Welcome to our "The History Of..." series! Throughout this blog series we'll be looking at the wonderful history of a number of our favourite pastas, recipes, dishes and all the rest. We'll be drawing on our own anecdotes and experiences, as well as the cold, hard facts, so that you'll hopefully learn a little and laugh a little. So without further ado, here's our take on the history of culurgiones!
I was first introduced to culurgiones by my good friend Antonio – a passionate Sardinian who has (fortunately for me) found his second home here in Cambridge. Antonio has been an avid supporter of Fasta Pasta since inception and is always challenging my abilities and my understanding of the Italian cuisine. When he first suggested that I try to create culurgiones, I had no idea what he was talking about. That’s no disservice to his immaculate English accent, but simply because this is not a dish I had ever heard about. No one is walking into Zizzi’s or Jamie’s Italian asking for a plate of culurgiones – although I guess these days no one is walking into Jamie’s Italian full stop (sorry Jamie). Anyway, I can now safely say that it is a crying shame that culurgiones do not get the airtime that they deserve.
As with many popular Italian dishes, culurgiones are the product of rural, pastoral cooking, making the most out of a few ingredients that are easily available at very little cost. They are traditionally cooked in the Sardinian province of Ogliastra on an occasion for celebration, including the Day of the Dead, a Catholic festival, and at the end of harvest in August. Some say the shape is reflective of the celebration of the end of the summer harvest.
The name culurgione comes from the Italian term "culleus", meaning a leather pocket. Culurgiones come in a variety of unique sizes, shapes and even spellings, and with a plethora of different fillings depending on where in Sardinia they originate. When we first cooked Antonio some culurgiones and asked for his feedback, he said “wow – these are just like the culurgiones from the village next to mine!”. For context, Antonio’s mum is from a small village on the East coast of Sardinia called Gairo, and the village next door is called Jerzu, so apparently we specialise in Jerzusian culurgiones if such a term exists!
The variety of culurgiones that we make are quintessentially a wheat grain-shaped pasta, stuffed with a creamy mix of primarily mashed potato, garlic, mint and pecorino sardo (Sardinian hard cheese made from ewe's milk). When we first made these, it became immediately apparent how bland British mashed potato is. The flavour of the culurgiones mix is quite remarkable, and the texture is silky. Provided you have got your quantities right, the mint is not overpowering as some might fear; it is more subtle than the infused garlic and pecorino which present an instant stimulus to your taste buds. Pecorino is a naturally salty hard cheese, and so the culurgiones need very little seasoning other than some cracked black pepper to bring out the full flavour.
When Antonio first described this stuffed pasta to me, it did take me by surprise. Pasta stuffed with mash potato sounded a little heavy. Antonio told me he could eat up to thirty at a time at Christmas, when these are often eaten, but I assumed that was just a combination of his well-versed Italian stomach and the human ability to eat more than usually possible on special occasions. However on first sampling them ourselves, we discovered they weren’t heavy at all and thirty in one sitting suddenly became a realistic prospect.
For those who have seen our menu, the reason we call these “Uncle Tony’s Culurgiones” is in homage to Antonio, who is adorably called Uncle Tony by his nieces and nephews. We loved the sound of the name and so went with it. It also helps people order by saying “can I have a large Uncle Tony’s?”, saving them from trying to pronounce culurgiones.
Our culurgiones are served with a rich tomato passata in keeping with the Sardinian tradition. We recommend a side portion of these with your main dish so that you can broaden your palette and see for yourself why we’re making such a fuss of these hidden gems.
I hope that's given you a little flavour of one of our favourite dishes. Ciao for now!
(With thanks to Antonio for the inspiration, and his support of Fasta Pasta)