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.

In My Kitchen, May 2019.

April was busier than usual with children on school holidays, beach days, Easter, followed by Anzac Day. I’m rather pleased that May has come around and I can get back to my home kitchen full-time, with some mellow Autumn cooking, interspersed with trips to the library. Anzac day, April 25th, demanded a few biscuits to mark the occasion. It’s a baking tradition in my kitchen as it was in my mother’s until recently. My Anzac biscuits are flat and crispy, the way I like them. I pop them in an old Anzac tin in the hope that they might last a few days. They never do. The Department of Veteran affairs has firm rules about Anzac biscuits. You risk a large fine if you attempt to call them cookies or play with the original recipe, or misappropriate the name in a commercial business. While not patriotic at all, I still believe in the uniquely Australian/New Zealand aspects of this day. Anzac biscuits are so popular with my extended family, I should bake them more often. For flatter, brown and crispy Anzacs, slightly reduce the percentage flour and add more brown sugar.

I like my Anzacs flat and crispy.

I whipped up these yeasted buns for Easter this year: unfortunately there was little time to concentrate on feeding a leaven for a sourdough version. This lot had extra fruit and were glazed with quince jelly. Unlike the supermarket versions which can still taste fresh after a week, ( or maybe even a month), these buns are preservative free so they don’t keep for more than a day or two. The left over buns landed in a rich bread and butter pudding.

Yeasted hot cross buns

One vegetable that grows very happily in this awful drought is chilli. They ripen in autumn and will continue to enjoy life in the garden until the first frost arrives. I use a few fresh, but the bulk of the crop is dried and ground into flakes for the year ahead. I also make chilli oil. Small batches are better as the oil can go rancid. This small jar will last a month or so. A nice drizzle for a pizza or crab pasta.

It’s garlic planting time. When you see sprouting garlic around the markets, you know the time is right. I usually plant 300 each year. This basket of 100 is a mixture of my own garlic and some Australian grown garlic from the market. Three separate plantings over May will ensure a staggered pick.

The chooks are pumping again, and suddenly I have far too many eggs. I have sent Mr Tranquillo the recipe, again, for Crème Brûlée, purchased some second-hand shallow terracotta ramekins, and I have also given him a blow torch for caramelising the tops. It’s his favourite dessert so I’m hoping it becomes his signature dish. I really do like it too.

Autumn also sees the return of pasta making in my kitchen. Three eggs and 300 grams of flour, preferable tipo 00, or a mixture of tipo 00 and semola rimacinata, or just plain flour if that’s all you have: no oil, no salt and no other additives, according to Italian nonne. This will make you a truckload of fresh pasta. I fiddled with some parsley leaf pasta in these lasagne sheets. Not worth the effort and such a 90s thing to do.

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Strofinaccio fatto dalla prozia di Alberto

It’s pastie time again. The filling in these pasties was fairly Cornish- onion, carrot, parsnip, potato. I found this puff pastry hard to digest. The sheets were left over in my fridge. For my next lot, I’ll focus on a good home-made short crust pastry.

There’s always soup in my kitchen. We don’t wait for Autumn or cooler weather to make good soup- we have it all year round. I am passionate about the building of a good soup. My soups are never randomly made. I like colour combinations, creating different flavour bases via a finely chopped soffritto, and seeking pleasing presentations so that you mangiare con gli occhi, or eat with the eyes before tasting the soup. Today, I wanted to paint a monochromatic soup in white and pale green, a contrast to today’s earthy dark rye bread. After building a soffritto of finely chopped garlic, fresh rosemary, a few anchovies and a pinch of ground chilli, I added a pile of cooked cannellini beans, shredded pale green cabbage ( wongbok cabbage which cooks quickly), and a handful of Pantacce pasta. A little grated Parmigiano Reggiano at the table and buon appetito. It’s ready.

Another cold day soup was built with Autumn colours, a typical Ribollita style soup. The soffritto build included onion, carrot, celery, and garlic. Once softened in EV olive oil, I added borlotti beans, more carrot, shredded cavolo nero, and some halved cherry tomatoes. This dense soup was served with a hunk of white sourdough.

Plain white Sourdough made with a stiff starter, recipe by Maree Tink, available on her Facebook site, Sourdough Baking Australia. More about this bread and other sourdough information in my next post.

A new cake has come into my life. I love flourless cakes that aren’t too cloying. This one has four ingredients ( butter, sugar, walnuts, eggs)  and can be whipped up in a few minutes. It is dense, is a great keeper and très French. The recipe for Walnut Cake from Perigord can be found here.

That’s a quick roundup of the kitchen treasure this month.  Thanks as always to Sherry, of Sherry’s Pickings, for the link up to In My Kitchen.

On a Broomstick with La Befana.

The Befana comes at night, With her shoes all tattered and torn, She comes dressed in the Roman way, Long Live the Befana.”

These lines sound so much better in Italian (see below) and it’s one poem that all children learn by rote and then recall as adults. La Befana is one of the most loved figures associated with Italian Christmas: the celebration is still popular throughout Italy. It’s nice to see photos of Italian women of a certain age getting into the spirit of Befana, dressing up as witches, while family groups attend the many winter feste and sagre dedicated to La Befana on the evening of January 5, 12 days after Christmas day.

Orion and the Seven Sisters. Photo by my brother Michael, whose celestial photos can be found at https://regionalcognisance.wordpress.com/.

For those who don’t know the story, the legend of La Befana is associated with the Epiphany which occurs 12 days after Christmas. Befana was an old woman who was asked to accompany the Three Wise Men on their journey to bring gifts to the new-born baby Jesus. She declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, Befana had a change of heart, and went in search of the three astrologers and the new born Jesus. That night she wasn’t able to find them, so to this day, La Befana goes out searching for the little baby on the night of the Epiphany, on January 5-6. Befana is a corruption of the Italian word of epifania, and is derived from the Greek, επιφάνεια, meaning appearance or manifestation. She is depicted as a kindly old witch wearing ragged clothes and riding a broomstick. She enters the house via the chimney and brings a sack of gifts for the children, sweet things for the good children and a lump of carbon or garlic for the naughty ones. See my earlier posts about Befana, here, here and  here.

Image courtesy of my brother Michael at https://regionalcognisance.wordpress.com/.

But there’s still something odd about the Christian aspects of this legend. Why a witch and why is she flying on a broomstick above Italian villages and cities? As it turns out, there are many pagan and folkloric threads to the story, each one providing more clues. Like many Christian stories, this one has been appropriated from ancient times and tacked on to a Christian legend about the birth of Jesus.

Moon and Tree. Courtesy M Robinson at Mick’s Cogs

‘The origin of the Befana is probably connected to a set of pagan propitiatory rites, dating back to the X-VI century BC, and is linked to seasonal cycles, to agriculture, and is related to the harvest of the past year, now ready to be reborn as a the new year’.¹

In the Roman era, the twelfth night after winter solstice symbolised the death and rebirth of nature, and was celebrated. They believed that the twelve nights after solstice represented the twelve months of the Roman calendar: female figures flew over the cultivated fields to promote the fertility of future crops, hence the legend of a “flying” figure. According to some, this female figure was first identified as Diana, the lunar goddess linked to game and hunting as well as to vegetation and the moon. Befana is also linked to minor deities such as Satìa and Abundìa, symbols of satiety and abundance. There may also be an association with an ancient Roman winter festival in honor of Strenia ¹, the goddess of New Year, a time when gifts were exchanged. (the word strenna meaning gifts is derived from this).

Other precursors include Holda and Perchta, nocturnal witches of Nordic mythology, and in the Veneto region, Erodiade. It is customary in these areas to burn an effigy of La Befana. Good, evil, mother, witch, goddess, housewife, grandmother, hag, crone, the modern, often cartoonised character of Befana, has emerged from a rich store of pagan and Italian folklore. In a sense, the Christian element is just one minor thread.

Seen in Trastevere, Roma, November 2017. The real Befana?

As for La Befana who comes dressed as a witch in the Roman style, historians specialising in Italian witchcraft and folkloric traditions have more to say. A story perhaps for next year’s post on this topic?

La Befana nell’orto d’abbondanza. Madre, nonna, dea, strega, casalinga, vecchia, contadina, amica, cuoca.

There are at least 12 versions of this little Italian poem, but this is the one I learnt many years ago. See opening paragraph above for the English translation.

La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
col vestito alla romana:
Viva viva la Befana!  

¹https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strenua

 

 

 

 

Rewriting Tradition. Easter Cuisine Old and New. Part 1

I rang my 13-year-old grandson to ask if he had eaten any hot cross buns today. He sounded disinterested and replied ‘no’, in a polite but bemused way. I could almost hear his brain ticking over, perhaps with a ‘What the ..? Has Nanna finally lost the plot, ringing me about Hot Cross Buns?’ After all, the kids have been eating these buns since Boxing Day. That’s when they begin appearing in Australian supermarkets. By the time Good Friday comes around, the novelty has worn off. So much for tradition.

Ready for the oven

I then rang my eldest son, and asked him the same question. At least he is perfectly aware of the symbolic nature of these buns. No, he had also had his fill of the supermarket product along the way, and was whipping up some scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast. Yes, another pagan in our midst. I am the first one to appreciate the secular nature of our society: I am not only a ‘collapsed’ Catholic but also don’t count myself as Christian. Having said that, I don’t see much point in throwing the baby out with the bathwater. After all, these buns are a seasonal and festive treat and it’s important to explain the meaning of the added crosses to the young folk. History and tradition form a part of who we are. At the same time, we happily appropriate any Buddhist and Hindu rituals that may suit us along the way.  Buddhist meditation becomes mindfulness ( and loses a lot in translation), Diwali is taking off in Australia and Chinese New year is popular too. Australia is a wonderful melting pot of cultures, but as we grab hold of the new, we should also at least understand the old, and adapt some of those traditions to our modern taste.

Just glazed. Who prefers the top half?

I now make hot Cross buns annually, just a dozen. The yeasted variety is light and perfect for our Autumnal weather. Next year I will increase the amount of spice in the recipe I used. They cost very little to make and are far more digestible than the common supermarket variety. If you are a beginner at yeasted baking, try Celia’s recipe here. It is foolproof and very straightforward.

To serve with butter, not margarine.

The other fond tradition I hang on to is my dedication to cooking smoked Cod on Good Friday. This is an old Irish Catholic Australian thing. Most Scottish descendants did not have this bright yellow dyed fish imposed on them as youngsters on Good Friday. If you feel slightly ambivalent about smoked cod, go to the fish market and buy the real thing  from the Shetland Islands which tastes peaty and less salty. I buy it at the Preston Market, from one fishmonger who has, by 9 am on Easter Thursday, queues 5 deep. I am told by Sandra that it is available all year round at the Prahran market.

Fish pie includes Shetland smoked cod, flathead and shrimp

One way to enjoy a piece of good quality smoked Cod is to forget your grandmother’s recipe, which consisted of an overcooked piece of fish, served with white parsley sauce, alongside boiled vegetables. Maintaining the tradition but stepping it up a notch or two makes the elements of this dish more appetising. Make an Easter fish pie, incorporating the poached smoked cod, along with poached white fish and a handful of shrimp, in a white sauce, and top with buttery mashed potato. The sides? A tossed green salad with lots of mustard in the dressing, another Irish note.

Three serves later….

This post was inspired by my friend Peter’s comment a few days ago. Peter lives in tropical Far North Queensland, where some of these culinary traditions would seem totally out-of-place.

“Enter the 60’s & 70’s: Traditional Good Friday cooking of smoked cod, which was smelt from miles away on the farm, still lingers in our psyche. We (all seven kids) all started to gag at the thought of having to consume his hideous boiled, vile muck served with over-cooked spuds and grey cabbage. Tradition beheld that we all sit at the kitchen table and dare not complain as the Compassion donation box was placed in the middle of the table with forlorn starving African children’s’ faces staring back at us which reflected those much worse off than ourselves. If only our parents knew that when we took those money boxes back to school they were much lighter by many pennies and the occasional thrupence than when they left their position placed strategically near where food or indulgent entertainment was involved. When visiting childless Aunts and Uncles visited our eyes bulged as they loudly dropped loose change into said box and we immediately tallied up how many kangaroo or umbrella toffees on a stick , yard-long licorice straps of triangular frozen Sunnyboys we could buy at the tuck-shop on the next school day. I’m sure tens of thousands of children in Africa died of starvation by we greedy Catholic kids but obligatory confession ultimately absolved us even if we had to lie to the priest to protect our guilt. So now we celebrate Easter by holding a “traditional” Bad Friday by sharing all the amazing regional and seasonal foods abundant in our region. Last week-end was the annual sugarcane and banana plantation pig shoot – sponsored by the local pubs. We bar-hogs waited for hours until the slaughtered swine were unceremoniously chucked off the blood-splatted Utes by the shooters whose faces were akin to orgasmic stimuli at the thought of winning the $25 stake. The weigh-in is a serious event all greased with gallons of booze and much humourous joshing . However, those of us on the peripheral could only see that these beasts can’t possibly go to waste and commence bartering for the whole hog. My point being is that this Bad Friday’s fare is a 57 kilo pig on a spit to be shared with all the local collapsed Catholics, a few bevvies and lots of stories about how we all ended up in the wonderful wet tropics of Far North Queensland – and not a hot-cross bun in sight. Ahh! Bliss!!”

Thanks Peter for making the effort to add such entertaining recollections to my posts. I am sure many Australians of a certain age may have similar memories.

That’s me in the corner, that’s me in the spotlight, losing my religion…..

Tradition and Change. Rewriting Christmas.

I once owned many histories of Renaissance and Medieval Europe. Most of them mentioned the words Tradition and Change somewhere within the text, if not in the title itself. That period, perhaps more than any other in history, encapsulates this historical concept so well. Things don’t change suddenly. Old ways continue side by side with the new, traditions and beliefs endure, long past their relevance to the society practising them. A clashing of paradigms might take a century to resolve, only to be followed by a reactionary movement, another turn of the wheel, bringing about upheaval and further revisions to practice and belief, whilst simultaneously drawing legitimacy and cultural validity from older traditions. History is usually written and re- written from the perspective of the current paradigm: facts alone stand for very little.

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Daisy adding nutmeg to the pudding.

Now what’s all this got to do with Christmas in Australia, I hear you ask? Some traditions keep dragging on, despite their increasing irrelevance to a largely non- Christian society. Most Australians recognise, and are comfortable with this basic fact, embracing Christmas as a secular holiday. Or many see it as marking the beginning of summer and a long holiday for families. But before being let off the hook, before descending on beaches and rivers to play in the sun, certain archaic traditions must be followed. Shopping takes precedence over all others, with a slowish start in early December, building up to an insane frenzy as the weeks march by, as glossy supermarket magazines extol the virtues of catering for a family, with visions of excess, not unlike those Renaissance feasts of old. Catering for large numbers is not something that comes naturally to most, so Curtis or Jamie or Nigella can show the fashionable way. They make it look so easy.

I’ve observed mothers going slowly mad with stress, bent on purchasing more and more each year for their children. Bucket loads of plastic crap, or designer labelled clothing, or the latest gizmo, or a better version of something that they already own, helps to create yet more landfill for future generations to deal with. The consumer obsessed are still shopping at 11pm on Christmas Eve, still hunting for the unattainable. It’s the season of sadomasochism, as those indulging in these pastimes gloat about their pain, yet are unable to disengage.

Stores ship in mountains of wooden tasting prawns from the frozen bowels of somewhere, grown especially large for the holy day/holiday occasion, costing twice as much and tasting unlike a prawn should. Prawns on steroids, no brine from the sea or sweetness of flesh. Decapitated legs sawn from Alaskan crabs now grace the window displays of our supermarkets. What happened to their bodies? Slabs of smoked salmon unfreeze before greedy shoppers’ eyes, cheap manufactured mince tarts and puddings appear two months before Christmas, only to be replaced by Hot Cross Buns in the New Year. Easter is similarly meaningless and just around the corner. Here are the large bright cherries, gassed up to artificial ripeness, yet more cheeses, more Pavlova, more hams and prosciutto, pigs, baby goats, lambs, chickens and ducks, and especially that Imposter, the Turkey, followed by more and more mountains of food, in search of new tastes and more waste.

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Lisa’s Cardamom Shortbread, Tradition and Change in one spicy mouthful.

I  pulled the plug on excess this year. Gifts were still purchased, and a few lists were made. Simple little biscotti studded our pre- Christmas gatherings, as well as Lisa’s cardamom shortbread.  A large Christmas cake, made early in December, was given to my mother, the keeper of our old English/Irish traditions: she has more use for it than I do . A last-minute pudding was made for my daughter, who catered for her in-laws this year. I tasted some of the left over pudding: it wasn’t like my mother’s, it didn’t have the taste of tradition, that secret ingredient, nor the advantage of slow aging in a cloth. The children rejected it: it didn’t contain any silver coins. My mother keeps old sterling coins and generously studs hers at the last-minute before serving, a tradition she has kept but one that I am happy to see die with the next generation.

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A large Christmas Cake can last for 6 months. Foolproof recipe in link above.

The leftover coin-less pudding has been returned to my house, like a Christmas boomerang, reminding me that some traditions can’t change that quickly. Now it’s time to convert that fruity brandied reminder of times past into something that might be pulled out once again, renewed and reinterpreted, into something that is more suitable to our summer climate.

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Under a shady tree on a hot December day. Freshly picked peaches, furry and sweet, the juice running all over my clothes, and a glass of chilled Prosecco.

The following  recipe is the traditional Australian way to deal with that left over Christmas pudding.

  • 1 litre tub vanilla ice cream, slightly softened.
  • 200 g left over Christmas pudding.
  •  Amaretto to serve

    Whizz the ice cream in a food processor until smooth, fold in the  crumbled Christmas pudding and scrape into a freezer-proof container. Freeze for at least 2 hrs, or stash for longer. Scoop into bowls and top with amaretto.

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    Kids, fresh picked berries, and swimming during the weeks leading up to Christmas.

    My favourite Christmas read this year comes from Roger at Food Photography and France.

  •  https://stowell.wordpress.com/2016/12/02/what-i-really-really-want/

Postscript. After microwaving my plum pudding and serving with some brandy cream, I have to say it tasted dam good, so it will not be put into ice-cream after all, but stashed well in the freezer for a winter treat.