autumn pickings

We’ve been having a glorious autumn. Despite some overcast days in September and a day of heavy rain, October has surprised us all with almost wall to wall sunshine and higher than average temperatures. The locals are saying they don’t remember an October like it. The mornings now though are taking longer to warm up and as soon as the sun goes down over the hill, the late afternoons are chilly. Even M admits that the time for shorts and flip flops has passed. He’s had a good run though.

Feste and sagre dedicated to the porcini mushroom have now made way for those celebrating the chestnut and if we missed out on the porcini season due to our lack of experience and fear of mis-identification, we have more than made up for it in our gathering of chestnuts. Over a couple of weekends we have collected 5.5 kilos which was much more fun than the subsequent cooking and peeling.

For the second batch not only did we have two additional helpers, we treated ourselves to a chestnut roasting pan and a special chestnut cutter. It was easier but not as easy as roasting over an open fire.

We have turned our haul into batches of chestnut and pumpkin pasta sauce, and chestnut and sage soup, all piled up in the freezer ready for the winter. There’s something very rewarding about ‘free food’ as well as something very addictive about the gathering. Just as well there are still plenty more out there.

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from a hazel to a handrail

It wouldn’t be the same if my Dad was here and wasn’t doing a carpentry job. Luckily, when we had our walnut tree pruned, a branch hit our already loose handrail and over it went. So here was a ready made job, involving, as ever, recycled and reclaimed wood (thick branches taken from the hazelnut tree two years ago).

Of course it is rustic (too rustic for my Dad’s high standards!) but it’s just how we like it and in keeping with everything else.

stuffed rabbit

When I was a kid, my Dad used to breed rabbits. Not for meat, but for shows where they would be judged on health, grooming and cleanliness by men in white coats standing at long trestle tables (my childhood recollection). Sometimes though, one would end up in the pot as a rabbit stew. I didn’t like stews and I liked them even less when I knew that the rabbit I’d been feeding only the day before in its hutch in a shed at the bottom of our garden, was now feeding me.

So who would have thought that years later, I am eating rabbit with alarming regularity? Certainly not my Dad. A while back, I tried rabbit stuffed with omelette and spinach at a pranzo di lavoro. Intriguing, I thought. Not a combination that would have immediately sprung to mind but  delicious nonetheless. I searched out a recipe and during my Dad’s next visit, we recreated it together. Not only does my Dad love rabbit (he no longer breeds them), he is a super cook and this was certainly a dish that required some expertise.

I bought a de-boned rabbit and covered it with chopped sage, rosemary, garlic and salt. It then rested for about 8 hours in the fridge:

Next, I made a couple of omelettes adding a little parmesan, boiled some spinach, drained and squeezed out the water and then fried it with a little butter and oil. The flavouring was then removed from the rabbit, which was stretched out with the omelettes and spinach laid on top:

Now, how to roll and tie it all together? This is where the expertise comes in. With ease, my Dad made a neat roll and while he held it in place, I tied it with cooking string along the length:

It was then seared and simmered in white wine for an hour, turning half way through to ensure it stayed moist. The result:

Impressive and very tasty.

Yesterday, our friends MM & KS arrived for a few days and as rabbit is MM’s favourite meat, it was time to try it again. I had to go it alone (but with her help in the rolling and tying). Her verdict: a complete success! All she needs to know now is where to buy a deboned rabbit in London.

Oh, and I might eat rabbit now but I still don’t like stews.

eating cheaply in the big city

In a narrow dark alleyway, tucked between expensive shops, designer clothes and grand old palazzo buildings, is Maria’s, a simple trattoria with quintessential red checked tablecloths covering long tables, all crammed into a warren of rooms.

We are in Genova for a photography exhibition and to take advantage of big city shops. We don’t buy anything; this is a day of looking, but there is time for lunch before we catch the train back home. Nudged in the direction of da Maria by our guidebook (we were actually trying to track down a restaurant we had eaten in 11 years ago), we wait while men spill out of the narrow doorway and as we then file in, it is still not clear if this tiny place can accommodate us. It is almost bursting at the seams. We are directed upstairs where rooms lead into others, all worked by their own waitress. We find a couple of spaces at the end of a table for 6 and are almost immediately joined by 4 others. I am next to the dumb waiter and although a little distracting, proves to be quite handy in matching dishes to those on the hand written menu. It is also allows me to easily check for the absence of nuts. The waitress shouts down the dumb waiter, scribbles on the one menu that has been passing around the room and waits for it to come back with the all clear.

The menu, for such a tiny place, is extensive: there are at least 5 primi and almost a side of A4 of secondi with 3 vegetarian options. M and I both have the minestrone and while M chooses the stuffed anchovies for his second course, I opt for the octopus and potato salad. The food arrives with alarming speed but still looks like it has just been freshly cooked for the individual diner. As the dumb waiter is unloaded, the waitresses all gather round and pick out plates unerringly for their rooms. It is impressive to watch. The food is equally impressive.

It is essentially a pranzo di lavoro. The place is full of workers, although here they are in suits rather than hi vis. They don’t linger and the 4 people on our table are replaced by two others before we start our secondo. The price is the same too – 10 euro for a primo and secondo, with the only difference being there is a choice of wine or water, not both, and no coffee. In a city centre, to find such value is surprising. And welcomed, of course.

We are given a slip to take downstairs to the till. While M pays, I pick up a card with the history of da Maria. The trattoria has been in existence for 100 years, having moved from its original location in the 1930s to where it is now. It has been in the same family passing from the original Maria to her daughter-in-law, also called Maria who started work there in the 1940s. Sadly, the card tells us that she has ‘left us’ in 2008. The staff all wear a simple uniform of t shirt and jeans. On the t shirt is written: da Maria per sempre, la storia continua…. (Maria’s forever, the story continues..)

from my window today

Outside our kitchen window was a rather small and rather ugly (in our opinion) block built barbecue, with a sloping tiled-effect roof. The ground in front of it had been turned into a patio area by the laying of hexagonal tiles directly on the soil. It was not pretty and even less so when the grass and weeds grew up between them.

It was time to be realistic; although we are happy to go to barbecues, we have never used one ourselves, nor are we ever likely to. It was time for the barbecue to go. Without it, the tiles looked even more random than before so up they came too.

before

after

In time, the grass will grow over and it will be like the barbecue was never there. Only Martin will miss it; it was his shelter from the rain and the sun.

fennel faux pas

Our fennel seems to have bolted. Instead of big fat bulbs we have tall leggy plants with small yellow flowers. Something clearly has gone awry. While chatting to Chicken Lady’s daughter on her orto, I glance down and see a perfect row of very young fennel plants. ‘What have I done wrong with mine?’ I ask her. ‘Ahhh,’ she replies knowingly. ‘I knew you didn’t mean to plant those. You have planted the wrong fennel. You wanted winter fennel, not summer fennel.’

Hmmm. I planted summer fennel in…… summer but that doesn’t explain their current state. Anyway, clearly what I have is not what I want. But all is not lost; there is still time to plant the right fennel. But what about my summer fennel? ‘There’s nothing you can do with that’ she tells me, something which is also later confirmed by R, the previous owner. ‘Not even the animals will eat them’ he adds.

‘I shall leave them for the seeds then’ I reply, ‘so at least they are not wasted’, an answer that meets with some approval. In the meantime, here’s some not-so-perfect rows of hurriedly planted winter fennel.

English style in an Italian farmhouse

What constitutes English style in the eyes of an Italian? According to our neighbours at our aperitivo evening it seems to be:

a touch of lo shabby, an old school desk and antique chair, some pieces of slate displayed by a wood burning stove,  a birdcage shaped notice board used to hold my necklaces, an old bashed leather chair, a set of (admittedly very English) wooden school lockers rubbed down by us and turned into our larder and finished with ceramic knobs sourced from the south of Italy, our ‘framed’ piece of original stone wall with an Italian vintage (bric-a-brac) market find, all blended with the touches of the past that we have left in the house; the salami/prosciutto curing hooks in the living room, the tethering rings, the bars to hold back the original barn doors.

More than once I was asked: ‘who designed your house? Were you an interior designer in the UK?’ Well, no, I wasn’t, though certainly flattered to be asked. And our house wasn’t ‘designed’. It has evolved as rooms were finished and favourite pieces bought in the UK especially for this house have been fitted in. Some planned for one room have ended up in another. Some were got rid of altogether but mostly it all works.  I have upcycled, recycled or just displayed things picked up on walks. Functional meets fun, old mixes with new and items intended for one purpose are now used for another. It is style? Is it English style? Who knows but it is certainly different from many of the Italian homes I have seen so I’ll settle for that.

mission accomplished

With the house now finished, the time had come to host an aperitivo evening for our friends and neighbours. Over the past 3 years, we have been included in many gatherings, regardless of our ability to converse fully or reciprocate in kind. Now was our chance. With a guest list approaching 30 people, it was lucky that our evening just so happened to coincide with big sis and my brother in law’s visit! While big sis and I busied ourselves in the kitchen, the boys hunted and gathered and rearranged the rubble pile to make more room for outside entertaining.

Living in Italy, we have learnt never to expect events to start on time so we were almost caught out by our first guests’ punctuality. From that point on, there was a steady stream of guests and gifts (something else we hadn’t expected). Big sis and my brother in law did sterling work in manning the bar whilst also providing entertainment with mime and pigeon Italian. M and I mingled and led tour parties around the house (very popular!). We also encouraged everyone to help themselves to a generous array of Italian and English inspired nibbles. After lots of menu planning and two days of cooking and fretting that either there would not be enough or it would not be up to standard (especially as I had refused all offers of contributions), it was a relief to see the following at the end of the evening:

The cheddar and Pimms, despite some initial reservations, were particularly popular but as the picture shows, so was everything else, much to our disappointment as we were relying on leftovers for our evening meal!

It was also a relief to be able to show our friends just why this ‘project’ had taken so long. Those who knew the house were amazed at the extent of the transformation; in the words of one guest, ‘from farmhouse to villa…..the house has been reborn’.

So, how do you judge the success of an aperitivo evening as a foreigner in a small Italian village?

  1. everyone invited attends
  2. all the food goes
  3. lots of laughter and conversation
  4. you end up with more bottles of alcohol than you served
  5. you have multiple and competing reciprocal invitations!

If proof were needed that we are now well and truly part of the village, then this was it, reinforcing everything that we knew about our neighbours’ generosity, kindness and friendliness and the extent to which we have been accepted here.