker, and of course in whichever town you are it's the right way.
Piadina stands abound in Romagna, on corners, on roadsides, anywhere they can be shoehorned in. It's served flat, or sometimes folded over like a quesadilla and stuffed with greens, potatoes or other fillings. It's ubiquitous, practically synonymous with the region, but Artusi felt it was simply too base for inclusion in his book. To him, it wasn't even a food.
Well, the joke's on him. Today, Forlimpopoli is the home of Casa Artusi, a museum of gastronomy dedicated to his efforts. and it was there that we were able to try our hand at making it in their demonstration kitchen, assisted by local home cooks. (Note: I didn't get many pictures there, as I was busy making piadina, so these are from my own attempts to make it at home.)
To start, you measure out 500 grams of flour (AP will suffice if you don't have Italian 0-grade flour). Make a well in the center, and drop in 70 grams of lard. If you can get your hands on the fabulous strutto di mora di Romagna, great! Otherwise, just use whatever high-quality lard you can find. You will taste it in the final product, so choose wisely. (We render our own at home.) Toss in two teaspoons of baking soda and eight grams of sea salt. Again, if you can get some of that Pope's salt, great! Otherwise, you know, sea salt.
Pour a couple tablespoons of warm water. Keep more on hand in case you need it, but avoid adding too much water.
Gently mix the flour into the lard and water until it starts to come together. Then, work the dough until it begins to come together.
And knead until it is soft and elastic, about 10 minutes. This is a tough dough; you'll get a good workout.
Roll the dough into a log, and portion into five or six chunks. Cover loosely with cling wrap.
Using a straight rolling pin, roll out each section into a roughly 12" round. The little old ladies in Forlimpopoli were far more adept at making theirs round than I am.
Heat a cast iron skillet over high heat. When the skillet is good and screaming hot, slap down one of your rounds on it. Poke the top of the round all over with a fork to vent steam. After a couple minutes, check the underside. When you begin to see brown spots, flip the round over, poking the other side with a fork. Flip the round two or three more times, until evenly covered with browned spots, and it stands on its own. Remove from the pan and stand upright against a wall or the backsplash of your stove to cool. Repeat with the remaining rounds.
Now, traditionally piadina is cooked in earthenware skillets. We had the opportunity to taste a piadina cooked that way, and it definitely has a better flavor, coaxing out more of the flavor of the lard. They even had the skillets for sale there, but I already had a suitcase full of cheese and balsamic and grappa and stuff, so I skipped it this time.
The end result is a crisp, thin flatbread that still has a bit of a heart to it, thicker than a tortilla, thinner than pita. The outside is crisp, and the inside is tender. How best to serve it? I recommend a plate with some formaggio di fossa, Parmigiano-Reggiano, balsamic, prosciutto and savor.