How do you describe a cult dish from another culinary tradition that defies categories?
So I asked myself when I sat down to describe the farsumagru, known as the king of Sicilian meat dishes.
I could call it a Sicilian answer to the Sunday roast, but that wouldn’t hint at the layers of flavours inside the meat ‘casing’. I could call it a meat loaf, but that wouldn’t convey the theatricality of the concentric rounds of fillings preening on the plate. I could call it stuffed meat, but that would also miss the fact that the layers of stuffing is the highlight of the party. And, none of these captures the sheer fun of unveiling slices of farsumagru before dinner guests.
All that is before I get to the fun of tying up the biggest piece of meaty, mince-and-two-types-of-cheese-and-raisin-and-herbs-and-pork-fat-and-boiled-eggs-filled, sausage-like thing I have ever handled. If cooking was a manhood test, I won, hands down.
The farsumagru caught my eye while I read about ‘the stuff of dreams’ in Mary Simetti’s book Sicilian Food: Recipes from Italy’s Abundant Isle. Her description of this legendary dish tempted my tastebuds, while the history of its name caught my imagination.
“In the baronial kitchens, these involtini … became known as farsumagru, a puzzling name if taken as the Sicilian for ‘false lean,’ more sensible if, as one writer suggests, it comes via a French chef from farce maigre, meatless stuffing. Except that once the chefs of the aristocracy got their hands on it, the stuffing was naturally no longer meatless.”
‘Behold [as you slice it] how the shining yellow of the egg yolk appears, set in its halo of white, flanked by the nebulae of lard and surrounded by the little green planets of the peas, rotating across the Milky Way of melted caciocavallo, emerging from the infinitely flavourful spaces of the “falsomagro,” the undisputed monarch of meat dishes in Italy.’*
* Pino Correnti quoted in Mary Simetti, Sicilian Food: Recipes from Italy’s Abundant Isle.
Many others have also written about this dish, including Rosa Mitchell in Australian Gourmet Traveller and Mario Batali. My favourite writer on this dish is Francois-Xavier from Fxcuisine.com. He described the steps needed to make farsumagru (or falsomagro) with such enthusiasm and good humour, I knew I was going to make this for a special occasion.
Cue dinner party to coincide with the Sydney food festival.
For this maiden voyage, I used Mary Simetti’s recipe. Well, almost.
Recipe: Lay out beef or veal steaks, butterflied open.
Me: I did not ask the butcher to butterfly the beef steaks because it was the busiest time on Saturday morning. As such, my first task was to slice the steaks in half, horizontally – trying to make 5 mm thick slices. This was definitely the hardest part of the day, as the steak did everything except lie still and allow itself to be butterflied. In the end, I cut the steak into two uneven slices rather than keep it in one piece. Next time, I will ask my butcher to do this. Or take a lesson from Victor Churchill first.
Recipe: Layers of ingredients are laid out on top of the steak: mortadella, mince mixed with breadcrumbs, herbs, cheese, peas and other seasoning, layered with more cheese – caciocavallo and pecorino, fresh pork fat, parsley, and finally, hard boiled eggs lined end-to-end.
Me: My butcher gave me some fresh pork fat, but my local fresh food grocer does not stock caciocavallo, yet. So I substituted provolone for caciocavallo cheese – I had read that provolone can be drier than caciocavallo but tastes similar.
The rest of the assembly was quite easy: layer, layer, and layer some more. Finally, I came to the ‘heart’ of the dish – boiled eggs. Following Simetti’s instructions, I cut off the ends from the eggs just until egg yolks showed. This ensures there would always be yolk ‘shining’ in the middle of the meat roll. I had smallish eggs, and used 10 in total – this is definitely not very ‘magru’ or maigre!
Recipe: All this is tied up into a sausage of sorts.
Me: When the whole roll has been layered, it was time to truss it up. I passed the kitchen twine around the roll several times, typing knots at regular intervals. At last I ended up with a kind of net that kept the meat from slipping and the filling from falling out. After that, I had an intimidating looking steak-sausage-thing on the kitchen counter, almost bursting with the promise of flavour and texture inside.
Recipe: The farsumagru is browned, and simmered in a heady mix of red wine (lots) and tomatoes (just enough).
Me: I did not have a large enough saucepan for this monstrosity (Fxcuisine had the same problem), so I had to almost break the farsumagru in two to fit it into my dutch ceramic pot. After browning (awkwardly!), I added half of the wine, and added the other half after the stock had reduced a little. Then, the pot simmered on the stove on low heat for just over an hour.
The cooking smell was like the richest slow-simmered ragu. The air in the kitchen was heavy with steak, gallons of dry-tart red wine, mellow cheese and pork fat, with the clean smell of sage and parsley through it all.
Me: This was easy. I rested the farsumagru for as long as the guests could wait, and cut it into chunky slices. Each had egg yolk glistening in the middle, wine-rich sauce staining the steak a muted red.
All guests agreed the taste was as good as the smell. The steak was tender after the long, slow cooking, imbued with red wine and salted by the mortadella. The heady mix of cheese, herbs and other seasoning gave the mince extra flavour. And the layers of pork fat and cheese helped to keep the roll moist. The flavours even melted into the whole eggs, which were anything but bland (as I almost expected). Mr Gander – no fan of boiled eggs – dug in as eagerly as the others.
I did not take photos on the evening because I wanted to serve the guests while the farsumagru was hot. Alas, no pictures of the farsumagru nestling next to garlicky artichokes and balsamic-roasted cherry tomatoes on our ‘Communist Star’ plates. But here is a photo I took on the following night, with much more homely vegetables. And yes, the farsumagru was just as good the next day.
A dish that was fun to make as it was to eat? I am looking for a reason to make this again.