Agriturismo Abruzzo

Italian cuisine is rated highly throughout the world and living in Italy means I’m never far from an excellent restaurant. Last week a party of us went to a local agriturismo for dinner to celebrate a friends birthday.

The word agriturismo comes from the combination of agriculture and tourism. Agriturismi (plural) receive tax incentives and must therefore qualify for these. According to national law: Legge 20 February 2006, n.96, to qualify 51% of your income must come from farming with the remaining 49% made up from holiday letting, providing recreational or educational farm visits and of course catering.  If meals are offered, foods must include products produced by the farm or by local cooperative of which the farm is a member.

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In 2015 we visited Agriturismo Travaglini which is near Casoli and since then have tried many others in the local area. When we were talking about which one to go to, we all agreed that it was at the Traviglini family’s agriturismo where we had eaten the best food previously, so without hesitation we booked a table.

We arrived to a warm welcome from Claudia, who then introduced us to her parents Antonio and Maria and then explained to us how she’d be cooking the main course on the open fire. Which is a round dish placed under a cover and the charcoal and wood placed around it and on top.

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We settled at the table and after wine and water had been served the dishes started to arrive. Antipasti comprised of home made salami, cheese and cured meats, toasted cheese and other goodies also arrived. We were delighted with the polenta with sausage; most of our group don’t usually eat it as it can be grainy but this was as smooth as a perfect mashed potato. Cheese and egg balls with aubergine arrived and we chatted as we ate from this menu of many treasures, before the pasta with a broccoli sauce arrived.

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Our main course of potatoes and pork was served with crisp green beans and aubergine and as we ate the conversation stopped and the room fell silent. The potatoes were fluffy on the inside and roasted perfectly and the meat just fell away from the bone. It was perfection in a roasting tin.

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Fruit followed for dolce and then Claudia arrived with a birthday cake and a bottle of Prosecco. At the end of the evening we had enough space left to fit in a grappa and a coffee before we left feeling full and completely satisfied.

If you’re in the area and want to experience real Abruzzese cooking and hospitality then I can whole heartedly recommend Agriturismo Travaglini, you won’t be disappointed. But call to book a table first and make sure you’ve an empty stomach.

Agriturismo Travaglini. Via Piano delle Vigne 65, 66043 Casoli

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The Last Festa

Our town’s last big festa took place last week, the celebrations in honour of Santa Reparata e San Gilberto take place from October 1st to 9th, with church services building up to three days of entertainment and community interaction. I’ve not been to the festa for a couple of years and this year decided to go to the last night as the posters around the area advertised that Arisa was the headline act.

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We arrived and walked up the main street beneath the tunnel of brilliant lights that are fixed to wooden poles that look so fragile you’d be forgiven for thinking this is a feat of engineering that defies logic. We stroll slowly taking in the array of stalls selling everything from arrosticini to hot chestnuts.The newly opened kebab outlet is filled with young people eager to try this new take-away that’s arrived in town, their parents opt for the more traditional porchetta panino. The obligatory porchetta vans have queues waiting for the fragrant roasted pork between bread, and three proprietors vie for the custom of the people here to enjoy this crisp, cold evening.

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It’s immature I know but as I walk past Signor Leonelli’s store selling hot shelled peanuts I snigger as I turn to my friend and say, “Mr Leonelli has hot nuts”. Children can be heard whooping with delight on the fairground rides and the man on the Nutella stall is calling out for people to try his chocolate and hazelnut slavered crepes.

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Walking back from the fairground we chance upon a friend working on a stall advertising artisan beers and we purchase two large glasses and enjoy them sat looking out over the newly refurbished belvedere, (a paved area looking over the countryside).

The crowds are starting to gather up at the piazza where the stage is and the most experienced festa-goers have come prepared bringing their own chairs. BB4

Every available space to sit is taken up, the cafe opposite is filled with people and its till is ringing with appreciation. Steps opposite the stage start to fill with people who’d rather sit, despite the cold that must numb their behinds than stand to watch the show, .

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We stand waiting in anticipation and eventually with the crowd so closely packed there’s no time to think about personal space, Arisa takes to the stage. In my opinion it’s a bit of an anti-climax; strolling on in ripped jeans and a leather jacket she waves to the crowd. A melancholy tune plays and she sings a slow ballad; in my opinion not the best way to start a show. This down-tempo song is followed by another ballad, then another and by the time we’ve witnessed five pedestrian tunes I’ve had enough. Maybe the name of her tour should have given me a clue to the style of the show, Ho Perso Il Mio Amore (I Lost My Love). Unhappy that we’d not heard any of her quirky upbeat tunes like Malamoreno or Sincerita coupled with the view being inhibited by phones recording the show we decide to leave.

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We struggle to extricate ourselves from the crowd and make our way through the now quieter streets, people are sat eating at small pop up eateries and the man selling pizza from his white van complete with wood burning oven has a large queue. I take one last look back at the castle illuminated against the blackened sky and drive home. At midnight we sit outside listening to the bangs and crashes of fireworks as the sky becomes illuminated with a pallet of fluorescent colours.

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Summer Season

Twelve weeks have slipped by since I last added to this blog and I apologise for neglecting it. I’d like to say it’s because I’ve been too busy with work, however that’d only be a half truth as I’ve also been busy eating out and enjoying the summer.

It’s eating out during the tourist season that I’m writing about today. Out of season the restaurants are very happy for the local population to patronise their establishments and are often more attentive. However as soon as the tourists arrive the attitude as well as the food changes.

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I was having a conversation with a friend about this a month or so back after we had visited a restaurant we’d visited many times before and had a terrible experience. The season was winding down and when we entered the almost empty dining room we noticed that parts of the bar were already being packed away, meaning the small eatery will probably close over the autumn and winter months. Fair enough, if there’s not the custom to make it worthwhile opening then it makes sense, but surely if they remain open to diners they can pack up later. The waitress (eventually) strolled over to take our order and everything we asked for off their menu was no longer available. Sorry no pizza, sorry no fries, sorry no vongole, sorry no white wine, sorry red wine either only rosé. We all decided that as there was nothing available that we wanted we’d leave. The final insult after many weeks of eating there was to hear the waitress moan to the owner about us being miserable English tourists. Suffice to say, despite your usually friendly staff and great food, we’ll not be back again.

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One thing we as stranieri, ex-pats, immigrants, or however we label ourselves have noticed is that when the area is full of tourists the food quality in some not all establishments drops from excellent to average and portion sizes shrink faster than a slimmer at Weightwatchers. Service becomes rushed and the waiters that out of season are pleased to see you become less attentive; I put that down to increased trade, but regular patrons and locals do seem to get a rum deal when the tourists are in town.

I’m sure this isn’t indicative of just our area, I’m sure it must go on all over the world where bars and restaurants cater to tourists – it’s just a shame that it can make you reconsider where you’ll be spending your euro the following summer.

Discover Nature’s Magic

We’re lucky here in Abruzzo, there’s always something to keep us occupied; treks into the national parks, a visit to one of the many places of historical interest or simply quiet contemplation beside the sea. This region of Italy is so diverse, making it a great place to immerse yourself and take time out to visit more than your average tourist haunt. Despite not being a tourist I still enjoy a day trip out and at the end of last month we found a unique gem of a place, a perfect place for families with children and anyone who has an interest in living as naturally as possible.

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The place we discovered is situated in the L’Aquila region and is called, Fattoria Valle Magica (Magic Valley Farm). The farm may sit in a valley with awe-inspiring views of the rugged wilderness surrounding it, but what is more inspiring is the concept and ethos of the farm which is the brainchild of Ralph and Ninke.

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Our visit started with a warm welcome from Ralph and his family before he began to explain the vision for the farm. He explained that fed up with the stress of modern living and checking labels to see what his 4 children were eating, the family purchased the house and land and in the spring of 2015 began transforming a wild and neglected terrain into a place where they could raise rare breeds organically and live as naturally as possible.

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While we looked at the sheep and goats Ralph explained that the farm focuses on breeding and conserving rare and traditional Italian breeds that are no longer used in modern commercial farming. Using organic sensibilities these breeds may take longer to mature but the emphasis swings closer to the welfare of the animal rather than the profit margins. A quick call summoned a deluge of happy pigs that ran towards us from where they’d been foraging and we could see for ourselves how the group enjoyed living life as nature intended.

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We took a tour of the farm seeing the immense amount of work that had gone on to fence areas to protect the livestock from the local wolves: Ralph dug and sited around 700 fence posts by hand. We met the chickens, rabbits, turkeys and his collection of hives before heading back to the BBQ area for a glass of wine and to sample some home reared lonza (cured pork loin).

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The farm has plans to open an education centre and to welcome people for visits where they can purchase produce to take home or to cook al fresco in the BBQ area. We enjoyed our visit very much and found it both educational and thought provoking.

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If you’re visiting Abruzzo and looking for something different then I recommend you give Magic Valley Farm a visit, who knows you may even be lucky to help out with feeding the contented animals that reside there. The address for visits is, Località Ponte Amaro, 67020 Carapelle Calvisio AQ, Italy. But please note as this is a working farm and all bookings must be made in advance, to make a booking or for more information click this Website link

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Our day came to a close with us purchasing the produce we had originally ordered and we left Ralph to settle in his newly arrived native Abruzzese black pigs.

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As a postscript I can confirm that the quality of the produce we purchased surpassed anything we have previously bought from supermarkets and commercially farmed butchers.

Courgette and Lemon Cake

Yesterday at the supermarket we ran into a friend who had been working in her orto and she kindly gave us some of her surplus round courgettes. So when I got home I looked at these lovely sunshine coloured globes and wondered what to do with them. Then the word, cake popped into my head and I thought: I know, I’ll make a carrot cake but without carrots I’ll use courgettes.

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So I adapted my carrot cake recipe and here’s the ingredients: I used:

350g grated courgettes. 200g soft brown sugar.  300g plain flour. 2 tsp baking powder.      3 eggs.125ml sunflower oil. 1 tsp butterscotch essence. Zest of a lemon. Juice of half a lemon.DSCF2250

First squeeze as much water out of the grated courgettes then add them to a bowl alongside the oil, eggs, sugar and lemon juice and zest. I added the butterscotch essence as I had no vanilla, but to be honest it didn’t add anything to final cake flavour. Mix together then fold in the flour and baking powder, but don’t over mix it.

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    Make sure you have the oven pre-heated to 180C (160C fan) gas mark 4. Grease and line the base of your chosen cake tin and fill with the cake mixture.

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Bake in the middle of the oven for 40-45 minutes until it’s golden coloured and the kitchen smells all nice and cakey. (that’s a correct technical term – Mary Berry told me)*

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Similar to carrot cake it’s a dense crumbed cake but unlike carrot cake I decided not to do a cheese frosting and opted for Mary Berry’s recipe for lemon drizzle, which is 50g of granulated sugar and juice of a lemon. Mix together and pour over the warm cake. Let it cool and then scoff at will.

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* blatant lie

Butternut and Walnut Ravioli

I’ve only once before attempted to make pasta and it tasted so diabolical that the expensive pasta machine languished in a cupboard for years before being consigned to the bin. So after trying a friend’s home made pasta this week I thought I’d give it another go. But of course not a simple spaghetti for me, no I want to make a ravioli. So I looked through the freezer and found some roasted butternut squash from last autumn’s harvest and in the kitchen cupboard was some walnuts. So I set out making my pasta, which is basically 1 medium sized egg to 100g of 00 flour. I mixed and kneaded the pasta for a few minutes until it formed a nice ball and wrapped in cling film it was popped it into the fridge to rest.

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Next I chopped the walnuts and added them to the butternut which was warming in a saucepan, to this I added some nutmeg and stirred it all together making a bright ball of orange filling. This was put aside to cool.

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I retrieved the chilled pasta from the fridge and set about rolling it out thinly, which is no mean feat on a hot Italian afternoon.

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I cut my pasta into strips and then using a new ravioli cutter I started to assemble the promised pouches of pleasure, however the ravioli cutter broke on the first use and I had to start again with a roller cutter.

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Once I’d made my first ever batch of ravioli, they were popped into the fridge to relax a while and I set a pan of water on to boil and washed fresh sage from the garden.

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With water on a rolling boil they were dropped in with affection as sage butter bubbled on the hob. minutes later they we scooped out and plated up.

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This may not be the most uniform plate of ravioli, or the prettiest, but served with a few shavings of provolone piccante they were devoured with gusto. I don’t think I’m a culinary threat to the local community, but I’m proud I gave making pasta another go.

North to South Sauce

I was thinking about polenta the other day, it’s something I hated until I had it made by an Italian. My first moment of having a good dish was during a Christmas lunch at a local hotel in Fara San Martino. It tasted comforting and rustic, perfect for a chilly December day. I’ve since had it many times in restaurants, but rarely cook it at home. I did once try making it with porcini mushrooms, using the water they’d been rehydrated in. It looked like brown sludge and was consigned to the bin.

In the north of Italy polenta is served with many things but the most famous dish is polenta and sausages, served on vast wooden boards, where the diners all share the meal. I was thinking about having a go at making this when I remembered a friend of mine from Calabria loves sausages. Like all Calabrese they have to be hot spicy ones. So the cogs within my mind began to turn, synapses and neurotransmitters did whatever they’re supposed to do and an idea formed. What if I made a fusion of northern and southern Italian food?

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First I would need something to serve with the polenta so I started to devise a sauce taking in traits from the north. I wanted a homage to Bologna, so a typical Bolognese made like they do up north with good beef mince would be the base, and just like a true Bolognese there’d be no tinned tomatoes or passata, and it has be finished properly with a dash of cream. Now I needed the Calabrese element, so in came the sausages and some sweet fresh Datterini tomatoes and for the heat, chilli and some spicy salami.

So with my idea fully formed I needed to find a victim friend to test it upon, so I called Susie who writes the Abruzzo Dreaming blog and invited her to lunch.

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For my north and south sauce you’ll need:

1 carrot, 1 medium onion and a stick of celery to make the soffritto (I used 200g of frozen pre-packed soffritto from the local supermarket). 1 large red chilli. 12 datterini tomatoes cut into quarters (cherry will do if you can’t get these). 200 ml beef stock (again out of my freezer). 3 garlic cloves. 100g beef mince 100g pork sausage meat 3 slices salami picante (Ventricina is good and is becoming popular in the UK). 2 tablespoons of cream. Couple of sprigs of fresh thyme and salt and pepper to season.

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To start add a little olive oil (not extra virgin) to a pan and add a knob of unsalted butter. Add the garlic cloves whole but slightly crushed as we just want their aroma. Fry the soffritto, tomatoes and chilli and cook until the mixture is soft, then add a splash of Italian bitters, like aperol or bitterol, if you can’t get this, use Campari or a strong red wine. Let the alcohol diffuse then put the mixture to one side.

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To the still hot pan add the sausage meat, mince and spicy salami cut into thin strips and fry without any extra oil, keep making sure you get those caramelised bits from the bottom of the pan incorporated into the mixture.

Season with salt and pepper and then remove the garlic cloves from the cooled soffritto mix, add to this a tablespoon of tomato puree and add to the cooked meat. Stir well and then add the beef stock and bring to the boil. Once boiling turn down the heat and let it simmer for 35 minutes as the liquid reduces.

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During the last five minutes finish with the thyme, which is a nod towards the herby northern cuisine and stir through the cream.

Make polenta as normal using either a vegetable or a beef stock and serve in bowls and tuck in. This recipe could easily feed four people so half was packed away into a plastic carton and stowed away in my trusty freezer for another day when I’m feeling like uniting the north with the south once again.

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It was lovely, and I made a watermelon raita just in case it was too spicy, but the balance was good, so Susie was given the raita to take home.

Time Travelling

Last night whilst watching the BBC program, Second Chance Summer, where a group of English people experience living in Tuscany: The objective of the show is to discover if any of them will choose to remain in Italy. Two did choose to stay but it was a comment one of the women made that struck a chord with me. She said that although she liked being in Italy it was like travelling back in time. At first I agreed, but then I thought saying that could actually be quite insulting, as it could infer that the country hadn’t progressed. (But I’m sure she meant it in a nice way).

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Rural Italy is very different from the urban sprawl of Milan, Turin and the other major cities; in fact the difference between southern and northern Italy is blatantly tangible. Things here in rural communities go on as they have done for decades. Today Mario is in his olive grove pruning his trees as he and his family have done for years. The centre of the tree is opened up to allow air to circulate through the branches giving it the familiar vase shape. You could be forgiven for thinking it’s like travelling back in time but it’s a very different situation. Today Mario is using an electric saw connected to a generator whereas if we went back in time it’d be a hand saw. Today the cut branches will be loaded onto a motorised trailer and taken to his wood store rather than in the past a donkey.

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I think the charm of Italy is that much has remained unchanged, towns are still mostly made up of original old buildings giving it that ancient feel. Take Rome for instance, everywhere you look there’s an old palazzo and terracotta tiled roof. This gives an impression of travelling back in time, however look closer and you’ll spot the satellite dishes and solar panels.

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Here in Abruzzo we’re reminded of the region’s history, the coastline is dotted with trabocchi; ancient fishing stations that are still used today. You’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s a romantic notion to continue with tradition, but you couldn’t be further from the truth. The reason why people still fish from a trabocco is that they’re effective. Olives are maintained as they have always been because it’s a fool proof method of cultivation. Backs ache after plots of land are planted up with tomato and pepper plants as they’ve been for years. At times it’s a hard life but rewarding one, but it’s not like going back in time because as time moves on it’s the tried and tested methods that survive through becoming adaptable.

It’s not Rocket Science

I was watching a British chef on television this week enthusing about risotto; in fact he was making so much noise about it’s preparation that you’d think he was solving complex equations rather than making a simple Italian rice dish. I turned off the TV and went shopping for some ingredients to make my own and so here’s my recipe for pancetta and asparagus risotto with none of the bells and whistles. For this recipe which serves 4 people, you’ll need:

1 red onion. 500g Arborio rice*. 500g asparagus. 100g soft cheese. 100g cubed pancetta. 400 ml vegetable stock and 2 garlic cloves. You’ll need salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon to season. A glass of white wine and my special asparagus stock.

To make my asparagus stock for extra flavour, Snap off the bottom inch or so of the asparagus using your fingers; the stems will naturally break where the tough woody part ends and the tender stem begins, then cut the green tip from the woody stem and add to 600 ml of boiling water. Let the asparagus cook until the water has reduced by half and the stems are so soft they can be crushed between a finger and thumb. Add to a blender and whizz up into a green liquid.

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Now you’re ready to make the risotto. Chop the onion roughly, no need to create equal sided cubes as years ago I was told by an Italian restaurant owner that risotto should be rustic and comforting. Flash fry the onion and pancetta in a little olive oil (not extra virgin) for 3 or 4 minutes and then put to one side. To the pan add some olive oil and when hot add the rice and the 2 whole garlic cloves, stir the rice until it’s got a coating of oil then add the white wine and stir again before removing and discarding the garlic cloves as we just want a hint of its flavour. Add the pancetta and onion followed by the 300 ml of asparagus broth; don’t go in for all of this a ladle full at a time nonsense, just pour it in and keep the rice moving as it starts to cook.

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When the rice has absorbed the liquid turn the pan on the hob 180 degrees; this stops the rice sticking and burning in one spot of the pan. Add half of the vegetable stock and continue stirring, add salt and pepper to season and repeat when the liquid has been once more absorbed. Once the rice is cooked and the liquid absorbed take it off the heat and add the soft cheese and place a lid or a plate over the pan as it melts into the rice.

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I use stracchino, a young cow’s milk cheese also know as crescenza, if you don’t want to add cheese simply substitute it for 50g of unsalted butter. Once it’s melted I give the pot one final stir and a squeeze of lemon juice and it’s ready to serve up.

I had one lonely slice of ham languishing in my fridge so I ripped it up and tossed this into the pot alongside the onion and pancetta rather than waste it. If you have a few left-over mushrooms you could add these if you like, in fact anything can be added to a risotto to save waste.

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* If you prefer your risotto made with either Roma or Carnaroli rice this is okay, I use Arborio as that’s my personal preference.

There you have it, una ricetta semplice (a simple recipe) for risotto without all the fussing and faffing of a television chef.