The Freezer Lottery

I’m normally very organised, I have a ‘to do’ do list. I keep a pencil and notebook close at all times and my music collection is stored in chronological order and cross referenced by genre. So you’d expect my freezer to be the same. Sadly no. 

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I’m always saying waste nothing, use everything and freeze for later, but do I mark what I’m storing for ease of recognition at a later date – not always. I did have a period where I used stickers, however today I went to retrieve something and noticed that all the stickers have either fallen off or the writing has disappeared.

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So now it’s a bit of a freezer lottery in our house, it’s a case of guess what’s in the pot or the bag and hope for the best.

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I can guess that if it’s in the top compartment that it’ll be stock, however guessing if it’s chicken, rabbit or goat will be the challenge.

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There are some things that don’t look remotely recognisable, and some that are easily identified, for example the sixty five, one litre bags of homemade passata. However working out if the orange bags contain roasted butternut squash or apricot puree will be interesting if I tip a bag into a stew on the hob.

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It’s not all bad though as one bag of apricot puree still has its sticker intact; so at least the cheesecake I’m planning to make will have a fruit rather than veg based topping.

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Now added to my list of things to do is a note reminding me to purchase a freezer pen for marking all future deposits.

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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

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Funghi Ripieni

I had a handful of mushrooms sitting doing nothing in my fridge so I thought I’d share with you my recipe for funghi ripieni.

I first fell in love with these delicious bite size treats many years ago. They were a very popular starter on the menu at Roberto’s Pizza House, in Hanley, Stoke on Trent. I never got the recipe for them so here’s my own take on the little stuffed mushrooms.

The ingredients are simply, mushrooms, parsley, garlic, breadcrumbs and dry vermouth.

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Remove the stalks from the mushrooms and retain half of them, (pop the others into the freezer for adding into soups and stews). Finely chop the stalks with 2 or 3 garlic gloves and fry in a little olive oil.

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Add to this breadcrumbs and fresh chopped parsley, then add a good splosh of dry vermouth and keep on the heat for a couple of minutes until the breadcrumbs have browned a little.

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When the mixture has cooled use it to fill the mushroom caps. Don’t over-fill them as they’ll shrink during cooking. Pop them into an ovenproof dish with a drizzle of olive oil and bake for 10 minutes at 180 degrees.

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This may seem to be a lot of effort for a bite size nibble, but believe me they’re well worth it and only really take a few minutes to prepare. I serve them as a canapé with a buffet or 10 of them make a good sized starter for a dinner party.

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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.

Counterfeit Porchetta

Last week my cousin came to stay with us, it was his first trip to Abruzzo and we tried to fit as much as we could into his 7 day stay. We enjoyed trips out, seafood by the sea and a day in Rome too. One of the pleasures was introducing him to the joy of aperitivi and it was during an early evening Aperol spritz that the aroma of Italian porchetta wafted across the street to the bar.

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  Parked across the road was a mobile porchetta van, I checked that it was the local one that supplies the best Italian pork in the region. Happily, it was the one I hoped for, so I wandered over and purchased a tray, stealing a slice before joining the others and returned to my drink.

  The aroma drove my cousin wild and we informed him that it was out of bounds until the following day when were planning a beach picnic. Not being thoroughly rotten I allowed him a small morsel for tasting, this however went from a polite gesture to torture, as he had to endure the 14 hour wait for the delicious meat inside the parcel.

I love porchetta, the blend of herbs and slow roasted pork with crunchy crackling is the best street food when simply served between two slices of bread.

So thinking back, I thought I’d share my recipe for what I call, counterfeit porchetta. It’s my take on the dish and suitable for both a snack or dinner with friends.

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For my recipe I start with the following herbs and spices, as shown opposite. Fresh rosemary, sage, thyme and mint. Dried chillies, fennel seeds and star anise and some fresh garlic cloves.

Take a mortar and pestle and add the fresh herbs into a the bowl with a tablespoon of sea salt. Using the pestle crush and grind the leaves and garlic*, then add the remaining spices and continue to grind them. add a little olive oil and continue until you get a rustic, but not too smooth paste.

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Take your piece of pork and place it into an ovenproof dish; I’m using a 1.25 kg piece of fillet here. Smear the paste all over the meat: the only way to do this is with your hands as you can massage it in to the pork. Add two tablespoons of water to the dish, return the pork and cover with foil and let it sit in the fridge for eight hours absorbing the flavours of your paste.

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    Italian butchers tend to cut most of the fat from fillets of meat, so this recipe won’t have crispy crackling like porchetta should have but it will have the flavours, hence my calling it counterfeit porchetta.

  Preheat the oven to 190 degrees and roast for 45 minutes.

 

When roasted, let it rest for 10 minutes before cutting into thick slices and serving with roast potatoes and vegetables or hot between two slices of crusty bread with a drizzle of olive oil.

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* There’s no need to peel the garlic as the paper coating will burn away during the roasting process.

An Italian Day

A friend once mentioned to me that her neighbour went to the market or local shop everyday to buy provisions for that day’s lunch or dinner. She told me that if she did a weekly shop then she’d save herself a daily trip to the shops. I thought about this and spoke with an Italian friend about it and her reply was, “Of course we shop everyday, that way we know we have, cibo più fresco.” PING! on went the ‘of course’ light. In a society where seasonal is important, women have shopped daily for years to make certain they purchase the best and freshest produce.

Often people comment that Italian’s appear to be chaotic and disorganised, but that’s far from the truth. Italian’s are very organised in their day to day lives and as I think back to how my day has been today I realise I’ve adapted to some of these daily rituals easily and without actually thinking about it. So here’s a typical Britalian day for me and how it mirrors that of my Italian colleagues and friends.

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My day starts with strong black coffee and after breakfast I set off for work. Today I drive up into the mountains as I’m visiting the town of Torricella Peligna to take photos of an apartment that is being put up for sale. I have a pleasant morning with the owner and get the shots required to market her apartment. The sky is as clear and blue as a Ceylon sapphire as we leave the town and below us the road twists and turns through the countryside, with its patchwork of fields and olive groves. The car’s windows are open and the scent of jasmine is drawn inside making this journey a feast for the senses. We pass through the town of Roccascalegna and decide to drop in to check all is well with some new clients who purchased a house a few months back. I find that Sue, Keith and their beautiful daughter Sophie are settling in to their house well and are becoming happily embroiled into their Italian community.

It’s now one o’clock and time for that important of daily Italian customs, lunch.

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We drop into our local restaurant which is already filled with diners and after a ten minute wait we’re seated and ordering. Italian lunch is the most important meal of the day, it’s not to be rushed, it’s meant to be eaten in a relaxed manner to aid digestion. In complete contrast to the meagre Italian breakfast lunch is substantial. I order my primo;  chitarrina allo scoglio, a pasta dish made with the local Abruzzese square shaped spaghetti. The mussels and clams are sweet and the broth that lurks under the pasta has the fragrance of the sea. Around us the other diners are eating, drinking and chatting at a leisurely pace. Lunch isn’t something that should be rushed in Italy. More white wine: ice cold and fizzing in the carafe is delivered to our table and our dishes are cleared away in readiness for the secondo.

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Being an Italian restaurant there’s a television mounted on the wall and muted news reports are playing as the waiters clear tables and redress them in around 40 seconds for more waiting diners. My secondo arrives, a plump piece of salmon dressed simply with olive oil and a slice of lemon. My contorno (side dish) is slices of fresh tomato and wafer thin rings of red onion.

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Workers look at their watches in a relaxed manner, no one is rushing to get back to work yet; after all the standard time given over for lunch is two hours. I check the time and order coffee and stretch my arms above my head feeling happily full.

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After my two hour repast and having paid my €10  we leave and I go back to work. My afternoon is taken up with admin until it’s time to pack away the office for a few minutes and head off to the cantina. A short drive later, I’m loading boxes of wine into the boot of the car and I’m almost ready to leave when the assistant calls me over and gives me two free bottles of wine and tells me to have a good evening.

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Generosity seems to be an intrinsic part of the Italian psyche as is their cordiality, it’s customary to be told to have a good day, a pleasant evening, buon pranzo (have a good lunch) and all other manner of well wishes throughout your day. These salutations are never forced and they’re always received and reciprocated in a genuine way. I’m happy to say that there’s none of that dictated corporate bonhomie in Italy.

Back home, it’s time to sample the wine and a glass of excellent red is poured as I check the last of the emails for the day before setting off for the evening stroll in readiness for dinner. Passeggiata, the Italian custom of a stroll before dinner is a perfect way to catch up with gossip, and as soon as you get into the habit you realise it’s a perfect way to integrate with your community, it’s a sort of walking adhesive.

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It’s now around 8pm and the cars have started to arrive at the local restaurant, the tables outside are populated by people drinking aperitivi as the waiters finish setting up for the evening service. And all over Italy people are preparing for dinner, the same way it’s been done throughout generations.

Spicy Salami Ragù

Ragù is a meat based sauce for pasta which is not to be confused with a sugo which is a more fluid sauce. In the north of Italy ragù is usually made with minced or ground meat while in the south they use more substantial pieces of meat, maybe whole sausages. But regardless of what meat you use, it has to be said that home made ragù beats anything you can buy in the shops.

As regular readers know I’m not keen on shop bought sauces for pasta and prefer to make my own as I always think It’s much tastier and you do away with all of those preservatives and colourings. Today I made one of my favourite home creations and now I’ll share this pasta sauce that I’ve made many times with you.

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This sauce I call spicy salami ragù was originally, just some left-overs. It started out when I opened the fridge and saw half a spicy salami and a courgette looking back at me. I grabbed them and devised this recipe. The ingredients are:

4 inches / 10 cms of spicy salami (similar to Chorizo)

a small courgette

4 gloves of garlic

250g tin of chopped tomatoes (or passata from my worth the work post.

Handful of fresh basil leaves

Chop the salami and courgette in to cubes, slice the garlic and you’re ready to go. I won’t post photos of chopped salami and courgette as I’m sure you can all imagine what they look like. Heat a dry frying pan and add the salami and let it cook and release it’s spicy oil for about 3 minutes then put it aside. Add a drizzle of olive oil to the pan and fry the courgette for another 3 minutes, then add the garlic and cook for a few minutes but don’t let it brown. Add the salami back into the pan and chuck in a pinch of freshly ground black pepper.  Splosh into the pan the tomato sauce/tinned tomatoes and let it simmer for a few minutes before adding the basil. (there’s no need to chop the basil). Take it off the heat and let it cool for a few minutes before pouring the mixture into a blender and switching it on to make a thick sauce.

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Put the pasta of your choice on to cook as per manufacturers directions and reheat the ragù and serve the whole lot in a bowl, cover with a liberal dousing of grated Parmesan and sit down and eat.

The sauce lasts for a week in the refrigerator or can be frozen for use at a later date, but to be honest it’s so quick and easy to make you’re better of having it fresh.

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This is a great way of getting some veggies into children that are stubborn eaters, instead of using a spicy salami, substitute it for 2 pre-cooked sausages.

This Basil wasn’t Fawlty

Last year at this time of the year we were suffering a heat wave, so much so that the orto struggled. My tomatoes were burnt off by blazing sun, the cucumber ran to seed and everything suffered apart from the pumpkins. This year is a much different story, the weather has been kinder, we’ve had oodles of early summer rain and things are flourishing.

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I’ve already picked several courgettes and cucumbers and my tomatoes are putting on some good growth, so there’ll be plenty of passata made this year. Confidence in the harvest can be seen everywhere. Piero at our local restaurant has a sign up advertising his tomatoes for sale; Well he does have over 3,000 plants.

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Once again my pumpkins have got off to a good start with them taking over the orto like something from a 1950’s B movie, they’ve swamped the butternut squash, but I think that’ll do it some good as it doesn’t like it too hot. I’m pleased that I took advice to dig up my Scotch Bonnets and put them in a pot. They’ve over wintered really well and now have lots of small fiery chillies coming. The French beans are doing their thing in a small bed and I’ve a handful of cabbages growing merrily away.

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The thing I’ve been really pleased with is the Italian basil. Over the past few years I’ve tried all sorts of basil and it either takes forever to germinate and grows into spindly little plants or just sits beneath the surface refusing to pop up. I had purple basil a couple of years ago and it was disappointing, as was many other varieties. But this year I bought a packet of Italian basil seeds and hey presto they were poking out of the soil in days and so far I’ve already cropped 4 bags full and am storing it in the freezer.

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I’ll be cropping again today, cutting it back quite harshly, but there’s no need to worry as it’ll send out side shoots and very soon there’ll be more basil for caprese salads and chopping up and adding to passata. Because of the risk of botulism I don’t make infused basil oil and store it in the cupboard, what I do is make it fresh, by heating basil leaves in oil and then letting it go cold and using it that day.

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Freezing is a good way to store basil, chop and wash then pat dry and freeze in a plastic bag, a day or so later crush the contents in the bag and you have flaked basil ready to add frozen to sauces later in the year. Maybe I’ll have a go at turning the next cropping into basil jelly.

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As a extra note having had 2 messages from non UK people thinking I’d spelt ‘Faulty’ incorrect. Fawlty was a UK named hotel owner in a British TV comedy series played by John Cleese.

Free Food

Living in rural Italy is great for anyone who likes getting food for free. The lanes are filled goodies that after a little foraging end up on the dinner plate.

There is no need to buy herbs as rosemary and sage grows in abundance and Italian mint grows around the base of the stake holding our mailbox while a large bay tree shades our neighbours rear garden. At a friends house (that for now we’ll call Felsham Manor), in spring wild garlic permeates the air with it’s pungent aroma, the leaves make a great alternative to basil flavoured pesto and this year I’ve brought some bulbs home in the hope of getting a patch established near our property.

The wild asparagus season has been and gone (technically) but today I saw a man collecting the last of it from the edges of olive groves. I’ve blogged about this previously under the title, the foraging foreigner.

At the moment the fields around us are filled with broad beans, or fave as they’re called here. These beans are not for harvesting and are ploughed back into the land to add nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil for the production of good grass for animal feed. The beans self seed each year so the pods are quite small and the crop wouldn’t be commercially viable, however it’s worth just picking a few of these that only have 2 or 3 beans inside them for dinner: No farmer would begrudge you these. I came away from Atessa with a bag full of pods and yesterday shelled them. The inner green discs are delicious with mackerel and horseradish sauce, but this bowl of beans are going to be the contorno (side dish) to a loin of pork.

IMG_3337 There’s always plenty of fruit and nuts in abundance in the lanes. Outside our front door is large green fig tree and just up the lane a black fig tree. We have walnut, almond and hazelnut trees and wild peaches and pomegranates within walking distance of our house. Last year we discovered two nespole (loquat) bushes in the overgrown part of our land, these produce small apricot coloured fruits that are quite tart in flavour with large brown seeds in the centre, if you let them start to turn and become over-ripe the flesh becomes sweeter; a mix of citrus and peach is the only way to describe it.

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This month the local population will be out planting out their tomatoes; as will I and there’s many patches of land that have been used in the past where they’ve self seeded. Three years ago on a spare piece of land I grew some of the Gardener’s Delight variety; a favourite with English growers. Now every year I get several plants appearing that crawl across the land and tumble up tree stumps and these provide me with small tasty red tomatoes with no attention from myself, leaving me to tend to my sauce making plants.

There’s more out there for the experienced forager, and last week my neighbour Antonio came over with a basket of fresh porcini mushrooms and told me he’d dug up 3 truffles. I asked him where and he tapped the side of his nose with his forefinger, indicating he’ll share his mushrooms but not the truffle location.

I don’t hunt, not because I’m squeamish but because I don’t have a licence or the experience. But there’s plenty of people around me that do (in season) and occasionally I’ll get given a pigeon or two or a saddle of rabbit or hare and sometimes if I’m very lucky a hunk of cinghiale (wild boar) which is always welcome in my kitchen.

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Then there’s the fruits of the sea, if you go early it’s possible to collect mussels from the rocks along the Costa dei Trabocchi and if you’re an angler there’s the free fish that at the end of the day make for a tasty dinner.

All in all there’s an abundance of free food out there, all you need to do is go out and collect it.