Category Archives: In praise of

when it was march

DSC_1935

We live three floors above a Bar. A Bar in the Italian sense of the word, so a place with a bar at which you stand to drink coffee, or juice, or a fluorescent aperitivo. It is also a Latteria, so a place you can buy latte, milk. I tend not to drink coffee or buy milk at this Bar, which also has a disco ball. I won’t hear a word said against the place though, as the owner Franco, who leans up against the door or paces up and down the pavement in front, is very much part of our everyday life. He is friendly and weary, and I forgive him and his neglected coffee machine because I know he would rather be doing what he does after rolling down the metal blinds. I know because he tells me about his other life most days, I have even sat beside him and his co-producer helping them check the English lyrics to a new dance track. It was a surreal moment, sitting in a basement recording studio in Testaccio listening to the young winner of an Italian TV show I have never seen, record vocals. Dreams be shattered like a glass, let’s fly in our mind yeah, yeah, yeah. As my temples thudded in time with the base line, I suggested are shattered instead of be shattered, and felt both old and useful. Take 9. Dreams are shattered like a glass, let’s fly in our mind yeah, yeah, yeah.

A few weeks ago Franco was forced to move the tables from outside, new council rules in Rome, which are flexible if you are prepared to pay enough to bend them. No tables means the group of older signori who spent every morning sitting outside the Bar – as far as I could tell never actually buying anything –  have migrated to the newly opened piazza. This means I no longer have a front door greek chorus. There is no-one to watch me and comment while I struggle with my warped key, or to tell me that they have just turned the water off in the entire building until 3. No-one to point out that Luca is under-dressed for the weather, or that I might need an umbrella as I walk out of the door. Last week, there was no-one to witness my bag slip from my shoulder and tomatoes spill all over the pavement.

DSC_1925

Franco came to the door as I was picking up the last few and the first drops of rain hit my specs. ‘Marzo pazzerello, se c’è il sole, porta l’ombrello‘ he said. It means something like Crazy March, if there is sun, take an umbrella. Then he handed me a tomato that had rolled into the Bar. ‘Caffe?’ It was clearly an offer. I accepted, and drank it up against the bar below the disco ball. It was better than usual, but still made me shudder. I wondered if the free espresso was going to lead to a request for more lyric consultancy. But it didn’t, we just stood watching the rain batter against the window and on the empty pavement.

It was a Marzo pazzarello and not just the weather. Everything – it seemed – kept changing from one moment to the next: ideas, arrangements, moods, things spilling all over the place. It’s the book I told Vincenzo. ‘Yes‘ he replied with weary patience. ‘Your book’. I have a feeling April is going to be much the sameOne thing however, regardless of sun, rain or in-between, is constant, my daily walk up Via Galvani, past the 200o year old hill of broken amphora, four mechanics and a wolf painted on the side of a block of flats, to the market.

Roots and winter cruciferous veg are now sharing the stalls with clear signs of spring: the first, straggly wild asparagus, a grass-like vegetable called agretti, which tastes somewhere between seaweed, asparagus and grass, which probably sounds odd, which it is, but also delicious, especially boiled and then dressed with anchovy butter. There are also fat bunches of rocket and the first peas and broad beans in their pods. Contrasting all the green are pinky-red radishes with fat bushels of leaves, strawberries from Terracina, and Sicilian tomatoes, some round and fluted like the columns of the pantheon, others plum-shaped and the first datterini, round to a point, thick-skinned, crisp and sweet.

DSC_1928

I had planned to write about a post about Italian Easter customs, possibly with the recipe for a dove shaped yeasted cake, or three-day Neapolitan pastry. I also thought about an English post, Hot cross buns or a Simnel cake. I had ambitious plans. However with the exception of hot cross buns whose crosses disintegrated as they baked (but tasted smashing), I have made none of the above, never mind written about them. So here I am writing about salad.

A good salad, and one we have been eating often since rocket and tomatoes returned on such good form to the market. The tomatoes need to be firm and sweet enough to contrast with the peppery heat of the rocket. With good tomatoes and rocket and you only need extra virgin olive oil and salt, ideally the sort you crumble between your fingers, such as Malden, which is the box that always fills the gap in my hand luggage when I come back from London. The other day we had this salad with Broccoletti ripassati, so boiled, drained and then re-cooked with olive oil and garlic, a Mozzarella di bufala and some toast rubbed with garlic. It was a really good lunch, the sort that gets even better as the bits get muddled and you get better at assembling the ideal bite: crust of bread, a squashed tomato, bit of rocket and straggly broccoletti topped with strand of mozzarella given a swipe through oily juices yeah, yeah, yeah.

Rolling the tomatoes across a Bar floor before making this salad is optional.

DSC_1931

Rocket and tomato salad, garlicky greens, bruschetta and mozzarella

Hardly a recipe, more an assembly. You hardly need instructions for this, but here they are anyway. Serves 2 greedy people well.

  • a bunch of rocket
  • some sweet cherry tomatoes
  • a bunch of broccoletti, rapini or sprouting broccoli
  • olive oil
  • salt
  • a clove of garlic
  •  4 – 6 slices of good bread
  • a good mozzarella

Ideally the mozzarella should not have been in the fridge. If it has, remove it an hour before. While you are at it, pull the tomatoes out of the fridge too.

To make the salad – wash the rocket and tomatoes then dry thoroughly. Arrange on a platter, sprinkle with salt, pour over some olive oil and then toss together properly.

To make the garlic greens. Trim and wash the broccoletti and then cook until tender in well- salted fast boiling water. Drain. In a large frying pan, warm the oil and add a peeled, gently crushed garlic clove. Gently fry the garlic until it is fragrant, but do not let it burn or it will turn bitter. Remove the garlic. Add the greens, sprinkle with salt and toss around the pan until warm and glistening with oil.

Make toast, rub with the cut side of a clove of garlic, zigzag with olive oil.

DSC_1933

74 Comments

Filed under antipasti, food, In praise of, odd posts, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, salads, spring recipes, Testaccio

the zest of it

DSC_1166

It’s good to be home. At least it is now. The first couple of days were pretty grim, when the fall-out from a hasty pre-Christmas departure, now coated in three weeks of dust, met three suitcases full of dirty washing and a flock of christmas presents. For the first half hour I sat staring at the sink, wishing I had at least done the washing-up (impressive slovenliness, even by my standards) while Luca shook the dry-needles from the christmas tree into the rug.

I am still picking needles out of the rug and the underneath of my socks, but apart from that we have more less got back into a rhythm. I am back in a kitchen rhythm too, and order of sorts, which I find reassuring – my grandpa Roddy called it having your stall laid out. No resolutions or anything like that, just a comfortable rhythm, one that feels like good tights: supportive but not restrictive (and never too loose). I am back at the market most days too, my ordinarily beautiful market, which smells faintly of fish on one side, meat fat on the other and in the middle is January coloured: green, orange and the extraordinary greeny-violet of artichokes which are coming into season. On the first day back my and veg guys shouted Ahò and made the pinched fingers where the hell have you been gesture over the crowd. It was the sort of singling out I know they do for many, but it never fails to make me feel happy. A kilo of oranges, 8 artichokes, a massive bunch of kale that needed to be wrestled into a bag, some parsley and mint shoved in the top of the bag at no cost except loyalty: it is good to be home.

DSC_1169

As I said, no resolutions, but after a bloody delicious Christmas and New Year in England, where food came in thick, rich waves, we are craving green, bitter and sharp: kale, raddichio, broccoli, artichokes, lemons, oranges, pasta and lots of olive oil. ‘Mum, I like it when you stink of oranges‘ Luca told me the other day. I like stinking of oranges too, having the zest under my nails, my lip burning hot because I touched it with a zesting finger, the oily scent strong enough to help me forget the sink is still slightly blocked.

I have been cooking from Fabrizia Lanza’s book Coming Home to Sicily, which Vincenzo, my Sicilian, is extremely happy about. It is a beautiful book, but not intimidatingly so: the recipes are too lovely and down to earth for that. The first thing I made was lentils with orange zest and mint, a recipe which transported me back to the case vecchie kitchen last summer where Fabrizia, Giovanna, lauren, Lou, David and I stood chopping onion and mint, and zesting oranges, the combined scent almost seeming an exaggeration of itself. While I chopped in my small Roman kitchen Vincenzo came and sat at the table, noting it felt like a Sicilian bong. As I mixed the pile of mint, orange zest and parley with warm lentils another wave of good smells filled the kitchen.

DSC_1194

I also made zucca in Agrodolce or sweet and sour squash. I have been searching for a recipe like this ever since eating a dish of zucca alla scapace at a good local trattoria called Flavio al Velavevodetto just before christmas. Where Flavio’s Roman version used chunks of pumpkin cooked in olive oil, vinegar and sugar, Fabrizia suggests slices of butternut squash. The slices are griddled until tender and seared with dark lines, then dressed with red onions sautéed until soft and slightly caramelized in extra virgin olive oil, vinegar and sugar.

DSC_1201

The combination of tender, velvety squash and the sweet, sharp onion is excellent. It can be eaten straight away, but is even better after a few hours when the flavors have really taken hold. The lentils, warm with citrus and mint, made a good partner for the squash, as did some ricotta di pecora. In between mouthfuls of lunch and sips of local red wine that reminded me of wild cherries, we agreed that we should visit Sicily in March – after all there is a family house there that is long neglected.

The next day the leftover Zucca in agrodolce was better still. We ate it with boiled potatoes and kale dressed with salt and olive oil. The remaining three half moons were chopped and became orange flecks amongst the leftover potato and kale I used as a filling for the bread crust torta rustica I am going to write about next week. So until next week.

DSC_1206

Grilled sweet and sour squash –  Zucca in agrodolce

adapted from Coming Home to Sicily by Fabrizia Lanza

  • 1 kg winter squash, such a butternut
  • fine sea salt
  • 125 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • a large red onion
  • black pepper
  • 60 ml red wine vinegar
  • 2 heaped teaspoons sugar

Cut the squash in half, pare away the skin and scoop out the seeds. Slice each half crosswise into 5 mm thick slices.  Heat up the grill-pan over a medium flame. Cook the squash slices in batches, over a medium heat, flipping them when deep grill marks appear. Once cooked, remove the slices onto a deep plate or shallow dish, season with salt and cover loosely to keep warm.

Meanwhile, peel and slice the red onion. In a small frying pan, over a medium/low heat, fry the onion on the olive oil until  it is soft, which will take about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, stir and then add the vinegar and sugar and continue cooking until slightly reduced and caramelized, which will take (roughly) another 5 minutes.

Pour the onion and its sticky juices over the grilled squash. leave to stand for about 15 minutes, carefully turning the pieces after about 6 minutes. Serve warm.

Leftovers keep beautifully and it could be argued, improve. Cover with cling film and keep in the fridge. Remember to pull the dish out of the fridge at least half an hour before eating.

DSC_1181

Lentil salad with mint and orange zest – Insalata di lenticchie con menta e scorzetta di arancia

adapted from Coming Home to Sicily by Fabrizia Lanza

  • 500 g small brown or green lentils (not Puy)
  • 5 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • the juice of half a lemon
  • a big handful of mint leaves and another of parsley
  • fine sea salt
  • finely grated zest of an unwaxed orange

In a medium pan, cover the lentils with a liter of cold water. Bring the lentils to the boil. then reduce to a simmer for 20 – 25 minutes, or until the lentils are tender. Drain the lentils and put them into a serving bowl.

Chop herbs and add to the bowl, add the olive oil, lemon juice, salt and finally grate over the zest. Stir, leave to sit 5 minutes before serving, stir again and serve (pouring over a little more olive oil for shine if you fancy).

Again, leftovers keep beautifully. Cover with cling film and keep in the fridge. Remember to pull the dish out of the fridge at least half and hour before eating.

DSC_1214

This June 15 – 20, Luisa Weiss and I are going to be leading a 5 day food writing workshop we have called the Language of food at The Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school in Sicily. The idea is that before we arrive we will share and collectively read six pieces of food writing including Gabriele Hamilton, Mary Taylor-Simetti, Laurie Colwin and Molly Wizenburg. These pieces will form the basis and starting point for our discussions before we begin to look at how we can develop our own writing voices. We will of course also be cooking with Fabrizia, walking, exploring the estate and Fabrizia’s garden, taking excursions and drinking campari and eating panelle in the camomile scented courtyard together. I think it is going to be a creative, thought provoking, inspiring, beautiful and delicious five days and I really hope some of you are able to come. – R

If you would like to know more, you might like to read the post I wrote last year having just come back from Sicily. Melissa also wrote beautifully about the school. The calendar and details are here.

IMG_4139

47 Comments

Filed under antipasti, butternut squash, Fabrizia Lanza, In praise of, lentils, Sicily, The Wednesday Chef, winter recipes, Workshops

on red and white in Sicily

IMG_3973

There is a photograph in one of the rooms at Case Vecchie that I keep thinking about. It is of the late Anna Tasca Lanza making estratto di pomodoro, tomato extract, using her hands to spread the bright red sauce onto a door-sized wooden board that will then sit in the August sun until it dries and reduces into a concentrated paste. There are countless other pictures of Anna around the house, some with her family, others of her giving cooking demonstrations or lessons, always elegant and aristocratic, her hair swept into a flawless bun. It is the estratto picture however that lingers in my mind, the one in which she is captured wearing a yellow and orange dress, straw hat and deep easy smile, her hands stained with tomato.

Fabrizia, Anna’s only daughter, used some of last years estratto in the braised rabbit she cooked for supper on our second night at Regaleali. We tasted the dark-red concentrate straight from the jar, deeply flavored with an almost sunburnt sweetness it was truly the essence of tomatoes grown in fertile soil and then dried under the Sicilian sun, you could say the essence of Sicily itself. Then while the Rabbit simmered and with the taste of the estratto still discernible, I crossed the courtyard to look at the picture of Anna again.

IMG_4219

Like many before me, I fell in love with Sicily the first time I visited nearly ten years ago. In Rome I fell in love with a Sicilian called Vincenzo who laughed at my romanticism and idealism about the Island much of his family had left 25 years before, but at the same time understood and promised we would return one day. In the meantime we visit, usually because Vincenzo and his band are playing a concert or for a family celebration. Or on this occasion because of serendipity, a conversation struck up at an airport with a young woman called Lena who was working with Fabrizia who in turn invited me to spend four days at her house and cooking school at Regaleali near Vallelunga about 90 minutes from Palermo.

Once you leave the autostrada, the uneven road that leads to Regaleali curves through landscape that grabs your breath – golden fields of wheat, hillsides of gnarled vines, olive trees and pasture dotted with sheep, all fringed with a tangle of wild flowers, herbs and fennel. At times the landscape seems soft and tamed, at others impenetrable and utterly wild; it is clear even to naive eyes like mine this beautiful, fertile land is not easy land. The house and cooking school are in Case Vecchie one of the most handsome stone buildings on the estate that sits on a hill. The blue gates were open when we arrived allowing us the first glimpse of the cobbled courtyard the cracks of which are filled with matted camomile and wild herbs. Over the next few days we would spend hours in the courtyard  choosing our spot according to the position of the sun, our morning coffee finished at the table in the right hand corner, aperitivi at the table in the cove, dinner at a table in another corner. My Luca, the youngest and noisiest member of our group, ran tirelessly across the cobbles shouting then tangling himself in the aprons Giovanna had hung on the corner washing line. Wherever you sat the smell of camomile curled from the ground and the scent of mint lingered in the air.

IMG_4139

When we weren’t in the courtyard we were mostly in the kitchen, either around the stove watching or helping Fabrizia cook or sitting at the square table that dominated the end of the room. When not in the courtyard or kitchen, I was in the garden started by Anna and now continued with all-consuming passion by Fabrizia. It is an enchanting place, a scented maze of flowers, particularly roses, clouds of white blossom, great deep clumps of lavender, mint and sage, fruit trees and an extensive vegetable patch. The garden, like the surrounding land, is both soft and hard, tender flowers growing in formidable soil which Fabrizia uses to her advantage cultivating particular plants and most notably a variety of tomatoes that are never watered forcing their roots to work hard at getting water from the deep. Enormous cactus-like fico d’india with their prickles and orange-red fruit juxtapose roses grown from English seeds the packets of which are pinned to a notice board in the shed. Butterflies flutter from plant to herb. One morning Luca and I went onto the garden at 6 30 and lay in the hammock listening to the cockerel and eating strawberries while reading the same story book about a lazy ant 12 times.

I live with a Sicilian and have spent enough time in Sicily to understand a little about its food, this however was scant preparation for the ingredients we were to touch, smell and eat, most of them grown on the estate, others sourced from all over the island. It began in the morning with the 8 or so jams made with fruit from the garden, lemon, Tarocco orange, grapefruit – each one more delicious and opinionated than the last. There was also fig and lip staining mulberry jam that we stirred into fresh yogurt. Around the kitchen were bowls of just picked lemons, cherries and apricots, bottles of olive oil, jars of estratto, the fattest anchovies I have ever seen, onions, garlic, capers and caper berries, bunches of mint and oregano, each thing seemingly more intensely flavored than the next, ingredients that tasted so brashly and boldly as they should it was unnerving. One afternoon Fabrizia, Lauren, Lou, David and Gabriella stood chopping onion, garlic and mint and grating orange zest while I,  too stupidly shy to join such confident hands, just let the scent rush at me in the same way Luca does, pure and uninhibited. On another occasion the same group were rolling pastry, slicing peaches and crumbling purple tinged pistachio nuts for tarts, words and movements moving across the work surface.

IMG_4058

IMG_4319

As intense as the flavors were the colours: burnt red, fleshy pink, sunflower yellow, inky purple, every conceivable shade of green and the purest white in the form of ricotta di pecora. Ricotta which meant I finally understood what Vincenzo is imagining when he talks about the ricotta or cavagna they would collect from the local shepherd when he was a boy in southern Sicily, curds so soft and gentle they could almost be drunk.

Filippo Privitera milks his 400 sheep by hand twice a day in order to make pecorino cheese. The by-product of his cheese making is cloudy white whey which is then re-heated with rennet until it curdles and coagulates into ricotta. We stood in a white tiled room for about an hour, the steam rising from the pot heated by burning olive stones, Filippo stirring with such ordinary calm it was hypnotic. It was of course part show for us, but a genuine one that takes place every single day. Filippo’s five-year old son insisted on staying and as the soft, ethereal ricotta wobbled on the plate he opened his mouth like a cheeky little bird and his mother spooned some in. In that moment I saw Vincenzo aged 5 on his grandparents farm, then as I tasted the milky curds, ambrosial yet ordinary goodness I understood what he imagined when he spoke about the ricotta of his childhood.

We brought ricotta back for lunch along with beans with anchovies and breadcrumbs, pecorino cheese, salami, and warm potato salad with mint. That night we sat in the courtyard and ate another sicilian specialty panelle, fritters make from chickpea flour thickened into a paste, smeared onto a plate to set into a pliable disc, sliced into wedges and deep-fried. After there was rabbit braised with wine, estratto and finished with grape must syrup, beside it hand rolled cuscus scented with mint. We finished with caramel and pine nut ice-cream made by David, a ricotta and lemon cake by Pille and sweet wine.

IMG_3998

Something was up though. Amongst all the cooking and the talking there was a rumble. A rumble of activity and a calm rush as members of the family and locals who work on the estate crisscrossed the courtyard with sacks, piles, poles and great rolls of thick fabric. occasionally we would catch a sound from the fields behind the house dig, thud, grind?  Soon the kitchen joined in too and huge pans of rice, lentils and chickpeas steamed the windows, chicken was roasted and rolled, ricotta whipped, all preparations for the lunch.

On saturday at 1 after panelle and wine in the courtyard we walked through the farm to a single table with a white cloth laid for 160 that cut through a field of vines and vegetables. At about 1:30 we ate a lunch to celebrate 25 years of the cooking school, the work sourcing ingredients Anna began and Fabrizia continues and the collaboration between the different parts of the Tasca family. The heat broke at one point and it rained for a few minutes, puttering on the fabric canopy above our heads. At the same time the light faded sharpening colours, textures and the edges of the hills surrounding us making them darkly beautiful until the sun reappeared as bright as ever. On such big occasions you focus on the detail: the handmade plate we could take home, the fact the table was flanked by a row of fantastic cabbages, the hum and clink made by 160 people, the hair of the man across the table, Fabrizia’s green dress, the fact the wine tasted like wild asparagus, the sweetest tomatoes, chestnut like lentils, plump rice and almond pudding, the fact Luca managed to eat three cannoli.

Back in Rome I have been telling Vincenzo about the red and the white, about the swordfish baked with mint and garlic, pasta with sage, the baked pasta with aubergine, the majestic cassata Fabrizia made that I know he would have liked so much. In turn he talked about his grandfather’s farm in southern Sicily, a very different world, harder and poorer but a world that shares the same riches: fertile earth, sun, flavors, essence, traditions, rot, cracks, sweat and the bleeding red estratto and pure white ricotta I had tasted over the four days. I told him we were going to live in Sicily, ‘Which Sicily’ he asked, then laughed and agreed.

IMG_4027

And so back to the picture of Anna making the estratto, the picture of a woman from an aristocratic family who was only expected to be beautiful, marry well, have children and certainly not work. A picture of a woman who in her fifties surprised her family by creating a cooking school that celebrated traditional Sicilian cooking, traveled the world, planted a garden, wrote books about wild flowers and herbs and joyfully smeared estratto on a wooden table.

Now to a picture of Fabrizia in her garden checking her plants or better still in her garden shed amongst the seedings, the daughter who single-mindedly built a life far from Sicily as an art historian, but then realized she needed to return home 25 years later to work alongside her mother and eventually take over the school. An extraordinary woman who is embodying the values of her mother while bringing her own to a unique cooking school: her resourceful determination to protect and share Sicily’s reservoir of taste and traditions, a belief in deep edible education and to reinvest in the land and people, an ability to make cooking feel both poetic and practical and the above all the desire to bring people together at the table to eat, drink and talk.

IMG_4304

Which brings us to the recipe, my interpretation of the one of the puddings we ate on Saturday sitting at a long table cutting through a field; an apricot and pistachio nut tart made with apricots in light syrup from Leonforte and pistachio nuts from Bronte. The simplest sort of tart, sweet short crust, brushed generously with jam or marmalade, topped with apricots in syrup and chopped nuts. You could also use peaches and make small tarts in individual tins as Fabrizia did.

IMG_4294

Apricot or peach and pistachio tart 

  • 120 g plain flour
  • 60 g butter
  • 30 g fine sugar
  • a small egg
  • some peach or apricot jam or orange marmalade
  • 120 g tinned or jarred apricots or peaches in light syrup
  • a handful of pistachio nuts

Butter and flour a small tart tin. Set the oven to 180°

Make the pastry by rubbing together the flour and diced butter until they resemble fine bead crumbs. Add the sugar and the egg and then use your hands to bring the ingredients together into a consistent ball. Wrap the dough in cling film and put it in the fridge to chill for half an hour or so.

On a floured surface roll the dough into a circle a little larger than your tin. Lift the dough into the tin, press gently into the corners and then prick the base with a fork. Spread a little jam on the pastry, cut the apricots into quarters and arrange them on the jam, sprinkle with chopped pistachio and  put the tart on a baking tray and into the oven for about 25 minutes. Let the tart cool and the jam set firm again before serving.

IMG_4301

Thank you Fabrizia, Gianni, Costanza and the Tasca Family, Giovanna, Pompeo, Salvatores, Guiseppe, Lauren, Lou, Peggy and the women in the kitchen and men and women who work on the land. Thanks too to David, Pille, Johanna, Elizabeth and Domenico, Marrick and my mum who came to look after Luca so I could concentrate and he too could eat cannoli. The project archiving Sicilian food traditions is called The sacred flavors of sicily. The cooking school is called Anna Tasca Lanza and this is a magnolia.

IMG_4089

50 Comments

Filed under almonds, apricots, chickpea flour, In praise of, pies and tarts, Puddings, Rachel's Diary, recipes, ricotta, Sicily, supper dishes

an inch of purple

DSC_7333

There is always a chance it will explode‘  Gabriella said almost smiling, suggesting that this was all part of the process, that the possibility of cherries, wine and sugar seeping between the terra-cotta tiles and dripping from her roof was a risk she was prepared to take. We were in Abruzzo, sitting at Gabriella and Mario’s table after a very long, very good dinner at their agriturismo in the hills near Loreto Aprutino, the kind of dinner that renews your faith in food, before us a small glass of inky-purple liquid. ‘Sour cherries, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wine and sugar are macerated in a large, teardrop shaped glass bottle that sits on the roof in high summer for 40 days and 40 nights‘ Gabriella explained. As we tried not to slide under the table, she talked about the science or magic of the process, how the heat of high summer halts fermentation but precipitates maceration. Or at least it should, hence the possible, if extremely rare, explosion. It crossed my mind I should be concentrating more, taking notes even, but that thought slipped away as easily as the lip staining elixir slipped down my throat. The taste lingered, I wondered what Gabriella did with the cherries seeped in wine, how they got the bottle on the roof, how they got the cherries out of the bottle, if we could have another glass?

Nine months later in Rome the first of the cherries, some crimson, others deep purple, are splattering the market with colour. We have been eating them by the kilo, greedily, spitting stones into our fists and grabbing another handful in a sort of cherry race. Then on Sunday at the small but great farmers market in the old slaughterhouse I found the first of the sour cherries, paler than usual, sweet as much as sour, reminiscent of almonds and almost the wrong side of perfect ripeness. They spent the night in the colander while I changed my mind about what to do with them which meant by the following morning there was no time to think or waste. I put them in a pan along with a few sweet cherries too, bay leaves, big lazy curls of lemon peel, some sugar and then let it all bubble into a fragrant, syrupy, shirt staining stew.

DSC_7356

I like cherries cooked in this way with plain yogurt or creme fraiche, something so sweet and aromatic needs a sharp and plain partner, otherwise it is all too cloying. Both Luca and Vincenzo turned their nose up at the offer of fruit for breakfast, which was a relief, more for me. Then last night, I spooned a few cherries and their syrup into my last inch of red wine, which happened to be Montepulciano D’Abruzzo and convinced Vincenzo to do the same. Then rather than continuing our argument disguised as a discussion we talked about Abruzzo and that small glass of inky elixir. Granted ours was hardly Gabriella’s cherry and wine alchemy, but it was reminiscent of it, the poached cherries and syrup mingling with the bold wine into some thing between a pudding and a liquer. It was a dark, sweet, boozy and fragrant finish a meal, the sort of finish I like best.

I am going to make these cherries the next time we have friends over for supper and then get people to put them in their wine‘ I said, at which Vincenzo rolled his eyes so intently they almost disappeared into his head. So we both had another inch of wine, another spoonful of cherries, decided to go back to Abruzzo this autumn, forget about the argument and any plans for supper guests until Luca isn’t a terrible toddler and I have finished the book, cleared up and went to fall asleep in front of the telly.

DSC_7441

Poached cherries with lemon and bay leaves (which you can put in wine if you like)

When I first wrote this post there was no recipe as it had all been so flippant and the nature of the recipe is one of tasting and judging by eye. However I have now added this, which is still imprecise, which I hope you will forgive me for. The amount of sugar here depends on the cherries and your taste. For a mixture of sweet and sour cherries I use about 150 – 200g of sugar. I suggest adding 100 g for every kg but then tasting and adding more if you feel it needs it. Cooking times depends: you want to fruit to be soft and the syrup full-bodied. You do not need to add more liquid as the cherries have enough of their own.

  • 1 kg cherries ideally a mixture of sour and sweet cherries but just sweet will do
  • 4 or 5 strips of lemon peel with as little white pith as possible
  • sugar to taste
  • 3 bay leaves

Pit the cherries and then put them in a pan with the rest of the ingredients and sit over a low flame, stir until the sugar has dissolved and the cherries released plentiful juice and then simmer for 5 – 8 minutes or so or until the cherries are soft and the syrup richly flavored – Taste after about 3 minutes and add more sugar if necessary. Some people then remove the cherries with a slotted spoon and then reduce the syrup until it is thick before uniting the two again in a jar. I don’t do this. Serve with plain thick yogurt, mascarpone, quark, over chocolate cake or into the end of your wine. Keep in a jar in the fridge.

DSC_7475

43 Comments

Filed under cherries, fruit, In praise of, jams and preserves, wine

everyday impasto

DSC_4996

There are few things I like more than freshly made, thinly cut egg pasta, cooked until al dente and then dressed with anchovies and butter.

The combination of the fresh pasta: light, silky and almost buoyant in your mouth, coated with a rich, salty, nut-brown sauce of melted butter and dissolved anchovies is an extremely delicious one. It’s a dish that manages to be gusty and  – like me after a few drinks – a little bit loud, but at the same time remain soft and rounded and to taste both luxurious and everyday.

DSC_5019

DSC_5024

Tagliolini with butter and anchovies

serves 2

  • 200 g farina di semola (semolina flour) or plain pasta flour
  • 2 medium eggs
  • 6 – 8 best anchovy filets under oil
  • 75 – 100 g butter

Make a mound of flour on the work surface and scoop a deep hollow in the center. Break the eggs into the hollow and then using your fingers beak the yolks and start working the egg into the flour. Bring the dough together until you have a smoothly integrated mixture.

Knead the dough, pushing it forward with the heel of your palm. Fold the dough in half, give it a half turn and press it hard against the heel of your palm again. Knead for a full eight minutes by which time the dough should be smooth and soft as putty.

Cut the ball of pasta into 6 pieces (the general rule is the number of pieces should be 3 times the number of eggs. So 2 eggs = 6 pieces). Sprinkle the work surface with flour. Set the pasta machine to the widest setting. Flatten one of the pieces of dough by pummeling it with your hands and then run it through the machine. Fold the pasta as you would an envelope by bringing the two ends over each other, so the piece is a third of its length, and run it through the machine again. Repeat with the other 5 pieces. Close the gap in the rollers down by one notch and run the pasta pieces through one by one. Continue thinning the pieces progressively closing down the notches one by one until the pasta is as thin as you want it.

Attach the cutter to the pasta machine and the run the sheets of pasta through the cutter and lay the Tagliolini on a well floured board until you are ready to cook them.

Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil and add the pasta – it will take just a few minutes so keep tasting.

In a large saute pan, over a low flame melt the butter and the anchovies (drained from their oil), prodding the anchovies gently with the back of a wooden spoon so they dissolve into the butter. The butter should foam very slightly but no more.

Once the pasta is al dente (tender but with bite) drain it and add it to the sauté pan, stir so each strand is coated with anchovy butter and serve immediately.

DSC_5037

DSC_5058

39 Comments

Filed under anchovies, fresh egg pasta, In praise of, pasta and rice, rachel eats Rome, recipes, supper dishes

chasing crisp

DSC_4081

Rather like remembering not to rant or let fury at things beyond your control ruin your day, I’ve been trying to make the best of it. I even bought a nearly-cashmere cardigan, a pair of jade tights and rearranged the living room around a new striped rug that matches – quite incidentally – both cardigan and tights. I’ve tried to knit. I have crunched more leaves than my son. I have roasted chestnuts, smashed pumpkins and sliced porcini with stems the size of a babies leg for risotto, I even claimed ‘Autumn is my time of  year‘ in a proprietorial way while tossing my autumnal hair. But the truth is, I keep wanting to shout.

Not at the cold, I don’t mind that a jot, nor the drizzle – although the drizzle and anoraks are a pain –  but at the light, or lack of it. By 4 o clock as Luca wakes from his afternoon nap, the light is slipping away. We dress as hastily as is possible with a two-year old and then run, trying to catch the last hour, only to watch it being swallowed by dark. The park we used to run around until eight, is locked at five. The kiosk with it’s woven plastic chairs and memories of icy, sticky drinks and salty snacks, is empty. We adjust our jumpers and try to make the best of it, after all shops are starting to glitter and groan with christmas promise and cakes laced with dried figs and black pepper: this is no year for bah humbug, but the dark chases us home.

DSC_4084

Back home by 6 with a long evening ahead – we seem to have adopted a southern European bedtime – I swing between attentive mother:  a book called ballata, board games and baking biscuits and absent mother: Disney babysitter, smarties and a very large glass of wine while I read blogs about craft activities I could be doing and dipping (Molly I adore you), mothers who have their children in bed by 7 and how to host the perfect cocktail party. Then I make supper.

Autumn nights call for stout sustenance, ideally with butter or fringed with fat, food that satisfies and reassures. Well mostly! They also call for bright and crisp from time to time, something to slow the slide onto the rug, to offer contrast and just a little resistance. Two things provide this, the first is puntarelle: a relative of chicory that twists into crisp, sweet but bitter curls, that you dress with anchovy and garlic dressing, the second is a salad of orange, fennel and autumn’s most precious fruit: pomegranate.

DSC_4089

I like the mess: tiles and wood splattered with crimson. When we were little we would eat pomegranates that my Mum brought back from the Athenian Grocer on Moscow Road with a toothpick, impaling the little red jewels and pricking them into our mouths. I thought pomegranates were the most exotic fruit. I still do. When I go to live in Sicily – which I will – I will eat pomegranates every day I can.

Fennel: clean, crisp and with a bracing aniseed bite, slivers of orange, sweet and slightly acerbic pomegranate seeds, the right amount of salt and lots of best extra virgin olive oil makes a brilliant salad, one that manages to be both cool and warm, that provides brightness on dark days.  Especially good after a bowl of pasta e patate. Did I mention how much I like pasta e patate? Yes, good.

DSC_4106

This is fact the fourth time I have written about this sort of salad. It is based on the classic Sicilian salad of orange, fennel, black olives and possibly onion. You could of course add olives to this version, ideally the inky-black, wrinkled, oven-baked ones that taste somewhere between dried plum, leather and liquorice. You really do need to be generous with salt – sprinkle from high above so the salt is evenly distributed – and even more generous with the olive oil.

Fennel, orange and pomegranate salad

Serves 4

  • a large or two small bulbs of fennel
  • 2 oranges
  • a ripe pomegranate
  • salt
  • extra virgin olive oil

Remove the tough outer layers from the fennel setting aside a few feathery fronds and slice a few millimetres from the base. Cut the bulb in two and then slice it as thinly as possible.

Cut the bottom from the orange so it sits flat on the work surface and then pare away the skin and pith carefully with a sharp knife. Working carefully, again with a sharp knife, cut the flesh away from the membrane on each side of each segment so you have soft, pith-less arc of orange. Work over a plate to catch juices

Cut the pomegranate in half and gently break the fruit open to expose the seeds and pull them away from the membrane and onto a plate.

Arrange the sliced fennel and orange segments on a large plate, scatter with pomegranate seeds and fennel fronds. Pour over any orange or pomegranate juice that collected on the plates. Sprinkle with salt and zigzag generously with olive oil. Allow to sit for 30 minutes before serving

DSC_4112

65 Comments

Filed under fennel, In praise of, oranges, Rachel's Diary, recipes, salads, vegetables, winter recipes

water everywhere

DSC_3532

The first time I visited Saturnia I didn’t even go and look at the thermal springs. My reluctance was a combination of a flying visit, overcast skies, an overcast state of mind and the impression I was being asked to visit a muggy stream. The muggy, foul-smelling steam flanked with giant cane that ran across the ploughed fields and under the road we had just argued our way down. I spent the afternoon at the agriturismo reading, feeling overcast but stubbornly righteous as the rest of the group disappeared into the mist armed with costumes and towels.

Three years later and I now know what other (wiser, less stubborn) people have known for thousands of years; there is stream, only it isn’t muggy. It is a fast, foaming torrent of warm water, appearing milky-blue against the calcium-coated rock, its sulphurous vapours entirely forgivable. It is a source that erupts from deep within the volcanic earth – at which point a clever man built a spa – before surging across a field and then bursting into an almost unreal cascade by an old mill. A cascade reminiscent of a champagne fountain, the smooth, shallow travertine pools like a cluster of old-fashioned saucer glasses, the foaming water flowing like formula 1 spumante. It is a startling place of natural beauty.

DSC_3205

Our Hotel was just meters from the cascade. Consequently – come rain or more rain or shine – we spent much of our time in the water, arms wide on the curved lip of our chosen pool, water pummeling our necks, cleansing, exfoliating, softening, circulation stirring while we watched the most fantastically eclectic, occasionally bonkers, crowd do exactly the same thing. For the rest, we explored a part of Maremma.

Maremma is a large territory that saddles lower Tuscany and higher Lazio. It is a variegated place; vast flat plains fit for cowboys (Butteri), bleak cities, coniferous and metalliferous hills, exquisite hill-top towns, swampy natural park and coastal retreats: some craggy, others sandy. We were in Fiora Valley, five minutes from Saturnia, a rich, deep-green land of dense forest, undulating hills covered with vines, olive groves, oaks and chestnuts, of medieval hill-top towns their fortified walls rising like stone crowns.

DSC_3206

I read so obsessively about the food before the holiday I was almost weary of it by the time we arrived (a sharp editing lesson that too much suggestion of delicious, hearty, rustic, humble and bumble can leave people cool). I was jolted out my weariness short sharp.

Most of the places at which we ate were in small towns in the midst of groves and vines, meaning the oil and wine was produced just meters away. Sulphurous soil and thermal springs reap full-flavoured things, and so our meals were rich with excellent local produce; game, cured meat, sheep’s cheese, wild herbs, pulses, recently bottled fruit and vegetables. You can quite literally taste the land. Local salame with unsalted bread and pecorino with local honey, crostini topped olive paste, rosemary scented lardo and herb pesto, hand rolled pici pasta with garlic and tomato sauce, ravioli filled with ricotta and wild herbs, pappardelle with wild boar, white beans cooked in a flask and then dressed with olive oil, slow cooked meat with olives and fast seared steaks, grilled porcini mushrooms and of course acquacotta.

DSC_3267

Literally translated acquacotta means cooked water, it is – broadly speaking – a simple vegetable soup, served over day old bread and topped with an egg. Over 6 days we ate eight bowls of acquacotta, in six different places, each one different, each one good. Everyone I asked about the recipe said bread and water are fundamental, that onion and celery are important, but then it depends what you have; tomatoes, carrot, spinach, chard, herbs. The three best acquacotta were acutely different, one deep-red and tomato heavy, another brothy with spinach and wild mint, the third (my favourite) a dense stew of celery and onion with just a little tomato.

These days my holiday souvenirs are usually an injury, something to eat and a recipe. This holiday was no exception. I came home to Rome with a nasty scratch and three large bruises (my fault, do not enter the cascade after drinking more than your fair share of a bottle of Bianco di Pitigliano) a loaf of tuscan bread and this recipe for acquacotta.

DSC_3279

Acquacotta, is to my mind, a particularly satisfying and complete dish. Made well, it is pure tasting and savory (that will be the onion and celery) given warmth and rosy cheeks by tomato, body by celery leaves and something wild by the herbs if you choose to add them. The bread at the bottom ensures it is a dish with its feet firmly on the ground and the egg, well what doesn’t taste better with an egg on top?

As much as I liked the addition of chard and mint in the acquacotta at Il Tufo Allegro in Pitigliano, I have stayed true to Graziella’s recipe which was the closest to my favourite bowlful. You chop and then saute a weepingly large quality of red, white and yellow onion and lots of celery (the tender stems and their soft pale leaves) in plenty – this is no time for parsimony – of extra virgin olive oil. Once the onion and celery are soft you add some chopped tomatoes, salt and pepper, possibly a little chilli and let everything cook a few minutes longer. Then you add boiling water a ladelful at a time, so the pan never stops bubbling, until the vegetables are covered by a few inches of water. You leave the pan to bubble away for 40 minutes.

DSC_3282

While the acquacotta is bubbling you prepare the bowls by pitting a  slice of day old lightly toasted bread at the bottom of each, sprinkling it with a little grated pecorino or parmesan if you like. Once the acquacotta is ready you divide it between the four bowls – covering the bread with vegetables and some broth so it can inzuppare – but leave an inch of the broth in the pan. Into this remaining broth you break four eggs, cover the pan and then let the eggs poach gently over a low flame for 3 minutes. You use a slotted spoon to lift the eggs on top of the acquacotta in each of the four bowls. You eat.

DSC_3290

Acquacotta or L’acqua cotta

Everyone I asked, including Graziella, was reluctant to give very specific quantities, preferring instead q.b or quantobasta, or how much is enough. After all they assured me acquacotta is good enough to merit experimentation – amount of water, choice of vegetables, herbs ‘Yes or absolutely not‘, to toast or not to toast the bread and other points of contention – and adjusting according to season, place and taste. However based on the few measurements I was given and the two panfuls I have made at home, I have noted my measurements.

Adapted from a recipe given to me by Graziella Tanturli At Hotel La Fonte del Cerro

serves 4

  • 3 medium onions (one red, one white, one yellow)
  • 4 pale stems of celery heart with pale leaves
  • 100 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 8 small plum tomatoes – ideally de-seeded.
  • salt and pepper (a little chill if you wish)
  • four slices of day old bread (ideally Tuscan bread, otherwise sourdough or a good quality compact country bread)
  • pecorino or parmesan cheese
  • 4 eggs

Bring a pan of water to the boil as you will need it shortly.

Peel and very thinly slice the onions. Chop the celery into thin arcs (cut any particularly wide stems in two lengthways). Warm the olive oil in large heavy-based pan and add the onion and celery. Saute the vegetables over low heat until soft and translucent. Add the chopped tomatoes, a good pinch of salt, a grind of pepper and the chilli if you are using it and cook for another few minutes.

Add the boiling water a ladleful at a time, so the vegetables never stop bubbling. Once the vegetables are covered by 3 inches of water, lower the flame and leave the acquacotta to simmer for 40 minutes. Taste and adjust for salt and pepper.

Prepare the bowls by putting a slice of toasted day-old bread at the bottom of each and sprinkling it with a little cheese.

Once the acquacotta is ready, divide it between the four bowls – covering the bread with vegetables and some broth so it can inzuppare – but leave an inch of the broth in the pan.

Break four eggs into the remaining broth, cover the pan and then let the eggs poach gently over a low flame for 3 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to lift the eggs on top of the acquacotta in each of the four bowls. Eat and imagine you are in Pitigliano.

DSC_3063

I am always wary of recommending places as other people do it so much better than me and things change and we all have different ideas and well, um, what if you were to go to a place I’d recommended and it turned out to be.….. However on this occasion I would like to mention:

Da Paolino, via Marsala 41, Manciano. Notably the cinghiale in umido (slow cooked wild boar), baccalà alla maremmana (salt cod with tomatoes and onion) and acquacotta. Moderately priced and attentive, friendly service.

Il Tufo Allegro in Pitigliano. We ate here twice, both meals were superb in every respect. The surroundings are stylish but warm in an ancient, warren-like building in the Jewish quarter of staggeringly beautiful Pitigliano (pictured above).  Notably: aquacotta with spinach, mint and quail’s eggs, pici all’agliata (thick spaghetti-like-pasta with tomato and garlic sauce), grilled porcini, cinghiale with fennel, tagliata di manzo and a gorgeous pudding of creamed ricotta, grilled, caramelized pear and warm chocolate sauce that almost made me sing (I had drunk rather a lot of wine). Expensive but offers a good value set lunch. Slick service. We drank wines from Sassotondo.

We stayed at La Fonte del Cerro. A beautifully situated, extremely well and thoughtfully tended family-run hotel with an almost private entrance to the Cascades (pictured below). Almost everyone we met was returning. We will too.

DSC_2979

38 Comments

Filed under Eggs, fanfare, In praise of, Maremma, rachel eats Italy, soup, tomatoes, vegetables, winter recipes