Meatloaf, or polpettone as it is known in Italian, must surely rank as the most evocative of home food repasts both in Europe and North America, the embodiment of what a good housewife/mother or grandmother could put together for the family meal. Wholesome, tasty, comforting and satiating, a meatlof would never aspire to la-di-da but neither would have the better-off classes sneered their noses down at what is basically a huge sausage. We have all grown so much more sophisticated these past few decades where meals and cuisines are concerned thanks to TV programmes and social media and, let’s face it, a bit of an obsession over eating in general but I would wager that none of us would think it stonkingly out of place if we were to be served a meatloaf at a friend’s house for a meal – slightly out of fashion maybe, like food from the 1970s, or perhaps quaint, but not ‘wrong’ as such. And that is because there is an intrinsic honesty to a meatloaf; it can’t lie, and there is only so much tweaking that can be apportioned to it upon pain of distorting, misrepresenting and downright perverting its nature. So let’s hear it for the meatloaf, say I, let’s make it welcome even in the 21st century. At the same time, and I realise I might be raising a hackle or two in saying so, let us not turn to any Ottolenghi-inspired makeovers, his shopping list alone would be an insult to what a meatloaf is all about. Simple. It is not supposed to make an impression or draw attention to itself.
It is supposed to be good, however, of course ! And the version I am about to talk to you about was definitely most enticing, taught to me and members of a group who had the good fortune to be invited to stay at the Casamora Farm for a gastronomy tourism workshop in Tuscany last June. This farm and holiday destination is famous for many things, including its top notch extra virgin olive oil. Owned and run by the erudite architect Maurizio Montani Fargna and his delightful energetic wife Matilde Visconti, a lot of historical family blood and background courses through their veins. The photo below was snapped by Annalee Archie, who wrote about our experience on her tavoladelmondo.com website (see ‘tags’). They were the kindest of hosts and Maurizio a most engaging conversationalist.
They turned to Stefania Barzini and her trusty friend and assistant Paola Colombo to run the cooking classes and I was overjoyed to take part. What wasn’t there to like?
But first a confession. I am one of the few people in the world who would find meatloaf a challenge. Indeed, one of my attempts turned out to be an outsized disaster and saw me transmogrifying a meatloaf into a cottage pie, sigh (https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2013/09/26/sheepish-in-meatloaf-battle-or-cottage-pie-a-litalienne/). So the fact that Stefania was going to see us through a meatloaf from scratch was quite a boon.
Dried porcini mushrooms, milk, bread, onions, carrots, good extra virgin olive oil, 1kg minced meat/ground beef, 1 egg, roughly chopped parsely, grated parmesan cheese, freshly ground nutmeg if desired, salt and pepper, flour, wine, plum tomatoes
The first thing to do is soak the porcini in hot water for at least twenty minutes, better still for one hour. The mushrooms will regain some moisture and the liquid will be impregnated with their taste.
Then soak some bread in milk until it has softened but not become too soggy:
Put the minced meat in a mixing bowl.
Add the bread and 1 egg.
Then add the grated parmesan cheese.
Add the rougly chopped parsely.
Add some grated nutmeg (if you like it) and combine the ingredients, using your hands.
Add salt and pepper last. That’s it for now. Stefania and Paola work in unison.
It’s now time to make a simple ‘soffritto’: chop a couple of onions and two carrots and sauté them in a frying pan that will be large enough to hold two meatloaves.
The olive oil we used was, naturally, Casamora’s own evoo, one of the best in all of Italy.
Once the onion and carrot have softened (about 5-minutes, you don’t want the onion to brown), you can start adding the porcini mushrooms.
Remember our meat? Now is the time to divide it and shape it into two loaves. Then, using plenty, and I mean plenty, more than one would think!, flour … dredge the loaves so that they are utterly coated in flour. No skimping !
And now that the mushrooms have cooked a while, Stefania is about to lower the loaves into the pan.
And here we are: both loaves are in, the flame is a strong one, and a lid is placed on top of the pan.
After about 10 minutes, off comes the lid, and in goes plenty of wine. Please note: never sprinkle the wine on top of the meat itself.
Stefania makes a little room between the loaves and then turns them over (not as easy as one might think).
In go two tins of plum tomato passata. Unlike with the wine, it’s okay to slather the loaves with the tomatoes !
On goes the lid … and we have to wait a little bit. By a little bit, I mean … oh very well, then, I’ll have to own up: I can’t remember how long. Probably about 20 minutes or so ?
Tieta Madia doesn’t mind waiting (https://chivoltailculamilan.com/).
Nor do Matilde Visconti (centre) or Annalee Archie (on the right).
And then it’s time to pour in some of the water that the porcini mushrooms had steeped in. Dried porcini mushrooms are notorious for wanting to hang on to the soil they grew in, and there is bound to be some grit in the water. Better to strain the porcini water through a fine mesh strainer before pouring it into the pan. And now is the time to banish the lid. The liquid has to cook down.
After about another 10 minutes or so (yes, I know, I know, I am only guessing – but surely I can’t be too off the chronological mark?) …. the sauce has thickened beautifully, the meat is cooked through and all is well in the meatloaf world.
This is what one of the loaves looked like just before being served. I wish I had more photos of it on the plate but I was too busy eating and enjoying my lunch by then.
So yes … a humble dish with an aristocratic ingredient, the porcini mushroom, also known as ceps in English. Not too shabby as a yuletide dish … what do you reckon?