It’s all about food

Coming from Stoke on Trent in the UK I’ve discovered something that people from my town of birth have in common with the Italian people.

What can this be?

It’s food.

In Stoke people are always talking about food, you’ll often be asked what you had for breakfast, and even straight after dinner (we Stokies call lunch, dinner) you’ll be asked what you’re going to be having for your tea, (we Stokies call dinner, tea).

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The Italian people are passionate about food, mention that you’re going to the coast for a fish lunch and they’ll ask where will you be eating? What will you be having?  Talk about dinner the night before and they’ll ask how you prepared it and they are happy if you give them a step by step account of your cooking methods and ingredients.

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In Stoke the local delicacy is the oatcake, a soft savoury pancake made from oatmeal that’s served with breakfast ingredients like bacon, eggs, sausages etc. and local people are devoted to them.

In Abruzzo the local delicacy is arrosticini. Mutton skewers, more often than not, cooked out in the open and devoured with gusto with bread simply drizzled with olive oil and the local population love them.

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As summer brings in the warmer weather the one thing people from Italy and the UK have in common is eating outside. Italian’s like nothing better than meat cooked ‘sul braciere’ on the brazier, meaning over charcoal in the same way the Brits love their lamb chops and burgers cooked al fresco on the BBQ.

Maybe we’re not that different after all.

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Stone House Misconceptions

One phrase I hear a lot when taking clients around to view properties is, “I’d love a house built with local stone.’’ Rarely are people saying this because of its appearance and natural beauty, it’s largely down to their concept of temperature. Many times I hear them say, “Stone houses are cooler in the summer,” or “Stone buildings are warmer in the winter.” This is one of the popular misconceptions people have, so I’ll set the record straight here in a short blog entry cataloguing my experience of living in a house made of stone.

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Stone built houses are not cooler in summer, in fact they can be oppressively hot. During the day the stones are warmed by the sun and at night release that heat like Satan’s storage heaters. The only way to keep an Italian stone house cooler in summer is to have smaller windows and the shutters or blinds closed during the day and one of the best things we ever invested in was an air-conditioning unit. Tiled floors rather than carpet are good for giving your bare feet respite from the heat. IMG_4402

The opposite happens in the winter, the stones have cooled and are now cold. the frigidity seeps through the plaster making the walls cold. This is where the next best investment kicks in, the wood burner. Granted, once the room and walls are warmed by the fire the thickness of the stone helps to insulate the property and keep the temperature up. However over night when the fire has gone out the chill sets in once again.

And those cold tiled floors are not friends to bare feet in winter.

Fare La Scarpetta

While having lunch with friends this week, Steve said, one of the things he likes about Italy is that it’s socially acceptable to dip your bread into your sauce.This reminded me of an article I wrote for Italy Magazine when I wrote for them. So I’ll share it with you all, and some images of bell’abruzzo.

Fare la scarpetta is a phrase in the Italian language that’s close to the heart of everyone who has enjoyed a delicious plate of pasta with sauce. Meaning “make the little shoe,” it refers to the small piece of bread used to mop up the last of the sauce on your plate.

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This end to a meal ritual is vastly popular all over Italy; however, where it originates is still open to debate. There’s one theory that the practice began in Venice, though bread wasn’t usually served with pasta in northern Italy, whereas it was in the south of the country, therefore it is implausible to assume it originated there.

In his book about medieval eating habits, Fabrizio Vanni proposes that the act took place following the introduction of tomatoes to the Italian diet back in the late 16th century. Before this time sauces tended to be thicker and more robust; with the introduction of the tomato, sauces became lighter and therefore required mopping up. Another suggestion regarding the origin of la scarpetta is that back in a time when wasting food was frowned upon, the bread merely became a tool to be used much like cutlery.

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A Calabrese friend of mine who tells me the phrase has its origins in Southern dialect prefers to have a more romantic notion regarding la scarpetta. He is convinced it stems from the heart of cucina povera (poor cuisine), from a time when people were literally so hungry they’d have eaten the soles of their shoes. He says when you are unsure when you’ll eat next, it made sense to mop up every last drop of sauce.

As with many Italian expressions, the reasoning behind the phrase is visual: during the practice of sweeping the bread across the plate the finger becomes the leg that pushes the bread which becomes the shoe. It’s not only an essential part of an Italian meal, but it is seen as a way to extend the pleasure of the repast.

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This said there is a time when making the little shoe is frowned upon and Giovanni Della Casa explained it in Il Galateo, his guide to the rules of polite behaviour and etiquette: it is acceptable to engage in the practice during an informal meal, however, in a formal setting and in public, when making the little shoe you must use a fork and not your finger to move it across the plate.

Keeping it Local

One thing people often ask about coming to live here is, “Is it easy to fit in?” There’s no definitive answer to that question as I guess quite a lot depends upon how much you want to fit in, and also how much of an effort you’re prepared to make. I can say, don’t expect to assimilate in a matter of months. Becoming a part of any community takes give and take and what you need to remember is you’re trying to become part of an established population, so it’s mostly giving rather than taking.

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A lot of people who move here are retiring to enjoy the slower pace of life. One thing that we are lucky to have here is that the majority of Italians are welcoming of foreigners. They appreciate their buying of houses they’ll never be able to sell and understand that by coming here the local economy benefits.

One piece of advice I always give people is to use the small independent shops as often as you can, rather than the larger impersonal supermarkets. Yes the produce may be a few cents more expensive but the service you get is priceless. For example, we have a very good local independent supermarket just a 10 minute drive away. The gardens are always welcoming and well kept; even the mini roundabout in the car park is in full bloom continuously.

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People often say it’s more expensive, but here you find branded products rather than supermarket own brands and if like me you prefer your cooked meat to be freshly sliced rather than sat in a plastic packet, then here you’re in luck. My friend; yes she’s become that over the years of shopping there; will cut as many slices of good quality prosciutto cotto or spicy ventricina that you want. The weather is commented upon, we talk about work, we laugh and she’s always on hand to give advice on which product is the best: After years of eating mass produced supermarket polenta she pointed me in the right direction of a superb local brand.

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Here there’s more pasta than you ever imagined and all the top brands, wines and spirits and canned goods. Just by walking through the door you can purchase storage jars and soap powder through to shoe polish and spices. The staff are always happy to see you and everyone is greeted personally. But importantly it’s the customers that can help you in your quest to fit in with the local population.

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The independent shops do not have the same opening hours the supermarkets have, they’re mostly open until lunchtime then close for lunch and re-open in the early evening for a few more hours. Just getting into this rhythm is a step toward assimilation, as you meet your neighbours and it’s a chance to pass the time of day and often be told just how to cook that piece of meat you’ve chosen.

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And of course, with each visit you’re contributing to the local economy, you’re treated with respect and often get discounts or gifts for your continued custom, not to mention superb locally sourced produce. I know all the staff in my nearest independent store and always prefer to shop there, because it’s good to keep it local.

Flavoursome Fuel

Cucina povera is an Italian phrase meaning the cuisine of the poor, or peasant cooking; the literal translation is, poor kitchen. The reason I mention this is because a few nights ago I was watching TV and I heard a chef say, food is fuel. I thought this was an odd thing for a professional to say, as most chefs want us to believe they are creating gastronomic masterpieces rather than just filling us up with the culinary equivalent to diesel.

The concept of cucina povera is becoming trendy with many chefs now serving up platters of rustic food. However ask any aged Italian about it and they’ll shrug at the concept, saying it’s a romantic notion to give the humble cooking they grew up with out of necessity a fancy name.

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You could say that peasant food could be classed as fuel, as traditionally it was served up solely to stave off hunger and to nourish the peasant farmers. The concept is to create meals from what you have, be it from the garden or the store cupboard. One of the staples of poor food is polenta and if made well it can be as comforting as a bowl of creamy mashed potato. So last night I grabbed a few items from the store cupboard and made a simple but satisfying supper.

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Polenta is cheap but commercially produced brands can be gritty, so I prefer to use a local brand that’s extra fine and results in a soft texture. I rehydrated some porcini mushrooms, made a tomato and sausage sauce and after cooking the polenta in home made chicken stock, I served it up and sat in front to the log burner enjoying a satisfying supper.

Luscious Lunch

My Gorgonzola and Mushroom Soup.

When the weather refuses to warm up and there’s more dampness around than that from a slavering dog at a banquet, what better way is there to face the day than, light the log burner, close the doors and make something warm and nourishing for lunch. Today while the valley was obscured by fog and the ground underfoot resembled a sponge I decided to make my Gorgonzola and mushroom soup for lunch, and thought I’d share the recipe with you all.

Many people seem wary of making mushroom soup for fear of it becoming a slimy tasteless mess. But there’s no need to be with this recipe, it’s so easy a complete kitchen novice could make it. The ingredients are:

35 g Unsalted butter. 250 g mushrooms. 50 g Gorgonzola. 400 ml stock. 1 medium white onion.     2 garlic cloves. 1tsp salt. 2tbs paprika. 3tbs flour. Sprig of fresh thyme. A splash of both lemon juice and whole milk.

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Chop the onion; not too fine this is a rustic hearty soup. Peel and chop the garlic and then set aside. Melt the butter over a medium heat and sweat off the onions for 5 minutes, adding the salt to them (this helps them to release their moisture and prevents early browning). after 5 minutes add the garlic and continue to sweat for a further 2 minutes before adding the mushrooms. Stir the mixture into the butter and then add the paprika. The mix may seem dry at this point but don’t worry, as after the mushrooms take on the colour of the paprika add a good splash of lemon juice. (Shop bought from a plastic lemon is fine for this recipe.)

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Stir for a minute or two then add a sprig of fresh thyme and the stock. (Vegetable stock is good, but I tend to use homemade chicken stock as I always have some in the freezer made up from the carcass of a roasted bird.) Simmer for 5 or 6 minutes and then add a splash of whole or semi-skimmed milk*.

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* For a splash I added around 3tbs of milk. You can use cream but there’s no need to as the cheese will make the soup creamy.

Crumble in the Gorgonzola and remove from the heat for a few minutes and let it slowly melt into the soup, when you’re ready to serve place back on the heat and stir for a couple of minutes and serve instantly in warmed bowls. Today I served it with small panini all’olio and prosciutto. (Soft bread rolls with ham).

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And we followed it with home made hazelnut and almond salted butterscotch tart and ice cream. Delicious.

Boun appetito a tutti…

Shadows On The Grass

In November I was pleased to asked by Misha M. Herwin to be part of her blog tour following the launch of her third novel, Shadows On The Grass. For those of you unfamiliar with Misha’s work, she’s a prolific writer who writes both young adult literature and mainstream novels. She’s better known for her YA trilogy, Dragonfire and the popular Clear Gold series. Her mainstream work has included the time-slip novel House of Shadows and the keenly observant Picking Up The Pieces and this month saw the release of her third novel, Shadows On The Grass..shadows-on-the-grass

My first observation of this new novel is that it’d be foolish to assume this is solely women’s literature, it’s most definitely not. Yes, the action is centred around several women but that’s where the similarity with other women’s fiction ends. Set in 1960’s Bristol the story segues easily from 1965 to past events in time building the characters piece by piece, while also drawing on historical events.

The narrative belongs to three generations of women struggling to come to terms with their desires, their identity and their Polish heritage. Mimi and Marianna grow up in turmoil, exiled by the Russians and desperate to retain their identities they end up in Bristol. Mimi is a character that’s difficult to warm to, she’s cold and demanding and throughout her life she shows herself to be a selfish mother. Her old friend and cousin, the Royal Marianna seems to be her saving grace but scratch the surface and there’s a darker side to the princess.

For me the star of the novel is Hannah, Mimi’s downtrodden daughter, all she’s ever wanted is acceptance from her mother and now Mimi is dying she spends her days tending to the ungrateful woman out of her sense of duty. Her husband doesn’t help things with his constant need to smother her and protect her, in his defence he’s so ineffectual that he really cannot comprehend that his cloying love is holding his wife in emotional chains.

Hannah’s daughter, Kate, is a rebellious teenager, trying unsuccessfully to throw off the , shackles of family life and her Polish heritage. Her young life is centred around her desire to become a woman. She’s flagrantly sexual in her demeanour but initially afraid to cast off the restraints of her Catholic upbringing. At times she’s as caustic as the bitter lemon she drinks and unforgiving in her attitude to her mother. Possibly this is a trait she’s inherited from Hannah as she in turn inherited it from Kate’s grandmother, Mimi.

Historically there’s passages in the text that stop you in your tracks and propel you towards Google, in a bid to research further the repression of the Polish people in Russia. Thus giving you a better understanding of Mimi’s internal rage and Mariana’s misplaced humility: she’s an enigma and although fictional I’d love to read her memoir.

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My favourite thing about reading anything written by Misha Herwin is her attention to detail and the ability to create sublime sentences. You’d be forgiven for thinking that she pondered over every line crafting and redeveloping it to make it perfect, but I doubt she’s that pretentious; she naturally has the knack of writing a line that makes the reader stop and read it again before continuing with the story. Lines like, ‘Exhaustion fed on her, like some malevolent spirit; it sucked the words from her mouth, the thoughts from her brain.’ and ‘Her fingers were laden with rings, huge stones set in gold, rubies like gouts of blood, sapphires dark as despair.’ make Herwin’s work a joy to digest. And my favourite , ‘she struggled to avoid using the surname that rattled like pebbles in a tin.’ perfectly sums up the inability of an English tongue to pronounce a Polish name.

If you’re looking for a good read, maybe this summer’s beach holiday book, check out Shadows On The Grass available from Amazon now.

For more information on Misha and her work, follow her blog here

Visit Tim Diggles’ blog here for more of his photography projects.

Beef and squash lasagne

Order a lasagne in the UK and it’s generally served as a main course consisting of two or three layers of pasta sandwiched between thick layers of tomato sauce and minced beef, however lasagne in Italy is very different. It’s made up of thin layers of sauce between several layers of pasta, as it’s served mostly as il primo (first course). In Italy lasagne is made with many variations, beef, pork, a mix of beef and pork mince and during autumn and winter you see lots of squash added to the dish. Several years ago when I tried my first squash lasagne it was made up of around 12 layers of pasta with the sauce. To be honest I find it a little bit bland and remarking upon this a friend told me, it is bland so that il secondo (second course) will shine.

Thinking about this I decided that after the luxury of Christmas and New Year food maybe I could do with something less rich, so I decided to make my own squash lasagne  So here’s the ingredients: 40g pumpkin or squash, 40 g walnuts, 400 g beef mince, 250 ml passata, 150 ml vegetable stock, salt, white pepper, cinnamon, garlic salt, 4 medium shallots.

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Roast the pumpkin and walnuts in the oven at 180° (fan) until soft and as the squash is roasting fry the mince in a dry pan and then sieve off any fat. Chop the shallots finely and sweat them down in a little olive oil. Add the squash, mince and shallots to a bowl and season with salt and pepper: As squash can be bland be generous with the seasoning. Add 2 teaspoons of garlic salt and 2 of cinnamon then mix together. Add the mixture to a saucepan with the passata and stock and bring to a simmer for around 15 minutes. Let the mixture cool then add to your serving dish. (I had an aluminium tray left over from Christmas so used that – see above).

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Now if you don’t make your own pasta; which very few Italian people actually do, I advise always buying a good quality brand and my brand of choice is always De Cecco. Sorry to ruin that romantic notion the TV chefs will have the UK public believe, but most Italians actually buy dried pasta for everyday meals.

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Layer the dish with sauce and pasta and repeat until the dish is almost full, leaving just enough room for the sauce. For the sauce make a standard white sauce and add to it a tablespoon of the pumpkin mix and a generous amount of grated cheese of your choice; I used grana padano as that was what was in the fridge at the time. Make your sauce so that it has a molten cheesy consistency and cover the lasagne and top with grated cheese and pop into a pre-heated oven 180° (fan) for 20 minutes. (Don’t let it stand uncooked as the pasta will curl up).

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Once golden on top remove from the oven and serve immediately or let it cool and reheat later for supper. This recipe makes enough for 4 portions served with salad or vegetables as a main course or 6 portions served as a primo.

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January Generosity

The embers of 2017 have now faded into ash and we’re welcoming 2018 into our hearts. The comparison between last year in Abruzzo and this year is the skies are a cobalt blue and the sun is doing its best to warm the earth. In 2017 we had the worst snowfall for many years, so this warm weather is very welcome. The days however may be warm but as soon as the sun goes down the cloudless skies mean the temperature drops and it’s time to light the log burner and snuggle down for the evening. It’s the need for wood to burn that’s prompted this blog post.

Were just a handful of days into the new year and so far I’ve experienced several acts of generosity. On Thursday morning I was just finishing my breakfast when there was a knock at the door, reluctantly I left my eggs and bacon and shuffled to open it. The door opened to the smiling face of my neighbour Mario who was clutching a bottle of fresh, cloudy olive oil. “Come va?” was his cheerful opening to the English man stood before him still dressed in night attire. I told him I was well and he thrust the bottle towards me telling me it was from the November harvest and a gift for me for my help and my friendship.

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He tells me it’s an exceptional taste this year. Later I decant it into dark coloured glass bottles to preserve its flavour. Sampled simply upon bread the flavour is fruity and fresh and reminiscent of the previous summer.

Saturday, I’m coming home from a trip to the shop when another neighbour, Franco stops me. He’s cutting a tree down that has been made unsafe by the recent winds that took half of the tiles off my roof: that’s a post I forgot to write. “Nice day today,” he says as the chainsaw buzzes away at the tree’s trunk. “You have a wood burner?” he asks, I respond saying yes and he tells me to help myself to as much of the kindling that I want. We open the back of the car and promptly load it up with around a months supply that’ll save us using our store. I thank him and wish him happy new year and drive away as he continues on with his labour.

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The still Sunday air is punctuated by the mechanical chugging of an ancient tractor and another neighbour comes into view over the brow of the hill. “Hello English,” he calls to me, his usual greeting. He’s as ancient as his machinery and has a moustache you could hide kittens in; we’ve never exchanged names, our conversations are mostly, hello, nice day and a wave of the hand. Behind his tractor is a trailer laden with olive branches that have been stripped of their leaves. “Buon lavoro,” I say indicating towards his load with a nod of the head. “Grazie,” is his reply, good for burning, he says indicating to his olive wood with a nod of his head. I tell him that I agree and he says, take some. He pulls the tractor over and jumps down and grabbing a handful he starts to load my arms up, saying he’s more than he’ll need this year. With arms straining under the weight, I say thank you as he climbs aboard his mechanical steed, he bids me buon anno and disappears down the lane.

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I spend the remainder of the morning cutting the olive wood into lengths that fit the burner and wonder at the generosity of my neighbours.

Fusion. Not Confusion.

Another food post I’m afraid.

This week I was wondering what to make for lunch and a quick look in the fridge revealed a cauliflower, chicken thighs and some caciocavallo cheese: Caciocavallo meaning ‘cheese on horseback’ is a sheep or cow’s milk cheese that is good for melting. I’m not keen on it melted on toast, I still prefer a mature Cheddar, but it’s good melted on pizza or as I’m about to find out, on cauliflower. I set the iPod to play and Poly Styrene’s album Translucence starts to play, the opening bars of Essence give me an idea so I grab a little packet of Moroccan spices I got a few months back and my mind starts to go into creation mode.

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First I separate the cauliflower florets and pop them into boiling water to blanch for 5 minutes. Next the chicken breasts are placed into an oven-proof dish and have a dusting of black pepper, cinnamon, Himalayan salt and garlic salt followed by a drizzle of olive oil. Next I make a spiced paste for the cauliflower. To a bowl I add a tablespoon of honey, 3 teaspoons of the Moroccan spice, 1 teaspoon of fennel seeds and the juice of half a lemon.

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The oven is set at 180 (fan) and the chicken breasts are covered with tin foil and popped inside. The cauliflower is drained and covered in the spice mix and then placed into an oven-proof dish and placed inside the oven to roast alongside the chicken. After 20 minutes I remove the chicken and drain off any juices and put these aside to freeze for a tasty base for a brodo, soup or risotto.

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The chicken needs just 7 minutes cooking uncovered to crisp up the skin, so I slice some of the cheese and place it on top of the cauliflower and return it to the oven.

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After resting the chicken for a couple of minutes the cheese has melted into the cauliflower so the final job is just plating up, sitting down and eating it. It made a great midweek lunch with enough cauliflower left over to freeze or to have the following day.

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