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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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.

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…

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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One Tree

Today my car is blocked in by a tractor and there’s an olive net across the road where three people are harvesting the olives from the tree that they own. The three people are friends of mine and they live up in the main town of Casoli and have driven down in their tractor to collect the olives from this solitary tree.

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I’m chatting with Maria, (the lady who used to own my house) as she rakes olives from the branches her husband has pruned out of the tree’s centre to open it up. I’m asking why they have travelled so far to come to just this one tree. “It’s been a good year for the olives so it’d be a waste not to harvest them,” she tells me. “How many trees do you have?” I ask and am then corrected; “Piante non alberi.” Italian’s don’t call olives trees, they’re plants.

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They tell me they have over 300 olives to harvest before the end of the month, as you should never collect them after November 30. Maria explains that when she sold me the house they didn’t sell the tree because she didn’t think I’d want it. I agree that I wouldn’t as I’m not interested in cultivating olives as there’s just far too much work involved. She explains how the family have about 50 olives further along the lane, 20 or so behind the hill and 5 further on up the hill. The main ones are the other side of Casoli where there’s two large groves. The collection is made up of plots of land that they have inherited through Italy’s complex inheritance laws and this particular tree was part of a share of the estate split between her husband and his relatives after an uncle passed away many years ago.

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Last year was a bad year and most of the crop here was infected by the olive fly. Maria explains it’s because we had a humid spring and a cooler summer in 2016, whereas this year we had a long summer with many days over 30 degrees. It’s the heat that controls the fly population apparently. I leave them to carry on with their toil and as I’m leaving Maria calls to ask me if I’d like the wood they’ve pruned out for my log burner. I say thank you and walk down towards my house to look for my hand saw.

The price of olive oil has risen again this year, so when the crop is good like this one it makes sense to collect every available olive, even if you have to drive several km in a slow moving tractor to just one tree (plant).

Stinco

As autumn takes over here in Abruzzo restaurant menus start to change to accommodate the season, warm bowls of polenta and sausages start to appear on tables and stinco makes its appearance on menus.

Stinco, or to give it its full name, stinco di maiale is a pork shank, or rather the shin bone and is a wonderful piece of comfort food for a cold evening. It’s sold all year round here in Italy in butchers shops (macelleria) but around October it appears in abundance even in a pre-cooked packaged form.

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In butcher’s shops and supermarkets it comes skinned and trimmed ready for the oven. Stinco is less fattier than a traditional hock and whereas a hock requires around 3 hours or more of slow roasting a stinco cooks in half the time. Most Italians cook it with potatoes seasoned with rosemary and garlic; a popular recipe that originated from the northern region of Trentino-Alto Adige with its Southern Tyrol/Austrian influences.

In a local restaurant a typical autumn/winter dinner could consist of a first course of pasta with a meaty sauce or polenta and sausages followed by a second course of stinco with vegetables and potatoes. One local pizzeria in the latter part of the year sells hundreds of them roasted and served with chips for just €5.  

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The pre-cooked ones take just 30 minutes to cook in boiling water, it’s a case of drop the bag into a saucepan of water and simmer, then snip off the top and tip out onto a plate and watch as the meat just falls off the bone. These are great to have stocked up for times when the snow causes power cuts as they can be cooked on top of the wood burner and tonight we had one with roasted potatoes and red cabbage and apple.

Comfort food? – Oh yes.

Car Chaos

It’s been a week for motoring events.

Monday I stepped onto a zebra crossing to discover a car coming towards me, literally. The driver decided to make a U turn and drove between the two bollards either side of the crossing and was driving down the black and white lines towards me.

Tuesday I stopped my car to allow a lady to come out of her drive only for her to wind her window down and complain, I asked her what the problem was and she said she wanted to drive behind me not in front.

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Wednesday I’m pootling to the supermarket with our small terrier on the front seat beside me when an old man in a Fiat Panda pulls out of a side road without looking, hence an emergency stop from me that results in a small dog in the foot well.

Thursday passes with no car related incidents.

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Friday and the most bonkers incident occurs. There’s a bridge nearby that’s very narrow and cars cannot pass each other on it. I was behind two other cars as we crossed the bridge, when I was about 4 metres from the end a young woman decided to enter and squeeze past me, which she obviously couldn’t. I shrugged my shoulders in disbelief that she couldn’t have waited another three or four seconds and she just mouthed something obscene before I drove off the bridge so she could squeeze past.

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Saturday I park my car in Lanciano where I’ve parked it many times before and go into work to meet my clients. We go out to view houses in their car as mine has a problem with the cooling system and is awaiting spare parts to repair it. We return back at the car park and my car is no longer where I left it. A couple of frantic phone calls reveals an overzealous police woman had it towed away as despite there being no markings on the ground and no signs to indicate it, the place where I and many others have been parking for years is a no parking zone. So I’ll be paying a €60 fine on Monday to get it back.

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