Thursday 31 December 2009

Christmas Week...

One present a day from under the tree keeps Christmas more or less under well as stretching the whole thing out in a fairly agreeable way. For some reason, while the puppy is fascinated by the whole process, the senior four-footed appears to be deeply antipathetic towards Christmas presents this year - he dutifully comes along to be there for the daily exchange of gifts, but manages to communicate very effectively that he really wishes that we wouldn't do it...looking resolutely the other way, and heaving deep sighs of disapproval throughout.

We've eaten too much - although I'm not quite sure why, since we haven't been entertaining - and already there are murmurs about going on a diet and going on the wagon, once we get beyond Twelfth Night. There's probably much to be said for both! Respectable inroads have been made into the Wolfert oeuvre: rabbit stuffed with salami & fennel; quail, with sage & white grapes; chicken, with orange & cardamom; ricotta ice-cream, with fresh pears; apple croustade. Then there have been a few experiments of my own , such as duck & orange ravioli ...and an emergency batch of lattice-topped mince pies in exchange for a yule log that Massimo dropped round (where the implication was that it had been fata in casa, but we rather concluded otherwise, having tasted it). And we spent Sunday afternoon producing a batch of banana and walnut chocolates as a dinner party offering for that evening, where we'd been invited over the river to Via Mazzini.

No gardening, since the past week has been nothing but rain. Every so often we take the four-footeds to Santa Caterina, for them to run around and get soaked, while we check indoors on the Brazilians' progress. Which is slow. And regular effort is needed to prevent them from wandering off mid-task in order to go and start a completely different job in another part of the house, and thus spread builder-chaos over as broad an area as possible.So far (cautiously) so good...

Against the background of the rain, I've read Colm Toibin's 'Brooklyn' ( and savoured every last page) well as traipsed the length of Italy in James Holland's 'Italy's Sorrow', which covers the Italian campaign of 1944 in all its awfulness.

Tonight's Dinner:

Ricotta & Garlic Tart.

Beef, roast in Oil & Dijon Mustard; Potato Gratin.

Orange & Lemon Sorbet with chilled Basil Cream.

Monday 28 December 2009

Recipe: Chicken and Artichoke 'Pie'

This pastry-less 'pie' is excellent as a way of using up leftover bird (chicken, in this instance, but just as easily duck, or guinea fowl, or turkey) - which I often find lurking in the fridge, as a two-person household tends only ever to get through half a beast in the course of one dinner. The 'pie' is best eaten once it has cooled for half an hour or so after coming out of the oven, or even cold, on the following day - while it's still hot, the thing will collapse into a heap if you try to slice it, whilst the process of cooling down allows the collagen to firm, and neat slices then become possible. The flavours are better too, once they've been left to mature for a while.

For simplicity's sake, you can make this in a pie dish, covering the top with foil for the first phase of cooking, which you then remove in order to allow the top to brown. For a more finished presentation, as shown above, I use two identical pyrex casserole lids, removing the top one half way through, and then replacing it and inverting the whole thing at the end of cooking - thus achieving a perfectly smooth surface - and then browning the newly-exposed top under the grill for several minutes.

For one 8"diameter 'Pie'.

Ingredients: the meat from two previously cooked chicken legs, cut into 1 cm dice; half a medium-sized aubergine; a cup of artichoke hearts (frozen is fine); 3 oz Butter; 1 tsp dried Thyme; 2 minced Garlic cloves; grated rind from 1 Lemon; 6 medium Potatoes; Salt & Pepper.


1. Cut the aubergine and artichokes into approx 1 cm dice. Melt half the butter in a heavy frying pan , and soften the diced vegetables in Butter for five minutes, until they just begin to colour. Season lightly, and combine in a mixing bowl with the diced Chicken.

2. Stir into this mixture the Thyme, Garlic, and Lemon rind.

3. Heat the oven to 220 degrees C.

4. Peel the potatoes and slice thinly on a mandolin. Melt the remaining Butter in the frying pan, and toss the Potato slices in Butter, then cover with a lid and leave to cook gently for a few minutes - this is really just to make them soft and malleable, so they shouldn't begin to colour at this stage. Season the slices with Salt & Pepper.

5. In a greased pan (or the greased, upturned lid of a pyrex casserole) use two-thirds of the Potato slices to make a complete layer in the base, and then line the sides - use the longer narrower slices for this, and leave the top of the slices sticking up, as you'll want to bend these over the 'pie' filling once it's in place in order to start to form the top of the 'pie'.

6. Over the Potato base, pile the chicken-artichoke-aubergine mixture, then bend the side slices of Potato over the filling, and use the remaining slices to cover the top of the 'pie'.

7. Either cover the 'pie' with aluminium foil, greased on the underside, or else place a second greased pyrex lid over the top. Bake in the oven for twenty five minutes, and then remove the foil or lid and bake until thoroughly browned for a further twenty minutes or so. Remove form the oven If you've used a Pyrex lid, then at this stage put it back in place and invert the 'pie', so that you have a perfect surface which should then be placed under a hot grill for a minute or so in order to brown.

Leave to cool either partially or completely before serving.

Friday 25 December 2009

Paula Wolfert the choice for this year's Christmas menus. It wouldn't be entirely accurate to say that I've just re-discovered her, since her 'Cooking of South West France' has never gone long unused...but I've just got hold of second-hand copies of her 'Mediterranean Cooking' and 'World of Food', both of which are excellent. The former is like coming across an old friend, since I'd forgotten that we had a copy of the book in Greece about twenty five years ago, but it got 'stored' in a steamer trunk during the move from one house to another, at one point, and never again saw the light of day. For all I know, it's still in Alex Koundouris' outhouse, in Syros...along with some pictures (of which I was quite fond, I remember) and a large blue glass platter that had come from Christina Karamanlis. Ah, well...

Wolfert is an extremely good resource. Not herself an instinctive creator of new dishes, she is - or certainly was, at any rate - excellent at hunting out good things from other people. In her writing, she comes across as perhaps slightly humourless, but for all that is pretty thorough in her approach. I suppose my only criticism of the recipes would be her tendency to take them verbatim from her source and not subject them to a common-sense filter - for instance, she will happily have you go through the laborious process of making pats of thyme butter, only for them to be added subsequently to something else in a hot pan; which of course means it was a complete waste of time to have combined the butter and herbs into pats in the first place, since they can just be added separately to the pan and will have exactly the same result. Oh, and there was another recipe where she talked about stirring some ingredients together with a wooden spoon until thoroughly amalgamated 'always stirring in the same direction'. Hmmm. Perhaps not. That sort of instruction IMHO falls into the category of whistling while you stir in order to ward off the evil spirits.

Bearing in mind the one caveat always to subject them to a 'does-this-make-sense' filter, the recipes in general are first class. Already, in the past few days, we've had an excellent tourte of guinea fowl and artichokes, an apple clafouti in blackened cabbage leaves, fettucine with anchovies and toasted breadcrumbs, Wolfert's version of chicken with 40 cloves of garlic, and risotto with dry sherry and parmesan. And Christmas is yet young!

Tonight's Dinner:

Sformatino of Roquefort & Walnuts

Duck, Boned and roast with Bitter Orange under the skin; Courgettes, sautéed with Thyme.

Christmas Pudding; Brandy Butter.

Saturday 19 December 2009

We have snow!

Yes, I know. Everybody has snow, it seems....Paris is covered, London has ground to a halt (just for a change) and most of Europe appears to be blanketed. The last time we saw it in Pisa was five years ago, though, so I think I can be forgiven the headline exclamation mark. The dogs were mildly interested... but not enough for them to brave the cold for long in favour of returning to a warm kitchen filled with the aroma of coffee and freshly-baked shortbread.

According to Tempo Italia, the weather is set to remain arctic for the next 24 hours, and then we return to normal - by Tuesday, temperatures are set to be in the mid teens once more, and heading yet further upwards in time for Christmas. For the moment, though, it seems appropriate to close the shutters against winter darkness and hunker down inside, beside the fire, in the company of a glass of prosecco and a plate of paprika-roast almonds...

Tonight's Dinner:

Papardelle, with Burro Rosso.

Pork Chops; Celery & Pancetta, braised in Guinea-fowl stock.

Pear & Chocolate Clafouti.

Friday 18 December 2009

Recipe: Cheese Scones

An enduring memory from ages past. The cheese scones in the UL - large and light and delicious...and never quite enough butter provided on the side of the plate to last until the final mouthful. The height of indulgence would have been to have had a second one - although I'm not sure that I ever did, undergraduate finances being what they were. Consumed in winter in the noisy, fuggy atmosphere of the tea-room, or in summer, stretched out on the lawn in the south courtyard. Not quite a Proustian madeleine...but not far off.

I've been playing with recipes, and this is the closest I've come. These scones take almost no time from start to finish - five minutes to make and roll out the dough, and fifteen minutes in a pre-heated oven. Best eaten still warm, broken in half and buttered generously. Since the elderly relative has come to live with us, a little-something has become the order of the day, at lunchtime (although I suspect that most of the ER's lunch ends up inside the four-footed, who negotiates shamelessly to that end). Once a week, therefore, I bake bread - one for the bread bin and one for the freezer - and on the occasions when I've forgotten and we've run out of bread, then this scone recipe is my immediate refuge.

For approximately six scones.

Ingredients: 30g parmesan; 1 tbs fresh chives (optional - but recommended); 225g flour; 3 tsp baking powder; half tsp salt; half tsp bicarb. of soda; 30g butter; 150 ml milk. Beaten egg, or cream, to glaze.


1. Heat the oven to 180 degrees C.

2. Cut the Parmesan into 1 cm (approx) dice, and then process these into fine crumbs in the food processor, along with the (optional) chives

3. Add the Flour, Baking Powder, Bicarb, and Salt to the processor bowl, and process briefly, just to mix everything together.

4. Cut the chilled Butter into dice, add to the contents of the processor bowl, and process for about thirty seconds, until it looks like sand.

5. Add the Milk and process again for twenty seconds or so, until the mixture has gathered itself into one lump.

6. On a floured surface, roll out to a thickness of just over 1 cm, then use a 2" circular cutter to cut out the scones, which should be placed on a greased baking sheet. Gather up the trimmings and roll out and cut again, until all the mixture has been used up. Brush with egg or cream, to glaze the tops, before placing them in the oven.

7. Bake in the pre-heated oven for about fifteen minutes, until the scones have risen and the tops are a deep golden brown.

8. Let rest on a wire tray for a couple of minutes, and then, as soon as they're cool enough to handle, dig in!

Friday 11 December 2009

Christmas has begun!

Or, at least, it has in Pisa. Tuesday was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and this is the point at which the descent into Christmas truly begins. The rush is on, every year, for Christmas trees in the days immediately beforehand - no question of waiting lackadaisically until the 22nd to put the tree has to be up in time for the 8th - and the town is in full festive dress in time for the passagiato which takes place through the main streets on the evening of December 7th. Lights raining gently down from on high for the length of Borgo Stretto and Via San Francesco, and the balustrades of the Ponte de Mezzo heavily swagged with pine garlands, all the way to the enormous (and decidedly lopsided) Christmas Tree which appears every year in the little piazza beside the Loggia dei Banchi. I hadn't particularly planned to join in on Monday evening, but since we needed some light bulbs from the shop in Via Santa Maria and it seemed a good idea to give the dogs an airing, we emerged from the house to find the streets thronged with people, and the outdoor cafés absolutely packed! The atmosphere was festive, and the four-footeds thought it was great...

I love the italian attitude to the religious holidays with which their calendar is peppered. Throughout the year, with no warning whatsoever, the whole country grinds to a halt in celebration of some obscure religious event at some point in the past, and the population opportunistically heads for the beach or stays in bed (depending on the time of year), whilst the same dwindling throng of increasingly elderly ladies actually kneels in church in order to mark the day of religious observance. In practice, Italy is no more nor less devout than the UK (which means in practice, pretty negligibly), but somehow the Italians have retained the structures of an organised belief system, whilst in fact they milk the opportunities of the holiday schedule for all they're worth! And unlike the UK, where public holidays are generally tidied away to a Monday or a Friday, the saints' days stick 'religiously' to specific dates, and if that happens to be Tuesday, or Thursday, then so be it...that is indeed the day that God has decreed for sunbathing!

In London, on the other hand (where we currently are for a few days, while the four-footeds hunker down in Calci, and doubtless watch endless Italian daytime TV in the company of Arianna, and a box of mini Bonio...) you'd be hard pressed to know that Christmas is imminent. Certainly, it would be easy to blink and miss such sparse decorations as there are around the place. I guess this is a result of Broon's deeply iffy handling of the economy, and it all seems a fair - if unfortunate - reflection of the dour and cheerless personality of the man himself.

Tonight's Dinner:

Canapés of Chicken Liver rolled, with Sage & Juniper, inside Bacon and grilled until crisp.

Oeufs Comtoises.

Guinea Fowl with Garlic & Lemon; Celery with Pancetta, braised in Chicken Stock.

Chocolate Tart with Orange-flavoured Crème Anglaise.

Thursday 3 December 2009

Recipe: Mandarin Sorbet

The citrus trees are all coming into fruit right now, and although we don't number a Mandarin in our own agrumi garden, hanging over the wall across the lane just across from the front gates at Santa Caterina is a Mandarin tree of venerable proportions which is currently dripping with fruit. And since the owners of the tree don't have access to the lane, and we seem to be the only people going along it right would be a shame to let all that fruit go to waste...

I like the look of bowls piled high with Mandarins - but the truth is, in this household, they tend not to get eaten. Hence this particular dish (which, in fact, could be used for pretty much any citrus fruit, I think, as long as you respect the proportions of fruit to sugar, water and egg white). I don't really know why, but this particular recipe produces a sorbet of unequalled creaminess, which doesn't become granular even after some time in the freezer. I made a batch of the stuff about two weeks ago, the last remnants of which we finished for dessert last night - and it was as smooth and creamy yesterday as when first made. You just have to remember when serving sorbet which has got rock hard in the freezer to let it sit for about an hour in the fridge beforehand.

For four.

Ingredients: 8 Mandarins; 500 ml Water; 250g Sugar; 1 Egg White.


1. Combine the Sugar and Water in a pan, and add the grated rind from four of the Mandarins. Bring to a boil, stirring all the time, and then reduce the heat to simmer for five minutes, stirring frequently to ensure the Sugar is completely dissolved. Allow to cool completely.

2. Add the squeezed juice from all eight Mandarins to the cooled sugar syrup, then sieve it to remove the grated rind.

3. Lightly beat the Egg White until frothy (but not yet stiff) and add this to the sugar syrup as you put the mixture into the ice cream machine. Process until it has reached the desired consistency.

Monday 30 November 2009

Recipe: Guinea Fowl with Lemon & Garlic

A splendid combination of flavours, this dish is eminently practical for a dinner party, as it can be made almost entirely as much as an hour in advance, and the bird kept warm until the sauce is prepared, just before serving. The recipe is loosely adapted from one by Anna Del Conte, to whom I find I'm returning for ideas ever more frequently these days.

For four.

Ingredients: 1 Guinea Fowl (medium to large in size); 30g Butter, chilled and finely diced; 1 generous tsp Salt; 75 ml Olive Oil; 8 Garlic Cloves, minced; 150 ml Lemon Juice; grated rind of 1 Lemon; Salt & Pepper.


1. Heat the oven to 200 degrees C.

2. Reach into the bird, and with your fingers separate as much of the skin from the flesh of the thighs and breasts. Into these cavities distribute the diced Butter. Rub the Salt all over the bird, and then package it loosely inside a buttered sheet of aluminium foil.

3. Place the wrapped bird in a roasting pan, and roast for an hour in the pre-heated oven. Once done, open the package carefully - you want to keep all of the cooking juices which have gathered inside the foil - and allow the bird to cool sufficiently to be able to remove the breasts and legs. (Retain the carcase and use it to make stock for use in other recipes). Collect in a bowl all of the cooking juices and the juices which have been released in the course of cutting up the bird.

4. Heat the Oil in a sauté pan, and lightly colour the garlic in the heated Oil. Add the pieces of Guinea Fowl and fry them gently for five minutes on each side, then add the Lemon juice and rind and cook for a further couple of minutes. Remove the pieces of Guinea Fowl to a covered bowl, season to taste and keep warm until about to serve.

5. Just before serving, add all of the retained cooking juices to the frying pan, and heat briskly, stirring vigorously, until the mixture bubbles and has slightly thickened. Serve the pieces of Guinea Fowl on heated plates, and add to each serving a spoonful of sauce.

Sunday 29 November 2009

Hard to believe...

...that we're cruising towards the end of the year. Despite the recent appearance of Christmas lights the length of Borgo Stretto, and across into Corso Italia on the other side of the river, the fact that December starts in only a couple of days doesn't really compute. Not when the days follow sunnily one after another, and it's still shirtsleeve weather in the garden...even warm enough to sit and drink tea on the terrace at the end of yet another day of hard-garden-labour, a couple of days ago, and trying not to dwell on h0w much more yet remains to be done before the garden will have started to take shape. (In truth, there are days of distinctly un-balmy the autumn storm, last weekend, which blew in part of the east window in the church at Santa Caterina...but for the most part, one mild and sunny day follows another.)

In the garden, new beds have had to be dug to accommodate the influx of plants, and the all-too familiar sight of strips of weed-cloth indicates the future location of paths and pergolas. The dogs love it; freshly-turned earth is their idea of heaven - both snuffling at it, and rolling around in it - and their challenge is clearly to shift as much of the stuff as they can from the garden to the inside of the house by the shortest route they can manage. My ambition is to have as little of the stuff accessible to them as possible (by dint of planting in it, comprehensively) and thus to cut off their supply!

At the moment, we're awaiting Signor Tempestini's quote for supplying trees for the new orchard, and plants for two (maybe three?) new shrubberies...and assuming there are no horrendous surprises in the price, then planting might get underway before Christmas. In the meantime, I've planted 500 crocus bulbs under the Douglas Firs and around the base of the Lemon trees ('Joan of Arc' - one of the larger and pure white crocus varieties, which look spectacular towards the end of February) and 100 double flowering narcissus, under the Nespola trees, and along the side of the raised causeway that runs through the centre of the garden. By the time they flower, my blisters from the bulb planter might perhaps have disappeared...

Tonight's Dinner:

Aubergine & Parmesan Tarts.

Poached Chicken Breasts, with a Tarragon cream sauce; Celery, braised with Pancetta in a broth of Guinea Fowl and Duck.

Layered Meringue Cake (from Harry's Bar - layers of Pan di Spagna and Creme Patissiere, baked inside a coating of Italian Meringue)

Saturday 14 November 2009

Recipe: Potato Gratin

This is a wonderful dish for grey, wintry days. Simplicity itself, but with a glorious smell which pervades the house as the gratin slowly does its thing in the oven over a period of several hours. Although meat-free, the presence of a dash of nutmeg somehow implies the use of a rich beef broth somewhere along the line, which gives to the dish a surprising additional dimension.

This goes excellently with pretty much anything... and is equally fantastic when sneaked cold from the fridge on the following day.

For six.

Ingredients: 1 kg Potatoes (something like Maris Piper is fine); 6 medium Shallots; 2 large Garlic cloves; generous pinch of grated Nutmeg; 1 tsp dried Thyme; 8 fl oz Milk; 8 fl oz Cream; 2 tsp Salt; Pepper, half a dozen grinds of the mill; 2 tablespoons of Butter.


1. Heat the oven to 150 degrees C.

2. Peel the Potatoes and slice them finely, either (carefully) by hand or by using a mandoline. Put the slices immediately to soak in a large bowl of cold water, and leave them soaking while you prep the shallots and garlic.

3. Peel and finely chop both the Shallots and the Garlic; mix them together in a small bowl, along with the Nutmeg, Thyme, Salt & Pepper.

4. Drain the Potato slices into a colander (shake it to remove as much excess water as possible), and arrange a third of them in a layer to cover the bottom of a buttered baking dish. Cover this layer with half of the Sallot-Garlic mixture....then another layer of Potates, then the remainder of the Shallot-Garlic mixture, and finally a last layer of Potato.

5. Combine the Milk & Cream in a jug, and pour it over the top layer of Potato slices. Dice the Butter and scatter it over the top of the gratin. Bake in the pre-heated oven for two hours (and if you don't want to serve it immediately, it can then hold in an oven at 100 degrees C for a further hour, and will come to no harm).

Sunday 8 November 2009

Autumn storms are upon us...

Gale-force winds and torrential rain outside - if I hadn't seen it before, I'd worry for the survival of the garden (but since it happens every year at this time, then one can afford to be sanguine). Indoors, the combined aromas of pastry shells and a potato gratin baking in the oven, a pear poaching gently in red wine (for the top of a tart for supper), and celery tops, diced and sautéeing in butter (to form part of a stuffing for ravioli).

Two dogs sleep peacefully on the floor, having exhausted themselves by energetic games with a tennis ball, up and down the hallways.

Life isn't all bad...

Tonight's dinner:
Ravioli, stuffed with Celery, served in a Parsley & Cream sauce.

Slices of Chicken Breast, in Lemon & Capers; Potato Gratin.

Tarts of Vanilla-poached Pear, on a brandy-flavoured Crème Patissière

Thursday 5 November 2009

Recipe: Apple and Calvados Souffle

Along with grapes, the other glut that we're currently experiencing is apples. Vast quantities of them...and I'm not complaining. Chicken pieces sautéed with garlic and then baked with apple & thyme; thin-crust pies, filled with apple and guinea-fowl, and a sage flavoured cream; strawberry and apple tarts; apple and vanilla tarts, with brandy; apple and cinnamon cake....and now, an apple and Calvados soufflé which is both light and delicious, but with an unexpected edge.

This recipe has the additional benefit that it uses only egg whites, not the yolks, and so is another one for the list of dishes which eats into the ever-present egg-white mountain which lurks in a plastic container at the back of the fridge!

For two individual soufflés.

Ingredients: 2 apples (my preference is for something pink and robust like Gala or Pink Lady); 1 oz butter; 2 oz +1 tablespoon sugar; 4 sponge fingers (or thin pieces of sponge cake - something which will readily absorb liquid); 2 tablespoons calvados; 4 egg whites; icing sugar (to serve).


1. Grease (or Trennwax) two individual ramekins. Line the base of each ramekin with the peices of sponge finger (or sponge cake) and add a spoonful of Calvados to each ramekin, trying to soak the pieces of sponge evenly.

2. Melt the butter in a small pan, and add to this the apples, peeled, cored and finely diced, and the 2 oz of sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, for ten minutes or so, until the apple is good and soft. Allow to cool slightly and then purée in the food processor.

3. Beat the egg whites until quite stiff, then add the remaining tablespoon of sugar and beat for a further ten seconds or so.

4. Stir a quarter of the egg whites into the apple mixture, then fold in the rest of the egg whites and divide the mixture between the two ramekins. Place the ramekins in a bain marie and bake 15 minutes in a 220 degree C oven.

Serve straight from the oven, after dusting the tops with icing sugar.

Wednesday 4 November 2009

How to de-seed grapes

We have a glut of grapes, both white and dark. In the fridge currently is of a box of about ten kilos of the things which the Technical Dept harvested from the garden in about three minutes, at the start of the week, and I've been working my way through relevant recipes ever since. A white grape sorbet was pretty good, frothed with some beaten egg white and enlivened with a glass of vin santo, and last night's Duck, pot-roast in white grapes also got significant points. I've tended to stick with recipes where the process of crushing or liquidizing or sieving eliminates the need to deal with the seeds, since de-seeding grapes has always been for me one of the most thankless of all kitchen chores. Until now. Research has unearthed this elegant version of keyhole surgery which is both quick and efficient:

1. Take a standard paper-clip and unfold it into a 'S' shape.

2. Insert one end of the 'S' into the end of the grape which was where the stalk had previously been, and bear down into the grape.

3. Bury the clip into the grape to the depth of the first arm of the 'S', and then invert it, so the bit you first inserted is now pointing back up in the direction whence it came, and you have the curve of the clip in the centre of the grape, positioned to act as a hook.

4. Twist the clip slightly, to loosen the innards of the grape, and then carefully pull the clip out of the grape, bringing the seeds with it.

5. Once the seeds reach daylight, discard them and move on to the next grape.

Couldn't be simpler!

Tonight's dinner:

Celery Risotto (with stock made from last night's Duck)

Sausages of Wild Boar, with a Potato and Shallot Gratin

Clafouti of White Grapes, baked in Lemon & Cognac Cream

Saturday 31 October 2009

Mayhem at the Flower stall... Borgo Stretto, this morning. I've no idea why - perhaps because the dogs had decided to sleep late for a change, and so it was already gone nine before I hit the streets...

Two chain-smoking women who were arguing about the price of lilies, a smartly dressed donna with a ratty little dog that she was holding back from everybody and proudly proclaiming to be 'aggressivo' (which said more about her than about the ratty dog, I thought), the usual shy-looking nun in her white habit, who always spends ages trying to decide how optimally to spend the five euros at her disposal; a bruiser of a woman in an orange jump suit, who looked as though she was about to thump some chap who carelessly walked into her armful of gladioli; a well-coiffed matron in purple who piously crossed herself in front of the shrine at the corner of the street, and appeared pained at the proximity (maybe even at the existence?) of everybody else who was there...and a whole host of others milling around and generally tripping over each other.

Definitely time for the first coffee of the morning by the time I'd extricated myself from the throng and retreated, flowers in hand, to the calm of the street beyond.

The beautiful autumn weather continues...warm and sunny, and intense blue skies - although the forecast is for a week of rain, from tomorrow, which will be excellent for the garden and for my major transplanting exercise. Already, I've moved the azaleas, the white wisteria, a couple of hebes, one marie pavié rose (perhaps a little prematurely - I'll wait a couple of weeks, I think, before doing more roses) and the acanthus plants. Today, I'll do the hellebores and the japanese anemone, and I've started to prepare beds in the citrus garden for the agapanthus plants (all thirty five of them!).

I found two excellent uses for Fragole grapes: a sorbet, which is simplicity itself (stew the grapes in sugar and water, before roughly crushing them, and pushing the cooled mash through a sieve - when cold, process in the ice cream machine, with the addition of a glass of Vin Santo, from the bottle home-made by Beppe, the carpenter up in Belforte); and a version of a Bellini, which in this case is called a Tiziano, where the peaches are replaced by fragola grape juice, in the proportion of one to three of grape juice to chilled prosecco. Delicious. It appears there's a further variation on the theme, where strawberry purée is used instead, which is called a Rossini; the Technical Department tells me I've drunk it, in the bar of the Cipriani in Asolo, but given that that was twenty five years ago, I'll have to take his word for it. Clearly, it didn't make a lasting impression...

Onward and upward. Much to do...

Tonight's Dinner:

Bistecca alla Diavola; Beans in Parmesan.

Strawberry tarts.

Monday 26 October 2009

We all agreed..

...that although it wasn't the worst dinner we'd ever had, it ranked up there amongst the more memorably bad in our group's combined lifetime's dining-out experience of around several hundred years! Last Friday night, a dinner in Poggibonsi, organised by the local chapter (or should it be 'coven'?) of the Slow Food organisation, of which one of the Belforte contingent is a member. We' d been warned in advance to go easy on carbohydrates in preparation, as the theme of this particular banquet was flour, and the menu appeared to consist of seven different pasta courses followed by a chestnut cake...A challenge, maybe, but not necessarily one we couldn't meet...after all, seven pasta courses could have comprised deliciously light capelletti, and ravioli, and papardelle, with unctuous fillings and delicate sauces...lasagne, and strozzaprete, and fettucine....

They could have done. But they didn't. With knobs on.

The people behind the menu seemed 100% signed up to the misguided Slow Food belief that 'real' food has to revert to peasant cooking at its most back-to-nature level, and each course was earnestly introduced with a description of the particular kind of flour which had gone into it. Farro featured quite a lot ('spelt' flour, in English) as did Grano Saraceno (both as farina and as semola), along with various other varieties - but all of the end results on the plate seemed to me like buckwheat pasta, of a uniform grunge colour, whatever particular strain of flour had gone into the dish! On display in the room were trays of the stuff before it was cooked, all of which resembled large and rather hairy grey cornflakes, and even before the food started to appear, slight doubts had already begun to form.
In the early stages, it was under-seasoned cream of spinach in which lumps of cooked pasta floated was disappointingly bland, but was quickly redeemed by another cream of some kind, which contained boconcini stuffed with ricotta and basil. Thereafter, though, we were assailed by course after course of indigestible brown pasta, all carefully explained to us, and generally accompanied by the statement that this particular kind of flour is 'multo difficile a lavorare' . "So, why bloody bother?" was the muttered riposte, after yet another steaming bowl of the stuff had been set in front of us.

I think we all fell at the same hurdle - a dish of mud-coloured tortelloni stuffed with, of all things, potato, the taste and texture of which was worryingly like some kind of floor covering. Thereafter, a note of slight hysteria crept into the proceedings, and when the issue was raised as to what exactly all of this was doing to our digestive systems it was difficult to avoid a mass return to nursery humour. We managed. Just. I'm not sure, though, that our final flight into the cold and rainy street outside - once we'd waded through our dessert of chestnut cake with fig marmalade - wasn't followed by the disapproving glances of some of the more worthy of the Slow Food groupies we left behind us.

All-told, it had been the gastronomic equivalent of an early-English music festival...resplendent with crump-horns and dingle-flugels and whatever, all of which is probably historically fascinating, but about which our senses tell us that whatever has happened since then very definitely falls under the heading of 'progress'!

Oh, there was one positive note to the evening. Taking refuge from the terrible weather outside, we'd arrived half an hour before we should have done, and were served while we waited with glasses of a spumante called Meissa. From the hills above Piacenza, it was wonderful. Delicate, without being thin, and with a hint of apricot. A splendid discovery.

And the following night, before the blazing kitchen fire in Belforte, we feasted on roast lamb, directly from one of the local farmers, accompanied by green beans and a zucchini gratin - all from the garden - as was practically everything that went into the dessert of apple & rosemary crepes with a lemon and walnut sauce. Now, that was real food as it should be!

Tonight's Dinner:
Papardelle with ragu.

Lemon Chicken, with diced Broccoli stalks.

Monday 12 October 2009

Recipe: Peach & Marsala Cream Tart

In the garden at Santa Caterina is an old late-fruiting white peach tree, which produced several weeks ago a crop of small and rather hard fruit - not exactly ambrosial, and although perfectly edible in their natural state, they benefit significantly from being cooked in some form rather than just eating them as they come off the tree. Combined with apples to make the purée base for an apple and peach tart, for example, or used in this recipe, which is an adaptation from a classic Tarte Normande.

For one 8" tart.

Ingredients: Shortcrust pastry, made with 150g '00' Flour, 120g Butter, and approx 40ml Water; 2 large or 3 medium peaches; 2 oz plus two tablespoons of sugar; 1 Egg; 1 oz Flour; 5 fl oz Cream; 3 tablespoons Marsala; Icing Sugar.


1. Roll out the pastry, line an 8" false-bottomed tin, and leave to rest for thirty minutes before blind baking in a 200 degree C oven.

2. Stone, quarter and peel the Peaches, and cut into thin slices (you want to be able to lay them flat in the tart shell, such that they can be subsequently covered with the Marsala Cream, without it overflowing the rim of the pastry). Sprinkle over the Peach slices the two spoonfuls of Sugar, and return the tart shell to the oven for a further fifteen minutes.

3. Meanwhile, whisk together the Egg and Sugar, then beat in the Flour, and finally the Cream and the Marsala.

4. Remove the tart shell from the oven and reduce the temperature to 150 degrees C.

5. Carefully pour the Marsala Cream over the Peach slices, and bake in the oven for 25 - 30 minutes, until it has puffed slightly, and the top has begun to brown.

Serve warm, and dust the top with Icing Sugar before you cut into it.

Tuesday 6 October 2009

Fragola Grapes

We have an abundance of them at Santa Caterina, and the strawberry-heavy scent in that area of the garden is quite splendid right at the moment. The vines are heavy with plump black fruit - literally thousands of the things - and to walk beneath the grape arbour is an intoxicating experience.

I've always understood that the wine made from fragola grapes is illegal - although like all things in Italy, it isn't quite as straightforward as that. There's a rather disgusting sweet and fizzy red wine, sold in great quantities in most supermarkets, which calls itself fragolino, but which I suspect is made with some sort of flavouring agent rather than from the fragole grapes themselves. Otherwise, it appears that there's no law against making wine from the grapes, but there is a law against selling it commercially, once made... so, at least self-harm is acceptable!

We first came upon a white dessert fragolino at a restaurant in Seravalle (which shall remain nameless, in order to protect the guilty) one rainy lunchtime about eight years ago. We were with the Brancolis and the Belfortes, and it was one of those occasions when it was raining chairlegs outside and there seemed little point in finishing lunch... and so we just extended it lazily for the entire afternoon, with the owner every so often suggesting something else we might like to try. Finally, a label-less bottle of fragolino was uncorked, and we all had several glasses of the exquisite (if slightly syrupy) contents. The end result was that we all bought a case of the stuff, and it remained a staple house delicacy for quite a long time thereafter. In fact, it even had a renewed lease of life after the Brancolis were told that fragolino causes blindness or infertility or something, and so we said we'd happily take their remaining stock off their hands (since it does neither thing, but the evil rumour seems to have been put about some years ago by some disgruntled Austrian wine-producers, and the Brancolis weren't keen to risk either eventuality).

I doubt we're going to start wine making any time soon, and there are only so many dozens of bunches of grapes that one can plough through in the course of the season, so I've been researching other options. There is a method of using them to make a fruit jelly, which is ok, but frankly, jelly never exactly resonates with me - really, it's food for invalids or for people with no both of which cases, sufficient unto the day. Valentina Harris has a recipe for a grape-studded schiacciata (a first cousin to a ciabatta, in many ways) which is very moreish and would be excellent with fragola grapes, and I've just come across a recipe that uses them in a rather dense cake. Definitely worth trying.

Watch this space...

Tonight's dinner:

Fresh Tagliatelle with Ragu.

Saltimbocca alla Romana.

Peach and Marsala Cream Tart.

Sunday 4 October 2009

Recipe: Veal Stew with Lemon & Rosemary

Loosely based on Bugialli's recipe for Ossobucco alla Novese, this is an excellent 'white' stew, where the combination of lemon, garlic, and rosemary is absolutely first class, and the finished dish is substantial without being heavy. Diced veal is a relatively cheap cut (at least in Italy it is), and so this recipe has the added merit of economy.

Since duck makes frequent appearances on the menu in this household, I generally have available duck fat and duck stock (both of which are used here); if you don't have them, don't worry - just substitute olive oil for the duck fat and chicken stock for the duck stock.

If you have any stew left over, then it can be ground up and used subsequently, mixed with a little grated parmesan and some fine breadcrumbs, as a filling for ravioli (which is what we'll be having as this evening's first course...)

For four.

Ingredients: 1 kg diced veal; 2 tbs duck fat; 1 lemon (peel only); spines from 4 sprigs of rosemary, chopped finely; 2 cloves of garlic, minced finely; 2 teaspoons of capers; dry white wine - approx 15 fl oz; 2 cups duck stock.


1. Melt the fat in a heavy casserole. Finely slice the peel from the lemon, and along with the garlic and rosemary, add it to the melted fat. Sauté this mixture over medium heat for a few minutes, until it has visibly softened.

2. Add the diced veal to the casserole, turn up the heat and colour on all sides, stirring the whole time. Add salt.

3. When the veal is all coloured, add the white wine, to cover the meat, and allow the wine to come to the boil, and then simmer to reduce the liquid by about a third - this should take five minutes or so.

4. Add the capers to the mixture, then the stock. Again, bring the mixture to the boil, then reduce the heat, cover the pan and let it cook over a very low heat for two hours or more (I always place the casserole over a heat diffuser for this process, to reduce the heat to a low enough level).

5. Just before serving, remove the meat from the liquid, and turn heat to high and boil vigorously for several minutes, stirring constantly, to reduce the liquid to a coating consistency. When it has reduced sufficiently, turn off the heat and return the meat briefly to the pan, to heat through again. Check and, if necessary, adjust seasoning before serving.

Friday 25 September 2009

Catching Up...

It's been a busy ten days! The journey down to Italy with the two four-footeds was long, but uneventful - the mini four-footed reclined palanquin style in his cage in the back of the car, and regarded Europe with a sanguine air, as it passed by on the other side of the window; the senior four-footed merely slept and ignored the whole thing. Dinner en route, for a change, was very good indeed. A prix fixe menu at the Hotel aux Terrasses at Tournus, which included, amongst other things, an amuse gueule of truffled foam and another of a leek custard; very good roast pigeon; foie gras; excellent cheese; and a dessert of ginger sorbet and poached greengage which was spectacularly good. The mini four-footed was introduced to the concept of fine dining, and behaved impeccably by curling up and sleeping under the table the entire time - not bad for exactly three months old - and something he's subsequently repeated at Bandierine in Via Mercanti. (so, I think we can take it that he's got the general idea).

It was raining pretty much all the way from Calais, and the final stretch, along the ligurian coast south of Genoa was fairly torrential, and stayed that way on and off in Pisa for the following three or four days. Very good for gardens, but depressing and impractical otherwise...muddy canine footprints everywhere, and lots of damp doghair. Some of it made even damper by the fact that the puppy went through the usual rite of passage and managed very quickly to fall into the lily pond not once but twice (clearly, the first time wasn't a sufficiently salutory learning experience!).
For the past few days, however, we've had a return to high summer, with clear skies and bright sunshine, and temperatures in the high twenties - but combined with a stillness in the air and a general calm which somehow only happens here during the autumn. Since the weather improved, the dogs have been racing around the grounds at Santa Caterina every day - which they think is amazing, and tire themselves out so efficiently in the process, that they crash out for much of the rest of the time.

Santa Caterina itself has been a lot of work!We've plugged holes in the perimeter fences in the orchard, and at the end of the walkway behind the church, and then removed other fences within the property which no longer serve a purpose, as well as uprooting and removing a very scrubby little pine hedge, the absence of which opens up the land to the east of the church. The end result is a combination of aching muscles and (already) much improved vistas. Still vast amounts to do, needless to say...

Anima Mundi concerts are now almost a third of the way through, and we've managed to catch two of them so far, the second of which was Viktoria Mullova in the Camposanto, playing Bach sonatas. Stunning. As she always is, pretty much. This evening, the Vienna Boys' Choir are performing in the Cathedral: Bach, Brahms, Byrd...

Pre-concert Dinner:

Celery Risotto

Spezzatino, with artichoke hearts à la crème

Nectarines baked with cream, brown sugar and cinnamon.