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.

DSCF2636

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.

DSCF2615

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.

DSCF2619

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.

DSCF2620

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.

DSCF2629

Advertisements

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.

Tractor

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.

Ladder

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.

Olives

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.

DSCF2549

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.  

 DSCF2553

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.

download

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.

how-to-draw-a-cartoon-car_tutorial-header-e1485312685789

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.

Cartoon-cars-4

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.

photo

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.

3173

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.

11886159_866487840097877_8541990068951910239_o

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.

22448146_1498828663530455_1556891331412493929_n

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

The Last Festa

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

BB1

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

BB2

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

BB3

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

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

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

BB6

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

BB5

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

Casoliimage 2

Summer Season

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

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

IMG_3002

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

DSCF1859

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

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

Butternut and Walnut Ravioli

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

pasta

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

DSCF1871

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

DSCF1872

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

DSCF1877

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

, DSCF1878

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

DSCF1882 

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

North to South Sauce

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

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

DSCF1553

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

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

DSCF1556

For my north and south sauce you’ll need:

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

DSCF1558

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

DSCF1568

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

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

DSCF1565

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

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

DSCF1663

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

Time Travelling

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

DSCF1452

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

DSCF1300

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

IMG_1871

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