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.

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Olive Hiatus

It’s 07:00 on Sunday morning and I’m woken by the sound of tractors in the lane, raised voices in the olive groves and the hiss of portable generators. The olive harvest has started.

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Last year was a very good year with the bars filled with local farmers boasting about their yield and the excellent quality. Sadly it’s very different this year as many are telling me the amount of olives on the trees is low. With so few to collect every fruit is precious, I look from my kitchen window and Nicola is double-checking there’s no gaps in the nets laid beneath his tree before the olives are raked from its branches.

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Sunday is a good day to harvest, it’s warm and dry and the family continue on with their toil until mid-afternoon. Monday arrives and with it rain. Not gentle rain but heavy, leaden drops and it continues all day and into the night.

Tuesday we are welcomed to sunshine again, however the rain has forced many of the olives from their branches and the lane is strewn with them, they lie on the tarmac, many with their precious oil crushed from them by passing vehicles. Nicola tells we need two or three days of good weather as the ground needs to dry out before he can continue to harvest his crop. With so few to pick he’s hoping we don’t have any more rainy days until his olives are safely at the frantoio..

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Gli Abruzzese Non…

Living in another country will always mean your diet changes and that there’s some food from your country of origin that you’ll miss. Most of us have that certain something that we wish we could readily buy, but mostly we adapt and just get on with it. My two must haves are black pudding which I have posted to me vac-packed and it’s quickly opened, cut up and frozen and HP sauce: I get through a bottle a month. I can buy it here but it’s pricey at  €4.99 a bottle. I consider myself lucky that friends often bring me a couple of bottles when they fly over. This week Richard and Annie dropped by to deliver me 3 bottles, which are very much appreciated.

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It’s not just certain products that are lacking but the cuts of meat here in Italy are different to the British ones and it took a long time to get used to what I was buying and for which purpose. But there’s one thing you cannot get here and that’s kidneys. I’ve always liked a bit of offal. I was that weird kid in school that liked liver, I’m quite partial to a braised beef heart, sweetbreads are a treat, but my favourite has always been kidney – in a steak and kidney pie it was my preference to have a 60/40 mix in favour of the kidney.

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So yesterday while at the macelleria (butcher’s shop) I decided as I’ve never seen them available I’d ask for some. The look of shock on his face was priceless, this was followed by head shaking and a sharp intake of breath before he responded with, “The Abruzzese don’t eat kidneys, we leave that to the dirty Romans.”

Next week I’ll try to get a duck and see what his response will be.

I Fiori

After an hour pricking out sweet William seedlings and winter flowering pansies ready to take over from the summer bedding, I was thinking that this year’s display of flowers has been the best yet since moving to Abruzzo.

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Previous years have seen me pay more attention to the orto and raising vegetables, however this year apart from a few tomato and chilli plants and I’ve not bothered with veg growing and concentrated more on flowers.

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The sunflowers have been stunning and are definitely on the list for next year’s display.

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Choosing what to grow can be a case of suck it and see, things that do well in the UK can be horticultural disasters here in the heat of an Italian summer and I’ve had some failures. Sweet peas start off well but once the temperature climbs they fail to do the same, cornflowers get off to a good start but here the flowers seem to be somewhat smaller than in England.

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My greatest achievement is my hosta box, I love hostas and despite them preferring damp shady spots mine do well here. They only get full sun after 2:30 pm and take lots of looking after which means watering twice a day and a daily ritual of picking snails off the planter to stop the leaves becoming perforated by the greedy molluscs: This year we had only three holes in just two leaves.

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I’ve decided to add some flower beds in the rear garden and have already started to collect seeds in readiness for next year’s display, that I hope will be more dramatic than this year’s has been.

Sagra

Throughout the summer months, posters adorn Italian walls with the word, ‘sagra’ clearly taking prominent position in the advertising, so what does this word mean?

The literal translation is, festival, but the definition of sagra is a local fair and celebration connected with food and local produce; for example on the 24th and 25th of August this year, the local town of Altino hosted its annual, ‘sagra del peperone dolce’, (festival of the sweet pepper). During the celebration the streets are filled with people dressed in medieval costume and Tables are set out to serve different dishes that must include peppers and chillies within the recipe. The dishes vary, so one stall may have a pot of pasta ribbons coated in a piquant sauce and the next one may have a chilli flavoured cheesecake. Once the eating of pepper infused dishes is over the evening culminates in a musical extravaganza.

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The village of Brecciaio, oddly calls their festa, Non é la sagra, (It’s not the festival) with the tag line, ‘but we eat, we drink and we dance’ and the longest local sagra must be the one hosted by the town of Pennapiedamonte, where their cinghiale (wild boar) festa goes on for 27 days.

Attending a sagra is the perfect way to immerse yourself in Italian country life, add to this the opportunity to sample local cuisine as you sit at long communal tables to eat with the local population and you get a real feel for how Italian’s come together to celebrate.

Finding out about a sagra is very straightforward as most of the posters follow a similar format, the main heading will tell you where the festival is held and the date; these are mostly in bold typeface and large enough to read from a passing vehicle. Once you’ve found one that interests you, the poster will give you the start time, destination and other events that will be staged.

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You don’t have to be a local to attend and most towns welcome outsiders and tourists to their celebrations, the lines of parked cars stretching out of the town will indicate that you have arrived at the right place, and those who arrive early are usually the last to leave due to the sheer volume of traffic attending. In fact some sagre (the plural of sagra) are so popular that the towns have a coach service to ferry people in and out of town to keep the streets clear for dancing.

Sagre take place throughout the year, with most taking place during the summer months. So next time you’re holiday in Italy, keep a keen eye on the local posters and find a local sagra, and for one evening become an honorary Italian and enjoy all the town’s hospitality has to offer.

Adapted from my article written for Italy Magazine, April 2014

Property Restoration Rules

Clients often ask me about the rules regarding property restoration, citing that there’s so much conflicting information in the public domain. Often they’ll turn to people on forums who moved to Abruzzo many years ago and although well-meaning; things change and these people may not have the up to date information.

One important thing to say is that the law changed back in April, (22nd to be exact), meaning it’s no longer necessary to obtain permission as long as the restoration you do to your property has no impact on the environment. For example building extensions or another storey will have an impact on the surroundings and will therefore require permission. 

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Below are the main works as listed in the ‘Infrastructure decree’ which you do not need to seek permission from the comune before undertaking:

Ordinary maintenance works:
• Installing, but also repairing or replacing, railing, security grilles or grates.
• Replacing external and internal flooring,
• Resurfacing internal and external plasterwork,
• Renovating gutters and downpipes.
• Changing doors, windows, stairways
• Installing an air-to-air heat pump, provided that it has a heat output of less than 12 kW. These appliances offer also a “green” alternative for air-conditioning houses as they use renewable energy such as air to heat or cool rooms.
• Installing (but also repairing or upgrading) lifts, but only inside buildings and provided that this doesn’t involve altering supporting structures.

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Works to create a comfortable living space outside your door:
• Installing barbecues, tool sheds, fountains, planters and benches, kennels for dogs and cats.
• Installing gazebos and pergolas within certain size limits and when not permanently fixed to the ground
• Create a garden play area for children
• Installing partition walls in the garden as long as they are not masonry walls

Home renewable energy systems:
• Installing, replacing or renovating solar and photovoltaic panels, wind turbines generators or parts of them

Architectonic barriers:
You can remove architectonic barriers, such as stairways and lifts, if they don’t alter the existing structure of the property.

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The only other advice I’d add is, if you’re unsure then ask. A trip to the comune only takes a short time and could put your mind at rest. Also feel free to copy and print out the above infrastructure decree to take with you just in case the person behind the desk has not been aware of the changes.

Buon lavoro.

Piles, the wooden variety

With daily temperatures in the thirties you’d expect the thought of cold winter nights to be furthest from anyone’s mind. But as the farmer’s around us continue to cut the grass for hay, the local population are preparing for winter by rebuilding their wood piles.

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Branches are being collected and stored beside houses, small pieces of wood are being chopped to make kindling and logs are being collected in readiness for the log store to be built.

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In town as in the countryside logs are being stored under cover in readiness for the forthcoming change in the seasons. Some of the log stores are so well constructed, they’re almost works of art.

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I’d like to say mine in previous years has been as tidy and organised as some of my neighbours, but sadly they’ve always been rather scruffy affairs. So dedicated to the art of log pile stacking are some people, that their wood stores are vast in comparison to their needs.

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Last week my friend Mario was chopping logs in the heat and told me it was time I started my wood collection. “Remember last year,” he says. “Many people ran out because the snow lasted longer than normal.”

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“I won’t be collecting wood this year.” I tell him. His brow furrows, he shakes his head and asks,  “Are you going to be away?”

“No,” I reply and tell him I’m having gas central heating fitted. Once again he shakes his head and his brow furrows before telling me that wood is free, so why would anyone want to pay for gas? I tell him it’s just easier.

“Sei pazzo straniero.” (You crazy foreigner). we laugh and I go to sit in the shade leaving him to his toil.

La Prima Comunione di Giulio

It’s Saturday 5 August 2018 and at 10:45 it’s already 32 degrees and there’s not a cloud in the sky. I’m in San Vito Chietino trying desperately to figure out how the new parking  machine works. Thankfully I’m not the only one as there’s about 30 people trying to work out how to use it. I look at my watch and see I have 15 minutes to get to the church before the first Holy Communion of my friend, Nicoletta’s son takes place. I make my way to another machine and a man explains that now you need to put in your number plate – brilliant, new car and I don’t know it yet. I decide to guess and follow the instructions and when I get back to the car alter the number on the ticket and write, ‘Mi dispiace, sono inglese’. (I’m sorry, I’m English) Having already been towed away previously, I hope this will placate any over enthusiastic parking attendant.

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The church is packed to the rafters with proud parents and so we stand outside and watch as the service takes place. The women in the congregation fan themselves, finding no respite from the heat within the cool walls, while the men step outside to shelter under trees.

The service concluded we head to a nearby agriturismo to begin celebrating with Giulio. The room is laid out with two long tables to accommodate us all and there’s water and wine already waiting for us. We all make our introductions, which take time as this is Italy and everyone wants to say hello, shake your hand and ask how you are; my response remains the same for everyone, ‘Sono bene ma fa caldo’ (I’m well, but it’s hot).

Food

Italian festivities are not known for being brief and at 13:15 we sit down to our first course, a traditional plate of anti pasti; cheeses and salumi. These are followed during the meal:

  • Fried spinach parcels
  • Ham roulade
  • fried mozzerella
  • stuffed courgettes (two ways)
  • Cacio e uova (cheese and egg balls)
  • Bean casserole
  • Wilted chicory
  • Courgette and ham lasagne
  • Chitarra pasta with meat ragu
  • Veal with potatoes
  • Grilled pork
  • Barbecued lamb with salad
  • Fresh fruit with ice cream

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During the dinner which lasted in total 7 hours with short breaks to aid digestion we were entertained by a superb band, who played a mix of traditional Italian songs and pop songs. During the afternoon, Nicoletta would join the band and with Albano and a few others would entertain us with renditions of Italian pop songs. The day was also Nicoletta and her husband’s 12th wedding anniversary, so we wished them well as they had a celebratory dance.

The party almost complete, we go outside for photographs and for Giulio to cut his cake. I don’t normally post photos of myself on my blog, but I will share this image of myself with my work colleagues. Thanks to Rocco Altobelli.

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We ended the day enjoying a slice of Giulio’s cake and a digestivo, my choice was limoncello as the traditional amaro isn’t to my taste.

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We had a superb day and were made to feel very welcome by everyone there; family and friends. It was a special day and we felt very honoured to be a part of it. Hospitality and great parties are something that the Italian’s do very well. Grazie a tutti voi.

38468038_2171981346177099_6311874038301982720_nThis handsome young gentleman is Giulio.

Thank you Giulio for sharing your special day with with us.

Keeping it Local

One thing people often ask about coming to live here is, “Is it easy to fit in?” There’s no definitive answer to that question as I guess quite a lot depends upon how much you want to fit in, and also how much of an effort you’re prepared to make. I can say, don’t expect to assimilate in a matter of months. Becoming a part of any community takes give and take and what you need to remember is you’re trying to become part of an established population, so it’s mostly giving rather than taking.

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A lot of people who move here are retiring to enjoy the slower pace of life. One thing that we are lucky to have here is that the majority of Italians are welcoming of foreigners. They appreciate their buying of houses they’ll never be able to sell and understand that by coming here the local economy benefits.

One piece of advice I always give people is to use the small independent shops as often as you can, rather than the larger impersonal supermarkets. Yes the produce may be a few cents more expensive but the service you get is priceless. For example, we have a very good local independent supermarket just a 10 minute drive away. The gardens are always welcoming and well kept; even the mini roundabout in the car park is in full bloom continuously.

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People often say it’s more expensive, but here you find branded products rather than supermarket own brands and if like me you prefer your cooked meat to be freshly sliced rather than sat in a plastic packet, then here you’re in luck. My friend; yes she’s become that over the years of shopping there; will cut as many slices of good quality prosciutto cotto or spicy ventricina that you want. The weather is commented upon, we talk about work, we laugh and she’s always on hand to give advice on which product is the best: After years of eating mass produced supermarket polenta she pointed me in the right direction of a superb local brand.

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Here there’s more pasta than you ever imagined and all the top brands, wines and spirits and canned goods. Just by walking through the door you can purchase storage jars and soap powder through to shoe polish and spices. The staff are always happy to see you and everyone is greeted personally. But importantly it’s the customers that can help you in your quest to fit in with the local population.

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The independent shops do not have the same opening hours the supermarkets have, they’re mostly open until lunchtime then close for lunch and re-open in the early evening for a few more hours. Just getting into this rhythm is a step toward assimilation, as you meet your neighbours and it’s a chance to pass the time of day and often be told just how to cook that piece of meat you’ve chosen.

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And of course, with each visit you’re contributing to the local economy, you’re treated with respect and often get discounts or gifts for your continued custom, not to mention superb locally sourced produce. I know all the staff in my nearest independent store and always prefer to shop there, because it’s good to keep it local.

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.