il polpettone e come mai lo insegno: meat loaf and why i teach it
At the school we serve rabbit, at least once a week. We serve bitter weeds, once caked with red mud. We serve cheeses that could revive dazed boxers. We serve actual flower bulbs, boiled in vinegar and then put up in jars. We serve squiggly little things that live between shells at the bottom of the briny sea. And in general, our students are open to new experiences. That’s why they come.
In fact, one of the few things that is NOT a stretch in any way for them is meatloaf. Everyone loves it. So why teach it? What’s to learn? What’s to teach?
It’s because our students come from wealthy countries from all over the world. Ask yourself why rich people would go to study the cooking of the historically poor. Go ahead.
Take a minute.
Then read on.
It takes a village to make a good polpettone. Or at least an entire market. Start with Stefano the butcher: Ask for lean beef and pork and that he to mince it for you. Suggest to him that you’d like a 30% pork-to 70% beef ratio, minced or ground twice. Don’t skip this stage, as hamburger won’t work, not really anyway.
Stefano is my trusted butcher and has been for the last 8 years. He’s never let me down. Our conversations usually go like this. Me: ‘Polpe‘. Stefano: ‘quante‘ (‘quante persone’, for how many people). Me: 12. Stefano: ‘Azz‘. (Which I’ll translate as ‘Sweet Fancy Moses’). The bag he always gives me is on the light side, considering it’s meat for twelve. That’s the first thing to notice, how light the bag is. I’ll ask you to carry it, to feel its heft.
Pick up a scamorza affiumicata, a cheese that most of you will know as smoked provola, from Gian-Franco of course, our salumi guy for the better part of a decade. He treats all his cheeses as if they were live chicks, his fingers holding them delicately as not to leave any mark not made by the actual cheese maker.
He’s also my source for fresh milk.
And eggs, those that have never seen the inside of a refrigerator.
Add a couple of eggs, some salt and pepper, some grated cheese and the same weight as the meat in bread crumbs. There is no need to measure any of these. No one here ever would. Just make sure that the bread crumbs and the meat are about the same weight. Polpettone started as a way to stretch meat. Lose that concept and you’ve lost polpettone.
Pour milk into the mixture until it’s a little thicker than oatmeal. It needs to be really wet, wetter than you might be thinking.
Stuff it with your spicy salame and then smoked cheese. Don’t go nuts on the filling. Think ‘pearl in the oyster’.
So why do I teach polpettone? It’s because it’s formerly a poor person’s dish and one that reminds us all of that, everyday, what it was like to NOT have.
But polpettone is also about the dish itself, not the cook, that he’s better, smarter, faster or more savvy than the other cooks that make it (You could easily swap my polpettone with that of any 80-year old neighbor lady and she couldn’t tell the difference).
It’s because it’s simple.
It connects us, as a community.
It means something, something profound.
And as I see it, that’s in pretty short supply today when it comes to food, when it all seems to be about trends and sizzles, bells and whistles.
To paraphrase the brilliant food scholar Felipe Fernàndez-Armesto, if the next generation of eaters is to be successful, they will have to undo all that has been done by the current one.
But if it DOES happen, you’ll know. Odds are good that you’ll have your mouth full of meatloaf at the time.