Monday, June 18, 2012

Ode to a Prune, By Michael Ferris, aka Michelino

“Prunes” and “culinary delight” are seldom (if ever) found in the same sentence in the U.S., unless the words “are not a” connect them.  Wouldn’t you agree?  In Italy prunes have not been relegated to the sole task of “regulation”, and thereby avoid the resultant biased connotation that we Americani tend to assign them.  And not only is the prune not seen as an occasional necessary evil, it is actually a sought-after tasty morsel! At a recent wine-tasting dinner at a winery and agriturismo in the rolling hills of Chianti owned and operated by our friends Mario and Elena, this much-maligned dried fruit was catapulted to this elevated status on not just my palette, but on those of the nine lady water-colorists I brought to this dinner as well!

Elena is the marvelously inventive chef at “Fattoria di Corsignano”.  She brings her own unique taste to the very traditional cucina Toscana, while her husband Mario, whose balance of the traditional and the experimental creates a host of deliciously pleasing wines…one could say that his Chianti Classico is the perfect accompaniment to her Chianti Cucina! 

But I’m talking prunes here, not marriages made in Paradiso (although, I could easily wax on and on about the delightful evenings spent at the hospitable table of this lovely Tuscan couple…).  Our antipasto plate arrived with several tastes of Tuscany upon it…and there, among the crostini and panzanella stood an unassuming, wrapped-up h’ors d’oeuvre of some kind with a toothpick sticking out of it.  Hmm…

…Mmm!  What a lovely surprise was unwrapping in my mouth! (I must have missed Mario’s broken English explanation of this delight!) Indeed, the bread- crumb-encrusted rigatino (an approximate taste for us would be bacon, except this wasn’t smoked) was giving way to the warm tomino cheese and the bold tangy prune it had concealed.  This was truly a combination of flavors that will not be soon forgotten, and will in fact be requested with gusto the next time I accompany a group to dinner at Fattoria di Corsignano!
Prugne con Tomino e Rigatino

A final thought:  the word for plum in Italian is, funny enough, prugnaPrugne secche are merely dried plums, and they are capable of taking an appetizer from “hmmm” to “mmmm” in one bite.  I think we need to lose the prunes and let dried plums take our American cuisine to new appetizing heights!  Viva la prugna!

Michelino aka Bacco!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Ringside in Cortona

I was sitting having my afternoon cafe macchiato at the “Café Degli Artisti” on the main street of Cortona.  The locals call it the “Rugapiana” or the “Flat Wrinkle” because, although it curves through the city, it is the only flat street in all of Cortona.  I was people-watching from behind my magazine:  tourists and locals breezing by in the slant afternoon shadows that are so dramatic in these narrow medieval streets..  At one point the young waiter popped out of the café to rearrange all the chairs away from the street.  Then from the end of the street I heard the sound of drums funneled between the buildings.  Within minutes a troupe of Cortonese in colorful medieval dress approached my ringside seat.  Just as they got to me their trumpets started blaring.  It was the beginning of the annual festival “Giostra dell’Archidado”, a reenactment of a joust and flag throwing contest commemorating the marriage of Francesco Casali of Cortona with Antonia Salimbeni of Siena in the year 1397(!)  I finished my coffee and dashed off into the square behind them.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Crete, Poppies and Sheep, Oh My!

On our way to Cortona, for our next program, we passed though the Crete Senese. A drive that would have normally taken us 30 minutes took us over an hour. This is a part of Tuscany that refers to a hilly area, southeast of Siena, formed by deposits of irregular layers of clay and sand that were created around one million years ago, until then, in fact, the area was covered by the sea.  The process of erosion led to the formation of creases in the earth or ravines, known as “calanchi”, or "crete”. A chemical reaction of sodium sulfate has surfaced as a result of exposure to the sun on the small dome-shaped hills.  This is the reason for the rather unusual colors found there, the gray of the clay and the yellow of the sulfate, which combine to offer some of the most unique and interesting landscapes in the whole of Tuscany. The soil is perfect for growing wheat and a little yellow flower known as mustard plant.
To avoid driving off the road at nearly every curve we had to stop and take a photo or just breath in the gorgeous landscape.
I could never describe this breathtaking landscape and even photos only come close.....

Wheat, mustard and a sprinkle of poppies...
Michael dancing in the wheat and mustard plants
And we gasped!

Sheep in the poppies...Oh Dorothy!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Pesto in 3 Minutes from the mouth of a Genovese!

We visited my good friend Beppe in Genova, as you might know pesto is one of the wonderful flavorful dishes that they contribute to the culinary world. It is so ridiculously easy and quick to make that you should never buy it ever again after seeing this video.

Here is a 3 minute video that will show you in real time how to make it. Remember you can freeze pesto very nicely and have it homemade all year round. Some folks like to put it in ice cube trays to freeze it and then transfer the cubes into plastic bags to keep it handy for serving in small amounts.

Definitely a recipe for summer:

Grazie Beppe for your skill and muscles!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Soul of Risotto

We are staying for a few days in the apartment of our good friend Diane in Il Colle di San Marcellino near the Brolio Castle – the baron who authored the standard recipe for Chianti wine.  Her apartment is carved into a larger structure dating back to the 1200’s.  Underneath the apartment where the animals originally slept on straw, today is her washing machine happily spinning away with 21st century detergent as I write.
Tonight we decided to cook dinner at home.  After an exhausting day of touring around Tuscany from the Val d’Orcia to Volterra, we had no time to stop at a grocery store, so Linda accepted the challenge of creating dinner from whatever we had at home. She said it would relax her after a hectic day.
I struggled with all the modern conveniences that were revolting against us as we tried to bring them into this charming medieval borgo:  the internet was maddeningly sporadic and the washing machine overflowed (sorry Diane).  Meanwhile, Linda stretched her creative cooking muscles to invent an exquisite – original – risotto.
When we sat down to dinner and tasted the dish, I asked Linda if she could write a recipe that perhaps we could blog.  “That would be difficult,” she replied.  “I didn't use ingredients people would generally use to make risotto, I had to resort to skills and techniques I learned in cooking school to make this dish and not a recipe.”  But I pressed on.  “Well,” she said “I looked around at what I had ... a pork chop, a red pepper some odds and ends, and then started inventing.”
The risotto was a creamy dish with flavors of red pepper, pork and lemon!  We didn’t have butter so she substituted an egg yolk(!) that gave it a silky, rich texture.  “There is a basic risotto method:  you saute onions, add the rice to toast it and then add white wine, then continue cooking the rice adding stock if you have it, in this case I used water and added some finely chopped olives to substitute for the roundness a stock would give, and toward the end, the particular ingredients. The thing about risotto is that everything you add has to have it's own individual flavor.  Ultimately, all these flavors need to come together in the final experience.  Every bite you take should express a variation on the ingredients.  Arborio rice is a tender grain and all those flavors should have time to absorb into each kernel of rice.”

I understood what she was saying because I took a forkful and detected a hint of lemon.  “Oh, yes, she said,  I threw in some lemon marmalade that Beppe made in Genova to marinate the pork.”!!  She went on... “If you know how flavors work, you know you how much to add to a dish to make it something special and not overwhelming.”  So risotto is all about pressing your own thumb print on a dish.  Beyond the essential principles, there are no rules that can’t be broken.  Good cooking has to come from the soul.  “I remember many years ago,” said Linda “when my friend Beppe made risotto with cantaloupe.  He added all these other ingredients, and then a dollop of mustard, and I thought this was going to be horrible.  But in the end, everything came together perfectly.  It was so creamy and each forkful had a different taste, texture or experience.”
Experience!  That is the essence of risotto.  In fact that is the essence of cooking.  Recipes are a starting point, but from there each cook needs to add a little of their own soul.  “Cooking from the groin” is what Linda labels it.  “Go with what you know and don’t be afraid to experiment.”
This, of course, is why it is so difficult for Linda to write a cookbook.  She never cooks the same thing twice.  According to her methods, it is more important to understand food, flavors and herbs than measurements and celebrity chef recipes.  That will allow you to create delicious, innovative meals – like tonight’s red pepper pork and lemon risotto.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Saying Goodbye to Pepita

Dear Il Chiostro friends, family and staff alumni from Le Lodoline days,

We got the news that our Contessa Pepita passed away 2 weeks ago and we wanted to share some photos and memories of her with you.

Her passing marks the end of an era for sure. It is because of her and her beautiful Lodoline that Il Chiostro ever began.

Maria Giuseppina Radicati Di Brozolo Hamilton yes, Hamilton. She married the love of her life Major Hugh Hamilton just a few years before he passed away.  He was a legend in Chianti for bringing tourism to this beautiful area and even though they had been together for many years, she was still married to her Italian husband and divorce was not legal unless she claimed he beat her. Pepita refused to lie about the relationship so she and Hugh waited until the laws changed to finally tie the knot.

A British Equestrian magazine wrote an article about her describing her as a small, fragile looking woman made of steal.... that was Pepita for sure!

We went up to Lodole a few days ago to say goodbye. There was no one there so we snuck in the way we always did, jumping over the fence from Cipressaia, and paid our respects to her in her chapel.

As Michael and I sat up on that hill overlooking the rich valley of vineyards and olive groves, the golden light causing Siena to sparkle in the distance, we realized that even though we will never have those days again the joy we felt there was what inspired us to shape the experience of Tuscany we want to share. It will always be special place for us. We are filled with gratitude for having known Pepita and Le Lodoline.

Pepita shied away from the camera saying she wasn't the looker she used to be but here are some pix I managed to capture when she wasn't looking.

Thinking of you all,
Baci from Tuscany,
Linda and Michael

Le Lodoline from my kitchen window
Pepita in 2008 with her trusted dog Prince
P.S. Did we mention she was 100 years old in March!?

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Arrival in Italy, Spring 2012

In real time we are on week 2 of this years Spring line-up of programs. We are in Genova at our friend Beppe's place which we will discuss in future entries...we have a little catching up to do!
Here was Michael's impression on our arrival:

April 28, 2012 – Arrival in Italy After a smooth 8 hour flight we landed safely in Rome’s Fumicino airport.  A curious thing I want to point out is that when we left New York nearly everyone was speaking English (even an intimidated couple trying to explain to a woman that she was in their seat).  But something happened over the Atlantic because as we came in sight of Rome, all of a sudden the only voices we heard were speaking exuberantly in Italian – even the flight attendants!
Whenever I travel nowadays I’m worried that with the world shrinking the differences between cultures will evaporate so that America and Europe will not be much different than Ohio is from New Jersey.  But the minute we set foot on Italian ceramic tiles in the airport, my concern was put to rest.  There are tenacious aspects of our cultures that, at least for now, are still worlds apart.  Here are 3 that I noticed immediately:
1.     Tailoring – Italians wear clothes that fit their bodies, from the flight attendants on Alitalia to the uniformed guards patrolling customs to the men in suits waving placards for their passengers
2.     Shoulders – in Italy shoulders are a form of speech.  The closer towards the ears they rise the more emphatic their point.  The couple ahead of us at passport control could have been bouncing a volley ball between them their shoulders were so animated
3.     Compliance – as we exited baggage claim all the Americans proceeded in an orderly fashion down the lane that was marked “Exit to Customs”.  The Italians, however, already in their sunglasses and hauling their designer luggage behind them, crowded en masse down the lane that was clearly marked EXIT:  ABSOLUTELY NO ENTRY!  And not one of those customs officials said a word.
Ah, we are in Italy!