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Europe’s forgotten transalpine cuisine

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To make sügeli, a fresh shell-shaped pasta, chef Patrick Teisseire first takes a tiny round of dough, rolls it in flour, and with his thumb, presses it flat and slides it along a large circular wooden board. After pressing along the ridged board, a soft, contoured shell with seven fine pleats emerges. It’s a finely-honed technique that Teisseire described as the “skill of sügeli”. He repeats the process until his dough has disappeared, replaced by neat rows of pasta shells ready to be fed into a deep saucepan of boiling water.

Composed of flour, water, salt and olive oil, sügeli is one of the main dishes of cucina bianca (white cuisine), the food of the pastoral transalpine communities in the high valleys of Piedmont, Liguria and the Alpes-Maritimes in what is today south-eastern France and north-western Italy. Named for the “colourless” nature of staple ingredients, such as flour, potatoes, leeks, turnips, dairy products and legumes, it’s a cuisine that shares little resemblance to the bright reds, greens and yellows of the tomato, pepper and courgette-infused dishes of the coastal Mediterranean cuisine typically associated with the region. “An absence of colour doesn’t mean an absence of taste, however,” Teisseire was keen to emphasise as he expertly manipulated more sügeli shells from a new batch of dough in front of me.

A short time later, having swapped his small basement workspace for the dining room above it, I was ready to test his theory. Served alongside a succulent osso bucco-style veal shank and drizzled with the cooking juices of the meat, I scooped up a forkful of sügeli. Similar in size and shape to southern Italy’s orecchiette pasta, but with the texture and taste of a dumpling, the shells were the ideal shape to mop up the salty, flavoursome broth-like sauce.

Inscribed on the list of France’s patrimoine culturel immatériel (intangible cultural heritage) since 2009, sügeli is cucina bianca’s most celebrated dish. Other “more elaborate” recipes, as Teisseire described them, include green, lasagne-like strips called lausagne made from wild spinach, eggs, flour, salt and small quantities of potato and olive oil; and tantiflusa, a tart filled with potatoes, leeks and squash. Of course, cheese from local sheep figures prominently, too: alongside the hard tomme-style variety, brousse, a pungent cream cheese made from whey is a speciality of the local Brigasque breed and is often melted down into a sauce to accompany sügeli.

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