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.

Annie’s Adventure in Agnone

Once a year my friend, ‘The Lovely Annie’ as I refer to her comes over to Italy to join me in an adventure. Now our adventures are not high octane or feats that could prove life threatening. There’s no diving from ridiculous heights into vats of cooling tagliatelle or climbing Italian mountains dressed in traditional Alpini uniforms, our adventures are of the more sedate variety. This year’s adventure is to visit a town neither of us have been to before.  We mix the excitement up with a decision to leave the safety of our region of Abruzzo and cross the border into Molise. So on a hot and sunny August morning we set off for Angnone, a town we’ve randomly chosen – gripping isn’t it?

The journey takes us about 45 minutes and very soon we’re over the border into the Isernia province of the much maligned and often ignored region of Molise. The first thing that strikes us the greenery, the countryside is lush and has an almost alpine feel despite the region being less mountainous than Abruzzo. We come around a bend and Agnone comes into sight. We follow the signs for the centre of town and find a parking space to abandon the car in. The space between the two cars is tight and I can only get out of our 4×4 monster by climbing over into the back and exiting through one of the rear doors. After struggling in 30 degree temperatures to wrestle myself free from the car another car in the shade with more space leaves the car park and I’m then climbing back inside, face pressed up against the widow as I try to get my lanky legs over the headrest to plonk myself back into the driver’s seat. The car is eventually parked and I’m a sweaty mess as we set off to check out the town.

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Agnone is a well kept town, the streets are free of litter and the old buildings are sandwiched nicely between modern fronted shops and bars. The town has an air of wealth about it despite the rumour that Molise is a poor peasant region. Ladies are shopping in their finery; their hair coiffured and necks adorned with precious gemstone necklaces.

 

We begin our adventure by strolling up the town’s main street just taking in the atmosphere before it’s time for a coffee; we drop into a bar situated on the main corso and the three of us are soon sipping cappuccini as we watch the Agnonese go about their daily routines.

 

The town is famous for its bell manufacturing which has taken place here since 1040: The factory is now run by the Marinelli family who took it over in 1339, and is recognised as the oldest family business in Italy and ranked third oldest in the world. So with this in mind and the fact that the factory created the bell that hangs in Pisa’s leaning tower we head off for tour that is advertised on their website to start at 12.00. Sadly when we arrive as one tour is ending and there’s not another one. (Methinks their website needs updating). So with no opportunity to go inside we take some photos outside with the array of bells on display.

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After the bells we do a little shopping and then make our way through the town stopping occasionally to visit one or two of the 19 medieval churches that are in this small town: There’s actually now 20 churches as a new modern one was recently constructed.

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We stroll up past the council offices and come into a large piazza and as it’s lunch we drop into a restaurant called, Borgo Antico. The service is very good and as the temperature outside is nearing the 34 degree point we’re shown to a table in the shade . Our waitress takes our orders and very soon we’re drinking a cold beer and being served a typical Agnonese platter with truffle flavoured cheese, freshly made bruschetta, a sweet young ricotta and some slices of salami. This was followed by a very flavoursome primo of lamb ragù and pasta. So if you’re ever passing Agnone, drop in and sample the service and food they have to offer.

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Post lunch is followed by more strolling and dropping into the various touristy places, making sure we we step into the Ndocciata museum. Ndocciata is a Christmas festival where men carry flaming borgates, wooden frames of constructed in nine quarters through the streets. We make mental notes to come to witness this in December.

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The day comes to a close with us driving to visit the oddly named nearby town of Capracotta, which literally translates as cooked goat. The drive up through the winding lanes is breath-taking, the countryside is beautiful and as the roads don’t have the steep drops the mountain ones in Abruzzo have we’re able to see for miles.

We’re welcomed into Capracotta by the sight of two dogs copulating on the pavement and make our way up a tiny cobbled street to the lower part of the town. The town is capped by a large impressive church with a fabulous view over the surrounding countryside, we stop at the ‘belvedere’ and marvel at the natural beauty below us before making our way into the church.

DSCF9565 To be honest despite the grand outside appearance of the church it’s interior is rather bland and not much to write home about.

We take some time to sit in the afternoon shade in the local park watching children at play while mothers look on and old men gossip beneath the beech trees. Our drive back takes us through the village of Rosello and we stop off for a drink at the local bar and within minutes the entire population has come out for their passeggiata and we’re overwhelmed by the number of people in this small street as teenagers play cards and shout, ‘Ciao’ to elderly residents and couples walk hand in hand for that special period of time between late afternoon and dinner time. Our day ends with aperitivi followed by pizza at our local pizzeria. DSCF9567

My dictionary defines adventure as, (noun) an unusual and exciting or daring experience and (verb) engage in daring or risky activity. So ours hasn’t been an adventure in the technical term, but 12 hours filled with happiness, love and friendship is in my opinion a fantastic feat to achieve.

Bad Influence from Stevenage

My friend who has a house nearby is over at the moment from the UK to enjoy some early Italian sunshine and get her neglected garden back in order. We met a few years back and spent a riotous summer together in Italy in 2011 as both of our partners were in England at the time. I have to admit that we both have the same irreverent sense of humour and also occasionally have no internal volume switch. So a couple of weeks back she tips up at the airport. I pick her up and from that moment on my routine begins to unravel.

We’ve had assorted trips into different towns when I’d be sat at my desk normally doing research. We’ve enjoyed meals at lunchtime when I’d normally grab a sandwich as I proof read. There’s been many visits to the local bar when usually after a day writing, I’d be cossetted on the sofa with a glass of wine  watching Emmerdale.

So last week, when another friend pointed out that I was having a very busy social life of late, I pointed out the reason why; my errant friend from Stevenage. The friend comments that my recent status updates have featured less about my work and more about my procrastination, and I have to admit to being one story behind on my monthly schedule. I then jokingly lay the blame for this firmly at my visiting friend’s door, saying she’s a bad influence.100_9239

Several minutes later said bad influence sends me a message saying, ‘fancy trying the new bar in town?’ Am I strong enough to resist the temptation to indulge in jovial behaviour while partaking of grain based beverages?

No. So where does the blame lie?

Who really cares when a good time is being had by all, I can get back to the mundane 9 to 5 routine later in the month. Life is too short to put work before friendship.

Seppe and the Courgette Trumpet

Sunday evening was spent at a barbecue hosted by our friends Viv and Seppe.  As people arrived, ribs and sausages where deployed above the red coals, Seppe had glowing in advance, everyone contributed to the feast, I took a strawberry torte, a melon and grappa jelly and some coffee pannacotta, Graham took a rice dish and some chocolate and chilli cake and Gina brought an amazing artichoke bake she had made in advance; which everyone cooed over upon tasting. The evening passed by pleasantly, the children left the grown-ups and went to play in the streets: Something sadly children don’t do anymore back in England, mostly, in my opinion down to paranoia and playstation.

As the evening progressed Seppe showed everyone how to make a courgette trumpet, and before long we had put together a band: I say band in the loosest sense of the word, and it wasn’t long before adults, woozy with wine were projecting what can only be described as fart sounds into the evening air.

So I thought I’d share the method of making this innovative vegetable instrument with you:

1. Select a courgette/zuccini stem.

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2. Remove the leaf.

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3. Cut a slit into the stem about a centimetre long.

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4. Put stem into mouth and blow. I find it works better for me if the slit is vertical to my bottom lip.

The evening was rounded off by the children excitedly telling us there was a fox in the piazza, and sure enough there it was, a friendly, skinny fox begging for food, after Ben gave it a sausage it ran away, and the guests also started to depart, everyone agreeing it had been a marvellous evening of food, fun and friendship.