In My Kitchen, April 2018.

Autumn in Melbourne, most would agree, is the best season of the year. Days are warm and still while evenings are crisp. A few small logs burning in the wood stove symbolise a seasonal turning point in the calendar: the first cosy fire is the most evocative of all. Other Autumnal markers are the slow ripening of the quinces, with a few falling each day, the late season heritage apples, the Rome Beauty and Akane varieties now ready, and the fat green olives beginning to blush purple-black. Keeping a productive vegetable patch and orchard may seem demanding to some- an abundant harvest can be a hard task master. This extra time in the kitchen is offset by time spent away from supermarkets. In my kitchen, the garden is featuring more each month and will continue to do so. Out of My Garden and into the Kitchen perhaps?

Last of the sweet Akane apples

If you grow your own chillies, you will probably end up with way too many but really, count this as a blessing. There are little saucers of chillies lying about in my kitchen and on sunny ledges, slowly drying out for the year’s supply. Once ready, they will be whizzed in an electric spice grinder then stored stored for the year in jars. Some dried chilli flakes also go into the making of chilli oil, an essential condiment on a southern Italian table. Soup bowls proliferate in my kitchen. Because I love soup so much, I have preferred bowls for certain soups. Fine purees tend to go into old-fashioned 1940s small bowls, onion soup into rustic terracotta bowls, Italian bean and pasta soups lounge around in shallow but very wide bowls and so on. It’s obsessive I know, and my soup bowl collection is being reviewed as I address the issue of downsizing. A few new irregular shaped bowls recently snuck into my kitchen.

A new soup bowl, with zucchini soup and pesto.

And when it comes to soup, the garden produce usually dictates the recipe. I always start with a soffritto, a very finely chopped selection of onion, celery, herbs and garlic sauted in olive oil, and then the soup is built on this base. It is artistic expression for me- not just a bowl of soup.

Late March garden pickings for soup, with our garlic from December.

The soup that followed the picking.

Zuppa dell’orto con quadretti.

I get nervous if the dried bean and pulse supplies fall too low. Sourced from Bas Foods, most of these are Australian grown and are packed fresh in the warehouse next door. There’s nothing worse than woody old dried beans: no soaking and long cooking will revive them. Another essential soup ingredient is Farro, and it’s great to see the Australian variety on the market made by Mt Zero olives.

Dried beans and pulses

Autumn fruits, and a few stored plums from late summer, make fine fruit crumbles. My favourite mixture is apple, plum, orange, lemon peel, sugar, cloves and marsala. This batch is ready to be topped with crumble.

As we have been running between two kitchens for the last two months, we have discovered some interesting fresh supplies near our campsite on the Mornington Peninsula. These mussels are grown in the bay off Mt Martha where the water is deep and pristine. They are not available commercially in Melbourne as Point Lonsdale black mussels tend to dominate the markets. They can be bought at Safety Beach and also in Dromana. They are really the best mussels I have ever tasted.

Fresh Mt Martha Mussels.

I made a quick smoky chowder last night and a few of these briny molluscs went into the soup. Today’s Pizza lunch demanded a few more- and I still have half a bag left for some Pasta con Cozze tonight. Not bad for $7.50 a kilo.

Pizza Amore. ( cozze, pomodori piccoli, basilico, olive)

For the monthly series, In My Kitchen, organised and collated by Sherry, from Sherry’s Pickings. Strangely enough, this series keeps me on track and up to date with my garden life too.

Apologies to Eha, Debi and others for my earlier draft which suddenly appeared without my knowledge. Gremlins!

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

In My Kitchen, March 2017

In my kitchen, I am surrounded by summer’s bounty, despite the seasonal peculiarities. The tomato crop has been ordinary: most people who live in, or near, Melbourne are complaining. There will be no passata making day for us in 2017. The zucchini and cucumbers have also been slow, but are now getting a new life with a dry, warm autumn. I am quite happy with the trade-off, with abundant plum, blackberry and fig crops this year, the seasonal surprises in my kitchen.

First bowl of blackberries. They are flushing every week.
First bowl of blackberries. A flush every week.
Today's garden pick
Today’s garden pick . Some will go on top of a pizza.
Pizza 5 Tesori
Pizza Cinque Tesori

Today’s ‘Five Treasure Pizza’ includes yellow pear tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, grilled baby zucchini, finely sliced red onion, and a handful of shrimp, scattered with tiny Greek basil leaves. This week’s dough was based on a mix of doppio zero white flour ( tipo ’00’) and a small proportion ( 50 g) of wholemeal spelt to give the dough a little more body. I like yeasted pizza more than sourdough, with long rises in the fridge, ( up to three days) making it even better.

bread-lot

I am trying to vary my bread flavours and methods, and have been inspired by Maree’s new facebook group, dedicated to Sourdough making. The sourdough loaves above were loosely based on a recipe from the Bourke Street Bakery Cookbook, and includes 60% wholemeal spelt. I like these nutty loaves, especially with soft blue cheese or zucchini pickle. The loaves below are my “Stand By Your Fam” high hydration loaves courtesy of Celia. I can now make these everyday loaves on autopilot, made in the evening, put to sleep for 8 hours or more, then shaped into loaves in the morning. These are favoured by the man and the extended family, with 75% baker’s white and 25% wholemeal.

Stand by your fam sourdough loaves.
Stand by your fam sourdough loaves.

A quick summer dish, spaghetti al nero di seppia, (squid ink spaghetti), is topped with a good commercial mix of seafood marinara, cherry tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and torn basil. The black pasta by Molisana is surprisingly good. Thanks Signorina at Napoli Restaurant Alert for reminding me about this pasta last month.

A quick Spagetti marinara
A quick Spaghetti marinara

I made these preserved lemons back in December. They have provided a lemon boost to many a dish this summer, especially given that lemons have been scarce, in contrast to limes which are now common place.

Preserved lemons, bridging the lemon gap.
Preserved lemons, bridging the lemon gap.

Oh no, there’s a chook in my kitchen, again! Mischa has been carting a red chook into my kitchen since she was 5 years old. At the old house, she used to sit on a garden swing with Hermione and put the chook to sleep. The red chook is always called Hermione, even though we don’t usually name our hens, and there have been at least six generations of ‘Hermiones’ since that first one. The conversation usually goes like this.

“Please take that chook out of the kitchen, Mischa.”

“But it’s Hermione”, said in a child- like voice, even though Mischa is now almost 20!

That’s what I like about my kitchen, the mad stuff. The other rooms of the house are dull and lifeless, sedentary rooms dedicated to kitchen recovery.

Mischa and Hermione.
Mischa and Hermione no. 7

Thanks Liz at Good Things, for hosting this monthly roundup. If you have ever thought about blogging, the monthly IMK is a good place to start. Most of my bread inspiration and support has come from friends found in this forum.

Zucca Restaurant. The Best Restaurant in Hue, Vietnam

There comes a time, every two weeks or so, when my body screams for pizza. This tends to happen more often in Asia. The scenario goes like this.”Where do you want to eat tonight? What do you feel like?” Local food options are considered, followed by an hour of walking along hot, busy streets, reading yet more menus, all delightful but strikingly similar, when finally my inner Strega rises to the fore and growls, “I would kill for a pizza”. Can we go back to Zucca restaurant? My guilty acquiescence is abated when Mr Tranquillo admits to the same desire.

Pizza Marinara, Zucca Restuarant, Hue, Vietnam
Pizza Marinara, Zucca Restaurant, Hue, Vietnam

Don’t get me wrong: I love the local Vietnamese cuisine here in Hue and have tried some excellent local restaurants in our nine-day sojourn here. The cuisine of Hue is a lot more varied and spicy than the usual Vietnamese offerings in Melbourne. But a good pizza washed down with a glass or two of wine is a heavenly thing, even when the wine in this divine coupling is the local Dalat wine, an acquired taste to which, through necessity, I have succumbed.

Pizza Heaven at Zucca, Hue
Pizza Heaven at Zucca, Hue. Pizza Marinara 139,000VND/AU$8.18

Running an Italian restaurant in an Asian tourist area is a licence to print money. These restaurants are always packed with expats, travellers and backpackers, some seeking respite from the local cuisine, while others, especially the younger travellers, needing food that is familiar and non- challenging. Asian versions of pizza and pasta are generally lost in translation. The pasta is often overcooked or drowned in Dolmio or Raguletto bottled sauce or the pizza is disappointing. Not at Zucca in Hue. The food here would rival the best Italian offerings in Rome or Melbourne.

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Meet the chef at Zucca, Huy.

After eating a couple of their excellent pizzas, we returned one night to try the pasta, in particular, the spinach and ricotta ravioli. The pasta is freshly made on the premises and the serving size is generous, topped with a home-made tomato sauce or cream. There is a tiny topping of basil ( Vietnamese basil- the only local touch). There are sadly no pics of this remarkable dish.At VND 70,000/AU$4.12, I am keen to return to try the pumpkin ravioli version.

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grilled calamari, marinade of lemongrass, nicely charred.

After we sated our lust for Italian food, we began to notice that Zucca also offers local food as well as fusion food. The grilled calamari spiedini are marinated in aromatic lemongrass, then threaded with capsicum and onion slices and grilled on charcoal. They are served with a large salad and rice. VND 100,000/AU$5.88

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The Melanzane Parmigiana is a slab of crumbed and fried eggplant, layered with mozzarella, home-made tomato salsa and parmesan. It was very sustaining, but a little dry due to my taste due to the crumbing.  VND80,000/AU$4.71

squid tempura entree with salad.
squid tempura entrée with salad.

The calamari entrée comes with a generous salad,  VND 80,000/AU$4.71,  making it a great little snack to go with a glass of fresh beer on tap  at VND10,000/AU$.59c. ( yes- 59 cents! a glass). Mr T claims that the local beer is the safest and most economical drink in Vietnam. The local chilled white wine, which is made in the cooler district of DàLat, is a bargain at VND120,000 /AU$7.06.

DaLat wine. It grows on you.
Dalat wine. It grows on you.

It really is hard to keep away from Zucca.

  • Zucca Restaurant, 3 Doi Cong street, Hue, Vietnam

In My Kitchen, May 2016

In My Kitchen there is lunch. Unless I am out and about, I prefer to eat well at lunch time, followed by something light for dinner. This month’s post looks at some of my lunches over the last few weeks. Simple food, good bread, made from the best ingredients- what more could I ever want?

Cos Lettuce, anchovy and garlic, hard boiled eggs.
Cos Lettuce, anchovy and garlic dressing, hard-boiled eggs, sourdough bread

The garden and chooks provide most of my ingredients, though as the season turns, the garden pickings are becoming slim.

Pasta and peas
Pasta and peas

Whenever a pasta dish calls for pancetta, speck or lard, I use anchovies as my pescatarian substitute which provides the salty flavour base.

A foccaccia or a pizza?
A foccaccia or pizza?

There are still a few cherry tomatoes hiding in the garden along with wild rocket. They land on a simple foccaccia, along with potatoes and garlic.

eggplant bake
eggplant bake

My de-constructed eggplant parmigiana is a quick lunch. The new season’s eggplants don’t need salting or de-gorging.  Stir fry them quickly in ample olive oil, toss them in left over tomato passata, add basil and lots of cheese, maybe some cooked ditalini pasta to bulk it out, then into the oven it goes for 10 minutes.

An omeltte and a glass of wine
An omelette and a glass of wine

I once owned an Elizabeth David book entitled, An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. Memories of this book inspire our once a week lunch special- with scattered parmesan cheese and herbs through the rolled omelette. Add salad, bread and a glass of wine!

Leek risotto
Leek risotto

We now have self-sown leeks everywhere and can rely on them in any season. My favourite way to use them is in a risotto, using home-made veggie stock. They are also great cooked with potatoes then mashed with butter. A vichyssoise without the liquid.

Inspired by Celia, I now make little rolls to eat or freeze. Take one portion of risen sourdough, spread out, add toppings- here we have olives, rosemary, a little oil- roll up, then slice into 12 scrolls, and let rise again and bake.

seasonal chilli
seasonal chilli

Our chilli always arrives late in the season and keeps producing well until late winter. Most will be dried. Chilli recipes are most welcome.

Thanks Maureen at The Orgasmic Chef for hosting In My Kitchen. Press that link to see what’s happening in other kitchens around the globe.

Sourdough Diaries and Speltification

My dear friend Rachael recently became a convert to the ‘nerdy’ pastime of sourdough bread making and with some encouragement from Sandra at Please Pass the Recipe, converted her sourdough starter into a spelt starter. Here is her first spelt loaf. Just look at that spring and crumb. rachaels bread

In January I received a lovely email from Sue. I sent her some de-hydrated starter before Christmas and just look at her first stunning  loaf. She kindly sent this photo and mentioned that her 6-year-old was onto her third slice. This is what happens with kids when they get a taste of slowly made, real tasting bread. 6b47937c-9583-4c89-b890-db8d1efdb6cc

My last week’s loaves were a mix of 35% wholemeal and 65% white bakers flour. I follow Celia’s classic method for all my loaves and the dough is usually risen overnight. I was happy with the spring on this one and favour a crunchy crust. I also make one in a Romertopf which has a softer crust which Mr T prefers.

My 35 % wholemeal loaf. I like a good spring!!
My 35 % wholemeal loaf. I like a good spring!!

Once a week I return to a yeast based dough for our pizza night. This is always a treat and a way to use up fresh garden produce. I am hoping that Rachael can teach us a speltified sourdough version one day.

Garden Pizza- with roasted cherry tomatoes.
Garden pizza with roasted cherry tomatoes.

Slow and Fast Pizza

pizza
Pizza Napolitana con Pomodori Gialli e Gremolata.

There is an odd family tradition at Casa Morgana. Whenever we go overseas, or even into the city for a quick getaway, our adult children move in for a Pizza Party. A case of when the cat’s away… except that these mice are mature, responsible adults most of the time, unless it’s pizza party night and then it’s play time. Part of the ritual involves numerous preliminary texts and FB messages enquiring about the dough recipe, or my stand mixer, or the settings on my Ilve oven, or do I have anchovies. This post is partly for them, but it I hope it serves as a basis for a good pizza for you too, dear reader.

Golden Pomodori or is that a tautology?
Golden Pomodori or is that a tautology?

This pizza utilises the garden’s summer bounty: sliced golden tomatoes with a dressing of parsley gremolata, a finely chopped parsley and garlic moistened with EV olive oil, which anoints the pizza once it has emerged from the oven. As we have a preference for Pizza Napolitana – and in Melbourne, that means olives and anchovies-  large supplies of both ingredients are always kept in the fridge. These huge tins of Italian anchovy fillets (700g) last well. The fillets stay ‘sott’olio’-  you can always top up the oil- and come with a handy plastic cover. No more fear of anchovy deprivation.

Anchovies in bulk. 750 grams. Some for the Pizza and some for Daisy, straight out of the tin.
Anchovies in bulk. 700 grams. Purchased at Gervasi, Sydney Rd, Brunswick, for around AU$14.

My pizza dough recipe comes from Carol Field’s The Italian Baker. I have revised and simplified this recipe from my previous post of two years ago.

Ingredients for Two Large Pizze

This dough is made in a stand mixer. If you prefer, you can make it by hand or in a food processor. Use cold water if using a processor. If you double the mixture, make it in two lots as most stand mixers don’t enjoy mixing a kilo of flour. I have listed ingredients in cups and by weight. My children generally depend on cup measurements even though they are all excellent cooks. I prefer to weigh.

  • 1¾ teaspoons/5g active dry yeast
  • pinch of sugar
  • 1¹/³ cup/ 320g warm water
  • ¼ cup/ 55g olive oil
  • 3¾ cup/500g bakers flour*
  • 1½ teaspoons /7.5g sea salt

Stir the yeast and sugar into the water in the stand mixer bowl; let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. Stir in the oil with the paddle. Mix the flour and salt and add to the yeast mixture. Mix until the dough comes together. Change to the dough hook and knead at medium speed until soft and satiny but firm, about 3 minutes or more. 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 then cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled. Depending on the weather, and the room temperature, this may take one to two hours. In summer, things move more quickly.

Shaping and second rise. Knead the dough briefly on a lightly floured surface, for 1-2 minutes. Divide the dough into two (this amount will make two large pizze). Roll each piece into a ball on a floured surface then flatten to a thin disk or shape and stretch by hand.

Place the dough on large trays dusted with semolina or polenta or lightly oiled then let them rise another 30 minutes, covered with a towel. Dress them with your favourite topping. Preheat oven to 250c. Place in the oven and drop the temperature to 220c. Cook for around 20 minutes. You can usually smell when the pizza is ready. It is done when the outer crust is crisp and a little charred and the underside is golden.

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Pizza Estiva

The fast pizze are those we make for a quick breakfast/brunch. For a cheat’s pizza, they are still good. Grab some large rounds of yeasted Lebanese Pide. These are not the usual flatbreads used for wraps or roll ups but are much puffier; they are  also much nicer than those supermarket cardboard pre-made bases. A packet of 4 costs $4.00, they measure around 30 cm in diameter and last well in the fridge of freezer. Look for these in a Lebanese bakery near you.

Yeasted Pide from A1 Bakery, Sydney Rd, Brunswick. Not available every day.

On goes some passata di pomodoro, mozzarella, a manciata or handful of olives, herbs in season, chopped garlic and a few summer tomatoes, roughly sliced. Count on a total prep and cooking time of 10 minutes and it’s back to the orto. 

Everyone has their own favourite pizza sauce. I usually leave this up to Mr Tranquillo, who makes a nice garlic laced version but I love the simplicity of this pizza sauce from Signorina Napoli at Napoli Restaurant Alert. And as for her cake recipes, a world of temptation awaits those who enter.

* Bakers flour is used in preference to unbleached white plain flour. A reliable brand in Melbourne is by Manildra which comes in 10 kilo bags for around $15.00. I have never had any success using Italian doppio zero flour : I find the lack of gluten in ’00’ flour makes the dough too wet or soft.

Salmoriglio- The Sicilian Dressing

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Spiedini di salmone alla griglia con salmoriglio. – Grilled salmon kebabs with salmoriglio dressing.

One of my most vivid memories of Palermo is its famous dressing, Salmoriglio, probably because it is so easy to recreate, especially during late Spring when the patch of oregano is at its peak. When I first tried this in a restaurant Palermo, it came drizzled over a thinly cut fillet of pesce spada, or swordfish, along with contorni, a platter of simply grilled vegetables According to Marisa Raniolo Wilkins, in her cookbook, Sicilian Seafood Cooking, the name comes from its three main ingredients – salt (sale), lemon (limone), and oregano (origano).

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Salmoriglio  (or Salmorigano) Dressing.

  • 4 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves
  • 1 scant tablespoons sea salt flakes
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 8 tablespoons EV olive oil
  • black pepper

Pound the oregano leaves with the salt in a mortar and pestle. When it forms a paste, add the lemon juice, then the oil and grind in some black pepper. Store in a jar and see how many ways you can use it over a week. As a cold sauce, it is best applied to hot food and then smell all the elements of the ingredients come alive.

 

 

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Drizzled over a Pizza Romana

 

 

 

 

Ligurian Focaccia with Sage

Salty and oily. Focaccia di Liguria. This one comes with Sage leaves.
Salty and oily. Focaccia di Liguria. This one comes with sage leaves.

Focaccia is one of the culinary delights of Liguria and what better place to try a lovely green oily version than in the Cinque Terre. The five villages of this area, Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso, perch precariously along the edge of the Ligurian sea and at the base of steep terraced hills. These towns are connected by a wonderful little train which travels through tunnels carved into the mountains, with an occasional glimpse at the wild sea through gaps in the tunnels along the way. They are also connected by walking trails and by sea.

Left over pizza dough.
Left over pizza dough.

I first tried green oil drenched, salty focaccia in 1985 in one of these towns. Other Ligurian specialties from that era included spaghetti al pesto, spaghetti con vongole and a very young dry white wine that I can still taste. Above the five towns, with colourful houses that tumble down to the sea, a steep walk takes one to a rural district with spectacular views of the coast. In those days, the towns petered out quickly: rural life was still in full swing: steeply terraced vines were well-tended, the tall irregular trellises constructed of hand hewn wood. Vineyards then led to further terraces of olive groves above.

dough placed in rectangular baking dish
Dough is  placed in a well oiled rectangular baking dish. The thicker the better!

I haven’t returned to the Cinque Terre since then- I don’t wish to spoil good memories. The terraces are now, apparently, poorly maintained and the vines untended: there is more money in tourism than farming. The area was also severely damaged by floods and mudslides in 2011. It is very popular and heavily touristed in the Italian summer months. The Cinque Terre National Park and the towns are now a Unesco World Heritage Site: there are attempts to preserve the unique aspects of this area.

Second rise- the dough under a damp cloth.
Second rise- the dough  under a damp cloth for another 40 minutes.
Before baking in a hot ( 220c) oven, the dough is dimpled, then liberally dressed with EV olive oil.
Before baking in a hot (220c) oven, the dough is dimpled, then liberally dressed with EV olive oil.
Focaccia con Salvia
Focaccia con Salvia

I follow Carol Field’s recipe when making focaccia, however I tend to use left over pizza dough that has been rising for another day in the fridge.

  • After returning the once risen dough back to room temperature, I roll it into a rectangular shape to suit the size of my baking tin – in this case, a tin with sides, such as a old fashioned lamington tin.
  • The tin is well oiled, the dough is pressed in with fingers and left to rise again under a damp cloth. The damp cloth trick seems to produce the right moist texture that I recall from all those years ago. The cloth needs to be very well dampened but sit slightly above the dough so that it doesn’t stick.
  • After 40 minutes or so, the dough is dimpled by pressing indentations with your fingers. These will catch the oil. Very therapeutic and a good task for little ones.
  • Lots of Extra Virgin olive oil is applied, followed by salt crystals (coarsely ground sea salt or rock salt), then sage leaves are pressed onto the dough.
  • The focaccia is then baked in a preheated oven, 220c, for around 20 minutes or until it looks done.
  • Cool, remove from tin, and slice into rectangle pieces or slices. I guarantee that the bread will not have time to go stale. It doesn’t hang around for long.

The green olive version from Liguria is also rather nice.

This forms part of Leah’s The Cookbook Guru,  where we are spending a month or two looking at one of my favourite cookbooks, Carol Field’s The Italian Baker.

And I hope it brings back a few travel memories for my three children, who will always remember Signore Andrea P. Poggi, and that screaming cat below the sea wall at Vernazza!

Cafe Bellino and the Demise of the Local Italian Restaurant.

Hand crafted thin crusted pizza at Cafe Bellino, Brunswick.
Hand crafted thin crusted pizza at Cafe Bellino, Brunswick.

Dean Martin sings ‘Cha cha cha d’amour” in the background; locals drop in for a quick chat or a coffee, groups greet each other warmly with ‘auguri‘ or buona sera‘. Introductions are swift- meet Dino or Toni- as working men greet their friends and gather for an antipasto or a hearty bowl of pasta and a glass of rosso. Poking one’s head in to greet the chef at work in the semi open kitchen seems to be the norm. The style is distinctly Italo- Australiano and I feel very much at home here. Front of house is a charming young waiter from Milano, no doubt working on a 457 working visa, like so many other young Italian camerieri in Melbourne, and the pizzas are truly excellent, dare I say, the best I have had in a long while. At $13- $15 for a large hand crafted thinly crusted pizza, they are a steal.  But here’s the sad news. Cafe Bellino in Victoria Street, Brunswick has less than 90 days left to run! Like so many others in the district, the couple responsible for the excellent cooking here is about to retire. The signora is looking forward to spending time with her grandchildren: restaurant life is hard work, she explains. The young Milanese waiter hopes to be able to work for the new lessee, but no one really knows what kind of business will replace the beautiful little Cafe Bellino.

Young Italian Camerierie at Cafe Bellino, Brunswick
Italian Cameriere at Cafe Bellino, Brunswick

It’s a common story around the inner suburbs of Melbourne, as more Italian couples reach retirement age and sell up. A recent closure was Cafe Mingo in Sydney road, when Jo, his wife and helpers retired. Their simple Italian restaurant became home away from home for many. I loved the way that Jo would slide over a complimentary plate full of sweet wafers and a tall bottle of grappa at the end of a meal. Sweet memories. The place has since become an Indian restaurant. It’s always empty, there is no licence and no ambience. It has lost its soul. Last week when we dropped into La Bussola Ristorante e Pizzeria in Lygon Street east, we found that retirement had struck again! La Bussola, home of the simple pizza and cheap pasta, a warm retro space where you could bring your own wine or buy a caraffa di vino da tavola for $10, has become the Compass Pizza Bar. The emphasis is now on the word “bar” as this seems to be how the young Brunswick cafe managers make their money. It’s all about mark up and less about the food. We were ushered into the old retro space but shock horror, a head-phoned  DJ had been installed, playing extremely loud music at 6pm. We were told curtly that our BYO bottle was not welcome, and no, we couldn’t pay extra for corkage or glasses. We promptly left. Another wonderful family run institution had become gentrified and in my humble opinion, wrecked. Crap bottled wine, of unknown source and vintage, was offered at a starting price of $32 a bottle. Most were more costly.

Antipasto selections at Cafe Bellino.
Antipasto selections at Cafe Bellino.

The simple joy of stepping out for a pizza or a bowl of pasta with a shared a bottle of wine is quickly vanishing. I have nothing against licensed restaurants. Most of the old style BYO places hold full licences as well, offering the diner a choice. What disturbs me are the ridiculous mark ups on wine at these new hipster places. Take a bottle of ordinary wine that retails for $8 and mark it up to $35 or more. Why? Isn’t turnover and ‘bums on seats’ more important in these leaner times? Cheap, affordable wine, as well as BYO wine, has made the Melbourne suburban restaurant scene dynamic and lively in the past. These practices enabled families to regularly dine out at their local restaurant, introducing children to restaurant life and the culture of food. Simple places with prices to match. Hipster joints with their huge mark ups on wine will attract only one type of customer, young affluent singles and childless couples. A sad trend indeed, and one that would never happen in France!

If you’re in the area, footloose and fancy free or loitering with intent and in need of a drink, a coffee, or a bowl of something authentically Italian, try Cafe Bellino, 281 Victoria St, Brunswick VIC 3056. ( Just around the corner from Sydney Road). Open from 10 am to 10 pm. Closed on Sunday. You only have 80 days left.

Cha cha cha d’amour
Take this song to my lover
Shoo shoo little bird
Go and find my love

Cha cha cha d’amour
Serenade at her window
Shoo shoo little bird
Sing my song of love