It was a lucky day in the garden, coinciding with a lucky find in the fridge that led to the naming of this rich winter dish, Pasta Fortunata. The cavolo nero, a winter loving vegetable, had finally produced enough young tender branches for me to gather, while in the fridge loitered a tasty nugget of soft and runny Taleggio cheese left over from another dish. These two ingredients are a match made in pasta heaven.
Cavolo Nero often goes by the name Tuscan Kale or Black Kale in Australia, while in Italy it’s sometimes called Braschetta. I grow this ‘prince of darkness’ in my vegetable patch- it seems to prefer the cold chill of winter mornings to develop well- summertime’s cavolo nero is often prone to attack by white cabbage moth and doesn’t taste as crisp. I have used young leaves in this recipe, requiring only a quick chop. If you buy it, you will need to strip the leaves from the stalk to cook it, as the commercial stems are much longer, older and harder.
This is a rich winter dish, not really conveyed well by my photos. At the base lies a little puddle of tasty sauce while the Taleggio cheese is added right at the end of cooking. Some melts through the dish, while some lucky lumps remain hidden under the leaves and pasta. This week I’ve used Molisana’s Rotelle pasta- little wheels, a purchase influenced by young Chef Daisy, who was attracted to the shape. It requires a little more cooking time than the suggested 7 minutes on the packet, given its thickness. Any pasta corta, short and chunky shape, would work well here.
This week’s Pasta della Settimana recipe – Rotelle con Cavolo Nero e Taleggio, or Pasta Rotelle pasta with Tuscan kale and Taleggio. (for 2 lunchtime serves). Reduce the amount of pasta if serving as a first course.
180- 200 gr Rotelle pasta or other short pasta shape
20 gr EV olive oil
1 clove of garlic, finely sliced
a little white wine
125 gr cavolo nero, sliced.
70 gr Taleggio cheese
10 gr Pecorino Romano
white pepper to taste
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil then add the leaves to the pot. If the leaves a long and large, strip them from the inner hard stem before chopping and cooking. Cook for around 8 minutes.
Add the pasta to the same pot and cook for the time indicated on the pasta packet.
Meanwhile, grate the Pecorino, and roughly chop the Taleggio into chunks. In a wide frying pan such as a non stick wok, heat the olive oil and then add the garlic. Lift out the cooked leaves and pasta and add to this pan. There will be some water still on the pasta and leaves- this adds to the sauce. Add a slurp of white wine, then toss the ingredients about to heat on high. Add a little extra olive oil and cooking water if all the sauce has evaporated. Add the grated Pecorino, some grinds of white pepper then toss through the Taleggio and plate at once, before all the Taleggio completely vanishes.
My pursuit of the best dried pasta continues. In my last post in this series, Pasta della Settimana, I mentioned the importance of bronze dies in the manufacturing process. This method of extrusion has a distinct effect on the taste as well as on the ability of the cooked pasta to hold sauce. Compared to stainless steel or teflon dies, pasta made in this way has a rougher surface and an improved taste. The words ‘Trifilatura al Bronzo‘ is a label used on retail packages to indicate this production method.
While trying to keep to a budget, bearing in mind that a weekly pasta meal is often considered a cheap option for many families, especially those with hungry teenagers, I shall keep my various pasta recommendations to under AU$5 per 500 g packet, an arbitrary line in the sand. There are many cheaper alternatives around and some are very good. You need to taste a few different varieties to distinguish the difference. It seems a crying shame to make a lovely slow cooked and expensive beef ragu, or an indulgent seafood marinara sauce, only to plonk it on the top of some tasteless industrial pasta. So this week, my pasta brand is heading up a notch in price to AU$4.75 for a 500 g packet. The Gentile brand of pasta comes highly recommended by my helpful friend at the Mediterranean Wholesalers, a bloke who doesn’t mind a chat about food, travel and recipes. Gentile pasta is made in Gragnano, a commune famous for pasta making, located between the Amalfi coast and Naples, in Campania, Italia.
“Gragnano’s main street was laid out expressly to capture the mountain breeze mixed with sea air back when pasta makers hung spaghetti on drying rods like laundry. More recently heaters are used to dry the pasta at low temperatures (approximately 122 degrees Fahrenheit) for two days and it is shaped with bronze to give it a rough texture, producing a pasta with nuttier aroma and chewier mouth feel.” ¹
The history of pasta manufacture in Gragnano makes interesting reading in itself, and there are a few short films set in the various pasta factories of Gragnano, the better ones noted below. Italian online magazines also love to list their top 10 brands of manufactured pasta: Gentile pasta often features in the top 5 artigianale paste, after Masciarelli and Felicetti and Pastificio dei Campi. The first two brands are available in Melbourne but at a price!
My recipe for Pasta of the Week uses Gentile Linguine. Of course you can use any other linguine that comes your way. I am enjoying working through Gentile’s range and can’t wait to try their famous Fusilli, the flagship of Gentile’s production, made by workers who roll up each noodle with a knitting needle below their forearms, giving it a helical shape which is then made even more appealing by the diversity of each individual fusillo.
Linguini con Cozze e Finocchietto, Linguini with Mussels and Wild Fennel Fronds. Ingredients for 2 people.
200 g Gentile ( or other brand) Linguini
1/2 kilo of fresh mussels, de-bearded and cleaned
2 cloves garlic
1 finely chopped fresh chilli
2 tablespoons EV olive oil
a dash or two of white wine
some grinds of white pepper
2 branches of wild fennel.
Method. In a wide and deep frying pan, such as a non- stick wok, add one tablespoon of olive oil, one peeled garlic clove, and a slurp or two of dry white wine. Add the cleaned mussels and cover with a lid, heating on medium until the mussels open. Take out the mussels and reduce the liquid a little. Strain the liquid into a small jug, leaving behind the grit.
Remove the mussels from their shells, leaving two in the shells for decoration. Chop the mussel meat but not too finely. Depending on the size of your mussels, aim to chop each one into quarters.
Cook the pasta in a pot of salted boiling water, but only cook for half of the suggested time.
In the wide frying pan used previously, heat 1 tablespoon of EV olive oil, then add one finely chopped garlic and chilli, being careful not to overcook them. Immediately scoop out the pasta from the pot, and add to the pan. Don’t worry about the water clinging to the strands- this adds to the sauce. Now add some of reserved mussel juice and stir well. The pasta needs to cook for another five minutes in this way, a little like making a risotto. Add more mussel juice and also some of the starchy pasta cooking water. After five minutes, the pasta should be cooked to al dente and some rich sauce will have formed. Test the pasta for doneness. Add the chopped mussel meat and the chopped wild fennel fronds, to the pasta, along with a few grinds of white pepper. Toss gently. Serve, adding the reserved mussels in the shell for decoration along with some more fennel fronds. Mmmm Bellissimo.
I am indebted to a recipe found on Speck and the City, but have made various changes along the way. This site is rather more adventurous than most Italian cooking sites and worth a good look.
The following little videos are set around Gragnano. One with George Depardieu visiting the Gentile pasta factory with some very annoying French dubbing over the Italian. Turn the sound off and enjoy watching George and the Fusillare. The second shows some fascinating ancient mills of Gragnano. I know where I’m off to on my next trip to Italy.
Winter announced itself rather dramatically last week with a fine frost, the first of the season on the first of June. The last of summer’s basil wilted in disgust while the bright yellow zucchini flowers on the remaining happy plant closed their petals tightly in protest. New hungry birds are now visiting our back door, competing with our gregarious King Parrots. Can I detect a different kind of plea in the warble of the magpies lately? One has taken up the morning watch, staring at me through the kitchen window, singing for his breakfast.
On the second day of winter, Mr T picked most of the remaining tomatoes which now happily sunbake in our north facing windows. As the sun streams in during winter, thanks to the passive solar design of the house, I am enjoying the taste of these winter jewels. The small yellow pear tomatoes seem to ripen very quickly this way.
I’ve been experimenting with different pasta varieties, then the recipes are posted in my Pasta della Settimana series. This pasta brand, Gentile, from Napoli proved to be quite tasty and different in texture. More about this soon.
I’ve been de-cluttering madly but when this old plate turned up at the local second hand emporium for $5.99, I felt compelled to nab it. Nicely crazed with age and a little faded, the stamp on the back reads ‘Jabez Blackhurst’ and the design is Rhine. The dish was made in 1867 in Tunstall, England. I have given it a quick clean but I enjoy a serving dish with a bit of patina and history.
There was an over supply of jam in my kitchen pantry after I made this season’s fig and quince jams. Time for those old fashioned jam and coconut slices, a treat after working outside in the garden or renovating. They went in a flash and the oats suggest at least one healthy element. This lot was made with spiced plum jam through the middle layer, and tasted a lot like Christmas.
Left over pizza dough always means foccaccia a day or so later.
We recently gathered the pumpkins from the vegetable garden. I let them stay attached to the vine until late Autumn so they continue to ripen and harden. As they are self sown, I never know which varieties will turn up. This year, we had more Queensland Blues.
Limes are funny things. When you want them in summer for drinks and Thai food, they’re scarce. In winter they thrive in our garden. Other than lime delicious pudding and the occasional lime syrup cake, I tend to use them instead of lemons. I’m resisting making lime marmalade due to the aforementioned jam build up but might consider an Indian lime chutney. Good lime recipes are invited, dear readers.
And now for some Happy Birthday snaps and an insiders look into my kitchen when my kids and grandchildren are around. We are now 14 in total, and so it’s often a busy event for me when they come here for dinner. Three of the grandchildren celebrate their birthdays a few days apart. I still like to make three cakes and each year, the cakes are getting stranger. The children love it.
Thanks Sherry once again for keeping the IN MY KITCHEN series going, despite the difficulties involved ensuring that all the participants are now GDPR ready. Rest assured Sherry, that mine is now displaying the appropriate privacy warnings for our European readers.
The weekly photographic word prompt by WordPress has been one of the highlights of my blogging week. Released every Wednesday, (Thursday morning for Australians), it has enabled me to sort through my travel photos, forcing me to edit some and discard others along the way. Sadly, this lovely distraction is about to disappear as WordPress has announced that today’s prompt, All-TimeFavourites, will be the last. I wonder why?
If you are an avid photographer, try to imagine choosing your favourite image? Or your favourite 5 images? I am sure many would feature family snaps that capture a happy memory, photos that you’re not inclined to share generally. Others might include beautiful travel photos, memories kept alive by regularly sorting through the digital shoe box.
This little research project could take days, so I’m randomly choosing a few nice pics to share, some that appeal to me, not because they show any photographic skill but simply because I like them. My selection today includes a few portraits, some Chinese themes, a basket of apples and some native flora. I’ll miss this weekly challenge.
There are so many versions of Pasta e Fagioli in Italy and on the web, it almost seems superfluous to add my two bob’s worth on the topic. Anyone who has an Italian nonna makes a more traditional/better/regional/authentic version. During winter, Pasta e Fagioli, (pasta and beans) is one of the most useful dishes to know. Is it an entrée, a soup or a main dish? It can be all of these but given the heartiness and distinct lack of brothy elements, I tend to make this dish as a piatto unico, a stand alone dish, to be served with bread, a few drops of new oil, and perhaps some Parmigiano. Most versions are thick with beans and pasta and very little broth: some are made slowly with fresh borlotti beans, while less desirable versions are thrown together with canned beans, canned tomato and cheap industrial pasta. It is a timeless classic rustic dish, Cucina Povera Italiana, made in the past through necessity using simple ingredients stored for winter. Today, it satisfies that need in us all for comfort food on a cold winter’s day.
Like many other Italian dishes, this one also starts with a classic soffritto, that holy trio of flavour, emerging from the slow sauté of carrots, onion and celery. The soffrito vegetables must be chopped very finely so that they almost disappear once they are cooked. Another element often added at the soffrito stage is pancetta and lardo. I omit these ingredients given my dietary preferences but try to find other umani elements to flavour the dish, either through rich stock, herbs, garlic or even anchovy fillets, reduced to a salty mash. I also reserve a little deep vegetable stock to thin the mixture.
200 g borlotti beans, either fresh or dried
250 gr tomato passata or finely diced tomatoes
80 gr onion finely chopped
30 gr celery finely chopped
30 gr carrot finely chopped
1 garlic finely chopped
1 small branch fresh rosemary
3 Bay leaves
10 g EV olive oil
fine sea salt
100- 200g of pasta ditalini, depending on your preference for a thick or thinner version.
Cook the beans. If using dried borlotti, soak overnight then cook in water for around 80 minutes. Add the bay leaves to the water but no salt which may make the beans remain hard. If using fresh borlotti, there’s no need to soak them and they should cook in under 30 minutes, depending on their their freshness. Keep the cooking water.
When the beans are done, make a soffrito with the onion, celery and carrot. Add the oil to a large heavy based soup pot and gently saute these vegetables until soft and golden, adding the chopped garlic and finely chopped rosemary towards the end. (Traditionally, the garlic would be added to the cooking oil first, cooked until just golden then fished out before adding the soffrito ingredients. If you don’t love garlic as much as I do, consider that method. I like to keep the garlic for more flavour)
Add the beans and a little of the cooking water. Then add the tomato and heat through gently. Remove two ladles of the mixture and puree with a hand mixer. Return this back to the soup pot. If too thick, add a little bean cooking water or vegetable stock.
Add the pasta, and cook until al dente. Watch the pot at this stage as the pasta and beans have a tendency to stick when this thick. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.
Serve in lovely wide and shallow bowls with a drizzle of fine oil and some good bread.
Down by the shore of Port Philip Bay, Melbourne, there’s so much going on during the sunset hour. Seagulls frolic and chase phantoms, paddle boarders glide by, silhouetted in liquid gold, a passing puppet show on water, cargo vessels float weightlessly upon the shipping lane, black swans gently pose, and aluminium dinghies turn bronze. Mesmerizing and always new.
There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.
Ophelia, Act 4, Scene 5, Hamlet.
The most exquisite and evocative bread of my sourdough repertoire is Panmarino. Now that’s a big call I know but it might have something to do with the fragrant mixture of Rosemary and Salt, the soft comforting texture of the bread, or the dramatic diamond encrusted star on its baked dome. I have only recently converted this yeasted bread to sourdough, and must make sure that I don’t make it too often. I prefer to think of it as a festive bread, perhaps best associated with reminiscence and memory. It would be a lovely bread to make for the anniversary of a loved one. Pray you, love, remember me.
This bread was first popularised by Carol Field in her classic work, The ItalianBaker.¹ According to Field, it was invented by a baker named Luciano Pancalde, the baker with the perfect hot bread name, who created this bread as the encapsulation of one he had read about in a biography of the d’Este family of Ferrara. I really like this idea on many levels. That he read about a Renaissance bread, visualised it, then recreated it makes it rather special but that this bread was eaten at the courts of my favourite historic family makes it even better. I plan to come back in my next life as Beatrice d’Este. In the meantime, I’m enjoying a virtual memory. Rosemary does that. It’s the time traveling herb.
The recipe listed by Field is for a yeasted bread: it is easy to make, and it tastes good too. But to my mind, the bread made in the Renaissance courts of the d’Este family would have been made with something like a biga or lievito madre. Using my standard sourdough starter, a very fine traditional Panmarino can be made. Some of the recipes I have drawn on suggest a long gestation time of 4 days. I’m happy with a 24 hour time frame, given a ready starter, one that has been refreshed over a day or so. I also like to add a little wholemeal to mine, in keeping with a loaf of the past.
Sourdough Panmarino, un pane per la bella Beatrice d’Este.
I have simplified this bread for speed and ease of making. I’ve played with the proportions of starter and am happy with the results so far. If you would like to follow one source of this recipe, see here. Before making this recipe, refresh your starter three times over a day or so, then start the process in the morning.
150 g bubbly active sourdough starter
150 g water filtered or tank, at least not chlorinated
150 g whole milk
500g baker’s white flour or a mixture of baker’s white flour, ie 400g and wholemeal plain flour 100g
5 g diastatic malt 5g ( optional)
10 g sea salt
40 g olive oil
20 g or less chopped fresh rosemary
salt flakes such as Maldon for the shaped loaf
Weigh the the starter, water and milk then add to a large mixing bowl. Add the flour (s) and malt and mix roughly with your hands. It will look like a shaggy pile. Cover with a shower cap or plastic film and leave for 20 minutes or so.
Mix the chopped rosemary, olive oil and salt and work this through the dough with your hands. You will feel the gluten begin to develop. Cover with cap. Leave the covered dough at room temperature.
Do some stretch and folds every 20- 30 minutes, inside the bowl at least three times. You will feel the dough become smoother each time. Now leave the dough on the bench, covered, for 8 hours. It should be well risen by this time.
Place the covered bowl into the fridge for an overnight rest, coinciding with a rest of your own.
In the morning remove the dough from the fridge, have a peep at it, then let it come to room temperature, again still covered.
Using a bread scraper, place the dough onto a large silicon mat or good bench top, adding a small amount of fine semolina to the work surface. Stretch and fold the loaves a few times again, then shape the dough into a nice boule shape. Let this sit for 30 minutes or so, then place the boule into a round shaped and dusted banneton. Cover for 30 minutes to an hour. It will rise a little more.
Meanwhile preheat your oven to 225c FF. Turn the bread out onto a sheet of parchment paper, then lift the paper with the dough and place inside an enamel roaster/baking tin. Using a lame with a sharp blade, slash a star shape on top of the loaf and sprinkle generously with salt flakes. Cover with the lid of the roaster and place in the oven for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, remove the lid and continue baking for a further 20 minutes.
Remove the bread to a wire rack and let it cool completely before slicing.
Thanks Maree for alerting me to the sourdough version of this bread.
‘Then, when a memory reappears in consciousness, it produces on us the effect of a ghost whose mysterious apparition must be explained by special causes.’ Henri Bergson. Of the Survival of Images. Memory and Mind.
Heaven and earth!/ Must I remember. Hamlet, Shakespeare
I’ve been procrastinating over this month’s In My Kitchen, concerned that my posts are becoming repetitive and barely newsworthy. I buy very few new products or gizmos: my tastes are simple. My pantry is full of staples that complement things from my garden. My freezer stores the fruit bounty from summer. I bake bread and a weekly cake or dessert. My home cooking is the antithesis of restaurant cooking: I no longer aspire to cook that way. It is informed by the simplicity of cucina povera, Italian country cooking of the past, along with that of Roman trattorie and is becoming more frugal as time passes. And as for things, lovely kitchen things, I’m in the process of de-cluttering and reducing, not gathering more.
But I’m not quite ready to throw in the IMK towel yet. In My Kitchen has been a part of my blog repertoire for more than four years, providing at least one platform of discipline in my untidy life. When I look back at my old posts, I see some recurring themes and plenty of growth. My first IMK, written in December 2013, concerned decor and green kitchen ware. Back then, I had a two-year old to cook with, (not for- Daisy has always participated in the kitchen) and during those earlier years, a tribe of young grandchildren spent hours in my kitchen, licking spoons and making concoctions, cranking fresh pasta, asking for their favourite barley soup or begging for flathead fish. They’ve featured in some of my old posts, especially Daisy, my little cheffa whose sense of taste and smell developed in my kitchen and herb garden. How I miss those years: required school attendance has a lot to answer for!
The fine art of sourdough bread making came along when Celia, of Fig Jam and Lime Cordial, sent me my first packet of dehydrated starter in June 2014. Most of you are familiar with Celia’s generous spirit: she is responsible for perhaps thousands of sourdough home bakers around the world today. Now she’s leading the way in campaigning against waste and plastic in a gentle, non proselytising way. Teaching not preaching.
When I look back on posts featuring my early sourdough loaves, I have to laugh-they looked so odd and yet they tasted OK. These days, with better technique and the understanding of how dough behaves in my kitchen and overnight in my fridge, my loaves look much better and taste really good: it is a passionate pastime that takes commitment. Somewhere along the way, I met Maree, first through this forum on her occasional blog and more recently through her facebook site, Simply Sourdough Trafalgar which includes regular updates of her latest loaves. Maree’s sourdough bread is wonderfully enticing, she is a sourdough artist. Talk about bread porn! Her experimentation with hand- milled grains is inspiring, as is her energy, running a small bakery and teaching sourdough bread classes. My entry into the sourdough baking community began right here in this very forum, for which I am eternally grateful. These days, I also enjoy passing on this skill to others. I recently spent a week at Peter’s place in Far North Queensland. We spent a few days playing with sourdough, adapting it to his humid climate, and making home-made yoghurt and cheese together. Now he is totally obsessed, baking bread like a banshee and churning out fabulous labneh. His first herby labneh came about from one of his stuffed up yoghurt attempts. It’s the best labneh I’ve ever tasted. Peter, like me, wastes nothing. We are kindred souls in the kitchen. Now he makes all these goodies for his B&B. How good is that? Thanks Peter and Steve for your amazing hospitality and enthusiasm for life.
And so back to my kitchen this month. What’s happening? Red and pink things are pouring into the kitchen from my garden, begging to be cooked into simple dishes and not wasted. Crunchy and bitter radicchio leaves, my favourite salad ingredient of all time, are picked daily, washed and popped into ziplock bags. ( yes, heavy-duty plastic bags that get washed over and over and seem perfect for maintaining crunchy salad leaves ). Pink scribbled borlotti beans ripened all at once this week, some to cook now, some to store, and some to pop aside for next year’s planting, dark red frilly mizuna leaves, tasting a lot like wasabi, tomatoes galore still in early May, chillis to dry for the year, to crush and make into hot chilli oil, the first new red radishes, and plenty of green things too.
For those of you who love Radicchio and have a vegetable garden, may I just mention that once radicchio acclimatises to your environment, you will have it for life. Let the bee attracting blue flowers go to seed after summer. The hard bullet like seeds will fly about and become little radicchio at just the right time. Mine pop up everywhere and some of the best ones grow between cracks in the paths. Look underneath the large green leaves for pups. Elongated Treviso leaves like to hide in the dark, producing delicate white and pink crunchy leaves. Pull out a small cluster and another one will appear in its place. So colourful, bitter and bounteous, they make me want to sing like Michael Hutchence. They only need a grind of salt, a drizzle of new oil and a drop or two of balsamic.
Routines and rituals are precious in my morning kitchen. While the bread bakes, I roughly chop up a pile of vegetables and herbs to add to the bottom rack of the oven. It’s a shame to waste all that stored heat. My stock mix includes carrots, onions, garlic, small tomatoes, dark fleshed mushrooms that need using up, mushroom stems, torn bay leaves, a sage leaf and a branch of thyme. These are all glossed with a little EV olive oil and baked for 20 minutes or so. Once caramelised, they come out of the oven and into a stove top pot, along with a little chopped celery, parsley stalks, and two litres of water. After cooking steadily for 25 minutes or so, the stock is strained off and popped into a jar for later use. This is a super rich stock with a deep colour, the smell permeating the kitchen.
If we don’t have soup for lunch, we’re bound to have pasta. This one, Maccheroni Rigati, is coated with a rich tasting creamy red capsicum pesto. Recipe here. The sauce is also wonderful spooned under a nice wedge of grilled fish.
Thanks Sherry, at Sherry’s Pickings, for inviting participation in this series. If you wish to join in, follow the link and add your own kitchen story.
The first thing you notice when entering the lush rainforest world of TropicalBliss B&B in Far North Queensland is the sound of rushing water and the deep umbrous green light of the rainforest. It’s a soothing sound, reminding me in many ways of Ubud in Bali. Tropical Bliss B&B sits high above Utchee Creek and just below the platformed gazebo, the rapids rush loudly. If you are lucky enough to stay in the Ulysses Butterfly room, you will feel totally immersed in this environment. It’s another world. The bedroom windows are flywired but open, the doors are French and best left ajar so you can hear the sounds of the night forest or the startling early morning chatter of the Wompoo fruit doves. An afternoon read is a luxurious pastime but it only takes a page or two before succumbing to that water world: the words blur and its off, once again, to the land of nod. Call them naps, or call them dreams or trance, they happen often here. Chillax, as the hosts say.
Another nap with rainforest.
Shady living spaces
Memories of China
View of main bedroom, the Ulysses room
To get to Tropical Bliss B&B, drive south from Cairns down the Bruce Highway to the thriving country town of Innisfail, then head on through the sugar cane fields and banana plantations until you reach Utchee Creek. This is rich Queensland farming country but there are a few small settlements dotted throughout these fertile lands, especially along the creeks where the rainforest has historically been left intact. The rainfall in this area is the highest in Australia: it’s hard to imagine an average rainfall of 4,000 millimetres ( 160 inches) per year. The forest seems to grow before your very eyes. The thought of all this rain is quite overwhelming.
The wet season continued later this year, with huge downpours throughout April, making Utchee Creek more teeming than usual. You can swim here- it’s too high for crocodiles. The small rock pools below look very tempting, though the staircase down is precipitous. Peter, the host, will happily guide you through his rainforest garden of 2.5 acres. Some is accessible and safe: other steeper sections along the creek are wild and primordial. Some plants have thrived here since the age of the dinosaurs. There are colours, shapes and textures unseen in safer southern lands and stories and legends abound. We passed one plant with incredibly sticky leaves: when torn, they have the property of super glue. Then there’s the Wait- a While stinging vine, ( the only way to become disentangled is to wait a while so you don’t get injured by the toxic stinging barbs) and then there’s Gympie Gympie, the devil- like bush with extremely painful and toxic leaves. Along the driveway, lush red flowers remind me of hydrangeas- they are beautiful but apparently invasive.
Beyond, in a small grassy clearing, black bamboo canes soar above, while black sapote trees, strangler vines and pepper creepers compete for light. For those interested in tropical plants, Peter can give you a list of palms, ferns and vines in his garden. Research has been conducted on site by world-famous botanists who itemised around 20,000 plant species, including grasses and smaller microscopic plants. I was rather taken with the Zamea Furfuracea, or Cardboard Plant, a bush with thick leaves like sandpaper, good tucker for those ancient creatures from the mists of time. It’s a plant wonderland here.
Peter can tell you about local activities, which might include a visit to Paronella Park, the Atherton tablelands, Mission beach, or the prosperous inland art deco town of Innisfail with its waterfront boats and fish shops. Perhaps you might be tempted to buy some fresh green tiger prawns or a slab of the beautiful white fleshed Coda fish or a coral trout? It is possible to buy some lovely produce in Innisfail to take ‘home’ to Tropical Bliss where you could use the BBQ or, by pre-arrangement, the kitchen.
A chilled white wine or G&T in the rainforest, a bird call, and a pile of freshly cooked tiger prawns with a squeeze of lime is a pleasant way to spend the early evening. Otherwise, the nearby Mena Creek Pub serves meals. Peter offers a variety of breakfast options. He has just mastered the art of sourdough bread so expect some good toast and sugar-free tropical fruit jams, along with a tropical fruit platter and home-made yoghurt, or banana pancakes, eggs and a good coffee.
The house itself is an inviting open space, though most guests spend their time on the deck overlooking the jungle. Inside you’ll want to kick off your shoes and wander about in the shady lounge area, tastefully decorated in Graham Greene style, with wooden shutters, French doors and Chinese antiques. There are two tiny old dogs on site, both friendly and quiet, and the bathroom facilities are shared. It is, in many ways, like a small and friendly guesthouse. Many ‘celebrities’ choose to stay here, given its private location, to recharge batteries and commune with nature. Some come to write, others to watch birds, backpackers to learn about Australia, and family groups come to have fun. There are two bedrooms and one overflow bunk room for children. Your hosts, Peter and Steve, can be as invisible as Ninjas or delightfully hands on and entertaining; it’s up to you. All you need to do is leave all your preconceptions behind. A short stay at Tropical Bliss is restorative and unique.
I stayed at Tropical Bliss for 6 days, courtesy of the owners. The views expressed here are entirely biased, and I can honestly say, I loved it all. Contact me with any further queries or book through the usual channels or ring the owners via the link below.
Since beginning my little pasta series, Pasta della Settimana, readers have asked me all sorts of pasta questions. Is pasta fresca (fresh) better than pasta secca, (dried)? How do I choose a good dried pasta without paying a fortune? And the answer always comes down to the same thing: taste a variety of pasta brands and discover the difference between good and bad pasta. Commercial ‘fresh pasta’ sold in plastic packets in supermarkets is stodgy, far too thick and is inedible, despite the alluring sounding stuffings. It tastes just like the wrapping it comes in. If you want good fresh pasta, either make a batch yourself or find a reliable source of fresh pasta that is not too thick and floury. A good quality dried pasta beats a badly made industrial fresh one any day. Look for dried pasta that has a rougher surface and has been manufactured using bronze dies, or ‘Trafilatura al Bronzo’, meaning it has been extracted through bronze and not teflon dies, the latter more commonly used. A good pasta should hold its shape when cooked, the cooking water should not become overly cloudy and it should be firm and not floury to taste.
The other key thing about pasta is to choose a shape that marries your sauce. Short pasta with ridged lines (rigati) are good to hold creamy sauces. Look for this word on the packets (lisce means smooth, the opposite of rigati). Other golden rules include:
Never overcook pasta
Never over drain pasta, unless you are saucing with a thin brothy sauce or seafood. Pasta needs to be moist to marry well with the sauce.
Never over sauce pasta.
Use fresh, seasonal ingredients.
Find the best quality ingredients, including pasta, parmesan and EV olive oil that is fresh. When it comes to olive oil, check the use by date and choose one closest to the oil’s date of harvest and crush, which should be mentioned on the tin or bottle. In Victoria, Australia, Cobram oil is released in May each year so it’s easy to check the freshness annually. Many European oils often end up in famous delis with close to rancidity dates. Buyer beware.
In late Autumn, red peppers – bell peppers, pepperoni or capsicums- depending on where you come from, are at their peak and can be purchased in markets rather cheaply. They are far more suited to a sub- tropical climate: this is one vegetable that I prefer to buy than waste 5 months waiting for one two to ripen in my own orto.
The following recipe is a luscious creamy sauce which makes a great accompaniment to grilled fish as well as a pasta sauce. It keeps well, covered with a film of olive oil, for two weeks in the fridge.
Roasted Red Pepper sauce with Maccheroni Rigati ( adapted from a recipe by Ursula Ferrigno, see below.)
This makes enough pasta sauce for 4 serves or a 225 g jar.
4 large red peppers ( capsicum, bell pepper, pepperoni)
65 g ground almonds or almond meal
zest of 1 lemon
4 Tablespoons EV olive oil
1 garlic clove
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
50 g freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Padano
sea salt, black pepper to taste
pasta to serve, around 80 -100g per person
fresh basil leaves to serve.
Preheat oven to 200c. Place the peppers on a baking sheet and roast them in the oven for 25 minutes. turning once during cooking. They should become charred and deflated. Remove and place them in a plastic or paper bag to cool.
When the peppers are cool, peel off the skin and remove all the seeds. Try to save the pepper juice by holding them over a bowl.
Put the pepper flesh and all the other ingredients into a food processor and whizz until blended, smooth and thick. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Cook your chosen pasta, such as rigatoni, penne rigate or maccheroni rigati. Reheat the sauce gently in a wide and and deep frying pan then add the cooked pasta to the sauce, tossing well to completely cover.
Serve hot with torn basil leaves.
Pasta Classica 125. Julia Della Croce, 1987
Pizza, Pasta and Polenta, Great Italian Vegetarian Recipes. Ursula Ferrigno, 1995