I admit I am a little addicted to foraging for wild asparagus. As soon as I spot a purply-green shoot thrusting itself up between the undergrowth I can’t resist donning a thick pair of gloves, as the rest of the plant is spiky, and scrambling amongst the verges, beneath the trees anticipating the snap of the wild asparagus as I collect it! The best time to pick is between Spring rains when everything is greening up.
They’re not always easy to spot and I have considered following my Italian neighbour to discover where she forages but last year I found my spot! It does involve crawling up a steep bank and them fighting my way through thorny bushes but the thrill when I spot the spears of asparagus is worth all the scratches. There is a knack to this which is to get close to the ground, look for the spiky bits of the plant then somewhere nearby the single spears shoot upwards. You mustn’t pull them out as that will uproot them, but simply snap the top halves off which is the most tender to eat.
Today I found a handful of asparagus as seen in the photo and will briefly simmer them and eat them with a little extra virgin olive oil and a squirt of lemon juice – divine!
- 120g roasted and peeled hazelnuts
- 200g dark chocolate
- 150g sugar
- 140g butter
- 140g milk
- First prepare the hazelnuts. Here is a little trick i've now mastered. Boil the unpeeled nuts for 3 minutes in water with a tsp of baking soda added. The water will turn black. Then drain and plunge the nuts into cold water. They should then be much easier to peel.
- Once peeled, roast them for about 15 minutes in an oven at about 180 degrees.
- Grind the nus and the sugar in a food processor, until fine powder.
- Add the chocolate and blend.
- Melt in a glass bowl over a saucepan of simmering water with the butter and milk, until forms a paste.
- Finally transfer to jars - should make a couple of medium jars
Homemade Nutella. One can’t escape from Nutella here in italy and Le Marche. It seems a staple food in Italy and Le Marche and even turns up in a pizza at a local pizzeria! My kids and their Italian friends can’t seem to get enough of it and it is their merenda (snack) of choice.
A few years back we discovered a couple of hazelnut bushes at the edge of our garden and I wondered how to use them in the kitchen. I just took this photo (above) of buds about to burst on my hazelnut bush and hoping for a better crop this year as last year hardly had any. After experimenting with various recipes I have settled on the below one, which is pretty easy and so much better in taste and nutrition than the shop bought stuff. The most time consuming part is preparing the hazelnuts.
According to Wikipedia, the main ingredients of Nutella are sugar and palm oil, followed by hazelnut, cocoa solids, and skimmed milk. It was developed as a cheaper version of an older recipe, Gianduja,which was a mixture containing approximately 71.5% hazelnut paste and 19.5% chocolate. Mr Ferrarro developed the first nutella in the 40s and used hazelnuts as they were cheaper than chocolate but over the years the quantity of nuts to fat and sugar has decreased even further.
Thus making your own, even if you don’t have your own hazelnuts is the best way to go and a great crowd pleaser in my kitchen with those hungry kids!
Tartare di filetto di manzo al tartufo: Steak tartar with truffle
Preparation for Tartare di filetto di manzo al tartufo is very easy and very fast. This fresh dish is ideal for when the weather warms up in the spring and summer seasons. Make sure you only use the best fillet steak.
Take 300g beef fillet and chop it finely then squeeze over the lemon with half a tablespoon of olive oil, salt pepper and the truffle grated to taste (if you do not have to fresh truffle you can substitute truffle sauce) mix well and let the meat rest in the refrigerator for 30 min to absorb all the flavours. serve with a good white wine “pecorino”
- 300g finest beef fillet
- 1 lemon
- fine extra virgin olive oil
- freshly grated black or white truffle (or truffle oil)
- salt and pepper
- Preparation is very easy and very fast, this fresh dish is idea for when the weather warms up in the spring and summer seasons. Take 300g beef fillet and chop it finely then squeeze over the lemon with half a tablespoon of olive oil, salt pepper and the truffle grated to taste (if you do not have to fresh truffle you can substitute truffle sauce) mix well and let the meat rest in the refrigerator for 30 min to absorb all the flavours. serve with a good white wine "pecorino"
- Serve chiled with a good Pecorino white wine.
Italan food and flavours
Urtica dioica Nettle
Urtica dioica Nettle: All round good guy…ok apart from if you fall out of a tree and into a patch of them, wearing only pants, like my mum did when she was little. What are we talking about? Obviously nettles. Or are they obvious? Recently two New Zealanders here on a help exchange announced that they’d never heard of them in New Zealand. This seems unimaginable to us English people who will have been stung numerous times in our lifetimes…which is why of course many people are quick to uproot and clear out any patches of nettles that spring up. But wait, the benefits of nettles far outweigh the disadvantages. If you have space near your vegetable patches, especially near the compost heap, nettles will provide you with plenty of iron and mineral rich green leaves that are beneficial to other plants, insects and animals including us humans.
Starting at the bottom of the food chain nettles are a fantastic liquid fertiliser and compost activator as they contain a lot of nitrogen and are useful in supplying magnesium, sulphur and iron to plants in the garden and on the vegetable patch. To make the liquid fertiliser you simply need to chop up the nettles, put them in a big bucket with a brick on top and add water until they are covered. Leave it for 3 or 4 weeks until they smell utterly revolting and then use a jug to transfer to your sprayer/watering can and water it down 10 parts water to every part of nettle swamp water!
Nettles are essential for more than 40 kinds of insects, either as protection against grazing animals or for overwintering. When these insects swarm around spring nettles they provide early food for ladybirds, blue tits and other woodland birds that manage to negotiate the stinging stems.
In late summer the huge quantity of seeds produced by nettles are food for many seed-eating birds, such as house sparrows, chaffinches, and bullfinches not forgetting for other insect-eaters like hedgehogs, shrews, frogs and toads, at all times of the year.
The UK’s most colourful and best known butterflies, such as the Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock Butterflies are totally reliant on nettles for their larvae to feed on so if the sight of them in the air lightens your heart then help them to survive by leaving those nettles in place.
When cropping them for your own consumption always make sure that they are not near any immediate forms of pollution such as by the sides of busy roads or near contaminated water. If cooking fresh leaves then they really should only be eaten in spring before they flower and become unpalatable. However the summer leaves and flowers can also be dried and used for nettle tea, that well known countryside cure for feeling a bit under the weather. The iron, mineral and tannin rich leaves purify and act as a tonic for the blood.
As long as they are cooked first, nettle leaves can replace spinach in a multitude of recipes. Here the locals combine them with potato and flour to make nettle gnocchi; with ricotta as a filling for ravioli and sometimes mixed into the pasta dough itself for deep green tagliatelle..delicious and aesthetically pleasing all at the same time. In the spring they contain up to 25% protein per dry weight which is more than a lot of other green leafy vegetables. That combined with their vitamin C content and mineral content it may be time to start looking at nettles as an essential in the garden and not that nuisance that you thought they were. Now, lets hear three cheers for the little devils…
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
(Photo”Italian olive oil 2007″ courtesy of Alex Ex.)
For anyone not living in olive tree territory, looking at the last couple of posts on pruning etc, you may well wonder what all the fuss is about. Why worry about keeping trees healthy and why panic when the crop is affected by disease? Can’t you just pop to the supermarket and get a cheap bottle of extra virgin off the shelves? Going by the reaction of the locals here who (until it ran out) were buying the only oil to have been produced this year (the ten per cent that didn’t fail) and paying twelve euros a litre I guess it’s not the same thing at all. The oil that you pay through the nose for at the supermarkets is what people here would use for lighting the lamps (OK this is 2015 but you know what I mean.) People are born here knowing the difference between good oil and bad. They know that there is no substitute. In Italy there is a very definite sense of prestige to go with recognising a good olive oil and people will pay a lot of money to join the ranks of experts. There are professional ‘olive oil taster’s courses advertised which take five days and cost just under a thousand euros for the pleasure! If you take the importance of good quality olive oils up to competition standard you will find people who can explain to you in minute detail the chemical compounds involved and their effects on our bodies. I looked up some information on the magical polyphenols that are so highly sought after in a variety foods including olive oil to try to explain some of these effects but there were far too many words with more than ten letters and I decided to leave that to the experts. In layman’s terms research has found that replacing other oils/fats in the diet with extra virgin olive oil had significantly reduced incidences within their subject group of certain cancers, heart disease, strokes, diabetes, osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis to name just a few. If you want to look at it purely from a foodie point of view, the taste of good quality extra virgin olive oil in your recipes is unrivalled. At the most basic level we as consumers are becoming more concerned about what it is that we are putting into our bodies and what it consists of.
So just how do you avoid the lamp oil and procure some of the decent stuff? One of the biggest issues here is the lack of proper controls over how truthful the labelling is. Extra virgin olive oil sold by some of the top names has been outed recently by Tom Mueller, an American in Italy as really only a small percentage of extra virgin oil which has been mixed with a lower grade olive oil, often not from the same country or sometimes another vegetable oil completely. The resulting blend is then chemically coloured, flavoured and deodorised, and sold as extra-virgin to the producers. The other main issue is quality testing; the chemical tests that should by law be performed by exporters of extra virgin oil before it can be labelled and sold as such can often fail to detect adulterated oil, particularly when it has been mixed with products such as deodorised, lower-grade olive oil. National food authorities don’t appear to be particularly bothered as long as the oil isn’t actively harmful, which is rarely the case. If taste tests were done by the people on their thousand euro courses I’m sure that they would soon pick up on the adulteration though!
If you live in a country where olive oil is produced you have a lot more chance of being able to follow it’s tracks and check that the product that you are buying has come from where it says it has. If it has been imported then the footprints are more difficult to follow and unless you are importing directly yourselves then the safest method (although not foolproof) is to buy from specialist food shops and if possible from single producers. A PDO (protected designation of origin) and PGI (protected geographical indication) status on the containers should be more of a guarantee of a genuine product and one more thing to look out for is the date of production. A common trick amongst the fake oils is to put previous years’ oils in with the mix because these are worth a lot less money. Olive oil is at it’s best for a year really. Two years is its maximum and then it starts to become inedible.
As a note to this, remember to keep your lovely genuine oil, when you find it, in a dark cool place. Ideally it wants to stay in stainless steel or dark glass containers, away from direct sunlight and at a constant temperature of 14/15 degrees centigrade. Much higher or lower than that and your oil will be spoiled and will never regain it’s flavour or qualities. So at the end of the day it’s not just the trees that are pampered…right down to the final product the olive needs to be treated like royalty to give you it’s best.
On our facebook page last week we touched on the more flippant, culinary aspect of the wild boar cull that was under way by the corpo forestale. However, as in hunting of any kind there will always be the proponents of pros and cons on an ethical and practical level of population control.
Originally from South-East Asia in the Early Pleistocene era (when Rupert was still a boy) wild boar were introduced all over the world by man as an important source of food and are the ancestor of most domestic pig breeds today. So how did they become such a problem that they (supposedly) need to be culled?
Weighing in at between 100 – 200 kg a wild boar can do a lot of damage to crops, vineyards and vegetable patches as they root around for food. Anyone who has come face to face with a fiercely protective mother wild boar and her litter of up to eight babies hopefully knows to walk away quietly and calmly. However, the fear of what she is capable of if she thinks you ARE posing a threat has given rise to an largely undeserved bad press for such a naturally non aggressive animal.
But these problems would be few and far between if it wasn’t for man’s destruction of their natural habitat; woodland and scrubland; where they actually have a beneficial effect on the environment, ploughing up/manuring the land and dispersing seeds. Combine this loss of land with a population explosion owing to the lack of natural predators (again thanks to man) and we see what has pushed the boar onto agricultural and residential land.
Several years ago the corpo forestale introduced some grey wolves back into the eco system near here to try to deal with the problem. According to the locals they are eating more sheep than wild boar but researchers working for the “assessor for the environment” say that from their droppings their diet is mainly wild boar and deer. I remember at the time being a bit worried about there being wolves around and about if my children were playing in the fields and woods. But as a kind friend pointed out, really there was nothing to worry about until the wolves got out of hand and they sent in the leopards…
So really, unless humankind changes their disrespect for all non profit making aspects of the environment they live in, the culls will have to continue because a handful of wolves can only eat so much.
Autumn fruits and religion seem to go hand in hand through myth and legend.
According to mythology the fig tree was created by Gaia the Mother Earth, to hide her son Syceus who was a giant fleeing from the wrath of Zeus. Perhaps that explains why each year I am faced with pruning back a gigantic amount of new wood growth on my trees!
Adam and Eve supposedly covered their nakedness using fig leaves but I bet they regretted that move as fig leaf sap is notorious for causing terrible blisters when combined with sunlight!
In Greek and Roman mythology Dionysus (Bacchus to the Romans), God of wine and fertility, and Priapus, a Satyr who symbolized sexual desire are both connected with the fig which probably goes some way to explain it’s less than savoury use in the local dialect!
Even the Buddha has a connection with the fig as apparently he achieved enlightenment one day in 528 BC while sitting under a Bo tree. The Bo is a kind of fig.
Almonds also have a special place in legend and folklore and are given, strictly in odd numbers, as tokens of hope and good fortune in religious ceremonies around the world.
The Romans showered newlyweds with almonds as a fertility charm, sugared almonds are still presented to wedding guests today in Italy and elsewhere.
According to the Bible the almond tree is a symbol of divine approval. At Christmas time in Sweden they eat a cinnamon-flavoured rice-pudding with an almond hidden inside. The lucky finder gets good luck for the year, always assuming they didn’t choke on it first!
Here in Italy at Christmas time the tradition is to give ‘Torrone’ as a gift. Torrone is a type of confectionary, typically made from honey, sugar and egg-white and toasted almonds. It’s chewy, delicious, bringing good luck to all who eat it and I’m fairly certain that it goes some way to pay for Dentists’ skiing holidays in January…
Passata…passed (sieved) tomatoes..once up a time a laborious task and possibly limited to a small proportion of the tomato crop while the rest would simply have been bottled whole. Nowadays thanks to these lovely stainless steel, easy to clean, effort free machines the kilos and kilos of rich tangy and sweet tomatoes that an average ‘orto’ produces can be transformed into litres and litres of passata.
Locally, people are very conscious of the environmental and personal impact of all the chemical sprays used in mass production of passata for the supermarkets. Added to this, the issues of recycling, trying to reduce packaging and then on top of that the increasing prices in the shops of this staple ingredient and you have some of the prime reasons that families get together for mammouth passata making sessions in their garages, barns and gardens.
The bottles will be the empty ones from last year, thoroughly washed out and ready to be filled and capped and boiled for an hour. This is done in huge oil drums over grapevine wood fires producing a velvety tomato delight that smells and tastes as fresh 10 years down the line as the day they were bottled. Large families will need hundreds to see them through the year. To produce that many tomatoes takes careful attention to detail. One member of the family will have been on peronospora watch, the dreaded water mould that can carry off entire crops of tomatoes. The difference with home grown tomatoes is that it can be treated with organic home mixed sprays of copper and sulphur or even (for the purists) an infusion of equisetum (mares tail). They know EXACTLY what they are getting in every bottle.
So imagine the scene, everyone will be hauled in to help out..several will be sitting over 2 big tubs halving the completely ripened tomatoes. One tub will contain the excess juice which has to be squeezed out to avoid watery passata, the other the squeezed out shells. At the next level there will be the person feeding these tomatoes into the machine and refeeding the sievings back in to extract every available drop from the fruit. The passata will be pouring into another big tub where the next person will be using a jug and funnel to fill the clean bottles leaving a small amount of headspace to avoid explosions on heating! The next person will be capping the bottles (tightly) and the last person will be stacking them into the oildrum, filling it with water and lighting the fire. It all has to be done as quickly as possible because with that amount of sweetness in these delicious sun ripened tomatoes the process of accidental fermentation will not be far behind.
Another job done for the winter and a store cupboard that can cope with whatever the weather has to throw at them.
Now, who fancies pasta al pomodoro for lunch?