Stews are not, as a rule, photogenic. This recipe from Carol Field’s Celebrating Italy* for fricandò all’Ivrea, however, is too good to hide away in a corner. So look away if you must, but believe me this ‘meat stew in the style of Ivrea,’ a town in Piedmont close to the border with Valle d’Aosta, will win you over by the bite.
There’s a neat back-story to fricandò. Field reminds us of the French-Italian interplay coloring so many things piemontese, referencing two legends on the dish’s origins. According to the first, fricandò was introduced to the French by Caterina de’ Medici. Personally, I find Cate Medici’s purported influence on French culinary concerns to be a touch exaggerated, yet I will concede it is certainly possible. A competing theory has Napoleon’s cook bringing the recipe from France to his post-wars restaurant in Milan—a tale that intrigues to be sure but seems just as difficult to corroborate (Google was no help at all). Whomever we credit, the linguistic likeness of the Italian fricandò and the French fricandeau (veal larded in prosciutto or other pork fat then roasted and glazed in its juices) would suggest we’re dealing with a braise-and-stew cooking method that has long possessed broad appeal to Northern Italians and French alike.
Field’s recipe is reprinted here almost word for word. I reduced the overall portions by about a third, but did not alter the called-for amounts of the cooking fats, vinegar, and tomato paste, as I was striving for a smaller overall portion of stew without changing too much the characteristics of the sauce. This was a bit of a risk, I admit, but it worked out well. If you are cooking for 3 to 4 people rather than 6, follow my parenthetical notes on amounts. Do keep in mind though that Field’s comment ‘this dish tastes even better the next day’ is absolutely true. If you end up with leftovers you won’t regret it, so if you want to make a really big pot of stew, follow Field’s indications for 6 people.
2 ½ Tbls (about 40 grams) butter
3 carrots, finely chopped (I used 2)
2 onions, finely chopped (I used 1)
2 celery stalks, finely chopped (I used 1)
4 Tbls olive oil
3 mild Italian sausages (I used 2)
3 pounds (a little less than 1 ½ kilograms) baby-back ribs, cut into 2-rib sections (I used about 2 pounds of ribs)
6 cloves (I used 4)
2 bay leaves
2 ½ Tbls red wine vinegar
2 Tbls tomato paste
salt & pepper
4 potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks (I used 3)
Melt the butter in a large, heavy pot and add the chopped carrot, onion and celery. Sauté until soft and transfer to a plate or bowl. Line the bottom of the pot with the olive oil and add the ribs and the sausages (prick them a few times first) and brown on all sides. Here Fields says to now drain off the fat, an indication I chose to ignore and would encourage you to do likewise. Add the cloves, bay leaves, and vinegar and turn the heat up high and let the liquid bubble until it evaporates. In the meantime dissolve the tomato paste in 1 ¾ cups water (I used 1 ¼) and add to the pot when the vinegar has mostly evaporated. Return the vegetables to the pot, season with salt and pepper, cover and cook over medium-low flame for 1 ½ to 2 hours. Turn the meat occasionally. If it gets dry add a bit of water. Add the potatoes and cook for another 30 minutes, turning them frequently so they absorb flavor.
For my version the total cooking time was 2 hours: 1 ½ hours for the meat then an additional 30 minutes after adding the potato.
Fricassee, a similar dish typically made with chicken and a white sauce, and fricandò/fricandeau have a common word root in the French frire, to fry. Fricassee comes from frire + casser, to break or cut up (in pieces); while fricandeau derives from the formation frire + casser + ande/viande (meat) + the suffix eau. The English/French word fracas and the Italian fracasso, synonymous with skirmish/skuffle/uproar/crash, derive half their root from their respective language’s same-meaning verb—again casser in French, and fracassare in Italian, from the Latin quasser. Fricasso ‘the little skirmisher’ is one of many aliases of the ‘Capitano’ stock character in commedia dell’arte.
If Ivrea sounds familiar it’s probably because you’ve seen footage or heard mention of the yearly Battle of the Oranges, a bizarre and savage old festival the town puts on every Carnevale season.
*The complete title of Field’s book is Celebrating Italy: The Tastes and Traditions of Italy as Revealed Through its Feasts, Festivals, and Sumptuous Foods