The Classic Pasta and Fagioli

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.

First pressed and just delicious. The first harvest of Cobram’s new oil. Only for dressing up.

Ingredients

  • 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
  • black pepper
  • fine sea salt
  • 100- 200g of pasta ditalini, depending on your preference for a thick or thinner version.

Method

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.

Bread of the day with Pasta of the week.

Other Pasta of the Week ideas:

Maccheroni Rigati with Sweet Pepper Sauce

Ditalini with Cacio and Eggs

Gnocchi Sardi with Gorgonzola, Silver beet and walnuts.

Pantacce with Borlotti Beans and Rugola

 

 

 

 

 

Maccheroni Rigati with Sweet Pepper Sauce

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.

    Tiny pasta shapes with fabulous names used especially in broths and thin soups.

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.

Sweet and creamy, roasted pepperoni sauce with Maccheroni rigati ( Molisana brand)

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 Rigatiadapted 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.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Put the pepper flesh and all the other ingredients into a food processor and whizz until blended, smooth and thick. Taste and adjust seasoning.
  4. 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.
  5. Serve hot with torn basil leaves.

    Sides- a good bitter leaf salad and sourdough bread, Panmarino.

References.

Pasta Classica 125. Julia Della Croce, 1987

Pizza, Pasta and Polenta, Great Italian Vegetarian Recipes. Ursula Ferrigno, 1995

 

 

 

 

Gnocchetti Sardi. Pasta of the week number 2.

The pasta variety, Gnocchetti Sardi, or little Sardinian gnocchi, is a small ridged pasta around two centimetres long. It’s a great shape to use when you want an amalgam of pasta, vegetables and protein, blending nicely into one comforting bowl.

Close up of Gnocchetti Sardi or Malloreddus

Malloreddus, the Sardinian name for these little gnocchi shapes, means small calves. They have been prepared since ancient times, often for festivals and weddings and are usually combined with sausage, or meat and saffron. Traditionally they were made from semolina flour and water and hand rolled into long strips of dough, then shaped into cubes and crushed against a straw basket (a ciuliri or straw sieve) to make the textured stripes. They were meant to resemble vitellini, ( the Italian translation of Malloreddus ) meaning small calves. As you can see in the photo above, they do look a lot like gnocchi, the striped pattern designed to hold a good sauce

This vegetarian dish combines shredded silverbeet (chard) with a little gorgonzola dolce, thin cream and toasted walnuts to create a wholesome dish. The recipe is deliberately imprecise. Combine the ingredients listed to suit your taste, keeping a fine balance as you go. This dish is an Almost Italian original and one inspired by the return of chard to my garden.

Gnocchetti Sardi con Bietola, Gorgonzola e Noci/ Sardinian gnocchi with Silverbeet, Gorgonzola and Walnuts

Ingredients in sequence of use.

  • 100 gr pasta Gnocchetti Sardi per person
  • salt
  • EV olive oil
  • one garlic clove
  • some small silverbeet leaves, finely shredded
  • a small chunk of gorgonzola dolce, {DOP is you can find it/flash but so good}
  • some fresh walnuts, toasted in oven, then chopped into small pieces.
  • pouring cream
  • ground black pepper
  • Parmigiano cheese shavings for serving, optional.

Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Meanwhile in a wide and deep frying pan, heat the olive oil and gently saute the garlic clove. Remove the clove after it has flavoured the oil. Add the shredded silverbeet and toss around for a minute or so until wilted. Tear the gorgonzola into small clumps and add to the pan. As it begins to melt, add some pouring cream to the pan and a few grinds of black pepper. Don’t swamp the dish with cream. Reduce the cream and cheese mixture a little. When the pasta is ready, drain it then add to the pan, tossing through the sauce. Add the nuts, toss once more. Serve with shaved parmigiano.

About draining pasta. I rarely drain pasta in a colander over a sink, preferring to keep a small amount of residual pasta water to add to the secondary cooking which happens in a deep wide frying pan. With long pasta shapes, I lift them from the boiling pot to the pan with tongs or a claw pasta lifter: with short shapes I scoop them out with a wire sieve and shake a little. In this way, a small amount of the starchy, salty water helps to loosen the sauce.

Last weeks pasta of the week: Ditalini con Cacio e Uova

Pasta of the Week. Ditalini Cacio e Ova

Most readers will be familiar with the restaurant term, Pasta del Giorno, pasta of the day, which in Italy, never strays too far from well-known classics. Pasta combinations vary from region to region or town to town but the seasoning, pasta shapes used and sauces will usually be particular to that area. Campanilismo is alive and well in Italy. I cook pasta at least once a week, hence the title of this post, Pasta della Settimana- pasta of the week. This may become a new weekly series, using fresh seasonal ingredients and a new world Italian approach, as well as documenting some traditional classics.

Pasta never gets boring so long as you change the pasta shapes, use fresh seasonal ingredients, as well as excellent extra virgin olive oil and Italian Parmigiano. The total cooking time is usually 12 minutes, including the preparation, which can take place as the pasta cooks. Mr Tranquillo, my kitchen hand, grates the Parmigiano and pours the wine, and if it’s a sunny day, sets the outside table.

Pasta cacio e ouva

This simple recipe comes from the Campania region. In some ways it resembles that classic Roman dish, Cacio e Pepe in that it includes Pecorino Romano but it’s one hundred times easier to make. It’s generally made with tubetti, which are short tubular shapes such as Ditalini, or Maccheroni shaped  pasta.

Ingredients for four serves

  • 1 clove garlic
  • 5 Tablespoons EV olive oil
  • some flat leafed parsley, cut finely
  • black pepper, freshly ground to taste ( I like lots)
  • sea salt
  • 4 eggs
  • 50 g pecorino, grated
  • 50 g Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
  • 400 g pasta tubetti, such as ditalini

Method

  1. Cook the pasta in lots of boiling salted water for the time suggested on the packet.
  2. Crack the eggs into a large bowl and lightly beat adding apinch of salt and pepper.
  3. Add the pecorino to the eggs, mix well, then add the parmesan. The mixture should be clear but quite thick.
  4. In a wide non stick pan, ( I tend to use a non stick wok for all my second stage pasta making these days) warm the olive oil and add the clove of garlic until it turns a pale gold, then remove it. Turn off the heat. Then add the drained cooked pasta shapes to the hot oil and saute for one minute.
  5. Add the pasta to the egg and cheese mixture, tossing about to mix well with a wooden spoon. Then add the finely chopped parsley.
  6. Serve in heated plates with a green salad and extra cheese if desired.
    Fuori o dentro? Questa e` la domanda!

    Campanilismo is a term derived from the word campanile, the bell tower and refers to an attachment to one’s birth place and the traditions that go with that town or village. In one sense, it can be described as parochialism. When talking about cuisine, this attachment can be both positive and negative. The positive aspects include the preservation of traditional dishes and foods of the region or the town: the negative side is that food choices and ingredients have become limited and limiting, reflecting the modern Italian’s tendency to look inwards and backwards. New foods and different ways of serving things are often viewed with suspicion, believing that the local version is the best and only way.

     

The Jewish Quarter, Rome

Rome’s Jewish quarter is a thriving and busy precinct within the centro storico. It is both a cultural and culinary attraction, with Jewish bakeries, delis and trattorie lining the busy streets. These days, the area has become a little too popular as spruikers work the narrow lanes with their menus and intrusive spiel and locals and tourists form long queues at bakeries and delis. Long gone is that quaint district of old. A good time to visit would be on a weekday morning.

Queues in the Jewish Quarter, Rome.

The Jewish quarter is a small, distinct precinct in the centre of Rome and is best accessed via the bridge over the Tevere from Trastevere. The Roman Ghetto was established as a result of a Papal Bull by Pope Paul 1V in 1555. The bull also required the Jews of Rome, who had lived as a community since pre- Christian times, to live in the ghetto. The ghetto was a walled quarter with its gates locked at night.

Jewish quarter, Rome. Sunday morning.

The papal bull also revoked all the rights of the Jewish community and imposed a variety of new restrictions such as prohibition on property ownership and practising medicine on Christians and compulsory Catholic sermons on the Jewish Sabbath.

In common with many other Italian ghettoes, the ghetto of Rome was not initially so called, but was variously referred to in documents as serraglio degli Ebrei or claustro degli Ebrei, both meaning “enclosure of the Hebrews”. Various forms of the word ghetto came into use in the late 16th century.

The word ‘ghetto’ is based on the Italian word for foundry getto, (because the first ghetto was established in 1516 on the site of a foundry in Venice), or from Italian borghetto, diminutive of borgo meaning ‘borough’.

Carciofi. The season for artichokes is November. Time to eat that classic Roman Jewish dish, Carciofi alla Giudia.

These images of Rome, variations on a theme, were taken around the Jewish Ghetto in Rome on a Sunday.

History of the Roman ghetto largely gleaned from Wikipedia.

Pizza Cinque Tesori

Pizza night is a weekly event here and, depending on the mood of the creator and the time given to the task, some pizzas turn out better than others. I never fiddle with my dough recipe: as the old saying goes, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, but I have revised and simplified the method. Summer pizzas tend to be more reliable given the warm atmosphere, conducive to a faster rise, and the abundant treasure from my vegetable garden. Eating pizza in the great outdoors may also enhance the taste.

Today’s pick

My current favourite is Pizza Cinque Tesori or five treasures. Although my name for this pizza sounds exotic, the topping is quite restrained: it’s the taste of mid- summer. The pizza base is painted with a rustic tomato passata and a little grated mozzarella, then come the five treasures-  zucchini ribbons, flash grilled and dressed in garlic oil, a hand full of cooked shrimp, a finely sliced red onion, some capers and basil leaves.

Hand stretched base on baking paper, getting dressed for the oven.

These days I tend to hand stretch my pizza dough. After flattening the dough ball a little, I gently lift and stretch the sides, then let it rest for a few minutes. As the dough relaxes, stretching becomes easier. The dough then gets a long rest on the bench, fully dressed, before cooking. Laying it on kitchen parchment before stretching makes it easy to lift it onto a long rectangular baking tray.

Before baking

My Most Reliable Pizza Dough Recipe, updated and simplified.

  • 5 g active dry yeast ( 1¾ teaspoons)
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • 320 ml tepid water (1 1/3 cups)
  • 55 g olive oil ( ¼ cup)
  • 500 g baker’s flour or unbleached plain flour (3¾ cups )
  • 7.5 g sea salt (1 ½ teaspoons)

Stir the yeast and sugar into the water in the mixer bowl of a stand mixer and leave for a couple of minutes. Stir in the oil. Add the flour and salt to the yeast mixture. Mix, using the dough hook at very low speed at first, then increase to medium speed until soft and satiny but firm, about 5 minutes. Finish kneading briefly by hand on a lightly floured surface and form into a ball.

Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, turn to coat with the oil, cover tightly with plastic wrap or a shower cap and let rise until doubled. Depending on the room temperature this could take one to two hours. If your dough doesn’t rise, your yeast may be stale so always check the use by date.

Knead the dough briefly and gently on a lightly floured surface, for 1-2 minutes. Divide the dough into two. Leave the dough to rest another 15 minutes or so, under a cloth or tea towel, before shaping. Hand shape by stretching, resting and stretching again or use a rolling-pin if you prefer neat rounds. If hand stretching, I find it easier to place baking/parchment paper underneath beforehand.

Lift the stretched dough on large trays dusted with semolina or polenta or onto baking paper/parchment and let it rise for another 30 minutes, covered with a towel. Dress the pizza with your favourite toppings.

Oven temperatures and functions vary with from oven to oven. I use the pizza function on my Ilve, which heats the lower half of the oven higher than the top, at 250 c FF. I also use the lower rack for faster browning of the crust. This takes 8- 10 minutes. Using a regular fan forced oven, pre- heat to 250c and place on the centre shelf, drop the temperature to 220 c and bake for around 15 minutes, then check on the base.

 About flour for Pizza. Information for Melbourne, Australia

I tend to use Baker’s flour, which is stronger than plain white flour, for my pizze because I have a ready stash. Plain unbleached flour works well enough.

  • Wallaby Baker’s flour by Lowan comes in 5 kilo lots and is readily available at Coles.
  • I tend to use Manildra Baker’s flour, which comes in larger 12.5 kilo bags and buy this at Bas foods, Brunswick or Costco.
  • Preston Market stocks 12.5 kilo bags of Lowan white and wholemeal Spelt flour.
  • Cervasi supermarket, Brunswick, stocks a fluctuating array of Italian flours as does Psarakos in Thornbury and Bundoora.
  • Always check the milling date  as well as the use by date of any flour you buy, and support retailers who stock the freshest flour. Retailers with low turnover often unwittingly sell flour that is close to the use by date.
  • If you wish to try Italian flour Tipo oo, which is a highly processed, refined white flour, the liquid needs to be reduced significantly. I haven’t had much success using that soft flour for pizza, but it’s great for hand-made pasta. Carol Field’s description below is useful for those mystified by the zeros used to describe Italian flour:

‘The Italian baker has five grades of grano tenero to choose from, although they are classified not by strength and protein content like ours but by how much of the husk and whole grain have been sifted away. The whitest flour has the least fibre. The lower the number, the more refined and whiter the flour, so that of the five categories, “00” is the whitest and silkiest flour, “0” is a bit darker and less fine, since it contains about 70% of the grain, and “1” is even darker. Darker and courser is “2”. For all the talk of the prevalence of whole grain in the healthy Mediterranean diet, only a fairly small percentage of Italian breads are made with whole wheat (Pane Integrale)…Millers simply take refined white flour, stir in a quantity of bran, and pronounce it whole wheat. The Italian Baker, RevisedCarol Field. p 18.

Pizza Cinque Tesori

Simple Chocolate Brownies for La Befana

As we lazed around the pool yesterday, I asked the girls if they were expecting a visit from La Befana. They looked at me blankly. I began explaining the legend of La Befana when suddenly the penny dropped- yes Daisy had heard about her from her Italian teacher last year and Charlotte simply said, “You mean that witch lady who does a Santa thing?”

Italian grandmothers fondly relate stories of their childhood in Italy when they eagerly anticipated the evening of the Befana between the 5th and 6th of January, L’ Epifania, the epiphany, is the night when La Befana would deliver gifts. La Befana, personified as a benign old witch with broken shoes, riding on a broomstick, and dressed in gypsy clothes, brings gifts to all children. Legend has it that the three kings, the Magi, dropped by the home of La Befana on their way to see the new-born baby Jesus. They asked her for directions as they had seen his star in the sky, but she didn’t know the way. She provided them with shelter for a night, as she was considered the best housekeeper in the village. The Magi invited her to join them on the journey but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework and sweeping. Later, La Befana had a change of heart, and tried to find the three wise men and Jesus. She searched but never found them. And so to this day, La Befana flies around on her broomstick, searching for the little baby Jesus, visiting all children with gifts. She also brings a lump of coal for those times when they have been naughty, and a sweet gift too. In the past, gifts were simple. I remember my dear friend Olga, who grew up in Marechiaro, near Naples in the 1920s, was delighted to receive an orange and a few caramelle from La Befana.

Carbone Dolce?

The epiphany is the 12th day of Christmas and signifies the end of the seasonal festivities. I like to celebrate this day in a small way: it’s my perverse nature I suppose, but I relate to the simplicity of this legend and the grandmotherly figure of the kindly old witch. Fat Santa, shopping mall Santa, Americanised commercial Santa be gone, and down with that Christmas tree too. The new year has begun in earnest.

This year’s sweet offering will be a tin of old school brownies, the ones we used to make before expensive pure chocolate became the preferred ingredient. This recipe is gooey and rich and is made using cocoa powder, a pantry staple. You won’t believe it’s not chocolate. They last for three days or so and as they get older, I serve them with custard or icecream as a small pudding.

Old School Chocolate and Walnut Brownies 
140g unsalted butter
55 g natural cocoa powder
½ tsp salt
1 tbsp strong coffee, made from instant coffee or leftover espresso
2 large eggs at room temperature
250 g sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
105 g  plain flour
¼ tsp baking powder
¾ cup chopped walnuts, plus extra chopped for topping
Method
  • Preheat oven to 180 C.  Line a 20 cm x 20 cm cake tin pan with baking paper. If you don’t have a square tin, an old slab tin 18 cm by 28 could be used, but the brownies might be slightly lower in height.
  • Melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Stir in cocoa and salt until smooth. Stir in coffee.
  • In a medium-sized bowl whisk together the eggs and the sugar vigorously until thickened and lightened by a shade. A stand mixer makes the job easy.  Add the vanilla extract. Whisk the cocoa and butter mixture into the sugar mixture.
  • Sift the flour and baking powder over the mixture and fold it in until combined. Fold in walnuts.
  • Spread batter into the prepared pan, sprinkle with extra walnuts.  Bake for 20 minutes.
  • Remove from the oven, cool and cut into small squares.

Recipe from Christina at Scientifically Sweet.

Cute, very Italian and kitsch, this cartoon caught my attention. It’s good to know that La Befana is still alive and well in Italy as a quick search will show.

 

Villa Farnesina, Rome. Who was Agostino Chigi?

This summer throughout January, I’m catching up with some of my unpublished stories from earlier travels in Europe in 2017. Some posts will be light-hearted, centered around food and accommodation, ‘the best of’ reports, while others are research based essays. It will be rewarding to polish them up and give them a final airing. Of course there will be a few cooking posts along the way too.

                                                          Buona Lettura

I’ve been thinking a lot about Agostino Chigi lately, and wondering why there’s not a great deal written about him. Given that he commissioned one of the most elegant and beautiful buildings of the Renaissance, Villa Farnesina in Trastevere, Rome, and was a generous patron of the arts, I find this quite unusual.

Agostino Chigi, (pronounced kee-gee) was a 15th to 16th century banker who was born in Siena then moved to Rome to assist his father, Mariano Chigi in 1487. He became the wealthiest man in Rome, especially after becoming banker to the Borgia family, in particular Pope Alexander V, followed by Pope Julius 11. If there’s one thing that helps a banker stay at the top, it’s having business dealings in Rome and becoming the Pope’s treasurer. The Florentine Medici, Giovanni di Bicci and Cosimo de’ Medici, also milked their Roman and Papal connections in the preceding years. Chigi’s financial interests expanded to obtaining lucrative control of important minerals, including the salt monopoly of the Papal States and Naples and the alum monopoly in Southern Italy. Alum was the essential mordant in the textile industry. With financial and mining interests, like a modern-day crony capitalist and entrepreneur, Chigi was ready to splurge.

The connection between the arts and banking makes an interesting Renaissance study in itself ¹. Banking families were keen patrons of the arts, not only in a bid to show off their taste and refinement, but also to cast off the slur of usury. Usury, making profit from charging interest on a loan, was a crime in 15th century Europe: a usurer was heading straight to hell, according to the main religious thinking of the day, unless he made a few corrections to that practice, through intricate bills of credit requiring lengthy international currency exchange deals. Banker patrons, worried about their afterlife, could buy a place in heaven by financing religious works -perhaps a marble tomb for a Pope, or some fine brass relief doors for a baptistry, or a few walls of religious themed freschi demonstrating their piety and devotion by appearing as genuflecting bystanders in a painting or two.

Chigi, like other bankers before him, was keen to spend time with the literati and patronised the main artistic figures of the early 16th century, including Perugino, Sebastiano del Piombo, Giovanni da Udine, Giulio Romano, Il Sodoma and Raffaele. These artists, and the architect Baldassare Peruzzi, all had a hand in making Villa Farnesina so attractive and harmonious. But the main feature you’ll notice in the painted works is its secularity: no religious themes appear in the decoration at all. Thus somewhere between the mid 15th century and 1508, when this building was commissioned and begun, the subject of the visual arts had shifted. Here, the freschi depict classical and historic themes: there’s not a Madonna or baby Jesus in sight except for those cheeky putti holding up garlands. I doubt that Agostino Chigi was overly concerned with the sin of usury. Times had changed.

Suggestive coupling of fruits. New world fruits appear in the garlands of Udine.

The ground floor room, the stunning Loggia di Psiche e Amore, was designed by Raffaele, though was mostly executed by one of his followers Giulio Romano, and seems heavier in style. It’s not the best secular work by Raffaele: his most graceful works are held in the quiet gallery of Gemäldegalerie, in Berlin, Germany ( more on this gallery later). The decorative garlands and festoons are by Giovanni da Udine, and although hard to get close to, draped as they are on high ceilings and around tall window sills and pillars, they steal the show.

Sensuous and erotic, the total effect of the Loggia is complete in its aim and purpose. This is a pleasure palace, a space decorated with pagan themes of love and seduction from classical mythology, designed to amuse Chigi’s guests. The modern addition of a walled glass fronting the garden allows more light to shine on the rich colours and detail. It is delightful.

Upstairs in a smallish room, the wall panels by Il Sodoma, ( catchy nick name for the artist, Giovanni Antonio Bazzi , no two guesses why), depict scenes from the marriage of Roxana and Alexander. In such a small space, the painted walls are ceilings are visually overwhelming.

At the end of the 16th century, Villa Farnesina was bought by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese ( of course a Cardinal needs an erotically decorated villa) and its name “Farnesina” was given to distinguish it from the Cardinal’s much larger Palazzo Farnese on the other side of the Tevere. Today the Villa is the centre for the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, the Italian Science Academy and the rooms are open to visitors. Palazzo Farnese, across the river, is occupied by the French Consulate and is not open to the public.

These small decorative motifs on window shutters and in cornices add to the overall aesthetic of the villa.

 

Some useful accompanying notes.

Giorgio Vasari, (1511-1574) author of Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, often simply called Vasari’s ‘Lives’, was the first art historian and the first to use the term rinascita ( Renaissancein print, though an awareness of the ongoing “rebirth” in the arts had been in the air since the writings of the Florentine Humanist, Alberti, almost a century earlier. He was responsible for the use of the term Gothic Art, and used the word Goth which he associated with the “barbaric” German style. His work has a consistent bias in favour of Florentines and tends to attribute to them all the developments in Renaissance art. Vasari has influenced many art historians since then, and to this day, many travellers to Italy are blinded by Vasari’s Florentine list and bias, at the expense of other important works in Milano and Rome. Vasari, however, does recognise the works in the Farnesina.

¹ The nexus between banking and art patronage is fully explored by Tim Parks in Medici Money. Banking, Metaphysics and Art in Fifteenth- Century Florence,one  of my favourite books. I am now re- reading this excellent history: it is written in an accessible style and makes for enjoyable summer reading, for those who like reading about the Renaissance.

² Various papers on the festoons and garlands in the Villa Farnesina in Colours of Prosperity Fruits from the Old and New world, produced by the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei and purchased at Villa Farnesina in Rome.

Agostino Chigi, 1506. Oil on canvas, anonymous.
 Villa Farnesina is in the quiet part of Trastevere, well away from the tourist hordes in that precinct, and during our visit last November, had only a few visitors. Sadly the garden wasn’t open.
Via della Lungara, 230, 00165 Roma RM, Italy

 

In My Kitchen, December 2017

I’ve been dithering around in my kitchen since returning from our long trip and am feeling totally uninspired. Where’s the menu and those kitchen fairies who clean up? Returning to an overgrown vegetable patch, and the loss of 13 chooks, courtesy of Mr Fox, has robbed me of fresh ingredients, my backyard larder and the inspiration for most of my meals. When I look back on my December posts from the last four years, I can see energy, seasonal fruits and vegetables, garlic braiding, Italian biscuits, summer fruit cakes and short breads. This year, none of those things have happened -yet. 

Making do with what’s available, I made a huge batch of dolmades using leaves from our grape vines. Blanched in boiling water for two minutes then drained, they are ready to rock and roll. Although tedious to stuff 65 little parcels, once made, they become a staple in the fridge for hot summer nights, preserved with oil and lots of lemon juice.

The berry crop is huge this year, especially the boysenberries. They make a sweet addition to home-made yoghurt, something cool and luscious for breakfast. Making the weekly yoghurt is such an easy thing. I’m finding that 1 litre of organic milk creates a firmer and tastier yoghurt than the cheaper milks. Yoghurt is added to tahini and lemon for a quick drizzling sauce for falafel, or as the basis of tzaziki, or whipped through puréed mango for lassis, or served on the side with red lentil dhal and a few stir fried greens.

Another frugal standby is Pasta e Ceci, one of my favourite soups. I ordered it twice while in Italy this year and on both occasions I was disappointed. I put this down to the use of canned chickpeas, which retain a bullet like texture when used whole in these soups, and the lack of depth in the accompanying brodo, which should have hints of rosemary, a touch of chilli and tomato and good olive oil. The old Italo- Australiane, the Italian women migrants who cooked for their families in the 1950s and 60s, brought with them the old contadine ways of  turning cheap ingredients into something deeply satisfying through slow cooking, herbs, and knowledge based on tradition. Modern Italian restaurant cooking has lost much of this old knowledge and has turned to economical shortcuts and speedy cooking. 

I have resumed bread making. Despite our local and wonderful artisan baker in St Andrews, I can turn out two large loaves for $2 and there’s no need to leave home. It’s a way of life now thanks to Celia.

Last week’s loaves. I need a new slashing tools. Everything is blunt.

And in my kitchen are these gorgeous gifts from Alberto’s family in Pavia, Italy. His grandmother edged this tablecloth and napkin set. The work is exquisite. Grazie ad Alberto, Dida, Stefania e Claudio per la vostra meravigliosa ospitalità e amicizia durante il nostro soggiorno a Pavia.

Hand crocheted edging by Alberto’s grandmother.

Two litres of Campari jumped off the duty-free shelves on my way back into the land of Oz. I developed a taste for Spritz in Como, but based on Campari, Prosecco and soda, rather than Aperol which is not so pink and a little too sweet. Summertime drinks by the pool? You bring the Prosecco.

Hand over the pick stuff.

Thanks once again Sherry for making In My Kitchen happen so smoothly each month. Go to Sherry’s Pickings for more posts on the kitchen theme: you might even find the C word in some of them.

 

Lost in Lake Como

Along the journey, I lost my way, though not in any real or physical sense. I lost my writing muse, a frequent visitor to my early morning half wakefulness. She still made some attempts, and suggested I take up the pen again but being out of touch with that older, and more time-consuming form of editing, I repelled her constant intrusions.

This drastic shift in daily habit came about due to the absence of WiFi. Our friend, SK, had generously offered us his house on Lake Como, and along with it, a non functional internet service. Ironically, this same friend is an IT programmer and when he left Como to return to London, he assured us that the internet would be up and running within a day. It didn’t happen, and while I don’t wish to sound terribly ungrateful for the opportunity to live in his gorgeous house just up the road from George Clooney, the internet free time had profound consequences.

During the first two days, I became extremely anxious and fidgety and came to understand my addiction as a physical thing, not unlike addiction to cigarettes, coffee, or obsessive behaviour. I felt totally lost and cut off and didn’t know what to do with my hands. I had been permanently connected for the previous 12 years, including during visits to the Australian outback and along remote stretches of the Mekong River in Thailand. After some tearful moments, I was ready to leave Lake Como.

Slowly things improved as I adjusted to the reality of the situation. We were staying in the small village of Laglio, some distance from the larger towns dotted around Lake Como. Our village was in November mode, with only one operating osteria and a tiny alimenatari with totally random opening hours, both a kilometre or so away. There were no internet cafes to tap into and the supposed community WiFi service near the bus stop was dysfunctional. So we walked, and asked more questions, and bought newspapers again, and read timetables on walls and at Batello stations. The nearest ferry stop was 2.5 kilometres away: the ferry left and returned three times a day and was the only reliable way in and out of the village. We never mastered the buses due to lack of faith or trust. We did have a car, but left it safely locked up in the garage, given the Lake’s goat track and hair pinned roads and serious dearth of parking. Getting out of the village meant access to other towns, tourist brochures, and a variety of restaurants, often stumbled upon and not tediously researched. We walked at least 10 kilometres a day in our search for food, services and information.

Knowing how to relax. No phone.

And as the week went by, I noticed a few things. I slept really well. I thought nothing of walking the 5 kilometers round trip to catch a ferry, even in the rain. Or walking late at night to the only winter surviving restaurant at Laglio. I became fit. I read Italian newspapers back to back, and read the books laying idle on my Kindle. And then I stopped writing.

Don’t pay the ferryman.
Another village along the edge of Lake Como

In hindsight, I enjoyed the break and intend to do this more often. Even when reconnected once we arrived in Pavia, my addiction had abated and I rarely tapped into the service.

How do you cope, dear reader, when the internet is unavailable? Do you feel anxious, or relieved to have a break from constant communication and availability?