Sunday 26 December 2010

On the first day of Christmas...

It rained incessantly. The Technical Department gave me a copy of Alain Ducasse's weighty tome on pasta and vegetables (so, the unsubtle hints dropped at the start of December weren't entirely a waste of time), and we all went off to Mensano for a lunch-to-end-all-lunches: generous antipasti, of cheeses, crostini, frittata, prosciutto crudo, and onion salsa; a capon soup, with tagliatelle; papardelle, with an excellent duck sauce; bollito misto, of chicken, beef, and pork (some began to weaken at this stage....but we carried on regardless); roast pork, with a side dish of sformato di gobbo (which I was under the impression meant 'dwarf', but clearly not), and finally, a dolce di natale, which in fact resembled half a house-brick, topped with some rather sweet custard and assorted bits of colourful fruit(I've talked elsewhere and at length about the italian inability to understand desserts, beyond zabaglione and tiramisu...)

Lunch eventually over, we emerged into darkened streets, that were further obscured by a heavy mist which had gathered as we were at table. As we walked through the deserted village, christmas lights emerged eerily from the mist, and rainwater dripped heavily from the eaves. En route back to the car, we passed by Mensano's beautiful and very plain romanesque church; empty and candlelit, the crusader capitals brooded from on top of the heavy, squat columns which line the nave.

And then, back home. To an evening of Pasolini on DVD - we watched 'The Canterbury Tales', which was an appropriately decadent ending to a thoroughly self-indulgent day.

Tonight's dinner (we'll be eight):

Flamiche (made with fresh leeks from the garden)

Capon, boned and roast, with Pommes Maximes.

Crepes Suzettes.

Friday 24 December 2010

We made it!

Finally, after days of endlessly searching airline timetables, and repeated - but fruitless - trips to the airport, we escaped! It was slightly unnerving, sitting in Gatwick North terminal on Wednesday evening, to see a delay posted against our flight to Amsterdam...but it wasn't extended, and the flight actually departed only about an hour and a half later than scheduled. After the experience of the past week, I didn't trust it not to turn round in mid-air, and it was only as we touched down in Schipol that we could be certain we'd made it - we'd actually got away!

We spent the night in a rather strange hotel attached to the airport (a triumph of design over functionality, in practice...and when somebody at dinner last night told us the place had a reputation as a 'rendezvous' hotel, it made sense, since about the only horizontal surface in the small room was an extremely over-sized bed!) and then we caught a pre-dawn flight down to Pisa. A very wet Pisa, but an extremely welcome sight for all that. All the snow from last week has disappeared, leaving very little trace, apart from broken branches around the place - and three of the supports for the fruit cage have snapped, which is quite impressive, given that they're a good three inches in diameter. We had worried that the romitorio roof might not stand up to the weight of the snow, but it shows no sign of having succumbed.

No point in hanging around in Pisa, since we were due down in Belforte for Christmas weekend, anyway. With slight misgivings, we arranged that the four-footeds would stay in Calci until Monday (their boarding fees since we left have already racked up to equal the national debt of a small country, so a few more days won't make much difference) and we high-tailed it to Belforte in time for tea and then pre-dinner drinks before a blazing fire. The weather's terrible, but who cares...

Tonight's dinner:

Fettucine with rosemary sauce.

Loin of Veal; celeriac, roast in cinta fat.

Chocolate tart.

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Easyjet Nightmare continues..

There was a glimmer of hope...not through any efforts on the part of easyjet, of course (four hours hanging on the phone on Sunday, in the vain hope that they might actually answer their laughingly termed 'Customer Service' helpline - they didn't - and still no option online either to transfer or to get a refund from our cancelled booking last Saturday). No seats from London to get home to Pisa on any airline this side of Christmas, and so we decided to try through Amsterdam, and shelled out for tickets for the 8.15 flight today (on easyjet.....through gritted teeth, since nothing else was available) in order to connect with the early afternoon Transavia flight.

Up at 5.15 this morning, to head out to Victoria...and by 5.17 a check online confirmed that indeed easyjet had cancelled the 8.15 to Amsterdam 'due to bad weather' - which is strange, since you'd think the same bad weather would also have caused them to cancel the earlier 6.15 flight to the same destination. Which they hadn't. A trawl through other options revealed there were two seats left on the BA to Amsterdam at 9.00 this morning, and so we went for them. Except that by the time the online booking got through to processing the payment, it flashed up a message that they'd been sold even as I was workiing the keyboard.

And now? We can transfer our Transavia ticket (at no charge - easyjet, please note) to their dawn flight on Thursday...and have flights booked on various airlines both on Wednesday evening and on Thursday morning.

The four-footeds are in Pisa; we're stuck here...and Christmas increasingly recedes into the distance...

Sunday 19 December 2010

The Easyjet Nightmare!

Ok, so there was snow - which didn't help. But then, there was downright incompetence. Ignorance, as well...but mostly just plain old-fashioned incompetence. Bucketloads of it....and most of it on the part of easyjet staff.

We were loaded onto a plane on Friday morning, bound for Pisa. Slightly frustrating to be told almost immediately that we wouldn't be able to take off for nearly two hours, as Pisa airport was closed due to a snowfall. Annoying, but there you go - these things happen. So, we sat, and patiently waited. Time passed. Nothing happened. More time passed; the two hour delay was long finished. The Brancolis were with us, and they thought to check on their ipad what the Pisa airport website had to say...which was that the airport was still closed. Then, the Technical Department thought to call Davide who works as an electrician in the control tower at Pisa airport, and he confirmed that the place was closed and wasn't likely to open again that day.

Some passengers demanded to be let off the plane, and the cabin crew grudgingly said that they could, although they wouldn't be let back on, and would lose any chance of a refund on their fares. About a dozen still insisted on doing it. And then, they couldn't get off anyway, as it turned out there was nobody available to man the exit door from the outside... and so we all sat there, effectively imprisoned.
The cabin crew handed out cups of water and packets of crisps - grumbling that they'd be losing their commission on all of it - and still we sat there.

Eventually, they found somebody to open the door, and those people left who were buying their liberty at the cost of their plane ticket. Around 3.30, the crew were out of time, and were replaced by another crew. The replacement pilot blithely announced that we were eleventh in the queue for de-icing, but that we should be airborne shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, Pisa airport announced that it would be closed until at least eleven in the evening. We pointed this fact out to the blonde (in every sense) stewardess who came past; she said she'd pass it on the captain, but almost immediately we heard her saying to somebody else that we could expect to be arriving in Pisa at around 6.30. They obviously don't hire them on the basis of their IQ.

An american in front of us spoke to his italian wife inLucca, who had also spoken directly to Pisa airport. Yup, it was definitely closed. Confirmed by somebody else who had a friend waiting for her at Pisa, and who had sent an SMS, to say that it was be closed until late in the evening. The TD went to have a word with the pilot, who seemed surprised to hear that Pisa airport was closed. Nobody had said anything to him about it; he'd check.
As more announcements regularly followed to give us updates on our imminent departure, unrest was growing in our part of the plane, where it was generally known that there was no way the plane was going to be taking off at all. Given that it had nowhere to go to. After another hour, and having checked once more with Davide, TD went to see what was going on. "Oh", the pilot said "I put in a call to head office about an hour ago to check whether or not Pisa was open, and they haven't got back to me yet." So, it isn't just the cabin crew who aren't hired on the basis of their brain power.

Eventually....finally....almost seven and a half hours after we'd boarded, there was an announcement that - shock! horror! What a surprise!- Pisa airport was, in fact closed, and so the flight wouldn't be leaving after all. We gathered ourselves together, and got off the plane. But the nightmare, even for that day, wasn't yet over. Instead of taking us to the baggage hall, some idiot took everybody back into the main departures lounge, and then abandoned the passengers there for over half an hour, while they presumably tried to sort themselves out. We were eventually then taken where we should have gone in the first place - which involved walking most of the way back to the gate we'd just left - and then waited for the best part of an hour, while they tried to find out what had happened to the luggage. In all, it took almost two hours after we'd got off the plane before we were finally free of the place.

The Brancolis decided to make other plans, and not bother to try and travel on a replacement easyjet flight. They'd just had enough of the whole thing, and if they couldn't sort out a flight on BA, then they probably wouldn't bother to go at all. With the four-footeds to collect, however, we didn't have that luxury - but at least while all the other passengers were put up for the night at some Gatwick hotel, we could go back to a decent fireside and dinner in London, which is what we did.

As soon as we got in, I looked online, and found that we'd automatically been re-booked on a Saturday flight at 11.00....and with some misgivings, we decided to go for it. Gluttons for punishment, we headed for Gatwick, and for another day of misery. The snow came down, and Gatwick was closed, which involved another six hour wait in the departure lounge...but as soon as the runway looked set to open, easyjet called us all forward....and then THEY DID IT AGAIN!
Unbelievably, THEY DID IT AGAIN!

We'd called Davide directly, around two in the afternoon, and he said that Pisa airport was closed still, until at least six in the evening. I checked on the airport website, which said that it wouldn't be open until at least seven...but still, easyjet were boarding the plane. The same plane as the day before, at the same gate. Talk about groundhog day! At the gate, I asked why they were boarding the plane, since Pisa wasn't open...."Oh?" They said. "Nobody's said anything to us" I got slightly irritated, and for my pains, was held until last, so that somebody could come and see if I was the same person from our group of passengers who had apparently thumped one of their staff the evening before. I hadn't been, in fact...but I do wish I'd seen it!
As I stood there, reading the paper, and waiting to be 'identified' I listened to a well-padded girl (not built for speed) called Hannah, who was checking people in, give them a whole string of not-quite-lies just to get them to move along and get on the plane, and out of her hair: "Yes, you'll be taking off almost immediately", "Oh, definitely... in less than an hour"; "You'll be there, oh, by 7.30, for sure". And eventually, having pointed out to them that since I had three witnesses to the fact that they couldn't pin an assault-and-battery charge on me, I was allowed to board...I was given the option of not boarding, of course, but as with the previous day, it would have meant forfeiting my not insubstantial fare. Easyjet do love their bottom line!

Oh, Lord! I feel weary just at the memory. Same plane, slightly fewer people (since some had fallen by the wayside). Announcements about imminent departure. Then, the fact that actually Pisa airport, it appeared was closed, but that it would be open again in time for our arrival. Then, that the departure time was being put back.....a little. In fact, relatively speaking, the pain was not great, since this time we sat on the plane for less than two hours before they acknowledged that Pisa wasn't going to be opening again any time soon, and that the flight had been cancelled.

The passengers were brilliant. Well-behaved, restrained, due medals all-round. So, it was a surprise and deeply inappropriate that the ground handling staff met the offloaded passengers behind a security cordon of uniformed police. The staff then said that nobody would be able to leave the gate area until all duty-free that any passengers might have bought had been handed in. Despite the fact that there isn't any duty free between the UK and Italy; hasn't been for years. "Oh, yes there is", they assured us confidently when this fact was pointed out. Where, in God's name, do they find these people?

Back to the baggage hall (en route, I had the pleasure of passing well-padded Hannah, who looked green as I commented to her that it was a 'shame she'd screwed it up again...'). It was only at the point when the luggage appeared to have been lost, that some of the italians started to lose it. Not in a major way, but perhaps more emotionally than the anglo-saxons would have done. And that was when the uniformed police decided to wade in, perhaps rather unwisely. As they tried to lead two italian women away, the cries of 'No', and 'Shame!' and booing from the rest of the passengers turned into shouts and became more insistent; and the whole thing looked to become really quite nasty, when it was announced that the luggage was arriving on a carousel at the other end of the baggage hall, and everybody immediately rushed over there, and the italian women were allowed to go with them.

We retrieved our luggage, and it was only as we were on the train back to Victoria that it occurred to me that no announcement had been made about hotel accommodation and about further flight arrangements. For the simple reason that there were none. Unlike the previous evening, no re-booking had been made, and the passengers had simply been abandoned to their fate. Many of them with babies and young children; nowhere to stay; no alternative flight arrangements made; and no available seats on any airline to Pisa this side of Christmas. (And, btw, easyjet are required by EU law to provide accommodation for people who are stranded like this, who are their responsibility; they seem to have decided to ignore this detail)

First thing this morning, I found that I'd received an e-mail at 2.00, saying that I could either re-book my flight or have a refund by choosing the appropriate option on their website. Of course, when I went to try to do one or the other, neither option actually exists. The TD has just been on hold for over two hours (at 10p a minute) to try to speak to somebody at easyjet, before he gave up; that wasn't a long answering-queue, it was just somebody at easyjet having decided not to bother.

Yes, there was snow. But that was only a small part of the problem. The misery we and all of our fellow passengers endured in the past two days was almost entirely due to mismanagement by easyjet. Had they had proper communication of information about conditions at Pisa, then we wouldn't have been trapped for eight hours on the plane on Friday, and nor would we have wasted the whole day at Gatwick yesterday, since they would have known to cancel the flight much earlier in the day. How unimpressive is it that on both occasions the passengers in the back of the plane were much better informed than the people in uniform at the front?

That isn't the way to run a whelk stall, let alone an airline!

Sunday 12 December 2010

Recipe: Broccoli, Roman style

Perfect with any simple grilled or roast meat, this dish has the sort of complex structure of flavours which makes it a first cousin to ratatouille...but with a list of ingredients which takes it straight back to the pages of Apicius, if not before.
Eminently suitable for entertaining, as all of the work can be done hours in advance, and the wonderful smell of cooking that greets your guests on arrival will have them salivating even before they hand over their coats! And, just as with ratatouille, any leftovers are excellent re-heated the next day, and served with a lightly-poached egg as an informal starter.

For four.

Ingredients: the stalks from two large heads of Broccoli - you need about 350g of stalk (reserve the florets for another day, to steam, or to use for purée, for example); 2 medium Onions; 60g stoned Black Olives; 4 large Anchovy fillets; 50g Parmesan; Salt; Olive Oil; 10 fl oz dry Red Wine.


1. Peel and thinly slice the Onions; peel the broccoli stalks, and slice wafer-thin.

2. Lightly oil the base of a heavy iron casserole, or a sauté pan with a lid. Distribute half of the sliced Onion over the base of the casserole, and cover with a layer of sliced Broccoli stalks, again using half of the total amount.

3. Thinly slice the Olives and Parmesan, and chop the Anchovies into small pieces. Over the layer of Broccoli stalks scatter half of the Olives, Parmesan and Anchovies; salt lightly (not too much, as the cheese and fish are already salty) and a light dressing of Oil (about half a tbsp).

4. Repeat with another layer of Onion, then Broccoli, and finally the remaining amount of Olives, cheese and Anchovies. Lightly salt, and moisten with a little more Oil.

Set aside until about an hour before you want people to come to table.

5. Pour the Wine over the assembled dish, and heat over a low heat for an hour, with the lid firmly in place. Check and adjust seasoning just before you serve.

I find it works well if I remove the pan from the heat just as the first course is served, and it can then rest, with the lid on, for the duration of the first course, ready to be served along with the main course.

Wednesday 1 December 2010

To Sarteano, and beyond...

With only pause to take breath and change baggage in Pisa, on Saturday, we were off the plane from London and on the road to Belforte practically seamlessly. Sunday was a zero birthday for She-who-must-be-obeyed in Belforte, and a commemorative trip had been especially organised for a private viewing of a painted etruscan tomb at Sarteano, which was rediscovered only about five years ago. The weather, of course, was filthy, and on Saturday evening the cross-country route to Belforte took much longer than usual, as rain lashed down and the windscreen wipers struggled at times to keep pace. Although, I suppose the fury of the weather outside only increased the home-and-hearth sense of wellbeing, as we dined beside the blazing kitchen fire, on beautifully tender roast lamb, washed down with some hearty burgundy that wasn't quite also celebrating a zero birthday, but was still doing pretty well!

More rain on Sunday, as we made the journey across from Siena to join the Autostrada del sole (hollow laughter) and then down to Chiusi, from where it's just a short climb up to Sarteano. The hill towns in that area were shrouded in low cloud, and the rain had diminished to a steady constant drizzle by the time we'd finally arrived: dreech, I think the Scots call it.

To re-charge batteries before the cultural event of the afternoon, we lunched at the Trattoria di Merlo in Cetona, a pretty little town, but one which I can imagine in summer is absolutely heaving with tourists, and only to be recommended out of season. In the screen version, lunch would of course have been memorably wonderful - but in fact, it was rather disappointing. There was more enthusiasm than skill in the kitchen, and the menu largely comprised dishes that aimed at edgy creativity, but where in fact two plus two ended up being merely a rather unexciting four. Oh, well...

And the tomb. We were met in the middle of a damp and misty olive grove by one of the local archaeologists, who led us down a muddy path, and past the openings to numerous other tombs, en route to what is the only frescoed tomb in that particular necropolis. Through a locked door, and down a dripping sandstone tunnel, we were met by an astonishing sight: walls bright with the mineral colours of paint, exactly as they would have looked when they were painted nearly twenty-five hundred years ago. A large hipocamp, and an enormous three-headed serpent; diners at a banquet (presumably, the occupants of the alabaster sarcophagus in the main tomb chamber); and a dramatic image of Charon charging off to the underworld, in a chariot pulled by gryphons and lions, surrounded darkly by an enveloping black nimbus. Stunning! Completely wonderful!
Although visitors are normally whisked in and out for only a couple of minutes at a time, in order for their breath not to damage the fragile paintwork, we ended up staying for the best part of an hour - probably because of SWMBO's archaeological credentials - and drank in every last detail. And we emerged eventually to the same damp olive trees that must have been familiar to the builders of the tomb, all that time ago, leaves dripping heavily onto the grass beneath, and the leaden mist obscuring the lower slopes of the grove, further down the hill.

After an hour spent in the otherwise deserted museum, back up in Sarteano itself, we set off for Sorano, some distance to the south-west, where dinner and a hotel had been organised - although, in fact, we almost didn't make it. The heavens opened once more, and at Castel Giorgio we were turned back by flood waters, and sent off by the local carabinieri into the great unknown...more precisely, in the direction of San Lorenzo Nuovo, where the floods didn't have any carabinieri attached to them, and we suddenly found ourselves, in the middle of dark countryside, ploughing through water about a foot deep, and several hundred yards long. Much more of it, and we'd be there still!

As it was, we eventually - somehow - made it to Sorano, and trudged through narrow, steeply-sloping cobbled streets to the hotel (designed for high summer, we were the only guests, and the off-season chill was less than optimal) and thence to the Trattoria Aldobrandeschi for a very good dinner. Blazing fire, an excellent prosecco, a profusion of white truffles (with tagliatelle), meltingly-delicious guanciale, and a grappa from Friuli that was one of the best I've ever tasted.
We were the only diners, and in fact the town itself was pretty much shut up for the winter - the houses, these days, are largely second homes for Romans (Rome is only ninety minutes to the south), as well as lots of Dutch, and Swiss, and Danish (according to mine host). On the one hand, it saves the place from falling to pieces, but at the same time, renders it rather lifeless - I suppose there isn't a perfect answer.

Rain throughout the night, and then we woke to cloudless skies, and brilliant sunshine. Perfect to wander through the town, emerging occasionally from the labyrinthine streets to glorious views across the ravine beneath the town, looking across to the wooded slopes beyond, all rich in autumn colours. Warm enough for a last cappuccino, consumed as we sat outside the cafe in the main square...and then it was time to hit the road...

Tonight's dinner:

Fettucine, with Mussels & Funghi Porcini.

Spezzatino di Manzo.

Coffee Meringue Nests with Ice Cream and fresh Raspberries (the garden is still producing, quite generously)

Tuesday 23 November 2010

Recipe: Risotto with Red Mullet

When deconstructed, this is simply a risotto made with fish broth - but the broth that goes into the dish is so good that the end result is quite spectacular! Light, unctuous, and absolutely delicious. This particular recipe is normally associated with Livorno where the red mullet ( or 'triglia' as they're called round here) is dirt cheap, and mullet recipes are generally given the handle 'alla livornese'. I have seen it said that the mullet in this recipe could be substituted by any firm-fleshed white fish - I'm not so sure about that; triglie have a flavour which is particularly full, and give to the stock a richness which I suspect might be missing if cod, say, or bream were to be used instead.

Quick and straightforward, the entire dish takes about forty minutes in total (much of which is elapsed time, when other work can also be done): twenty minutes of which is to make the stock, and another twenty or so to produce the risotto.

For four.

Ingredients: 4 tbs Olive Oil; 1 Carrot, diced; 1 stick of Celery, diced; two or three Red Mullet Fillets, cut into 2 cm pieces; 1 Bay Leaf; 200g chopped tinned Tomato; 5 cups Water; 2 cloves Garlic, finely minced; 1 1/3 cups Carnaroli Rice; 1 wineglass of White Wine; Seasoning; Chopped Parsley (for garnish).


1. Heat 2 tbs of Oil in a saucepan, and gently sauté the Carrot and Celery, along with the fish pieces, for ten minutes. Stir occasionally, and keep the heat at medium.

2. Add the Bay leaf, Tomato, and Water. Bring to the boil, and then reduce to simmer, for a further ten minutes. Allow to cool slightly, then sieve into a clean pan, pressing the pieces against the sieve to extract as much of the flavour as possible. Put the sieved broth onto medium heat, to simmer.

3. In a large sauté pan, heat the remaining Oil, and gently colour the minced Garlic. Add Rice and stir to coat in the Oil and Garlic for a minute. Add the wine, maintain the heat such that the liquid barely simmers, and keep stirring until all the Wine has been absorbed by the Rice. Start adding broth, one ladle at a time - only add a new ladleful of broth once the previous one has been absorbed.

4. Keep adding broth either until it has all been used up or until the Rice is properly cooked. Depending on the quality of the Rice, this should take twenty minutes or so. If the broth is finished before the risotto is ready, add water instead, until the Rice is cooked.

5. Add seasoning, to taste (none has gone into the broth, so it will definitely be needed at this stage) ans serve, garnished with chopped fresh Parsley.

Saturday 20 November 2010

The rain, it rains...

On and on. Fairly typically for November in Tuscany, it has to be said, and the garden looks very happy for it. Lush and green and soaking. Fortunately not so sodden that I couldn't plant several hundred bulbs in the few rain-free interludes we've had in the past couple of weeks (a couple of hundred narcissus to line the grass walk under the pine trees, to the north of which I've planted two hundred mixed alliums, around the hydrangeas; and hundreds of dwarf irises under the silver birch and on either side of the causeway that leads to the romitorio.) I even managed to cut the grass (all of it - having realised from the forecast that it would be my last opportunity for weeks) on Wednesday, and it looks agreeably soft and well-behaved as a result.

And so, we're largely housebound, either watching the rain through the windows, or else listening to it thundering overhead in the watches of the night. The four-footeds have got over their frustration at the doors to the garden no longer being left open all the time, and in fact are developing a fondness for soft furnishing, which requires constant vigilance to prevent the senior four-footed from curling up on one or other of the new sofas (which he's prone to do at the first opportunity).

It's our first winter actually living in this house - last year, it was a building site right through until April - and it turns out to be agreeably warm and cosy. The Technical Dept is pondering a construction of glass screens to enclose part of the sitting-room terrace; you'd think it would be for our convenience, as a winter sun room...but, in fact, it's because he thinks the four-footeds would appreciate an indoor vantage point from which to monitor the entrance pergola (this is the man, after all, who considered raising the china cabinets on blocks, years ago, when the previous senior four-footed was a puppy, and was dismayed when he grew too much to be able to tunnel excitedly beneath the cabinets, which had been his favourite game when he was very small!).

I'm in the middle of Miles Unger's hagiographic biography of Lorenzo the Magnificent, in between bouts of painting skirting boards (where the brazilians managed to smear them with floor grout), and the Technical Dept is doing...I don't know, really....technical things.

It's all go!

Tonight's Dinner:

Crespelle, filled with ricotta and bietole, in a parmesan bechamel sauce

Pork loin, pot-roast in milk; roast celeriac. (The four-footeds are having sausages, as a special treat in honour of the senior four-footed's eleventh birthday)

Apple sorbet.

Sunday 14 November 2010

Recipe: Apricot & Cinnamon Cake

Adapted from a recipe of Linda Collister (I found her version a little dry, frankly, so I played around with the proportions of the ingredients until I had something I liked), this is an excellent - and quick - light fruit cake. So light, that it risks being consumed all at one sitting!

This cake definitely benefits from being left for several days or so after baking, to allow the richness of the fruit and the cake itself to blend together thoroughly.

To make an 8" diameter cake:

Ingredients: 130g Butter; 130g sugar (muscovado, if you can get it, which I can't in Italy, and so I just use demarara instead); 170g self-raising Flour (again, if you can get it; if you can't then use plain flour, and for each cup of flour, add one and a half teaspoons of baking powder, and half a teaspoon of salt); 1 tsp ground Cinnamon; 30g ground Almonds; 3 medium eggs; 220g ready-to-eat dried Apricots, chopped finely; a handful of slivered Almonds.


1. Use a hand-held beater to cream the Butter, then add to it the Sugar and keep beating, until light and fluffy.

2. In a separate bowl, combine the Flour with the Cinnamon and the ground Almonds.

3. Add the Eggs one at a time to the creamed Butter & Sugar, beating to incorporate after each Egg has been added, and including a spoonful of the Flour mixture along with the last Egg.

4. Fold in the rest of the Flour mixture, along with the diced Apricots.

5. Put the mixture into a prepared cake mould (greased, if using a cake tin, or the base lined with greaseproof paper, if using a silicone mould) and sprinkle the surface with the slivered Almonds.

6. Bake for an hour at 170 degrees C. Check for doneness by inserting a knife into the centre of the cake and seeing that it emerges completely clean - if not, then bake for a fewer minutes lnger and test again.

7. Allow to rest for five minutes, before you turn it out to cool completely. Keep in an airtight container box for three days before serving.

Saturday 13 November 2010

Restaurant Gauthier, in London...

...was included recently in the Wall Street Journal's list of the top ten places to eat in Europe. It's in Romilly Street in Soho, in the building which was Lindsay House for such a long time (somewhere I recall as falling significantly short of its PR positioning, frankly...the food was definitely 'OK', rather than anything special). Anyway....Gauthier. Technical Department and I were discussing the WSJ listing in the car the other evening, as we drove up to Brancoli, for dinner and to return their lawnmower which we'd borrowed when ours broke, back in August. TD, who had read the WSJ article ( I hadn't) was of the opinion that the Gauthier menu included far too much mackerel for his liking, and that the overall tone of the place seemed to be as a place of worship rather than somewhere just to go and have dinner. (We grew out of the food-as-a-form-of-worship thing many decades ago, and these days, great food should be good enough to cause a short pause in good conversation, but should then act merely as an adjunct to it, and not take over.)

So, it was with interest that we heard that the Brancolis had dined at Gauthier a couple of weeks ago, and had been served rather more protein than advertised in the menu. In the form of two dead beetles (one each....clearly, it was an equal opportunity slip-up) in the base of their wine glasses. They were working their way through the tasting menu, item four (or so) of which was some kind of venison, accompanied by a southern rhône. And a couple of beetles. Both very dead. The sommelier and waiters gathered round and gazed in silence at the offending corpses, leaking redly onto the tablecloth, before efficiently removing them, and then carrying on as though nothing had happened. To the extent that they made no mention of the incident even as they presented the eye-wateringly large bill at the end of the evening. The Brancolis were probably more stunned by the lack of reaction than they had been by the event itself. much so, that they were out in the street before they'd thought to raise the matter (although, equally, since it was a celebration dinner, neither was keen to cause a scene). No apology was forthcoming, no offer of recompense (money off? a bottle of something? an invitation to come back as guests on another occasion?....forget it!). Incredible.

The only explanation we could come up with for the bizarre lack of reaction was that the business model for a restaurant like Gauthier must be that dining there is expected to be a one-off event, and that they don't think their clientele will become regulars (and so they don't need to bother). Which is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy, if you think about it. I know of at least two diners who won't ever be going back! But then, I can also think of two others who won't now consider it even for the one-off, possibly the business model is flawed. Pause for thought, Monsieur Gauthier.

Tonight's Dinner

Ravioli, stuffed with bietole and ricotta.

Sautéed Chicken Breast, in a Rosemary & Lemon Sauce; Courgettes, with Thyme.

Bakewell and Black Plum Tarts.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Recipe: Pasta with Rosemary Sauce

This is one of the best last-minute dishes I've ever found. Perfect for those occasions when prep time has disappeared, and dinner needs to be conjured out of airy nothing in about ten minutes flat! Best of all with fresh pasta (I generally serve it with fettucine...which takes around ten minutes to roll out and cut, with about fifteen minutes elapsed time between the two processes), this sauce is still pretty good even with the stuff out of a box or packet.

The recipe comes from Marcella Hazan, and is to be found lurking amongst the also-ran pasta sauce recipes in Volume 2 of Classic Italian Cooking -I'd owned the book for years before I got round to trying it. Many recipe writers today (and I suspect Hazan herself would be amongst them, these days) would disdain powdered stock as an ingredient; in fact, it is quite brilliant here, and works wonderfully well with the astringence of the rosemary.

The sauce is so quick and simple, you need only start it at the same time as you put the pasta-cooking water onto heat (for fresh pasta) or after you've put boxed pasta into the pan, and you still have a few minutes before it's done.

For four.

Ingredients: 4 oz Butter; about 6 sprigs of Rosemary, each one 4" or so long; half a teaspoon of powdered chicken Stock, or half a stock cube, crumbled between your fingers.


1. Melt the Butter in a small pan, over low heat; the butter wants just to melt, and certainly not to colour or start to bubble.

2. Strip the Rosemary needles from their stems, and chop very finely. Add this to the melted Butter, along with the powdered Stock.

3. Stir everything together, until the powdered Stock has dissolved into the Butter. At this point, turn off the heat, and stir into the cooked pasta as soon as it has been drained. No further seasoning should be necessary, and parmesan shouldn't be served with this dish, as it would only fight with the delicious flavours already there.

Monday 8 November 2010

And then the sun came out...

It was a lousy week. Easyjet managed to smash the Della Robbia cast that we had optimistically given over to them to transport from London to Pisa (not 'broken', but well and truly 'smashed'...); the lawnmower broke down again, about an hour of use after it had last come back from the workshop; the car got a flat battery twice; the van bringing new sofas from Florence got within 200 yards of the house, and then encountered roadworks and simply turned round and took the sofas all the way back to Florence once more ; the TD's laptop died on him; and we had day after day of rain, which gave rise to significant canine cabin-fever...

And then...the sun came out. The garden looked glorious, rich in autumn colours, the citrus trees are groaning under a phenomenal crop of lemons and oranges, and we found it was still warm enough to lunch outdoors for three days in a row. I planted bulbs, and jasmines, and cleared all the weeds out from the azaleas around the water garden. We went to Lucca for the day - perfect sunshine and an intense blue sky - and admired the beautiful stained glass in the Duomo, before sitting outside Trattoria Gigi in Piazza del Carmine for a leisurely lunch of pasta and a carafe of house wine.

All things considered, life isn't bad!

Tonight's Dinner:

Funghi trifolati (the amantea man was selling enormous porcini the other day, and we loaded up with them)

Salsiccie, with Gratin Dauphinois

Chocolate Tart.

Monday 25 October 2010

Les, the Fish... the Farmers' Market in Bute Street on Saturday mornings is one of the highlights of any weekend in London. I'm not normally a great fan of Farmers Markets - they always seem like a good idea, but in London, at any rate, they tend to be over-priced, the range of things on offer is fairly limited, and although the quality ought to be wonderful, it isn't always noticeably better than the alternative. The attraction seems to be a specious back-to-nature urge that drives people away from the plastic-wrapped environment of the supermarkets, and towards things that still have earth clinging to them (which comes with a price tag, but frankly, not a lot else).

Les, however, is different - as you can tell right from the other end of Bute Street. It isn't a particularly busy market, and most stalls are lucky if they've got even a couple of people pondering their wares. Which is why the queue that always snakes away from Les's stall, reaching practically to the end of the street, is all the more noticeable.

He operates a mailing list, which goes out electronically every Friday evening, as soon as the catch is in and he knows what he'll have for sale on Saturday morning. And, presumably at some ungodly hour in the middle of night, he sets out from deepest Dorset and makes the journey all the way to SW7, in time to open, around nine-ish. His produce is wonderful! It couldn't be fresher - there's no argument to muck around with complicated cooking methods, since the flavour of the fish cooked simply is incomparable - and the prices are actually better than I can generally find in Pisa.

Pretty typically, we joined the queue on Saturday morning, and indulged. As a result, on Saturday evening, we had cockles, cooked á la marinière (but with a dash of pernod added to the cooking liquid - delicious!) followed by fillets of baked Sea Bass, coated in the velvet softness of a buerre blanc*. Last night's starter was a cold lobster each, with saffron mayonnaise, and this evening, we'll finish this week's Les-largesse with sole meunière and new potatoes. And that's it until we're back again next month...

If you want to get onto Les's mailing list, then he can be reached at

*For Buerre Blanc: 1 finely minced shallot, half tbs wine vinegar, 1 tbs lemon juice, 2 tbs vermouth, 1 tbs water - boil together to reduce to about 1 tbs liquid in total; strain into a simmertopf, or double boiler, then heat gently, gradually whisking into the liquid 3-4 oz chilled butter in half oz dice, until the consistency is appropriately thickened and velvety. Takes 7-10 minutes in total. Leave in the double boiler until needed, giving it one final whisk just before serving.

Tonight's Dinner:

Parsley crêpes, wrapped round asparagus spears, with hollandaise sauce.

Sole meunière, with new potatoes.

Steamed Orange pudding, with orange cream.

Wednesday 20 October 2010


We spent the morning at the Opificio della Pietre Dure in Firenze, with our noses (literally) pressed up against Giotto's Croce from the Church of the Ognissanti, which has just emerged from a painstakingly detailed nine-year restoration project. Available for viewing, by prior arrangement, for one week only before it will be hoisted back up into position, we took the opportunity to study it from the distance of about two centimetres (if we wished)...and did so for several hours. Stunning!

For more information and pictures, have a look at
or better

...they do say there's an english text coming soon to the Opificio site, but given the nine years it's taken them to work on the Giotto, I think we should take 'soon' as a pretty relative term.

The place itself is pretty amazing. Arranged rather nonchalently, a couple of yards away from the Giotto, was an enormous and very beautiful Fra Angelico Madonna (normally to be found in San Marco), which had also just been restored. Nearby were panels with life-sized figures of various attendant saints, as well as several of the pradella panels, which were arguably the most beautiful of all. Vibrant, delicate...and oh so eminently pocketable (if it weren't for the CCTV signs dotted around the place!) I wasn't convinced that these smaller panels were also Fra Angelico (much of the detail looked much more like Perugino), but there was nobody much to ask....and in any event, whoever had painted them, they were unquestionably very, very fine.

And then, inevitably, lunch. Somewhere called Trattoria La Biritullera, way up in the north of the city (not far from the Opificio) and well away from the tourist area - a bit like the Florentine equivalent of St.John's Wood. Heavily Sardinian-influenced, the food was excellent: gnudi verde in butter and sage, and a light tomato sauce, and then a spendid dish of squid, accompanied by fresh tuna, lightly-grilled inside a wafer-thin wrapping of aubergine. Two bottles to windward (the first had insufficient personality for the Belforte palate, and so a second, with more going for it, was requested) and we emerged into afternoon sunshine (after the lightest dessert of delicate pastry, filled with apples and fig jam).

Fortunately, the walk was largely downhill back towards the centre of town, and the cafés of Piazza Santa Maria Novella...where our previously-intended visit to the Bronzino exhibition at the Strozzi bit the dust. The combination of warm October sunshine, a decent espresso, and the opportunity to wander gently round SMN for half an hour or so was all too much, and the Bronzinos were consigned to another day. They're there and available until sometime in January, so there's no particular need to rush. Instead, the luxury of looking at a second Giotto Croce (how's that for a vertical tasting?) followed by heated discussion about the relative merits of the Ghirlandaio and Lippi frescos in the Tornabuoni and Strozzi chapels respectively (personally, I favour Ghirlandaio) took up the rest of the afternoon, before dozing gently through the return train journey back to Pisa.

Days don't get much better than that...

Tonight's Dinner:

Rabbit & Lemon Terrine.

Nodini di Vitello, in Sage & Wine Sauce; Celeriac roast in Duck fat.

Pears, baked in Marsala & Brown Sugar.

Thursday 14 October 2010

Recipe: Rabbit pot-roast with Parma Ham & Fresh Herbs

Apparently a piedmontese recipe, this is the most delicious method I have found for cooking rabbit. Bar none. It's one of those dishes where the first mouthful is followed by an appreciative silence around the table, as conversation falls away and people devote their full attention to the seductive flavours put before them. In the course of cooking, the ham dissolves to nothing inside the pot-roast rabbit, leaving just a rich and concentrated flavour, that mingles wonderfully with the finely-chopped fresh herbs, while the cooking juices in the pan provide a sauce which is gloriously unctuous.
The only thing to be wary of in this dish is the tendency for the sliced rabbit to fall apart when served, if the process of boning the rabbit has been a little haphazard. If your boning technique isn't first rate, or you're concerned that you won't get perfect slices, then the best thing to do is to let the rabbit cool down once cooked, and only slice it once it is almost cold, when the meat will hold together once more; the old catering trick is then to serve the cool slices on very hot plates, with a spoonful of very hot sauce over the top, both of which re-heat the meat pretty instantaneously.
I have to say, when I served this the other day, and I'd had only half a rabbit to work with, my finished slices fell to pieces pitifully, but the Technical Department said the flavour was so good that the presentation was entirely irrelevant!

For four.

Ingredients: 1 Rabbit, boned (if you can get this done professionally, then it is probably a good idea); 2 teaspoons each of fresh herbs: rosemary, sage, and thyme; 4 slices of Parma Ham (San Daniele is best of course, but any good parma ham will be fine); 3 carrots, peeled; 3 celery sticks; 2 oz Butter; 2 tbs Oil; 1 cup White Wine; 1 cup Chicken stock; Salt & Pepper.


1. Take one of the carrots and one of the sticks of celery and blanch them for a couple of minutes in boiling, salted water. Drain and refresh under cold water.

2. Lay the boned rabbit out flat, neck-end towards you, and season it with salt & pepper. Finely chop the herbs, and spread these evenly over the rabbit, and then cover completely with slices of Ham. Arrange the blanched carrot and celery along the end of the rabbit nearest to you, trimming and slicing as appropriate so that there is an even strip of both carrot and celery all the way along (the idea being that once the rabbit has been rolled and roast, when it is sliced, each slice will have at its centre a piece of cooked carrot and a piece of cooked celery). Roll the rabbit up, and tie tightly.

4. In a heavy casserole, melt the Butter with the Oil, and then brown the tied Rabbit on all sides.

5. Remove the Rabbit from the casserole, and sauté the remaining Carrot and Celery, cut into 1 cm dice, for five minutes or so until they start to colour. Return the Rabbit to the pan, season it generously, raise the heat and pour over the Wine over the Rabbit. Reduce the wine by about half, and then add the Stock. Once the liquid has returned to the boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the pan and leave to cook for an hour and a quarter.

Leave for about ten minutes before slicing, and serve with the vegetables and cooking juices from the casserole.

Postscript: Somebody has very helpfully sent me this fascinating link to a how-to video for de-boning rabbit. Positively mesmerising.

Tuesday 12 October 2010

Autumn Days

Glorious days of golden sunshine, still warm enough to sit on the terrace for morning coffee, and to work in shirt-sleeves in the garden...but definitely cold enough at night that all the doors and windows are closed after sundown, and the four-footeds find the floor tiles too cold for them to sleep on in comfort. Which has led to some confused incidents when both of them have decided to jump onto the bed in the middle of the night at the same time, and then become noisily territorial as they both tell the other one to eff off, at two in the morning. Now sorted, as the older one has his own bed to sleep on, and the younger one has nobody to fight with.

The Booker Prize is announced today. My vote goes clearly to Emma Donoghue for 'Room' - excellent writing. I was dismayed to see that the favourite is Tom McCarthy's 'C', which I confess I struggled to finish. Derivative, clumsy, self-consciously 'clever', inconsistent, and in places just silly...I found myself sighing from time to time as I pushed myself to plough on with the thing. I do hope it doesn't win, although this year's shortlist was so thin in general that I don't trust the judges' judgement at all - not least since they didn't include such gems as the offerings by Helen Dunmore and David Mitchell, both of which I would recommend highly.

This week's major discovery has been Baldo rice - I'd never heard of it before, but the Tecchnical Department came across it recently, and ordered a year's supply online. I think it comes from somewhere in the Po Valley and fortunately, given how much of it is now on the pantry shelves, is superb. Light, with loads of starch, and a character that means that the grains remain quite distinct even once cooked. I've now tried it twice, once in a risotto with limoncino leaves, and then again a couple of days ago in risotto with some chanterelles which we found at the amantea man's shop in San Francesco. Both times, delicious - the second time, even more so, as the risotto was made with a sofritto using fat from the partridges we were given in London a couple of weeks ago (and which the TD plucked and drew, before we put them in our luggage to bring back to Pisa), as well as stock from a spit-roast guinea fowl, which we had on the evening we got back.

Otherwise, a good apricot and cinnamon cake, decorated with crystallised limoncino leaves (yes, a theme emerges - but prompted mostly by my need to give the limoncino bush a haircut, rather than culinary necessity), and a fairly delicious walnut baklava, which I'd never tried to make during all the years actually living in Greece. Pretty delicious, and in fact indistinguishable from that made by the baker who's oven used to back onto the house we lived in back in the seventies.

I think it must be instinctive - as the evenings draw in, the home-and-hearth impulse kicks in, and baking comes to the fore!
Tonight's dinner:

Asparagus & Gruyère bundles in Parma Ham, roast and then served with a Balsamic dressing.

Roast rabbit, boned and stuffed with Celery; braised Broccoli stalks.

Plum Tarts.

Saturday 2 October 2010


Food through history, I find fascinating (which is probably why I found Rheay Tannahill's book on the subject so disappointing - the title promised so much and the prose delivered oh so little). What more effective time travel can there be than having the identical sensory responses as somebody who delighted centuries ago in a particularly delicious tyropita, or daube, or mortadella?

Often, though, much guesswork is involved in identifying 'ancient' foodstuffs, since something as prosaic as what one has for dinner has rarely made it into the pages of venerable chroniclers over the aeons. Apicius and Archestratus are the notable exceptions - except that even their works can be misleading, since no mention of anything like pasta appears anywhere in Apicius, even though something approximating to the stuff has been identified from images on much earlier etruscan tombs. Presumably, Apicius just didn't think it worth recording.
And so, in practice, it's often a matter of detective work on the basis of the ingredients used (honey, anchovies, cinammon, cloves, bitter orange...are all redolent of antique kitchens) and sometimes of the techniques involved.

Testaroli is one such dish. These are large flour-and-water pancakes, which are cut into diamond shapes, approximately 2" across, heated briefly in hot water and then served, normally with a basil pesto. Apparently, if cut small, testaroli are called panigacci...but I have no idea how small they have to be in order to merit the name change. They seem - these days anyway - only to come from a place called Lunigiana, which is about an hour's drive north of here. Occasionally, I find them for sale, wrapped in plastic, in the bakers in Via San Francesco - but for Testaroli afficionados, I'm told, the only real ones come from one specific supplier in Lunigiana, who makes them fresh every morning. Which is where Paola's mother got a supply, several weeks ago, and we waded through dishes of them for dinner later that same day.

It's definitely sticks-to-tiny-ribs stuff, and everything about testaroli suggests they were a very early forerunner to both pasta and gnocchi - much simpler to make than pasta, but probably the latter became more valued, once somebody had worked out how to make it, on the basis of having a greater shelf-life.

The locals here regard them as something of a delicacy - but, then, that may be a reaction to having been served pasta every day of their lives, and simply relishing a change. I find them a bit stodgy, and definitely lacking the unctuousness of a well-made fresh pasta. They might have been just the thing to set up an etruscan for a good day's toiling in the fields, but personally I find they sit quite heavy on the stomach. Good to remember as an alternative, if I want to make pasta, but realise at the last minute that I've run out of eggs...but not something that generally has more than curiosity value, if truth be told.

To make them - and they are worth trying - simply blend 600g of flour with half a litre of water, plus salt to taste. This produces quite a thick batter, which in turn produces quite thick pancakes - about a quarter inch thick, cooked for three or four minutes on each side in a heavy frying pan which has previously been thoroughly oiled. When made professionally, special pans are used, which produce testaroli about 18" in diameter, although I suspect this is merely traditional, rather than fundamentally relevant to the finished dish. Serve them with any 'coating' pasta sauce you feel like - although, if you're being a purist, then it should really be genovese pesto, and nothing else.

Tonight's dinner:

Fennel sformatino with gorgonzola sauce.

Quails, roast and served with a rich sauce, on a bed of walnut and potato purée.

Pear and frangipane tart.

Saturday 18 September 2010

John Eliot Gardiner's bottom... not a thing of great beauty. Possibly, it was in greater shape than it is now when he first started wearing his trademark bum-freezer Nehru jackets - probably in the early eighties, since that was when they were fashionable enough to be the uniform for the waiters in the Armani café in Knightsbridge. The years, however, have not been kind. And from the vantage point of row eight in the Duomo, last night, the sight of the Eliot Gardiner derrière presented expressively at podium height did not enhance the performance of the Monteverdi Choir.

Which was a thing of extraordinary beauty. The 1610 Monteverdi Vespers, performed impeccably. No - beyond impeccably. Probably one of the best performances I've ever heard of anything. Sigh-makingly good, in parts...and merely excellent in the in-between bits. Deservedly, the audience stood at the end to applaud, and applaud, and applaud. I clapped so long and so hard, my hands actually hurt as a result.

What a pleasure!

But, please - could somebody have a quiet word with Sir John, and persuade him that it's time he graduated to a tail-coat...and did us all a favour!

Tonight's Dinner:

Polpettone of Spinach & Tuna.

Testaroli, with Baccala & smothered Onions.

Nectarine Tarts.

Thursday 16 September 2010

Sara Mingardo...

...was wonderful, last night, as the contralto voice in Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, in the Duomo. Quite, quite stunning. Not only her voice - which was perfect - but also her presence; a Hermione-like stillness gave to her delivery a calm gravitas. Incomparable.

The first of this year's Anima Mundi programme, the Duomo was packed. As ever, for the first concert, the nave was a sea of fluttering programmes, as people fanned themselves against the heat - and I know that by the time we get to the last in the series, several weeks from now, it will be a question of sweaters and coats, and even then the likelihood of cold feet by the end of the evening.

Tonight's Dinner:

Ravioli with fish stuffing

Guinea Fowl in champagne sauce; swiss chard stalks, in butter & garlic.

Crepes, filled with lemon cream; walnut and honey sauce.

Friday 10 September 2010

Recipe: Braised Fennel

More of a technique than a specific recipe, this method of cooking fennel works just as well with celery, or swiss chard stalks or leeks...or, in fact, with any of the green vegetables that could be considered 'fibrous'.
I came across the recipe a couple of years ago, buried deep in the pages of one of Anna del Conte's works. I forget which one, and equally I forget now who she quoted as her source (as I'm sure she did, generally being extremely scrupulous about provenance). Vastly superior to simple sauté or baking, the end result from this method is silky and luxurious, with the vegetable meltingly soft, in a sauce which combines all the best elements of the cooking medium and of the vegetable juices mixed in.
It can also be cooked entirely in advance and gently reheated in a warm oven, under foil.

For four:

Ingredients: 2 medium Fennel bulbs, trimmed; 1 oz Butter; 1 tsp Salt; 2 cups Stock (Duck, Chicken, Veal...anything, really, as long as it has flavour).


1. Melt the Butter in a pan which has a lid and is large enough subsequently to hold the Fennel.

2. Cut each Fennel into 4 lengthwise and add them to the pan; turn the pieces so that they are covered in melted Butter. Sprinkle with Salt, and cover the pan; cook gently for about five minutes.

3. Add the Stock to the pan, raising the heat underneath so that the Stock starts to bubble, then lower the heat again to a low simmer.

4. Cook, partially covered for about half an hour, until the liquid has reduced to a couple of tablespoons or so of thick sauce. Adjust seasoning as necessary, and serve.

Saturday 4 September 2010

We've been denounced... the Commune! Although, since this isn't soviet Russia, the manifestation of authority wasn't snow-covered jack boots and a thunderous knocking on the door at four in the morning, but instead the arrival as we sat, drinking coffee on the terrace, of portly and avuncular Signor Martini, from the planning office, accompanied by his younger and only slightly less portly assistant. Whoever our denouncer was, they got off to a poor start, since we go back quite some way with Signor fact, he was even present on that memorable winter's afternoon in Architect Scarpellini's office, some years ago, when somebody closed the door rather too firmly, and the ceiling fell in. There's nothing like shared adversity to create bonds...

As soon as he recognised us, officialdom relaxed into jocularity, and even before he'd visited the scene of the supposed crime, there didn't seem much to worry about. It turns out that we'd been reported for 'building with cement' without a permit, and there was also some reference to our using 'rete', which is the italian name for the metal grids that form the inside of reinforced concrete. Except, in our case, the rete are being used as trellis for climbing roses, and the walls of the lily-pond (apparently the subject of the 'building with cement' complaint) are held together entirely by their own weight, without a slather of cement to be seen. A vague glance from several feet away was enough to satisfy Signor M, while the four-footeds clamoured for attention round his feet...and after fulsome exchanges of civilities, he went on his way, and that particular bit of bureaucratic nonsense headed for deep filing in the basement of Palazzo Gambacorti.

I couldn't help but wonder who'd been behind it, though, and who might even now have been watching from behind their curtains. There are only six possible culprits, which it was pretty easy to whittle down to two, and then (I think) to one. And whatever their motive, since the Commune won't be reporting back to them, they'll just be left wondering why nothing appears to have happened. This being Italy, of course, it won't occur to them that they'd just got it wrong, and instead will decide that we must have 'influence' at the Commune (which seems to be the italian explanation for everything; 99% of the time, I think it's complete nonsense). Useful, though, even if untrue, to be thought to have friends in high places...

Tonight's Dinner:

Tagliatelle Alfredo.

Pork, pot-roast in Milk; braised Celery.

Egg-white Chocolate Soufflé

Thursday 26 August 2010

A 'Zero' Birthday.


I don't generally take much notice of birthdays, but the change in decade seems to get people's pulses racing, and expectations all round are raised. Inevitably, the event was marked.

Fortunately, the barn was (practically) finished - albeit with an interesting pile of lumber offcuts, arranged tidily across one end; but at least lunch amidst scaffolding and cement mixers was avoided.
In fact, we started the celebration the evening before, as the Belforte group were staying for the night out at Locanda Sant'Agata - Anna and Luca's new restaurant-with-rooms out in the countryside on the way to the lower slopes of Monte Pisano - and we joined them there for dinner. Sunset over Gello, and splendid food (an absolutely excellent gnocchi with coniglio!), and, later, watching the evening mists rise as the heat of the day receded. The season is already changing, and soon that wonderful period will begin of soft autumn mists in the mornings, as the sun gathers strength and decides that perhaps summer isn't quite over, after all.

And the day itself. In the morning, the four-footeds gave me a beautiful air-twist stemmed georgian wine glass for my collection, which took pride of place in one of the display cabinets in the Pranzo - and then, it was sleeves rolled up, and on with lunch. Experience dictates that, on such occasions, unless 99% of cooking has been sorted out before the first guests arrive, and the first corks are popped, then the whole process risks descending into chaos. Fortunately, I just about made it, and by the time everybody was standing around in the kitchen emptying jugs of kir, and crunching fried sage leaves, all I had to do was stir things gently, whilst clutching a glass in the other hand.

The weather was beautiful; the day was perfect. The theme for lunch was 'champagne': champagne risotto, followed by guinea-fowl in champagne sauce, before champagne sorbet with fresh raspberries. And to drink, there was either Roederer or Piper Heidseick.

The Brancolis and Belfortes had plotted, and between them all I received a set of gardening tools worthy of Mr Macgregor himself, half of which were handmade in Tuscany, and the rest came from a venerable manufacturer in Holland. Mouth-wateringly splendid! And an additional gift from the Brancolis was a chinese fir tree, to go at the far end of the lily pond, with which I can christen my new tree-planting shovel.

Lunch over, we drifted through the rather short afternoon, until it was time for the Technical Department to produce tea, along with the cake he'd made (one candle only!) which was filled with limoncino-flavoured cream, and decorated with frosted limoncino leaves. A perfect end to the celebration, as the Brancolis then had to wend their way back up the hill in order to spend the evening strimming their vineyard...

During a post-prandial lull people sat, quietly chatting or reading, and I wandered round, watering roses, as the evening shadows lengthened, and the background sounds of clearing up were faintly discernible from the direction of the kitchen. The sun went down, many candles were lit in the barn and around the lily pond, as a beautiful full moon rose behind the romitorio; we finished the day with a late supper of smoked salmon and chilled pinot grigio, with the sound of the fountain gently splashing, and the moonlight shone through the pigeon-house tiling to make a cheese-grater pattern on the end wall of the barn. The four-footeds were stretched contentedly on the gravel, and all was well with the world.

Tonight's Dinner:

Tiger Prawns in Garlic.

Double-roast lamb shanks; buttered cabbage (we're in London for three days)

Peach and Redcurrant Tarts.