Free Food

Living in rural Italy is great for anyone who likes getting food for free. The lanes are filled goodies that after a little foraging end up on the dinner plate.

There is no need to buy herbs as rosemary and sage grows in abundance and Italian mint grows around the base of the stake holding our mailbox while a large bay tree shades our neighbours rear garden. At a friends house (that for now we’ll call Felsham Manor), in spring wild garlic permeates the air with it’s pungent aroma, the leaves make a great alternative to basil flavoured pesto and this year I’ve brought some bulbs home in the hope of getting a patch established near our property.

The wild asparagus season has been and gone (technically) but today I saw a man collecting the last of it from the edges of olive groves. I’ve blogged about this previously under the title, the foraging foreigner.

At the moment the fields around us are filled with broad beans, or fave as they’re called here. These beans are not for harvesting and are ploughed back into the land to add nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil for the production of good grass for animal feed. The beans self seed each year so the pods are quite small and the crop wouldn’t be commercially viable, however it’s worth just picking a few of these that only have 2 or 3 beans inside them for dinner: No farmer would begrudge you these. I came away from Atessa with a bag full of pods and yesterday shelled them. The inner green discs are delicious with mackerel and horseradish sauce, but this bowl of beans are going to be the contorno (side dish) to a loin of pork.

IMG_3337 There’s always plenty of fruit and nuts in abundance in the lanes. Outside our front door is large green fig tree and just up the lane a black fig tree. We have walnut, almond and hazelnut trees and wild peaches and pomegranates within walking distance of our house. Last year we discovered two nespole (loquat) bushes in the overgrown part of our land, these produce small apricot coloured fruits that are quite tart in flavour with large brown seeds in the centre, if you let them start to turn and become over-ripe the flesh becomes sweeter; a mix of citrus and peach is the only way to describe it.

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This month the local population will be out planting out their tomatoes; as will I and there’s many patches of land that have been used in the past where they’ve self seeded. Three years ago on a spare piece of land I grew some of the Gardener’s Delight variety; a favourite with English growers. Now every year I get several plants appearing that crawl across the land and tumble up tree stumps and these provide me with small tasty red tomatoes with no attention from myself, leaving me to tend to my sauce making plants.

There’s more out there for the experienced forager, and last week my neighbour Antonio came over with a basket of fresh porcini mushrooms and told me he’d dug up 3 truffles. I asked him where and he tapped the side of his nose with his forefinger, indicating he’ll share his mushrooms but not the truffle location.

I don’t hunt, not because I’m squeamish but because I don’t have a licence or the experience. But there’s plenty of people around me that do (in season) and occasionally I’ll get given a pigeon or two or a saddle of rabbit or hare and sometimes if I’m very lucky a hunk of cinghiale (wild boar) which is always welcome in my kitchen.

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Then there’s the fruits of the sea, if you go early it’s possible to collect mussels from the rocks along the Costa dei Trabocchi and if you’re an angler there’s the free fish that at the end of the day make for a tasty dinner.

All in all there’s an abundance of free food out there, all you need to do is go out and collect it.

The Parsnip Project (4)

I had a message yesterday from someone asking me why I had not posted on my blog for a while and how was the parsnip project going?

I realise I have been silent here for quite a while and the reason is down to the scale of work I have on at the moment. To find just a few minutes to blog about the minutia of my day or the eccentricities of Italian life has been difficult and to be honest I don’t see my workload lightening any day soon.

But I do feel an update on the parsnip project is due.

So the French lady’s toilet roll germination method failed miserably, with just one seed bursting into life, so I undertook another method. I had the half a barrel with potatoes growing inside, (which we harvested last week and jolly nice they were too) and so filled the other one that was waiting for the loo-roll seedlings that never appeared with compost and left it in the sun to warm up.

After a few days in the sun the compost was lovely and warm, so I watered it in the morning and left it until the early evening when it was still warm and quite moist and then I sowed the remaining parsnip seeds.

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That was just over 13 weeks ago and they are doing really well as you can see, so I have my fingers crossed that come November/December we’ll have some lovely parsnips for our winter dinners.

I’ve also started off my cauliflowers, a month later than I would in the UK, and they are doing really well, I have 32 planted up in a semi-shady spot and just hope they don’t die during the August heat; I think maybe I should have waited a few more weeks before sowing them.

Colourful Radishes and Pigs in the Post

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I had an allotment back in the UK and as you all know I have my orto here in Italy. Well everything is going really well, I have my potatoes peering over the top of the half barrel, that Seppe risked his family jewels to cut in half for me. My Romaine lettuce are filling out, my broad beans have some good sized pods and my peppers have fruits eagerly awaiting the sun to make them fat and juicy.

So far my parsnips have only two small green shoots above the potting compost, but everything else is on track, even my Dutch cucumber is loving it’s time outside in the Italian soil.

So I decided when we were having a salad to harvest the first of my radishes. I had a mixed packet of seeds and added some French breakfast ones to the packet and sowed them a few weeks ago. I was more than happy with the first picking, the multi-coloured peppery bulbs looked far too nice to eat, but let me tell you, they tasted as good as they looked. There’s nothing better than freshly picked food.

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I mixed my beetroot varieties prior to sowing a couple of short rows and noticed that the yellow cylindrical ones germinated first and these seemed to suppress the traditional red ones, so I thinned out the rows to give the little red ones a fighting chance this morning, and then did another sowing of just the Bolthardy variety, as they are superb for harvesting early for pickling or roasting whole with rosemary.

So with all the orto activity and fresh produce you’d think nothing could be better, but wait today the post lady arrived with a surprise package for me. I eagerly opened it and discovered my parents had sent me some English pig in the post.

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Actually it was four rounds of sliced black pudding, possibly the one thing from England that I miss most: A friend told me the other day the whereabouts of a butcher here that sells salsiccia di sangue, (blood sausage) so I’ll be giving them a try in the near future. The package came with wine gums and Malt Easter bunnies for OH, but I’m now the happy bunny, with four slices of black pudding residing in my freezer, ready for a special occasion.

Deal or No Deal

At the side of our house is a tiny scrap of land barely 60msq that belongs to Domenico; who also owns the ruin out front: Domenico’s Ruin. On this land stands two skinny olive trees, now the only way to these trees is through my gate and down the steps attached to the side of the house. A few weeks ago Domenico told me he’d need to strim the land in readiness for harvesting the olives in November. Being a good neighbour I told him we’d clean his land and strim it for him, which we did today: or rather Seppe did with his strimmer with chain attachment. I’d mentioned to Seppe that I’d like to put a fence around the edge of the land joining it to ours to keep the dogs from running down into the olive groves owned by other people, but would need to speak to Domenico first.

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So today we’re finishing off filling the frame for the patio with rubble from the restoration and clearing Domenico’s land of weeds, when he appears. Seppe asks him if we can put the fence up to keep the dogs in, and at first he’s against the idea, “It’s my land,” he says. We explain that we know that, and we just want to make it secure. He asks what we are doing and we explain that we are building a patio, a gravelled area and a vegetable plot. “I used to grow my vegetables on this piece of land,” he tells us pointing to his 60msq patch. “Maybe you can buy it from me?” We ask how much and the price starts at €2,000 and we say no, €500 and so on until he says €1,500 and we say no more than €1,000 and we’ll think about it.

We agree that he can come to work on the land any time he wants and we’ll unlock the gate, “Oh, I only want the olives.” he shakes his head, “I don’t want to work this tiny piece of land.”  We then say to him that we’ll keep it clean for him and not let it get overgrown. “Well, why don’t you use it for your vegetables then?” We are a little confused by this. “Shame to waste it, the soil is good, so why don’t you work the land?” We thank him for his generosity and he responds by saying, “And think about if you want to buy it.”

Buy it and turn it into an allotment, or grow on it for free… Deal or no deal?

One Pumpkin Two Black Devils and Lots of Fireworks

100_7187I picked the first of my pumpkins two days ago and since then it’s languished on a shelf waiting for something to happen to it. So today as the iPod kicked in and Tilly and the Wall, play Alligator Skin, I took a knife to it and scattered it with chopped chillies, curry powder and cumin before roasting it until the flesh became soft. After it had cooled it was joined by an onion, some tomato puree, homemade stock and after seasoning, it was mercilessly dropped into the liquidiser and reduced to a thick paste. Some fresh cream and a little more stock was added to thin it down and the result was three and a half litres of spicy pumpkin soup.

Lunchtime arrives and as we eat warm focaccia and prosciutto we enjoy a bowl of the soup which has a kick of heat amid its soft creamy texture. It’s 38 degrees outside, but it feels hotter inside my soup bowl. I have to agree with myself that this was a morning well spent in the kitchen.100_7197

In the evening we pick up friends and after I give them a bottle of pumpkin soup, I drive to nearby Palombaro. We’ve been invited by our friends, Richard and Annie for dinner at their  magnificent palazzo. We’re welcomed with wine and I chat to Richard as Annie gives the others a tour of the three-storey property, complete with a sweeping staircase and marble columns. As we sit down to eat, fireworks appear in the distance and very quickly I realise i have the most advantageous seating position. Opposite me is a huge open window, so as I eat I’m entertained by the pyrotechnics in the distance. After a lovely evening of laughter, irreverent storytelling and random remarks about peaches we say our good-byes. We stroll back to the car in streets lit by ochre coloured streetlamps and as we descend back down towards Piana Selva another town is closing its festa with a magnificent firework display.

We arrive home at around 01.30, I let the dogs out for a mad dash around the front garden rough land at the front and then take them for a walk down the lane. When we get to our turning around spot, I clap my hands and like two black devils they race back up the lane towards home. When I eventually catch up with them, Alfie is sat outside the front door while Olive sits in the middle of the road, her eyes flashing in the light from my torch. I ask her to follow and together we enter the house and close the door on another Italian day. 

Passata

As you drive through the villages here, you can see rows of ripe tomatoes growing in the gardens, I drive past my neighbours with his lines of short bushes on which hang swollen red peppers, his French bean plants are laden with a multitude of green fingers and his chillies, like mine are bursting with a riot of red fruits. I sun-dry my chillies and they last me for a year, and I have other veg I’ve grown stored in the freezer. My neighbour was out today picking his tomatoes, he has about sixty plants so you can imagine how many kilo’s of fruit he’s got. “I’m making my passata this weekend,” he tells me. That’ll explain the crates of empty Peroni bottles outside his front door.

I’m surprised how many Italians still bottle their own tomato sauces considering the work involved and the relatively cheap price of passata in the shops. The only explanation must be that it tastes better than the mass produced ones, and I guess there’s that satisfaction of growing and producing something yourself to feed your family, not to mention the memory of summer past as you taste it outweighs the laborious process.

Making the red sauce is a long-winded affair, first the tomatoes are cleaned and dropped into boiling water for a few seconds to split the skins. Once cooled they’re passed through a passapomodoro, basically a sieve that removes the skin and seeds. The pulp is then cooked and if you’re flavouring it with herbs or spices these are added during cooking. The bottles or jars are cleaned and sterilised in advance and kept warm in the oven. The warm sauce is bottled, lids are secured and the sauce is then allowed to cool. The bottles are then placed inside a large container of water: my neighbour uses and old oil-drum, a fire is lit below and the bottled sauce is heated through again, thus creating a vacuum and sealing the lids properly. Once cooled the sauce will remain good for several years, but no self-respecting Italian would use any left over passata once a new batch has been produced.

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Needless to say mine is from the supermarket, I don’t think I could be bothered with the work involved and can I really drink enough Peroni to get the bottles for sixty plants of fruit?

Shy Vegetables

The dogs are outside playing with a tennis ball they’ve shredded playing Tug of War I sit watching as I enjoy a cool iced lemon tea. The iPod shuffles and, Kids in America by Kim Wilde plays as a huge dragonfly skips over the pumpkin flowers that are in bloom. I glance over and spot a swollen fruit amid the orange flowers, I’m sure there was no burgeoning pumpkin there yesterday. One thing about growing vegetables here in Italy, is they seem to appear overnight, especially the courgettes (zucchini). I’m sure the courgette is a shy vegetable, because you spot the flowers and in amongst the huge leaves you see a tiny green fruit and no matter how often you check nothing seems to happen then one morning you just happen to notice a great, green baton sticking out, as if it’s swollen overnight.

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I’m particularly pleased with my tomatoes, I’ve only planted two plants this year; a bush variety that produces the typical long Italian fruit, known in the UK as plum tomatoes. For a while due to the cool spring they didn’t do very much, but now that the weather has been good both bushes are laden with fat fruits, that have only just started to redden. This year I won’t have enough to make passata, but I’ll have steady supply for salads and home-made pasta sauces. I may even combine them with some of my sundried chillies and store some pots of arrabiata sauce in the freezer, for a winter warmer later in the year.

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I have been harvesting basil as it’s been flourishing and have frozen it, although the leaf tends to darken during freezing and once defrosted looks dreadful it still tastes good in sauces. I’ve been very disappointed with the purple basil I’ve sown. It’s been very slow growing and hardly any of them have flourished into productive, bushy plants. The two things I’m looking forward to harvesting are the figs from the huge tree outside and the pomegranates that are swelling upon a bush we have inherited. Once the house is complete we shall begin work on restoring our land from a unproductive tangle of green into a fully functioning orto/allotment that will cater for most of our fruit and vegetable requirements throughout the year. Michele has already given me the benefit of his advice regarding the sowing of fava (broad) beans and I wonder, as cabbages do so well here, will Brussels sprouts hack it in the Italian countryside?

Devilishly Hot

One of the best things about living in Italy is the longer growing season. Back in the UK there was; during a good summer, a sixteen week window for growing tomatoes, chillies and aubergines. These would mostly need to be grown in a greenhouse to maximise crop yield, however the climate here means they can be planted outside, and plots of land with rows of tomatoes growing is as commonplace here as cabbages in Lincolnshire fields.

I have to admit to having never been a very successful grower of chillies back in England, I could never seem to get it right. The plants would start off well, then just either go spindly and die or just flatly refuse to produce anything. Here it’s a different story, one small 99 cent, cayenne plant can be left to do its own thing and as long as it gets a daily drink it’ll produce little fiery pods of heat. I tend to pick the cayenne chilli just before they go red and sun-dry them, preserving that little bit summer for a wintery evening’s dinner.

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I find they don’t retain their heat if they are dried once they have turned red, but do if picked and dried whilst still orange. Obviously the fresh ones when red are as hot as Beelzebub’s bath water, which is very apt, as they crop in mid-July, which according to 16th century belief, is the month that Beelzebub is at his most powerful, and at this time he tempts man to become a glutton. I’m not a great believer of this and assume that mankind is seen to be gluttonous solely because of the amount of fresh food that is cropping around this time of year. I assume people ate while food was plentiful, as the winter months would be lean.

To sun-dry them I put them out on a metal/foil tray and just let them sunbathe. Sometimes as the sun moves around the house I’ll move them so they get maximum exposure, but mostly I just leave them. I do however bring them in at night. One little piece of advice I’ll pass on is, if you do dry them in a foil tray, add a rock to the tray, in 2011 after two weeks of drying on my neighbours terracotta roof, my crop was ready for storing, as I went out to collect them a gust of wind came and blew the tray over and my chillies fell between the cracks in the tiles, never to be seen again.

 

This year I am also growing some of the longer red chillies, not quite so hot but nicely piquant and great if chopped up small and dropped into a salad with some mint, giving an occasional hit of heat amid the cool salad leaves. I purchased this chilli towards the end of the planting season, so was left with a leggy twelve centimetre plant, I watched my neighbour’s chillies closely and his grew to around fifty centimetres before he pinched out the top of the plants, I waited for mine to catch up and did the same. Now it’s filled out, no longer is it a lanky green single stem, it’s a bushy healthy plant with long green chillies hanging from it. I’m hoping these will be ready to harvest in August, which incidentally is Astaroth’s month, another of the Seven Princes of Hell, the demon who bring laziness to mankind. Or could that just be the late summer sun?

Seasonal Eating

One of the things I like most about being here in the Italian countryside is the wealth of fresh produce that’s on offer. Unlike the UK where the supermarkets are filled with the same fruit and veg the year through, here it’s very seasonal. For the eco-conscious, you can be assured that the fava beans and strawberries you are purchasing have raked up very few miles and therefore have a miniscule carbon footprint.

One of the benefits of buying local produce, and I do see this as a benefit, is it’s not been tampered with by the EU. Peppers come in all shapes and sizes, some look like they’ve been stepped on and others look like someone has had a go at them with a bicycle pump. That dreadful uniformity in UK supermarkets isn’t here, even the supermarket chains here sell fresh produce that would give an MEP nightmares. Now don’t get me wrong there is some imported foodstuffs, bananas, pineapples etc. but the majority of fresh produce is local and thus seasonal. We’re just leaving the artichoke and strawberry season, but now stalls everywhere are groaning under the weight of melons and shops are displaying signs telling everyone that cherries are now in stock.

A few days ago I read a post about broad beans on the Facebook page of The Olive House Italy, a beautiful self-contained, holiday villa in Roccascalegna, that grows its own produce for the guests staying there to use themselves. What a good idea, no popping to the shops to get your veggies, just walk down to the orto and pick it fresh.

Fave, or as we Brits know them broad beans are coming to the end of their season and yesterday I managed to get a kilo from our local fruit and veg shop. One of the other benefits of buying local is the price, the kilo of beans, two large lettuce, a melon and a cucumber came to just €3,70. (A quick price comparison with a well known UK supermarket shows me that in England I’d have paid £5.64, that’s €6,58 and the broad beans would have been frozen.)

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Photograph courtesy of The Olive House Italy

In Italy you often see the fava beans in salads, the outer skin is stripped from the bean and the bright green insides are eaten raw. So today I decided to make my own fava bean salad. I always think that the beans go well with mackerel, so after pan frying two medium sized mackerel and setting them aside to cool, I removed the beans from the pods and stripped off the outer skin. Tip, Don’t waste time trying to peel the little blighters, just halve with a knife and pop out the green discs inside. Chop some tomato, cucumber and celery, also take some of the yellow celery leaves out of the heart and add those. Add all the salad ingredients and fava beans into a bowl with some lettuce; I used the frilly one that’s slightly bitter, flake in the mackerel add a pinch of salt and black pepper, mix and serve. One thing that works well with mackerel and broad beans is creamed horseradish, and although this isn’t an Italian ingredient a dollop went well with the dish.

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Click the link to visit The Olive House Italy

Italian by Absorption

I’m beginning to wonder if outside forces influence they way people are, surely our surroundings must dictate how we feel and how we perform, so can they make subtle changes to our personalities and habits? I ask this question because I’ve noticed that I’ve started to do things differently here in Italy. The first thing I’ve noticed is the change in dinner time. Back in the UK I always had dinner, or as we Stokies say, ‘me tea’ at 6pm, but here without realising it I’ve fallen into the Italian way of eating it at 8pm. Now I understand that on the days that the builder is here he leaves around 6pm, so that is a factor in the later dinner-time, but even on days when he isn’t here, we’ve eaten at 8pm.

Italian’s are naturally inquisitive people; notice I avoided using the term, nosey and I’ve caught the bug too. As soon as a car is heard I’m outside looking up towards the road to see who it is, and heaven forbid I catch a snippet of conversation, otherwise it means I slow down my pace to discover what’s being said and by whom. This nosiness has become quite acute and we vie for position, looking for the best vantage point, when we want to see who is driving past.

Here, the Abruzzese people live a more frugal life and wasting food is frowned upon.  Since moving here I’ve appreciated that fact that when it comes to fruit and vegetables the shops sell what’s in season. There’s no potatoes from Egypt or French beans from Kenya, and there’s no uniformity to it, a deflated looking pepper is as acceptable here as a plump round one, just as a display of fennel bulbs will have them of all sizes from medium through large to enormous. There’s no one from Brussels here with a micrometre and portable weighing scales. Unlike when I was back in the UK, I store what I know will perish before I have used it all. In the freezer I have pots of basil, chopped celery, parsley, and all manner of things, waiting to be used at a later date. I’ve even got my emergency sofritto (a mix of finely chopped carrot, celery and onion used as a base for stocks and sauces) and chopped tomatoes frozen in wine, should someone visit unexpectedly and need a pasta sauce making for lunch.

I also think I’ve absorbed a little of the contadino somehow. Outside the front door is a flower border, but knowing that flowers here are a luxury and that land should be used to grow crops first, I’ve used it for a sort of mini orto and planted out some onions, courgettes, chillies and tomatoes, sweet corn and a pumpkin. I have a little cluster of English bluebells I brought over tucked away in the corner, as I’d like to get these established further down on our land, where it’s shady and wild cyclamen grow. So until we get our land cum jungle sorted out the flower border will be put to better use.

Guaranteed, these are small changes to my lifestyle, but as they’ve happened without conscious effort maybe I’m becoming Italian by absorption or at the very least more Britalian than I was before.

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