We went to Lucca for a short weekend. He wanted to go to see the Ennio Morricone concert. I wanted to go to walk around the walled city, and to eat lots of typically Tuscan things.
On the short flight, as we (I) discussed all the food we (I) should try, he mumbled quietly that he hoped we would eat some Coccoli when we arrived. Coccoli, he told me, were fried nuggets of bread dough, about the size of a golf-ball, which were split open whilst warm, and stuffed with wafer-thin slices of prosciutto and a generous smear of soft stracchino cheese.
I paused my monologue for a moment. You see, he had me at fried balls of dough.
The city was a furnace. No wind, no water, no respite from the 39 degree heat. No Sardinian sea to submerge ourselves in. We rented bikes purely to generate a private breeze; a vain attempt to dry the beads of sweat accumulating on our shining brows. Of course it was beautiful, the marble facades of churches and the spectacular Piazza Dell’Anfiteatro, lined with endless tratorrias, their tables adorned with gingham tablecloths and scavenging sparrows. The beauty, however, did not atone for the fact that it was too hot to enjoy any of the Tuscan delights I had so hoped for. I looked at countless menus advertising ‘pappardelle al cinghiale’ (fat ribbons of egg pasta with a rich wild boar sauce), crostini with liver and tortelli Lucchese (a local speciality of egg pasta stuffed with meat and cheese, served in a meaty ragu with more cheese on top) but even I just couldn’t face it. It was salads, a pizza and (the not-local) burrata for me. Of course what I lacked in hearty pasta-and-double-meat dishes I made up for in gelato, and I had a fair stab at the pastries for breakfast, and the icy aperitivos at sunset, but I left Lucca feeling decidedly disappointed with myself and my wilted appetite. Tuscany, we agreed, was not a place to visit in July.
More significant though, than the heat and the hangovers, was the heart-breaking reality that we never found any Coccoli.
Perhaps a purely Florentine thing, he soothed, putting his arm around me as the plane took off, in a valiant attempt to comfort my coccoli-deprived, saddened soul.
Perhaps they are. But after they eluded me in Lucca, I was determined to make them at home.
Most probably derived from the verb coccolare, which means ‘to cuddle’, and which is one of my favourite Italian words, Coccoli roughly translates as ‘cuddles’, and though I can find no scientific evidence (after extensive Googling) I like to think these little golden balls earned their name from the way, once split and stuffed, they embrace their melting filling. When eaten warm, fresh from the fryer, the fat of the prosciutto and the cheese melt into the soft dough, creating the most deliciously squidgy, salty, crispy, creamy, messy cuddle one could ever hope for.
Also, like many of the best Italian regional specialities, they are extremely economic to make. All you need is some flour, some yeast, and some frying oil. Cuddles for all, then, for cheap.
Serves 2 as a light(!) lunch
200g 00 flour
A good pinch of salt
A pinch of sugar
7g fresh yeast
150ml warm water
1tbsp olive oil
Oil for frying
An hour before you want to fry and eat them, make up the dough.
Dissolve the yeast in the warm water with the sugar and stir well.
Pour into a bowl containing the other ingredients (except the oil).
Mix into a smooth dough using your hands or a wooden spoon.
Add the oil and incorporate.
Knead the dough well, cover with a damp cloth, and then leave it to rise in a warm place for 45 minutes to an hour.
Heat your frying oil in a deep pan.
Using a spoon and your fingers, scoop up little balls of the dough and plop them gently into the oil.
Turn them regularly and fry them until they are golden all over.
Remove and place on kitchen towel to drain.
Sprinkle with sea salt and serve immediately, with the obligatory stracchino (a soft cow’s cheese) and prosciutto.