Italy

Holiday Rental Abroad – A Checklist for a Hassle Free Holiday – Part 2

OK – now you know what “must have”, you can start looking and the first step is ….

Research, research and then some more research.

Sounds like a lot of hard work – but it is not if you look in the right places.

1. The internet
This is the easiest way to find a villa/apartment. But you may be overwhelmed by the volume of choice. My tip is refine your search as to the
• Location
• Type of accommodation
• Key characteristics that are important to you such as pool, golf, mountains, seaside etc

So examples search strings could be:
• “Luxury villa” + Tuscany + pool
• Budget + “holiday accommodation” + Italy
• “Apartment to rent”+ Venice + “San Marco”
• Beach+pool+villa+amalfi

When your internet search is delivered, look at the first few sites and see if they carry the stock of accommodation that you’re looking for. If not – refine your search string.

Don’t spend too long on each site but bookmark (add to your favourites) the websites that look interesting to come back to later for an in depth search. I tend to shortlist about 5 sites.

Now that you have your rental checklist of “must haves” as well as a shortlist of sites, the fun really begins.

Most sites have search criteria from which you can select, so plug in your “must haves” – number of bedrooms, rental period, pool, location, etc. Now carefully read the detailed descriptions and inclusions of each of the accommodations. If the details do not match your “must haves” there is no point getting hooked on the pretty pictures – move on. When you see a property that matches your criteria either print off the details and pictures, or bookmark that particular property.

I admit that I have a secret pleasure. Once I have a shortlist of say 10 properties I love to get into bed that night and read the detailed descriptions and peruse the pictures at leisure without interruption. I have found that during the night, while I sleep, one or two properties percolate up through my subconscious and in the morning, I have the shortlist in my mind. I then rate the property descriptions by most liked and least liked. That way I can concentrate on a handful of “most liked” properties for in-depth investigation.

Above all, make sure you carefully read what has been described, not what you “want” to read. It’s all too easy to “think” you read about some attribute only to find when you excitedly arrive at your destination that the swimming pool you’ve been dreaming about is in fact a paddling pool, or some such other disappointment!.

2. Ask friends and associates for referrals
Referrals are a great way to source accommodation. If other people have had a good experience when dealing with a particular vendor or renting a particular property, then half the hard work is already done for you.

However:
• Trusting someone else’s opinion is great as long as you have similar tastes and/or requirements.
• How long ago did they rent this property?
• What could have changed since then?
• Has the property been well maintained?
• Is the same vendor and or agent managing the peoperty?

3. Check out the bona fides of the agent/vendor before you send any money
I hear loads of people say they are nervous about dealing with vendors over the internet. I completely understand and have felt the same in the past. The following are a few tips that I use to check the bona fides of the vendor I am about to deal with:
• do they have a corporate website
• are there testimonials on the website
• check out the reviews the villa/apartment on Trip Advisor – contact the most recent reviewers and post a question
• start an email conversation with the vendor and get more information about items and conditions that are on your “must have” list
• ask for a phone number and call them
• ask for references from previous clients
• make sure that you have adequate travel insurance before you send any money

Money, Money, Money!

Once you have the numbers of participants confirmed, you need to receive a non-refundable deposit from them. This deposit is refundable only if other participants take their place. Otherwise other members of your group will have to absorb this extra financial burden.

OK – Now you have your ideal villa/apartment sorted it is time to get the finances sorted.
Show me the colour of your money
When renting with friends and family members you need to make sure that you get a firm financial commitment from them prior to you parting with any of your own hard earned cash. You certainly don’t want to commit to renting a 6 bedroom villa and then a month before you leave on your holiday, someone pulls out of the deal and leaves you carrying the financial burden.

So my advice is to get all your companions to “show you the colour of their money” (and commitment) early! Well before you have to make your initial deposit payment to the vendor.

I work on the basis that the individual cost will include:
• rent
• optional outgoings (air-con, heating, pool, chef, maid service, etc)
• housekeeping (this covers groceries, wine and liquor, household incidentals, etc).

What about housekeeping?

In the past I have found that asking everyone to chip into a housekeeping kitty prior to leaving is the best and the most hassle free way to manage the day-to-day expenses while you are living it up in your villa or apartment.

I have loaded the housekeeping kitty onto a designated credit or debit card for the sole use of making your purchases or getting cash from the ATM. I keep all the receipts and regularly reconcile these against the housekeeping kitty. This is the best way to make sure that everyone feels that there has been an equal contribution to the running expenses and also, as the organiser, you are not out of pocket.

Depending on your anticipated lifestyle, and the group that you are renting with, the housekeeping kitty can vary from $100 per day to $200 per day. That should be ample. Towards the end of the rental period if there are surplus funds in kitty, I have also paid for some meals when out at restaurants, entrance fees and bar bills etc.

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In the next blog I will give you some ideas of making the most of your holiday such as:
• discovering those exciting out of the way adventures
• finding the best local produce
• dining with the locals
• shopping
• making your villa a home away from home .

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

Holiday Rental Abroad – A Checklist for a Hassle Free Holiday – Part 1

“La Dolce Vita“

A Guide to Renting a Villa/Apartment

Do you want:
• a hassle free Italian vacation?
• to experience living in Italy and being part of the local scene?
• to be not just another tourist
• to eat great food just like the locals?
• to experience “la dolce vita”?

Yes?

Then the answer is; rent a villa or an apartment and get in touch with the real Italians and the unique experience of living the Italian dream.

Renting a villa or an apartment is a sure-fire way to have a fun holiday in Italy. Going to the local supermarket and doing your groceries, getting to know the butcher, the baker, the fruit and veggie man, the wine merchant (really important!), eating fabulous food at restaurants the locals go to, and discovering all those hidden out-of-the-way places that are not in the guide books.

I hear from lots of people that they would love to do this. But for many it just seems too hard, or they don’t know where to start, or they are afraid they will get ripped off.

I have rented apartments and villas all over Italy (and other countries) and I would like to share with you my guide to hassle free renting. Here is a checklist that will help you along on your journey:

Work out precisely what type of accommodation and location you want:
1. Who will your companions be for this rental; just you, or are your family joining you, are your friends coming along as well, and how well does everyone know each other?
2. How many bedrooms and what type of beds will you need in each room – – single, double, queen or king and is the linen provided? Also – be careful if bedrooms join each other, or you have to walk through a bedroom to the shared bathroom/toilet. Very difficult if you have a call of nature in the middle of the night.
3. How many bathrooms do you need – bath or shower? There is no point on having 12 people in a villa and have only 2 bathrooms/toilets. If the bathrooms are not en-suite, I work on the basis of one shared bathroom to 4 people. Separate toilets are a good idea if you have a large number of guests.
4. Is there a washing machine? Finding and then washing your clothes in a laundromat is no fun when on holiday.
5. Is there an outdoor entertaining area? You will want to eat your meals “al fresco” and enjoy those wonderful warm evenings.
6. Is there a pool? Usually pools are open from late May to October. Also, are there any costs incurred in running the pool?
7. Is there air conditioning or heating? Will you need to use this? Italy can be stiflingly hot in summer and freezing in autumn and winter, and importantly, is the cost included in the rent? If not – how is it calculated and paid for?
8. Are there extra cleaning services available and what is the cost per hour? When you are on holiday the last thing you want to be doing is scrubbing the toilets. It is a good idea to organise at least one to two extra cleans a week if there are a large number sharing over a period of a few weeks. Often, there is a weekly clean included in the weekly rental.
9. Is there a chef that will come to the villa and cook for you? Does the chef bring all the ingredients and is this included in the cost? Having a chef is a great idea if you are not in close proximity to restaurants, and after all, you are on holiday and you don’t want to cook dinner every night. Also, you can learn a few cooking tips to impress your friends when you return home.

I remember a holiday where I organised a chef to cook every second night. He was very open to showing us a few of his cooking techniques however most of my friends were uninterested in cooking lessons but when this Adonis turned up there was not one female left on the couch. Not only did he bring all the ingredients, prepare the food, serve and cleared the table, he then washed up and left the kitchen spotless. Worth every Euro I say!


10. What is the access to the villa? Are there many stairs or a steep pathway to your front door? Remember – everything that you carry in also has to be carried out and that includes your suitcases, groceries/wine, and no doubt, the many wonderful purchases that you will make during your Italian vacation. Also remember that all the trash has to be deposited in the communal garbage and recycling bins on the street.
11. Check the restrictions for car parking. Is there off-street parking and for how many cars? If not, what are the restrictions for on-street parking?
12. Is the accommodation in a quiet area? Check out Google maps/earth, or ask the vendor if it is close to a busy road, train line, industrial or commercial area. I once rented an apartment on a pedestrian only street in Taormina, Sicily. Great I thought – a really central location and no cars. Alas, people partied till the wee hours up and down the street and then all the commercial deliveries had to be made before 7.00am. Thank goodness the windows were double glazed.
13. Is there an Internet connection and/or mobile phone coverage? We are now totally reliant on easy communication and expect that we can call our family and connect to the internet anywhere we go. However – that is not the case in Italy. Find out if your accommodation is connected (wi-fi or dial-up) and is there a cost to you.
14. Is the accommodation child friendly? Stairs – internal and external, a fenced-in garden, a fenced- in pool area, is the garden area safe for children (water features, steep cliffs etc)?
15. Do you want to be close to a village or town? This is important because you will need a car to get around if you are in the countryside. If you have a car and you rent accommodation in a town or village what are the parking arrangements/costs?

16. What services does your local village or town have? Restaurants and bars, supermarket (co-op), specialty food vendors, bank and/or ATM etc, doctor, chemist, etc
17. What are the closest transport links? Train services vary in Italy from rapid express to very, very slow! What is the closest airport and car hire place?
18. What area of Italy do you want to vacation in? Are you hankering for a remote location to commune with nature? Or, are you an urbanite that needs to be near all the action? Or are you someone in between – nature and action? Check out what your locality has to offer: culture, art, music, scenery, nature walks, parks, gardens, boating, beaches, golf and tennis etc, shopping, wineries, food, historic locations, museums etc…
19. Consider the time of year that you take your holiday in Italy? Spring (March to May) and Autumn ( September to November – however take note that late October and November can be cold) are the best. Summer (June to August) can be really very hot especially late July and August. Note – Italians take their holidays in August and tend to holiday in Italy. Consequently, many shops and restaurants will be closed and the prime holiday destinations such as the seaside, islands and the mountains will be very crowded with holidaying Italians.
20. What are the costs?
• Rent per week/month (Remember to ask for a discount for longer bookings or when making low season bookings).
• Rent per week/month (ask for a discount for longer bookings or low season bookings)
• Money transfer costs/bank fees
• Consider the exchange rate – are the rental costs quoted in your currency or the Euro
• Security deposit (refundable how? and when?)
• Chef – paid directly to the chef or the booking agent/vendor
• Extra maid service – paid directly to the maid or the booking agent/vendor
• Extras such as – air conditioning, heating, pool etc
• Are there any other staff such as a gardener or housekeeper who may need to receive a tip?

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OK – now you have your list of “must haves”, you can start looking….

Next blog we will discover how to go about finding your ideal villa or apartment.

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Italy on a Plate – Pasta and Porcini

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Dievole is an enchanted valley not far from Siena. The name is synonymous with the vineyard that was established here over 1,000 years ago and has since been lovingly cultivated by generations of the families who have made this valley their home.

Today, Dievole is still an enchanted place. I spent ten wonderful days here sampling the wine, relishing great local food and fresh produce, enjoying warm Italian hospitality, and above all, marvelling at the fantastic and beautiful scenery; the lush valleys, the rolling hillsides covered in vines that were adopting their autumn colours of gold and red, the deep green oak forests that are home to wild boar, and the quaint stone-built villages clinging to the hillsides.

What bought me to Dievole was my interest in photography. I came to learn and refine my skills with a fantastic teacher – Chris Corradino from New York. It was a great experience to see Italy with fresh eyes and a different perspective through the camera lens.

Our week flew by with excursions to interesting and different vistas; an urban shoot in Firenze, exploring small villages, nosing around old buildings, capturing open spaces and dawn shoots to get that special light. We were faced with all sorts of technical and artistic challenges along the way which were quickly resolved with Chris’ encouragement. A sample of my photos accompanies this blog.

Dievole has a wonderful gastronomic history. I enjoyed many memorable meals and the opportunity to talk to the chef and waiters who are passionate about serving great food as they are about eating it. A couple of culinary highlights demonstrate the essence of Italian cooking to me – the use of fresh, local produce and letting the flavours of the food speak for themselves. In typical Italian fashion, dishes are not complicated by conflicting tastes, textures and are not swimming in sauces. Plates are simply and beautifully presented where the ingredients are king and not necessarily dominated by the person in the kitchen that put it altogether.

Pasta is a dish that illustrates the Italian food ideal of simplicity. Every locality and region in Italy has its own signature pasta and here in this corner of Tuscany, it is pici, also known as pinci. This is a hand-rolled, eggless thick spaghetti and a good example of “cucina povera” (poor man’s cuisine) — utilizing only flour, water, green Tuscan olive oil. Originating from the Val d’Orcia region (the area between Montalcino and Montepulciano). This pasta is best served with sauces such as: briciole – breadcrumbs, aglione – spicy garlic tomato sauce, boscaiola – porcini mushrooms, and ragù – a meat based sauce, game meat such as – cinghiale – wild boar, leper – hare and anatra – duck.
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Cooking Tip – What is the correct pasta serving size?

Firstly, how much pasta you need to cook depends on a number of factors – whether you are cooking a first course of a main course, the type of pasta you are cooking, and how hungry your guests are.
The general rule is that the amount of pasta to cook per person should be roughly:

•75g-115g/3oz-4oz dried pasta;
•115g-150g/4oz-5oz fresh pasta;
•175g-200g/6oz-7oz filled pasta, such as ravioli ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I have two recipes for you – one a quick and easy dish for a light lunch, and the other, is a heartier meal with complex rich flavours. You won’t be disappointed…

IMG_0296

Pici con Pomodoro e Porcini (serves 4)

Ingredients
• Pici pasta – fresh or dry (amount per the above guide)
• 2 tablespoons cold pressed extra virgin – a must
• 1 punnet ripe! cherry tomatoes
• 2 cloves finely chopped fresh garlic
• 250 mls dry white wine (and a glass for yourself)
• Thinly sliced porcini mushrooms (or others if you can’t find porcini)
• Salt and pepper
• Parmesan cheese

Method
1. Prepare the pasta according to the packet instructions and for the number of serves required
2. When the pasta is just al dente drain and coat with olive oil and keep warm
3. In a frying pan heat the olive oil and toss in chopped garlic and stir for a minute
4. Splash in some white wine and cook off for a minute
5. Toss in washed cherry tomatoes and heat through
6. Toss in the cooked pasta and heat through
7. Season to taste
8. Place on a flat serving plate and arrange the sliced fresh mushrooms on top
9. Offer parmesan cheese and a crusty bread roll.
10. Perfect with a dry white wine – pinot grigio or similar

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Ragu di Anatra (Duck Breast Ragu (serves 4)

Ingredients
• 20g butter
• 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
• 2 duck breasts (3 if small) trimmed of skin and excess fat, thinly sliced into strips
• 6 slices chopped pancetta
• 1 finely chopped onion
• 2 garlic cloves finely chopped
• 1 finely chopped carrot
• 1 finely chopped celery stalk
• 2 bay leaves
• 2 tbsp. tomato paste
• 250ml dry red wine such as Chianti (and of course a glass for you)
• 600g good-quality tomato pasta sauce
• 1 cup (250ml) chicken stock
• Grated parmesan, to serve

Method

1. Heat the butter and oil in a frypan over medium-high heat.
2. Cook the duck, in batches, until browned.
3. Remove duck with a slotted spoon and place in a bowl.
4. Drain all but 1 tablespoon oil from the pan and heat over medium heat.
5. Add pancetta, onion, garlic, carrot, celery and bay leaves to the pan and cook, stirring, for 2-3 minutes until they start to colour.
6. Return the duck to the pan with any resting juices,
7. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.
8. Add the red wine and cook for 2-3 minutes until the liquid has reduced slightly.
9. Add the tomato sauce and chicken stock, bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to low, cover and gently simmer for 45 minutes or until the duck is tender and the sauce has thickened slightly.
10. Season the sauce to taste and serve the ragu with the cooked pici
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Do you know any foodies? Please forward my blog to them and ask them to sign up – more fab recipes to come!

In my next blog I visit the olive oil press for an amazing treat.

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

Italy on a Plate – Pumpkin and Parmesan Custards – Yummy!!!

Italy has many festivals and “The Festa della Zucca” held in October in a small town Venzone – in the Friuli–Venezia which is Italy’s most North-Eastern region. Venzone is pumpkin central. The town center transforms itself into a Medieval carnival with fire eaters, jugglers and street dancers all parading in the streets which are lit by torches and candles. The locals get into the mood by dressing as nobles, knights and ladies, innkeepers, shopkeepers and merchants. The atmosphere is enhanced as the shops are decorated with pumpkins and gastronomic delights such as pumpkin pizza, pumpkin gnocchi, pumpkin crostini and more. The humble pumpkin is elevated to royal status for the occasion.

The origins of the Pumpkin Festival are legendary. The Noble of the village of Venzone wanted to beautify and fortify the town and used the townsfolk as labourers. On completion of the restoration, the workers were not rewarded including a special craftsman who was to decorate the copper dome of the Cathedral of Venzone with a golden ball. But he too was not paid for his work so he craftily replaced the ball on the golden dome of the cathedral with a pumpkin. The Noble realized that he was tricked by the artist only on the day when the ball fell from its position on the dome and smashed to the ground.

Recently I had 8 friends for lunch and like every cook, planning the meal is half the fun. Poring over the cook books, being inspired by far a way places and cuisines and salivating over sumptuous and mouth-watering food photos. However, this time I decided to cook lunch using some of the recipes that I received at the Casa Ombuto cooking school in Tuscany last year. You can read more about this in my other blogs.

The lunch menu was:
Antipasto – Filo Cups filled with Aubergine Sauce (salsa con melanzane)
Prima Piatti – Pumpkin and Parmesan custards (Copette di zucca e parmigiano)
Secondo Piatti – “Jump in the Mouth” Veal with Sage and Ham (saltimbocca alla romana)
Dolce – Tiramasu (this literally means “pick you up”

The Pumpkin and Parmesan Custards were real winners as they were a new taste sensation and a different approach to serving pumpkin. The result is a lovely creamy custard that is slightly sweet from the pumpkin and the complex hint of the smoked cheese. I think the smokier the cheese the better.

So here is the recipe for you to try….
Ingredients
• 350 gms of cooked and pureed pumpkin
• 320 ml pouring cream
• 2 eggs
• 1 tablespoon grated smoked cheese (I used smoked cheddar)
• 50 gms grated parmesan cheese
• Salt and pepper to taste

Method

1. Preheat oven to 150 degrees
2. Pass cooked and pureed pumpkin through a sieve
3. Mix pumpkin, cream and smoked cheese and salt and pepper until smooth
4. Add the eggs and mix well
5. Pour into individual heat proof ramekins
6. Bake in a “bagno maria” (a water bath) for about 45 minutes or until the cream has thickened when you give it a gentle shake
7. Take out of oven and sprinkle about a teaspoon of grated parmesan cheese on top of each custard
8. Place under a hot grill until the cheese is golden brown
9. Serve warm with some crusty bread and a full-bodied white wine – maybe a pinot grigio from Fruili.

Happy cooking and eating… do you have any other favourite Italian dishes that you would like the recipe for? Just drop me a line in the comment box below.

For information, prices and dates for cooking schools in Tuscany please contact me at varley.e@gmail.com

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

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

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

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