Sunday 23 December 2012


seems to have begun early, this year. By Friday morning, even shut away as we are from the World, a holiday calm had perceptibly descended on the town, and lots of shuttered windows on the Piazza suggest a general exodus has already happened...with a lot of people probably not planning to return until ebufana, after Twelfth Night. This fortnight is always a wonderfully ramshackle period in Pisa, with some shops and restaurants open on some days, but not reliably so, and even those which are open seem to be in mellow, party only being a side issue, somehow.

The sun came out. Which was welcome after the generally damp and dismal December we've had up until now. Slightly soggily, I finally managed to plant all of the arabis caucasica - which means that that part of the garden has been transformed from primal nature reserve into something which now resembles an unruly

allotment; the idea is that by June it will be a dense carpet of small white flowers - and I've also put in ficus repens against about half of the posts on the new pergola. Which is finished! (Well, all apart from half a dozen posts, which Technical Dept says he'll have to move, as GianCarlo ruefully admits he made a pig's ear of his measurements on that section, and TD thinks the thing might collapse under the weight of the grape harvest, come September.)

For the most part, though, it looks splendid, and I'm itching to get on with planting a whole new batch of climbing roses and clematis which are due to arrive in January.

As well, of course, as moving all of the plants which are now in entirely the wrong place, as - when I planted them when we first started this garden, three years ago, now - I had to guess more or less where the pergola posts were going to be be, and sightlines and geometry have revealed that I didn't always get it right. I have one complete bed of roses which is going to have to move in its entirety three feet to the west of its current position, and next spring is going to see a magnificant display of tulips right where a path is intended to go, under the South Pergola. Oh well:

We had a splendid dinner with the Brancolis on Monday, at a new place they've found in Lucca, in Via del Moro. Excellent wine, good food, an over-garrulous patron , and a bill at the end of it which was so low that there's no way the business can survive at that rate! We plan to go again, soon, while it's still there and we can.

And we've managed a couple of evenings round the fire in the barn, with the requisite mulled wine, mince pies, sausage rolls (made with Luganega Sausage, which is spicy and delicious, and perfect for the task), and chestnuts roast on the glowing embers. The locals probably think we're completely nuts, to be sitting outside in late December, wrapped in coats and scarves (them, not us....we're much more British and hardy about it all...perhaps going as far as a sweater and a pair of socks) as we hug the fire and glug gluwein. But then, as a celebration of cultural diversity, there are definitely less self-indulgent ways of doing it!

Tonight's Dinner:

Fish Ravioli

Scaloppine in Orange & Rum Sauce; pommes allumettes

Pineapple Sorbet

Saturday 8 December 2012

Sea Bream with Star Anise

Delicious, easy, quick, and practical (in that, the whole dish can be prepared in advance and then put to one side, ready to go into the oven half an hour before you plan to serve). This is a slight re-working of a Robuchon recipe, where once again, tomato is combined with red pepper, to the benefit of both ingredients - Technical Dept has a bit of a down on both, on the basis that he finds both tomato and capsicum rather 'one-note-ish', and that individually their flavours tend to dominate any dish of which they are part; combined in this way, though, the end result is subtly complex, and somehow both the pepper and the tomato manage to play to each other's strengths. 

Don't be tempted to replace the whole crushed star anise with powdered anise instead - I've tried it, and it doesn't work!

For two.

Ingredients: 2 medium-small sea bream, gutted; olive oil, seasoning; 1 oz butter; half a medium onion; 1 large garlic clove, diced finely or crushed; 2 beef tomatoes, peeled; half a medium red pepper; one and half teaspoons dried thyme; i whole star anise.


1.  Place the fish in an oiled ovenproof dish. Crush the star anise roughly with a heavy rolling pin (or similar), so you have maybe a dozen pieces; divide these between the cavities of the two fish, along with half a teaspoon of dried thyme (again, divided equally between the two fish). Add a generous pinch of salt and a couple of grindings of pepper to the inside of each fish.

2. Melt the butter in a small saucepan, and gently sauté the finely diced onion for three or four minutes, until it has softened but not coloured. Cut the tomatoes into quarters, more easily to remove and discard the central 'root', and then cut each quarter into about twelve pieces. Add the tomato to the pan, along with the finely diced pepper, the remaining thyme, and the garlic clove. Simmer over a medium heat for about fifteen minutes, until the tomatoes have completely collapsed, and the mixture is quite thick. Add salt as desired (I normally find a scant teaspoon is sufficient).

3. Pour a tablespoon of oil over each fish, and then add the tomato-pepper mixture, effectively to cover the fish. Bake for 25 minutes in an oven pre-heated to 250 degrees C, and serve immediately on heated plates

I don't normally bother with an additional vegetable, as the tomato-pepper mixture is substantial enough to take the place of a vegetable. If you wanted something else, though, then some crisp Pommes Maxims would work well, and not fight with the provencal flavours of the fish and herbs.

Saturday 1 December 2012

Even in the rain...

Genoa is magical. At this time of year, magically empty of foreigners, as well...And the resident groups either of local students or of Senegalese selling umbrellas could have been photo-shopped in from any street scene in Pisa! We had the Villa Doria entirely to ourselves at the end of Tuesday afternoon, as dusk deepened outside, and lamplight gleamed indoors on the rich colours of  renaissance tapestries, with shadows playing up into the recesses of carved and coffered ceilings.  From the shelter of the loggia, we watched the rain lash the black and white tiles of the terrace beyond...

The  Centro Storico  is thronged with centuries of other people's memories, from the Knights Hospitallers in their commanderie which, eight hundred years ago, faced onto the bustle of Genoa's medieval port (but which, unfortunately, these days, abuts instead the elevated highway which blights every part of the Genovese seafront) to the  fantasy palaces of the seventeenth century nobility, to the stolidity of the nineteenth century bourgoisie. To walk through the Old Town is to glimpse, through open doorways to left and right, the sort of architectural cappriccios which improbably adorn the ceilings of baroque churches the length and breadth of Europe....a noble staircase, sweeping up to a balustraded gallery, with, beyond that , a glimpsed pillared courtyard...often with a fountain or some orange trees, and then beyond again, a screen of columns, and another staircase  rising again to some further, unseen, terrace above....and the sky distantly visible through and above this towering confection of fluting and balustrades and  noble elegance. From high above, lofty vaulted porticoes look down, their aristocratic occupants having wandered off only five minutes before...

Over two days, we ploughed steadfastly, umbrella-wielding, down twisting medieval alleys, from one twelth century church to the next, dripping generously wherever we arrived, and never quite staying long enough in one place to dry out properly before we were out in the rain once more. We dripped over the floors of San Matteo, the original Doria family church, and of the Cathedral of San Lorenzo (and even had the the opportunity to drip quite separately over the floors of the cloister and the museum of SL, since it involved a walk of several hundred metres from the main church) and finally, over the floors of Santa Maria di Castello....which threatened to be a bit of a disappointment, until one discovered the sacristy, and beyond that, some steps up to one cloister (with a rainswept view, right down to the harbour), and then more steps up to a second one, planted with orange trees, and then yet more steps winding up through the monastery complex behind the main part of the church.

And we didn't so much drip over the floors of the Palazzo Rosso and the Palazzo Bianco as 'puddle' (if there is such a verb)  as we sought sanctuary from the thunderous deluge that threatened to turn  Via Garibaldi into a river, with us wading ankle-deep through the middle of it. An afternoon of pictures, with the prized possessions of the City Fathers on display over the two upper floors of each of these Palazzi, and a dash (through the rain) across the back garden of the Palazzo Bianco and the back garden of the Palazzo Tursi, to see yet more of the City Fathers' prized canvases, not to mention their prized collection of ligurian blue and white apothecary jars, and all topped off by a room (the wonderfully named Sala Paganiniana) devoted predominantly to Paganini's two favourite violins. Some of the pictures were good. A lot were not. A
Pisanello portrait of a muscovite gentleman, I would happily have pocketed, and there were some rather unexpected Van Dyck's, as well as a Filippino Lippi, which has pride of place in Palazzo Bianco (not my choice for pocketing, though - I've never liked Lippi junior, and this one forcefully reminded me of his frescoes in the Strozzi chapel at Santa Maria Novella,  which I loathe). Other than that, there's an awful lot of ho-hum and 'school of...'.

They have a system, in these galleries, whereby, rather than have a guard posted in each room, there are a number of them, mostly women in black,  who 'float', and who meander from room to room in an apparently aimless fashion in the wake of visitors to the place, just in case anybody, unobserved,  might feel like pocketing anything on their way through (the Pisanello muscovite gentleman being a case in point). In general, the system probably works reasonably well....except, on this occasion, when it was time to leave the Palazzo Rosso and go over the road to Palazzo Bianco, there was no sign of the Technical Department, who had last been seen on the second floor, peering at a Cuyp portrait of rabbits. Rounding up TD when it's 'time to leave' is one of those things one gets used to in life...generally, I find myself scouring the aisles of B&Q or Esselenga, getting increasingly irritated and 'scouring' at increasing pace as he is nowhere to be seen. And so it was on the second floor of Palazzo Rosso, as I went round, several times, from the Van Dycks, to the portraits of the doges, past a whole lot of rather iffy dutch skating pictures, through the blue bedroom, and the striped bedroom, and back again, and round again, and re-tracd my steps (all without success, and all at an increasing rate of knots) ...all before I realised I had a whole train of middle aged 'women-in-black' all trying to trail me at a discreet meander, and all of them desperately out-of-puff and in various states of distress as a result. I smiled vaguely at them, gave up my search, and made my way to the ground floor, where the TD was to be found after all,  standing in wait beside the umbrella stand. Dripping.

We dripped our way also into a good number of bars, for reviving cups of coffee and glasses of something nourishing, along the way...a starkly modern place in the bowels of the Palazzo Reale in Via Balbi, for a very good ligurian white; somewhere basic (very friendly, but with signs on the wall announcing that, after ten in the evening,  drinks would be only be served in plastic glasses....which said much about the clientele) in the backstreets of Castello; opposite the Duomo, a smart cafe, with impressively polished intonaco veneziano; a bar up near the station which got the prize for the most unspeakably awful bar-artwork anywhere, ever...but the coffee was pretty good; and, best of all, Baribaldi, just opposite the Palazzo Bianco, where we quaffed prosecco and feasted much more than was sensible on pastries and sandwiches that continuously appeared as if from nowhere, and could probably quite happily have dug ourselves in for the entire evening, had we not had to be somewhere else.

And the 'somewhere elses' in Genoa are pretty good, too. You go for the fish....and you do not go in vain! The menu is almost the same everywhere: stoccafisso, cooked in various ways; and trofie di pesto (with potatoes and beans); and pansotti, with salsa di noci; and antipasto of mussels (deep-fried, or steamed, or in sauce), and of raw tuna, and  of octopus, and of anchovies in vinegar...and deep-fried fishy flavour bombs, and if you're lucky (we were) capon magro alla gelantina. I believe all of the restaurants had dessert menus as well, but we never actually managed to get that far...the rest of what was on offer was far too good to turn down, along the way. The best restaurants of all were Trattoria Vegia Zena, in Vico del Serriglio (never, anywhere, ever, have I tasted better mussels...) and the Antica Osteria Vico Palla, just at the end of the old harbour. It would have been worth the entire trip just to have eaten in one or other of those two places. Spectacularly good!

A final jog-trot through the Palazzo Reale,  and then we were back on the train, heading for Tuscany and home. And as we did so, the sun came out.

Tonight's Dinner:

French Onion Soup (I have guinea-fowl stock to be used up)

Lamb Cutlets, fried in a parmesan crust; Gratin Dauphinois

Coffee Soufflé

Sunday 25 November 2012

It's that time of year...

Heavy-duty gardening. Non-gardeners (Paolo, for instance, who looked surprised, the other week, when I moaned about the current gardening workload, and asked what on earth there could be to do in a garden at this time of year) seem to think that outside summer months the garden is just left dormant, effectively in mothballs until the first green shoots of spring. Gardeners, on the other hand, know all too well that it's at this time of year that all the heavy-duty stuff needs to get done: planting, and transplanting, and pruning, and building, and any structural changes that have suggested themselves as a possible good idea in the course of the warm months of the year. And so it has been. Bulb-planting: alliums, and narcissi, and tulips....about five hundred of the things, in total. Extending the flowerbeds, under the citrus trees, in order to divide and re-plant what turned out to be around sixty agapanthus, and along the west side of the new pergola, equally to plant newly-divided hemerocallis, dieries bicolore, and ornithogalums, and to make a new bed for a disparate bunch of hitherto slightly 'beached' roses from elsewhere around the garden. New hydrangeas (various quercifolias, paniculatas, and a macrophylla variegata), to go behind the church, and to line some of the paths under the pine trees. Groundcover planting (mazus reptans, veronica spicata, and isotoma fluviatilis...about fifty of each) to fill in the area by the entrance walkway, around the camellias and beneath the white lilacs.  And, the new pergola...
Finally, the new pergola is being erected around three sides of the north lawn....and, in theory, also to extend along the east and south sides of the south lawn...although I'm currently so happy that any of it is happening, that it feels like asking for too much actually to get the whole thing completed in one go!
Giancarlo and his sidekick (who's name I don't actually know) fall through the gate each weekday morning at around 10.00, and then spend the day bumbling around, trampling things underfoot, and breaking things (ladders, generally), and using angle grinders and welding kit (which make a lot of noise and sparks, and presumably serve some useful purpose) and slowly, section by section, the pergola takes shape around the garden. The TD regards them with a sceptical air, thinking that it's best to leave them to get on with it undisturbed, but opines that it's like being invaded by a combination of the keystone cops and those two opinionated old buffers from The Muppets.
Of course, like all such things, it's a matter of pulling on a thread. Now that we can start to see what the garden will look like with its pergola-cloister, I'm starting to think of replacing all of the outer part of the north lawn, between the fruit trees and the borders, with summer-flowering groundcover...a rough calculation suggests that around a thousand plants should suffice.  But that's a job for next autumn...the dance-card is already full for this year!

Tonight's Dinner:

Terrine of Quail and Apricot.

Fried Pork Chops, stuffed with cheese and prosciutto; sauté of onions and courgettes

Earl-Grey infused Creme Brulee

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Potatoes and Porcini

A fantastic combination. The potatoes soak up the wonderful flavour of the mushrooms, like blotting paper, and somehow end up tasting even better than the porcini did in the first place. It's a versatile dish - I made it several weeks ago first of all to serve with roast haunch of pork, and the leftovers were re-heated a couple of days later, to be served with sautéed rabbit, and (arguably best of all) the final spoonfuls were eaten cold a couple of days later from a plastic box in the fridge. As a summer cold-potato-salad, made a couple of days in advance and left to go cold, this would be positively ambrosial.

Properly speaking, the recipe calls for fresh porcini, which are not only not always available, and even if they are, you risk wandering into second-mortgage territory with the cost of the things (at about three euros per the amount needed for one serving). Hence the advisability of using reconstituted dried porcini instead. As follows:

 For two servings.

Ingredients: Two medium-large Potatoes; four or five good-sized pieces of dried Porcini; 2 oz Butter; 1 clove Garlic; half a small Onion; a glass of white wine; seasoning.


1. In a small bowl, cover the dried Porcini with boiling water and allow to sit for 30 minutes, to soften; then filter the liquid through a paper-lined sieve (reserve the soaking liquid) and rinse the softened mushroom pieces before chopping them finely.

2. Peel the Potatoes and cut into dice of about half an inch. Par-boil them for three minutes in boiling salted water, then drain.

3. Melt the butter in a pan which has a lid. Saute the garlic (pressed) and onion (chopped fine) for a couple of minutes, until softened, then add the chopped porcini, and saute for another minute, stirring. Add the wine and the reserved mushroom liquid, and raise the heat just enough to bring the liquid to a boil.

4. As soon as the liquid boils, turn the heat down to medium, and add the par-boiled Potatoes. Stir together, then cover and allow to cook gently together for about ten minutes, until the Potatoes are cooked (and are even starting to fall apart slightly - thay way they absorb even more of the mushroom flavour). Taste and add seasoning as required.

This dish is best made completely in advance, and then reheated (covered and in a medium oven, for about ten minutes) just before serving; the more time the flavours have to blend, the better the end result.

Sunday 28 October 2012

This week...

Shelling almonds from the trees in the garden. It's a much messier and more complicated business than you'd think - at least the way I do it, it is - and involves a lot of banging, and bits of shell flying to all corners of the kitchen in the process. Possibly I'm doing something wrong, since other people write as though it's akin to shelling peas, and something you do as you sit in the autumn sun, sharing a sociable glass of something with a neighbour as you shell nuts and generally pass the time of day. I believe people write untruths in many instances, however...and certainly, any neighbour foolish enough to be anywhere near me as I perform brutal acts on innocent almonds would need ear-plugs and protective clothing, at the very least.

Late roses, flowering prettily. This one is Anna Livia, but we also have blooms on Alec's Red (wonderful scent!), English Miss (possibly the prettiest of all the roses in the garden), Margaret Merrill, Evelyn Fison, Iceberg, and Queen Elizabeth. With luck, and judicious dead-heading, we ought to have some flower on some roses right through until Christmas.
Parthenocissus, puttting on its glorious autumn colour, and draped in garlands over the biggest of the Cypress trees, and above the terrace..

Fruit on the orange trees growing at an alarming rate, and in a quantity that makes me wonder what on earth we'll do with it all, short of providing jars of marmalade to the whole of Tuscany...
 Getting stuck in with the task of widening existing beds and digging new ones, all as part of the new pergola all looks a mess right now, but will repay the effort by next spring...( it had better!)

And, since Friday evening, endless torrential rain. With the result being a four-footed with cabin-fever, and a lot of cooking having been done ....cakes, pastry, soup, plombieres...cold weather food.

Tonight's Dinner: a porcini feast with the Pauli. Doubtless, after drinks in front of a blazing fire.

Friday 5 October 2012


On Tuesday, we went to the Pauli for a last-of-the-year-outdoor dinner on their terrace. Although the days are sunny and still quite hot, evenings are distinctly chilly, and although we can probably manage to eat in the courtyard at Santa Caterina for a couple of weeks longer, the Pauli's terrace is on the third floor, with admittedly panoramic views, but it catches the evening air. The four-footed came with us, as we realised that he has never actually been alone in his entire life, and it seemed a doubtful moment to try leaving him on his own for the evening. As it was, he behaved impeccably, and, having politely accepted the champagne cork to chew at the start of proceedings, he curled up quietly under the table and kept my feet warm throughout.

It was a mozzarella dinner...which meant that we ate mozzarella. And almost exclusively mozzarella. A grateful ex-patient from Calabria regularly sends them a case of beautiful, soft, creamy mozzarellas (maybe half a dozen at a time), which have to be consumed practically on arrival, before they lose that wonderful texture and flavour. And as a side dish, we were served slices of Gattò, which is a traditional neapolitan dish (presumably a bastardisation of 'gateau') and comes from the french influence in Naples in the eighteenth century.  Not to be confused with Gatto (without the accent), which would be a four-footed feline.

The secret to a good Gattò is the spiciness of the cheese and meat which are stirred into the mixture - best of all would be Nduja, which is an extremely spicy calabrian sausage, but which is almost impossible to find outside southern Italy; chorizo is a good substitute.

Normally, Gattò is made as one large thing, but made in individual ramekins and unmoulded, it presents well as an individual starter.

Four four.

Ingredients: 30g Butter (plus some extra, to butter the ramekins); half a cup of dry Breadcrumbs; 3 medium-large Potatoes; half a cup of Milk; seasoning;  1 Egg; half a cup of grated Parmesan; generous pinch of Nutmeg; 50g Chorizo; 50g Gruyère; 100g Gorgonzola piccante.


1. Butter the insides of four ramekins. In order to help with final unmoulding, I then usually put a double strip of foil, folded to about a centimetre width, across the base and sides of the ramekin, with the edges hanging over the sides of the ramekin; butter the ramekin again once the foil is in place, to ensure the foil strip is also buttered. Once this has been done, then line the ramekins with the dry Breadcrumbs.

2. Cook the Potatoes in boiling salted water until done - approx ten minutes - and then pass them through a potato ricer (no need to peel them beforehand, if using a ricer; if mashing them by hand, then you will have to have peeled them first). Return the mashed potatoes to the pan, add Milk, Butter and Egg, and stir constantly over medium heat as these ingredients are amalgamated thoroughly into the potato. Check seasoning and adjust as necessary.

3. Dice finely the Chorizo and Gruyère, and stir these into the Potato purée, along with the Nutmeg and grated Parmesan.

4. Fill the bottom half of each ramekin with this mixture, then cut the Gorgonzola  into large dice, and distribute these between the ramekins, making sure that the Gorgonzola sits in the centre of the ramekin, and doesn't extend to the sides - you want to end up with Gorgonzola entirely enclosed in Potato mixture, so that the cheese doesn't leach out as it melts.

5. Fill the ramekins to the top with the remaining Potato mixture, then bake in a 200 degree C oven for about  fifteen minutes, until the tops are browned and you judge the ramekins are heated through.

Unmould to serve.

Saturday 29 September 2012


This morning, we said a last goodbye to the Senior Four-footed. After two weeks' respite, his cortizone pills stopped working properly on Thursday, and by yesterday his lymph nodes were so swollen that he was having trouble swallowing food and his breathing was noisy and rasping. We'd always known that he would indicate when it was time to go, and he the afternoon, he sloped off into the garden to find somewhere quiet and private where he could lie, in amongst the bamboo, and be on his own. Clearly, it was time. And so we called the vet, who came to the house this morning and put him to sleep. He'd had a good, long life...he didn't suffer...he was ready to was as good a leaving as one could have hoped for...but it hurts horribly, all the same, and we're both feeling slightly stunned.

Scuffle has been part of everything, for so long. It seems like three lifetimes ago that he first arrived. At that time, we hadn't yet packed up and moved on from Greece...I still had not one but two globetrotting work existences ahead of me...Pisa wasn't even a glimmer on the horizon in anybody's future planning...and Scuffle has been there as part of the landscape during all those life-changes. Either there directly, or there to come home to...lovable, soft, cuddly, caring, concerned (when appropriate), generous, insistent, opinionated ...and present.

Early on, he perfected his 'I want' stance, when he would present himself, chin planted firmly on the knee of whoever, in order to gain attention, and then fix them with an intense and meaningful gaze which said, beyond any doubt, 'I want...' More often than not, 'I want' was a request for the inside of his ears to be scratched - either that, or the intense pleasure of the ear scratch that he generally got drove everything else from his thoughts - or, if it was close to five p.m, then 'I want ' was a reminder that it was four-footeds' dinner time. Bosun rather relied on Scuffle's inner clock, in that regard, and on occasion Bosun could be seen fixing Scuffle with a beady eye that strongly suggested it was time Scuffle did his 'I want' thing and got the show on the road. Not always so trivial though, and one of his more anguished 'I wants' was in the period after Bosun had suddenly died, and Scuffle grieved, and didn't understand why his mate was no longer around - one evening, as we sat at dinner, he came and did an 'I want' to the Technical Dept (his boss)...and it was perfectly clear that he was saying 'I want you to make everything right again'. There was no way we could explain to him that we were at least trying to...but when, about a  month afterwards, the new puppy arrived  Scuffle was delirious with excitement  ("Oh...My...God! I have always wanted one of these!" was the approximate translation of his thumping tail and excited eyes, as he nuzzled and investigated the wriggling and slightly confused new arrival)... and then, a day or so later, there was a new, slightly worried,  'I want' , again addressed to his boss, and this time it was 'I want confirmation that I'm still the Most Important Dog'. Which of course, he got. Because, of course, he was (we just kept it quiet from the junior four-footed, who anyway had his own opinion on the matter).

Memories of Scuffle: falling in the swimming pool in Florida, within two minutes of arriving there as a small puppy, and thereafter giving the swimming-pool-demons a careful and very-wide berth; ram-raiding picnics in Kensington Gardens on summer evenings (he and Bosun worked a very effective pincer-movement...and by the time I realised what they were doing, it was generally too late for anything other than discretion to be the better part of valour, and so I pretended they were nothing to do with me - there's no point in trying to argue with a dog's primal instinct in relation to cold roast chicken, laid out invitingly at ground-level); early morning romps amongst the bedclothes, after four-footeds had had their morning milk, and the two-footeds were indulging in morning tea, and the Today programme; being expelled (along with Bosun - it was an equal-opportunity disgrace event) from dog-walking group in Battersea for being generally badly-behaved; falling in the Arno, one wet and muddy January afternoon, and his boss - wearing white trousers I recall - having to haul him out, before we all trudged soggily and silently home; rolling ecstatically over and over in the scent of the freshly-mown lawn; insisting on saying 'Buongiorno' to every dog and every person he encountered in the Piazza in the course of his morning constitutional; trying to steal the junior four-footed's dinner, on a daily basis, without anybody noticing; glancing up with one of those and-perhaps-some-for-me? looks, every time he noticed cheese being taken out of the fridge;  and the memory that was especially and exclusively his...those times when he saw the 'come here' sign that he'd learned at puppy training classes all those years ago...hands clasped together over one's head, which he could recognise from 150 yards away, and always had him racing delightedly forwards, tail wagging, ears flapping, eyes gleaming, because he knew that was his own, personal call-sign, and that you wanted him, especially and exclusively. In some ways, it encapsulated all of the answers to all of the 'I wants' there ever had been or ever could be.

20.xi.1999 - 29.ix.2012

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Gnocchi alla Romana

I've been reading Michael Ruhlman's book on 'Ratios' as the basis for understanding the relationships which underpin a whole range of cooking techniques - essentially, the ratios between flour, liquid and fat which every cook needs to remember in order to produce batters, pastries, biscuits, bread, etc. The subject is valid, as anybody will know who has enough experience in the kitchen to have moved beyond the oh-god-which page-was-it-again stage of going back to consult the recipe every three minutes. In fact, though, what the book should really be called IMHO is 'Mnemonics' rather than 'Ratios', firstly, because that's really what the author is talking about, and secondly...well, because his preferred ratios don't agree with mine. His ratio for bread, for instance is five parts flour to three parts liquid, whilst mine is three parts flour to two parts liquid (and to be fair to the man, I did try his method, and then did mine as a direct comparison....and mine was better); his ratio for pastry is three parts flour to two parts fat to 1 part water....where mine is five parts flour to four parts fat, and as little water as you can get away with. I suppose what all this is really saying is that there isn't a one-size-fits-all answer, and that every cook, through trial and error, will find for themselves the techniques (and ingredients) which work best for them, and if you can then make out of your preferred approach some handy numerical mnemonic, then all the better (Ruhlman quotes as a ratio of flour to fat to liquid for making biscuits 'the area code for dialling Chicago'...which is apparently 312; not a particularly useful reference, though, if you live in Chipping Camden, Limoges, or Ulan Bator...)

Having said all of which, Mr Ruhlman does include in his book a recipe for Gnocchi alla Romana, which is entirely reliable, and completely delicious, and which I've reproduced below. I'm not entirely sure what ratio he had in mind when he included this particular recipe, but it has lots of '2's and '4's in it must be some kind of binary system he has in mind.  The gnocchi can be served with any sauce you like (pretty much any sauce you would serve with pasta will work) , but I think it goes particularly well with this sauce of fresh tomato, garlic and basil.

For two starter servings.

Ingredients: 2 cups Milk; 2 oz Butter (plus another oz for the sauce); 2 teaspoons Salt; 4 oz Semolina (aka Semola, in Italy); half a dozen grinds of pepper; quarter teaspoon of Nutmeg; half a cup of grated Parmesan (plus some extra, for topping the gnocchi); 2 Egg Yolks; 2 large Tomatoes; 1 clove Garlic; half a dozen large Basil leaves.


1. Put the Milk, Butter, and Salt in a saucepan and place over medium heat until the Butter has completely melted.

2. Add the Semolina to the pan, and, still over medium heat, stir it vigorously until the Semolina has absorbed all of the liquid and can be seen to come cleanly away from the side of the pan as you stir. (For anybody familiar with making Choux Pastry, this process will be immediately recognisable). 

3. Off the heat, beat in the Pepper and Nutmeg, and then the Parmesan and the Egg yolks, one by one.

4. Once the mixture is cool enough to handle, spread it in a layer about a third of an inch thick on a greased baking tray, or on a silpat or silicone mat placed on top of a baking tray. Refrigerate until twenty minutes or so before serving.

5. Heat the oven to 220 degrees C, fifteen minutes before dinner.

6. In a small pan, melt the extra oz of Butter, and lightly sauté the minced Garlic; chop  the tomatoes, and add these to the pan. Cook over medium heat for ten minutes or so,  until the tomatoes have collapsed into their cooking liquid.

7. Using a pastry cutter approx one and a half inches in diameter, cut out the gnocchi from the layer of cooked Semolina, and place these back on the baking tray; sprinkle grated Parmesan over the top, and place in the pre-heated oven for the five minutes or so it takes to heat them through.

8. Add Salt as desired to the Tomato sauce, along with the Basil, finely chopped. Serve in pasta bowls, with half of the sauce underneath the gnocchi, and the remainder on top.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

Senior Four-Footed: Bulletin

Having been on a heavy regime of pain killers for the past week, the Senior FF has now stopped taking those, and has started taking cortizone, instead. It makes him a lot more alert, and the tail-wag test of how well he's feeling is registering pretty high at the moment - the swellings under his chin even seem to have gone down somewhat, which I think makes him feel better. Walking is getting more difficult, though, and this morning's trip to the piazza will probably have to have been his last; the back legs gave out under him a couple of times, and we had to sit and let them recover for a time before he then decided he could get up and carry on home - where, on arrival, he enthusiastically wolfed down his usual breakfast of biscuit, milk and denta styx, before presenting himself for an ear scratch.
We're talking 'last days' though...and so it's good that the weather is mild and warm, and just as he likes it. Perfect for lying on the gravel between the house and the barn, and generally contemplating the World.

Sunday 2 September 2012

Fig & Raspberry Tart

Opportunistic eating. The figs are now just ripening (which I don't entirely understand, as they were harvesting them already several weeks ago up in Belforte, and we must surely be warmer down here in the plain, and therefore you'd think we'd be ahead in terms of fruit-ripening... ), and the raspberry canes continue to crop generously. Dessert planning is done on an adhoc basis at this time of year, and tends to be a process of deciding what needs to be picked and eaten immediately. Hence this tart. Prepared entirely in advance, it works well for entertaining. If raspberries aren't available, follow the recipe and merely omit them; the end result is a different thing, but equally as good in its own way.

For two individual tarts.

Ingredients: 2 pre-baked phyllo shells, made with a sheet of phyllo, 15g butter, and a sprinkling of slivered almonds between the layers of pastry; 4 medium-sized, ripe green figs; 2 tablespoons grandmarnier; 2 generous tbs apricot jam; half a cup of fresh raspberries; icing sugar, to dust the finished tarts before serving.


1. Cut the tips from the figs, and discard. Cut the fruit into half-centimetre dice, and put into a small bowl along with the grandmarnier to macerate for an hour or so.

2. After maceration, drain the grandmarnier into a small saucepan; add the apricot jam, and heat gently, until the solid fruit in the jam is entirely liberated. Carefully remove the solid apricot from the liquid in the pan and use this to make a layer in the base of the two pastry shells. (In the last batches of jam I made, I didn't chop the fruit at all, and so the process of heating the jam leaves large chunks of apricot in the bottom of the pan....if your jam doesn't have fruit in it, then you'll have to use it purely as a glaze, and omit the stage of putting the solid fruit into the base of the pastry shells).

3. Pile the diced figs into the pastry shells, and carefully arrange the fresh raspberries over the the top. 

4. Heat the remaining jam and grandmarnier until it visibly thickens, stirring all the time, and then spoon this carefully over the tarts. Allow to cool completely, and dust with icing sugar just before serving.

Wednesday 22 August 2012

Pisa, this week...

Hot. Very. I would say 'unbearably', since the temperatures are comparable with the heatwave we had this time last year, which sent us scuttling for refuge in London...but somehow the verdant lawns and generally flourishing  look of the garden seems to make the heat more acceptable. Which must be another benefit of the hundreds of gallons of water we're chucking around the place on a daily basis. The Technical Dept has been increasing the coverage of the irrigation system, little by little, and I think the only things in the entire garden now not automatically watered are the fruit cage, the camellias directly behind the church, and the disparate collection of shrubs which are down in the area of the white grape arbour (eucomus; wygelia; two lilacs; beauté vendomoise; a cunninghamia; and a chimonensis). Occasionally, one or other of us goes to check the level of the well, but it seems to be bearing this increased amount of use quite happily, and appears to refill at the same rate that the water is pumped out. Long may it continue! The garden here now has the sort of emerald sheen that would bring a twinkle to the eye of any self-respecting kerrygold cow, while the rest of Tuscany, as far as I can see, is burnt to a frazzle. The last time we had any rain to speak of was almost three months ago...

The worst of the fruit glut is over - and I confess that towards the end I just left the plums and greengages for the birds.Now we're harvesting almonds, hazelnuts, and apples; the figs are just starting to ripen, and the later- fruiting pears and peaches are coming on well. The fruit cage has settled down to a manageable quantity of strawberries and raspberries, which means I can generally find enough of either one of them a couple of times a week to make ice cream or sorbet or a tart for dessert, but no longer feel over-faced by the volume.

At the start of the week, when I went along to the fruit cage to pick strawberries for that evening's supper, I found an owl trapped in the netting; presumably it had been there since the night before and had managed to get itself thoroughly entangled in the process of trying to break free. By the time I found it, it was probably exhasted, and traumatised, and certainly didn't struggle when I cut it free and took it to the (relative) cool and gloom of the workshop, where I carefully cut away all the remaining bits of netting from its talons. No broken bones, which was a relief, and the bird just seemed in need of rest and recuperation. 

When I went to check on it, after a couple of hours, I found it had pushed its way into a pile of bits of polystyrene (part of the TD's filing system of 'bits of stuff that might one day be useful for something'...) which was perhaps more reminiscent of home than was the fruit box I'd given it as a bed; another couple of hours later, and I found it perched on top of the polystyrene, and watching me unblinkingly as I collected some things I needed for the garden. I left the door open for it, and when I went back to check, early in the evening, it had gone. Job done. From its size, perhaps eight inches or so top-to-toe, I'd assumed it was a juvenile, but apparently there is a species of owl indigenous to Italy, called Athene Noctua, which would be miniature in comparison to the sort of owls we have in the UK, so perhaps it was one of those. From the pictures on the web, it certainly looks to be the same thing. Very pretty. TD thinks there may be a nest in the well-house, which I think we'd consider to be a Good Thing.

Tonight's Dinner:

Risotto of fresh peas and chives.

Cold poached Pork, with piccante sauce; Fennel Salad.

Grandmarnier Cheesecake (Charles passed through a couple of days ago,  on his way back north from Pisciotta, and dropped off some Mozzarella and Ricotta enroute; the ricotta will go into the cheesecake...light, creamy and delicious!)

Thursday 9 August 2012

Savoury Clafouti

I first came across these in Allan Bay's 'Cuochi si Diventa 2'. Daft, not to have realised that the clafouti theme can be applied to rather more than just apples, pears and cherries - which I've been doing for years, on the back of Anne Willan and Bruno Loubet. I suppose the concept is a cross between a pastryless quiche, a kind of frittata, and a sponge pudding. Anyway, they are light, quick, extremely versatile, and highly recommended. In his book, Bay gives recipes for both a savoury and a sweet clafouti 'base' and then lists combinations of ingredients that can be used in combination with either one or the other. Made in individual egg dishes, these are dinner-party presentable, and if you can get them from oven to table before they deflate, then they give good theatre, too.

The following is the recipe for the savoury clafouti base. Recently, I've then been pouring this into a couple of individual egg dishes, which have first had a layer put into them of diced cooked ham and diced gorgonzola; others of his combinations are herring and onion, bacon and leek, tomato and mushroom, artichoke heart and fact, pretty much anything you like.

Savoury base for two individual clafoutis.

Ingredients: 1 Egg; 100 ml Milk; 50 ml Cream; 20g Flour; 20g Parmesan; a generous pinch of Salt; Peppr, to taste.

1. Roughy chop the Parmesan, and pulverize it in the liquidizer.

2. Add to the liquidizer jar all the rest of the ingredients and liquidize to a smooth, thick batter.

3. Pour this carefully over a layer of your chosen flavouring ingredients in the base of two greased individual egg-dishes, and bake for twenty minutes or so in an oven pre-heated to 220 degrees C. Take them out when they are risen, browned, and clearly done. Rush to table before they deflate.

Monday 30 July 2012

Onion Tart - Paola's version.

Onions would definitely have to be one of my Desert Island Eight foods - whenever there's been a freshly-cut half onion left in the fridge, the smell when I open the door sets the pulses racing (well, mine, anyway)... and I have been known to bite into raw onion, on occasion (to the detriment of anybody nearby, as the Technical Dept has been swift to point out)! I've believed for years that really there are only two versions of onion tart (alsatian, with cream and eggs, and pissaladiere nicoise, where the onions are caramelised down to nothing, along with seasoning and thyme, before having anchovy and olives added for the final cooking)....and then, last Monday evening, for a first course at dinner, Paola produced this version, rich in indian spices. You can make it either in a pre-cooked phyllo shell, as she did, although I imagine it would be pretty good as well in a light, buttery shortcrust shell.

Apparently, and I bow to Paola's greater knowledge here (she and Paolo have eaten their way across various parts of India over the years), much of the secret to a dish like this is in cooking the spices almost dry to start with, before adding the bulkier ingredients which they are intended to flavour.

Filling for one large or four individual tarts:

Ingredients: 1 tbs Olive Oil; 2 cloves Garlic, finely chopped; 1 medium Onion plus 500g Onion, sliced ; 1 tsp Salt; 1 tsp each of Chana Masala, Garam Masala, and Biriany Masala (if you can get it; if not then leave it out and carry on anyway);  200ml CReam; 2 Eggs; pastry of your choice.


 1. In a  pan over medium heat, sauté in the Oil the medium Onion (finely sliced), Salt and Masalas. Cook for 10 minutes.

 2. Add 500 gr Onions and continue cooking, stirring from time to time,  for about half an hour.

 3. Pour into a bowl and add Cream and Eggs. Check seasoning and add more Salt if necessary.  Pour the mixture into your prepared pastry shell or shells, and bake for 30 minutes in an oven preheated to190° C.


Sunday 22 July 2012

Evening watering...


Like synchronised swimming...

And almost as much water involved!

Tonight's Dinner:

Clafouti of Prosciutto and Gorgonzola Piccante

Pork Chops in Marsala Sauce, Ratatouille

Tarts of Frutta di bosco, with Fiori di Sicilia Cream

Friday 20 July 2012

Too much of a good thing.

I whinged about them last year, I know...and somebody helpfully suggested making jam. So I did. My grandmother's preserving pan has seen sterling use this year, what with marmalade, strawberry jam, apricot jam, nespole jam (loquat, in English; Jane Grigson is quite understandably lukewarm about this fruit, but it's another one which the italians cachi), and ...plum jam. In fact, the plum jam has been the least of it, so far....since the apricot harvest has also been phenomenal, and indeed yesterday I made yet another five kilos of apricot jam - which is quite delicious, and for the first time I can understand why it was that apricot jam played such a prominent role in french patisserie...not to mention stalwarts of other cuisines such as sachertorte, of course.

The apricot jam will find many good uses, in the course of the year. The industrial quantities of plum jam, I'm less sure about; not least since we have foresworn bread (unless there are houseguests, when toast makes a miraculous reappearance at breakfast...) and cakes only appear on highdays and holidays. At this rate, our plum jam mountain will reach EU proportions; maybe Brussels could think of a way of using it as a means of addressing the eurozone crisis?

The weather continues glorious...apart from an unexpected flurry of raindrops in the middle of dinner the other night, we've seen no rain for about six weeks now; which I would be sighing about, were it not for the almost-completed installation of the  watering system. The pop-up sprinklers in the lawn work magnificantly, and create jets d'eau to rival Versailles! I've just about got to the stage where I no longer stand and watch them, mesmerised by the action, and rejoicing in the result; the senior four-footed is entirely sanguine about their arrival, and the junior four-footed goes and sticks his head in them as they go round, and generally gets soaked - which at least removes the need to dump him in the bath from time to time, and remove from him the bits of garden with which he manages to festoon himself every time he's out there.

Mornings dawn bright and sunny, with clear skies, and the promise of much heat. If I manage to, I get an hour or so of gardening done before 9.30.....and on the mornings when I am up and gardening at 7.30, it is a wonderful time of day, with the early sun, and everything still fresh. Poleaxed by the heat, we sleep in the afternoon, and dinner tends not to be until about 10.00, by which time the evening air is like cool spring water. It's a toss-up whether I take my laptop to the barn, and work out there during the day - but have to bring the computer  back in if I want to print something out - or else sit in air-conditioned cool in the office, and merely glimpse the sunshine through the closed french windows.

Not a good period for cooking: too hot during the day to want to spend time in the kitchen, and too many things to do in the garden once the sun starts to descend, and it becomes possible to hack and slash and weed. The only recent discoveries were two excellent sorbet recipes: strawberry sorbet, made with 300g of fresh strawberry purée, churned with 220ml sugar syrup (made by bringing a litre of water to the boil with a kilo of sugar, then keep it cold in the fridge and use as needed over the following weeks) and the juice of half a lemon...when made with fresh purée, the flavour is an absolute revelation, but I tried it the other day with some purée which had been frozen for a couple of weeks and the result was disappointing - it tasted like generic 'red fruit', and had lost all of the edginess of wonderful strawberry flavour; and Apricot sorbet, which requires 500g of halved and pitted apricots to be poached for ten minutes in 400ml of sugar syrup, then allowed to cool, liquidized and churned...the result is the creamiest, smoothest sorbet imaginable!

Tonight's dinner (post airport, as the TD is flying back from London this evening)

Risotto of limoncino and parmesan.

Italian sausage, grilled, with braised courgettes and onions

Vanilla ice cream, with balsamic strawberries.