Piles, the wooden variety

With daily temperatures in the thirties you’d expect the thought of cold winter nights to be furthest from anyone’s mind. But as the farmer’s around us continue to cut the grass for hay, the local population are preparing for winter by rebuilding their wood piles.

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Branches are being collected and stored beside houses, small pieces of wood are being chopped to make kindling and logs are being collected in readiness for the log store to be built.

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In town as in the countryside logs are being stored under cover in readiness for the forthcoming change in the seasons. Some of the log stores are so well constructed, they’re almost works of art.

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I’d like to say mine in previous years has been as tidy and organised as some of my neighbours, but sadly they’ve always been rather scruffy affairs. So dedicated to the art of log pile stacking are some people, that their wood stores are vast in comparison to their needs.

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Last week my friend Mario was chopping logs in the heat and told me it was time I started my wood collection. “Remember last year,” he says. “Many people ran out because the snow lasted longer than normal.”

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“I won’t be collecting wood this year.” I tell him. His brow furrows, he shakes his head and asks,  “Are you going to be away?”

“No,” I reply and tell him I’m having gas central heating fitted. Once again he shakes his head and his brow furrows before telling me that wood is free, so why would anyone want to pay for gas? I tell him it’s just easier.

“Sei pazzo straniero.” (You crazy foreigner). we laugh and I go to sit in the shade leaving him to his toil.

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La Prima Comunione di Giulio

It’s Saturday 5 August 2018 and at 10:45 it’s already 32 degrees and there’s not a cloud in the sky. I’m in San Vito Chietino trying desperately to figure out how the new parking  machine works. Thankfully I’m not the only one as there’s about 30 people trying to work out how to use it. I look at my watch and see I have 15 minutes to get to the church before the first Holy Communion of my friend, Nicoletta’s son takes place. I make my way to another machine and a man explains that now you need to put in your number plate – brilliant, new car and I don’t know it yet. I decide to guess and follow the instructions and when I get back to the car alter the number on the ticket and write, ‘Mi dispiace, sono inglese’. (I’m sorry, I’m English) Having already been towed away previously, I hope this will placate any over enthusiastic parking attendant.

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The church is packed to the rafters with proud parents and so we stand outside and watch as the service takes place. The women in the congregation fan themselves, finding no respite from the heat within the cool walls, while the men step outside to shelter under trees.

The service concluded we head to a nearby agriturismo to begin celebrating with Giulio. The room is laid out with two long tables to accommodate us all and there’s water and wine already waiting for us. We all make our introductions, which take time as this is Italy and everyone wants to say hello, shake your hand and ask how you are; my response remains the same for everyone, ‘Sono bene ma fa caldo’ (I’m well, but it’s hot).

Food

Italian festivities are not known for being brief and at 13:15 we sit down to our first course, a traditional plate of anti pasti; cheeses and salumi. These are followed during the meal:

  • Fried spinach parcels
  • Ham roulade
  • fried mozzerella
  • stuffed courgettes (two ways)
  • Cacio e uova (cheese and egg balls)
  • Bean casserole
  • Wilted chicory
  • Courgette and ham lasagne
  • Chitarra pasta with meat ragu
  • Veal with potatoes
  • Grilled pork
  • Barbecued lamb with salad
  • Fresh fruit with ice cream

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During the dinner which lasted in total 7 hours with short breaks to aid digestion we were entertained by a superb band, who played a mix of traditional Italian songs and pop songs. During the afternoon, Nicoletta would join the band and with Albano and a few others would entertain us with renditions of Italian pop songs. The day was also Nicoletta and her husband’s 12th wedding anniversary, so we wished them well as they had a celebratory dance.

The party almost complete, we go outside for photographs and for Giulio to cut his cake. I don’t normally post photos of myself on my blog, but I will share this image of myself with my work colleagues. Thanks to Rocco Altobelli.

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We ended the day enjoying a slice of Giulio’s cake and a digestivo, my choice was limoncello as the traditional amaro isn’t to my taste.

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We had a superb day and were made to feel very welcome by everyone there; family and friends. It was a special day and we felt very honoured to be a part of it. Hospitality and great parties are something that the Italian’s do very well. Grazie a tutti voi.

38468038_2171981346177099_6311874038301982720_nThis handsome young gentleman is Giulio.

Thank you Giulio for sharing your special day with with us.

Seafood in San Vito

Living so close to the coast means there’s an abundance of seafood available all year round and one of the most popular places to eat it, is the town of San Vito Chietino. This small town has everything from inexpensive outdoor eateries, to top class restaurants where you need to check your bank balance before you book a table. There’s even two trabocchi that serve dinner; but to be honest I think they’re more suited to the tourists who don’t mind paying over the odds for the same quality fare they can get up the road for just €5.00.

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My favourite place to eat there is the small roadside restaurant called La Locanda Del Mare. Each course is cooked to order; unlike some places where it’s sat waiting for the customer under heat lamps and a course costs just €5.00.

Over the last few weeks I’ve frequented the town more often as I had friends Becky and Matt come to stay and my cousin Alfie dropped by for a week too. I believe it’s always a good day when you can enjoy a leisurely lunch with friends with some delicious fare from the sea and a cool glass of wine.

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Alfie like myself loves nothing better than picking mussels and clams from their shells and devouring them with chittara pasta and tomato sauce. No one minds that you end up with a few splashes of red on your T-shirt and that your fingernails are stained with sauce, as long as there’s a plate filled with empty shells at the end of the course.

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Becky is a different type of diner altogether, she’s more cautious, but at our first lunch she threw her caution to the wind and ordered what Matt and I had. So the primo was a risotto with clams, mussels, monkfish liver and octopus and despite not wanting to try the octopus tentacles she ate the lot. The secondo was probably the most popular Friday fish dish, frittura mista, deep fried anchovies, small white fish, calamari and prawns. Another good secondo is baccala and potatoes. Baccala is salt dried cod that’s rehydrated and served with potatoes and black olives in an olive oil based sauce and there’s nothing more satisfying than the empty plate afterwards.

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My only criticism of these food outlets; like many over Italy is the use of plastic plates and cutlery. I shudder to think how much plastic waste the Italian food industry generates. Sadly it’s not only catering establishments that add to this, the population are bombarded with plastic dinner ware. Stores and supermarkets sell vast quantities of it, everything from plastic espresso cups to wine glasses and dinner plates to soup bowls. So much so that a large amount of this plastic dinnerware is used for large family gatherings.

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Following lunch and just before the stroll down to the beach there’s the matter of dolce to contend with. San Vito Chietino has two main pasticceria (cake shop) on the main street both of which sell ice-cream, however the gelateria that always gets my Euro is Pasticceria Iezzi Rossana, the reason being the staff are always polite and friendly and more welcoming than the other store.

So after all this activity, all that’s left is to dip ones’ toes in the Adriatic before taking a nap on the sandy beach.

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.

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.