Way up in the Garfagnana hills of Tuscany, Italy lies Cerasa Farm, a magical sheep farm owned by Mario and Gemma Cavani. Both the owners and the property were enchanting. The Cavani’s are warm and welcoming. We enjoyed Gemma’s home cooking, and I have a potato recipe of hers to share. But first I want to tell you about this special place.
Cerasa is a small, family-run farm about 3-1/2 hours northwest of Florence, Italy and way off the beaten path. This is where time stands still.
The property is filled with picturesque green hills and ancient chestnut trees. During the visit I was in awe of the natural beauty and felt blanketed by tranquility. A sense of relaxation came over my family, and none of us wanted to leave.
Like the generations before them, the Cavani family milks their sheep twice a day, 365 days a year. These sheep are an old, rare breed being kept alive by the efforts of the family. With the milk Gemma makes pecorino cheese and ricotta by hand. Their daughter Ombretta dyes the sheep wool and makes sweaters and scarves to sell. They have their own vegetable garden and chickens to provide food for themselves. They lease out their chestnut trees to beekeepers who collect the honey. Others in the area harvest the chestnuts to make chestnut flour. This year the trees are plagued by a serious virus that threatens their future. The Cavani family is involved in a campaign to save the chestnut trees.
Being a city girl, I was fascinated to glimpse into a whole different way of life where people live off of the land. Food is a big part of the culture, and people produce ingredients in small batches by hand with skill and love that is passed from one generation to the next. The future of these artisan foods is uncertain if subsequent generations do not continue the family craft. Many of the producers I visited (like the Cavani’s) were older people without a clear sense of who would continue their business. I hope the younger generation steps in to continue these special and tasty traditions.
One of the highlights of our visit to the sheep farm was making cheese and witnessing the whole small-batch artisanal process. My kids who are cheese lovers got to stir the pot.
After making pecorino cheese and ricotta, we toured the cellar underneath the ancient stone house. Here they age cheese and salumi.
Then Gemma and Ombretta made us a homemade lunch that was delicious, simple, warm, and satisfying. I was intrigued by the homemade, hand-cut pasta called maccheroni, which are flat sheets of pasta cut in irregular shapes. The fresh, homemade ricotta with homemade jam was heavenly. My most favorite dish was the homestyle crispy potatoes. Kindly, Gemma verbally gave me the recipe, which I have been working on back home.
As the grown-ups lingered over food and wine, my kids went off to spend time with the animals on the farm. The baby kittens were a favorite.
Cerasa Farm is a magical place, and I’m thankful that Heather Jarman brought my family and me there for an unforgettable experience.
Gemma’s potatoes are soft on the inside and crunchy on the outside. It’s a simple recipe that satisfies my need for crunchy foods. With potatoes this good, who needs deep fried foods? I make similar potatoes, but Gemma’s are a notch better because they are crispier. I think the salt water soak helps, and her chunk size is a little bigger so they can take more heat and get crunchier. Hope you enjoy the recipe.
|Homestyle Crispy Potatoes From Rural Italy||
- 2 russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks (Use russets to get fluffy insides.)
- Water, for soaking
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt plus several pinches, divided
- Enough olive oil to cover potatoes, about 1 tablespoon
- Soak peeled and cut potatoes in salted warm water for 30 minutes (use 1 teaspoon salt). Drain and dry.
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees fahrenheit (not convection). Place potatoes on a metal pan (nonstick preferred) large enough to hold all potatoes in a single layer. Sprinkle potatoes with 1 large pinch of salt. Pour oil over potatoes, and stir to coat all over. Spread potatoes out into a single layer.
- Place potatoes in oven to roast. After about 20-30 minutes, use a spatula to turn the potatoes over once a nice brown crust develops on the bottom. Be careful to keep the crispy bottom attached to the potato. Check and turn potatoes periodically and roast until the potatoes are crispy on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside, about 1 hour.
- Sprinkle a large pinch of kosher salt and serve warm.
If you are in a hurry, here’s a timesaver that yields almost as good potatoes: Don’t soak the potatoes. Cut the potatoes in ½ inch cubes. Roast in a 425 degree farenheit convection oven for about 30-40 minutes.
1. Seasoning variations: try garlic powder, dried mixed herbs, paprika, or parmesan cheese. Add the seasoning at least half way through the cooking process so the seasoning doesn’t burn.
2. Use peeled yams instead of potatoes, and cut them like French fries. Yam fries are amazing.
3. My mom made these potatoes by cutting russet potatoes into fairly thin circles. Don’t go too thin or you’ll end up with potato chips.
More about roasted potatoes:
Here’s any interesting read about the science behind crispy potatoes from Kenji of The Food Lab on Serious Eats: www.seriouseats.com/2013/12/the-food-lab-how-to-roast-vegetables.html. Skip to the “How to Roast Potatoes” section.