Blog

THE MADONNA OF THE ALMONDS

I  love to read novels set in Italy especially if the are about food or drink. One of my favourites is The Madonna of the Almonds by Marina Fiorato -ISBN 9781905636433.It tells the story of the famous Italian liqueur Amaretto di Saronno and is a great read. A mixture of art history  and romance and food and drink it certainly ticks all my boxes. Marina Fiorato has written several books set in Italy  – The Glassblower of Murano, The Botticelli Secret, Daughter of Siena and the Venetim Contract. All well worth reading.

Having been a bookseller for most of my life. I have a great collection of books about or set in Italy. In fact my colleagues who unpacked the deliveries would look out for them and tell me when one came in. I intend to post a comprehensive list of novels set in Italy especially those with a foodie slant. Watch this space!DSCF8261.JPG

 

 

M**BUN IN TURIN

Whilst on a press trip to Turin I was taken to M**BUN. Basically it is a slow food version of McDonalds and they use fresh Piedmontese products. The Coke Molecola is a healthy version and is named after the famous tower in Turin the  Mole Antonelliana. The menu is a bit more exciting than most fast food places and the food tastes good too. If you are in Turin, especially if you have children with you it is well worth a visit.DSCF9282DSCF9278DSCF9270

A history of tomatoes in Italy

Tomatoes came from the New World in the early 16th century but it took a long time for them to be used for culinary purposes. Nowadays it is impossible to imagine Italian cookery without tomatoes. However when they first appeared on the scene Europeans were very suspicious of this new fruit and thought  they were poisonous. However they slowly gained popularity and now the annual consumption of tomatoes in Italy averages 10 kilo’s per head.

The main tomato producing areas are Sicily, Calabria, Sardinia, Puglia and Emilia-Romagna. Over 300 varieties are grown today and there are two kinds. First there are the ones destined for industrial use: for paste -doppo concetrato, the strained and pasteurised juice- passata, the deseeded and chopped pulp -polpa and the whole peeled tomato – pelati and of course last but not least dried tomatoes. The rest are grown  for domestic use in salads or in cooking. These days, especially in Italy, taste is prized over uniformity of shape and a long shelf life.dscf4322

LOOKING ROUND EATALY IN TURIN

dscf3752When I was on my press trip to Turin I was taken to Eataly in the Lingotto area of the city. Eataly is a huge food emporium full of the best  food Italy has to offer. It was originally set up by one of the founders of the global Slow Food movement and the one in Turin that I visited was the very first one. Now there are branches in quite a few Italian cities and even in other countries.

This one in Turin as I said previously is situated in the Lingotto area of Turin which is now a popular area to visit. It was once the area where the Fiat factory was situated whose roof was famously featured in the original film of “The Italian Job”. The building is still there but is no longer a factory. It is now made up of art galleries, hotels and shops. Eataly is situated just down the road from this iconic building and is housed in an old vermouth factory. The shelves are heaving with every Italian delicacy imaginable including porcini mushrooms, huge parmesan cheeses(see above), wonderful Piedmont chocolate filled with the local hazelnuts and all sorts of different pasta. Once you have shopped till you drop and filled up your shopping bag you can try out one of the cafes or restaurants. When I visited we were wined and dined there and the food almost looked to good to eat. If you want to find out more the website is http://www.eataly .net

DSCF3756.JPG

 

DSCF3729.JPGDSCF3760.JPG

DSCF3745.JPGDSCF3737.JPGDSCF3731.JPG

 

TRYING FARINATA AT RITA’S

I have a good friend Rita who, with her husband Richard has retired to Italy. Living  in Liguria, near to the Tuscan border they are not far from the Cinque Terre. Last  April I was sick of the constant dreariness of the English winter and was in dire need of an Italy fix. Rita came to my rescue and off we went (my husband who is also not averse to an Italy fix came too).

Unfortunately the weather was pretty wild when we got there but we didn’t care. Richard and Rita plied us with Prosecco and lots of Aperol Spritz and took us off to see the Cinque Terre  in the wind and the rain.  The Cinque Terre are five villages that are perched on the cliffs of the Ligurian coast (Terra is an old word for village). In the summer they are heaving with tourists but the wild weather meant that there was not so many people about so we got to see the villages pretty much as they were before they became so popular.DSCF0324.JPGOn the way back to Rita’s we called in at the local bakery and I was introduced to the local speciality  Farinata which is a chickpea flour pancake..  A rustic, blistered pancake showered with black pepper  it is served up and down the coast of Liguria and also in the south of France. As with crepe batter, this batter needs to sit before being used. One hour is the minimum, but you can make up the batter up to twelve hours in advance – the longer it sits the better. You must use Italian chickpea flour and not the Indian type. Farinata is delicious with a crisp white wine and a few chunks of strong cheese.

Another adventure we had while we were there was a visit to a large wine merchants. You could go and fill your large plastic containers full of wine from a petrol pump- like contraption.. It seemed a very good idea to me and when I tasted the wine that came out of them I was well impressed. DSCF0373.JPG

GELATO IN SAN GIMIGNANO

San Gimignano is one of my favourite places in Italy and I have spent many a happy hour sitting on the steps of the well in Piazza Cisterna enjoying an ice cream from  the Gelateria Dondoli. I have eaten gelato all over Italy but Sergio’s boast that he makes the best ice cream in the world is not far wrong and I am working my way through his many unusual flavours every time I visit. Some of his famous flavours are Crema di Santa Fina (Santa Fina was a local saint) made of cream with saffron and pine nuts, Champelmo, made with pink grapefruit and sparkling wine and Dolceamaro, made with cream and aromatic herbs. Some of his exceedingly yummy  and exotic flavoured sorbets include Raspberry and Rosemary, blackberries and lavender, gorgonzola cheese and walnuts, ricotta and bilberries and spicy chocolate and sour cherries.

Sergio only used top quality local products to make his ice cream and  has been a member of the Italian team that has won the ice cream World championship on two occasions. He also runs ice cream making courses.

We always stop at the Hotel Leon Bianco just across the square from the gelateria and at night when all the tour buses have rolled away, the town has an entirely different air about it. If you decide to come to visit watch the film “Tea with Mussilini” beforehand and If you have room after your afternoon gelato do go and try out the Chiribirri and the Vecchia Mura , a couple of our favourite restaurants.

 

 

FOODIE FUN AT THE WATERMILL AT POSARA

Last September I spent one of the most relaxing weeks of my life at the beautiful Watermill in Posara in Northern Tuscany. Lois and Bill who own  it run an assortment of courses . They are mainly painting courses but there have been ones on learning Italian and knitting and more recently the one I enjoyed in September which was a yoga retreat run by the wonderful Claire Murphy.

The watermill is a complex of elegant and historic Tuscan buildings, surrounding a sunny courtyard with an adjoining vine veranda, a rose pergola and a sun filled walled garden. More gardens lead to walks along the river. The buildings are listed by the Italian government as of historic importance and the Watermill is in the protected area of the National Park  of the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines and the Regional park of the Apuan Alps, home of the marble mountains of Carrara

.I was there as I had been commissioned to write an article about it for Italia! magazine. This should be  in the next issue due out in mid February. My yoga loving friend Helen came along with me and we loved it from start to finish.

You may think this all sound lovely but what has it got to do with food. Well, the best part of  the retreat (apart from Claire’s yoga sessions of course) were the wonderful meals  . We all started looking forward to the sound of the bell summoning us to come and eat in the dining room just off the courtyard where we ate the most amazing food cooked for us by Lois and her band of local staff. You can see Helen, myself  and one of the other participants  Gay helping ourselves to some Panzanella salad in the photograph.

After may years of  masterminding the menu’s for the courses Lois  came to the conclusion that sharing her skills by organising a cookery course would be a great idea.

So a unique cookery course has been organised . On it you will gain hands-on experience of cooking delicious , healthy Italian meals with the freshest ingredients ( many of which you will harvest yourself as well as buying fresh produce in local markets).. You will learn from and work with Italians themselves, both members of the Watermill team along with local producers.

It will be led by Lois  and her friend and colleague Ingrid Fabbian, an expert on nutrition as well as the preparation of home made pasta and bread. The hands on cooking sessions will cover many aspects of Italian and Tuscan Cucina from appetisers (antipasti), to after dinner biscuits (biscottini and much else in between  from pane and pasta, through main courses, to homemade puddings and ice cream.

It is to be called L’arte di Mangiar bene.  – the art of eating well. This is the name of a classic Italian cookbook which was published more than 100 years ago and is still in print (Science in the kitchen and the art of eating well- by Pellegrino Artusi  -ISBN 0802086578).

Bill has said I can share a recipe of one of the dishes that I was given and that will be featured on the course.

PANZANELLA: a classical Florentine salad

 

Panzanella is a famous Florentine salad which is also popular in other parts of Tuscany. Its basic ingredients are bread and tomatoes, dressed in oil and vinegar but you can add all sorts of other tasty things.

Stale bread torn up into small squares. Preferably crusty baguette type bread

1 red onion thinly sliced

6 juicy tomatoes, roughly chopped

A large handful each of capers, black olives and sun dried tomatoes roughly chopped really small

Drizzle of Balsamic vinegar

Glug of extra virgin olive oil

Fresh basil leaves torn – the more the merrier

Squirt of lemon juice

Salt and pepper

METHOD

Chop everything up (except for the basil and throw it in a nice big dish. Drizzle and squirt seasonings.

Some of the other dishes that I had when I was there and which are going to feature on the course are, Baked Fennel and Parmesan, Twice-baked Gorgonzola souffles and chocolate torta from Capri.

If I have whetted your appetite (literally!) find out more about the Watermill and what sounds to be a wonderful experience  on http://www.watermill.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BISTECCA ALLA FIORENTINA

Bistecca alla  Fiorentina is  a well known speciality of Florence . If you are there you must definitely try it . It  is very impressive because of its huge size. It is not covered in fancy sauces but is simply dressed with salt and pepper. In a restaurant bistecca alla fiorentina is always priced by weight and is usually the most expensive item on the menu. It is a sizable steak and normally is big enough to feed two people. A good restaurant will cut the steak to order and you will get the chance to see the steak before they cook it. Bistecca is best eaten  with rosemary potatoes, sautéed greens or cannellini beans “all’olio” (with olive oil) and lots of bread to mop up the juices. Tradition has it that bistecca alla Fiorentina should come from Chianina cattle, an ancient  Tuscan breed and one of the worlds largest – mature bulls reach over 1.8 metres  (nearly 6 feet) tall.

It takes its name from the English word “beefsteak” and it dates back to the 1500’s and the legend goes that  grilled steaks were prepared for the Medici to celebrate the saints day of San Lorenzo. San Lorenzo is the patron saint of cooks and whilst being grilled to death for his beliefs he is reported to have said “I am done on this side, now turn me over and eat me!”.

 

OLIVES FROM ASCOLI PICENO

It might look like I am falling asleep with a glass of wine in my hand (although this has happened on a few occasions!!) but here I am actually swotting up about the area we were staying in – Le Marche. It is still not a very well known area and not at all touristy. On this occasion I was not on a press trip but on holiday with my husband Martyn. We have started to rent properties  now when we have holidays in Italy. Not only is it cheaper  than hotels but you are able to get a much more authentic Italian experience going off the beaten track. We use Owners Direct and I thoroughly recommend doing it this way. Most of the owners are  from the UK and are really friendly and helpful. When we do it now we alternate going out for a meal with stopping in and cooking with local ingredients. It is part of the fun going down to the local shops and having to use what Italian you know.

We were staying in Montalto delle Marche a hill town in southern Le Marche. The place where all the social life of the town took place was the ” Bar Fanny ”  apparently named after a rich women landowner from past centuries! Le Marche  consists of a long coastal strip along the Adriatic called the Palm Riviera  which has a selection of holiday resorts. Grottamare was one we visited  and the seafood was just so good! Our base Montalto was one of the hundreds of hill towns dotted around central Le Marche.  To the other side of us were the Sibillini mountains which were beautiful and I definitely want to go back to explore them further.

However it was Ascoli Piceno we were going to explore thoroughly as I had been commissioned by Italia! magazine to write an article about it. Ascoli is the capital of the Southern Province of Le Marche. On the way there we stopped off in Offida, a small town famous for its lace making. As you walk along the street there are lace makers sitting in their doorways busy  working on their small wooden bobbins. There is also a fascinating Lace Museum which we looked round. Hungry after our exploring we decided to try the local speciality chichi ripieno which is a flat bread stuffed with tuna, anchovies, artichokes in oil and pickled peppers and very good it was too. We were then offered one of the local cakes, which are called funghetti because of their mushroom shape. They are made of flour , sugar , water and aniseed. I passed on these as I don’t like aniseed but Martyn said his was very good.

Onwards to Ascoli , our main destination. The centre of Ascoli is particularly beautiful. The main square , the Piazza del Popolo is known as the “drawing room of Ascoli”. the travertine tiles that the Piazza is paved with positively gleam and it is full of stylish shops, cafes and restaurants.. The ideal spot for people watching is the famous Art deco Caffe Meletti which was founded in 1907 and is famous for its Anisetta liqueur.

The main speciality of Ascoli is olive all’ascolana. Local olives are stuffed with a paste , made from pork, chicken and beef then coated in breadcrumbs and then fried. In the spring there is a festival dedicated to this local speciality. The olives are grown locally  in a very chalky soil. They have a soft, mild tasting flesh and an extremely small pit so they are particularly suited to stuffing.

I will certainly return to Le Marche when I can, to explore and try out more of their local food and wine and enjoy the wonderful scenery and the friendliness of the people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SALT, A FORTIFIED WINE AND PASTRIES!

You may be wondering what these three things have in common. You will soon find out! My first real foodie adventure was not a press trip but a  holiday with my husband to the west coast of Sicily. It is not one of the most touristy areas in Sicily but that is what we like. We decided to spend four days in Trapani and three days in bustling Palermo. As we approached Trapani  you could not fail to notice the walled mountain  town of Erice towering over it but we put off the journey up to it by cable car  until we had settled in and got our bearings. That night I fell in love with Sicilian food. Aubergine seemed to be the vegetable of choice here and it is one of my favourite vegetables. I also discovered Pasta Trapanesi. Made from the local pesto which is made from almonds rather than the usual pine nuts  I found it hard not to sample it every night I was there.

Waking up to blue skies and a day to be filled with adventures we decided to drive up the coast to Marsala, a town famous for its fortified wine and its place in history as the location where Garibaldi kicked off his campaign. As we drove up the coast we stopped for a while to gaze at the salt pans. The Phoenicians discovered that this area was perfect for salt making 2,700 years ago and it is still going on today. Back in those days salt was a hugely important commodity for the preservation of food and so the west coast of Sicily was a very important region  in its production. Salt production here  reached its peak just after the Unification of Italy in 1860 when 31 salt pans produced over 100,000 tonnes a year. Now demand is much less but there is still a niche market for a 100% natural salt which contains a higher concentration of potassium and magnesium than common salt but less sodium chloride. Midway between Trapani and Marsala is a fascinating salt museum explaining the history of the area  and how the salt pans developed and functioned over the years.

Arriving in Marsala we decided to explore  before looking for some of its famous fortified wine to try . It is situated on the westernmost tip of Sicily and is closer to Africa  than to the rest of Europe and therefore  has rather an exotic atmosphere. Indeed it takes its name from the Arabic Marsa-al -Allah , harbour of God. Its greatest fame comes from the Marsala wine which is universally known  and loved. Its history is fascinating and involves Englishmen as well as Italians. A merchant John Woodhouse arrived in Marsala and sampled the local wine. Although more accustomed to   the liqueur wines of Spain and Portugal his palate detected their similarity and prompted him to send a consignment to England (blended with alcohol so to withstand the journey.) to sound out the market. It turned out to be very popular and he set up his own company in Marsala. A while later another English merchant arrived in Marsala called Ben Ingham who was a connoisseur of fortified wines,. With his intervention the quality of the wines was improved using blends of different grape varieties. His business then passed to his nephews the Whitakers. In 1833 the entrepreneur Vincenzo Florio bought land  between the largest Marsala producers and set to making his own vintage. By the end of the 19th century several other growers joined the competition including Pellegrino. In the early 20th century Florio bought out Ingham and Woodhouse and retained the two labels  before being taken over himself by a large conglomeration.  There are two types of Marsala, sweet and dry. Dry is typically used for savoury dishes where it adds a nutty flavour and caramelisation to beef, mushrooms, turkey and veal. Sweet Marsala is used for sweet sauces and is found in desserts such as zabaglione. Veal in Marsala is one of my favourite dishes and one of my husbands specialities.

We set off back to Trapani  anticipating   another mouth watering meal and an evening passegiata around the streets of Trapani. Sitting over our Limoncello later we decided to visit Erice the next morning  to explore its narrow streets  and try out its famous pastries and marzipan fruits.

We travelled up  in the Funicular rather than by road, .It was much more exciting and gave us a panoramic view of Trapani, the Egadi Islands and on a good day the distant coast of Tunisia. Unfortunately as we got higher and higher it got mistier and mistier. The town was enveloped in cloud which was most bizarre travelling up from a baking hot Trapani to a misty Erice. However it didn’t dampen our sprits and we set off to explore this tiny medieval walled town. I was eager to visit the Pasticceria Maria Grammatico and buy some of her delicious pastries. Her story is a fascinating one and is chronicled in a book called Bitter Almonds by Mary Taylor Simeti. In the early 1950’s she and her sister had been sent to San Carlo, a cloistered orphanage in Erice because their mother was too poor to keep them. It was a miserable existence but it was here that Maria learned to make  the beautiful handcrafted pastries that were sold to customers from behind a grille in the convent wall. At 22 Maria left the orphanage with nothing,  but today she is the successful owner of her own pasticceria in Erice, which people flock to from all over the world.. Her counters are piled high with home made biscotti, tarts, cakes and jams and I couldn’t resit buying a selection.

Down back in Trapani we savoured our last evening meal in the atmospheric old part of town.

The next morning we set off towards Palermo . I was eager to learn about and try the street food that Palermo is famous for but that is another story….