Italian Reading Guide, 2015. Narrating Italy.

Being an Italophile, I enjoy reading about Italy and most of this year’s offerings did not disappoint. Some were purchased on Kindle, great for reading whilst travelling or in bed at 3 am, while others came in the mail as lovely, printed books. Now both kinds of books have a place in my life, but when I buy something truly remarkable on Kindle, I regret not having a hard copy and feel compelled to buy the ‘real’ thing. Some of my treasure trove of books that narrate Italy have come my way from second-hand shops. Oh Lucky Day. Others have been purchased thanks to referrals from you, dear readers and followers.

This year’s list with star ratings:

The Politics of Washing- Real Life in Venice. Polly Collins, 2013 ( kindle ) ***

Penny, along with her husband and four children, go to live in Venice for a year. Although English, her husband is Venetian and her children are bi-lingual. This is not the usual romantic saga of renovating a house in Italy, surrounded by colourful tradesman who work on the house and help prune olive trees, the couple usually comprising an artist and writer with limited Italian language and a starry-eyed view of the country. The author takes a hard look at Venice and its residents, the school system, the nightmare that is the Italian bureaucracy and public service, and of course, the plague of tourists. As the book progresses, the writing improves. Although extremely critical of many aspects of Italian life, she finds her place in Venice and comes to love her, but is scathing of the hordes of tourists who are the cause of La Serenissima’s ( what a misnomer) awful problems and demise.

‘These days, Carnival is not a Venetian festival; it is a recent revival of the old tradition, designed to squeeze yet more money from the insatiable tourists, and is, as far as I can see, universally disliked by the inhabitants of the city. It goes on for days and has no real centre or purpose, but is a sprawling, random spread of events, among which tourists wander aimlessly in ridiculous masks.

For Venetians, Carnival is another example of their perennial, nightmarish problem: somebody has organised an enormous party in your backyard but it’s not your party and you don’t know any of the guests. All you want to do is get on with your daily life in peace, but all around you there are millions of strangers doing the opposite.

Not surprisingly, there is a mass exodus of residents from the city during these joyless festivities.’

My Brilliant Friend, 2011. The Story of a New Name, 2012. Those that Leave and those that Stay, 2013. The Story of a Lost Child, 2014. Elena Ferrante. ( kindle)***

I feel ambivalent about this series, spanning five decades, from the narrator’s childhood to her late fifties. Is it over yet? I hope so!  Like others, I was immediately absorbed into the Neapolitan world of Elena, the narrator, and her captivating, provocative and mysterious friend, Lina.  Easy reading and great for travelling, but after four volumes, and in hindsight, I am rather pleased to have escaped this obsessive world.  Too much has been written about the mysterious author: I am yet to read a review that deals exclusively with the writing.

Sicilian Food, Recipes From Italy’s Abundant Isle. Mary Taylor Simetti. ( book) 1989- this edition, 2009.***

Although containing recipes, Simetti provides the reader with an enticing culinary and social history of Sicily through the welding together of quotations from the classical era to the present. A good book to read a chapter here and there, a good bedside book, and a fine introduction to Sicilian history.

The Italians. Luigi Barzini. 1964. (book)**

A classic social history dealing with the manners and morals of the Italians, it assumes a solid background in Italian history, politics, literature. The writing is occasionally brilliant but often dilettantish and tedious. If you have read D’Annunzio’s Il Piacere or the poetry of the decadent movement, you might relate well to the following:

‘D’Annunzio, for instance, lived like a Renaissance prince, was a voluptuary surrounded by borzois, a gaudy clutter of antiques, brocades, rare oriental perfumes and flamboyant but inexpensive jewellery: dressed like a London clubman; preferably slept with duchesses, world-famous actresses, and mad Russian ladies: wrote exquisitely wrought prose and poetry: rode to hounds. His politics were of the extreme right. In reality he was a penniless provincial character of genius, the son of a small merchant from Pescara.’

Not much is said about D’Annunzio as the first Duce and model for the ideals of Fascism.

I am still wading through this one and feel ambivalent about its relevance in a post Berlusconi era.

La Bella Lingua. My love affair with Italy and the most enchanting language in the world.  Dianne Hales. 2009. ( book)****

Sprinkled with Italian phrases, the author shares her love of the Italian language through chapters dealing with the rise of the volgare, with an excellent chapter on Dante, art, eating Italian, love, swearing and so on. I plan to re-read this book as my first read was fragmented, given that I read it aloud to keep the driver awake on a long trip. It is a gem of a book and one for lovers of language.

‘I have adopted a similar strategy of ‘eating Italian’ to make the language part of me. I read aloud the lilting words for simple culinary techniques, such as rosolare for making golden, sbriciolare for crumble, and sciacquare for rinse. I revel in the linguistic pantry of pasta shapes: little ears, half sleeves, stars, thimbles and the tartly named lingue di suocera ( mother in law tongues) and strozzapreti  (priest stranglers, rich enough to sate ravenous clerics before the expensive meat course). Desserts such as zucotto, ciambellone, sospiro di monaca ( a nun’s sigh) and tiramisu (pick me up) glide so deliciously over my tongue that I agree with cooks who claim they can fare respirare i morti ( make the dead breathe).’

Head over Heel, Chris Harrison. 2009. ( kindle)***

A biography in which an Australian, Chris, falls in love with an Italian girl, Daniela, as they go to live in her home town on the coast of Puglia, after holidaying with family in Sicily and attempt to work for one year in Milan. The author begins in a lighthearted vein: there are lots of comic moments in the early chapters as he exposes the insanity of the Italian bureaucracy. His best writing is serious as he examines the Italian character. In fact the book improves along the way when he shifts into a more academic mode. Well referenced and a fan of Barzini’s The Italians.

The Italians, John Hooper. 2015 (kindle)*****

This is a brilliant social history and now I must purchase a hard copy. It is current and reads more fluently than its predecessor of the same name by Barzini. Well researched and documented. As I scroll through my annoying Kindle edition, I want to quote the entire book. If you choose to read one book about Italy this year, it should be this one. My book of the year!

Falling in Love, Donna Leon. 2015 ( Kindle)*

I have around 24 novels by Donna Leon, crime novels set in Venice, featuring the charming character of Commissario Brunetti, Police Comissioner, his wife Paola, the mysterious and sketchily drawn secretary, Signorina Elettra and the nasty Vice Questore Patta. I did not enjoy Falling in Love, given the return of Flavia, an opera singer who has appeared in an earlier novel, an unappealing character. Leon generally sprinkles her novels with scathing criticism of Venetian and Italian corruption, and delightful domestic passages about food and wine, as Brunetti and his offsider, Vianello, slip into a bar for an ombra or find an unassuming trattoria for lunch. These lovely nuggets are missing from the latest two novels and the charm of Brunetti seems to have dissipated. I also note some very poor editing in the last two novels and may stop buying my annual Leon novel.

Antonia and her Daughters. Marlena de Blasi. 2012 ( kindle)**

I do enjoy de Blasi’s novels. Her characters, particularly her female characters, are strong-willed and independent, and Blasi as narrator and protagonist feels compelled to meet them and become part of their lives. As an outsider living in Italy, she often wades into situations that others might leave well alone. Her own life and those she meets are harvested, perhaps exploited to the limit, as she attempts to narrate Italy, its people, food and countryside. I preferred her earlier novels.

The Food of Love Cookery School. Nicky Pellegrino. 2013 ( kindle)

Very light, romantic chic lit.  The title says it all. Pellegrino sets her novels in Italy but tends to deal in stereotypes. I have read a good novel by Pellegrino in the past. This is not one of them. No stars at all!

Seeking Sicily- A Cultural Journey Through Myth and Reality in the Heart of the Mediterranean. John Keahey.2011 (book)

In my reading pile. Review next year, which starts tomorrow.

Happy New Year, Buon Anno, and enjoy your new and old books in whatever form they come.



Spice and the Time Traveller

On Boxing Day, food and eating are the last things on my mind. As the excess and consumer frenzy of ChristmA$ begin to fade, the thought of an indolent summer lying about, drinking tea and reading new books on a shady verandah, becomes an appealing prospect.  Or a gin and tonic under a slow-moving fan.  And in my lazy dreaming, I am perched on a stool in an Indonesian Warung, eating gently spiced vegetables and fish, a gado gado with peanut sauce, or a grilled fish that has been massaged with a spicy sambal, soft tofu in a turmeric laced curry, or a pyramid of greens gently poached in a spicy coconut milk.

Thanks to Ailsa, from Where’s My Backpack, where spices may provide warmth to a cold Irish Christmas.



Got any bread?

A duck walks into a bar and asks: “Got any Bread?”

Barman says: “No.”

Duck says: “Got any bread?”

Barman says: “No.”

Duck says: “Got any bread?”

Barman says: “No, we have no bread.”

Duck says: “Got any bread?”

Barman says: “No, we haven’t got any bread!”

Duck says: “Got any bread?”

Barman says: “No, are you deaf?! We haven’t got any bread, and if you ask me again and I’ll nail your f ***ing beak to the bar you annoying f***ing duck!”

Duck says: “Got any nails?”

Barman says: “No”

Duck says: “Got any bread?

I always think of this duck joke every time I pull more fresh loaves from the oven or when I see a family of wild wood ducks taking a fancy to our swimming pool. Both trigger a “Got any Bread” moment, but with entirely different emotions. At least it’s a lot better than the typically imbecilic jokes contained in Christmas bon bons. Who writes these Christmas jokes and why do we feel so compelled to read them aloud?

But you can keep your hat on.
You can leave your hat on!

Today’s festive olive bread is a super easy yeasted bread bound to stay moist. While dark looking and rustic in appearance, due to the olives, rosemary and olive oil worked into the dough at the first kneading stage, it is still a light bread. The recipe comes from Maggie’s Table.* I like the simplicity of this version, especially when time is precious at Christmas. You can make these lovely loaves in less than two hours with lots of resting time in between to indulge in a Christmas drop or two.

Olive and Rosemary Bread/ Pane con Rosmarino e Olive

15 g or 1 ½ teaspoons dried yeast

1 teaspoon castor sugar

300 ml warm water

500 g unbleached strong flour (bakers flour)

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup freshly chopped rosemary

190 g pitted kalamata olives

Combine yeast, sugar, and warm water in the mixing bowl of a stand mixer. Leave for 5 minutes. Then add the flour, salt, rosemary and olives. Mix with the paddle till the dough comes together, then swap to a dough hook ad mix for a few minutes. Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead gently for another five minutes. The dough is meant to be quite moist and sticky, however you may need to add a little extra flour along the way. Turn into a clean and lightly oiled bowl and brush the top with a little olive oil. Cover the bowl and leave until doubled in size ( about 1 hour).

Divide the mixture into two portions and shape into loaves. Brush a baking tray with olive oil and leave the loaves to rise, covered, on the oiled tray for a further 20 minutes. Meanwhile heat the oven to 220c FF. Bake the loaves for 20 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 180c and bake for a further 20 minutes. Cool on a wire rack before cutting. Makes two loaves, one for me and one for the freezer.


*Maggie Beer, Maggie’s Table, Penguin 2005.  Gifted to me by the Richard’s family after the fire. Thanks Christine and Peter.


Out On The Patio We Sit

“Out on the patio we sit,

And the humidity we breathe,

We watch the lightning crack over canefields,

Laugh and think, this is Australia”

This old song by Gangajang came to mind yesterday as we sat out on Barnadi and Adam’s new deck in a suburban backyard in Melbourne. The weather was hot and humid, but sadly there was no lightning. This was Barnadi’s combined Birthday/Christmas celebration, an annual event that he has held since arriving from Jakarta, Indonesia 30 years ago. I have been to 24 of these festive Indonesian banquets.

Above. Udang Tepung and Pekedil Jagung – Fried Prawns in Batter and Fried Potato and Corn Cake. Krupuk in the background as well as the ear of Googoo, the dog.

The 12 guests, all good friends of Barnadi, ranged in age, ethnicity and sexual orientation. Three straight couples, two gay couples, two singles: one Indonesian, one Chinese, one Thai, one Israeli, two Dutch, one British and the rest Australian, simply meaning that they appeared to have been born here, with Anglo-Celtic background. And having said this, I realise that these labels and descriptions are limiting and misleading. We were all Australian, enjoying a Pimms or a white wine on a sunny day in the backyard. We all came from diverse backgrounds but had a lot in common- a love of food, travel, and good conversation.

This is Australia. We celebrate diversity here. This is what we do.

Above. An Indonesian Banquet. Sapi Rendang, Ayam Kari, Ayam Goreng, Ayam Bakar, Sayur Lodeh, Tempeh kentang Tahu, Pepes Ikan, Ikan Bakar.

Above. Basok Ayam- Fried Chicken meatballs

Thanks B and A  for another lovely day.

Cinnamon Meringue with Caramel Apples

This easy meringue dessert makes an impressive Christmas lunch finale, combining the spices associated with Christmas with hints of fruit mince-pie in the sauce. The individual meringues may be made a week before and the sauce made early on the day, then assembled at serving time.

Cinnamon Meringue with Caramel apples
Cinnamon Meringue with Caramel apples

The Meringues

4 egg whites

225g caster sugar

1 tsp cornflour

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tsp white vinegar

4 tsp ground cinnamon

300 ml thick cream

2 Tbs icing sugar, sifted

The Caramel Apples

4 granny smith apples

1 Tbs lemon juice

2 Tbs (40g) unsalted butter

2 Tbs honey

250g fruit mince

2-3 Tbs brandy

Preheat the oven to 120c. Line a baking tray with baking paper. whisk egg whites until stiff. Gradually add caster sugar until the mixture is glossy. Add the cornflour, vanilla, vinegar and cinnamon and whisk until combined. Draw eight 8 cm circles on the baking paper and pile the mixture into each circle, smoothing the sides. Make an indent in the top of each one and bake for 1 hour. Turn the oven off and leave in the oven to dry out.

To make the caramel apple topping, core the apples and cut into six wedges then toss them in the lemon juice. Melt the butter and honey in a pan over low heat. Add apples and cook, stirring, until the apples caramelise. Add the fruit mince and brandy and cook until heated through. Whip cream and icing sugar together until thick, pile into the meringues, top with apples and sauce.

Easy Christmas dessert
Easy Christmas dessert


From Delicious, Lets Do Lunch, p 64. 2003

The Road to Indigo

indigo 7

Fabric speaks to me. I collect it, stash it, feel it. Antique European linens, worn Irish cloth, functional and timeless, faded Ikat from Java, Sumatra and Flores, woven wall hangings from Myanmar, mid-century Japanese Kimono sprinkled with shibori, or little fabric offcuts featuring sacred cranes, plush velvet Italian betrothal bedspreads, alive with colour and kitsch cherubin, or hand worked pillow cases and curtains from the antique market in Arezzo in Italy, embroidered table cloths, ancient filet crochet edging with worked in stories, words or historical events, crocheted jug covers featuring Dolly-Varden shells and beaded weights, Indian silk saris and long dupatta scarves, visiting every floor of a Sari shop in India: fabric hunting is a central part of my journey. It is often the history of women’s work, or a window into a culture, or one that is about to become obsolete, that appeals so much.

indigo 4

Hand dyed indigo fabric is a recent addition to my textile addiction. I discovered some wonderful indigo fabrics at the Chatuchak ( Cha-Cha) Market in Bangkok in 2013. The following year, I toured an indigo factory in Dali, on the banks of Erhai Lake, Yunnan, China. And this year, I found another small producer of hand died indigo clothing on the banks of the Mekong River, in Chiang Khan, Thailand, as well as some lovely long lengths of deep indigo died linen in the back streets of the Warorot market, in Chiang Mai.

My next step is to learn this ancient art and dye my own cloth. I envisage drifts of indigo muslin, irregular in colour, floating in the summer breeze.Thanks Ailsa for this week’s travel theme, Fabric, at Where’s My Backpack. If I dug out all the representatives of my fabric collection, this post might fill a book.

Pane Festivo. Christmas Walnut Bread

Pane di Noce
Pane di Noce

A walnut bread, dark and nourishing, is quick and easy to make. I was thinking how nice this bread would be for Christmas Eve with some soft cheese, perhaps a handmade goat cheese, or some Italian Stracchino. My first practice loaf was eaten over three days, remaining moist and fresh, requiring only a scrape of butter, French demi-sel as it happened to be. I will be making this loaf again very soon and hope that it gets to meet some cheesy friends.

Bread and Butter. Nothing more.
Bread and Butter. Nothing more.

Pane di Noce/Walnut Bread

200 g walnut pieces

7 g active dry yeast

85 g honey

320 g warm water

30 g olive oil

500 g unbleached plain flour, plus extra for kneading.*

7.5 g salt.

Preheat the oven to 180c. Toast the walnuts on a baking sheet for 10 minutes. Let cool and chop to course crumbs  or in a food processor.

Using a stand mixer, stir the yeast and honey into the water in the mixing bowl: let stand until foamy or for 10 minutes. Stir in the oil with the paddle. Add the flour, salt, and walnuts and mix until the dough comes together. Change to the dough hook and knead until soft, moist, and fairly dense, 5 minutes.

Knead briefly by hand on a lightly floured surface.

First Rise Place the dough in an oiled bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about 1 ¼ hours.

Shaping and Second Rise. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Without punching down or kneading, shape into a log. Place the loaf onto a floured or oiled baking sheet. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour.

Baking. Pre heat the oven to 200°c . Slash the loaf just as you pop it into the hot oven. Bake for 10 minutes. Reduce the temperature to  175°c and bake for 40 minutes longer. Cool completely on a rack.


walnut bread
walnut bread

Abbreviated and simplified from The Italian Baker, Carol Field.

*I used Baker’s Flour instead of plain flour, which worked well

People Watching in Lijiang, Yunnan

Posing for photographs is big time all over China. No one wants to look casual or natural. As local tourism takes off, Chinese like to record portraits of themselves in the most beautiful settings. People arrange themselves in intriguing ways- perfect backdrops, graceful gestures, romantic clothes.  Young women flock to the ancient town of Lijiang, Yunnan on the weekend: beauticians and costume hire shops can be found along the narrow lanes, part of the weekend fun for the girls. The ‘dress ups’ often evoke another era.

Girl on Bridge, Lijiang, Yunnan
Girl on Bridge, Lijiang, Yunnan.
Girl on bridge2, Lijiang, Yunnan
Girl on bridge 2, Lijiang, Yunnan
Girl on Bridge 3, Lijiang, Yunnan
Girl on Bridge 3, Lijiang, Yunnan

Playing Eye Spy was a pleasant pass time in such a beautiful town, which is the theme of this week’s Daily Post photography challenge, and  appropriate for Ailsa’s travel theme,  ‘Self‘ too.

Easy Christmas Thai Prawn Salad

The only year I missed Christmas at home was in 1985, when we spent the day in Koh Samui in Thailand, eating crab curry, with the sound of waves gently lapping in the background. Bliss. So it’s only fitting that a Thai seafood dish pops onto my Christmas menu. I have been making this seafood salad for Christmas for around 15 years now. I gleaned the recipe from my well-thumbed copy of Stephanie Alexander’s The Cooks Companion. It has lovely summer flavours and can be made a few hours ahead. The first time I made it, my sister-in-law drank the juice from the bowl, so the saucing is obviously the best part of the dish and I sometimes make extra, with Joanne in mind. The original recipe by Stephanie calls for 6 small calamari. Given that it’s almost impossible to source fresh calamari at Christmas time in Melbourne, especially small ones, I have substituted prawns and I can happily say, it’s still a great dish.

Thai Prawn Salad
Thai Prawn Salad

The quantity may be doubled or doubled again depending on your Christmas crowd. The recipe below made for a substantial lunch dish for two. If serving alongside other seafood, the amount below would be suitable for four. I am planning to quadruple the amount for the big day ahead, but will keep an eye on the balance of ingredeints as I go.

Cook the prawns until just done.
Cook the prawns until just done.

Thai Prawn Salad.

350 gr medium-sized green prawns

1 granny smith apple unpeeled (or any tart apple)

2 brown or purple shallots

1 tablespoon fresh coriander leaves

1 tablespoon fresh torn mint leaves

1 tablespoon fresh torn Thai basil leaves

3 tablespoons chopped peanuts.


2 fresh chillies, seeded and finely sliced

1 tablespoon palm sugar (soft brown sugar may be substituted)

2 tablespoons fish sauce

1 tablespoon fresh lime or lemon juice. ( lime is better)


Make the dressing by mixing the ingredients together in a jug.

Bring a large pot of water to the boil, add the prawns and cook for a couple of minutes or until nicely pink. Shell and devein the prawns. (you can do this before or after cooking. I prefer to cook them with the shell on) Halve the prawns vertically. Reserve.

Core the apple but don’t peel it. Julienne into fine sticks. Finely slice the shallots.

In a serving bowl, mix the apple, prawns, shallots, and herbs. Pour on the dressing and gently toss. Add peanuts to finished dish.

If making this dish ahead of time, leave out the herbs and peanuts until ready to serve. Dress the salad of prawns, apple and shallots, cover well, then refrigerate. Bring out around 15 minutes before serving time to take the chill off the dish, and add the torn herbs, toss and then the peanuts. Of course the peanuts are optional- purchased fried shallots would also add some final crunch.

Thai prawn salad.
Thai prawn salad.


Serve with a French Rosé wine. Salute!

Adapted from The Cook’s Companion, Stephanie Alexander, 1996 edition, page 689.