First things first

Pellegrino Artusi the Italian buongustaio and one of the first food writers to gather together recipes from all over Italy, describes antipasti – which literally translated means before (anti) the meals (pasti) – as cosette appetitose, appetising little things to be eaten before the first course.

I’ve seen and tasted wonderfully clever and complicated antipasti, but generally this nice habit appears to be a simple, unfussy and local affair for most Italians. There is always bread, maybe a bowl of olives and probably a few slices of local salami or cured meat. Around Rome at this time of year, you may be presented with a dish of broad beans fave, still in their pods so you can peel them yourself to eat with hunks of salty Pecorino Romano.

Sometimes there’s a local cheese or some vegetables preserved under oil. There might be a dish of fat white beans sitting in a puddle of good olive oil or some marinated anchovies. I’ve often had fried delights, zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella and anchovy, dipped in batter and then plunged into hot oil, or olives stuffed with seasoned sausage meat, breaded and fried until crisp. A favourite antipasti is crostini, small toasts spread with coarse patè, or bruschetta, bread warmed on a charcoal grill (or toaster if you live in an extremely small inner city apartment) heaped with roughly chopped tomatoes or – one of my favourites – simply rubbed with garlic and anointed with olive oil.

I’m immensely fond of such cosette appetitose. On more than one occasion a lack of control and foresight in their presence, nearly sabotaged the rest of the meal. I am an English barbarian afterall.

Three years ago, Vincenzo and the motley crew he drums with, played a concert in Supersano, a town in Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot. It was past midnight when we followed one of the young organisers in a fuel injected panda with a penchant for formula one corners, through the Puglian countryside in search of our post concert supper. Just when I thought I couldn’t take another hairpin bend in a sweaty tour van, we swerved into the forecourt of a Masseria – dictionary definition; a fortified farmhouse or manor farm with a large agricultural estate – which had been converted into an agriturismo and restaurant.

It was an extraordinary, vast, sprawling 16th century stone building, a proud, labyrinthine place. The hour, heat, humidity and our growling hunger were not particularly condusive to thoughtful reflection of the places austere beauty, but it was quietly acknowledged. We were led into paved courtyard surrounded by a high stone wall, then seated at a round table, large enough to accommodate all ten of us.

The meal that followed was one of the most memorable and delicious I have ever eaten.

First the bread, typical of the area, made from semolina flour, firm with an almost yellow crumb, bowls of olives and a salami called capacollo. There were various dishes of preserved and pickled vegetables sitting in pools of golden olive oil; sweet and sour small onion-like lampascioni, purple edged slices of grilled aubergine, soft, sweet red peppers and my favourite, tiny walnut sized artichokes. Then came the deep-fried zucchini flowers, some filled with mozzarella and anchovy, others with sheeps milk ricotta, and the rest just so, crisp and golden on the ouside, soft and forgiving within. That my friends, was the antipasti. It was clear to us all it was going to be a long night.

Next, i primi, two vast platters of home-made pasta, one with cime di rapa the other with a piquant ragu. As we helped ourselves then ate the pasta, they stoked up the charcoal grill in the corner of the courtyard ready to cook lamb, pancetta and fat sausages – I think, by this point everything was blurred at the edges. After the meat came green salad dressed with salt and extra virgin olive oil. To finish we slurped vast half moons of soft, sweet, white melon and bit into soft almond biscuits. We drank wine, lots of it, a Primitivo I think, water from the well in the centre of the courtyard and we ended proceedings with a strictly medicinal amaro.

Almost everything we were served was sown, grown, produced, pickled. preserved, fermented, brewed, baked, cooked at the Masseria.

At some point I (apparently) asked a formidable signora from the kitchen how to prepare the onions, the artichokes, the ragu and the biscuits. I say apparently because I don’t really remember this particular conversation, but I do have the notes to prove it took place. My handwriting, an unruly scrawl, suggests rather a lot of wine had been consumed by that particular point. We finished eating at 3 in the morning. I don’t remember leaving.

So, the first recipe, the carciofi sott’olio (artichokes preserved under oil.)

It’s hard not to admire the vast, unruly heaps of small, purple tipped, baby globe artichokes (carciofi) at Testaccio market. Every year I buy a few to eat raw in salad and every year I promise myself I will set some time aside, buy a few kilo’s to prepare and preserve under oil. This year I finally did. I’ve made two batches. The first was rather straightforward because Vincenzo my faithful fruttivendolo prepared the artichokes. I watched attentively because the next 3kg, the second batch were down to me.

Sleeves up, radio on. Working with half a lemon and a bowl of cold water acidulated with plenty of lemon juice. You take the artichoke in one hand and snap away the outside leaves until you reach the tender pale leaves which are only green/purple at the top. Then with a small paring knife you cut away the small stem and then scrape and cut away tough green from the base exposing the white heart – rub the exposed surface with lemon. Finally cut away the pointed tops and put the prepared artichoke in the lemon water.

You plunge the prepared artichokes (in batches to avoid over crowding) into a fast boiling solution of white wine, white wine vinegar, water and a little salt. Once the water cames back to the boil you let the artichokes roll around for three minutes before lifting them out with a slotted spoon, draining them and lining them up on a clean tea towel to dry for 24 hours.

The following day you tuck the artichokes neatly into scrupulously clean jars, not forgetting to punctuate each layer with a black peppercorn. You fill the jars with extra virgin olive oil so the artichokes are absolutely covered. ‘Cosi‘ said Vincenzo the fruttivendolo as he explained the procedure, holding his fingers about 3mm apart.

Finally you put the lids on the jars – tightly, then hide them away in a cold dark place for at least 10 days and up to 3 months.

Carciofi sott’olio (Artichokes preserved under oil)

  • 3 kg small artichokes
  • 500ml white wine
  • 500ml white wine vinegar
  • 200ml water
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • whole black peppercorns
  • a selection of clean sterilized jars with lids

Prepare your artichokes – see above.

In a large pan bring the wine, vinegar and water to a fast boil. Then working in batches so the pan is not overcrowded, add some of the artichokes. Once the water comes back up to a fast boil, cook the artichokes for 3 minutes.

Lift the artichokes out of the pan with a slotted spoon, drain them, squeeze the excess water out of each one and the line them up – with the beautiful side facing upwards – on a clean tea towel to dry out for 24 hours.

The following day tuck the artichokes into scrupulously clean jars in neat, tightly packed layers, punctuating each layer with black peppercorn. Fill the jars to the top with extra virgin olive oil, making sure the artichokes are absolutely covered by at least 3mm of oil.

Put the lids on tightly, then hide the jars away in a cold dark place for at least 10 days and up to 3 months.

Once the artichokes are ready, spoon them and some of the oil into a small dish (try not to put your fingers in jar) and serve them as part of your antipasti. They are also wonderful on pizza, tossed with pasta, in a salad, or sliced thinly to tuck in a sandwich

Have a really good week.


Filed under antipasti, olive oil, preserves and conserves, Rachel's Diary, recipes

39 responses to “First things first

  1. Those small purple artichokes are beautiful. Your agriturismo dinner must have been fantastic, ending at 3am. What a great memory.

  2. SRM

    Stunning pictures and (another) great story!

  3. suncatcher

    Beautiful…Sensual…Romantic…your posts and photos are all these and more to this simple, Ohio housewife. I enjoy your Italy vicariously. You paint beautiful pictures of the food and culture. I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate your blog. :~)

  4. Dana

    Lovely story and recipe! Do you remember the name of the masseria you ate at in Puglia? My soon-to-be-husband and I are going to Puglia for our honeymoon next month and we’re scouting all of the places we’d like to eat. This sounds like a dining experience not to be missed!

    • rachel

      Now that is the problem – none of us remember the name or the address and that area is dotted with all these extraordinary places. We know it was near Supersano (about 3 or 4 km judging by that crazy car ride) which is in the Lecce region of Puglia. I should say that even Vincenzo who was driving that night can’t remember, it was al very surreal. I have sent a message to the two sensible ones in the group asking if they know anything more. I will get back to you Rachel

  5. lila

    What stunning artichokes! I so enjoy your blog, Rachel. Hopefully I can make it to Italy next year and enjoy all of the wonderful food it has to offer.

  6. I would love to see your market at this time of year, I’m sure it is an awesome sight? I just want to scoop up all those little purple artichokes. So pretty. So delicious. And you preserved them. So. In. Awe.

  7. When we were in Puglia for the holiday break, one of the last meals we had at an agriturismo, the antipasti were so abbondante (our friend was a former waiter there) that I stopped eating after. Literally stopped. No primo, no secondo, no dessert, not even a digestivo. I was hurting 🙂

    My favorite are grilled artichoke hearts sott’olio! Da provare questo….

  8. I keep forgetting that you are an English barbarian. That being said, I, too, would be perfectly content to eat nothing but antipasti. And your artichokes look magnificent. I would be counting down those ten days of waiting with great anticipation.

    • rachel

      Actually I had a smaller jar as well which has been sampled. Yes couting down for the rest !
      I would be very happy with a big antipasti most of the time !

  9. What a meal, it sounds absolutely fantastic, and you remember it very well for one so merry.

    • rachel

      kath – I made pretentious notes ! and, I did have some help in remembering as some of us were less
      Stupefied than others……..

  10. Your photos are gorgeous, inspiring and mouthwatering…I just ate breakfast but those stunning artichokes have me drooling. My husband just served me fave & pecorino for the first time a couple weeks ago in NYC. I was so excited to see the tradition come alive on the pages of your blog!

    • rachel

      I’m so glad you picked up on the fave bit in a rather rambling post – yes it is such a nice tradition.

  11. Roberto has stories of late night meals in Italy. Until closing and way beyond—a large tip, resulting in a very happy waiter who threw in the keys to his car along with another round of limoncello.

    I daydream about such a night. I would have no problem making it past antipasti. I would sail through all courses—my stomach is bottomless, you see.

    “…anointed with olive oil.” you said.

    I remember years ago when Roberto’s father brought back a batch of their family’s olive oil. First his mother had me take a spoonful and then she toasted some bread and anointed. It was the finest olive oil to ever touch my tongue…anointing me, you could say.

    • rachel

      Blessed (!) by olive oil – but it’s true.
      I invisage an enormous and extremely long dinner when we all meet!

  12. Ah, Rachel. I want your life!
    I feel like I am eating those fabulous meals right along side you when I read……Thanks for that.

    • rachel

      That is such a nice comment – but I hope i’m not rose tinting my life too much, I do have a habit, most of the time I am terribly grumpy. The meals were good though, very good.

  13. coconutandquinoa

    Your meal sounds amazing, love that they grew and prepared everything, sounds like my ideal place to dine.
    Yum…. those artichokes look lovely!
    If I ever saw any looking that good raw in New York, I would follow your recipe, thank you!

  14. killer story! The Puglia region is definitely one of my favourites especially for wine. The primitivos, negro amaro, malvasia nero etc… make the most inky, black , rustic and gorgeous wines. What a lucky girl you were.

    • rachel

      It was nice. Yes we had some fantastic wine on that trip, it was the first time I’d had wine made from the Negro amaro grape.

  15. wow. those are some beautiful beauties, they are. x shayma

  16. Loveliest jars of artichoke hearts I ever did see….

    and the recipe is so very very do-able! Now, if only there were pretty little purple ‘chokes at my market.

    I enjoyed your big food adventure story at the Puglian Masseria, one of those unexpected pleasures of life…you never know when they will happen!

    • rachel

      You could of course do this with big artichokes, prepared and cut into quarters.
      It was a delcious adventure, I did suffer a bit the next day which renders the memory a little less romantic !

  17. jenifer

    We enjoyed these in Puglia too just a few weeks ago.
    However we think it’s time for some more Roman home cooking…
    love jand m

  18. It’s at times like this that I really wish artichokes were locally grown over here. Sigh.

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  20. mary ann kowalczyk

    mother of your friend has said yes would love to sit at your table and be the sampler. if i close my eyes
    and remember all the good food from Jamie’s wedding i will begin to drool. it is better there in Italy.
    my best to you
    and those male hands that help.
    piero’s mother in law.

    • rachel

      if I close my eyes I can remember the food – and the heat – in Sicily too. It was a fantastic wedding. All the best to you Mary Ann.

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