Oasis (not the band)

I’ve only been living in the new place for 76 days and so I’m still not very savvy about the local area and amenities: The corona virus and lockdown hasn’t helped exploration either, but today while on dog-walking duty I found a real gem, an oasis of calm just a few minutes from my back door, and so after the dog decided he wanted to go home I returned to explore.

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It’s a patch of woodland with a path that meanders through clouds of cow parsley and the sound of the nearby houses is diffused by the trees until as you walk further it becomes almost like white noise.

Today the sun is prising its way through the canopy, sending shadows and shapes racing across the ground as I stroll off the path and into a small clearing, where it’s obvious, that while the world is locked in a battle with a microscopic enemy, nature continues unabated.

Like most cities, ours has a proud industrial heritage. Before the 1980’s, when cheap imports of dinnerware from Asia began to flood the market, chance was the plate you’d be having your lunch on or your teacup would have come from Stoke on Trent – there’s a reason we’re called, The Potteries. (Don’t get me started on how greedy management/owners destroyed the industry in their quest for fast profits.)

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An internet search will bring up archival photos of bottle ovens belching smoke and dust into the air, but things change and those historical clouds of smog are gone; along with the skills of the city’s people. But enough of that, let’s get back to today.

Despite our industrial past our city has lots of green spaces, in fact as Misha Herwin said in her blog, we have a green city.

Stepping back onto the path I find some bluebells standing proud among the grasses and the sky coloured flowers remind of my childhood before the plants were protected, when, with my sister we’d pick armfuls of them, breathing in their delicate perfume.

Just a few feet away from the bluebells is a patch of buttercups, their happy yellow heads held high in the stillness of the morning. IMG_0272

There’s no breeze but there’s a definite aroma of garlic in the air, I take a few more paces and the smell is stronger, and there nestling in a shady spot I find a strip of wild garlic growing, it’s white flowers standing out in bright defiance against the broad dark green leaves.

Further down the path is a patch of forget-me-nots, forgotten among the undergrowth, their leggy stems holding the pale blue flowers aloft. I look at these tiny flowers and not for the first time, I wonder why they’re also known as scorpion grass.

It’s amazing how just a few minutes disconnected from modern living can top you up with a feeling of well-being. Simple things can often be the antidote to stress and anxiety, and nothing is more soothing than the tranquillity of a woodland walk.

My favourite discovery of the walk is four dandelion clocks standing proud, waiting for a breeze to tell the time. I like them so much I that I can’t decide which of my photographs I like best, so I’ll post both of them.

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Pollo Cacciatore (Hunter’s Chicken)

November in Abruzzo can be confusing weather-wise. For example during the day it can be warm enough to eat outside: Three days ago the temperature was 20 degrees and I sat outside eating lobster at lunchtime. However when the evening comes the temperature drops and with no cloud cover it can be quite cold, so lunch is often light fare with evening dinner being warming dishes.

Yesterday my OH said “You’ve not made pollo cacciatore for a while, so I decided that, that would be this evening’s dinner. Now every Italian nonna has her version of this popular dish, and looking online many recipes vary with there being no definitive one. So I thought I’d share mine.

Ingredients: 6 chicken thighs, 200 ml stock, 2 onions, 4 garlic cloves, 25 g anchovies, 750 ml passata* 50g of sofritto** 150g pitted green olives 40 cl red wine and seasoning.

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First add the wine to a dish and add to this 1 tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp garlic salt, 1 tsp black pepper and a sprig of rosemary. Add the chicken to the marinade and leave in the fridge for a couple of hours.

Next chop the onions and sauté in olive oil, add a pinch of salt to draw out the moisture; I find the salt stops the onions browning too quickly. When translucent add the garlic and sofritto and fry for a couple of minutes then add the stock. I use chicken stock, but a vegetable one is good. Add to this the passata and a good pinch of herbs of your choice; I add fresh rosemary from the lane and dried oregano. Bring to the boil them simmer for 10 minutes then set aside to cool.

After 2 of 3 hours remove the chicken from the marinade and dry it off and coat in flour. Add a splash of olive oil to a pan and fry the anchovies until they break up: these add natural saltiness but no fish flavour. Fry your chicken for a few minutes on both sides to seal it and add to the pot of cacciatore sauce. Add the remaining wine and the olives and reheat on the hob to start reducing the liquid. Let it simmer until you see one defined line of sauce on the edge of the dish. You can then set it aside until you’re ready to finish the cooking.

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It seems quite labour intensive, but as they say, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. The pot is finally put in the oven at 180 degrees (fan) for 45 minutes, remove the lid for the last 15 minutes of cooking and serve with vegetables of your choice. Tonight we’re having it with polenta to create that ultimate comfort food.

* I use my own home made passata but shop bought is okay.

** Sofritto in Italy is finely chopped onion, celery and carrot, I buy it frozen.

It’s not Rocket Science

I was watching a British chef on television this week enthusing about risotto; in fact he was making so much noise about it’s preparation that you’d think he was solving complex equations rather than making a simple Italian rice dish. I turned off the TV and went shopping for some ingredients to make my own and so here’s my recipe for pancetta and asparagus risotto with none of the bells and whistles. For this recipe which serves 4 people, you’ll need:

1 red onion. 500g Arborio rice*. 500g asparagus. 100g soft cheese. 100g cubed pancetta. 400 ml vegetable stock and 2 garlic cloves. You’ll need salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon to season. A glass of white wine and my special asparagus stock.

To make my asparagus stock for extra flavour, Snap off the bottom inch or so of the asparagus using your fingers; the stems will naturally break where the tough woody part ends and the tender stem begins, then cut the green tip from the woody stem and add to 600 ml of boiling water. Let the asparagus cook until the water has reduced by half and the stems are so soft they can be crushed between a finger and thumb. Add to a blender and whizz up into a green liquid.

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Now you’re ready to make the risotto. Chop the onion roughly, no need to create equal sided cubes as years ago I was told by an Italian restaurant owner that risotto should be rustic and comforting. Flash fry the onion and pancetta in a little olive oil (not extra virgin) for 3 or 4 minutes and then put to one side. To the pan add some olive oil and when hot add the rice and the 2 whole garlic cloves, stir the rice until it’s got a coating of oil then add the white wine and stir again before removing and discarding the garlic cloves as we just want a hint of its flavour. Add the pancetta and onion followed by the 300 ml of asparagus broth; don’t go in for all of this a ladle full at a time nonsense, just pour it in and keep the rice moving as it starts to cook.

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When the rice has absorbed the liquid turn the pan on the hob 180 degrees; this stops the rice sticking and burning in one spot of the pan. Add half of the vegetable stock and continue stirring, add salt and pepper to season and repeat when the liquid has been once more absorbed. Once the rice is cooked and the liquid absorbed take it off the heat and add the soft cheese and place a lid or a plate over the pan as it melts into the rice.

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I use stracchino, a young cow’s milk cheese also know as crescenza, if you don’t want to add cheese simply substitute it for 50g of unsalted butter. Once it’s melted I give the pot one final stir and a squeeze of lemon juice and it’s ready to serve up.

I had one lonely slice of ham languishing in my fridge so I ripped it up and tossed this into the pot alongside the onion and pancetta rather than waste it. If you have a few left-over mushrooms you could add these if you like, in fact anything can be added to a risotto to save waste.

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* If you prefer your risotto made with either Roma or Carnaroli rice this is okay, I use Arborio as that’s my personal preference.

There you have it, una ricetta semplice (a simple recipe) for risotto without all the fussing and faffing of a television chef.

Markets and a Comparison

One of the things that I really like about living in Italy is the abundance of open-air markets. In the UK, over the years there’s been a gradual decline in markets; mostly, in my opinion, due to the greed of the major four supermarkets and twenty-four trading. I think there’s nothing nicer than taking your time to look around a market stall that someone has set up in the ungodly hours and filled with their wares. Regular trips help to build up a rapport and pretty soon your shopping experience is peppered with friendly conversation and the occasional discount. I love to buy my fruit and veg at the market as often as possible, and try to use the same stalls each time. Our local market is held on a Friday morning and the man on the fruit and veg stall I use, always has a jovial manner and a quick chat often is repaid with a few extra veggies for free. A few weeks back he had run out of garlic so told me to go to the shop in town that is owned by the family. He leant forward and whispered, “Tell them Antonio sent you.” He winked and off I went. I reached the shop; whose name shall remain a secret, I was purchasing the garlic, when I remembered to say, “Antonio sent me,” and the sales assistant smiled and then promptly deducted thirty-five cents from the cost.

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Guardiagrele Market

I’m also partial to the small independent shops that have their produce stacked outside. I adore seeing garlic, chillies and onions hanging from nails banged into the wall and boxes piled high with purple aubergines, scarlet tomatoes and crisp white fennel bulbs. Invariably these shops are a few cents more expensive than the supermarkets, but if you ask, they always know the provenance of their stock. We have a fabulous fruit and veg shop on the road to Atessa where the staff can tell you exactly where the plums are from or how far away the broccoli was grown and each visit always facilitates a free bunch of odori, which is basically a few sticks of celery, some parsley and sometimes a couple of shallots as a thank-you for your custom.

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The one thing that I keep hearing ex-pats say is that food over here is expensive compared to the UK, I wonder where these people are shopping. I know of one couple who drive the 120 km round trip each week to the Lidl to purchase the handful of English food they stock, (no wonder they think its expensive). So I thought whilst I was over in England a couple of weeks ago I’d jot down some prices and make a comparison when I returned. For the purpose of this comparison I accumulated my data from two leading UK supermarkets Asda and Tesco and compared their prices to two Italian ones, Eurospin and Conad. So here are my findings, obviously I am unable to do a like for like comparison on named brands so have used fresh produce or the nearest equivalent.

Product UK Price £ Italian Price €
Fennel bulb 1.25 0,35
Half cucumber 0.85 0,21
Iceberg lettuce 0.75 0,31
6 pork sausages 2.49 2,25
1kg soap powder 4.99 2,99
Medium Cauliflower 1.25 0,97
6 chicken thighs 1.99 2,10
Prosecco 9.99 2,69
Red wine 2.69 1,26
Sacala pasta sauce 1.69 1,00
2 pork chops 2,89 2,57
Beef stock cubes 1.19 0,95
medium olive loaf 1.25 1,34
White Potatoes  1 KG 1,09 0,93
Tin of tomatoes 0.79 0,32

If I purchased all of these items, the English shopping would come to £35.15 and the Italian would be €20,24 which if converted into each currency at todays rate would mean that the English shopping comes out as £18.38 or €22,18 more expensive. I know you can argue the wines are more expensive due to UK taxes, but this illustration is purely based on shopping I purchased in the UK and continue to buy here, and is only a quick comparison. It is all a bit of swings and roundabouts, as electrical goods here tend to be more expensive; in Asda they had a bag-less vacuum cleaner on sale for £49.99 and the Italian equivalent is €99,99, but how often do you need to buy a new vacuum cleaner in comparison to pork chops.

Storm Chasing

Today’s title may evoke images of being inside a jeep hurtling towards a raging tornado or the eye of a hurricane, maybe even being trapped inside a Kansas farmhouse as it rides a twister to, The Merry Old Land of Oz., but actually, the title is misleading, as it’s not so much storm chasing as being chased by a storm.

We were having a pleasant mid-morning in Lanciano, when we decided to have lunch at Il Chiostro. It’s a an informal yet pleasant restaurant a few paces from the church of St. Francis, that houses the Eucharist miracle. The interior has a rustic feel to it with big wooden seating bays that easily accommodate up to eight people per table. The menu options change daily and for a mere twelve euro per person, you can have a substantial lunch. We collected our cutlery and tray, heaved a great slab of bread onto it and stopped at the options for primo piatto. I opted for an unusual yet tasty bacon and cauliflower pasta while the OH had a pasta bake laced with enough garlic to keep the entire inhabitants of Transylvania at bay. Secondo Piatto was either roast pork or stuffed veal, we both opted for the veal, which was served in a rich tomato sauce, with grilled vegetables and potatoes. We decided two courses was sufficient and declined the sweet course before grabbing a bottle of aqua frizzante and becoming ensconced behind the huge wooden table.

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Stuffed and satiated we decided to walk off lunch and took a leisurely stroll through the medieval part of the town. We meandered through narrow alleyways taking refuge from the afternoon heat. Windows were open and the lives of the inhabitants spilled out. A conversation motored down a narrow vinco, an argument burst through closed shutters and babies squealed with joy from within the dark recesses of a skinny house. We took some time out sitting on a bench near the park before heading back to the bank to do some business there.

Our business concluded we walked back to the car, as we set off on our journey home, the sky suddenly changed; the blue became grey and an ominous black cloud sailed overhead. Now I have before alluded to Italian thunderstorms being epic, and was once sat in stationary traffic on the motorway outside Rimini as great threads of lightning bounced around the cars. So I was apprehensive about being up so high and away from the relative safety of our valley. As we reached the edge of Castle Frentano I stopped the car and looked back, the skies were filled by an angry cancerous cloud, giving the illusion of us being trapped inside a Hollywood action movie.

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I climb back into the car and start the descent down the winding, serpent like road, I look in the rear view mirror and the black cloud seems to be following me. I slow as I navigate a hairpin bend and the cloud sends out spikes of yellow, flashing behind me. I can accelerate through a relatively straight piece of road and the cloud moves sideways. This time it’s almost peering in the side window, mocking me. It grumbles and more flashes follow. Eventually we reach the bottom and the rain starts, great gobs of water splatter the windscreen. We wind our way up our little lane just as a huge snap fills the air, I stop the car and make the fifty yard dash to the front door. Sods law takes over, I drop the keys, giving me those few extra seconds of drenching. With the door now closed I look outside and the cloud moves away towards Archi, up on the mountain top. I’m changing into dry clothes as it laughs  at me with a final electricity charged crackle and the sun bathes my house once more. I’m then reminded of the song by Sparks, Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth.

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