My joy in cooking is directly related to the level of productivity in my my vegetable garden and orchard. This year’s summer crops are inspiring, despite the difficult and dangerous weather we’ve experienced this summer in Australia. I can only put this abundance down to a few things- the time spent monitoring the garden, good compost, mulch and water, the latter, in our case, pumped from a dam to a header tank. Each day, it’s simply a matter of combining the day’s pick with some pantry staples to make deeply satisfying meals. The first and most prolific summer vegetable, the zucchini, will come first in my Summer Cookbook, a reverse alphabetical approach. They are a versatile vegetable, lending themselves to slow braising, frittatas, ratatouille, fritters, sweet cakes, pasta sauces, soups, Greek pies, and shapes to be stuffed. This year I’m growing three varieties: Blackjack ( Black beauty), a dark green fleshed fruit, a good keeper, adding colour to soup and fritters, Cocozelle, an Italian heirloom variety, which is striped and long, the flowers more likely to cling to the young fruit, making it a great one for tempura battered zucchini flowers, and the pale green Lebanese zucchini, a good one for braising. I prefer to pick zucchini when very young for most dishes. Medium sized zucchini are set aside for soups and the large ones go straight to the chooks or are dried for seed collection.
My latest simple recipe, Grilled zucchini with Marinated Goat’s cheese, is a great addition to the summer table.
five or more very young zucchini, halved vertically or cut into three lengthwise. Note, if you shave these into thinner strips, they will char to quickly and virtually disappear on the BBQ.
good olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, smashed into a paste
fresh marjoram leaves
Meredith marinated goats cheese or equivalent product
a pinch of sea salt flakes
Light a hooded BBQ and get the temperature above 250 º c. ( you could also use a kitchen iron grill ). Toss the cut zucchini long pieces and toss in a little EV olive oil in a bowl. Add the garlic paste to a separate small bowl of EV olive oil. Using tongs, place the lightly oiled zucchini directly onto the BBQ and close the lid. Raise the lid after a minute or so and turn the zucchini strips. When nicely done on both sides, add to a serving bowl, and toss through some of the garlic paste oil. Add salt and pepper, fresh marjoram leaves and a few hand torn cubes of marinated goats cheese, as much as your conscience allows. Serve alongside other summer dishes.
Looking for more summer zucchini recipes? The links here will take you directly to some of my older recipes on the Z word.
Let’s lay the cards on the table. Climate change is not only real, but is making its presence felt in catastrophic ways more often. There’s little doubt that climate change is anthropogenic: 98% of world climate scientists agree that this is the case. There are ample papers and graphs which demonstrate this well and I don’t need to add the links here. The debate was over long ago. Once you agree with the science and accept this premise, it’s time to move down the path of action. If you don’t accept that climate change is either real or does not originate from human activity, you either don’t read widely, are ignorant or brainwashed, or belong to a cult. The Australian Prime Minister, a member of the Pentecostal Church, is well known for his climate change denial stance. It’s a handy belief – that God or nature caused this problem- and underlies his irresponsible stance on climate action, and continued promotion, expansion and subsidisation of the fossil fuel industry. The IMF estimates that annual energy subsidies in Australia total $29 billion, representing 2.3 per cent of Australian GDP. On a per capita basis, Australian fossil fuel subsidies amount to $1,198 per person. As Australian voters, we have a lot to answer for and a lot to change.
I’m not going to write about the heartbreaking and catastrophic fires here in Australia. Others have done so very poignantly in the media over the last few weeks, describing the loss of homes, forests, native animals, ecosystems, and more. I’m attempting to harness my anger and sense of impotence by directing it in a very conscious way towards action. During this sad time in Australia, I’ve been reflecting on hope. Not the nonsensical Hope that goes with Faith and Charity in the old Catholic mantras. Today’s hope is more urgent, real and insistent, driving personal action that leads to a change of the current paradigm.
“Hope is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency”
“When survival is your number one priority, the future you need to solve is today”
So what are the goals that emerge from hope? Below is my list. It’s based on where I live, which is in a rural bush setting, 40 kms from Melbourne, my age which is a few days short of 70 years old, my access to time since I am retired, and my political ideology. My list is also a statement of where I stand at present ( the personal is political, as the old saying goes) and the choices I’m prepared to make or not make. I’ll review these goals in one year’s time.
Government and leadership. In terms of urgency, it is essential that Australia is led by a government that is ready to embrace climate action by phasing out the fossil fuel industry. The current government is hell bent on expanding it. This is the first goal: to work towards the removal of the present government and simultaneously encourage alternative parties or independents to honestly address this urgent issue as a priority. There are various actions you might follow in order to achieve this. You may write to your local MP, asking what their stance is on climate change and emission reduction over the next 5 years. You can join a group such as Extinction Rebellion, or Friends of the Earth ( there are many other groups) which encourage a variety of activities to suit all ages and level of risk. You can attend a climate protest demonstration event in your capital city. The era of protest is back- and is growing weekly in Australia. I’ve found that by being with like minded others, my hope has grown.
Boycotts. Primary and secondary boycotts are a useful way to bring about change. This involves a bit of homework. Know more about your bank’s investment activities. Divest funds away from companies that support polluting, especially coal mining, activities. Move your banking and superannuation to companies which support green economies. Boycott companies that are financing or assisting Adani in any way. Secondary boycotts are tremendously effective, so much so, that the current government has moved to make them illegal. Primary boycotts include avoiding all media owned by Murdoch. This includes canceling subscriptions to the usual newspapers run by News Corps Australia, the ‘Australian’ and most of the daily and weekend papers in each state. A comprehensive list of Murdoch owned press can be found here. It includes many popular magazines, websites, as well as Foxtel and Sky News. Murdoch, through his stranglehold of Australian media, promotes climate denial and misleading, if not outright false, information and news. On the positive side, the Australian independent media network includes the following : The Guardian, New Matilda, The New Daily, Indigenous X, Renew Economy, The Conversation, The Saturday Paper, The Monthly, Crikey, Meanjin, No Fibs, Junkee, Buzfeed Oz News, The Big Smoke. Many are free, while others allow you to read a free article or two but require paid subscription for full access. Subscriptions keep independent media alive.
Cars. Use public transport and leave the car at home. Use a car only when necessary or when there’s no public transport available. An ideal stance would be to not own a car at all. At present, I believe this is not possible for most Australians, given the geography of the land, the spread of the suburbs, and the length of travel time to work. It is, however, quite feasible for inner city apartment dwellers who have access to GoGet cars for hire short term, and who live on major train and tram routes. I live 7 kms from the nearest train station and use public transport as often as I can. My current small and economical Toyota is 10 years old: my mechanic suggests it will keep going well for another 10 years. On average I spend $25 a week in petrol which is going down with more frequent train use. I’ll probably hang on to this car for a while. A huge carbon footprint went into the making of it, which is a factor to consider before letting it go. When I do buy a new car, it will be electric.
Fridges and electric gadgets. Check the efficiency and environmental star rating of your fridge and air conditioner. Refrigerants contained in older air-conditioners and refrigerators can be extremely harmful to the environment. Many refrigerants, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), damage the ozone layer, while others are extremely potent greenhouse gases. “One kilogram of the refrigerant R410a has the same greenhouse impact as two tonnes of carbon dioxide, which is the equivalent of running your car for six months.” Throw away your old shed fridge- it’s bound to be a major polluter. Also check the star rating of other gadgets. For instance, I have a 90 cm wide oven which allows me to bake two loaves of bread simultaneously or lots of pizzas. But on the average night, heating this large electric oven for a meal is extremely wasteful and inefficient. I’ve noticed a large spike in power usage on baking days. So I’m transitioning to weekly bakes and stove top cooking which uses minimal gas. Don’t use clothes dryers, there’s really no need to do so in Australia, and add your excess boiling water to a thermos. This can be used over the day for tea making. The electric kettle is a huge energy user. Wash clothes only when you have a full load.
Air Travel. This is a difficult one for most Australians to address. Europeans are able to commute between cities by train, and what an enjoyable way to travel for the tourist too. If Australians abandon air travel, the country will become isolated once again. Having grown up in the 50s and 60s in a country that was suspicious of foreigners, and extremely insular, I would hate to see our country return to this state. The best one can do is to reconsider each trip and limit air travel, especially longer trips to Europe or America. One way to assuage your guilt is to plant trees. Joining a Landcare group is a viable way of getting more trees into the ground. Sadly though, as Australia happily adopted the 20 million tree programme which is about to conclude, the NSW government allowed 58 thousand hectares of land clearing and native forestry removal over the last two years. If you live in that state, demand a halt to land and forest clearing. ( see australia-spends-billions-planting-trees-then-wipes-out-carbon-gains-by-bulldozing-them ) Other States have similar problems with clearing. NSW stands out as having the worst record.
Diet. Meat eating is not sustainable. “If cattle were their own nation, they would be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after US and China.” The problem does not simply lie in methane gas. Forest and land clearing, water usage and fertilizers also have a huge impact on the environment. I haven’t eaten meat for 40 years. This environmental message is not new. One of the most influential books on the topic, Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé, was written in 1971 and had a major impact at the time. I’m not including dairy in my goal statement here- it’s hard to imagine a world without cheese, yoghurt and milk products from small grazing herds of cattle, sheep or goats. I also eat eggs and raise chickens for eggs- their spent straw and manure is a dynamic component in compost making. I occasionally eat fish and carry an App list of sustainable options when shopping for fish.
Shopping. Clothing manufacturing has a huge carbon footprint, it currently stands at 3% of all global emissions of C02. ( air travel currently stands at 2%). This goal is relatively easy to attain- don’t buy new clothes, but if you do, make sure it’s a rare event, an annual treat and not a mindless habit. Every 10 minutes, 6 tonnes of clothing goes to landfill in Australia. My approach is to look for second hand clothing in fabrics that I like or those with Australian designer labels. Refashioning second- hand clothes made from fabulous fabric is a creative way to approach the problem. I also keep an eye out for great trims and buttons on old clothes. I’m not alone in this hunt, I’ve noticed. I think the fashion industry is slowly being turned on its head and many are now embracing individual styling, and anti fashion statements. Let’s hope it’s not a passing trend among the young but a lifetime commitment.
Composting. I’m a great believer in composting. Not only does composting help reduce methane emission from landfill, but the resultant humus enriches the soil and traps carbon at the same time. Carbon farming on a large scale is another great way to reduce emissions. In my own small way, it’s one of my private offsets. “Today there is a revolution in agriculture that recognizes the importance of building healthy soils by replacing the organic matter that has been lost,” says David Wolfe, professor of plant and soil ecology at Cornell University. This new approach is called carbon farming. According to Wolfe, in theory, implementing this method on cultivated lands could slow the pace of global climate change by offsetting as much as one-quarter to one-third of annual increases in atmospheric CO2 for 20 to 50 years, until soil carbon stocks are once again fully restored. Others have argued that a 5 to 10 percent offset benefit is more realistic”. Nothing is wasted in my compost making. I rake mown grass, collect hundreds of buckets of fallen oak tree leaves, collect shredded paper from my daughter’s business and spent straw and manure from the hen house, as well as all food scraps. This is a daily business and often takes hours but it beats going to the gym for exercise. This would not be one of my priorities if I lived in an apartment or house without some accompanying land. It’s not a goal for everyone.
One of the more unusual things on the lists I have read ( and borrowed from) is the Education of Girls. This often appears as Number 4 on world goals to save the planet, but perhaps it should be number 1. You can change the pattern of unsustainable growth through education. Girls education is the single most important thing in reducing the birth rate: at the same time, educated women have a powerful influence over culture and survival. Find a charity that supports girls education in places where it is most needed. If you know of any good ones, please let us know by commenting below.
Recycling. I’ve added this at the bottom of my list as it’s still an important goal to improve in this area. I believe most people do have a conscious approach to recycling and are trying hard to manage their waste through sorting into the appropriate categories and limiting their purchase of plastic wrapped goods. I’m not ready to obsess about scraps of waste that end up in my landfill bin. My waste will not fit into a Mason jar. Waste management also needs further work at the state level.
This is my list of achievable goals. Some things I already do, others are works in progress. The ranking is random, except for number 1, government change. Your list may be completely different, because you are a busy mother holding a full time job, because you need to cross the city to get to work, because your job demands that you fly, because you are much younger or older than I am, because you live in an apartment, because you have a disability or have special needs. My list is not meant to sound preachy or self righteous. If it does, I apologise, knowing there’s nothing more annoying and counter productive than those who signal their own virtue. I do encourage you to make your own personal list directly related to climate action and to review it from time to time. Feel free to share your action list or add good, inspiring links in the comments section.
¹ quotes on hope and ideas of list making evolved from some of the papers written by Diego Arguedas Ortiz, on BBC FUTURE, another informative site to dip into.
I remember the turning point vividly, that year when I decided that enough was enough, which in reality, was far too much. It was the beginning of my awakening about Christmas Day, an ongoing change of mindset, involving rewriting tradition and re-evaluating family, place and gifting.
It was my turn to host the Christmas family lunch in 2016, a rotating event shared by my three siblings. As my mother, the matriarch, was ( and is ) alive and well, an annual Christmas lunch was taken for granted, but it was a tradition that we all began to feel uneasy about as the logistics of hosting and catering for the day became a nightmare. At the age of 93 that year, and still living independently in her own home, it was a grand event involving her four children, their partners, her grandchildren and partners, and her great grandchildren, a cast of 32 people or more. Despite discussions about simplifying the day, it never happened. Along with cleaning, house sprucing, decorating and shopping, preparation involved finding 32 sets of plates, cutlery, and glasses suitable for water, wine and beer, 32 assorted chairs, six tables, and tablecloths to cover them, clearing a room large enough to hold the tables and guests comfortably, the assembling of serving platters, table napkins, and the emptying of fridges to store food on the day. Eskies full of ice were strategically placed around for drinks, extra bins ready for recycling. On that occasion, a pissoir for outside male use was erected so that at least some of the 30 plus people wouldn’t flush away our essential tank water supply. Long lists began in early December, the whole month dedicated to planning the lunch, with inside/outdoors options considered, subject to weather conditions.
On that Christmas day, like so many other years in Australia, the weather turned hot and windy, the north wind blowing at gale force through my property perched on a ridge in the country. The temperature was 39ºc, and along with strong wind gusts of over 50 kmph, an outside garden event was definitely out of the question. The day was declared a Total Fire Ban day, which meant no barbecuing could take place. The day was categorised as Severe under Victoria’s bushfire rating codification system, introduced after the Black Saturday bushfire of 2009. Part of the preparation for the day always involved this unnerving uncertainty about the weather- could we have a BBQ, maybe a picnic outside, what about a buffet on the veranda? None of these options were suitable for a blustery, terrifying total fire ban day.
On that day in question, three Christmases ago, I watched my mother sit quietly, sometimes with eyes closed, on a couch in the only air- conditioned room of our house, which wasn’t functioning very well given the constant door opening by excited children and desperate smokers. On phones and computers, others nervously watched the CFA ( Country Fire Authority) information site and weather reports: my brother received a barrage of anxious calls from his partner about her bushfire fears for her area. The happy young children opened an obscene number of gifts, someone forgot to bring their KK gift, a second- nephew didn’t know our names, younger generation partners said very little and you just knew they would rather be somewhere else, but that invisible hand of tradition forced them to attend. And I cooked, stood on my feet all day, ate very little, orchestrated and at times delegated, spoke to no one much, checked fire reports and found it hard to smile. I should have cancelled the day, my mother was struggling with the heat. One of the most unnerving aspects of the day was the fear of evacuating a large group of city dwellers who had no experience or theoretical knowledge of what to do if confronted with an imminent bushfire. The day did not make sense.
After the guests left, we sat among the mess and debris and breathed a sigh of relief. Slowly regarding the waste of leftover food and paper, discarded tissue hats and bits of plastic landfill from bonbons, dishes and cloths to be washed and furniture to be re-arranged, I realised that I felt deeply upset and exasperated. Never again. On that day, I made a firm resolution that our Christmas traditions needed to change.
Since then, I’ve found some peace and no longer practice self flagellation about Christmas Day. As I was using my last piece of Christmas paper last week, one stashed from years before, I did so with real joy. The empty cardboard roll symbolised the end to another wasteful practice. I turned to my fabric stash and cut into a colourful Indian Sari to wrap a gift. I also discovered another stash of op-shop rolls of ribbons suitable for tying gifts. I assembled a small bag of assorted fabric oddments dedicated to this purpose, tucking it into the linen press. Like the Japanese gift wrapping, Furoshiki, I am pleased to send my fabrics and ribbons on their way- they’ll be reused, they’ll travel, they might even return. I’ve made a few batches of Amaretti biscuits, the spice reminiscent of a more ancient tradition of gifts, perfumed with the scent of orange. My adult children ask what food they should bring and I answer, whatever you like, something simple. Mr T now spends his pre-Chrismas days doing essential maintenance for our survival in the Australian bush, removing piles of fallen leaves and twigs from the front of our house, an ongoing task during bushfire season, a season that now stretches longer than in years gone by. Sadly, the season coincides with Christmas. We’re slowly getting our priorities right.
As the broad bean season draws to an end, with only one bed left to pick, I am revisiting a post from 6 years ago. It’s a recipe I return to every November, buying a packet of smoked salmon cooking pieces especially for this dish.
What the Fava! The Broad bean glut is on. One week they look nice and petite, ready to be eaten raw with a chunk of Pecorino cheese. Blink, turn around, and suddenly they are huge and in plague proportions.
Broad Beans or Fave have a fascinating history but none more so than for our local Italo- Australiani, many of whom migrated here in the 1950s, with broad beans sewn into the lining of their suitcases or hems of their coats. Fava beans played a important role in the Sicilian tradition. When dried, roasted and blessed, they became lucky beans. Some believe that if you keep one in the pantry, there will always be food in the kitchen. Given the size of our broad bean crop, we will be very fortunati this month.
I collected another basket load today and enlisted the help of young chef Daisy, who was happy to…
I wish modern life was as simple as a freshly picked broad bean. Broad beans keep on giving, to us, back to the earth, to the future, and don’t ask for much in return. They are prolific, nutritious and easily grown, but their season is short. When I’m picking broad beans or fava, I feel safe and in touch with something primordial and elemental: they’ve been cultivated for 10,000 years and pop up in all sorts of world cuisines. The recipes are endless and all tempting. I often notice how well these tall plants support each other in the wind when they’re heavy with fat beans. Bending my way through the pale stalks as I pick the plump young pods, I often reflect on the grander issues of life. Gardening is my thinking space, free from distraction and noise and it is, in a sense, quite subversive . It’s a world away from the culture wars that dominate my screens, where new causes and self -righteous stances pop up daily and divide and split those on the same side, each issue mutating along the way. Young versus old, boomer versus millennial, carnivore versus vegan, on and on it goes. Is this cartoonist a misogynist? Change the Date, Nup to the Cup, farmers versus city folk, who has the holiest milk, almonds versus cows, will the real water thieves please raise their hand, diet religion. Division is the name of the game here, and those climate crisis deniers who speak untruths, who adopt slogans without meaning in response to catastrophe, dealers in fake religion, prayers and hopes and rhetorical nonsense, the used car salesman in a baseball cap holding a lump of coal, or those sporting silly hairstyles, the cretins in power are laughing all the way to the next polls. Unlike our co-operative and timeless tall broad bean plants, progressives around the globe are divided and distracted, too busy with their own point scoring and breast thumping, privately self congratulatory at their stance on… fill in your own issue. Beware of smugness and mindless memes. Read more books and turn off the screen. View with suspicion new language, appropriated words from African Americans, if it makes you feel superior, separate or better than others. Keep your eyes on the main event. There is only one earth. Divided we lose.
My Best Broad Bean Soup. Crema di Fave Fresche con Pecorino Romano.
freshly picked broad beans, 800 gr or more
one large potato or 2 medium, peeled and cubed
one medium onion, finely chopped
new season garlic, 3 or more, finely chopped
EV olive oil
stock, home made or water with stock cube/powder
fresh marjoram leaves, torn
sea salt, white ground pepper
grated pecorino romano cheese
In a heavy saucepan, sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil gently for 10 minutes till soft and golden.
Add the chopped potato, and cover with stock. Cook on medium heat.
Meanwhile, shell the beans and cook them in boiling water for around 1 minute. Drain, cool the beans in cold water, then shell them. The delicious green centre will pop out easily between finger and thumb, once parboiled.
Once the potato is almost soft, add the green shelled broad beans and the torn marjoram. Cook gently for another minute or so. Season well.
Add the contents to a blender or food processor and buzz until smooth.
Serve with freshly grated Pecorino Romano. Of course you could use another cheese, but Pecorino and broad beans( fava) make a wonderful marriage, and are a traditional match.
My sometimes editor, Mr T, suggested I remove all the ‘F’ words from this post, but I’m more than happy for you to reinsert them wherever you like. This post was inspired by an overdose of activity, by way of comment in the Guardian, with a whole heap of supposedly progressive younger people who like to use the meme, #okboomer, an ageist term destined to divide activists on the basis of age. Use it and be the unconscious tool of fascism.
To be frank, my kitchen is often really messy. At times the cleaning tasks seem daunting. But there are some very good reasons, or justifications, for this. The storage is dated and inadequate for my needs, with limited drawer space and old fashioned cupboards with useless dark corners. The benches are too high and cause back, neck and shoulder pain. As the cheap pine cupboard doors become unhinged, I simply rip them off. Better them than me. The white laminate bench tops are in a sorry state: there’s no point replacing them when the whole kitchen needs a total overhaul. My kitchen is no ‘House and Garden’, and hardly instagram worthy, even on a good day. Occasionally I ponder a few pockets of beauty. My eye, like the lens of a camera, is selective. I have a love/hate relationship with my kitchen. It is a slave driver, but then, as I’m very attracted to frugality and seasonal food, a slave I must be.
I’ve retaliated by commandeering most of the laundry for storage, which now houses the larger kitchen machines which aren’t in daily use ( rice cooker, slow cooker, blender, microwave, second fridge ) as well as shelves dedicated to preserves, empty jars for future preserves, potato and onion storage, seasonal garlic bulbs kept in the dark, shelves of cake tins – loved for their shapes, patina and history,- small moulds and forms for puddings and soufflé, antique Italian coffee pots just because I like them, collected old biscuit tins to send off when full to someone in need, a huge and ancient gelataio, and that insane breeding area for plastic storage containers, the bane of my life, those necessary evil things, often missing their lids. This area, an annex to my kitchen, is indispensable and strangely, most of the stuff gets used.
In My Kitchen, the tasks seem endless. If I’m home, my annoying but workable kitchen is put to the test all day. Produce from the garden or market is preserved, conserved, frozen, dried, pickled, bottled, and brined. Today I dealt with the olives I picked back in April this year. The lidded 14 kilo container, a throw out icing container from the local bakery, sat in the kitchen for 7 months full of curing olives. Today they moved into jars, and although still a little bitter, it is an old style Greek taste that grows on you. We were forced to pick last season’s olives when green, thanks to the marauding birds that sampled most of the olives before spitting them out on the ground. I’ve always admired how smart some birds are, but I do wonder when it comes to olives, why the birds must try each and every one. Last April’s olives were not as plump as usual, given the low rainfall. I followed the very simple method given here by Mt Zero Olives.
I put aside a jar of my preserved lemons last June and have just pulled them out from a dark cupboard. I use chopped preserved lemon in salmon patties, couscous, and add them to smashed baby potatoes, the latter a very nice side dish with fish.
It’s a fortuitous day at the market when there’s a huge snapper carcass to be had for two dollars. Snapper makes the best stock, so long as the gills and all traces of blood are removed before cooking. Into the pot he goes, along with some wine, onion and some aromatics. Once cooked, the stock is then labelled and frozen, to be married later on to a good Carnaroli rice, and perhaps a handful of prawns.
Other fishy preserves this month included anchovies under oil, a time consuming labour of love, the recipe outlined in my previous post here. Acciughe sott’olio is a great addition to a board full of different antipasti for lunch.
As young ginger is now in season at the market, it’s time to make pickled ginger, another lovely condiment that improves with time, which will be a welcome addition to the table in summer, although I do know a young girl who enjoys pink pickled ginger straight from the jar. There is always a seasonal herb, vegetable, fruit or fish to dry, pickle or preserve in some way. I’m happily a martyr to the cause, and will be ready for Armageddon, or at least, Armageddon hungry.
Using up old bread for croutons
Lovely black olive and rosemary sourdough
The daily bean soak
Diane Henry’s book on preserving. Borrowed twice, now must buy.
Sydney rocks, sourdough butter lemons
Free range eggs, one dozen a day.
Header photo, Pumpkin risotto with crispy sage leaves. Time to use up the remaining stored pumpkins from last Autumn. They are now at peak ripeness.
Today is un giorno festivo according to the bus timetable, which simply means it’s Sunday, a holiday, a holy day, as opposed to all the other working days of the week. I’ve arrived in Castellina in Chianti, a small village 15 kilometres from Siena, after a slow but pleasant bus trip through rolling Tuscan hills dotted with small historic settlements with names that resonate more loudly than they should: Ficareto, Colombaio, Quercegrossa, Croce Fiorentina, San Leonino. I mentally translate every printed word that flashes by: names of villages and rivers, traffic directions and road signs, as figs and doves, large oak trees and Florentine crosses, saints, wells and fountains overload my thinking. This habit is mentally exhausting. Last night’s drift of snow left no visible sign in these hills, but it’s still cold and bleak. I’m wearing a thick brown coat- one that I purchased from the bi – weekly market near the medieval wall just outside the centro storico in Siena. It’s my bag lady coat, coarse and graceless, but warm. I feel like an outsider, an imposter, and terribly lonely: this coat doesn’t help. I’ll blame the coat for my sense of estrangement, given that all the Senese look so elegant in their long, fur trimmed woolen coats, not unlike those well- behaved citizens in a medieval Ambrogio Lorenzetti fresco. Not to mention the local taste for expensive, narrow, fine leather or reptile skin shoes, elegant and totally impractical, which don’t fit my broad Australian feet. The stall holders at the Sunday market in Castellina in Chianti are now packing up: I’ve arrived too late to pick up a little antique hand worked pillow case or vintage ceramic plate. The village looks deserted and uninviting. I’m not sure why I came, or where to go, not having done much research before making this lone journey. A church bell chimes in the distance signalling that it’s already past one pm, a reminder to the secular that it’s time to eat. Distant church bells can be comforting or dispiriting, arousing a sense of belonging or sadness. Today’s bells ring melancholy. A sense of cognitive dissonance overcomes me: it seems that the more I learn this language and bathe in the familiarity of Italian sounds, the less certain I feel about my place here. The empty streets loudly announce that everyone else is already seated at a table, either in a family home or warm restaurant, coats now hanging on pegs by the front door, primo piatto about to be served, a bottle of Chianti Classico proffered, as loud and excitable conversation fills the room.The choice on the menu won’t be novel or foreign: Italians are far more comfortable with regional food, or even more precisely, the food of their paese, the local village or district, food that is cooked simply and according to tradition. That’s what is so appealing about Italian food. At times, I’ll admit, Italian regional cuisine can become stubbornly insular and unbending too. Campanilismo, a word derived from campanile, the village church bell,suggests a rigid adherence to one’s local food, method of cooking, ingredients, dialect and ways of doing things: it’s about local pride. The bell tolls for many reasons.
I’m feeling anxious now and walk more desperately. The town is much smaller than I anticipated. If I’m not seated at a table by 1.15, I may miss out on lunch altogether. I’m looking for a small restaurant or trattoria, one that isn’t too well patronised by noisy extended families in elegant clothes, having attended, or pretending to have attended, church. Pretending to attend church is an art form in Italy, a performance that I greatly admire. You don your Sunday best, make a brief appearance at the church with the family, double or triple kiss your friends at the front steps, enter and sit down for a bit, pop out the front for a smoke (male), or chat loudly with your friends in the mid to rear rows (female), while ignoring most of the action at the front altar. The reverberating monotone of the priest echoing around the walls, ‘Santo, Santo, Santo il Signore Dio dell’universo. I cieli e la terra sono pieni della tua gloria’, produces a ready response from the front two rows of pews. High pitched, croaky voices pray in unison, the pious and the permed: small boned and ancient women kneel, rosaried and devout, as they prepare for their future in paradiso.
I peer through the window of a small and very plain looking trattoria and see a tangle of bright yellow pasta lying on a wooden bench, liberally dusted with flour. A plump middle aged woman in a plastic cap adds more to the pile- pasta freshly rolled and cut for today’s lunch. The menu board says Tagliatelle al Burro eSalvia. ( tagliatelle with butter and sage). I don’t read any further, I don’t need to know what’s on offer for the piatto secondo. I walk straight in.
When the eggs are plentiful and spring vegetables and herbs announce their readiness to be picked before bolting to heaven, I think back to that simple meal in Castellina in Chianti. It was elegant yet comforting, it’s success arising from restraint. Freshly made egg pasta is a joy to make and consume soon after. It requires only 2 ingredients: eggs and flour, along with a bit of kneading, resting, rolling and cutting and that’s all. No salt, no oil, no sourdough starter, no colours, no heavy artisan type flours, no chia seeds and no fuss. The sauce should gently coat the strands. Ideally, you want the fresh eggs to sing, their golden yolks colouring the mixture. At this time of the year, fresh pasta is almost saffron in colour, the eggs are so good. In the case of Tagliatelle with Butter and Sage, the sauce comes from lightly browned butter in which you crisp a few sage leaves. You could add a grating of nutmeg. It is served with grated parmigiano. Authenticity, although a fraught concept, requires you to stick, as much as possible, to the traditions of a country’s cuisine, if you have the ingredients on hand to do so. Once you start fiddling with a recipe, expect the results to speak a different language. Restrained is a good word to describe the elegance of Italian food. I hear those bells ringing. Time to make fresh pasta.
One of the classic ways of conserving seasonal food, especially in rural Italy, is to preserve food in jars ‘sott’ olio’ or under oil. Usually vegetables, such as peppers, artichokes, eggplant and mushrooms, are partially cooked, grilled or brined beforehand, then covered completely in oil. The oil excludes air and acts as a seal against deterioration. The shelf life of these country treasures is shorter than other foods preserved using the bottling or ‘canning’ method, and once opened, they should be stored in the fridge.
One of the most enticing treats done in this way is anchovies under oil. I have vivid memories of the first time I tried anchovies conserved in this way. It was February 1993 and I was living in Siena for a month to attend a language course in Italian at the Scuola di Dante Alighieri per Stranieri, a short course wedged between my first and second year Italian studies at university. The course was demanding, with daily classes from 8 am to 1 pm, with a short coffee break in between. This left the afternoon free to explore the countryside or to wander the streets of Siena before returning home for a wine, a snack and more homework. One lunchtime, a fellow student and his wife invited me to lunch- he was, like me, an older student and was studying Italian to enhance his wine writing career. He recommended a little osteria, a simple place, with an appealing array of antipasti dishes displayed at the front counter. And there they were, sitting neatly in a rectangular glass dish, acciughesott’olio, pink tender fillets of anchovy glistening under golden olive oil, carpeted above in finely chopped parsley. I ordered a large scoop, along with some other bits and pieces and a panino. Anchovies have never been the same for me since that day. When in Italy, I always order a small container of acciughesott’olio from an alimentari: they taste nothing like the jarred or tinned variety.
Last Wednesday as I was trawling the fish market at Preston, a big shiny pile of fresh anchovies caught my eye. I could barely contain my excitement, largely because in all the years I’ve been frequenting fish markets around Melbourne, I’ve never seen them offered for sale. I bought one kilo, raced back home and spent the next hour, with some help from Mr T, de-heading and gutting hundreds of these tiny fish: no bigger than my little finger, this was a real labour of love, the anticipation of eating the finished product inspiring me to gut neatly and well. The following recipe is for those who might come across fresh anchovies in their travels and who don’t mind some tedious gutting. The gutting becomes quite easy once you get a rhythm going. Once gutted, they are easy to brine and conserve. Don’t confuse fresh anchovies with sardines- they are two quite distinct species: anchovies are much smaller and look and taste completely different.
Fresh anchovies preserved under oil. Acciughe sott’olio.
1 kilo fresh anchovies
red wine vinegar
EV olive oil.
First of all, wash the fish a few times in a large colander to remove some of the blood. Then start the de-heading and gutting process, well armed with a strong wooden cutting board and newspaper for the scraps ( perfectly fine sent to the compost heap). As you cut off head, push down against the board and drag it away from the body- you’ll find that the guts come out with the head in one simple movement. If the anchovy separates into two parts, pull out the backbone: if not, leave it there, to be removed later.
Once prepared, lay in a glass or ceramic container – I used a large earthenware gratin dish. Liberally sprinkle with course salt, lifting the little fillets through the salt, then arrange them neatly in the dish. How much salt? Quanto basta, as they say in Italian recipes, q.b. for short, which means as much as you think they need. Cover with red wine vinegar. Cover the dish, and put it in the fridge for 24 hours.
The next day, sterilise two medium sized jars for the anchovies. Drain the brine from the fish, remove their fine backbones, which will pull out very easily, then pop into jars, layering them with a little finely chopped garlic and some oregano if you wish. Don’t overdo the extra flavours as they may come to overwhelm the fish over time. Fill the jars with olive oil, knock the jars against the bench a few times to remove air-pockets, then top up with more oil as needed. The contents must be covered. Put on lids tightly then store in the fridge. Leave for around five days before eating. As olive oil turns cloudy when cold, remove the anchovies a few minutes before serving and place in a small bowl. The oil with clear in no time in a warm room.
As the flavoured oil is a component of this antipasto dish, you want to use good tasting oil, but perhaps not a top notch one. I used Cobram Australian Extra Virgin olive oil, a good quality everyday oil and one that tastes quite good too.
Serve as part of an antipasto selection, or simply place them on top of good sourdough bread, along with parsley and black pepper, and eat them when the mood takes you.
The recipe was inspired by a post by Debi who wrote about finding fresh anchovies in Greece, around one year ago. I remember that post well, thinking that I would never see the fresh species land in my local fish market.
Stepping back into my vegetable garden after three months away, I’m immediately overcome with horticulture shock. It’s not only a sense of disorientation and sadness over neglect, but a looming frustration that the work ahead might be too difficult. The cavolo nero plants are now treelike, with thick grey trunks and yellow flowers waving in the breeze high above my head. The bees are happy. Mizuna lettuces resemble a triffid forest, delicately frilled in maroon and topped with more yellow flowers. The coriander, endive, parsley and chicory follow on their march towards the sky. There are weeds galore, some trying to smother the garlic, requiring gentle hand pulling so as not to disturb the still emerging bulbs of our precious annual crop. Most weeds are valuable additions to the compost bin: they might not be edible, but many have sought out valuable trace elements in the soil. Those in flower are drowned. Beds full of broad beans support each other like good friends, their black eyes winking with promise, roots setting nitrogen in the soil.
Once the borders are clipped, the pathways revealed, the beds pulled into shape, the snow peas supported and tied, and edible greens harvested for pies and soups, I can see my way forward. My vegetable patch, my precious orto, is a labour of love, it’s a statement about the value of fresh food, and it’s an act of defiance against the capitalist diet.
Ingredients for a Garden Soup. Minestra dell’Orto
1/2 kilo fresh borlotti beans, podded or substitute dried borlotti if fresh are unavailable.
3 cloves garlic, 2 finely chopped,
fresh rosemary branch
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 celery sticks, finely chopped
2 Tablespoons EV olive oil
4 large silver beet leaves, finely shredded, or more if small
3 handfuls big pasta, such as mezzi rigatoni
homemade vegetable stock ( ingredients listed separately in method )
salt, pepper to taste
Steps for a tasty spring soup
Make a vegetable stock from chopped carrots, onion, celery,bay leaves, parsley stalks, mushroom stalks. Cook for 30 -45 minutes.
Pod the borlotti beans, add to a pot, with one whole garlic clove and one small rosemary branch. Cover with water, bring to the boil, lower heat and cook till beans are soft and liquid is brown and thick, around 30- 45 minutes. If using dried beans, soak overnight, then cook until soft. Time will vary depending on the age of the beans.
Make a soffritto with one chopped onion, two chopped garlic, chopped celery in the olive oil. Add a little dried chilli and more finely chopped rosemary to the mix if you like. Cook on gentle heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions have softened but not coloured.
Add the silverbeet ( chard) and toss around for a minute or so to coat in oil. Then add the cooked beans with some of the cooking water. Add stock, enough to well cover the beans and silver beet. Bring to the boil then reduce heat and cook for five minutes or until the greens have softened. Add salt.
Add the pasta, making sure there is enough liquid in the pan, and cook until the pasta is al dente.
Serve topped with a drizzle of good olive oil, grated parmigiano reggiano and crusty bread.