Friday 6 March 2009


...from Brancoli, in the shape of industrial quantities of Bitter Oranges, accompanied by a jar from the last batch of marmalade (most of which was promptly consumed in one sitting, at breakfast, this morning) and a rather splendid panettone ( re which I foresee panettone-bread-and-butter-pudding at some point very shortly). The Brancolis were passing through en route back to London, and bemoaned the fact that they'd spent much of the past week in their mountain eyrie walled-in by cloud, as last Saturday's spring sunshine turned out to be a false dawn, and gave way to days on-end of gloom and torrential downpours. Until today, that is, which dawned bright and clear, and was actually warm enough for us to throw open the french windows for the first time this year - always a red-letter day in the calendar. Brancolis departed for the airport, looking slightly miffed to be leaving behind them the first good weather they'd seen, and I spent a happy hour in the garden poking and prodding at things and noting the appearance of green shoots on wistaria(s) and spyrea and newly-planted climbing roses (yes, more...)

As I was going to get bread for breakfast, Lampacione were for sale outside the Amantea Man's shop in Via San Francesco, which is another reliable sign of Spring advancing. At the bakers, though, I was thwarted in buying bread from Altamura - the wonderfully chewy loaf that I normally get, but which for some inexpliable reason is unavailable outside university term time - and instead in its usual place on the shelf (right beside the splendidly named Bruta di Pontadera ) was Pane di Laterza. Effectively the same thing, I was assured, since Laterza and Altamura are only 20 kilometres distant from each other....that and the fact that the cross inscribed on top of the loaf is small in Altamura and very much larger in Laterza. Which makes all the difference, for sure, when you're making toast!

Tonight's Dinner:


Ossobuco alla Novese.

Bitter Orange Soufflés.

Sunday 1 March 2009

The Sweet Potato Challenge

"Yams, and Clams, and Human Hands, washed down with Coconut Wine...the taste of which was filthy, but the after-effect divine!" pretty much sums up my attitude to sweet potato (all apart from the 'divine' bit). This is not a vegetable I would hurry to include on any menu, having as it does a one-dimensional flavour and a tendency to dissolve into soggy pap if you aren't careful. However, since the good people of North Carolina are in search of ways of dealing with the things, then who am I to deny them in their hour of need? ( "We are having a contest sponsored by the North Carolina Sweet Potato commission......")

I engaged in some research: Patience Grey was interestingly literary; Elizabeth Schneider, in her excellent and practically biblical tome on vegetables of all shapes and forms, had much to say on the subject; Jane Grigson waxed lyrical about their supposed aphrodisiac qualities; and James Peterson explained at length the precise difference between yams and sweet potatoes (before going on to talk of the latter being served smothered in 'melted marshmallows'...the very idea of which should be enough to make strong men shudder!)

The common thread running through all of this is that in order to make anything worthwhile of sweet potato you need to mix with it some assertive flavours in order to cut the sweetness, to give the dish another dimension, and to rescue it from the realm of nursery food. Many of the asian ways of treating the vegetable include pretty aggressive flavours like chili peppers and galangal, which have the effect of reducing the 'sweet' quality to an interesting undertone. And in Shakespearian England, it appears that the normal way of serving sweet potato was to smother it in dry sherry once it had been cooked. It was this that gave me the clue that in fact Sweet Potato is actually not unlike parsnip, and for best results it should be treated in the same way. Hence, the following: puréed and then mixed with sherry and walnuts, which act as the perfect foil to the sweet potato's natural flavours:

Excellent with any roast meat, the last stage in cooking the sweet potatoes also fits with this combination, as the finished dish can just go into the oven for the last twenty minutes of roasting time, enough to heat the sweet potatoes through and to brown the walnuts.

For four.

Ingredients: 2 large-ish Sweet Potatoes; 4 fl oz Cream; 2 fl oz medium Sherry; half a teaspoon of ground Nutmeg; Salt & Pepper, to taste; 2 oz Butter; 2 oz Walnut pieces.


1. Steam the Sweet Potatoes for twenty minutes or so, until tender (you could equally cook them in water, I suppose, if you don't have a steamer). Leave to cool for ten minutes or so
, then peel them and cut into pieces.

2. Once cool enough to handle, process the cooked Sweet Potatoes along with all of the other ingredients apart from the Walnut pieces. Turn o
ut into a greased ovenproof dish, and level the surface.

3. Sprinkle the Walnut pieces evenly over the surface of the Sweet Potato purée, and place into the lower part of a hot oven for fifteen to twenty minutes. (The Walnut pieces should each be no larger than a pine-nut - if they're larger,
before sprinkling them, break them up by crushing gently between your hands.)


Meanwhile, in Tuscany...

Spring is doing its best to get started - although it was clear from the state of the citrus trees when we arrived last week that there'd been a heavy frost sometime recently, and the lemons and bergamot were looking distinctly sorry for themselves. No longer. The temperature has soared in the past few days, and the shoots of the spring flowers are pushing forward purposefully. Massed ranks of narcissus throughout the garden; white crocuses against a background of lush ground cover (white-flowering vinca minor, which I planted, and a sea of violas, which I didn't, but which are very welcome all the same); the Camellia Japonica covered in pure white blooms, with many more to come; blossoms just opening on the Armandii, which means that the south pergola will be awash with fragrant blooms a week or so from now; fresh leaves opening on all of the roses, and even some buds on 'Mrs Herbert Stevens', which is always the first to come into bloom, and to my mind heralds the true end of winter each year. The climbing hydrangea and the jasmines are all limbering up to do their stuff, and look set for a good display.
After certain (sometimes heated) discussion, the Technical Department and I have finally come up with an agreed planting scheme for the loggia, which is to cover the walls in a variety of musk roses (my preference) and holbelia (his). Watch this space...

Gardening and cooking seem closely related, IMHO. I'm not entirely sure why...perhaps the same sort of impulses to do with creating order from chaos, and in taming nature in tooth and claw. Certainly, in both activities there's a slightly uneasy combination of control-freak meets creative-impulse (which doesn't invite close examination; some things are better left well alone). Most cooks that I know are also keen gardeners. Not all of them, that's true, but I suspect that the cook who isn't a gardener is marching to a different beat from the rest of us. Less 'home and hearth' oriented, somehow.

This week's culinary departures: a praline and chocolate flavoured Crème Caramel (in fact, a more robust version than the usual, as this one also has soaked amaretti biscuits included in the mixture), which got a thumbs up from the TD; and a new variation on the boned and roast chicken, but this time with a stuffing based on Marsala and Porcini, with a truffle-infused cream sauce. Not at all bad...

And I've been dipping into Patience Grey's 'Honey from a Weed', which is an absolute pleasure. Lots of familiar references, from her time spent living at different times in Tuscany and in the Cyclades...from a passing mention of 'Da Cammillo' in Florence, to the image of the weatherbeaten black-clad donkey-ladies in Greece who used to rap on the garden door in the mornings, with offerings of horta (greens) or fresh mulberries, or bunches of flowers that were heady with the scent of herbs from the fields. Happy memories, of a world which I suspect has now already disappeared.

Tonight's Dinner:

Fish Pithiviers.

Veal & Pepper Burgers; Carrots in Marsala.

Limoncello Panna Cotta.