Come fall, we will be leading a private cycling tour in Tuscany, traveling from Arezzo to Montepulciano to Montalcino. My colleague Vernon customizes the routes, so our guests can enjoy those classic Tuscan views on their way to a great winery or our villa hotel. My role is to introduce the local wines, produce and cuisine that make each place we visit unique. Tuscany is known for its meats – the Chianina beef used for Bistecca alla Fiorentina, or the Cinta Senese pigs, but Tuscans have a real passion for vegetables.
One local specialty that most visitors would not notice is the red potato of Cetica. Just north of our start point in Arezzo, this ancient variety of potato has been cultivated here since the beginning of the last century. They grow at 500 meters above sea level or higher, in loose, sandy soil made nutrient-rich with organic material. These potatoes are small and round with light red skin and the flesh is white with reddish tones. They are excellent when used in gnocchi and potato tortelli, all of them Cetican specialties.
From the book Italy and the Potato: A History, 1550-2000, by David Gentilcore (yes, an entire book on the subject), I found the following anecdote about Prince Umberto of Savoy’s introduction to the local specialty during his visit in 1925: “During his visit the prince was served the local “Cetica” potatoes in different ways… When the prince seemed to have had his fill of the “Cetica” potato, a local chirped up and invited him not to stand on ceremony since there was plenty: ‘Sir prince, eat them and don’t be silly, we have enough for the pigs too’. The story is too good to be true, and probably is not, invented by the townspeople to poke fun at their rural neighbors, the Ceticatti.
The following recipe, from a regional cookbook put out by the Arezzo area tourist board, may have been one of the many served to the Prince that day. It is similar to our Twice-Baked Potatoes, but the addition of an egg and a truffle cream takes it over the top. They can be prepped in advance up until you top it with the egg yolk and beaten whites, perfect to pair with a roast, or a grilled steak.
Patate di Cetica su Letto di Asparagi e Fonduta di Pecorino
For the potatoes:
2 medium size Cetica potatoes (I substituted russet)
4 ounces grated Pecorino cheese
1 tablespoon butter
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 eggs, separated
12 green asparagus spears
For the fonduta:
10 ounces of Pecorino Tartufo – pecorino cheese studded with truffles, cut into small cubes
7 ounces fresh heavy cream
2 ounces butter
1/4 cup dry white wine
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Preheat oven to 355°F. Wash the potatoes, place on a sheet pan and sprinkle with kosher salt. Bake until tender, about 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, clean the asparagus by removing the tough part. Blanch in boiling salted water until tender, about 5 minutes. Drain and cool immediately in cold water.
When the potatoes have cooled slightly, slice lengthwise and scoop out the contents without damaging the skin.
Mash the pulp in a bowl using a fork, add the grated cheese and the butter, season with salt and pepper, stirring until the mixture is smooth, then fill the skins, making a small indentation on the top to hold an egg yolk. Bake for 5 minutes at 400°F.
Gently place one yolk on top of each potato, add salt and pepper to taste.
Whisk the egg whites into stiff peaks with a pinch of salt and use a pastry bag, or a plastic bag with a corner cut off to decorate the top of each potato with the beaten egg whites, covering the yolks. Bake until the whites are golden.
For the fondue, melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Add the cubed Pecorino Tartufo, heavy cream, and wine. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the cheese has melted completely. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Heat the asparagus. Arrange the asparagus on four plates, drizzle with the fondue and add a potatoes to each.