Polyglot Lane

I always expect to be speaking two languages when I’m in the office dealing with my Italian colleagues and speaking with our English clients, but not very often is it a requirement of dog walking.

Today I’m taking our youngest dog, Alf Alf for his walk and the first person I see in the lane is the English builder working on my neighbour’s house, I stop and we pass the time of day. I continue on down the lane when driving towards me is my friend Nicola and we have a quick chat in Italian.

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The weather’s good so we walk further down the lane than usual and I spot a couple from a nearby village who have a holiday home here and we converse with a few English pleasantries before my friend Giuseppina calls to me. She only speaks dialect and we manage a short cobbled together conversation before it’s time to turn around and walk Alf Alf back home.

I’m sure moments like this are quite common for anyone living in another country where the language is different from their own.

And it’s moments like this that make living abroad special.

The Naked Crime Fighter

To be honest the title of today’s instalment is a little bit off the mark, but not enough for it to be click bait, but it does sound better than the semi-naked crime fighter.

So, just who is this naked fighter of crime?

Me.

It was Wednesday night and I was retiring to my bed when I saw headlights shining from the rear of my neighbour’s property. Now the property in question is empty as they’re having building work completed at the moment so this car raises my suspicions. I opened a window and could hear voices over the running engine. So I leapt into action and grabbed a pair of pyjama bottoms and a torch and exited the house at speed to confront the assumed thieves. As I ran along the lane I realised that shoes or at least slippers would have been a good idea, but it’s too late now.

I arrive at the house and the vehicle’s headlights illuminate two bemused looking Italian men, who from their point of view are being approached by a semi-naked man in pyjama bottoms waving a torch and looking like he’s escaped from a high security mental health establishment.

“What’s going on?” I say, trying to sound in control yet now realising this could probably be the most stupid thing I’ve ever done. They then smile, big toothy grins that threaten to slice their faces in two, “We’re here delivering sand for the builder.” Is their reply.

I smile too, say something inane along the lines of, “Okay, have a good evening,” and shuffle back up the lane, vowing to give up crime fighting, now knowing that I’ve given two delivery men something joke about in the bar.

Oh the shame…

Cover Up

I had a private message from a user on Instagram this week, he said what disco song are you listing to at the moment. Now this may seem a random question to ask a stranger, but he’s obviously ready my mini bio on my account which says, “Englishman in Abruzzo working in Italian real estate who likes the occasional Aperol spritz and classic disco tunes.” So I responded saying I was listening to How Much, How Much I Love You by Love and Kisses, a group put together by European music producer Alec Costandinos and it was only after I’d responded that I looked at the album cover for this 3 track album which features the famous nude on a horse.

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Back in the 1970’s at the hieght of the disco movement the album covers were deliberately sexy with some almost bordering on soft porn, take the first Love and Kisses album with the ripped T-shirt and men’s hands.

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Looking at these album covers I think it’d be fair to say that they were more than likely designed by men. Back in the 1970’s these covers were seen as fun and saucy but would that be the case today? I doubt it, women’s groups would be shouting about exploitation and the negative messages these images promote.

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Whether you approve or not they’re a great piece of social history, they say much more about this period in our musical history than words can. They tell us that disco went hand in hand with sex. Dancing in itself is primal and all that bumping and grinding down the disco could easily put you in the mood for a horizontal bed sheet boogie.

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The flashing of flesh wasn’t solely reserved for the female of the species and back in 1977 Bobby Farrell was happy to get his chest hair out and don a golden thong for the cover of the second Boney M album. However it was deemed to be too raunchy for the U.S. and Canadian market and they opted for an alternative cover. It didn’t have the same impact somehow.

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However disco wasn’t the sole domain of the dodgy cover, back in 1965 Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass released their Whipped Cream album with its blatantly sensual if not rather naff cover.image

Disco was loved in the gay clubs and so there was bound to be a plethora of covers sporting homoerotic images. Men in leather, hairy chests and handlebar moustaches. One of the best was for the Italian/American band, Macho and their Roll album cover and I remember seeing it sat on the shelves of some record stores inside brown paper bags.

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There are examples out there of covers with hairy chested guys that make you just think,  ‘for goodness sake man, put a shirt on.’ Not to mention, ‘Where are you going to ‘Push Push’ that flute?’

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The disco backlash came and by the early 1980’s it was starting to fade, dance music became formulaic and homogenised and flesh was replaced by rah rah skirts and neon coloured clothing. Nudity became more about art than sex.

But I quite like the old covers and am happy to see them pop up on my iPod display as songs shuffle. But I can’t leave you without showing you one of the howlers out there. A cover that in my opinion should never have been released, but I’m guessing none of the band especially the guy top right saw this one before it was printed and dispatched.

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It’s All About Perspective

What a time of it we’ve been having here in Abruzzo lately. Snow came and within an afternoon many towns and villages were cut off, our collection of houses overlooking the valley was stranded for 5 whole days as the lane was impassable; even taking the dog for a walk in the deep snow was a challenge.

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Along with the inconvenience of snow we had power cuts, with as many as 100,000 homes without electricity for days. Water pipes froze, people lost their broadband connections and then came the rain. A deluge of epic proportions that threatened to be second only to the rains Noah had experienced turned the fields into swamps, the lane ran like a river and mud slid onto the now flooded roads.

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During these frustrating times did we moan and complain? You bet we did, when people were able to get onto social media there were angry posts about the electricity suppliers, gripes about how we were sick of snow now and woe is me postings about having to cook dinner on top of the log burner: That one was mine – ironically after posting my moan to Facebook and served up said dinner by torchlight, the electricity came back on just as I was about to eat.

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After the snow had cleared I had clients over to view properties, (which is no fun in the rain). As the viewings with one lady started there were reports of earthquakes near Amatrice where there’d been a devastating one back on 25 August last year. My client told me a woman at her hotel had asked her why she was here in Abruzzo, she told her she was here to hopefully find a house as she plans to move to the area. Her enquirer then asked why she wasn’t worried about the earthquakes*. She told me her response was – “It’s all about perspective. I live and work in central London where there’s more risk of me being a fatality of crime or a victim in a terrorist attack than perishing in an earthquake.” – Brilliant response I thought.

* News companies in the UK have been reporting earthquakes in Abruzzo, sadly their reporting is flawed as the earthquakes occurred in the Lazio region.

So, yes it’s fair to say we’ve endured a lot this year thus far; it has been one of the worst winters in many years. My friend Mario said he remembers a winter where there was bad snow, torrential rain and earth tremors, but seeing as he’s in his mid eighties and his recollection takes him back to being a small boy, they’re frankly few and far between.

So yes let’s put it into perspective, we all moaned and griped about the snow for six or seven days and in the grand scheme of things seven days out of 364 isn’t bad going, that leaves us hopefully with 357 snow-free days. Rain may be unpleasant but there’s many more unpleasant things out there to feel aggrieved about. IMG_1172

There were issues with some electricity pylons being badly damaged by the weight of the snow, and some land slippage, but on the whole Italy is quite good when snow hits; roads are cleared quickly and close-knit communities care for each other.

But sadly this winter has brought tragedy in the form of the Hotel Rigopiano avalanche in the mountain town of Farindola, so putting it into perspective, a day without electricity or a few hours without broadband aren’t as Shakespeare said, the be all and the end all

But will we moan if it happens again – you bet we will, we’re only human after all.

Quick and Easy Ribs

Last week I posted a photo on Facebook of some stick ribs I’d made for dinner. A friend back in the UK said to me that he loved ribs but couldn’t be bothered with all the effort to make them, I said there’s not much effort in ribs really. He talked about hours of marinating and then a long slow cooking time, not to mention the problem of cleaning the burnt bits off the baking tray. I laughed and told him my ribs take about 35-40 minutes from start to finish. He suggested I write about it here and share the recipe for him to try.

So this is my version of sticky ribs and the ingredients used, however as I make it by eye there’s no exact measurements.

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First thing I do is put the ribs into a saucepan of water with 3 or 4 star anise and bring to the boil, then simmer for 20 to 25 minutes while the sauce is made. The sauce is as follows: 1 teaspoon of English mustard, a good slosh of tomato ketchup, a few dashes of balsamic vinegar, a squirt of lemon, a hearty drizzle of honey. To this add black pepper, a teaspoon of ground cumin, a glug of chilli oil, (I use my own Olio Santo) if you don’t have chilli oil then dried chilli will do. I then add some ground star anise and a splash of red wine. Mix all of this together to make a loose paste.

Remove the ribs from the pan and dry them on kitchen paper then line a baking tray with baking parchment; you’ll see why later.

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Place the tray on a top shelf in a pre-heated oven, 200 degrees (180 for fan-assisted) and bake them for 15 minutes. Once the ribs are cooked remove from the oven and remove from the baking parchment. You’ll see that they come away easily and retain most of the sauce that usually sticks to the metal tray.

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Dispose of the parchment and you have a tray that needs just a quick wash: no scrubbing away welded on sauce. The only thing left to do is enjoy eating the ribs which are great with a cold beer.

Summer Out of Season

“Would you like a cup of home made spicy butternut and tomato soup?” I asked my friend a week ago on a damp and dismal January morning. “Yes please,” she replied. then went on to enquire from which shop I obtained the butternut from. “You grew them yourself?” she asked after I told her that they had come from my orto. She blew across the surface of her mug of soup and took a sip before saying, “Wow, this tastes just like summer.”

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In my work I visit many properties and I’ve seen many Italian pantries stocked with jars of blood red passata and others filled to the brim with dried beans. I’ve been inside cool cantine with home made salumi* hanging from the ceiling and inside airy sheds where tobacco hangs drying in the air. Italian’s are ingenious when it comes to getting the most out of their orto and they have an almost religious devotion to processing and storing produce for the leaner months. I’ve adopted this attitude and when the weather’s bad it’s very satisfying to make a meal using an ingredient that months ago was basking in the summer sun.

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My neighbour’s cantina

I was talking about this with my friend who told me she’s not organised enough to do this and doesn’t have a cantina to store things in. So I showed her the contents of my freezer where I have saved the taste of summer for the colder seasons.

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I explained that if you roast and mash the butternut or pumpkin it’s easy to store flat in freezer bags. I then showed her my 2 person portions of frozen passata that line the bottom of every freezer draw and the pots of ready made soups from when there was a glut of one or another veggie in the orto.

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Not only is it about storing what you grow but also making use of everything, I often use the bones or chicken carcass after a roast dinner to make stock, which is stored away in the freezer along with frozen basil and parsley butter. I came here a novice to preserving food and now it’s quite normal to find me making up jars of chilli jam when the plants are aflame or apple and peach chutney.

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“So what’s next?” my friend asks. I explain that this year I dried out my own French beans and have several jars of the tiny black pulses, sat on a shelf alongside sun-dried oregano. “This year,” I tell her, “I’m going to have a go at sun-dried tomatoes.

* Salumi is the Italian word for processed meats like hams, salami and most meats you’ll find in the delicatessen.

Snow and Stew

As most of Europe is currently under attack from Arctic blasts and ‘thundersnow’ we didn’t escape it here in Abruzzo. The snow is finally thawing following a seven-day period of deep deposits. It all looked very pretty, but it was so deep in places that villages were cut off, not to mention water pipes frozen and electricity lines going down.

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So trapped at home until the lane can be cleared I turned to passing the time getting used to induction cooking. We don’t have mains gas in our lane and have used a gas bottle cooker for the past few years, it was sufficient for our needs until in autumn a field mouse took up residence in the back and chewed through the pipe to the oven. Now I have a nice fan-assisted electric oven I thought it may be a good idea to go all electric to remove the need to buy and store gas bottles. I was helping a friend prepare lunch using her induction hob and was so impressed I went out and got myself one. I then spoke with another friend who had a double hob for sale, and so now I am learning to use them and thus far I’ve been impressed with the speed of cooking and the control of the heat.

So I decided this week to use the hob for something more challenging than an omelette or boiling pasta and set to making a stew, as everyone knows snow and comfort food go together really well. So here’s my recipe for a veal stew. (serves 4)

The ingredients are:

400g veal. 2 small onions. 300 ml passata. 160 g mushrooms. 200g carrots. 2 tablespoons of tomato puree. 500 ml home made veg base.

In the late 1970’s people became outraged to discover the veal they were eating was produced by keeping calves in the dark inside boxes to restrict movement. This led to a rapid decline in the UK for veal consumption, even now very few butcher’s shops openly sell it. However here in Italy I purchase what we now call rose veal, its male calves that have been raised until they are 8 months old rather than being culled at birth. It’s not a pale as milk fed veal but tastes very good. If veal still isn’t your thing substitute it for pork in this recipe.

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Cut the meat into bite size pieces and brown it off in small quantities and add to the stew pot.

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Chop the onions and sweat them off in a frying pan for a minute or so, then add the tomato puree and cook it off.This sweetens the onions and helps to pick up the pieces of veal that have caramelised in the pan earlier.

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Chop the carrots: I chop alternate sections diagonally as you get an interesting shape that also has a larger surface area so cooks quicker and evenly.

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Add to the pot a liberal amount of garlic powder, black pepper and a good pinch of chilli flakes. Following this add the passata; shop bought is okay or make your own, it’s so easy. My recipe is here. Following this add 500ml of stock or home made veg base.

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As I hate waste, what I do is add what left over veg I have to a pan of water and boil it all together. This one was made from a couple of cabbage leaves, a carrot, half an onion and a few celery sticks. Boil it all together then blend it and bag it and store in the freezer until you’re making a stew or soup. Much better for you than shop bought stock, full of chemicals and salt.

Bring the pot to the boil and then turn the heat down and let it simmer until the carrots are softening; this took just 15 minutes on the induction hob. Then add a splash of white wine followed by the mushrooms and continue to simmer until everything is cooked through and the carrots still have a little bite. serve with mashed potato and sit beside the log burner watching the snow fall as you eat this comforting stew.

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One other thing – this is also amazing if reheated the following day. Buona cena a tutti.

Bayonets and Seed Trays

A friend recently asked me if I’d seen anywhere selling bayonet light bulbs like the ones used in the UK. I didn’t bring any lamps with me when I relocated so never gave it a thought. Suddenly it dawned on me that something so trivial could become a major problem, if you’ve packed up your home, had it shipped abroad only to discover all the light bulbs sold here have screw fittings. I’ve been looking ever since and enquired without success at the hardware stores and thus far haven’t been able to locate a single bayonet fitting bulb.

Also on the lamp theme, I brought some treasured lampshades over from the UK only to discover after the re-wiring of the homestead that the Italian Edison bulb holders are slighter smaller than the UK ones, so the lampshades kept falling off the fittings. In the end treasured lampshades ended up in the wheelie bin.

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Another thing that can annoy you when living here is the electricity, or rather lack of a decent amount of it. The basic electricity supply in Italy is a measly 3 kilowatts. This means it takes a while to get used to the fact that you can’t have a multitude of appliances working at the same time. For example if we turn on our oven and induction hob at the same time, which is usual when cooking, we have to turn off the hot water to prevent the trip switch cutting the supply. How often at the start did we forget and when the washing machine was on pop some toast into the toaster and ping no power, or one of us would be drilling something while the other decided to plug in the kettle – yes you guessed it – ping and no power. It is possible to pay extra for up to 6 kw, but we’re now used to it and if anything it’s made us more aware of wasting energy.10885254_10152487089332187_5949779206277870703_n

One thing that initially drove me round the bend was the lack of seed trays – Yes I know surely they can’t be so important to be a cause of madness, but yes initially they were. The reason being is practically every Italian citizen has a patch of land where they grow fruit and vegetables for the table. They can be seen in January and February buying seeds and potting compost. So you’d expect them to be able to buy seed trays, because we do that in Britain. But this isn’t Britain it’s Italy, and my local garden centre looked at me quizzically  when I asked for some. “Seed trays?” she responded, almost mocking. “Trays for seeds.” – I felt at this point that I was in a rejected Two Ronnies sketch – I mentioned the lack of these to a friend who said, “Why have a special tray? I use the polystyrene trays that meat comes in and then throw them away.” I was about to mention that I don’t think I could use polystyrene in my electric propagator, but decided that it was best to leave the conversation there.

Did I solve this problem? Yes I had some posted from B&Q in the UK.

Given the Cold Shoulder

This week I received two wonderful gifts, both of them being meat. It’s hunting season here in Abruzzo and as I said in an article I wrote for Italy magazine back in 2014, here in Italy hunting is seen more as a way of life than a pastime. You can read the article here. The cacciatori (hunters) that gather together dressed in their hi-vis waistcoats are hunting solely for food not sport and mostly their intended quarry is cinghiale (wild boar). Most of the year the boar are hidden away but this time of the year the boar move closer to towns as their food supplies start to dwindle. They can be a nuisance as not only are they dangerous they have a liking for anything sweet and two-years ago a large male decided to feast upon the pomegranates in our garden. Needless to say we let him take his fill.

The sound of shots ricochet on the morning air as the sound of excited dogs yelp in search of this highly prized meat: so highly prized few hunter’s will share their quarry. That’s why this week I was so pleased with my gifts. My friend Massimo gave me 2 kilos of diced boar and another friend Nino told me he’d left some down at the local bar for me. My surprise when I went to collect what I expected to be another couple of kilo’s of meat was evident when I was handed a whole frozen shoulder and shank.

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So what to do with it?

I Googled lots of recipes and took away some ideas and decided to roast it for a lunch with friends at the weekend. So after it had defrosted the only container large enough to accommodate the meat was our laundry basket, once inside I made a marinade which consisted of rosemary, sage, cloves and  black peppercorns, some star anise, garlic, honey and English mustard powder. Then I added 1 litre of white wine and 3 litres of red wine and left it to infuse with the flavours for 24 hours.

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The next step was to remove the meat and pat it dry before adding it to a roasting tin and placing an orange, some garlic and rosemary in with it before sealing with aluminium foil. I’d read that it’s best to start it off for 30 minutes at around 200 degrees then reduce to 180 and give it 40 minutes per kilo and for shoulder an extra 40. So the beast went into the oven.

It roasted slowly and when it was finally served with roast potatoes and veg everyone gave appreciative nods and smiles as they tucked into it. There’s was so much that what was left was divided up ready to be turned into a tasty roast boar ragú.

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Fishy Friday’s

Growing up in England and miles away from the coast meant that I didn’t eat much fish: in fact I was once given a fish finger as a child and recoiled in horror. Apart from tinned tuna, mussels and the occasional fish supper I didn’t eat very much fish. But now living just 18 minutes from the sea means it’s a different story. Whereas I’d probably eat fish 2 or 3 times a year now it’s 2 or 3 times a week. I’ve discovered that I like octopus and calamari, I still don’t really like prawns and people I cannot be trusted with an unopened jar of anchovies.

Friday at an Italian restaurant definitely means there’ll be fish on the menu and whenever I can I like to drop into our local, aptly named, Il Bucaniere, (the Buccaneer). The reason being I can always guarantee to get frittura di pesce. Last week we dropped in for lunch which costs just €10 a head, and for this you get wine, water and 2 courses.

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Lunchtimes are always busy with Friday’s being the busiest. To help out the menu for the day is written up on a chalk board beneath the TV, (Italian’s and TV’s in restaurants, that’s a whole post of its own). To guarantee a table we arrive early and already the seating area at the back of the restaurant is full. We settle into our seats out at the front and the service is swift. We decide to try something we’ve not seen on the menu before and within minutes the most comforting dish of polenta with a rich fish flavoured sauce and mussels arrives. Wow, this is a taste surprise.

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The second course I have ordered is the frittura di pesce, deep fried calamari and small fish. It’s a fiddly dish to eat but if you go native and use your fingers then it’s easy to strip the fish from the bones, and no one is looking at you because they’re all too engrossed in their own plate of superbly cooked fish. I save a few of the calamari tentacles until last as they’re my favourite part of the dish.

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Our table is cleared and as we pour the last of the wine into glasses we make appreciative noises about how good it feels to be full of Friday’s fish.