Blog

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….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TRYING OUT DONKEY STEW IN MANTOVA

Back in August I went on a press trip to Mantova ( best known as Mantua here in the UK). I had always yearned to visit the Ducal Palace, in Mantova, the home of the Gonzaga family . They had been wealthy horse breeders who had risen to power in the 14th century to become one of the Italy’s leading Renaissance families. The person I was most interested in was Isabella d’Este  who had married one of the Gonzaga’s and became famous in her own right as an intellectual, a great art collector and  certainly a woman who knew her own mind and stood up for herself. Exploring the Ducal Palace was an experience I will never forget and my great guide Lorenzo Bonoldi  brought its history to life.

Apart from  exploring the history and culture of Mantova I was intrigued to find it had an interesting selection of culinary delights to try. Obviously the dish  that caught my eye initially was Donkey Stew -Stracotto d’asino. I was determined to try it while I was there but these days the restaurants in the centre of town don’t serve it for fear of upsetting the tourists. I finally tracked down a restaurant that did serve it and I  got to try it out. It was certainly delicious but really didn’t taste much different to beef.  A famous  cake of the area is Torta Sbrisolana which is made from  white flour, finely ground cornmeal, butter, sugar, sweet almonds and a touch of vanilla .According to tradition  the sbrisolona is not cut into slices but is broken up by punching it in the middle. If it crumbles it has been well made.. Another local speciality is chocolate salami, similar to chocolate biscuit cake which we put in the fridge, but in the shape of a salami. I had mine with some amaretto cream.  . I thought I had died and gone to heaven it was so good.

The  other typical Mantuan dish I tried was tortelli di zucca mantovani. .It’s a  pasta dish similar to ravioli with pumpkin  and amaretti biscuits. It was delicious but you don’t need  much as it is very rich.

There were plenty more local dishes to try but as I was only there for the weekend I ran  out of time. However I intend to return someday and when I do I will try a few more local dishes and report back.

 

 

 

 

 

MORE ABOUT TRUFFLES AND THE LANGHE AREA OF PIEDMONT

Apologies for not posting for a while but I have been busy writing articles about my last three press trips. They all should be appearing in Italia! magazine in the next few months. The one about my trip to San Gimignano should be in next month so do watch out for it. I shall be posting on a regular basis from now on. I am bursting to share my experience and knowledge of Italian food with you all. This time I am going to tell you more about The Langhe in Piedmont, a great area for foodies to visit.

The Langhe region of Piedmont has recently been designated a Unesco World heritage Site. October and November are the best months to visit when the White truffle Fair is held in the centre of Alba. However it is well worth a visit any time of the year. As well as being  the area where the Slow Movement (more about this later) originated there are a wonderful selection of vineyards to visit . it is also well known for its hazelnuts and has a Honey Route you can follow too. One of the biggest employers in the area is Ferraro, who make Nutella and the famous Ferraro Rocher chocolates,

The Truffle Fair in Alba is held over six weekends, from the second week of October to the third week in November and many events are organised to coincide with it such as wine tastings and art exhibitions. The Fair has also become better known thanks to awarding the Truffle of the Year to an international or Italian celebrity. A few who have visited Alba to collect their truffle include Sophia Loren, Luciano Pavarotti, Gerard Depardieu, Sting and Penelope Cruz.

On my trip to the truffle Fair I was invited to go to a truffle sensory analysis event where I learnt all about white truffles and was allowed to touch, squeeze and smell them. Here I learnt that the White Truffles of Alba are considered to be the finest truffles in Italy. There are different types of truffle. As well as the white truffle there is the Black truffle which is often found in Umbria, the summer or Scorzone truffle, the Bianchetto or Marzuolo truffle, the black winter truffle or the smooth black truffle. I also learnt thar truffles found under different types of trees could vary a great deal in colour , smell and size. The most popular trees to find them under are Oak, Poplar, Aspen and Goat Willow. truffle hunting is allowed from late summer to early winter but the white truffle reaches full maturity around the middle of October. Truffles only grow wild and no cultivation techniques exist. The best weather for truffles is a wet summer and a sunny autumn. When this happens this makes the price more affordable. The year I was there (2014) this happened and the truffles were being sold for 2,000 euros a kilogram. This was down from 3,500 euros the year before and 5,000 the year before that.. Truffles have to be eaten as soon as possible and cannot be kept any longer than a week. The best way of storing them is by wrapping them up in kitchen roll and putting them in an airtight glass jar and keeping them cool. Whilst in Alba I visited Tartufi Morra, a truffle shop that was founded in 1930 by Giocomo Morra. He was the person responsible for starting the Alba Truffle Fair and it is because of him that Alba became so well known for its white truffles throughout the world. It was his inspired  idea to award a truffle to a famous personality of the day.

The area is also famous for its vineyards. The unquestioned king and queen of the region are Barolo and Barberesco, both of which are produced from Nebbiolo grapes. I tried some Barolo one  of my vineyard tours . No way was I going to spit it out like you are supposed to.

Not far from Alba is the town of Bra, the birthplace of the Slow Movement which was founded in 1986 by Carlo Petrini and which is dedicated to countering the global spread of fast food. In 2003 the movement founded The University of Gastronomic Science in nearby Pollenzo. It is the first institution to treat food and drink as an academic discipline, with degree courses on educating the palate. Also near here is the Banca Del Vino. It is a wine bank that collects as many wines from Italy as possible. It hosts wine tours and tastings and other events to promote the culture of wine.

If after reading all about truffles you are eager to find out more there is a book ( available from Amazon) called Discovering the Truffle (ISBN 9788884993687).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MY TRIP TO THE ALBA TRUFFLE FAIR

I had never eaten a truffle before I went to the annual Alba White Truffle Fair. As soon as I arrived in Alba I was taken to the huge marquee where the fair is held. As entered the smell was overpowering. A mixture of strong smelly cheese and garlic was the best way of describing it. As well as stalls selling truffles there were cheese and wine stalls and all sort of truffle related products. I was given a glass to hang round my neck so I could easily taste all the wines on offer. (My idea of heaven!). After looking round and trying many of the local products I finally got to sit down and have some lunch. Fried egg with grated truffle. It was so good! After an afternoon lesson on truffles (which I shall post about later) I was taken on a truffle hunt in the beautiful Piedmont countryside. I was surprised how quickly the dog found the truffle. The truffle hunter had to quickly drag him off and give him a dog biscuit to divert his interest from the truffle . The truffle hunter then dug carefully in the soil to find it. It is certainly a very delicate operation . Truffles are worth an awful lot of money and it is important not to damage them. It was finally dug out and held aloft triumphantly. Truffle dogs are trained at a special university for truffle dogs locally in Piedmont. Over the weekend I was in Alba I enjoyed a few meals with truffles and have certainly got the taste for them now. Unfortunately you can’t get them in the local Tesco’s!

Benvenuti -welcome to my first blog post!

This is the excerpt for your very first post.

I look forward to sharing my experiences of food I have eaten on my travels and will also be talking about the history and customs of the different regions.

By the way, the photo above is the Mercato Centrale in Florence – a visit there is a huge treat for any lover of authentic Italian food. A market on the ground floor and great cafes and restaurants on the first floor. If you visit Florence don’t miss it.