Hungry Planet | Odette Fada

You may recognize chef Odette Fada from the fifth season of Top Chef Masters, 2013, a reality television show that features some of the US’ best-known chefs. Acclaimed for her work in restaurants in Italy and the US over the past three decades, Fada says the secret of her success is her ability to constantly adapt her family’s age-old recipes—all rooted in Lombardy, in northern Italy—to tastes across the world. She was in India recently in her role as food consultant for the New York-based Italian chain Serafina, which launched in Bangalore last month.

We met her at the brand’s Mumbai outpost at Palladium mall in Lower Parel to discuss the north-south rivalry in Italian cooking. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Take us through the local produce of Lombardy.

Lombardy is one of the richest regions in Italy. We use mountain chestnuts in soups, to stuff chickens and in desserts. Some of the best wild porcini mushrooms come from my village, Brescia, about 100km from Milan. We have blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and strawberries growing wild.

We love our sausages, salami and prosciutto. Piedmontese cattle, too, are famous all over the world; we eat the meat as carpaccio or tartare. The most common meats, however, are the animali da cortile, yard animals like chicken, rabbits and ducks. It is in our culture to cook game— venison, pheasant, quail—but hunting is regulated or forbidden these days because I think we ate too many of them!

Since we are away from the coast, we enjoy freshwater fish like trout, perch and eel. Near the famed Lombardy lakes, you will also find salad leaves like lettuce and chicory, besides olives. As in India, cabbage and cauliflower are quite popular in northern Italy, along with turnips and other root vegetables. We use a lot of barley, maize (for polenta) and Arborio rice in our cooking. Unlike the south, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers feature a little less.

We are also famous for grapes. Areas like Franciacorta are particularly known for their prestigious wines. A grape called uva fragola—very dark in colour—is used for a focaccia-like bread called schiacciata con l’uva, and to cook game and make jam.

What are some of the most popular dishes in the region?

Definitely the polenta e spiedo. Spiedo refers to slow, spit-roasted meats—rabbit, chicken, beef and pork—which are mostly enjoyed in a feast or a barbecue party with friends and family from late July until winter. Besides polenta, which is usually eaten with cheese, sausage, vegetable and meat stews, risottos are very popular. The most popular is the risotto alla Milanese, cooked with saffron and served with osso buco, veal shanks braised with vegetables. We consume a lot of offal too, be it tripe, tongue, liver or brain. The costine di maiale con le verze, pork ribs slowly cooked with cabbage, and the brasato al Barolo (beef braised in Barolo wine) are very popular.

We also make a lot of hearty soups in the cold months. One of my favourites is the minestra di herbe, made with herbs found only when the snow starts to melt in the mountains in March and April. Primroses, violets and wild sage are cooked with veggies and finished with cheese and eggs.

Is pasta prepared differently in the north and the south?

Pasta in the north is quite different because we often use 20-25 egg yolks in a kilogram of flour to make the dough. The tagliolini (thick, ribbon pasta) is eaten with butter and sage. We also enjoy ravioli stuffed with all kinds of meat, cheese and spinach. Our sauces are simpler, made with butter and cheese, unlike the south, which uses tomatoes and oils. The north prefers herbs like sage and rosemary, while the southern regions use more oregano and basil. But then again, pesto Genovese, made from smaller, more pungent basil, comes from Genoa in the north.

What are the traditional desserts like?

We have a lot of egg-based desserts. One of my favourites is bonet, an Italian-style crème caramel. The panettone is probably the most famous dessert of the region. It is like a Christmas fruitcake made with raisins and candied fruit but very light. Northern Italy is also known for the zabaglione.

Another common dessert is the Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc) made with puréed and sweetened chestnuts, cocoa and some liquor. Topped with whipped cream, it looks like a snow-capped mountain, hence the name.

Tell us about the wine and cheese produced in the region.

We produce Barolos and enjoy them with roasts. Proseccos are reserved for aperitivo and sparkling whites like the Asti Spumante go very well with light pasta or freshwater fish.

Parmigiano-Reggiano is probably the most popular cheese from northern Italy. We also have Gorgonzola, Fontina, Ricotta and Robiola. Another great cheese is the Bagòss, produced from the raw milk of cows that graze 1,800-2,000m above the sea. It is aged for two-three years and is quite strong and pungent. We usually eat it at the end of the meal or shave it on pasta.

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