Updated: Dec 9, 2020
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We love learning about the history and traditions of our local area here in Tuscany, and we have learned a lot from our friends who have been born and brought up in the area, and whose families have lived here for centuries. But we are also lucky enough to have a few friends who hail from other areas of Italy, and who have shared with us some of the traditions from their home towns.
One such friend comes originally from Lombardy (the Italian Lakes), and on the occasion of her 40th birthday she threw a party at one of the local village clubs, and that was how we learned about - and tasted - the incredibly rich dish (possibly the ultimate comfort food) that is il toc.
As a special surprise for her guests, our friend had invited some people who are experts in the cooking of 'toc' (I'd like to think we might call them toc-meisters, but in fact the Italian word for a true toc master is a tocchista).
Toc is a polenta-based dish which, as far as we were able to tell at the time, contains polenta, the entire EU butter mountain, and at least half of the EU cheese mountain (if there even is such a thing).
Helpfully, our friend had thoughtfully provided handouts for everyone, describing the history and traditions of "il toc".
Although its precise origins are unknown, what is known is that the dish is at least 500 years old and comes originally from Bellagio, Lombardy.
It used to be prepared by families for special occasions such as christenings and weddings.
There is a certain skill to cooking the dish - which takes 2.5 - 3 hours to make - and if you get it wrong, it splits (in the same way as mayonnaise has a tendency to do). The dish is cooked in a large cauldron-like pan over a fire - first creating a fairly traditional polenta mix, with maize, water, salt and pepper, and then very gradually adding a mountain of butter and a mountain of cheese, stirring all the time.
When finally cooked, the pan is placed in the centre of the room. Traditionally, the dish is eaten with the hands - indeed, the name 'toc' refers to the fact that guests had to 'touch' it with their hands. In more hygiene-aware times, guests each have a wooden spoon which they use to take dollops of the toc from the pan, then use their hands to take the delicious gooey mixture from the spoon and eat it.
Traditionally, the dish is served simply, either with slices of cured meat or with missoltini, another speciality from Lake Como. Known in Como and Lecco dialect as missultìtt o missultén, missoltini are cured shad (a close relative to herring), which is caught on the stony bottoms of Lake Como immediately after egg-laying season, in June/July. The fish is gutted and sun dried before being pressed and cured for six months in salt and bay leaves. To eat, the fish is sprinkled with oil and vinegar, heated on a hot grill and served whole. We were absolutely blown away by its amazing flavour - simply delicious.
But that's not the end of the toc ritual. Next, comes the regell.
Once all of the polenta has been eaten, the pan goes back on the fire (note that it hasn't been cleaned - at this point the remainders of the polenta are still stuck to the sides of the pan). This time, the pan is filled with red wine, cinnamon, cloves, oranges, lemons and several spirits (we saw grappa, limoncello and cognac in the mix) and gently heated before being set alight and then served as a hot punch.
We like to think that "most" of the alcohol was burned off, but I'm not so sure! Apparently the leftover polenta imparts a particular flavour to the beverage - it certainly was tasty!
Thankfully, at this particular celebration there was lots of dancing and we like to think that we danced most of the calories off, although the reality is that we may have burnt off some of the calories we'd consumed. There's a reason why this dish is for special occasions only!