Gnocchi… A Curious Little Dumpling
I love gnocchi… little pillowy dumplings of goodness, each hand made with an incredible attention to detail and tossed in a rich gorgonzola cream sauce….ahhh, yum. Pair the dish with a glass of viognier and you have just found heaven on earth! As I sip my wine, a question arises: Why or how did a “potato” dumpling end up as a staple in traditional Italian cuisine?
Across Continents and Across Cultures
When we think of countries that are linked to the potato, Italy isn’t at the top of the list. So how did gnocchi, a potato dumpling, become synonymous with Italian cuisine? To answer this question, we must look at the history of gnocchi as it moved across continents and across cultures.
The dish of gnocchi is thought to have developed in the Middle East in ancient times. Originally, gnocchi was a porridge style dumpling of flour and water. When the Romans began exploring the Middle East, they were intrigued by many things they found. As they returned to Rome they took many of these things with them. One of them was the recipe for gnocchi. In the heart of the Roman Empire, gnocchi rooted itself. It became a staple dish in Italy. It was gradually introduced by the Romans to other countries in Europe during their many conquests. Gnocchi was first recorded in Tuscan cookbooks in the 13th century. Many countries developed their own type of small dumplings from these early gnocchi recipes.
During the 16th century, gnocchi went under a radical transformation when the potato was introduced to Europe. Over the next couple hundred years, potato replaced flour in gnocchi. Dumplings made of flour and water became known as pasta,while dumplings made of potato (or other ingredients) were gnocchi.
Gnocchi found its way to the Americas during the 20th century. Italians immigrated into South America by way of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Venezuela and North America. The recipe for gnocchi moved with them.
“Dia de Noquis”…An Argentine Tradition
As the Italians moved to Argentina, so did the recipe and with it, a curious tradition. The 29th day of every month became, “Dia De Noquis” (Gnocchi Day). The 29th was chosen because it was usually the last day before pay day so many people had run out of money. Gnocchi was a perfect meal as it was both cheap and filling. They would place a peso under their plate of gnocchi while they ate in hopes of attracting prosperity in the coming month. This tradition continues among many of the Argentine people today. Restaurant chefs and housewives invent all kinds of recipes that are intended to aid the spell.
Because Gnocchi consists of a simple dough shaped in small dumplings and doesn’t require special tools, skill or technique, it most likely predates pasta. These small dumplings are some of the oldest preparations in the history of food, recorded as far back as the cookbooks of the 13th century. The following is a translation of an early Tuscan recipe:
“If you want gnocchi, take some of the cheese and mash it. Then take some flour and mix it with egg yolks as if you are making dough. Place a pot of water over a fire. When it starts boiling, place the mixture on a board and slide it in the pot with a spoon. When they are cooked, place them on plates and top them with a lot of grated cheese.”
After the potato was introduced in Europe during the 16th century, potato was substituted for flour and the gnocchi as we know it, was born.
Today, all dumplings made of flour and water are considered pasta, while dumplings made of different ingredients are called gnocchi. Gnocchi can be made from a variety of ingredients, such as, squash, bread and semolina flour. The dough can be flavored by adding such ingredients as, spinach, saffron and truffles. The dumplings are shaped like little sea shells. They are boiled in water or broth and can be dressed with a variety of sauces, just like pasta. Some traditional sauces served with gnocchi are pesto, tomato, cheese and butter.
Happy Gnocchi Day!
Tomorrow is the 29th day of September so why not celebrate the day with a plate of gnocchi. And, don’t forget to slip a few dollars under the plate in hope of a prosperous October. What could be better?…Happy Gnocchi Day!