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.

Advertisements

The Parsnip Project

You’re hard pressed to find a parsnip in Italy, in fact the only place I know that they exist is up in the Piemonte region, and these are English contraband, shipped over and distributed by Mr Noble of the Living in the Langhe blog.

I have over the past few years heard friends in Italy remark at their unsuccessful attempts to grow these root vegetables. Even a forum I once frequented had people commenting on the impossibility to grow parsnips in Abruzzo. So undaunted I thought I’d have a go. I did blog about this desire back in January. 

100_8716

So here’s the first update in my quest to grow these non-Italian-loving vegetables. First I collected toilet rolls from friends and on a sunny afternoon I assembled them in the back garden. I also needed something to stack them in so used an old plastic storage box.

100_8719

So first job was to cut the toilet roll tubes in half and assemble them inside the plastic box and then filled them with potting compost.

100_8722

Once the tubes were filled I gave them a watering to dampen them and replaced the box lid, and have left it in the sunshine to warm for a few days, to create a mini microclimate inside the box.

100_8724

The box seems to be effective as I put in my newly sown broccoli seeds and with five days they were coming through. I’ll keep you informed at future stages regarding the parsnip project.

Apologies for the lengthy break between postings, my laptop died and I had to get a new one with English keyboard delivered from the UK.

Dog Attack

Today I was attacked by a dog.

It was a random, unprovoked attack, by a black and tan beast that stands 60 cm (2ft) at the shoulder.

My office is downstairs but as there is work being carried outside its window, which would be a major distraction, I’m working in the living room. I’m researching the Piemonte region of Italy and looking for some less obvious places for visitors to see. So I’m hunched over the laptop typing random things about Italy’s second largest region into Google and reading everything that comes up. My goodness, there’s a lot of rubbish out there in internet land, so I opt for reference books I have in my office, I fetch them and settle down on the sofa to read.

As I discover that the Po is Italy’s biggest river, the iPod shuffles and, Tom Jones starts to sing, Sex Bomb, suddenly there’s a thunder of paws on the wooden-floor and I look up as Alf launches himself in my direction, his massive jaws wide open. He lands on the sofa knocking the wind out of me and rolls over, his tongue lolling out of his mouth like a roll of pink carpet. His tail is doing its unique form of wagging: helicopter wagging we call it as it goes around in a circle. His brown eyes plead with me to stop work and play with him.

I push him away but it’s no use, he’s back on top of me, grabbing me with his mouth and pulling me off the sofa. It’s no use, I have to put down my book and play, Find Meaky with him. After twenty-minutes of running around he’s ready for a drink of water and I’m ready for a glass of wine. As Sign of the Times, a blast from the past from, the Belle Stars plays, I carry on reading and Alf clambers up onto the sofa beside me, belches and falls asleep.

100_7999

BTW: Meaky is a squeaky blue monkey that Alf has adopted as his favourite toy, second only to the pink tumble-dryer ball.

Flat Out

The magazine I work for is having a grand re-launch following a take-over and a make-over. The result being, my workload has increased, which isn’t a problem as with winter approaching I wont be subjected to the desire to go to the coast. Okay, I lie a little. Yes, there will be days when all I want to do is sit looking out over a throbbing grey sea rather than be tapping at my laptop, but these days will be few and far between though. so, (hopefully) I will be able to use my time productively.

My editor has asked me for my next three-month work schedule, this entails pitching all the new stories well in advance, discovering the ones the magazine wants me to write and setting my copy delivery dates in stone. I have finally organised a schedule and hopefully if I can follow this, I will know what type of feature I need to submit at any given time each month. The new regime means I can work out how much time I need to devote to each article each week, and maybe even build up a bank of non-specific date related features to help me out when procrastination creeps up on me.

December-crop

My OCD managed to have a hand in the planning, and categories soon became colour coded.

Non-Fiction writing is a fine balance between research and writing, too much research and you can become so bogged down that you delay the actual act of writing as you sift through all the facts that you have collected. Too little and your work will be flimsy and have no guts. So when do you know when you have enough research? – that’s a tricky one. For me it is when I have all the things I want to say at my disposal and looking for any more will over-complicate the story. For example, a piece I’ve just completed about visiting the catacombs in Rome features the important things readers need to know; where, when, how and who and yes a little history to colour the required word count.

Interviews can be tricky things, you have to initially ask some standard questions, then from these you can build up an idea of how you want the interview to go and ask questions that are specific to your idea and the client. Some people can be hard-work and you can be emailing backwards and forwards reams of questions before you get anything worthy of writing up. Some people however can be a joy, I have just interviewed a young man in Piemonte and it turned out he was a snowboarder and also enjoyed big Italian family gatherings around Christmas. Perfect for the December issue. The Only difficult thing about interviews is the restructuring of some sentences to fit them into the body of your piece without losing the meaning and truth of your interviewee.

Of course the iPod shuffles in the dock, I need the constant buzz of background noise when I’m working, for some reason it stops me being distracted, well that is until something like, Taste in Men by Placebo starts to play, and I have a stretch, remove my reading specs and sing along, as the dogs look at me as if to say, ‘the human has gone mad again’

Eight Things (a continuation)

I follow a blog written by another Brit who has made Italy his home. The Brit in question is Richard Noble and the part of Italy he’s chosen is Piemonte, a good six and half hours north west of here by car. It’s nice to see that another person is writing about their experiences of relocating, Richard’s posts are entertaining and it is nice to see someone else coming up against the eccentricities of la bella Italia. Recently Richard posted a really positive piece about the eight things he loved about Piemonte. Here’s the link, so you can take a look for yourselves: http://livinginthelanghe.wordpress.com/2013/07/15/eight-things-to-love-about-piemonte/ As it’s always tempting to write about negative things; a sort of cathartic writing exercise to exorcise those niggles, (Did you like the play on words there?) I decided to do the same and write about the eight things I love about Abruzzo.

Diversity – Tuscany looks pretty much the same no matter where you go, Calabria is mostly dusty and sandy and Le Marche is green. Abruzzo is so diverse, it has so many different landscapes that you’d be forgiven for thinking they can’t belong to one region. The beauty of this is that they are all within easy reach of each other. I love the fact that I’m a mere 18 minutes from the coast, in particular the trabocchi coast, where rickety fishing platforms lean out over the sea. I particularly love the sandy beaches a little further down towards the town of Vasto. Forty minutes away are the mountains, where Apennine wolves have been reintroduced and the marsican bear shyly keeps himself to himself. Skiing is there for those that ski, and the mountains have some wonderful shepherd trails and walking routes that lead you onto breath taking vistas. We have national parks; lush environments where waterfalls invite you to cool off, flowers perfume the breeze and the clean air has an intoxicating effect. Whatever terrain you favour, you’ll find it here.

Saturday 7-crop

Eating Out – Everyone has their favourite restaurant or bar and I’m no exception, however here it’s hard to narrow it down to just one. When I was living in the UK I had only one favourite, an Italian (no surprise there) pizza house in town called Roberto’s.  http://www.robertopizzeria.com/ if you’re passing through Stoke on Trent, pop in and sample the pizza Pina, and tell them I sent you. If I want pizza I can pop to our local pizzeria and grab a freshly prepared one for very few Euro, but if I want a good dinner then it has to be Il Buchanieri, where superb service and food is always on the menu. We have so many excellent restaurants here that eating out is always high on the ‘to do list’.

Work – I’m lucky, I can work anywhere in the world, all I need is a laptop and internet connection. But I love working in Abruzzo for two reasons, the first is inspiration. As a staff writer for Italy Magazine, when my inspiration levels drop al I need is a walk around and I can find a multitude of things to write about. A trip to the local bar for a coffee gave me the idea for a forthcoming feature on Italian coffee culture. The second reason is the fact that we have an airport in Pescara, 40 minutes away, that flies daily to London Stansted. So if I have to be in the UK for a meeting or presentation I can get there in under three hours. Also, when all is said and done, it’s much nicer to be sat at my desk looking down over an Italian valley than my previous office that looked out over a litter strewn alleyway.

100_3342-crop

Piano Piano – It hasn’t taken me long to slot in with the pace of life here. No more rushing around, no more stress levels rising as I sit in a traffic jam, no more ‘I need this, like yesterday’. Driving to the shop is now a relaxing affair, I pootle along, taking in the scenery. I sound my horn and wave to friends. The low levels of traffic on our rural roads makes driving a joy, so what if I’m behind an octogenarian in an Ape doing just 15 kmph, I’m in no hurry. If I need some tomatoes for dinner, I have all day in which to wander over to the plants and pick them, no need to dodge shopping trolleys in Tesco. This said I like the fact that I can browse in my local fruit shop, handle the produce and take my time over buying. The pretty girl in the bread shop; actually she’s beautiful, always chats, asks how the house is coming along and waves to Olive the dog, who’s always in the car looking through the window. Okay buying a loaf takes several more minutes than it needs to, but I have time.

Community – During my final year in the UK, we rented a house in the north of the city and apart from my friend Tim a few streets away, I didn’t know any of the other people that lived close by. In fact i can’t recall having any conversations with my neighbours. Granted most of the houses were tenanted and this in itself leads to a fractured community. Here, I know my neighbours by name, we stop and pass the time of day. Acceptance within the community has been quick, cars pass and slow to see the work on the house progressing, the occupants wave and now ask how things are, we’re no longer the crazy foreigners, we’re now the English on the hill. If we go to our favourite bar in Casoli, the owner asks how we are, we get served tasty titbits with our beers, and many of the locals that pass by say hello. It may not work for some people this bonhomie, many think the Italians take too much interest in the lives of others, but I like it, I like that I know about my neighbours forthcoming prostate check-up and another neighbours problems with her daughter’s husband, it makes me feel part of the community.

100_7093 crop

View from my office window

Taxes – Here’s an odd one, as no one enjoys paying taxes, but here in Italy and particularly the comune we are in, the comparison to what we paid in the UK makes me very happy. Back in Stoke on Trent, my town of birth, I was paying at one point £2,168 in council tax per annum. Understandably at the time I did reside in a large detached house. Profits from the sale of this house went to buy our current casa italiana. In my final year in the UK my council tax, which covered refuse removal, once weekly and street lighting etc. was £978. Here in Italy my council tax is €115 and my rubbish removal tax is €118 with recycling/rubbish collections taking place daily, except Sunday. The total taxes are €233, add to this the sixty cents it’ll cost to pay at the post office and the conversion to GBP is £201.67, saving me a total of £776.33 each year.

Dog Friendly – For a country that has an appalling record regarding dog welfare; approximately 650 dogs are abandoned during the summer months of June to September, that’s a rate of one dog every two minutes. http://ow.ly/nm07N These statistics are shocking, but on the other side of the coin, living here is great for people with dogs. We have lots of open space for them to enjoy, the roads here in the countryside are quiet so it’s possible to wander along them with your pooch on its lead without having to dodge traffic. The bars are dog friendly, I can take my dogs to the two bars I frequent, and they are welcomed as we sit outside enjoying our beers. There are even shops, large international ones that are okay with small dogs coming in with their owners. So if we take a trip into Ikea, Olive our terrier can come along with us and enjoy a sneaky hot-dog at the end of the trip, but our big hound, Alfie has to stay behind in the car. (In the underground car-park of course where it’s cool).

Wine – Hands up who thought I’d not give the red stuff a mention: As if… I like the fact that I can buy a good bottle of prosecco for as little as €3 compared to £11 back in England. There’s a plethora of good wines on offer here for very little money, yes the supermarkets have undrinkable red plonk for as little as 99 cents, but a good montepulciano d’abruzzo can be purchased for around €1,49. But a big change I have discovered is there are a few whites that I can drink and enjoy. I’ve never really taken to white wine, having found it mostly acidic and unpalatable. Now when we eat at our favourite restaurant, I can be seen sipping a chilled, dry white with my seafood pasta.

Italy isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, there’s elements of living here that infuriate, there are things I miss about the UK, silly things like walking down the road and instantly understanding every written sign around me. I miss being able to go to my writers’ group on a Wednesday evening and enjoying the company of like-minded people. Mostly I miss hearing the potteries dialect, the flat vowels and nasal sounds I grew up with. But there’s much more that I don’t miss, and as this is a post about being positive I’ll resist the urge to go into detail.

I hope this idea of positive things about where we live is taken up by another blogger and directed back to me, and this in turn will filter back to Richard and of course his edition will  kick back to the Brit in Bavaria who unknowingly started this chain. http://boahbayern.wordpress.com/2013/07/11/top-twelve-reasons-i-love-living-in-germany/ So come on, one of you bloggers out there tell us all, why you love where you live.