Stinco

As autumn takes over here in Abruzzo restaurant menus start to change to accommodate the season, warm bowls of polenta and sausages start to appear on tables and stinco makes its appearance on menus.

Stinco, or to give it its full name, stinco di maiale is a pork shank, or rather the shin bone and is a wonderful piece of comfort food for a cold evening. It’s sold all year round here in Italy in butchers shops (macelleria) but around October it appears in abundance even in a pre-cooked packaged form.

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In butcher’s shops and supermarkets it comes skinned and trimmed ready for the oven. Stinco is less fattier than a traditional hock and whereas a hock requires around 3 hours or more of slow roasting a stinco cooks in half the time. Most Italians cook it with potatoes seasoned with rosemary and garlic; a popular recipe that originated from the northern region of Trentino-Alto Adige with its Southern Tyrol/Austrian influences.

In a local restaurant a typical autumn/winter dinner could consist of a first course of pasta with a meaty sauce or polenta and sausages followed by a second course of stinco with vegetables and potatoes. One local pizzeria in the latter part of the year sells hundreds of them roasted and served with chips for just €5.  

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The pre-cooked ones take just 30 minutes to cook in boiling water, it’s a case of drop the bag into a saucepan of water and simmer, then snip off the top and tip out onto a plate and watch as the meat just falls off the bone. These are great to have stocked up for times when the snow causes power cuts as they can be cooked on top of the wood burner and tonight we had one with roasted potatoes and red cabbage and apple.

Comfort food? – Oh yes.

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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

Discover Nature’s Magic

We’re lucky here in Abruzzo, there’s always something to keep us occupied; treks into the national parks, a visit to one of the many places of historical interest or simply quiet contemplation beside the sea. This region of Italy is so diverse, making it a great place to immerse yourself and take time out to visit more than your average tourist haunt. Despite not being a tourist I still enjoy a day trip out and at the end of last month we found a unique gem of a place, a perfect place for families with children and anyone who has an interest in living as naturally as possible.

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The place we discovered is situated in the L’Aquila region and is called, Fattoria Valle Magica (Magic Valley Farm). The farm may sit in a valley with awe-inspiring views of the rugged wilderness surrounding it, but what is more inspiring is the concept and ethos of the farm which is the brainchild of Ralph and Ninke.

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Our visit started with a warm welcome from Ralph and his family before he began to explain the vision for the farm. He explained that fed up with the stress of modern living and checking labels to see what his 4 children were eating, the family purchased the house and land and in the spring of 2015 began transforming a wild and neglected terrain into a place where they could raise rare breeds organically and live as naturally as possible.

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While we looked at the sheep and goats Ralph explained that the farm focuses on breeding and conserving rare and traditional Italian breeds that are no longer used in modern commercial farming. Using organic sensibilities these breeds may take longer to mature but the emphasis swings closer to the welfare of the animal rather than the profit margins. A quick call summoned a deluge of happy pigs that ran towards us from where they’d been foraging and we could see for ourselves how the group enjoyed living life as nature intended.

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We took a tour of the farm seeing the immense amount of work that had gone on to fence areas to protect the livestock from the local wolves: Ralph dug and sited around 700 fence posts by hand. We met the chickens, rabbits, turkeys and his collection of hives before heading back to the BBQ area for a glass of wine and to sample some home reared lonza (cured pork loin).

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The farm has plans to open an education centre and to welcome people for visits where they can purchase produce to take home or to cook al fresco in the BBQ area. We enjoyed our visit very much and found it both educational and thought provoking.

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If you’re visiting Abruzzo and looking for something different then I recommend you give Magic Valley Farm a visit, who knows you may even be lucky to help out with feeding the contented animals that reside there. The address for visits is, Località Ponte Amaro, 67020 Carapelle Calvisio AQ, Italy. But please note as this is a working farm and all bookings must be made in advance, to make a booking or for more information click this Website link

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Our day came to a close with us purchasing the produce we had originally ordered and we left Ralph to settle in his newly arrived native Abruzzese black pigs.

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As a postscript I can confirm that the quality of the produce we purchased surpassed anything we have previously bought from supermarkets and commercially farmed butchers.

Barry’s Apple and Chilli Jam

Twice this week my apple and chilli jam/sauce has been praised so I thought for the friends who asked me how to make it and for any other interested parties I’d share the recipe with you. One day I had some spare apples and as we were having pork that lunchtime I thought about making an apple sauce, but as I don’t really like cooked apples decided to spice it up with some fresh chillies from the orto.

Look on the internet and you’ll find a plethora of recipes for chilli jams and sauces and many use a mix of pepper and chillies whilst others call for garlic or ginger to be added. I guess it’s a matter of taste. My favourite recipe for a chilli dipping sauce rather than a set jam is by Nigella Lawson and I’ve made this many times as it’s as easy to make as lacing a shoe.

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My apple chilli jam is the paler sauce in the right of the picture 

To make 4 – 5 medium sized jars you need: 1kg white sugar, 1 litre of white wine or cider vinegar, 150 – 200 g fresh chillies, 3 fresh green apples (granny smiths are good).

Before you begin sterilise your jars and lids, this can be done in the dishwasher or wash in very hot water. Once cleaned, pop them into preheated oven 140C – 275F (gas mark 1) for 15 minutes to dry out. Once dry handle carefully as they’ll be hot and don’t touch the inside of the jars.

Trim and deseed half of your chillies then chop them.  If you don’t fancy chopping by hand, add the whole lot into a food processor and blitz them. (The seeds from the whole chillies add an attractive look to the finished product). Peel and core the apples but don’t throw any bits away, chop the apple into 2 cm cubes and with the chillies add them into a heavy saucepan with the sugar and vinegar.

As jam makers know to get it to set you need pectin, this is added to pre-packaged jam sugar but in Italy it’s difficult to find it so I used granulated white sugar. As apples have plenty of pectin naturally you shouldn’t have a problem with the setting consistency. I put the peel, pips and cores of the apples to a muslin bag and add this to the mix for added pectin.

Bring to a simmer but don’t stir until all the sugar has dissolved otherwise it can look stringy and won’t cool clear. When the mixture starts to boil, stir it and keep it on a rolling boil for 20 minutes with the occasional stir with a wooden spoon. (Metal spoons can taint the jam).

Test the consistency by dropping a dollop onto a cold saucer out of the fridge. After a minute it should be thick but not set like a jam, if you’d prefer a set jam, bring back to the boil for a few minutes and test again as before. The beauty of this sauce is you can have it as runny like a dipping sauce or hard set like marmalade it’s all about choice.

Remove the bag containing the core and peel and fill the hot jars. Once the lids are on and after a few minutes as the chilli flakes will be at the top of the jars, turn them over onto their lids for 15 minutes and as the mixture cools they’ll redistribute themselves.

That’s it, easy as lacing a shoe.

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The red chilli jam in the picture on the left was made with red wine vinegar, red chillies and to get it to set I added a sachet of shop bought pectin, which can be found in most UK supermarkets and online.

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.

Quick Pork and Asparagus Lunch

One of the things that I like most about being in middle Italy* is seasonal eating. Italy is much better than the UK for eating what is in season rather than importing from far afield: Now this is only an observation based upon my experience here in Abruzzo. Possibly up in the affluent North there’s supermarkets filled with out-of-season produce meaning the discerning Milanese can have asparagus all year round.

What a coincidence…

It’s asparagus that I’m talking about today – Okay I admit it, that was a tenuous link.

Asparagus is one of the healthiest vegetables out there, it’s low in calories, just 20 per 100g but it’s also high in potassium, b-complex vitamins and other healthy green stuff and it tastes lovely too.

Italian asparagus season starts in March with the local population combing every lane and slice of rough land for the wild variety, which is bitter to the palate and spindly; but good in an omelette with lashings of black pepper and a knob of salted butter. At the moment cultivated asparagus is in abundance; In fact down at our local store it’s just €1.49 a kilo, so it would be silly not to take advantage.

So I got some for the freezer and some to just enjoy while it’s fresh. Now there’s a few folks who say asparagus doesn’t freeze well, but I find if you blanch it for no longer than 2 minutes it keeps well frozen and is then best grilled or oven baked rather than steamed once defrosted.

So today I made a super easy Italian lunch with just three ingredients, (six if you count seasoning – but who’s being pedantic?). So here it is my easy pork and asparagus lunch. (serves one).

The ingredients you will need are:

1 portion of pork steak

30g of Gorgonzola.

8 asparagus spears

1.

See it’s that easy. The only additional things you need are salt, pepper and lemon juice.

Okay as all good cooks know you need to have a soundtrack to create to, and today my iPod is set to play the 17 minute 20 second version of I’m a Man, the 1978 disco classic from the band, Macho. (this works for me on a sunny Monday in Abruzzo, just don’t ask to see the images of me singing and dancing as I cook). So select your cooking music and 2.

let’s get started. Trim off the woody ends of the asparagus and set them aside, I’ll tell you why at the end**. Put a pan of enough water to just cover the asparagus on to boil and add a pinch of salt. Once the water is boiling put in the asparagus and boil for just 4 minutes rinse in cold water to stop the cooking and keep the colour and put them onto one side.

3.

Heat a non-stick frying pan, do not add any oil and once the pan is hot put in the pork steak and cook, turning it over at intervals until, it is cooked through to your liking. (Despite the traditional way of cooking this meat, I prefer my pork to be a little underdone).

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Once the pork is cooked, set it aside to rest and drop the Gorgonzola into another pan on a low heat. Allow the cheese to start to melt then add the asparagus and cook for 3 minutes giving it a pinch of black pepper. Once the asparagus is coated with the molten blue cheese add to a plate and serve with the pork and give the whole dish a squeeze of lemon, (the juice in a plastic lemon is okay if you don’t have a fresh one to hand).

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Once plated up sit down in front of it and devour your lunch with relish.

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* I call Abruzzo middle Italy but people here refer to it as southern Italy saying the north ends at the Marche border.

** Drop the woody ends into boiling unsalted water and let them boil away for about 20 minutes, they’ll be soft at the end of the boiling, but discard them and keep the water. Let it cool and then freeze it until the next time you’re making a risotto with asparagus, drop the frozen asparagus broth into your risotto for an extra hit of flavour. This also works if you’re making a soup use the frozen asparagus broth as you would a shop bought vegetable stock cube.