In My Kitchen September 2020

The season has been fruitful, especially with an abundant supply of all kinds of citrus, though this colourful presence is slowly coming to an end, with Blood and Valencia oranges the last varieties to pick. In Spring, the trees will return to flower and leaf production for next year. We have around 14 citrus trees but there’s always room for more. Most were planted around 10 years ago, with productivity hampered  by drought, wind, rabbit infestation and severe frost. They’ve now reached a stage of maturity where they can withstand most conditions.

There are two citrus trees producing oddities. These knobbly, thick skinned fruit grow on thorny wild trees. One wild tree used to be a grafted Kaffir lime tree. After dying in the recent drought, it re-sprouted, reverting back to old root stock below the graft. Although incredibly bitter to taste, the fruits are exotic, brightly coloured and decorative. They remind me of the Renaissance fascination with formal citrus gardens and the collecting of rare and unusual specimens. The paintings by Bartolomeo Bimbi and Giovanna Garzani, reveal this fascination for depicting bumpy, disfigured lemons and other rare agrumi. 

On that subject, The Land Where Lemons Grow, by Helena Attlee, documents the history of the Italian fascination with citrus and is a great read. Thank you Beck, at In Search of the Golden Pudding, for recommending this. In terms of food writing, it’s up there with Delizia! An Epic History of Italians and their Food, by John Dickie and Honey from a Weed, by Patience Gray.

Seville Marmalade Orange Cake

In My Kitchen there’s always cake: the peasants have no fear of starving. I make a cake weekly: in this cool weather, it keeps well under a glass dome sitting on the kitchen dresser. I often halve them and send some away to other cake loving peasants. Most double as pudding: a couple of slices gently warmed in the remaining heat of an oven, served with something wet ( cream, icecream, custard) have kept us sane during winter and the lockdown. I’ve now made two versions of the Seville orange marmalade cake, pictured above. The recipe can be found here. The second version pictured below is a classic Middle Eastern orange and almond cake, glazed in marmalade. I think I prefer the first version. Excess marmalade can be used as a glaze in many ways. Maybe a chocolate cake could turn Jaffa-esque when topped with an orange marmalade glaze? Or a little Seville marmalade stirred through a rice pudding? Served with Halloumi? Liquified then added to a G&T?

Middle eastern Orange cake glazed with Seville orange marmalade

The little pasta dish below looks quite plain, belying the richness and intense lemon/orange flavoured sauce hiding within its folds. The sauce includes fine slivers of peel from an orange and lemon, which are boiled to soften, and the juice, a little onion, a knob of butter, cream and seasoning.

Tagliolini alle Scorzette di Arancia e Limone, recipe included in the book mentioned above.

The egg noodles from Mantovanelle come very close to those made by hand at home. These tagliatelline are my favourite comfort food. Cooked in five minutes, this gives you just enough time to quickly construct a sauce. Once the pasta hits the boiling water, my large non- stick wok is fired up and ready to go. In goes the EV olive oil, a little garlic, followed by fresh things from the garden, small stems of broccoli, young leaves of kale, some herbs, a few tiny unshelled broad beans, a dash of wine, perhaps some smoked salmon chunks, a few dashes of cream, seasoning and finally the cooked noodles. It’s a merry little dance around 2 stove jets. When the long lockdown ends in Melbourne, I look forward to returning to my favourite food shops which are further than 5 kilometres from my home. Since early July, strict travel distance rules have regulated movement in Melbourne. This pasta will be at the top of my shopping list.

I love this egg pasta and cannot wait to be allowed to drive further afield to buy more supplies.
Tagliatellini con salmone affumicato e verdure

The winter garden has kept us in fresh greens and now that spring is here, broad beans are slowly appearing.

Garden pickings for a pasta lunch.

Another day, another pasta. Rigatoni paired with a vegetarian ragù. The sauce included some mushrooms, dried porcini, herbs, left over thick lentil soup, a little miso, and tomato passata.

rigatoni con ragu’ di lenticchie

In these times, I often find myself looking back rather than forward. I cannot think of anything at present to look forward to- no short drives in the country, a family gathering, dinner with friends, travels overseas, visits to the city, a Vietnamese meal, a trip to the library- it’s a life without anticipation. Often, our next meal is the highlight of the day. The arrival of a book in the post, or a food order from Mt Zero Olives, is an added bonus. In this era of hard lockdown, the future has become blurred. Last night, as we were eating dinner, a spaghetti cacio e pepe, the conversation inevitably led to Rome. Where did we eat that last Roman cacio e pepe, where would we stay next time, an apartment in Trastevere again ( too busy) or over in Testaccio ( interesting suburb) or in centro? Through reminiscing, we came to the realisation that we would not be returning to Italy, or indeed Europe, and perhaps not to our favourite haunts in Asia. This is not meant to be a maudlin observation: I am a pragmatist at heart. Looking back over some of my old posts has given me a chance to relive some of those travels: like writing a detailed journal, blogging is a worthwhile pursuit in this sense. Unlike Facebook or Instagram posting, blogging provides a permanent and accessible log into the past. In the same way, participating in the monthly In My Kitchen for the last 7 years has produced another kind of documentation. Over the years my kitchen posts have gravitated towards seasonal food and simple dishes. My previous September posts expose another story: I’m usually away. Thanks Sherry of Sherry’s Pickings for continuing this series: it has been an interesting journey.

Dead Poet Tourism. Retrospective Travel/5

One of the highlights of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, was a visit to Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage. Our friends, Tia and Carol, (their chosen Western names) recommended this visit and I’m so pleased they did. That visit, in August 2015, sparked an interest in the poetry of the Tang Dynasty. Lasting for 400 years or so, (7th to 10th century CE ), the Tang Dynasty is regarded as the Golden era of Chinese literature and art, comparable to the Renaissance era of Italy and Europe. Over 48,900 poems penned by some 2,200 Tang authors have survived to the present day. Skill in the composition of poetry became a required study for those wishing to pass imperial examinations while poetry contests were common among guests at Imperial banquets.

Du Fu ( 712-770) is regarded as China’s Shakespeare: he is revered as one of China’s greatest poets. His poetry is studied at school and is recalled fondly by Chinese adults. They enjoy sprouting a few lines of Du Fu’s more famous poems, akin to Westerners dropping a few lines from Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet in order to sound erudite. It’s also interesting to know that many non-Chinese scholars are dedicated followers of the Tang Dynasty poets, as work continues on better translations. Translation into English (or any other language) is painstaking work and requires a 4 step process-

  • translating the more stylised characters used by the Tang poets into the modern form of Chinese logosyllabic or logoraphic script,
  • writing this in Pinyin, the Romanisation of Chinese characters based on phonetics, including stress indicators for tones,
  • producing a translation that includes elements of the original sound and structure, as well the encapsulating the imagery and meaning of the original.
  • polishing this version until it is harmonious and accessible. A worthwhile translation of a single poem can take years of work. Versions vary greatly and after studying this field, you may find your preferred translators/ translations.

Du Fu’s cottage and museum is set inside a 24-acre park, situated on the outskirts of Chengdu in Sichuan Province, China. It was created in the early 16th century during the Ming Dynasty and extensively renovated in 1811 during the Qing Dynasty. In 1961 the Chinese government established Du Fu Thatched Cottage Park as a National Heritage site. The park is beautiful to wander through, providing a break from all those dead poets.

The park consists of several areas:

  • Du Gongbu Memorial Hall (工部祠Gōngbù Cí), where the life and work of Du Fu is displayed, including some rare Song dynasty wood carvings.
  • The thatched cottage of Du Fu. A reconstructed thatched hut partitioned into a study, a bedroom and kitchen, recreating the living and working environment of Du Fu’s time.
  • The Hall of Great Poets (大雅堂Dàyǎ Táng). An exhibition hall with a 16 meter long by 4 meter tall mural painting portraying scenes from Du Fu’s poems: “My Thatched Hut Wrecked by the Autumn Wind” and “A Song of War Chariots”. There are also statues of twelve prominent Chinese poets, including that of Li Bai, Du Fu’s friend, and drinking companion. There are also panels displaying different styles of calligraphy.
  • There’s also a bookshop and library. As a traveller, I had to resist the temptation of buying these beautiful but weighty books.
  • Panels of Poems, Du Gong Bu memorial Hall, Chengdu.

Another ancient style.

Two beautiful poems by Du Fu

Rain

Roads not yet glistening, rain slight,
Broken clouds darken after thinning away.
Where they drift, purple cliffs blacken.
And beyond — white birds blaze in flight.

Sounds of cold-river rain grown familiar,
Autumn sun casts moist shadows. Below
Our brushwood gate, out to dry at the village
Mill: hulled rice, half-wet and fragrant.

Full Moon

Above the tower — a lone, twice-sized moon.
On the cold river passing night-filled homes,
It scatters restless gold across the waves.
On mats, it shines richer than silken gauze.

Empty peaks, silence: among sparse stars,
Not yet flawed, it drifts. Pine and cinnamon
Spreading in my old garden . . . All light,
All ten thousand miles at once in its light.

Self Portrait with calligraphy.

And another, which reminds me of our time in isolation during this pandemic,

Spring View

The country is broken, though hills and rivers remain,
In the city in spring, grass and trees are thick.
Moved by the moment, a flower’s splashed with tears,
Mourning parting, a bird startles the heart.
The beacon fires have joined for three months now,
Family letters are worth ten thousand pieces.
I scratch my head, its white hairs growing thinner,
And barely able now to hold a hairpin.

Dear Reader, Do you read poetry? And if so, who is your favourite poet? Do you find that reading poetry provides you with a silent space for reflection?

References for further inquiry.

  • Hawkes, D. (1967) A Little Primer of Tu Fu. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
    Hinton, D. (1990) The Selected Poems of Tu Fu. London, Anvil Press Poetry.
    Hung, W. (1952) Tu Fu: China’s Greatest Poet. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.
    Watson, B. (2002) The Selected Poems of Du Fu. New York, Columbia University Press.
  • An example of the translation process at work, using the poem, Spring View, can be found here. http://www.chinese-poems.com/d15.html

and some sites consulted,

Order and Harmony in China. Retrospective Travel/4

In China, where everyday life is busy, complex and often crowded, order creates harmony. It enables Chinese life to function smoothly. Orderliness can be seen in the cleanliness of the streets, the hygiene applied to food preparation and the public behaviour of Chinese people. The ancient principles of Confucianism,  a philosophical system of norms and propriety that determine how a person should act in everyday life, underlies many aspects of Chinese modern society. Later overlays include the philosophical and religions values of Buddhism and Taoism, along with the modern political system of Communism. You can see these values at work in your travels throughout China, not just in grand temples or fine restaurants, ancient walled pedestrian towns, or beautiful calligraphy and design, but also in ordinary everyday things- in the placement of a small straw broom, in the tiered arrangement of bamboo steaming baskets in a busy take away street stall, or in the beautiful designs on front doors. 

Steaming baskets, Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China

Street recycling containers and below, not a leaf out of place. Around Kunming, Yunan Province, China.

Colourful street bollards, Kunming

Photos from travels in China, August 2015. Adapted from my post of June, 2017. More virtual trips to China will be aired this month as I never really did write much at the time. That was a busy 4 week schedule, travelling by train through Yunnan Province, and then with friends through Sichuan province by car, leaving little time for writing. 

Rome’s Jewish Quarter, Retrospective Travel/ 3.

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, as well as synagogues, the Jewish Museum and other important historical markers. These days the area has become a little too popular: spruikers now work the narrow lanes with their menus and intrusive spiel while locals and tourists form long queues at bakeries and delis. The precinct is best accessed via the bridge, Ponte Garibaldi, over the river Tevere ( Tiber) from the inner suburban district of Trastevere.  A good time to visit would be early morning on a weekday.

Jewish quarter, Rome, Sunday!

The Roman Jewish Ghetto was established as a result of the Papal Bull by Pope Paul 1V in 1555 which required the Jews of Rome, who had lived as a community since pre- Christian times, to live in the ghetto. The area became a walled quarter with its gates locked at night.

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 practicing medicine on Christians as well as compulsory Catholic sermons on the Jewish Sabbath.

In common with many other Italian ghettos, the Roman ghetto was originally 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, most likely via Venice.

It is thought that the word ‘ghetto’ is based on the Venetian word, getto, meaning  foundry, given the first Jewish quarter was located near a foundry in Venice in 1516. Another interpretation is that the word derived from the Italian word borghetto, the diminutive of borgo meaning ‘borough’. There are other theories about the etymology of this word, but the first seems most likely.

Carciofi.  Time to eat that classic Roman Jewish dish, Carciofi alla Giudia and the best place to find them is close to the Jewish Quarter in Rome.

More information about the Jewish-Roman community throughout history may be found here.

This is an edited version from my archives, January 2018, based on my last visit to Rome. Will I ever return? Things will be rather quiet in Rome now. In 2018, 61.6 million tourists visited Italy. It’s hard to imagine how devastating that will be for the Italian economy this year and into the future.

Over the Hills and Far Away

Day 26.  Living in the hills on the periphery of Melbourne, it’s always fairly quiet around here. We don’t have neighbours within hearing distance, and the road isn’t close by. There’s one small general store, a primary school, a rural supplies store, a pub, bakery and a pizza place. Most of these are now closed or open on a limited basis. Time has come to a standstill. The nearby flight path is silent, the early morning workers’ cars are few and far between. The kitchen clock tics more loudly, evoking memories of dark, claustrophobic antique shops crammed with heavy wooden furniture, tapestries, Victoriana and mantelpiece clocks. The wooden beams creak overhead, expanding and contracting with the day’s heat; an annoying fly hums about, landing on my arm as I write. This deathly quiet seems like I’ve stepped back in time to another place in another century. On days like this, the black dog hovers too close for comfort.

It’s almost four weeks of self-isolation now and I can count the days of escape on one hand. Simple pleasures- a walk around an oval, a short drive to a nearby township to pick up a special order, or to drop something off from a distance, a long awaited postal delivery- have become the highlights of my month.

Driveway, mist over creek. Day 10

One of those outings occurred on Day 10. We left home early as the morning fog still hovered above the creek valley below our place. The drive took us through the hills that form part of our district and followed the steep descent to the township of Yarra Glen, suspended below the road in a pool of blinding light. Travelling along the fertile plains of the Yarra Valley to Coldstream, we passed by vineyards and strawberry farms, fields of dark leafed cabbage and paddocks of sheep and cattle. Our mission was to collect a few day old chickens from a hatchery, a necessary and essential trip, officer, in order to provide future laying hens for my small self- sufficient farm. It is a familiar landscape: I’ve been travelling through these same hills for forty years. Yet on this occasion, the landscape seemed to sing with extraordinary beauty. I discovered new vistas, old railway bridges and distant mountain ranges that I had ignored all these years. Less traffic, the cold, clean air of the morning, the silver sun rising through the glinting frost in the valley, I felt a rare euphoria, a joy that emanated from being immersed in nature.

Cabbages of Yarra Valley, Day 10

I made a resolution on Day 10, that when all this is over, I want to go on more picnics in the nearby hills and valleys. To be a part of this landscape while we still have it. To do what our ancestors did on their days off.  And when I’m more confident about the state of the world, perhaps I’ll take a longer drive to other beautiful landscapes and bush within Victoria, to visit this land with new eyes.

Amed Amore, Bali

More lovely sights around Amed, Bali. A post with few words.

Wall offering facing the main street. Amed

Through a doorway to the sea, near Jemeluk.

Inviting entrance, near Jemeluk

Happy local teenage girls, Amed.

Daily breakfast on the balcony at Tudes Homestay, Amed. Pancakes or Omelette?

Old Jukung outriggers on wall, road to Jemeluk

In My Balinese Kitchen, August 2019

It takes a while to adapt to cooking in Bali, given that the local restaurant and warung food is so alluring and economical. You could think why bother, but in the end, when living in another country for around three months, cooking with local ingredients becomes part of the experience. It involves getting to know what locals pay for things, observing seasonality, enjoying chats with stall holders at the traditional market, buying less more often, and learning ways to cook with unusual ingredients. It is also nice to relax at home, and not feel compelled to go out to eat.

mango and lime smoothie.

We did bring a few items from home, including a large block of Parmigiano Reggiano and a kilo pack of good dried spaghetti. Extra Virgin olive oil is available in Bali, but only Italian brands of dubious source. My 1/2 litre bottle of good Australian olive oil was eliminated from my packing at the last minute in order to lower our overall luggage weight: Mr T had added a second stringed instrument to his list of essential items! Good parmesan cheese is much harder to find in Bali. A quick pasta dish sauced with shallot, garlic, chilli, and fresh tomatoes, liberally sprinkled with parmesan, is a quick and comforting home style meal. We also brought along our Aldi brand copy of a Nutribullet electric blender: its powerful motor churns through tropical fruits in seconds, so useful for an afternoon fruit smoothie, and handy for making pumpkin soup and Jamu.

My market shopping list usually includes the following basic ingredients: red shallots ( bawang merah), garlic ( bawang putih), snake beans, limes, potato, tomatoes, bananas, small pre-made packets of Bumbu Bali, sambals, peanut sauce ( pecel), and a few small cakes ( kua). The large supermarket sells herbs such as basil, oregano and mint, as well as very reasonably priced tempeh, and tofu( tahu). Unfortunately I haven’t found a source of fresh coconut milk, and so rely on small tetra packs for santan ( coconut milk). The ladies at the market sell small rounds of palm sugar for around 20 cents a piece. Palm sugar, gula merah, is extracted from the coconut palm tree: the nectar is boiled and then shaped in small coconut containers. It is organic and very tasty, with hints of caramel, coffee and other minerals not noticeable in regular sugar.

It’s hard to resist home meals using tempeh and tofu. The first picture below features a classic Tempeh Manis. This involves a few preliminary steps but then it comes together quite quickly. The tempeh block is cut into strips then deep fried in neutral oil then drained. A paste is made from shallots, garlic and galangal which is then fried in a little oil. Lemongrass, chilli, daun salam leaves, are then added, followed finally with the kecap manis and palm sugar. The tempeh is returned to the sticky sweet sauce and tossed about. This is one dish you can make in advance.

To cut the sweet stickiness of the tempeh, I also made a quick cucumber and dill pickle, a recipe I found on Moya’s instagram post a few weeks ago.

Another tofu and tempeh dish is a quick stirfry consisting of shallots, garlic, whole chilli, snake beans and pre-fried tempeh and tofu. To bring it together with a tasty sauce, I heated a small block of pecel pedas ( spicy hot peanut sauce) in a little water, then added it to the stir fry. The result is very similar to the Balinese classic dish Tipak Cantok, a local version of gado gado. A few prices are of note here. A block of tempe and tofu costs around 30 cents. A bunch of snake beans around 50 cents. A little block of very tasty Pecel– why would you make your own peanut sauce when it tastes so good- around 20 cents.

Little blocks of hot and spicy Pecel, peanut sauce.

Sometimes we enjoy a simple light meal of a cheese, tomato and shallot toastie. This is Mr T’s specialty, always served with Sambal ekstra pedas or hot chilli sauce.

Fruit from our friend Wayan is always welcome. The salak (snake fruit) comes from his parents’ farm in Sideman. He often brings large papaya and other lovely tropical fruit, knowing we have a blender.

Yesterday afternoon I decided to make some Jamu, given that fresh turmeric is prolific and cheap. Jamu is a traditional tonic used by the Balinese as a cure all. The recipe involves peeling around 150 grams of fresh turmeric and some ginger, then blending it into a puree with a couple of cups of water. The puree is cooked for 10 minutes or so, which is then sweetened (I added a touch of grated palm sugar). Lime juice is finally added. It is then strained and stored in the fridge for up to a week. I was pretty excited yesterday when making my own Jamu, and didn’t think through the process entirely. Now my manicured painted nails have turned from pink to an odd coral/orange colour, the skin on my palms is still bright yellow, the white kitchen sink stained, and the threadbare tea towel I used for straining the Jamu looks like an abandoned saffron Buddhist robe. I’m imagining my innards stained a psychedelic yellow and look forward to dying some cotton for crocheting with fresh turmeric on my return. The colour on the cloth is sensational.

Jamu in the making, before it went everywhere.

One of the first things we invested in is a 19 litre returnable water container ( around AU$4) which can be refilled for AU$1.80. A nearby store has a swap and go system. I use this water for washing vegetables, cooking and drinking- it lasts for about a week. I am very aware of my plastic consumption while I’m in Bali, and have tucked away all the soft clean plastic to bring back to Australia. Despite the fact that the Australian plastic recycling industry is now in strife, with much of our recycling being added to landfill, the soft stuff is coming home with me: I’m not going to add to Bali’s plastic problem. I take small net bags to the fresh market- the ladies are impressed with these. Like Australia, Bali has banned the single use plastic bag but also like Australia, small plastic bags are still available for fruit and vegetables. Being part of the problem involves being part of the solution.

Cooking and drinking water supply with a very effective pump.

Thanks Sherry for hosting the monthly event, In My Kitchen. You can find other world kitchens on Sherry’s Pickings, or you can join in, a very supportive way to join a blogging group.

Uleg, a very nice size, for grinding spices and pounding sambals.

Vigevano and the Renaissance

In a country brimming with Renaissance architecture, it would be hard to choose which town might be considered the most beautiful, the most ideal Renaissance city. Maybe we could just settle for a short list? What is the framework for making such a claim? Do we choose on the basis of architecture, famous art, sculpture, painting, churches, piazze, harmonious urban landscape, civic pride or all of the above? Tourists in search of the Italian Renaissance in situ might put Florence near the top of the list, given that city’s fame. I personally find Florence dark, uninviting and not so harmonious when it comes to all things Rinascimento. Florence is crowded and many tourists are happy to see the fake David and Donatello, wander over the Ponte Vecchio, traipse through the Uffizzi for hours, catch a Masaccio or Giotto in one of the smaller churches, get in the queue to wander through Duomo, swoon if your name is Stendhal,¹slurp a gelato in Piazza della Signoria, wolf down an overpriced panino or pasta, then claim to have ‘done’ Florence.

The perfect piazza alla Bramante.

The Humanist writers of the 14th and 15th centuries were part of the great advertising think tank of the Florentine Renaissance. This hype culminated in the writing of Giorgio Vasari, evident in his Le Vite de’ Più Eccellenti Pittori, Scultori, ed Architettori.  (Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, sculptors and Architects). Published in 1550, ‘Lives‘ was the first art history written, presenting a distinct Florentine bias. I often get the feeling that Vasari’s prejudice is alive and well, nearly 500 years later. Florence has a great deal to offer in terms of understanding many aspects of the Renaissance, but other less famous cities do so equally and are more pleasant to visit.

Piazza Ducale, Vigevano

Up until recently, the city of Urbino in the Marche region sat at the top of my “Best Renaissance city” list. Under the rule of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino from 1444 to 1482, the town of Urbino flourished. Federico da Montefeltro was a successful condottiere, a gifted diplomat and an enthusiastic patron of art and literature. Ruling for four decades, he set out to reorganise the state, making the city of Urbino ‘comfortable, efficient and beautiful’. Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano, the Book of the Courtier, published in 1528, which outlined the standards for the modern European gentleman, was founded on Federico’s court. It was the Renaissance place to be in terms of language and letters.

The famous portrait by Piero della Francesca, Dyptich of the Dukes of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza, 1465-1472 circa. And what an amazing match of the two most important Renaissance families of that era.

Piazza Ducale Vigevano

Vigevano is a small town in Lombardy that could also claim the same title of Città Ideale of the Renaissance. The central part of the town, the Piazza Ducale, leads the eye in every direction- along the arched colonnades, through the inviting side streets, upwards towards the apartments overlooking the piazza, and then back down towards the Cathedral and further along into the grand Castello Sforzesco.

Vigevano is located around 35 kms from Milano in the Lomellina district of Lombardy. I was seduced by the graceful Piazza Ducale. Designed by Bramante, this is one of Italy’s most beautiful piazzas. The building was instigated by Duke Ludovico Sforza (il Moro) and work began in 1492. It was intended to serve as a stately forecourt to the castle and did so for some time. It is shaped in an elongated rectangle measuring 134 metres by 48 metres and is enclosed with arched porticos supported by 84 columns. The porticos have carved capitals, each one carved differently.

Castello Sforzesco

The castle, which rises up at the town’s highest point, dates back to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The castle was built in two consecutive stages, one under the Visconti and the other under the Sforza. The Visconti era is marked by  paranoia in design, as seen in the strada coperta, a secret exit from the castle. The latter architectural additions under the Sforza are marked with grace and openness. The artistic contribution of Donato Bramante cannot be understated-  his arches seem to balance lightly on stiletto shoes. So light, so graceful. During this period, the castle became one of Europe’s richest Renaissance courts, not unlike that of Urbino. Both leaders, Montefeltro and Lodovica Sforza were allies and skillful diplomats.

Stables, Castello Sforzesco

Falconiera, Castello Sforzesco

There is much to see and experience in Vigevano. A castle covering more than 2 hectares, a fine cathedral, a museum dedicated to the history of shoes ( Vigevano is the shoe making centre of Italy) and much more. But my main reason for wanting to return is simple. It’s that beautiful piazza that takes the prize: it is the centre stage of Vigevano. Theatrical, seductive and yet restrained, it invites you to take a stroll, to cross over, or to take shelter under Bramante’s arches in inclement weather, to whisper, to meet up with your lover, to be incognito or conversely to parade and strut about in your new shoes. Like all the best Italian piazze, Vigevano’s Piazza Ducale gives meaning and depth to that little Italian word, Centro.

La strada coperto, Visconti paranoia in Castello sforzesco

¹ I also suffer from Stendhalismo  when visiting Duomo in Firenze.

 

Cooking Siciliano and the Oregano Festival

I can’t imagine a garden without herbs. Or cooking without herbs. Or life without herbs. If I were marooned on a desert island and had just one food request, I would choose fresh herbs. And if then forced to choose only one herb, the answer might well be oregano.

Dried oregano from last week’s pick.

Although a perennial herb, oregano has distinct seasons. It shoots up in Spring, producing tall hard stems with bracts of pale mauve flowers. It’s best to harvest these stems once in full flower and hang to dry. If you’ve ever bought a packet of dried wild Greek or Sicilian oregano, you’ll notice that the flowers are favoured. By harvesting the mature stems, the plant will reinvigorate for summer and beyond. It is alive in winter, but not so productive.

Today’s pick, ready to hang.

Every time I gather bunches of oregano and string them up, I can almost taste the savoury crunch, salty sea air, pizza, fish, pickled olives, capers and the Mediterranean all rolled into one little sensation. I first tasted this herb in 1968, the year I first ate pizza. A few years later, as a cash strapped student with two infant children, my favourite weekly treat was a bag of oregano laced olives from the little Greek grocery shop on the corner of Canning Street. I am still searching for that same taste, that excitement that transported me away from my childhood diet of bland British/Australian cuisine, and into the firm embrace of Cucina Mediterranea.

Dried oregano, bagged for the ‘export’ market and oregano salt,

When making a simple pizza sauce (with garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and tomatoes, fresh or canned) I invariably choose to add dried oregano. When cooking fish, a simple fillet of flathead, a snapper or a pesce spada alla siciliana ( swordfish), oregano usually stars in the sauce. Its earthy, slightly bitter flavour bonds well salt, garlic and oil. Fresh oregano, olive oil and vinegar is a perfect dressing for a warm potato salad or is the final blessing, along with a squeeze of lemon, on fried saganaki or halloumi.

Pan fried flathead, dusted in seasoned riceflour, cooked in EV olive oil, dressed in salmoriglio.

I often feel enslaved by my food memories, though it’s a pleasant kind of servitude. One other vivid recollection involving oregano is the day I first tasted Salmoriglio, that famous Sicilian sauce and marinade. We were sitting in a little restaurant in Palermo. It was late Spring in the year 2000. The decor spoke of that era- terracotta paving on the floor, Mediterranean tiles on the walls, and colourful Italian made platters and plates. We ordered Pesce Spada, grilled swordfish, dressed with Salmoriglio. It came with oven roasted potatoes and grilled red peppers on the side. To this day, it is the fish sauce of choice.

Flathead alla Siciliano.

Salmoriglio

There are a few variations on the theme of salmoriglio. Some recipes add capers or anchovies. I think the following recipe comes closest to that taste true of Palermo. It can be a sauce or a marinade for vegetables. The sauce is best used straight away or within 24 hours. I made it last night for a sauce to go with pan fried flathead fillets, and today I used the remainder to marinate some zucchini and tiger prawns, which were then grilled.

  • 6 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves, removed from woody stems
  • 2 large cloves garlic
  • course sea salt flakes to taste
  • juice of one large lemon
  • zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 6 tablespoons EV olive oil
  • 1-2 tablespoons hot water

Mash the leaves with a pinch of salt flakes and garlic in a mortar and pestle. Pound well to amalgamate into a rough paste. Add the lemon peel and oil. Continue to pound then add the lemon juice and a little hot water, mixing well to make the sauce creamy. You can gently warm this sauce if you wish. If you make it in a food processor, the sauce will have a dense consistency and will not be so rustic or tasty.

Gamberi e Zucchini alla Griglia con Salmoriglio.

Oregano Salt Recipe.

  • 1/4 cup of dried oregano leaves
  • 2 tablespoons sea salt crystals.

Grind in a coffee or spice grinder and store in a jar. Add to baked vegetables, fresh tomatoes, Greek potatoes.

So what food would you choose on your desert island dear reader? My choice of oregano assumes that I will also have a fishing rod.

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Melbourne for Kids. The Old Melbourne Gaol.

This story was written six months ago, and for some reason, sat idly in my draft folder. Although these activities took place last winter, the same or similar code breaking scavenger hunts take place every school holiday period in The Old Melbourne Gaol. The current summer holiday activity for kids, A Word from Ned , is similar to the  activity described in the winter programme below.

 It’s school holiday time in Melbourne, bitterly cold outside and the gang of three has arrived for a week. Keeping three youngsters aged 8, 9 and 11 busy AND away from their glowing devices is a challenge. I was warned by their parents that I would probably fail in my attempt to limit their iPad time to 30 minutes per day. ‘Good luck with that’, they laughed. An activity programme was called for, one written in consultation with Oliver, who wrote the timetable and costed the events. We decided to check out the Old Melbourne Gaol, a great spot for some morbid entertainment. During the school holidays, all young visitors receive an activity booklet, Escape the Gaol, which keeps them busy, frantically looking for clues on each floor of the gaol, in order to receive an official stamp and finally ‘escape’. Younger children may need a hand with some of the trickier questions and riddles: the constant walking up and down narrow metal staircases provides some physical exercise for the accompanying adults.

Inside the corridors of Old Melbourne Gaol.

After a mad search for clues on the floors and walls of cells, the children learnt to co-operate with each other and share their answers, a fine learning goal and one I encouraged. The activity took over an hour to complete. Many gruesome spectacles can then be enjoyed on each floor, especially the hanging rope area and trap door drop, the copies of death masks on display throughout many cells, and the Ned Kelly paraphernalia and other stories of woe. ‘Such is Life‘ to quote Ned’s last words.

Hanging platform, Old Melbourne Gaol

Hanging Scaffold

I had a particular interest in visiting the older part of the gaol, originally called the Eastern Gaol. My great- great- grandmother, Catherine, was locked up in this dungeonesque place for a brief time in 1857. She had been found wandering the streets of Melbourne and locked up for vagrancy and madness. I am still trying to piece together her story. As her seven children were eventually admitted to the Melbourne poor house for orphans, the Eastern gaol became her last refuge and place of demise. After a short stay, she managed to find the store containing a bottle of poisonous cleaning fluid and drank the contents. Her consequent death guaranteed an instant escape from gaol, and what must have been a tragic life.

Almost steam punk.

The Old Melbourne Gaol was erected in stages between 1851 and 1864 by the Public Works Department of the Colony of Victoria, the design is attributed to Henry Ginn, Chief Architect of the Department. The oldest remaining section ,the Second Cell Block (1851-1853), consists of a long block with three tiers of cells terminating in the central hall (1860), the site of the hanging scaffold. This is the site you will visit. Included in the total tour cost is a visit to the City Watch house, a more modern building next door, where actors dressed as police yell and intimidate you before you land in a darkened cell with your other fellow inmates. This building, although not as evocative as the older building, is well worth a visit for the 1960s lock up experience. The graffiti on the walls speak of sadness, racism, and poverty.

Graffiti etched walls of City Watch House

The Watch House has been left perfectly intact since it was vacated.

This is a great day out for kids over 8: they eagerly donned replicas of Ned’s armour and after the tour, we chatted about the Ned Kelly Legend, came home on the train and sang this song.

Daisy in Ned Kelly helmet.

Other free activities nearby include a visit to the State Library, an historical landmark and a grand building from the Melbourne Boom era. Kids are keen to climb the stairs to the top level and to see a busy library, full of readers and others playing board games. At present there’s a display of wonderful old manuscripts and books on Level 3.

View from above. Melbourne State Library.

The shot tower inside Melbourne Central is opposite the State library, which rounded out our short historical tour of colonial Melbourne.

Shot tower, Melbourne Central.

We travelled by tram and train to the city. Many kids who live in the outer suburbs spend most of their time being driven about in cars: public transport is a novelty in itself. The cost of $70 for a family of 5 for the tour of the gaol was quite reasonable. I can highly recommend this tour to Melbourne residents as well as tourists looking for something a little different in the centre of the city.

Trams are a novelty for many suburban kids.

Melbourne city views

Melbourne, always changing.

Melbourne central