On My Way to Lunch in Castellina in Chianti. Pasta and Authenticity.

February 1993.

Today is un giorno festivo according to the bus timetable, which simply means it’s Sunday, a holiday, a holy day, as opposed to all the other working days of the week. I’ve arrived in Castellina in Chianti, a small village 15 kilometres from Siena, after a slow but pleasant bus trip through rolling Tuscan hills dotted with small historic settlements with names that resonate more loudly than they should: Ficareto, Colombaio, Quercegrossa, Croce Fiorentina, San Leonino. I mentally translate every printed word that flashes by: names of villages and rivers, traffic directions and road signs, as figs and doves, large oak trees and Florentine crosses, saints, wells and fountains overload my thinking. This habit is mentally exhausting. Last night’s drift of snow left no visible sign in these hills, but it’s still cold and bleak. I’m wearing a thick brown coat- one that I purchased from the bi – weekly market near the medieval wall just outside the centro storico in Siena. It’s my bag lady coat, coarse and graceless, but warm. I feel like an outsider, an imposter, and terribly lonely: this coat doesn’t help. I’ll blame the coat for my sense of estrangement, given that all the Senese look so elegant in their long, fur trimmed woolen coats, not unlike those well- behaved citizens in a medieval Ambrogio Lorenzetti fresco. Not to mention the local taste for expensive, narrow, fine leather or reptile skin shoes, elegant and totally impractical, which don’t fit my broad Australian feet. The stall holders at the Sunday market in Castellina in Chianti are now packing up: I’ve arrived too late to pick up a little antique hand worked pillow case or vintage ceramic plate. The village looks deserted and uninviting. I’m not sure why I came, or where to go, not having done much research before making this lone journey. A church bell chimes in the distance signalling that it’s already past one pm, a reminder to the secular that it’s time to eat. Distant church bells can be comforting or dispiriting, arousing a sense of belonging or sadness. Today’s bells ring melancholy. A sense of cognitive dissonance overcomes me: it seems that the more I learn this language and bathe in the familiarity of Italian sounds, the less certain I feel about my place here. The empty streets loudly announce that everyone else is already seated at a table, either in a family home or warm restaurant, coats now hanging on pegs by the front door, primo piatto about to be served, a bottle of Chianti Classico proffered, as loud and excitable conversation fills the room.¬†The choice on the menu won’t be novel or foreign: Italians are far more comfortable with regional food, or even more precisely, the food of their paese, the local village or district, food that is cooked simply and according to tradition. That’s what is so appealing about Italian food. At times, I’ll admit, Italian regional cuisine can become stubbornly insular and unbending too. Campanilismo, a word derived from campanile, the village church bell,¬†suggests a rigid adherence to one’s local food, method of cooking, ingredients, dialect and ways of doing things: it’s about local pride. The bell tolls for many reasons.

I’m feeling anxious now and walk more desperately. The town is much smaller than I anticipated. If I’m not seated at a table by 1.15, I may miss out on lunch altogether. I’m looking for a small restaurant or trattoria, one that isn’t too well patronised by noisy extended families in elegant clothes, having attended, or pretending to have attended, church. Pretending to attend church is an art form in Italy, a performance that I greatly admire. You don your Sunday best, make a brief appearance at the church with the family, double or triple kiss your friends at the front steps, enter and sit down for a bit, pop out the front for a smoke (male), or chat loudly with your friends in the mid to rear rows (female), while ignoring most of the action at the front altar. The reverberating monotone of the priest echoing around the walls, ‘Santo, Santo, Santo il Signore Dio dell’universo. I cieli e la terra sono pieni della tua gloria’, produces a ready response from the front two rows of pews. High pitched, croaky voices pray in unison, the pious and the permed: small boned and ancient women kneel, rosaried and devout, as they prepare for their future in paradiso.

I peer through the window of a small and very plain looking trattoria and see a tangle of bright yellow pasta lying on a wooden bench, liberally dusted with flour. A plump middle aged woman in a plastic cap adds more to the pile- pasta freshly rolled and cut for today’s lunch. The menu board says Tagliatelle al Burro e Salvia. ( tagliatelle with butter and sage). I don’t read any further, I don’t need to know what’s on offer for the piatto secondo.¬†I walk straight in.

October 2019.

When the eggs are plentiful and spring vegetables and herbs announce their readiness to be picked before bolting to heaven, I think back to that simple meal in Castellina in Chianti. It was elegant yet comforting, it’s success arising from restraint. Freshly made egg pasta is a joy to make and consume soon after. It requires only 2 ingredients: eggs and flour, along with a bit of kneading, resting, rolling and cutting and that’s all. No salt, no oil, no sourdough starter, no colours, no heavy artisan type flours, no chia seeds and no fuss. The sauce should gently coat the strands. Ideally, you want the fresh eggs to sing, their golden yolks colouring the mixture. At this time of the year, fresh pasta is almost saffron in colour, the eggs are so good. In the case of Tagliatelle with Butter and Sage, the sauce comes from lightly browned butter in which you crisp a few sage leaves. You could add a grating of nutmeg. It is served with grated parmigiano. Authenticity, although a fraught concept, requires you to stick, as much as possible, to the traditions of a country’s cuisine, if you have the ingredients on hand to do so. Once you start fiddling with a recipe, expect the results to speak a different language. Restrained is a good word to describe the elegance of Italian food. I hear those bells ringing. Time to make fresh pasta.

Little Fish Swimming Under Oil. Preserving Fresh Anchovies.

One of the classic ways of conserving seasonal food, especially in rural Italy, is to preserve food in jars ‘sott’ olio’ or under oil. Usually vegetables, such as peppers, artichokes, eggplant and mushrooms, are partially cooked, grilled or brined beforehand, then covered completely in oil. The oil excludes air and acts as a seal against deterioration. The shelf life of these country treasures is shorter than other foods preserved using the bottling or ‘canning’ method, and once opened, they should be stored in the fridge.

One of the most enticing treats done in this way is anchovies under oil. I have vivid memories of the first time I tried anchovies conserved in this way. It was February 1993 and I was living in Siena for a month to attend a language course in Italian at the Scuola di Dante Alighieri per Stranieri, a short course wedged between my first and second year Italian studies at university. The course was demanding, with daily classes from 8 am to 1 pm, with a short coffee break in between. This left the afternoon free to explore the countryside or to wander the streets of Siena before returning home for a wine, a snack and more homework. One lunchtime, a fellow student and his wife invited me to lunch- he was, like me, an older student and was studying Italian to enhance his wine writing career. He recommended a little osteria, a simple place, with an appealing array of antipasti dishes displayed at the front counter. And there they were, sitting neatly in a rectangular glass dish, acciughe sott’olio, pink tender fillets of anchovy glistening under golden olive oil, carpeted above in finely chopped parsley. I ordered a large scoop, along with some other bits and pieces and a panino. Anchovies have never been the same for me since that day. When in Italy, I always order a small container of acciughe sott’olio from an alimentari:¬† they taste nothing like the jarred or tinned variety.

Last Wednesday as I was trawling the fish market at Preston, a big shiny pile of fresh anchovies caught my eye. I could barely contain my excitement, largely because in all the years I’ve been frequenting fish markets around Melbourne, I’ve never seen them offered for sale. I bought one kilo, raced back home and spent the next hour, with some help from Mr T, de-heading and gutting hundreds of these tiny fish: no bigger than my little finger, this was a real labour of love, the anticipation of eating the finished product inspiring me to gut neatly and well. The following recipe is for those who might come across fresh anchovies in their travels and who don’t mind some tedious gutting. The gutting becomes quite easy once you get a rhythm going. Once gutted, they are easy to brine and conserve. Don’t confuse fresh anchovies with sardines- they are two quite distinct species: anchovies are much smaller and look and taste completely different.

Fresh anchovies preserved under oil. Acciughe sott’olio.

  • 1 kilo fresh anchovies
  • course salt
  • red wine vinegar
  • EV olive oil.
  • garlic
  • herbs

First of all, wash the fish a few times in a large colander to remove some of the blood. Then start the de-heading and gutting process, well armed with a strong wooden cutting board and newspaper for the scraps ( perfectly fine sent to the compost heap). As you cut off head, push down against the board and drag it away from the body- you’ll find that the guts come out with the head in one simple movement. If the anchovy separates into two parts, pull out the backbone: if not, leave it there, to be removed later.

Once prepared, lay in a glass or ceramic container РI used a large earthenware gratin dish.  Liberally sprinkle with course salt, lifting the little fillets through the salt, then arrange them neatly in the dish. How much salt? Quanto basta, as they say in Italian recipes, q.b. for short, which means as much as you think they need. Cover with red wine vinegar. Cover the dish, and put it in the fridge for 24 hours.

The next day, sterilise two medium sized jars for the anchovies. Drain the brine from the fish, remove their fine backbones, which will pull out very easily, then pop into jars, layering them with a little finely chopped garlic and some oregano if you wish. Don’t overdo the extra flavours as they may come to overwhelm the fish over time. Fill the jars with olive oil, knock the jars against the bench a few times to remove air-pockets, then top up with more oil as needed. The contents must be covered. Put on lids tightly then store in the fridge. Leave for around five days before eating. As olive oil turns cloudy when cold, remove the anchovies a few minutes before serving and place in a small bowl. The oil with clear in no time in a warm room.

As the flavoured oil is a component of this antipasto dish, you want to use good tasting oil, but perhaps not a top notch one. I used Cobram Australian Extra Virgin olive oil, a good quality everyday oil and one that tastes quite good too.

Serve as part of an antipasto selection, or simply place them on top of good sourdough bread, along with parsley and black pepper, and eat them when the mood takes you.

Miss Daisy, 9 years old, anchovy connoisseur. After school treats for the Kitchen Princess.

The recipe was inspired by a post by Debi who wrote about finding fresh anchovies in Greece, around one year ago. I remember that post well, thinking that I would never see the fresh species land in my local fish market.

 

 

Day of the Dead. Legends for the Living.

I used to look forward to All Saints Day when I was a child. In Catholic schools, All Saints Day was a religious holy day of note, which meant that we had another day off school. November the first blurred into November the second, Melbourne Cup Day, which is a State holiday in Victoria, and if the days lined up nicely with the weekend, even better. The beginning of November meant horses, saints, holidays and good weather, with only one down side, the traipse up the road to Church, a small price to pay for another day off. I don’t remember much about those saints or what the day was about. To me, it all seemed a bit morbid and sinister so I conveniently blocked it out.

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Pane dei Morti di Siena

It was in the tenth century that¬†Odile, the abbot of Cluny in medieval France, transmuted the Day of the Dead, Samhain, the ancient Celtic feast of ancestors, into a Christian holy day, All Souls Day. Curses and blasphemy, I missed out on all the Celtic fun and got Odile’s version, made extra ominous by the Irish nuns who taught me. At least in modern Italy, the day still goes by the name¬†I Morti,¬†the dead, and the practices are more in tune with traditional pagan legends than the version I grew up with, though I’m sure there’s a bit of Church attendance involved. Going to mass in Italy often means chatting through the service and ducking out for a smoke. Other than the widows up the front, Italians often¬†don’t seem to take church too seriously. Church is a local catch up and a ritualised prologue to a good lunch.

In Sicily, legend has it that on the evening of November 1,¬†departed relatives rise up from their tombs and rollick through the town, raiding the best pastry shops and toy stores for gifts to give to children who have been good during the year.¬†Children write letters to their dead relatives, just like the Christmas letters written to Santa. On this day, ancestors and relatives “feel an attraction to the living and hope to return for a visit and families set the table for ancestors returning from their graves.”

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Small loaves for the day of the Dead. One for now, one for the freezer.

What a wonderful legend. Just to think that you might have a visit from your dearly departed loved ones for a fleeting moment in time. When it comes to a good Celtic legend, adapted along the way by some wily Siciliani, I’m in. Time to write a letter to the dead and make some sweet things for ¬†I Morti

Pan co’ Santi –¬†A sweet bread from Siena to share with I Morti.

Makes two small loaves

  • 300 gr raisins
  • 1 ¬Ĺ¬†cups tepid water
  • 2 ¬Ĺ¬†teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 25 gr sugar
  • 3 Tbls lard or olive oil
  • 500 gr unbleached plain flour plus 2 -3 Tbls for the raisins.
  • 8 gr sea salt
  • 1.25 gr freshly ground pepper
  • 100 gr walnuts, toasted and roughly chopped
  • 1 egg yolk for glaze

Soak the raisins in the tepid water for at least ¬Ĺ¬†hour. Drain the raisins, but reserve 1 1/3 cups of the soaking water. Warm the soaking water to 105-115 degrees.

By mixer: Stir the yeast and sugar into the raisin water in a large mixing bowl; let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. Stir in the lard or olive oil in with the paddle. Add the flour, salt and pepper and mix until the dough comes together. Change to a dough hook and knead until firm and silky, for around 3 minutes.

First rise. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, 1¬ľ to 1¬Ĺ hours.

Filling. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Without punching it down or kneading it, pat gently with your palms into a 35 cm/14 inch circle. Pat the raisins dry and toss with 2-3 Tbls flour. Work them and the walnuts into the dough in 2 additions.

Bread dough with sweet filling

Shaping and second rise. Cut the dough into two pieces. Shape each piece into a round, tucking the ends of the loaf in and trying to keep the raisins and walnuts under the taut surface of the skin. Set each loaf on a lightly floured peel or on a parchment lined baking sheet. Cover with towels and let rise again until doubled, around 1 hour and 10 mins.

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Fruit and nut stuffed dough before rising.

Baking. Heat the oven to 220¬į C fan forced. With a razor or sharp serrated knife, slash the dough with 2 horizontal and 2 vertical cuts. Brush the loaves with the egg yolk, then bake for 5 mins, then reduce the heat to 200 F and bake for 30-40 minutes more.

Also see these little sweet biscuits for the dead.  https://almostitalian.wordpress.com/2016/10/25/fave-dolci-biscuits-for-the-dead/

 

Tagliatelle with Butter and Sage

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Albergo with a view, breakfast table, Siena

It was in Castellina in Chianti, just north of Siena, in 1993, when I first ate Tagliatelle con Burro e Salvia. I remember the day quite vividly. At the time I was studying Italian at the Scuola di Dante Alighieri per Stranieri for a month and, as school attendance required me to be present only from 8 am to 1 pm, I had the rest of the day, as well as each Sunday, to roam around Siena and Tuscany, often taking the local bus to a small village, followed by a lunch and a stroll. It was on one of these jaunts that I ended up in Castellina in Chianti, and not long after hopping off the bus, I was drawn to a modest ristorante where a big pile of freshly made tagliatelle was laid out on display. I was in like a shot.

Tagliatele fatta a casa
Tagliatelle fatta a casa Morgana

Although seemingly a very simple dish, fresh tagliatelle with butter and browned sage leaves does require some hours of preparation. There is no point making this dish with dried pasta or even shop purchased fresh pasta. This is where I get bossy. The pasta must be freshly made up to two hours before. This is why it tastes so good and comforting.

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Tagliatelle con burro, salvia e parmigiano

Making pasta at home is an easy process if you have a little time AND a helper. I never make pasta on my own, but when young Daisy Chef is around, what seems like a tedious business becomes a joy. We flour up the benches, get the aprons on and make a load of yellow snakes. She loves to crank that handle and feed the stretched pasta through the wide cutting blades.

Rolling the pasta.

Taglatelle con Burro e Salvia- Tagliatelle with Butter and Sage

First make the pasta.

  • 300 g flour, preferably farina¬†doppio zero, or ’00’ flour
  • 3 large eggs ( around 60 g each)

Make the pasta dough either by hand or in a food processor. I simply place these two ingredients into the food processor and pulse until the dough clumps together. If it doesn’t, have another small beaten egg on hand and add it, bit by bit, until the pasta clumps. Don’t over process it.

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Feeding the pasta through at number 5.

Bring the dough together on a lightly floured bench and, without kneading, cover the dough ball in plastic for 20 minutes or so to rest. Unwrap the ball and knead the dough for around 5 minutes, turning and folding, until it is smooth. Wrap again in plastic and leave on the bench to rest for another 30 minutes or more, until you are ready to continue. In summer, this step may involve resting the dough in the fridge, but always bring it back to room temperature before rolling

Flour the bench well. Feed the dough through the pasta machine, twice at each number, from 7 to 5, then once on each number down to number 2. If the dough sheets get sticky along the way, dust them with more flour.

Feed the long sheets through the tagliatelle blade, then place them on a large flour covered tea towel and toss around so that the strands don’t stick together. Cover the pasta with another tea towel until ready to use.

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The fun part!
  • Boil up a large pot of water and add ample salt.
  • Cook the pasta until al dente- two minutes is usually enough but this will depend on how long the pasta has been resting.
  • Meanwhile, melt some unsalted butter in a wide frying pan and cook some sage leaves until crisp. Remove. Then add more butter to the pan to melt. Return the sage leaves. The butter is main sauce so be generous, around 40 g for two serves.
  • Drain the tagliatelle and toss through the butter and sage in the pan. Add some freshly ground pepper or nutmeg. Serve with lots of freshly grated grana padano or reggiano parmigiano.

    Daisy picks sage.
    Daisy picks sage.

 

 

Il Palio di Siena. The Goose

The contrada dell’oca, the district of the goose, won the Palio, Siena’s famous horse race, in July 2011. When we stayed in that district in October of the same year, they were still celebrating their victory. Flags adorned the narrow streets and song and chanting could be heard late at night.

The Contrada di L'oca, 2011
The Contrada dell”oca, 2011

I have very fond memories of Siena and would happily return there in a flash, especially in winter when the light is long and low over Il campo and the tourists buses have disappeared, when gentle snow drifts down medieval lanes and the Sienese continue their evening passeggiatta, the hems of long woollen coats sweeping the ancient pathways.

the flags of L'oca adorn the streets of it's contrada.
The flags of l’oca adorn the streets of its contrada.

Off-Season in Siena

Have you ever been to Siena in winter? It is beautiful, cold and local. City folk stroll along the cobblestone lanes in the evening, their long woollen coats float by as gentle snow drifts in from the dark cloudless night. Loud whispers and laughter echo along the vicoli, the narrow lanes of the historic centre. It’s never too cold for the passeggiata.¬†Although Siena is well touristed in any season, it is a nightmare to visit during July and August, as well as Easter. Out of season, it is a place of wonder, as tiny dark lanes give way to more and the Centro Storico twists and turns around its own steep hill. Getting lost daily is part of the joy.¬† Visit in the ‘off- season‘ and stay for a long time to understand the real spirit of Siena.

Piazza del Campo. Travel Theme: Meeting Places.

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A Piazza is the quintessential meeting place. It is interesting to reflect upon the role of the Piazza in Italian history;  meeting place, site of political unrest, market place, home to festivals and sagre as well as musical and theatrical events, the piazza plays a central role in the communal life of all Italians today. It is a stage, a living theatre.

IMG_1446Piazza del Campo in Siena is my favorite meeting place. Watch as old be-suited gentlemen meet for a coffee, a smoke or to pick up the La Repubblica newspaper at 7 am. ¬†See the noisy teenagers gather after school at around 1.30 pm; at 5pm, another wave of older college students descend on ‘Il Campo’. They lie about in the setting sun or chat in huddled groups. ¬†Locals converge after dinner for passeggiata on the way home. In winter, they stroll in long fur edged coats and fine shoes, appearing to glide across the uneven bricks, reminding me of the wealthy citizens depicted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, famous painter of Sienese life in the 14th century.

The best time to visit Siena is out of season when Piazza del Campo becomes moody and mysterious under the winter sky.  Avoid the  summer months, especially during the Palio, as well as Easter, unless you fancy hordes of people.

See Ailsa’s Where’s My Backpack for other meeting places around the world.

In My Kitchen. January 2014

Happy New Year. It’s time to reflect, to plan and to clear out the old and unwanted from our kitchens and our minds! ¬†I remember reading an interview with Germaine Greer years ago, where she described her favourite New Year’s Eve activity. She laundered and pressed all her fine white Italian linen. I have also begun this task.¬†Image

Grazie¬†Mille, many thanks, to¬†Celia at Fig Jam and Lime Cordial¬†for hosting the monthly In My Kitchen. It’s a chance to have a peep into the many kitchens around the world and get inspiration from the small detail of ¬†every day life.

In My Kitchen are the last of the peaches from our tree. Nothing compares with the taste of a warm, fully ripe peach freshly plucked.Image

These two little woven containers prove so handy in summer. I purchased them in Bali this year. They prove invaluable in summer for carting the cutlery outdoors.

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I cannot resist buying Panforte each Christmas, and I usually receive a couple as gifts also. They bring back memories of Siena, and Monteriggione nearby, where I was a student many years ago.

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These little terracotta bowls were purchased at the Mediterranean Wholesalers in Brunswick. They sit on my bench, still unused, reminding me of tapas and summer plan for ‘al fresco’ dining.Image

This little pink grater comes from Chiang Mai in Thailand, purchased for 20 Bhat- less than $1.00.  So handy for summer salads.Image

And finally the Zucchini Plague has begun. My favourite zucchini recipes are re-appearing, some are being rehashed and updated and will appear in the next few posts.Image