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.