Monday, April 13, 2009

Vallucciole...senza alcuna colpa

Vallucciole, senza alcuna colpa. Without fault of their own.

It could have been a day just like today. April 13, 1944, early spring, blue skies, trees blooming, Good Friday. At Mulin di Bucchio three Nazis disguised as escaped American POW's were driving an unmarked car and and taking measurements for the logistics and maneuvers that would enable the Germans to prepare a line of defense against the growing number of partisans in the area and to break these partisan formations. The Gothic Line, ordered by Field Marshall Kesselring would have crossed Tuscany and Romagna in the Appenine Mountains. The Nazis believed the best way to ensure all available security was to transform the whole territory into "la terra bruciata", burnt earth. The plan was was to clean out all the villages, a mopping up or "rastrellamento" with such horrible ferocity there would be no resistance from the population.
That particular spring day they Nazis met up with some partisans who had come to the mill to stock up on flour. The partisans killed two of the Germans and the third escaped into the woods.The next day, at dawn, the tiny village of Vallucciole which sits across from the mill high up on the road was burnt to the ground in reprisal. Goering's S.S. troops came without warning and with the villagers still in bed, began systematically dragging people out of their homes, half naked, killing the women and children first using machine guns, clubs, knives, rifles. I talked to my neighbor Pasquita who was seventeen at the time and living here. She told me the babies were thrown against the wall. Everything was set on fire. The men were collected from house to house and made to carry the German munitions up to nearby Mt. Falterona. Each man was guarded by his own Nazi. There is one man who escaped and wrote a terrifying account of this march. When the mission up the mountain was finished the men were executed. From sunrise to sunset the massacre continued until at the end of the day one hundred and eight people were dead and Vallucciole was a smoldering village of ash and death.
Today most of the houses are rebuilt and have become summer homes. There is one house that has not been rebuilt which you can see in the slideshow. There is also a slide of the bread oven outside the home. I never see anybody when I go to Vallucciole. There is a man who built a house a few meters from the cemetery. He's from Stia and comes to his house to get out of town to the quiet. It is very quiet there except for a few friendly dogs that bark at Lucy in the car. The tiny cemetery tells this unforgettable story.It happened sixty five years ago on this day.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Sounds Like a Motorcycle, Tastes Like a Cake

It's called "il berlingozzo", a traditional Tuscan cake that dates back to the Renaissance. It would very likely show up on the table of Cosimo I (1389-1464). Now a little history. The Florentines loved sugar. In fact, the blackened teeth resulting from the overindulgence in sugar was actually seen as a sign of their affluence. Those that could afford it, that is. I've read that some would actually rub their teeth with some sort of black substance to give the illusion of wealth. They loved sugar so much that rather than waiting for dessert, they would put sugar in the pasta. So, the berlingozzo would show up on an antipasto table as sweet hors d'oeuvres, which was a popular start to a Renaissance meal.
Berlingozzo comes from a very old Tuscan dialect verb "berlingare", to enjoy. And the Florentines were such lovers of all things delicious they were called "i berlingatori'. The Florentines got this name as they ate and drank with abandon before assuming the abstemious practices of Lent. (I don't think anybody does this anymore.) This cake was traditionally eaten on Giovedi' Grasso" or Fat Thursday right before Carnevale. So somewhere along the way this wonderful little cake became known as "il berlingozzo".
Just like any other kind of food in Italy you'll find different spins on recipes from province to province. Or for that matter, from village to village. if I went over to Pasquita's right now she'd pull out her grandmother's recipe and there would be something unique about it. That's the fun of the whole Italian regional cooking experience. Near Pistoia, not too far from Florence, the cake might be flavored with "semi d'anice" or crushed fennel seeds. Nearby, in Prato it might be flavored with orange zest. Here in Florence it's flavored with lemon zest. I must admit though I've made the cake with a dash of almond extract when a lemon wasn't around and it was just fine.
This is a quickly put together cake, a one bowl cake. Get everything measured and then one, two three, it's finished.
It's very moist and has a lovely density that's great for "inzuppare", or dipping, dunking, in coffee, caffe l'latte, milk, even red wine.
When Peter's son comes to visit, I could have three or four dolci made for him, and he always goes for il berlingozzo.

2 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
1 cup sugar, about 217 grams
3 cups flour, about 410 grams
3 1/2 oz. butter, about 100 grams, melted
zest of one lemon
1 T of baking powder or 1 envelope of leivito per dolci
250 to 300 cl. of milk...about 1 1/2 cups or 12 oz. and a little more
pinch of salt.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, 180 C.
Beat the eggs with the sugar until they become light yellow. I use a hand mixer for this and it's the only time I use it in the recipe. So you can throw the beaters in the sink if you want.
Add the flour a little at at a time , the melted butter, the lemon zest, salt, and stir well to combine everything. It takes some patience to get that flour mixed in.
Add the milk and keep beating. It will eventually come together. Sometimes I might add a tablespoon or more of milk to ease the batter a little.
Add the baking powder. Some directions call for sprinkling it through a strainer because you don't want any lumps. That's not a bad idea. Stir it into the mix but don't beat it. Just stir until you don't see it anymore. Make sure that's the last thing you do.
Have a buttered and floured cake pan ready to go. For some reason I always use a tube pan. I don't think it makes a difference.
Pour in the batter and bake for about 40 minutes. After the 40 minutes do the toothpick check in the center. Clean toothpick? Finished.
Now, I have a very quirky oven as you know. I set my timer for 25 minutes and start checking. The cake will rise and be golden but it will still need more time. The second I sense the fragrance change from bake to burn I need to turn my top burner element off or it will grill the poor thing. And then I switch to just cooking it from the bottom. But you've got ovens that aren't manufactured by Fisher-Price so you should be okay. I can get this cake made in 20 minutes or less. It's the cooking part for me that's tricky. This is a delightful cake and I can assure you anyone can make it successfully.
Put some berries over a slice and a dollop of whipped cream. Dunk into a glass of milk. You'll see what I mean.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Santuario di Santa Maria delle Grazie

Buona Giornata, ai miei amici!
Please see the video at the end of the post. Grazie!
It never fails. Once you pack up your scarves and hats for the season you get a blast of winter again. That's exactly what I did and what's happening today. It snowed overnight and although we can't see anything here I saw some cars coming down from the montain this morning with a fair amount of snow on them. And of course the mountains in the distance confirm this.
I've been on a popover kick since I tried a recipe I found in last week's New York Times Magazine written by Amanda Hesser. This seemed to be a cinnamon sugar popover morning with all the fierce winds and snow blowing down from the mountain. Sometimes you can't tell if it's real snow or the snow from the mountains. These popovers are great and, sorry to say, addicting. They're in the "betcha can't eat just one" category.
So if there's a little snow whooshing around down here you can be sure up at the Santuario di Santa Maria delle Grazie you can leave footprints. Unfortunately, we don't have a Madonna's footprints as we did at Santa Maria del Sasso, but nevertheless the Madonna has shown up here too.
This pretty little country church sits high above the main road. You can tell just how far you've gone up by the temperature change. The road going up is unpaved and One Way so it does present some challenges coming and going. Someone is expected to be nice about it and I don't know how gli italiani interpret the protocol of who does the backing up so it's good to keep your eyes trained at a distance. But there is a rule and that is that the driver closest to the wall pulls over or backs up, in this case the latter because the road isn't much wider than a bathtub. Piero took me here on my first summer visit in 2003 and I was enchanted with the whole property. The second time P took Marybeth and I up there so she could see it. When we got there we were right in front of a funeral procession. No turning back now. When we saw that old hearse huffing and puffing up the hill and the 20 cars behind it we knew we were in for the long haul. We were parked in but good. P wasn't happy, Marybeth was along for the ride and I was in absolute, unadulterated HEAVEN. I come from four generations of undertakers, funeral directors, morticians..whatever's the most comfortable title, and I was ready for the show. And what a show it was. The banners, the procession, the country pallbearers dressed in their best camouflage,the ancient silver Mercedes chug- a- lug hearse stalling at the very top of the hill in front of the church, the mourners sniffing with tissue packets ready, the heave ho handling of the casket into the church. I flinched and winced...the poor deceased. It was great! We were there for every Pater Noster and Ave Maria and Requiem in Pace there was. Then it was over and the cars started down the hill. We were free.
Here's the story of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
In 1428 a young country girl named Giovanna took advantage of the nice spring weather and left her house to do some work in the field. There was a flash rainstorm and she couldn't get back to her house but found shelter in a cave covered in branches whose entrance was marked with a white rock. As soon as she got into the cave she started to pray. All of a sudden there was a light of exceptional splendor and there appeared before her the celestial figure of a woman of extraordinary beauty standing with her foot on the white rock. Giovanna knew in her heart that this was the Mother of God. The Lady spoke to her in a motherly way telling her that if the people wanted to be relieved of sufferings and punishments and misfortune, that a church should be built here, in this same spot. And here,the people will give homage and veneration and constant prayer. Giovanna continued to be surrounded with this splendid aura when a shepherd, Piero Campodonico, approached and witnessed the event and understood it's significance.
Giovanna told her story to the Rector Luca of Stia and he, knowing the goodness and simplicity of Giovanna, believed her without question.The local parishoners quickly made a procession to the spot and a religious reawakening spread through the whole Casentino Valley and as far as Arezzo, Florence, and Sienna.
And so the church was finished in 1432. In 1474 a sudden fire totally destroyed the building and everything inside. Reconstruction was started immediately with funds offered by the faithful and the church of Santa Maria di Nuova di Firenze.
The reconstruction was completed in 1490 and this is what we see today. A simple church of elegant Florentine architecture with a single nave. The sanctuary was called Santa Maria delle Grazie...Saint Mary of the Graces. Every May 20 the people in the nearby villages make a procession to celebrate the apparition.
There are some beautiful works from the Della Robbia school (Andrea della Robbia 1435-1528) in the church. The apparition of The Madonna to Blessed Giovanna at the Nativity, the lunette of the Annunciation, and the "tondi" of the Evangelists, the little rounds encircling the arches. Above the sacristy door there is a fresco that Bernard Berenson attributed to Ghirlandaio (1452-1525). And just to give you some historical perspective, Michelangelo was a student in Ghirlandaio's workshop.
It was a Sunday that I took these pictures in the church. There was a Mass scheduled for 4:00 and there were a few people in the church saying the Rosary before Mass.I was a little concerned about my presence with the camera but I hoped that they understood that I was a "turista". Today, I could go back there and do the whole thing over again. These small country churches are bursting with treasures. You take a seat in a pew, in the soft candlelight of the church, and just let yourself wonder.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Strozzapreti..betcha can't eat just one.

It must've been about twenty years ago when I was having dinner with my brother Bill, his wife Joanne, and the kids at an Italian-American joint in the Pocono Mountains that I first encountered what Joanne and the kids called "spinach balls". They were served on a gratin dish, bubbling with butter and cheese. Nobody could figure out how they were made or what went into them. I remember Joanne, saying years later to Cait, the middle child (all grown up now and a popular high school music teacher who plays a mean funky sax) "I've almost got it Cait. I think I've figured out the spinach balls!" That gives you an insight that we are definitely NOT Italian.
"Strozzapreti" or priest stranglers, where else but in Italy could you find such a fantastic name for a food item? Who needs opera when you can eat it? I tasted strozzapreti my first summer here in 2003. Piero told me they were called priest stranglers because when the priest was an invited dinner guest he ate so many of them he would choke. When I first started researching them the only thing I found about strozzapreti was the pasta shape which indeed looked like a rolled towel ready to do the job. I just googled today and found that strozzapreti now has a wikipedia entry and what I'm talking about is strozzapreti in the baked form and along with that a few fascinating reasons about how they got their name. I've almost forgotten that they are also called "gnudi" (that's in Tuscan dialetto) which means naked..take that a little further and it's ravioli without shirts.
So, after all this..what are they? Priest stranglers are a mix of chopped greens, ricotta, an egg, grated parmigiano, a hearty grating of nutmeg, salt and pepper and the least amount of flour possible. Too much flour will toughen them. You should need very little. Now to give you the recipe I have to get out of my gram head and into my ounce head. I could even let that go and do the "a'occhio", which means by the eye..and I'm getting pretty good at that these days.
P came home with a container of fresh ricotta the other day and a gorgeous bunch of bietole (beet greens). As everybody knows, once you cook those greens you haven't got much. You need to go out and get a few more bunches. Which is what he did.I had less than a pound of ricotta and I was looking for equal the amount of green stuff or more. P cooked the greens in salted water and then chop, chop with the mezzaluna (once again, Italian ingenuity, rocking back and forth, less effort and twice as much accomplished). I mixed about a pound of chopped greens(drain very well, squeeze out all the water) with about 320 grams of ricotta, one egg, etc. Taste it along the way. Enough salt, cheese..? Now get a big spoon and start to shape them. The mix will be damp. I like about a little smaller than a golf ball for size and I toss it back and forth in my hands and then roll in flour and toss again to get rid of any excess. That last step is important. The first time I made these with my best friend Marybeth we didn't do the flour stage and our stranglers disintegrated in the boiling water.
So I've got a few stranglers ready and my salted water is boiling. I like to do a test drive to make sure they will hold up in the water. For those of you who may not be sure you've got it right this is a good thing to do.
If everything "va bene" gently add four of five stranglers at a time. You might even turn down the temp on the burner so the boil isn't rapid. I lower them in with a flat strainer. They will sink... but if you put a lid on the top for a minute or so and say an "Ave Maria" (the great Tuscan chef Alvaro Maccioni taught me this) they will rise and bob like happy stranglers in a minute or so. Remove from the water, drain and when all of them are cooked you can move onto the next step. Piero and I like ours sauteed in butter and sage. For this you need a great dollop of butter and a few nice big sage leaves. I like to use a non stick pan to keep my stranglers from sticking. Melt and add the stranglers. I let them go long enough for the butter to give them a tiny brown bottom. Then serve and pass the cheese. They are delicious.I served my friend Susan's "Chocolate Obsession" for dessert with a big helping of vanilla gelato. Everything killer.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Boar and Porcupine..but not in the same pot.

It started raining again the night before last and as P says (and he's usually right),"Once it starts it doesn't stop." So while the rest of my US Eastern seaboard friends are having fun shoveling their walks and sledding on their Fleixible Flyers, I'm looking at the fog and wondering when I can do laundry again and listening to the drop, drop, drop of the rain off the roof.
Peter, of course, has a new get that porcupine in the garden. To be honest, I don't think there's anything left for the poor animal to eat since it's eaten all of the winter vegetables. P was talking to a guy who walks up our road every day and the guy said that the people higher up the mountain are having a terrible time with the porcospini. They get into the potato field and eat everything. The Casentino potatoes are a specialty and when P plants our potatoes I'm right with him on capturing the beast. I don't want to lose our little plot of potatoes. But how many porcupines are there? P is now devising a trap along the lines of two chambers of netting. A larger chamber for the animal to enter into and a smaller chamber where there is bait. He's figuring once the animal is in the smaller chamber of netting it won't be able to back out because it's spines will get caught. This is what keeps him up at night. He actually mentioned eating it in a stew if he manages to bag it. No thanks.
Now, onto other beasts. Yesterday was an easy lunch of Spaghetti alla Carbonara. Who can ask for more? Pasta, bacon and eggs, and cheese. Today will be leftover cinghiale ragu'. I just want to eat a salad. I feel the need for green. Lunch is the centerpiece of the day but sometimes I just want to glide past that centerpiece. On Friday night P brought up two bags of wild boar (from that wonderful humming freezer in the cellar) that our neighbor Purgatorio got for us in November. I marinated two large pieces in a substantial amount or red wine (to cut down on that gamey taste), chopped onion, carrot, celery and a few bay leaves. In the morning I was all set up to cut it into small pieces but there was a pretty thick bone in the larger piece which called for bringing out the meat cleaver and P's muscle. Little shards of boar bone flew around for a few seconds and then I washed it all and selected pieces for the cinghiale in agrodolce that I was cooking that morning and the boneless pieces for the ragu the next day. Boar meat isn't pink or pretty like the antiseptic packages of beef or pork we get in the market. It's dramatically dark red and purple and to be honest, it has a bit of a strong smell It also leaves an oily residue on your fingers, even the lean pieces.
"Agrodolce" means sour and sweet. Sometimes you might see it written as dolceforte, or sweet and strong. Of course, I started wondering where this preparation came from and I did a little research. It dates back to the time of The Crusades when the knights returned from the Holy Land influenced by the aristocratic Middle Eastern traditions which included using sugar as a kind of sweet salt. The vinegar was used as a way to preserve the meat. In my preparation, after the meat cooks a good three hours in red wine, I heated some sugar, bitter cocoa powder and vinegar and added it to the pot along with pine nuts and raisins. There is just enough of the chocolate flavor to give it a mystery and just enough of the vinegar to keep you guessing. Very nice. This is a very old recipe in Tuscan cuisine and you don't see it around much any more.
Unlike the ragu' I made the next day with the remaining meat. This is something you'll see on almost every menu in every trattoria in Tuscany. Because this is a very hearty sauce it's traditionally served with a noodle that can handle all that brute strength, pappardelle. To lighten up the whole experience I made something called a lemon pudding cake for dessert. I'd found the recipe on the internet and it looked fast and easy. I'm still wondering how it was supposed to come out. What I got at the end wasn't really pudding and not really cake either. But it was lemony and that's what I was shooting for.
So, that's it for the wild boar in the freezer this year. We'll have to put our order in for more when the boar hunting season starts again on November 1. God knows there are enough of them to go around for everybody. I just hope I don't run into one in the garden. I'll take the porcospino any day.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Carnevale Stia 2009

The kids really stole the show. So much fun to watch them get excited in their outfits..and then to throw "coriandoli" (confetti) at the grownups.

The great music is played by the group "Unnatural Ax" featuring Stephen Di Bonaventura on tenor banjo.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Porcospini, Zuppe, e Lasagne

Greetings from Sunny Tuscany. This week it was either snow or sun, mostly sun and it was great to just bundle up and sit in it. Which takes me to the garden. We've been hit again The morning after P had picked three gorgeous heads of creamy white cauliflower (just in time) he told me that we had a visitor. Like the last time, the broccoli and brussel sprouts seemed to be the food of choice. Since the garden looks like a federal prison with wire fencing that would surely keep out the deer, what are we looking at now? Purgatorio said "il tasso". That's a badger and yes, the European badger will eat plants but that's on the far end of its likes and preferences. Then this morning, our vegetable guy (P calls him Il Principale) said it was a "il porcospino", and that's a porcupine. Now P is securing the fencing from the bottom. This guy will be a tough one to keep out because he likes to dig which apparently he's been doing. So that's the end of the broccoli and brussel sprouts. The porc did leave some broccoli behind and P brought it in. I cooked it (for myself, three minutes boil then a little olive oil and salt and pepper) and it was heavenly. Deeply green and with a flavor you just don't get from what you buy in the stores.
We went out to our favorite place for a pizza on Tuesday night. We always order two Napoli. That's tom, cheese, anchovy and capers. SImple, and each bite packs a punch. I always take a little bottle of peperoncini (I leave it in the glove compartment of the car) with me to add more kick. My head almost swiveled off my neck when the guy next to me got his pizza. Could I believe my eyes? There were french fries and sliced hot dog on top of the tom and cheese. Now THAT deserves an exclamation point!
Lots of neat things in the kitchen this week, too. We've been working through this cookbook of old Tuscan recipes and it's been fun choosing what we'll try next. P made "zuppa ripiena" this week, stuffed soup. The carrot, onion and celery are simmered with tomatoes for a while. Spinach is added next, just enough to cook it. Then that Tuscan staple is added to the mix, stale bread. Combine it all, put it in a big bowl and make a hole in the center where you put sauteed, seasoned chicken livers. 'Stuffed'.
I made a very simple chicken soup, Zuppa di Tarlati, cooking the whole chicken in a pot of boiling water which was first enhanced with a little roux. After adding the odori it's all cooked until the chicken falls off the bone. The chicken is taken off the bone and the breast meat is saved and cut into matchsticks. The rest of the meat is either very,very finely chopped or put through a food mill and added to the cooking liquid (strained) which is now really tasty with the chicken broth, along with the breast pieces. Seasoned with salt and pepper and served very hot over that ubiquitous sliced bread. At first I thought it should be jazzed up a bit and on second thought it was wonderful the way it was. And Guido Tarlati, I later discovered was bishop of Arezzo in 1312. The city prospered while he was bishop before it was taken over by the powerful Florentines. It looks as if there is a significant monument to Tarlati in the duomo there and a Tarlati triptych in another Arezzo church. Road trip with zuppa.
P made his wonderful lasagne again yesterday and I found myself in the danger zone by last night..taking little stabs at it the rest of the day. Growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, lasagne was always the dish that was brought out to serve the masses. Somebody would always bring a big dish of lasagne to a party or a buffet. And it was always made with ricotta. So when my friend Marybeth and I first ended up in Bologna she ordered the lasagna. Boy, was I sorry I didn't order it, too.
The lasagne slouched on her plate like a creamy dream and I'd never tasted anything like it before. That is until I ended up here and started eating P's lasagne. What is it with the lasagne made with ricotta that I had as a kid? Nobody around here ever heard of such a thing. Of course I'm very close to the home of lasagne in Emilia-Romagna so that makes a difference.I've been taking a little survey of my stateside friends and the ricotta version is the most familiar. There are many ways to make lasagne that's for sure but the ricotta version really got played out quite a bit in my youth. What's your lasagne experience?
We got to the Carnevale "sfilata" (it means a kind of parade or thread) last Sunday and I took lot of pix and will go again this Sunday and take more. I want to post a slideshow of the pix as soon as I figure out how to do it.
Today was fish day in Pratovecchio and P brought home "pesciolini di mare", little fish from the sea. Tiny little things, no cleaning necessary. Just tossed with flour and fried..and while the oil was hot we fried a few tomatoes, too. A simple Friday lunch. I'll hit that lasagne again later on tonight.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Valentine's Day nella cucina.

Happy Valentine's Day a tutti! The morning is cold and brisk with clear skies and since it's already midmorning it looks like a good day, weatherwise. I'm dressed in P's red sweater, a red vest and my red glass heart earrings. Maybe I'm overdoing it?
P and I have been busy in the kitchen, as usual. We have been in contact with the proprietor of a pretty little agriturismo up the road here in Papiano and he is interested in offering some cooking classes when the season begins again in the late spring. Naturally, we'd be introducing Tuscan cuisine to the guests and that essential part of the cuisine known as "la cucina povera". P and I brainstormed one night and I wrote down everything I've made since I've been here (I keep a kitchen journal). and he consulted a prized, very old book that contains many old recipes that nobody makes anymore. I left it to P to make some menus. We will present them to the proprietor on Monday and make plans for the upcoming season. The three of us would like to extend this to a lunch and dinner menu as well. So,"la cucina povera" it will be. Everybody's hurting these days in Italy, too. So these old recipes will be stylish once again. It's a revelation for me to see the variety of immensely diverse dishes that you can get out of bread, a few vegetables, stock, some meat, and whatever else is leftover.
The other night I made "acquacotta" (first pic) which translates to cooked water although it's much tastier than what that brings to mind.
Just a sofritto (finely chopped onion, celery, parsley and carrot ) with some pancetta cooked until soft and added to that a couple pounds of thinly sliced onions cooked until soft but not browned. Give it some color with some tomato paste, add broth and let it cook away. Then you layer it in a big dish with thinly sliced stale country bread and grated parmiginao, and put it in the oven to bring the flavors together. But I assure you, if you walk across the street your neighbor's recipe will be different.
Last night I made "scottiglia", another thing you don't find on menus much anymore. Scottiglia comes from the Maremma, the southern part of Tuscany which some books have called the "wild, wild West" of Tuscany. The scottiglia story is that the dish is based on whatever the hunters bagged that day and they cooked it with whatever seasoning they had. The other story is that the meat comes from whatever the young guys in the country could come up with after a late night raid. So, there is a variety of "meat".....chicken, duck,, rabbit, pigeon, veal, guinea hen, etc. Brown it in a big pot and the add the sofritto to brown, or soften, as well. Add due bicchieri, (that's 2 glasses based on a small wine glass measure) of red wine, evaporate slowly and then add peeled tomatoes and stock and let it go for 2 hours. We'll see what that's all about at lunch today.
Meanwhile on the dolce side of town... My friend Marybeth sent me a wonderful dessert cookbook, "Dolce Italiano". Written by Gina De Palma of "Babbo" fame, it is a wonderful book of recipes covering tarts, cakes, cookies, spoon desserts, frozen things, etc. I am so happy with it! I've made two tarts so far, one lemon, which took me to the very edge of lemon madness and the other chocolate with polenta that honestly had me swooning. And that's only me..P says, "Take it away or I will finish it all." What I like about this book is that there aren't any candied violets and no degree in architecture is necessary.
P just came home from Stia and presented me with a Valentine's flower arrangement. It is beautiful but I don't know what it is. Pretty exotic for these parts. The man in the shop told him to water it with one drop of water right where the next shoot is growing. Anybody know what this it?
Dopo Pranzo..
The scottiglia was great. Early this morning I slipped one peperoncino and a pinch of cinnamon into the pot and reheated it. I served it with toasted bread rubbed with garlic. We were pleased.
While writing this today, I recalled that on February 13, six years ago, I arrived in Florence to visit P and see whether or not this love was the real thing. I met him the the end of November 2002 and came home with the intention of sending him a postcard. Eleven weeks later I was back on a plane because, evidently, he had other ideas. Two and a half years and 6000 euro in phone calls later (his euro, not mine) I made the move to Tuscany so we could be together without phones or planes. When he met me at the airport on February 13, 2003 he was wearing the red sweater that I have on today.
Happy Valentine's Day everybody!
Marta and Piero

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Rain, rain, go away. Little Marta wants to play!

All it does is rain. Everyday. Yesterday at around 8:30 in the morning the kitchen was so bright I had to close the shutter a bit so I could see the computer screen. It looked like a strong sun and I could actually see some blue behind the clouds as they broke a bit. After P and L left to go into town for the paper I quickly threw in a load of wash which obviously was the cue for the sky to turn dark grey and pour. And that's the way it stayed for the rest of the day. Even as I write this sitting on the bed and looking out the window the sky has brightened but it's still raining. Today was to be the first of Carnevale parade in Stia. There is one every Sunday up until the First Sunday of Lent which is called Quaresima. The parade is held in Piazza Mazzini one of the two large piazze in Stia. There are a few floats but what's really fun are the costumes that people wear and the general craziness of the whole scene. The floats are spewing smoke and playing really loud music and everybody is throwing confetti and generally carrying on with the help of their identity concealed behind a mask. I had somebody in a paper plate mask throw a handful of confetti right in my face point blank, last year. I loved it and thought it was a wonderful idea. Wouldn't it be great to do that any time of the year, to anybody? So, the parade is cancelled today, Sunday.
Did you catch that? I'm writing this sitting on the bed looking out the window... Yes! I'm wirelss now! No longer tethered to the modem in the kitchen where there's human and canine traffic of all sorts. No more squeezing behind my chair because you can't go the other way around because of the wires. And let me tell you installing it wasn't easy. I'm in no way techincally proficient with the computer. Basic stuff, very basic okay, but I can't say I know the vocabulary and certainly not enough to follow the drop down menus that prompt one along. I watched my fairly tech savvy friend Valerie try to install this thing twice and for each hour she couldn't make a go of it she spent another hour trying.
So, I looked in the Arezzo phone book..Arezzo being the closest and most convenient big city. I couldn't even find a listing for "computer". And since the yellow pages (or in questo caso, il pagine gialli) aren't really that big I looked through every page for something that even resembled the word computer. Surely, I was missing something. Time to call in P. The white pages are significanly easier to navigate and there is was "Computer Discount". He called and spoke to a techie and we took the train to Arezzo and met the guy, computer in my bag. We met the guy and after commentin that my computer was old (mi dispiace!) he said he'd come to the house and do it sometime around the 26th of Jan. That was the 13th of Jan. The 26th comes and goes. P calls. Techie says Feb.4. The big day arrives and we wait..and wait. P calls him and techie says early afternoon. At 4 P calls his cell and techie said he got lost but he's in P'veccio. So he's on his way. I wait at the window and see the unfamiliar car about to take the wrong turn and I shout "la su" (up there) at a piercing pitch that I'm sure he'll here below. P flags him down in front of the car park a few meters ahead (believe me, in these little towns you can get lost between the road and the car park) and we're on our way. He sits down after remarking how small the house is and for about 25 minutes his fingers flurry across the keys like he's playing the presto movement in a piano sonata. Then he says," e' completo!" And then I realize his inglese is pretty good so I could ask him a few questions as well as his name, Alessandro, and his contact info.
It's terrific to sit in bed and read the NYTimes in bed on a Sunday morning.
There was a hair appointment this week and a different person applied my color. I'm sure I told him the correct number of my color but after 45 minutes my hair was rinsed and my usually pristeen white roots were screaming red. The boss of the salon (the one who applies the color) was trying to reassure me that it would look different after it dried. This situation was definitely a test for my l'italiano..and in a slightly agitated state, I might add. Next time I'll be prepared with a cheat sheet of useful phrases. Really though, I think I did very well explaining that this was "non va bene" and the color was wrong and that he was mistaken. Everything corrected after that. Whew! But this salon does a great job..and the cuts are 20 euro.
And then, really needing some liquid refreshment and food P and I went to L'osteria del Tempo Perso (The Osteria of Lost that name) for an excellent plate of affettati, proscuitto, pecorino cheese, bread and vino. The little bowls on the table are filled with marinated artichokes, sun dried toms, tiny little mushrooms, and peperoncini. Amazing..everybody in the place was eating the same thing. These gorgeous meats and cheeses resting on brown paper on a metal tray. And lots of it Hold the mayo,please. More about the affettati later..but these are slices of the wonderful salumi that this area is known for. They aren't the "cold cuts" that I was brought up with. I tried to explain to P about cold cuts. The slices of American cheese or "square cheese" as my mother called it, the baloney, the boiled ham, the turkey (I was losing him at this point) and the occasional appearance of what we called "American salami". Can anybody tell me what that was?
Let's hope that the rains end soon. The forecast was rain until Wednesday. Meanwhile, the clothes are drying on the radiators, the ragu' is bubbling and there's another week of lunches ahead. Ciao for now.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Peter nella Cantina

We've had a forecast of snow for the last two days but all we saw today was heavy rain until about an hour ago when they sky opened up with snowflakes the size of ravioli. P spent the earlier part of the day trimming the acacia trees on the road outside of our house and that's what we're burning right now. The wood is damp but the smaller branches are burning and throwing some heat. My center of operation is the kitchen table so it's pretty cozy now with the fire right next to me.
P's operation central is below..nella cantina. The cellar is a very handy spot for doing just about everything. Silly me, I thought when I settled in here four years ago it would be MY operation central. Afterall, P said, "It's the coolest spot in the summer and the warmest in the winter." I had all kinds of visions of dolling it up with a desk and chair, a flea market rug,oriental perhaps and without the fleas for the floor, a bookcase for my cookbooks, novels, art books and files, a lamp with a green glass shade. Maybe a little Puccini in the background for inspiration while I try to figure out my life and what's for lunch.
HAH! Once I saw what really went on down there I knew my little hide-a-way was a dream. What most people do with an attic we do with the cellar, plus more. Right now, P is down there chopping the branches that he pruned today. The acacia wood is very hard and loaded with big, ugly thorns so he has to be careful. In the springtime these trees are dripping with the most fragrant blossoms. We pick the blossoms and after checking for bugs, etc. we drag them through a simple batter and fry them. Then dust them with sugar while they're still hot. Like eating a delicate, sweet, perfume fritter.
The cellar is where the furnace is, the freezer, the summer clothes, the tools, all the wood for the fireplace, the overflow of my books, the tomatoes and peaches we put up in the summer, P's homemade limoncello, marmellate, the demijohn of vino, jars, bottles, Nativity projects. Plus everything that P won't throw out because he just might need it. He has built shelves and ripped them out to make them bigger so they can hold more stuff. There's even a little mattress down there for nights that get too hot upstairs. I tried sleeping down there once and it was okay until about three AM when I heard something buggy and grabbed the flashlight and saw a big round black bug crawling along the edge of the pillow case. Never saw one like it before. P's not so faint of heart and can manage the whole night down there.
I also like to think of the cellar as a time out room for grown-ups. We're in pretty close quarters here and when things get the other kind of "hot", the cellar is a little refuge. It's very comfortable and can be very entertaining. I think it was my first summer here that I told P that I wanted a purple cellar door. I've seen a lot of purple doors and really don't know their significance. If anybody knows would you please drop me a line? Anyway, I wanted one and I was a little surprised when he said okay. You don't see many purple doors around here. The biggest profusion of purple in these parts is when the Fiorentina fans come out for a soccer match. So, my beloved P, who has absolutely no interest in soccer and has never watched a whole match in his life, mixed the three cans of paint to get just the right color I wanted. And during that incredibly hot summer the door went from red to purple. While P was sweating out this labor of love, our neighbor Franco walked by. He stopped, watched for a minute and remarked,"Formichi, I had no idea you were such a Fiorentina fan!"

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The January Drearies.

I was happy to see that there was some sun in Washington DC on Tuesday because here it was just terrible. Heavy rain and ripping winds all day. January is sooo dreary here. The whole winter is a sorry grey and the only spot of color besides the pine trees here in the National Forest of The Casentino is the occasional pansy in the flower box that hasn't lost it's last bloom. Peter and I went for a ride last week to a tiny little village called Borgo alla Collina. I asked him to just surprise me and then see where we end up. Borgo alla Collina means little village on a hill. And that it was. But this sleepy little village was down with the drearies and I figured it would be best to go back in May when the flower pots are bursting and the soccer balls are kicking. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile, the kitchen has been busy at lunch time. Sometimes, I tend the fire and sometimes it's P. Here are few lunches that we've enjoyed lately.
First up is octopus with peppers or in italian "polpi coi peperoni". This was a real treat. P had brought up the octopus from the freezer and I eyed it as it was defrosting. It looked like four suction cupped bathroom appliques for holding soap. P says it's always best to use octopus that's been frozen because the freezing helps tenderize it. The recipe came from one of P's Tuscan cookbooks that features old recipes with unknown origins.I love these recipes that have a handful of ingredients and that's it. Here we have onion and a little garlic, octopus pieces, vino bianco, tomatoes and bell peppers and then you cook the hell out of it. The recipe calls for a healthy addition of vinegar at the end of the cooking but P and I were so pleased with the flavor we left it out. The red and yellow peppers gave a wonderful sweet lift to what I thought might be something too fishy. It wasn't at all. And except for the little suction cupped tentacle rising from the peppers and the tomatoes now and then you'd never know you were eating octopus. A real winner for P! By the way, the pot we used to cook the octopus is called a "tegame di coccio". These are great cooking vessels made from terra cotta. I use them as I would a Dutch oven, which I don't have. I swear that things taste better when cooked in a tegame di coccio. Great for risotti, ragu, soups, stews.
Next to that on the right is bucatini all'Amatriciana. Another simple dish with even fewer ingredients. Pancetta, tomatoes, one peproncino. Bucatini are long hollow noodles that are essential for the dish. Marcella Hazan says, "the two are as inseparable as Romeo and Juliet." Some recipes call for the addition of finely chopped onion sauteed before the addition of the pancetta. Take your sides on this one. The diehards say "assolutamante, no!" And I agree. Let the pancetta flavor the tomatoes and you'll see that the onion will really change the character of the dish. Oh, and of course, pass the cheese when serving. I always cook it in my beat up very old La Creuset pan. In fact, I cook just about everything in that pan when I'm not using the tegame di coccio.
And here we have the celebrated dish of Emilia Romagna, Modena to be precise. The Zampone! Here's the story on the origin. This pig's trotter came to be over a question of who was the rightful heir to the papacy. In 1510-1511 there was a war between the French and the Italians and the people of Mirandola were sure their city would fall. Not wanting to leave anything behind for the French they killed their pigs, cut up the meat, highly seasoned it and stuffed it in the pig's trotter. Another example of the marvelous inventiveness degli italiani. Zampone is traditionally served on New Year's Day and served with lentils (they represent money) and puree di patate. P isn't a lentil fan so we have the potatoes. Now, you can buy the zampone already cooked and packaged in a special bag that you put into boiling water. Keep it there for about half and hour and it's ready. Just open the bag and plop that baby on a dish. Otherwise you buy it, wrap it and tie it in cotton and soak it overnight and then cook it for 3 hours. Let it cool in the water and then cook it again for another 3 hours. P likes the prefab ones better not only for convenience but the flavor. How to explain the's like a very spicy pork sausage. To be honest, it's delicious. Definitely a once a year treat.
We're not very high on the hog we have pork livers, "fegatini di maiale". These precious little things are rolled in crushed fennel seed and then wrapped in caul fat which is the thin fatty membrane of the abdominal cavity of sheep or pigs. If you hold it up it looks like a lace tablecloth. Then they are threaded on a stick or "spiedino". Sometimes they are threaded with bay leaves, chunks of bread...and chunks of fat. As if the caul wasn't enough. These are terrific grilled but we just put them in the oven and then served them over a bed of sauteed spinach with shallot and raisins. The spinach was a nice complement to the dense flavors of the livers and fennel. And these are very inexpensive. Maybe 5 euro for the two spiedini.
Now, we have a break from all the pigginess. This is a typical Friday lunch. And another cheapie (about 6 euro for about 1 kilo), sardines. The biggest drawback here is the time spent cleaning these little buggers. I stay out of the kitchen for this one. I think it takes P (with Lucy's help) about 45 minutes to clean all of them. Nothing fancy here. We just rinse them, pat them dry and dredge them in flour and into the hot oil until they crisp a bit. A sprinkle of salt and lemon juice and they're ready. We like to lighten things up with a simple salad to go along with them dressed with red wine vinegar, olive oil and salt.
Today is Friday and P will be leaving shortly to go to Pratovecchio to buy fish at the Friday mercato. He better get moving if he wants baccala because that seems to always go first.
Buon Appetito a tutti!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Breakfast of Champions Italian Style

Whenever Peter and I head out of Stia and we're near Antonio's, I always look out of the corner of my eye to see if his hand is edging toward the turn signal. This is the BEST place around for a panino.
Panini are such elegant creations in their delicious simplicity. But not all panini are created equal. The meat must be superb and the bread even more so. At Antonio's you get both. When you enter his osteria there is the bar on the left and a dining room on the right. Straight ahead is where the goods are. He makes his panini each morning and carefully wraps the bottom of each one in a napkin. Most days these are the choices: proscuitto crudo, tonno and pomodoro,tonno and capperi, salsiccia and crema di funghi and sometimes proscuitto cotto and fontina. Translation: raw ham, tuna with tomato, tuna with capers, fresh sausage (uncooked) with a spot of porcini flavored mayo, and cooked ham and cheese. How fresh is fresh? He makes, cures and smokes his own meats. His bread of choice is something unbelievable. What in the States you'd call focaccia is the closest I can come to explaining it. Not very puffy though and perfectly dimpled and flavored with salt and olive oil. These babies he doesn't sell separately. We know because we've tried to get him to sell us a few pieces saying anything...."We have no bread and everyone else is closed. Please Antonio,sniff, sniff." He'll sell big hunks of the everyday Tuscan stuff but not his dimpled beauties. After going there a million times you pretty much know the selections but he proudly announces them each time as if he were introducing top of the line Ferraris at the Auto Show. Proud man and he should be. These panini are great. My favorite is the plain proscuitto. Just a slice or two in the bread. That's all. He smokes his proscuitto with juniper so there is a little kick to it. Peter often gets the tuna and capperi. That's olive oil packed tuna flaked on the bread with a few briney chopped capers. In the cooler months we have a small glass of vino rosso and when it's warm we like the vino bianco to wash everything down Of course you can get the brioche and cappuccino breakfast if you want. But when you see the quiet little display of pastries you know that the main attraction is il salumi, the meat. When you get to Antonio's in the morning there are usually a few locals there and a couple of trucker types all dressed in various combinations of camouflage, day-glo orange, and masculinity. Sometimes a few carabinieri wander in. Always fun for me so I can check out those uniforms. Everybody with their paper wrapped panini. He'll make you a bigger one if you want, too. Maybe add a few more slices but nothing remotely near the jaw dislocators that are called sandwiches in the USA. Drive past in the evening and you'll see the same types maybe with their hand around a big slice of pecorino.
Now Antonio's isn't the only bar in town where the locals go and have their breakfast. There's a little bar in Papiano that's always filled with the locals from sunrise to sunset. Formichi's Tit Bar is a favorite among the feathered set. We serve coal tits, blue tits, and marsh tits. The real guest of honor is, wouldn't you know it, the great tit. He/ she flies in and out with a startling flash of yellow and black making all the little stubby tits fly away for a little while. And while we're on the subject, our bar is sometimes graced with a gorgeous warbler. A dusky grey blue beauty with a ruddy breast. A skittery little friend who comes and goes before the other tits gang up and take all the panini crumbs. Mangia tutto, my friends!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Santa Maria del Sasso

Two weeks ago Peter and I took a ride to Bibbiena, about 30 minutes or so from here. Just out to travel the back roads, we came across Santa Maria del Sasso, a church that I had seen listed in my guide to Il Casentino. I love going into these little mountain churches. You never know what you're going to find. As it is, Santa Maria del Sasso is also a Dominican monastery.
I was immediately taken in by this little church. Here's the story..
In 1347 there was a vision of a white dove on a huge stone (il sasso) in a crevice where the church is now built. The dove stayed on the rock for a few months. Farmers noticed that the dove only allowed children and the hermit Martino who was from nearby Camaldoli, to appraoch. On June 23, 1347, at almost evening, a beautiful woman in white appeared to seven year old Caterina and gave here some fava bean pods which she later took home , opened, and saw they were filled with blood. This later confirmed the foreseeing of the plague of 1348 in which Bibbiena and places around were spared. And so they built a church on the site of the huge stone where the apparition took place.
Now, you can see the stone, actually a huge boulder, where the Madonna appeared. The church is built around it and the top of the stone is partly visible behind the tabernacle in the main church. You can really get an idea of it's size when you go down to the crypt below which is part of the original church (The main church burnt down in 1486 and shortly after was rebuilt to a larger size.) You can see in the pictures I took that chapels were built around the stone.
There were two things that really seized me in the church. First, was the fresco of the main altar, Madonna con Bambino, painted by Bicci di Lorenzo (1373-1452), a Florentine artist. The fresco is dated around 1430-1440. It's positively beautiful. The colors are so rich and if you take a closer look there are rays of light coming from Mary and the Baby. My book says that these "raggiere" were painted in 1598, long after Bicci was around. The two crowns appear to be applied after the fresco was painted and are not actually part of the frescoes themselves but another substance applied to the fresco. I got up as close as I could and it looked like the crowns were cut out metal of some sort, probably gold, and studded with stones. Notice the Madonna's gracefu,l elongated finger pointing to Il Bambino as He gently holds her hands. As if to say, "He's the One." He seems to fit into the cut out and exposed portion of her mantel. The cherubs surrounding the figures blend into an organic whole that gives the piece a breathtaking fullness in its space. There is a stunning silver frame around the whole fresco which was a gift from the people of Bibbiena in 1954. Notice the small round medallions in the frame. It's hard to take your eyes off the colors and the details of the altar piece. And this is only the altar piece. You should see the tabernacle itself.
Downstairs, I found the Madonna del Buio, or the Madonna of Darkness, sculpted in 1500. Don't know why she has this name because there is nothing dark about her. As you descend the steps the first thing you see off to the right is a little altar with a Madonna statue. She is a painted lady, elegant as can be with her gold hair and crown. But she was originally unpainted. The paint came in 1688. She is sculpted "in the style" of Michelozzo di Bartolomeo (1396-1472), another very famous Florentine architect who was a pupil of Ghiberti and collaborated with Donatello. But who knows who sculpted the piece. It may very well have been Michelozzo, architect to the Medici.
Now, there's a great story about this Madonna. Seems the people of Bibbiena moved her from the church to an oratorio, another place of worship in 1512. But the Madonna walked back to Santa Maria del Sasso on her own as evidenced by her footprints in the snow.
There are so many of these gems here in the mountains. I have so many questions in my head...I didn't even get to mention the huge Della Robbia of John The Baptist on the right as you enter the main church. I love the Della Robbia school. I can't get an answer as to why there is so much Della Robbia up here in the mountains. There's a big Della Robbia exhibition taking place between here and Arezzo until June. All the masterpieces highlighted. I think I'll get an answer, maybe this time.