Wine

Italy On A Plate – Il Ragu, The Best Bolognese Sauce Recipe Ever!

In Australia, like the rest of the world we eat Bolognese sauce by the litres. Commonly known as “Spag Bol” – this dish is to be found on menus everywhere, and in every instance, there is a variation made by the chef. Sometimes this is successful, but in most instances, these Bolognese sauces bear little resemblance to anything that you will find in Italy.

However, recently I attended an Italian cooking school in Tuscany, and Paola our chef says this is the “real McCoy”. Bolognese sauce is an Italian meat-based sauce for pasta which originated in Bologna, a city in Northern Italy. There it is often referred to as Il Ragu. It is a rich, thick and hearty sauce that unctuously clings to the pasta. Italians do not eat pasta swimming in sauce but prefer a “drier” sauce that has bold and clear flavours and is equal partner to the pasta.

Bolognese is a complex sauce which involves long slow cooking to let the flavours develop and intensify. This is not a dish for people in a hurry or the impatient. It is based on a soffritto which uses finely diced onion, carrot, and celery which are sautéed in olive oil until the mixture reaches a state of browning appropriate to its intended use. A soffritto is a building block to many Italian sauces and dishes.

Ingredients
• 1 Medium Red (Spanish) onion
• 2 cloves garlic
• I small carrot
• I stalk celery
• 100gms minced pork
• 200gms minced beef
• 400gms peeled canned tomatoes (crushed or chopped)
• 2 tablespoons of torn basil leaves
• Olive oil
• Salt and pepper
• 2 glasses red wine
• 1 glass of red wine extra
Proceedure
1. Mince the onion, carrot and celery in a food processor or chop very finely by hand
2. Brown these with the olive oil in a large pan over medium heat and season with salt and pepper
3. Add the combined meat and brown well
4. When the meat starts to stick to the pan add half a glass of red wine and leave on low/medium heat to reduce again
5. Repeat this 3 times, each time adding wine, stirring and leaving it to reduce
6. Mash tomatoes (if whole) and pour over to meat mixture and leave to slowly infuse with the meat for 10 minutes and then mix
7. Stir in basil leaves
8. Cover and simmer for 2 hours
9. Stir occasionally and add extra hot water if necessary
10. While il ragu is cooking drink the extra glass of wine!

To serve – use any type of pasta that you prefer, but tagliatelle is the Italian choice. In the absence of tagliatelle, you can also use other broad, flat pasta shapes, such as pappardelle or fettuccine, or with short tube shapes, such as rigatoni or penne.

Offer freshly grated parmesan cheese and a hearty red wine such as Shiraz or a Sangiovese.

Do you have any favourite Italian dishes that you would like the recipe for? Yes? Please just leave a comment below and I will blog that recipe for you….

Recipe with thanks from http://www.tuscookany.com

Categories: Cooking School, Food, Wine and Cooking, Italy, Language, Photography, Recipes, Travel, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Stockholm – Venice of the North

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The flight from Rome to Stockholm via Munich was uneventful but I was fascinated to watch the Italian landscape change from the chaotic patchwork of farms to the cool green meadows of the alpine region of the Alps. The stone houses and barns of the Italian countryside are surrounded by brown fields, newly ploughed or a tapestry of ripe wheat and corn waiting to be harvested. Dense oak forests hug craggy hillsides where small hill top towns adorn the summits and spill over the edges like icing dripping over a cake.

As I fly across the Alps, the landscape changes to a vivid green in the deep valleys that vast glaciers cut between the mountains long ago. Nestling in the bottom of these glacial valleys, are quaint villages of white houses with red roofs which cluster along the river banks that meander through these picture book valleys. On either side of the valleys, the mountains rise up vertically from the valley floor. The verdant meadows give way to rocky grey summits where in some sheltered pockets there is perpetual snow.

The view from the aeroplane window could be described as panoramic unlike the sight of my lunch tray which drew gaps of horror not delight from my lips. Lufthansa as you know is the national carrier for Germany so this nationalistic fervour may account for a dinner of meatballs (closely resembling male anatomical parts) floating in a soggy soup of sauerkraut. This may not be the wisest meal to feed to 100 or so people who are trapped in a tin can 30,000 feet above the earth for 4 hours -the atmosphere in the plane may get a bit ripe after consuming this dinner!

My wish for cooler weather after the unrelenting heat of Italy was granted. On arrival in Stockholm, I was greeted with driving rain and a cold blustery wind whipping the fallen leaves out of the gutters. The drive from the airport was through dense pine forests and after about 45 minutes we are in the centre of Stockholm. What a beautiful city this is. There is water everywhere. The buildings are low rise and this makes for an intimate city on a human scale. No soaring canyons that block out the light and create great wind tunnels.

Founded around 1250 Stockholm is a conglomerate of 14 islands on the coast in the south-east of Sweden at the mouth of Lake Mälaren and it has a population of around 1.5 million. Sometimes called the “Venice of the North” Stockholm is known for its beauty, its buildings and the many styles of architecture. The first part of the name (stock) means log in Swedish, although it may also be connected to an old German word (Stock) meaning fortification. The second part of the name (holm) means islet. We explored the city by foot, bus and canal boat gaining an insight into the life of the City and its different sectors.

One of the islands is Stockholm’s core – the present Old Town – Gamla Stan which was built on the central island in the 13th century. This small island is a warren of cobbled streets, interesting buildings dating from the Middle Ages and later, cute little squares and tiny green spaces. There is a central square which is surrounded by beautiful buildings and is a congregation point for many tourists who flock there to people watch or take a breather to rest their feet after navigating the treacherous cobble stones.

Gamla Stan is also the site of the royal palace, an imposing square building that overlooks many parts of the city and other islands. Today this is the administrative centre for the Royal household and a place where important ceremonial duties and functions are carried out. It is an impressive sight when it is time for changing of the guard at the palace as a large cavalry troop parades through the streets, all gleaming, pressed and handsome on their chestnut horses.

The city originally rose to prominence as a result of the Baltic trade between many of the neighbouring countries: Denmark, Estonia, Norway, Germany and Poland. This ideal geographic position also brought many wars and disputes to its shores, the aggressors hoping to steal more land, power and wealth. These battles see-sawed over the centuries particularly between Denmark and Sweden and to this day there seems to be some underlying tensions often disguised as humour.

The next leg of the holiday is a 2-week cruise around the Baltic. We made our way to the harbour where we could see giant ferries that traverse the Baltic from Stockholm to St Petersburg, Helsinki, Estonia and other ports to the east and to the west Copenhagen, Oslo and other ports along the way. These giant ferries take hundreds of passengers and trucks, bikes and cars traversing the shipping lanes of the Baltic.

Our ship was easily identified by its gracious nautical profile and the 5 masts that will carry the sails when we are out to sea. It is the largest sailing ship in the world and carries about 300 passengers and 150 staff. All your creature comforts are catered for, a beauty salon for massages and facials, gym (I am not inclined to venture in there), a coffee shop where you can get a coffee and sandwich, 3 restaurants, a pool deck with a small pool and 2 hot tubs, 2 bars and lounges, quiet nooks to lounge both in and out of the sun.

We set sail around 6 pm and head out to sea through the myriad of pretty islands that make up Stockholm’s harbour. We turn east and head for St Petersburg – a 2-day sail away. I sink into life on board – relaxing by the pool in warm sun (no scorching Mediterranean heat here), reading, gazing out over the deep blue sea, contemplating the world from the other side of my eye lids, lulled by the quiet as the only sound is the swishing of the wind and the waves.

Some people say that the only clock needed on board is the one in your tummy. The day starts with breakfast where there is an ample buffet of fruit, yoghurt, smoothies, juices, hot savoury dishes – prepared and on order, smoked salmon and the trimmings, freshly baked bread, rolls and pastries. Lunch is a buffet – a range of salads and cold cuts, cheeses, fruit, deserts, ice creams and a daily bread and butter pudding, to supplement this there is a made to order pasta dish. Afternoon tea is served on deck – mini rolls and cakes and cookies. At dinnertime savouries are served with cocktails in the lounge and then dinner comprises a selection of appetisers, salad and soups, main course and finishing with cheese and dessert. After all that if you wake up at 2.00 am and have the munchies there is 24-hour room service.

If you enjoyed this blog please leave a comment below and forward this onto your friends. Thank you.

Next port of call – St Petersburg – stay tuned for more fun on the high sea.

Categories: Food, Wine and Cooking, Language, Photography, Stockholm, Travel, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Rome – A Night at the Opera

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Next stop is Rome.

While I was away in the countryside of Tuscany and Umbria I had forgotten how hot and steamy Rome can be. The black basalt cobble stones radiate the heat up through the soles of your feet and make your feet ache and the perspiration drip off you. I ventured out most mornings for a walk but soon after lunch, retreated to the sanity of the air-conditioned hotel room – defeated by the heat. However, as the sun sets the Romans come out to dine and enjoy the descending cool of the evening.

My hotel is located near the Piazza Novona, which is a mecca for tourists and sellers of art (good, bad and indifferent). They set up their easels to display their work and sketch artists try to lure passing tourists to pose for them.

I am amazed by the number of street venders who mingle amongst the crowd selling a variety of practical and unusual wares, such as: packs of tissues, socks, paper parasols, hats, fans and the most amazing and optimistic seller of all, was a chap clutching an armful of colourful brooms and dustpans. I thought to myself – who would come all the way to Rome and to the Piazza Novona and think that they need to buy a dustpan and broom?

Eating out in big cities and tourist hot spots can be a really disappointing event. My first night, I ventured out of the cool of the hotel and sat in a busy bar overlooking the chaos of the Piazza Novona and while sipping my prosecco I knew that the food at any of the restaurants surrounding the piazza would live up to my worst fears – the food would be terrible and overpriced. However, on this occasion I struck it lucky. I ventured away from the Piazza into the back streets and happened on a small restaurant with out-door dining in a quiet street – I was not disappointed.

The menu read well and seemed to show off seasonal fresh food which was well cooked and reasonably priced. Over two nights I enjoyed: an appetiser of mixed crostini – tomato, artichoke puree, and olive paste, and an entre of a light tomato broth with cherry tomatoes and clams and mussels, mains were a whole sea bass grilled over charcoal and a plate of grilled seafood (calamari, salmon, sea bass, prawns and octopus). All delicious! And to cap it off, there is a fantastic gelato bar just around the corner so I could walk home while enjoying a cooling gelato.

I decided to treat myself to a slap up gourmet dinner at the Imago restaurant in the Hassler Hotel. The dining room is an elegant space with interesting and very chic Italian furniture Located on the 6th floor it commands outstanding views over the roof tops of Rome. From here, you can spot all the famous land-marks illuminated after dark. The room is beautifully furnished with tables dressed in crisp white clothes and some tables are fully mirrored and reflect the candle light and the colours of the sunset as the sun drops below the horizon and bathes the room in glorious golden colours. The staff is professional, extremely attentive and every detail is considered such as, when you are seated, a small foot stool appears at your side on which your handbag can rest.

I had a wonderful evening dining on:
• Mezzi paccheri pasta (large tube pasta) with octopus sauce, smoked scamorza cream (an Italian cow’s milk cheese, similar to mozzarella)
• A tartare of three shellfish, oil-flavoured bread and sprouts
• Duck breast tandoori-style served with moscato flavoured peaches
• A wonderful cheese plate with aged parmesan and gorgonzola and pecorino
• Petti fours with coffee

Starting with a glass of prosecco, each course was matched with a wine and vin santo was served with the cheese.

The restaurant has a very special guest that visits every night. He is a very large and impressive looking seagull who comes and sits on the window sill looking in at the diners. Finally, the waiter opens the window and hands him a large piece of bread which he gratefully takes in his beak and flys off to enjoy his dinner too.

The highlight of my days in Rome was a night at the opera at the Baths of Caracalla (Terme di Caracalla), to see the opera Norma. The Caracalla bath complex was more a leisure centre for the ancient Romans than just a series of baths. The baths consisted of a central 55 by 24 meter (183×79 ft) frigidarium (cold room) under three 32 meter (108 ft) high groin vaults, a double pool tepidarium (medium), and a 35 meter (115 ft) diameter caldarium (hot room), as well as two palaestras (gyms where wrestling and boxing was practiced). The north end of the bath building contained a natatio or swimming pool. The natatio was roofless with bronze mirrors mounted overhead to direct sunlight into the pool area. The entire bath building was on a 6 metre (20 ft) high raised platform to allow for storage and furnaces under the building.

The complex is now all but a shell of the original complex and during the summer season a portable stage and seating is erected in the middle of the skeletons of the original buildings. The open air stage is huge and capable of holding a chorus of 100 singers with room to manoeuvre and an orchestra pit able to accommodate a full orchestra. The singers were wonderful and their voices floated on the warm night air.

The heat of the day dissipates and as the sky darkens and the stars and moon rise, you gather together to be entertained and transfixed by wonderful music in a fantastic setting.

Rome is home to some wonderful museums and galleries. I went to see the museum at the National Roman Museum of Diocletian Bath, near Piazza dei Cinquecento, this museum occupies part of the 3rd-century-A.D. Baths of Diocletian and part of a convent and cloister was built in 1565 and is ascribed to Michelangelo. The Diocletian Baths were the biggest thermal baths in the world. Nowadays they host a marvellous collection of funereal artworks, such as sarcophagi, and decorations dating back to the Aurelian period.

This museum’s collection could be considered as one of the most important collections of ancient sculpture in the world. The museum contains the works of art found during the excavations executed after 1870.

National Roman Museum of Diocletian Bath (Museo Nazionale Romano delle Terme di Diocleziano)
Viale Enrico De Nicola, 79
00185, Rome, Lazio, Italy
Zone: Rione Castro Pretorio (Porta Pia) (Roma centro)

Next stop – cooling off in Stockholm….

Categories: Food, Wine and Cooking, Italy, Language, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Italy – Painting Under The Italian Sun

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Borgo San Fedele is a little slice of heaven in the Chianti hills close to the small town of Radda in Chianti and only a 15 minute drive to the wonderful Medieval city of Siena.

However – heaven can be a noisy place during the wild boar-hunting season. The quiet is punctuated with the sound of gun shots and the baying of dogs on the scent of cinghiale (wild boar). Hunting is a weekend recreation as the hunters scour the hillsides for these elusive beasts. They are certainly not a pretty sight face-to-face (the boar that is, not the hunters) – dark, bristly and with sizeable tusks. However, on a plate they are a very appealing and yummy meal – made into a rich stew with homemade pasta, in sausages, salami, dried and served in all sorts of ways this is a local delicacy.

Here is a recipe for you to try when you next get a wild boar in your garden…

PAPPARDELLE WITH WILD BOAR RAGU
Ingredients
• 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
• 500gms cubed wild boar,(substitute pork shoulder)
• 1 teaspoon fine salt
• 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• 2 tablespoon diced onions
• 1 tablespoon diced carrots
• 1 tablespoon diced celery
• 1/2 tablespoon minced garlic
• 2 tablespoon tomato paste
• 1 tablespoon plain flour
• 1 bottle red wine
• 1 bay leaf
• 1 sprig rosemary
• 1 sprig thyme
• 1 sprig sage
• fresh or dry pasta, cooked al dente (for 4 to 6 serves)

Directions
Heat the oil in a large saucepan over high heat. Season the meat with salt and pepper and add to the pan. Once the meat is browned, add the onions, carrots, celery, and garlic. Reduce the heat and cook until the moisture is gone. Add the tomato paste and flour. Add the red wine and herbs. Cover and cook for about 2 hours or more depending how tender the meat is), stirring occasionally. The sauce is done when the meat is fork tender.
Remove the meat from the sauce and set aside. Strain the sauce, blend, and return to the pan. Pull the meat apart and add back to the blended sauce.

Serve over pasta and a generous dusting of parmesan cheese. Eat with a bottle of full-bodied red wine and crusty bread to mop up the sauce.

Borgo San Fedele, our home for the week, is a marvelous story of discovery and rescue from near ruin. It was a thriving monastic community which was built in the 12th century but in 1982, after a gradual decline, the last priest in residence died and San Fedele was abandoned. Like many abandoned monasteries and convents all over Italy, San Fedele fell on hard times and neglect and nature took over. This saw the wonderful stone buildings fall into decay as roofs collapsed and walls gave way under the pressure of encroaching vegetation.

The current owners – Nicolo and Renata happened on this derelict site and fell in love with the notion of rescuing this wonderful piece of local history and bringing it back to life. It is now a place where individuals and groups can come and experience Renata’s and Nicolo’s hospitality and enjoy a unique place steeped in history and surrounded by the lovely Chianti countryside.

I came to San Fedele to attend a week-long water-colour painting workshop. On the first day, our instructor Pat Fiorello was very encouraging and explained that… “painting requires your full self – the left and right brain, the eyes, hands, heart and soul. The technique of painting, the technical aspect of putting paint on paper involves a motor skill (eye/hand coordination) that I truly believe anyone can learn, but that is just the beginning. There is also the emotional expression, the artist’s personal vision, selection of subject, colors, shapes, etc and the intuition and sometimes magic that goes into creating a piece of art. So to think of it as mechanical – doesn’t really do it justice, it is so much more. And I do believe every one can learn and share their own expression”.

With Pat’s careful and positive encouragement, I am hopeful that I can bring all these aspects together to achieve some level of success. However, talent might have some small part to play. As the days unfold, I am amazed that the paint on paper is taking shape, and amazingly enough, it appears that the subject is somewhat recognizable. Thanks Pat!

During the week we explore the local area and visit a number of very quaint hillside towns including Radda in Chianti, Castelino, Pienza and of course Siena.

This wonderful medieval town which has the amazing and famous shell-shaped Piazza del Campo where the colourful Palio (horse race) is run twice a year in summer. Siena is divided into 17 ‘contrade’, that means ‘little boroughs’, which have their own traditions and colours. They are fierce rivals, and the Palio is an event where this rivaly is played out to the enjoyment of the boisterous and partisan crowd. The race is run in the piazza and the riders ride bareback and grip on for dear life as their horses tear around the square.

There was no horse race there on the day we visited but there were plenty of tourists. This is a great opportunity for a spot of people watching at any one of the cafes and bars that surround the piazza. Sitting there in the warm autumn sun, drinking an espresso (or a wine) and watching the passing parade is a real Italian pastime. As one of the ancient cities of Italy, it is a small city with winding lanes and small alleys, so a good map and a sence of direction are needed to navigate this labarynth.

The day passes quickly with a visit to the Duomo – a magnificent structure, striking in its black and white external façade which is adorned with sculptures. The towers, turrets and spires are all richly decorated. The present building was begun in the early 13 Century and the cupola was finished in 1464. The dramatic interior has a pavement of marble mosaics — the work of masters of the fifteenth century depicting scenes from the Old Testament.

Siena is famous for its confectionaries that include Ricciarelli biscuits, gingerbread and delicious sweets made of honey and almonds. However,  a day cannot go by in Italy without a gelato. You must make a trip to GROM. This is a unique gelato experience. They make gelato and sorbet the old-fashioned way with real seasonal ingredients and methods that are reflected in the quality and taste of their gelato. Here are some of their exciting flavours…

• Caramello al sale
• Cassata siciliana
• Liquirizia
• Marron Glacé
• Tiramisù
• Zabaione

Interested in painting? Visit http://patfiorello.com/
More info on San Fedele – info@borgosanfedele.com http://www.borgosanfedele.com/en/history.htm
Need a holiday https://www.ilchiostro.com/

Next blog I will be in Roma… stand by for some food, fun and fantastic sites….

Categories: Food, Wine and Cooking, Italy, Language, Photography, Recipes, Travel, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Tasting Tuscany – Wine, Cheese, and Olive Oil

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During the week at Casa Ombuto we took a break from the cooking classes and spent a day on excursion to some local culinary points of interest.

Our first stop was Villa La Ripa on the Chianti slopes of Arezzo, in Tuscany. The Villa La Ripa, is a beautiful Renaissance villa and is surrounded by a small vineyard of around 15 acres of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz vines.
The Villa sits atop a hill where an impressive avenue of cypress trees lead up to the plateau on which the Villa sits and commanding a view of the surrounding area. It is built in the typical Renaissance style – an impressive solid three-storey building with large windows symmetrically placed on its front façade. It is a mellow creamy yellow colour with its original stucco still looking crisp after three centuries.

The first owner was Marco Peconio (2nd century a.d.). His name came from Pacho, the Etruscan god of wine, best known with the Latin name of Bacchus. After a century, the property passed to the Ricoveri Family who raised a fortified building with attached tower, still visible nowadays.

The current shape of the villa can be traced to the Gualtieri Family, an important lineage of poets, cardinals and wine-growers who acquired it in the Renaissance and registered it in the Order of Saint Stephen’s name. In the nineteenth century, after Napoleon’s troops invaded Arezzo, the villa was sequestered and put up for sale by auction. Then the Ubertini family acquired it. They were a noble Aretine family whose most famous member was Guglielmo degli Ubertini, the leader of Aretine soldiers in the great battle against Florence: Campaldino.

At the beginning of the last century the property passed to the Bucchi family who further developed olive-groves and vine growing. They planted the oldest vineyard which is still in the estate. Then it is the turn of the current owners – the Luzzi Family.

Interestingly, the current owner, a local neurosurgeon, bought the Villa without any knowledge of wine making and had intended to pull out the vines. One day a patient, an elderly gentleman who was complaining of headaches, who during the consultation, asked the Doctor what his intention was to do with the vineyard. When the Doctor said that he intended to pull out the vines, the man looked horrified and said that he was a winemaker and offered his services free of charge for a year. The Doctor agreed. Luckily in the first year, and with the old man’s expert advice and direction, the crop yielded some good quality grapes and the first vintage proved to be successful so the vines were saved from ruin. After the initial success, the Doctor was hooked – a new wine maker was born. He now juggles a busy medical practice and wine making.

The Doctor wants to maintain the local traditional of wine-growing and wine-producing, aiming at wine quality. He produces a limited vintage each year and has had success at the London Wine Show winning Silver Medals. Locally in Italy, the wine is competing head to head with some of the well-known market brands. His passion for wine making and his beautiful villa made the visit a great success.

The next stop was to an old olive oil press where we saw the giant stone wheels that grind the olives into a paste. This oily paste is then spread onto large circular fibrous mats and layered like a sandwich on a giant press. As the weight of the press bears down on the pile of mats and paste the liquid from the olives is extracted and sent into a pit where the oil is skimmed off from the water. This rich luscious extraction is cold pressed virgin olive oil and the only oil that you will find in any Italian kitchen and on all Italian dining tables.

We then moved out to the courtyard and sat around a table in the shade of a massive chestnut tree. We tasted the fruits of his labours: the “must” of the olives before the virgin olive oil is skimmed off, virgin olive oil, a variety of oils flavoured with lemon, truffle, chilli, basil, rosemary and a selection of truffle pastes and olive paste. Lunch was then served by his mum: farfalle pasta simply dressed with fresh tomatoes and olive oil, an antipasto plate of: salami, cheese, crostini with olive paste and truffle paste served with a fresh tomato and mozzarella cheese salad. For afters, she had baked some tiny plums which she split in half and dropped a spoonful of plum jam in the centre with a fresh home-made cookie on the side. This was accompanied by plenty of his home made wine.

Everyone felt very mellow after lunch, but we pressed on to meet a local cheese maker. Incongruously he hailed from Wisconsin in the USA and had arrived in Italy some 20 years before on a holiday and has never left since.
He has a herd of 65 milking goats that are his pride and joy. He produces a fresh goat’s ricotta and a variety of soft and hard cultured cheeses. His daily routine is up for milking at 5.00am and then commences the cheese making and then the goats are taken out to graze in the nearby pastures. The variety of feed and climatic conditions dictate the fat content in the in the milk and then the type and quality of cheese that he is able to make.

He told us that the goats are a very jealous lot of girls and when he is out with them in the pastures and has a lie down and a nap they will jostle about to see who can get the closest to him. They never stray far away and are responsive to his call and are very demonstrative in their affection and will nibble his fingers and ears. It seems that he has his hands full with a harem of 65 jealous goats.

The week flew by in a haze of cooking, eating and wine and then it was time to go. So I loaded up the Panda and we hit the trail back to Florence, which was not without incident…

Thank goodness that I left early from the cooking school to allow plenty of time for the return journey. All went well until I reached the suburbs of Florence and the sat nav went a bit haywire (or was it me?). I went around one particular round about 5 times approaching it from different directions before the sat nav and I were in accord. Then the wheels really fell off, when the bloody thing sent me along the Arno river on the wrong side beside the Pitti Palace (which I passed twice!) and wanted me to cross the Arno over the Ponte Vecchio. If you have visited Florence you will know that the Ponte Vecchio is a bridge teeming with pedestrians 24 hours a day. I ended up in amongst the throngs of tourists coming off the bridge and in a maze of dead ends, narrow lanes, and one-way alleys with right angle bends that required a certain amount of manoeuvring.

Meanwhile, two Carabinieri were leaning on their car (looking decidedly glamorous in their uniforms) watching me do a number of illegal U turns, backing up one way streets and generally running amok amongst the tourists. However they did not stir themselves into action, as I am sure that lost motorists doing battle with sat navs is a common sight for these gents.
Finally, I took matters into my own hands, turned the sat nav off and backtracked and crossed over the Arno further downstream from the tourist area. I then programmed the sat nav to find the Santa Maria Novella station as I knew this was in the vicinity of the car rental office. At last success – I arrived after spending 2.5 hours on the road and an hour of that fighting with the sat nav in Florence going around in ever decreasing circles. Boy was I glad to get on the train.

Categories: Cooking School, Food, Wine and Cooking, Italy, Photography, Recipes, Travel, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Italian Cooking – Pasta, Pizza and Pleasure

I arrive at the hire car office in Firenze and it is pandemonium – bags, kids, customers and frazzled Italian attendants all sweltering in the stuffy confines of an overcrowded office. After much hand waving and raised eyebrows (on my part) I had the keys to the chariot – a Fiat Panda. Have you ever driven a Fiat Panda? Well, it is just like a ride-on lawn mower but with windows and a glove box. I opened the hatch at the back of the car to put my suit case in, only to find that it is too small to accommodate the coffin on wheels that I am carting about. So after much puffing and panting I finally get my suitcase onto the back seat with the assistance of a gent who was standing on the pavement. After graciously helping me he hobbled away holding his stomach where I am sure a hernia was evidence of his chivalrous action.

Luckily, I had arranged to hire a Sat Nav system to assist with the journey into the wilds of the Tuscan mountainside to the east of Firenze. So off I go driving on the wrong side of the road into the twisting crowded streets of Firenze in my Fiat Panda. For the first five hundred meters the sat nav was deadly silent as there was no coverage between the tall buildings and narrow streets of this part of Firenze. Finally, a voice from the wilderness sprang into life and started to give directions. Placing my trust in Susie (I named the Sat Nav – Susie) I made my way cautiously through the crazy Saturday traffic and head towards Poppi and the Tuscan hills.

After 2 hours of climbing and winding through beautiful forests (mostly in second gear and at best in third) I arrive in a small agricultural town of Poppi. This is situated on the Arno river in the very fertile Casentino valley, servicing the farming community around it. Apart from the river, its distinguishing feature is the medieval Poppi Castle imposing itself over the town from the highest point as castles usually do.

I head out of town looking for my home for the next week – Casa Ombuto. There is a rickety wooden sign pointing off-road so I follow it. The road gets rougher and rougher – holes that are big enough to swallow the wheel of the Panda, ridges, ruts and boulders make this a real off-road experience. My goodness – I should have paid more attention to the fine print on the contract – I am sure there is a clause in there about no off roading!

Finally, I glimpse my destination ahead – a couple of imposing stone pillars and iron gates. I follow the gravel drive and arrive in front of some very attractive stone buildings. These are surrounded by lovely gardens and orchards. Further afield from this elevated plateau is a valley spreading out before me and then surrounding the villa on the other three sides are heavily wooded hillsides covered with oak trees and conifers. It is very peaceful with a vivid blue sky above and the sound of birds coming from the forest and the faint hum of bees that are hovering over massive pots of lavender, roses, and oleander that surround a glistening swimming pool and terrace.

The accommodation is a large stone building covered in vines, wisteria and roses. My room is one of five bedrooms (all en suite) in a self-contained apartment. There is a kitchen with a large wooden table, a large sitting room with squishy sofas and wing chairs and the room is dominated by a huge stone fire-place in which you could literally roast a wild boar. The shuttered windows overlook the gardens and the valley in the distance. There is a shaded veranda overlooking the gardens and the swimming pool where comfortable sun lounges beckon and a vine-covered pergola where a couple of hammocks are slung between posts that look very inviting. My home for the next week is going to be comfortable indeed.

The main building is set apart from the accommodation and is the control centre of the cooking school. This is where all the action happens. It houses an enormous kitchen (where we will have our lessons) and very large dining area that can easily seat up to 30 people. Here we can help ourselves to the fridge, cocktail cabinet, refreshments, wine fridge etc at any time of day of night – as long as the last person to leave turns the lights out and closes the door.

My companions are good fun and during the week we get to know each other better and share many a laugh along the way. However, the star of the show, is our chef and teacher – Paola. She is a larger than life character with wild red hair, a big smile and a vibrant personality to match. Throughout the week, she regales us with wonderful stories about life in Italy, local identities and oddities of Italians and their unique way of life. Her passion for food and cooking is evident and it infects us all as we discover new skills and a love for creating artistry on a plate.

On our first night, Paola cooked a welcome dinner starting with an apperitivo of peach Bellinis and nibbles of tiny peppers stuffed with a cheese and caper mouse. Then dinner was served outside in the cool of the night around a huge table, under a vine-covered pergola lit by lamps and candles and surrounded by wonderful hydrangea and roses. An idyllic setting which will add to the ambiance of all our meals over the next seven days.

Dinner started with a mixed antipasto of mouse made with Bresolsa (air dried beef) on crostini, a caprese salad of buffalo mozzarella and a pastry pinwheel stuffed with an olive tapenade; prima piatti – fresh fettuccine with a rocket pesto and grated zucchini and shaved Parmesan; secondo piatti – bistecca fiorentino (T bones – 700 gms to a kilo each) flash grilled then sliced and a served drenched with warm olive oil that had been steeped with rosemary, pink and green peppercorns. This was served with roasted local potatoes and a fried zucchini flower; dolce – a wonderful light apple cake spiked with pine nuts and served with a homemade cinnamon ice cream. Each course was accompanied with a matched Tuscan wine. In case the matched wine ran short there was lots of bottles of house wine on the table.

To top off the evening when the desert plates were cleared about a dozen bottles of different liqueurs, digestives, vin santo, and grappas were put on the table. Luckily my room was only a short stagger away and up only one flight of stairs. This after dinner ritual was repeated every night of our stay so there was much story telling over a glass or two of something.

Our daily routine began after an Italian breakfast of fruit and cereals, cheeses and cold meats. We spent mornings at leisure: lying by the pool, swimming, reading, sleeping, walking, biking or taking a drive to explore the local area and other towns nearby.

Lunch is served at 1.00pm by our lunch chef Rita. This was a delicious selection of dishes including pasta, a vegetable dish, salad, a meat dish and cheese and then followed by a home-made cake or tart. There is wine on the table but most of us chose to take it easy as cooking class commenced at 3.00pm.

After lunch, we had a brief hour to rest and prepare for the foray into the kitchen. The bell rings at three and we congregated in the kitchen where we were presented with our aprons and cookbooks. For the first hour we sat around the table as Paola outlined the recipes for the day. Our class was not confined to just preparing three courses but consisted of an appetizer, pasta, main, and then a dessert course – also there were other dishes cooked during the session that will make their way to the lunch table the following day.

At around 5.30 – 6.00pm we took a break from the hive of activity in the kitchen and sat around a table outside to grab any passing breeze. To restore our energy levels, wine was available, fruit juice and for repast there was a tasty cake, tart or gelato that had been cooked by the class that day. Following the break, we reconvened in the kitchen to complete the list of tasks and recipes for the day. At 7.30 it was time for a quick dip in the pool and a shower before we enjoyed for a well-earned dinner under the stars where we tried the fruits of our labours.

This is a summary of what we cooked in the week:

Pasta e Pizza e Pane
• Pizza – mine was decidedly the oddest pizza on the table – a weird abstract square shape with a toppings that looked like a Picasso canvas
• Pane alle Patate e Rosmarino – potato and rosemary bread
• Rotolo con Broccoli e Ricotta – fresh pasta roll with broccoli and ricotta
• Fagottini di Branzino all Zafferano – pasta filled with sea bass and saffron sauce
• Ravioli da Asparagi con Pesto di Asparagi – pasta filled with asparagus and ricotta
• Ravioli di Barbabietola – beetroot ravioli with lemon and prawn sauce
• Ravioi di Funghi – ravioli with wild mushrooms
• Tortelli di Patate – ravioli filled with potato

Salsa e Sugo
• Salsa Verde – green parsley sauce. A great topping for bread and meats
• La Salsa – tomato sauce.
• Salsa alla Puttanesca. A great topping for crostini and pasta.
• Maionese – Mayonnaise. To vary the flavour add orange juice, Dijon mustard, or white wine vinegar
• La Mediterranea – fresh tomato sauce. This is an ideal topping for bruschetta
• Aromatic Salt – this can flavoured with a variety of herbs such as rosemary, zests of citrus, or rose petals
• Il Ragu – meat sauce
• Pesto de Zucchine – excellent in a vegetarian lasagne
• La Salsa di Senape – vinaigrette sauce

Contorni
• Melanzane con Tagliolini e Proscuitto – stuffed eggplant rolls with tomato sauce
• Muffin di Vedure – vegetable muffins
Primi Piatti
• Cheesecake al Pesto di Basilico – basil pesto cheesecake
• Souffle di Baccala – cod fish soufflé
• Zuppa di Cipolle – onion soup with Tuscan bread
• Sformato di Ricotta Tarufata – ricotta and truffle pie
• Millefoglie di Baccala e Porri su Crema di Rucola – cod fish and leesks with puff pastry on rocket cream

Secondi Piatti

• Faraona al vin Santo e Funghi Porcini – guinea fowl with vin santo and porcini mushrooms
• Petto di Pollo Farcito alle Olivi – involtini of chicken breast filled with olives
• Filetti di Pollo in Crosta di Pistacchio –chicken breasts with a pistachio nut crust
• Filetto di Maiale Croccante con Pistacchi – crunchy pork fillets with pistachios
• Coniglio alla Cacciatora – rabbit in a tomato sauce
• Vitello Arrosto con Porcini – roasted veal with porcini mushrooms
• Vitello Tonnato – veal with tuna sauce
• Fagottini de Ceci con Pori – chickpea “bags” with leeks

Dolce
• Cream di Zabione con Lingue di Gatto – zabione cream with cat’s tongue biscuits
• Cantuccini alla Mandorle – almond biscuits
• Panna Cotta
• Torta di Peshe ed Amaretti –peach and amaretti tart
• Rotolo di Cioccolato con panna – chocolate roll with cream
• Semifreddo alle noci e ciccolato bianco – walnut and white chocolate semifreddo
• Tiramasu

Delicious and loads of fun – I am happy to provide recipes on request – just drop me a line.

In the next Blog I am visiting a very special winery and chatting to the wine maker, a passionate goat cheese maker and more…

Categories: Cooking School, Food, Wine and Cooking, Italy, Language, Photography, Recipes, Travel, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Italy and La Bella Lingua – Who gives a fig?

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I am enjoying attending the Italian language school in Orvieto. Some days I feel I am making progress, then the black hand of stupidity strikes me dumb and all I can utter is complete nonsense. There are many linguistic pitfalls to avoid, such as, “la fica” is the singular for Fig Tree. However, the fruit is referred to in the plural as “le fiche” because the singular of fig is “fica” and colloquially means vagina (or worse in slang!!). So one has to be careful when buying figs in the fruit shop and not order 500gms of vagina!! However, the Italians have solved this confusion – when ordering figs they only use the plural – “le fiche”

Language can be a tricky beast. I was in a small restaurant in Orvieto and there was a young couple beside me who ordered tiramisu for desert. The plate arrived and it was a pool of creamy mascarpone flavoured with marsala and coffee. Sitting slightly submerged in this yummy pool of deliciousness were several lady finger biscuits which are traditionally used as the back bone of tiramasu. In the kitchen of trendy restaurants around the world the parlance to describe this on the menu would be a “deconstructed tiramisu”. However, the young man from an unknown European country, described his tiramisu as “decomposed”.

Many menus can make interesting reading – for instance:
• umbrichelli all’ortolana – local translation was “a home-made umbrichelli with a sauce of farmers juice”
• gnocchi con il sugo di pecorino – English explanation – home-made dumplings with a ragu of ship.  I am sure the writer meant “sheep”.

In addition to attending language school – I have undertaken to improve my photography skills. And so, I hooked up with a professional photographer living in Orvieto. Patrick Nicholas, originally from Oxford, England came to Italy in the early 80’s where he was a fashion photographer in Milan for some years before striking out and doing his own artistic thing.

My photographic tuition saw us making a number of excursions to  nearby towns in Umbria and Tuscany taking in the surrounding countryside. Patrick has been instructing me in the use of the digital SLR camera using only the manual settings. Not only was Patrick an expert in photography I enjoyed his company and insights of living and working in Italy for many years. So now I know (well sort of), the intricacies of shutter speed, F stops, ISO settings and many other mechanical things but also to focal length, light, time of day, the subject and context etc. So much to think about and get right before you can even press the button. The photos in the above slide show are a selection from our days together.

Sunday is a very important day for most families in Italy. It is a time to get together and enjoy a good meal, lots of chatter and of course enjoy the local vino. My Sunday lunch was a rave at Ristorante Antico Bucchero. This place has been in operation since 1989. The appetizer of very thin strips of smoked duck breast on a salad of radicchio with walnuts dressed with a sweet vinaigrette – delicious and a real winner. Secondo was vitello tonato – this is a cold dish of thin slices of poached or roasted nut of veal laid out over the plate and then a rich creamy sauce of blended tuna, capers, anchovies and garlic bound together in a rich egg mayonnaise and dotted with capers is spread liberally over the top. To accompany this, I selected a contorni (side dish of vegetables) of spinachi drizzled with olive oil with a hint of chillies which added that extra zing. Fantastic! No dolce today – even though the torrone nougat cream – a googy confection of cream, honey and almonds was tempting and of course the home-made chocolate gelato had me thinking but the fromaggio misto won the day.

The plate included – Caciotta an artisan, semi-soft, cheese made from about 70% ewes’ and 30% cows’ milk and has a firm, creamy consistency, and has a full flavour that ranges from mild to tangy. Of course every cheese plate within a radius of a few hundred kilometres will have some type of Pecorino on it. This cheese was a favourite of Lorenzo il Magnifico – that great renaissance Medici ruler. Pecorino is a cooked-milk cheese made with whole, raw milk from sheep. The wheels of cheese mature in very humid cellars and periodically their walnut leaf-wrapped rinds are damped first with olive oil, then with grease and wax. The big flavour on the plate was Gorganzola Dolce. Dolcelatte was developed for the British market to provide a milder smelling and tasting alternative to the famous traditional Italian blue cheese, Gorgonzola. It is sometimes referred to as Gorgonzola Dolce. The production method for dolcelatte is similar to the methods used to make Gorgonzola. One difference is that it is made from the curd of only one milking. It takes about two to three months to produce and age this cheese. The fat content of dolcelatte is higher than Gorgonzola at about 50%. That is why we like it – that rich creamy texture and the sharp tang of the blue coming through. Finally the fourth cheese on the plate was an aged parmesan – sharp, crumbly and salty. The plate was simply presented with a few walnuts and a small dish of lightly flavoured and crystal clear honey. Marvellous!

Categories: Food, Wine and Cooking, Italy, Language, Photography, Travel, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Pasta, Wine and Gelato – 7th Heaven in Italy

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Well, I have just finished week two of Italian language school. I celebrated by having a gelato – today’s flavours were Zuppa di Englese (based on an Italian custard dessert) and Capriccio (ribbons of chocolate, coffee and vanilla). There is a gelataria just 5 minutes away, so I don’t have far to travel to appease my yearnings. So far, my favourite varieties have been Bacci – whole toasted hazelnuts and shards of chocolate in a creamy chocolate ice cream, the other gelato is yoghurt flavour – a tangy creamy vanilla that is very refreshing on the palate. I reason that it must be good for you as it has yoghurt in it.

There are many shops that sell wine and cheese, fresh fruit and veg in town. Today on the way home I bought six fresh green figs – each delicate fruit wrapped in its own fig leaf – delicious. Also in season are: wonderful flat Sicilian peaches – the perfume of which is unbelievable – sweet, juicy and kissed by the sun; brilliant yellow bunches of zucchini flowers, plums, apricots and the best tomatoes grown on the planet. Great big ox heart tomatoes that are striped green and red, large egg tomatoes that are so red they seem to gleam, the sweetest and tastiest small egg tomatoes that are the size of cherries still all clinging to their vines. There are a number of fresh pasta shops nearby as well. Just a tiny doorway and a counter selling – raviolis stuffed with: pumpkin, meat, spinach and cheese, loops and piles of lovely yellow tagliatelle and spaghetti, pasta of all shapes and sizes.

Orvieto is the centre of a major wine producing area – God be praised! So far, I have worked my way along the bottom shelf at the parents in law enoteca. My pick so far is a Palazzone – Rubbio 2010 a mixture of sangiovese, cabernet and merlot. Euro 9.10 = $11. My new mission next week is to commence my research and work my way along the next shelf. The work ahead of me is daunting!

Also, the Orvieto area produces some of the best olive oil in Italy. Last week I had lunch at a restaurant and ordered an appetiser of crostini con pomodoro. The bread was soaked in the yummiest olive oil. I thought to myself – what does the colour green taste like? And the answer is – Italian olive oil. It is unctuous and like silk on your tongue with a hint of pepper. I followed the crostini with a fantastic spaghetti carbonara – spaghetti tossed in olive oil, a beaten egg, pecorino cheese and tiny cubes of salty, smoky pancetta.

Another dinner highlight, were soft pasta pillows filled with a cream of potato and fontina cheese. This cheese has a very high milk fat content so that just adds to the overall lusciousness of the filling. Then the cooked ravioli is tossed in olive oil, garlic, fresh cherry tomatoes and fresh basil with a dusting of Parmesan cheese.

This is a big meat eating area so I am missing my seafood, which you don’t see on menus here. However – I have compensated with some fantastic veal. Such as a grilled veal scaloppine with a sauce of fresh porcini mushrooms (wild mushrooms that grow in pine straw in the woods) accompanied by a wonderful full-bodied red.

You might think that all this food is costing a fortune. But, it is always a great surprise to receive the bill at the end of the meal or when you are out shopping and see that the cost of food is so reasonable for such fantastic fresh produce, none more so than at the fresh produce market that arrives in town twice a week. Stall holders set up in the piazza selling their own home grown vegetable produce. It is so fresh that the earth still clings to the roots. The cheese van is a major draw card. The padrone (owner) teasing the housewives while handing out little slivers of the cheese that you might to want to buy. The shelf groans under the weight of wheels of perorino, Parmesan, and other hard cheeses. In the fridge are the soft cheeses: mozzarella di bufala or mucca (cow), gorgonzola, ricotta etc. Then there is the porchetta van selling the most delicious roast pork. A whole pig has been boned out and then the inside is rubbed with herbs, salt and pepper, this is then rolled and tied and rotisseried over a fire. The end result is mouth-watering and yummy – juicy flesh and crunchy crackling make your mouth water just looking at it and the aroma is irresistible. There is the honey man with his jars of honey gathered from various herbs/grasses, flowers and trees. Each jar slightly different in colour and flavour and each has a specific food to accompany it or a specific recipe that it is used in. An Italian favourite is to drizzle honey over aged Parmesan; the salty, crumbly Parmesan is magic with an aromatic honey to satisfy that small space in your tummy at the end of a meal.

After a busy round of marketing it is gelato time – today’s gelati were ricotta with yummy bits of glace citrus on top and amarena – a vanilla ice cream that is flavoured with a dark cherry glaze and splinters of chocolate. To enjoy my gelati out of the heat I found a bit of shade in a small pizza. There is always something interesting or beautiful to look at. There is the variety of textures and colours of the walls – as the buildings weather over the centuries they mellow and become a myriad of warm earthy tones. The generations that have inhabited these ancient buildings have shown little regard to modernisation and you can appreciate the original architecture and decoration of the building by the fragments that remain behind. The walls have become a range of beautiful mellow tones of rusty reds, ochre, yellow, and grey, there are areas where the stucco has worn away and the original stones or bricks integral to its construction are showing through.

Amazingly, if you look carefully, you can often see the original roman bricks and roman columns and capitols, which have been scavenged from other buildings and then re used as ornamentation or fillers between the courses of stones or bricks. Those Romans really knew how to make things to last, and now hundreds of years later, new generations of builders are recycling – and we thought that recycling was a modern phenomenon.

The balconies, doorways and windows are embellished with intricate iron work for both an artistic perspective but also to deter intruders. Electrical wires and plumbing and drainage pipes that haphazardly drape outside the buildings like swags of Christmas lights (no safety codes here – if there are – they are plainly ignored).

A real surprise is when you spy the remnants of a wonderful fresco that was painted on the exterior of the building by long past artists whose names and talents are lost in the mists of times. The doorways and windows are surrounded in wonderfully carved stone lintels. Then of course, the doors themselves range from being impressively huge and intricately carved – testaments to the skills of the craftsman, to small shabby home-made jobs, banged together from a variety of mismatched planks that are hanging from one hinge.

Check out the next blog – Studying Italian

Categories: Food, Wine and Cooking, Italy, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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