The Chianina Shop at Lastra a Signa

1

Fellow food blogger, Stefan (Stefangourmet.wordpress.com), who lives in Holland, wrote the following comment à propos of my post on the Chianina steak: “The steak looks great! I did a post on Fiorentina in January, but couldn’t get any Chianina back then. I recently saw it available online, so I guess I should try it. It was still pretty great with regular beef. When I do get the Chianina, I may try something sacriligeous and cook it sous-vide before searing on a very hot grill“.  

I don’t want to bore readers with too many Chianina related facts and figures but I did think it interesting that it can be shipped in vacuum-packed parcels, not just within Italy but also within Europe.  I found this out when we went expressly to buy some Chianina for Liz to take home and cook for her husband and family that night (the rest of us were staying on for another day). Liz is an expert wiz with her mobile phone and carried out a search on where to source good Chianina in record time, and in keeping with our timetable of activities for that morning (people might think that all I do is gallavant and gad about all day but, actually, were were in Tuscany on business – it’s just that we make it our business to render our business as enjoyable as possible, and that included seeing a very interesting exhibition on the mannerist artists Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino at the Palazzo Strozzi museum (www.youtube.com/watch?v=HmIsCR2dLaQ).

Anyway, Liz’s search led her to the town of Lastra a Signa and the Butcher Bacci (this last sentence sounds like a tongue twister).  This is a family business that goes back all the way to 1890.

Here is the link to their websitewebsite: www.macelleriabacci.it.

2 It is not a particularly large butchers but it stands proudly, with its show of signposts and red banners.3 4 Antler alert … up there on the wall on the right. I liked the “old-fashioned” feel of the shop and the many other products for sale besides the meat.5More antlers on the wall … as well as old, framed photographs.6 7 Bacci sells all kinds of meat, and not just Chianina steaks.7a 8 IGP stands for “Indicazione Geografica Protetta” and this means that a certain food or drink has been awarded certification, a special status, on account of its provenance.  An IGP Chianina steak MUST come from a designated area/place, and not just from the Chianina breed.  In this case, we are talking about the “Vitellone Bianco Appennino Centrale” – the central mountain ridge in Tuscany.

9I mistook this gentleman as the owner of the shop.  He went about his duty with ease and deliberation, and was quite happy to answer some of our questions.  This cut had been aged for 28 days.
10 I mean — just look at the colour of this meat!
12 13 14 And then the owner, Mr Alberto Bacci, came from out-of-the-blue, a very likeable man who enjoyed talking with us, expertly getting on with his work all the while.  This is what I like about shops and dislike in equal measure about supermarkets — no enjoyment of conversation.  No personal touch.15 16Liz bought some chicken livers too and Alberto gave her the recipe, which included sage leaves.
18 Alberto insisted we taste some of his prosciutto … and jolly good it was too.19 I just fell in love with these pasta shapes that the Bacci have had especially made for them. These are the pasta shapes that go with a meat-based stock (“il brodo”).  So first on the left we have the “stortini” – meaning “bent-shaped”.  Then we have “campanellini” – little bells.  And on the right “occhi di Lupo” – the eyes of a woolf! 20 Quadrucci (little squares) and Grandinina (little hail).21Liz bought and her plastic bag with her booty: Chianina steaks and plenty of chicken liver.  A very satisfied customer — and a soon-to-be-made very happy family that evening.

P.S.  Try as I could, I was unable to remove those “smileys” from the post … I don’t know how they got there in the first place!

Posted in italian home food, Secondi (main course, usually meat based), Travel and Tales, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

La Fiorentina – Not Just Any Old Steak

1 As the late and much-mourned Kyle Phillips wrote: “Many in the English-speaking world would call this a Porterhouse and wonder what the fuss is about. And they’d be right in most cases; though Bistecca alla Fiorentina, Florentine-Style Steak, is featured prominently on the menus of almost all the restaurants in Florence, finding a good one isn’t at all easy. But when you do it’s heaven on earth, delightfully rich, flavorful rare meat so tender it can be cut with a spoon. Much of the secret is the breed of cattle, the Chianina beef.” (italianfood.about.com/od/beefbracioleetc/r/blr0568.htm). The story goes back to the Medici times, in July, and the feast of Saint Lawrence (who is himself the patron saint of cooks, remember …?myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/05/03/lorenzo-and-the-silver-lining).  It became the custom on this feast day for Florence to come alive with lots of bonfires and grilled street food.  Some English travellers happened to be there and called this cut of meat a “beef steak” and it got translated into Italian as “bistecca”.  The vital statistics of  a “Bistecca alla Fiorentina” are as follows. It is a porterhouse steak or T-bone steak.  Big – must weight at least 1kg.  The beef must be that of the Chianina breed.  It must be at room temperature (if it was in the fridge, remove at least 4 hours before serving). It can only be cooked over a very hot grill.  And it must be cooked so that the heart of the steak is basically raw.  Towards the end, the steak must be cooked on the bone so that the heat can permeate through there as well.  Once cooked, the bistecca must rest for about 10 minutes, and then be served on a large platter together with the bone; both the fillet and the contre-fillet on either side of the bones are then sliced.  Purists will eat it as is … or with maybe a touch of olive oil … and eschew lemon altogether. Anyway … our group of Tuscan travellers decided we would cook ourselves a Fiorentina.  We were close enough to Grevi and its Saturday market and that’s where we went to find it. 2 3 We went to Falorni’s the butcher … (www.falorni.it).4 5 This was our cut of meat …6 You can buy the bistecche vacuum-packed.7 And this amazing shop also sells wine.  Naturally … Liz, Libby and Sandy got to work choosing.  I decided to head for home with the boys and get lunch ready. lunch Lunch was a case of a luxury picnic lunch.  In terms of flavours.  We had bought some rotisserie-style chicken (“pollo allo spiedo”) and we also had not-a-few leftovers from the day before by way of cheeses, cured meats and veggies.  As the long hot afternoon started to turn into a beautiful late afternoon …8 I called upon Liz to make a cocktail.  The day before she had come up with a perfect Bloody Mary.9 Today, she made some sugar syrup and came up with a Martini Sour.   There was an air of anticipation and excitement and Jack, our bistecca griller, was getting visibly anxious by the minute.  Expert griller that he is, he wanted everything to be just right for our Chianina steaks. 11 Come sundown … 10He got started.12 Because I had been on lunch duty … I basically just looked on while many hands made light work.  Libby was preparing a tomato casserole … here she was using the one sharp knife we had in the house, bravely chopping some garlic.13 The garlic went into this dish, together with olive oil and seasoning and then into the oven. It is amazing how such simple ingredients can deliver so much taste! 14 The asparagus was wrapped in prosciutto … 15 Liz boiled some new potatoes … then drained them … then smashed them up a bit … and finally deep fried them.  I could kick myself for not having a good shot of her potatoes! They were simply stunning!  (She told me she got the recipe from: food52.com/recipes/25113-wonder-fries.)  She also prepared a sauce, made up of mustard and butter basically, to accompany the steaks.16When the fire was ready … 17 I used some kitchen paper to mop them on both sides.  That was my contribution to the evening meal, basically.  Some herb mix was added to one steak … the rest was left “nature”.18 Here is Jack … counting the minutes.  The butcher said to cook them for about 6 minutes on either side.19 20 Then we got into a discussion as to how rare we wanted them to be.  I suggested that 20 minutes in all would be better. 21 A rising full moon is just the thing for conversation and philosophysing as you drink some wine and await the dinner.  When the steaks were au point, we lay them on a platter and covered them in a tent made of aluminium foil.  We let them “rest” for at least 15 minutes. 22 24Time enough to grill the asparagus and onions. 25 Ooooh !  Look at that! 26 And here is Liz now, slicing away with the one sharp little knife we had available.  (It was so sharp that I had cut my thumb the day before and it was all I could do to staunch the blood … oh the drama!). We had added salt and pepper before cutting the steaks. 28 And were they good?  What do YOU think?  29Good enough to finish eating like this! That’s my husband’s hand patting Liz’s back as she goes through a gastronomic Stendal moment!

P.S.  Here is a link to Kyle Phillip’s instructions on how to cook a Fiorentina: http://italianfood.about.com/od/tipstricks1/ss/aa012706.htm And another link from Emiko Davies: http://www.emikodavies.com/blog/the-perfect-bistecca-fiorentina/

Posted in Basic Techniques, Contorni and/or side dishes, Herbs and plants, italian home food, Secondi (main course, usually meat based), Shops and Stores, Travel and Tales | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Fishy Guests and Food-Laden Friends

I think we have all heard of the Spanish greeting “mi casa es su casa”.  In Arabic there is an exact same proverb which goes something like this: bye-tee bye-too-keh (my house is your house).  And in English we have the all-encompassing “Make yourself at home” to mean something similar.  Why then does the old Italian adage liken house guests to the ichthyological species with its “Guests are like fish — after three days they smell”?   There is more than one way of looking at this statement but it does rather put the house guests in a bad light, whichever stance you opt for.  What was the reason for such Italian surliness? Was it an outright lack in social graces and hospitality …. or?

The way I understand it, travelling was a slow and arduous task before trains, motorways and aeroplanes oiled the ways of geographical meandering.   Visits from friends and family might not have been so frequent and thus would have been truly cherished.  This would have meant going out of one’s way and bending over backwards to make the honoured guest’s stay as enjoyable as possible.  The guest would need to be pampered and slaved over and served only the very best.      I think that it was a hostess’s duty (let’s face it, it was always the women who had to work the hardest) to make sure all the stops were pulled and that the family, as a whole, made a good impression on the guest(s).  All this to say … it would have been bloody hard work! Work that the hostess wouldn’t have minded undertaking if it were for people she loved – but imagine if the guests in question were of the formidable kind! Yikes!  Think Jane Austen.  Think nasty mother-in-laws! Think of all the cleaning and preparation even before the guest arrived, then the non-stop entertainment and looking after the guest in every possible way.  It would have been all rather intense.  And three days would most certainly have been the healthy limit.

This is not a proverb I grew up with, although I certainly heard of it.  It applied more, I think, to an older generation that had to respect social markers and behaviour very strictly, with little or no room for casualness.  For us, instead, guests were welcome and fun!  And that was also because guests would be expected to fall in with the family’s commitments and lifestyle, and not be treated like royalty.  Things got a lot more casual after the 1950s and routines could be stretched to make a guest’s visit enjoyable for all concerned, much more relaxing in terms of expectations.

When a few months ago, I looked at the calendar and realised that we would be having various friends to stay, non-stop, from May 3rd to June 2nd, I drew the conclusion, and not for the first time, that I might have missed my calling for the hospitality industry.  I’ll be the first to admit I get my knickers in a twist just before a guest is scheduled to arrive, lots of things need to be planned and implemented and there is also the extra physical work.  But then … isn’t that true of any valuable and pleasurable human endeavour?  Even making love can take it out of you …

I love having friends to stay because … well … I have NICE friends, you see, who seem to like the same things I do, and that includes eating and drinking.  They bring good cheer and stories and excitement.  They ‘force’ me out of my routine when they stay with us and I get to do a bit of sight-seeing too.  My to-do list does pile up but … in the end … I always seem to catch up after they leave.  Having to look after guests means having to live in the near-and-now, and taking time to smell the roses and enjoy the moment.  It is also thoroughly exhausting because more energy is required of us.  It is sad when they leave.   It is comforting to make a mental note of the many more memories added to a life album of shared experiences.

Anyway … all this to say that my friends don’t smell like fish at all.  They actually BRING fish!  Take a look at what friends from British Columbia (Canada) brought over with them a few weeks ago: 2 Pristine, gorgeous Pacific prawns.  We boiled them briefly and delved into a bit of 1970s nostalgia, preparing home-made mayonnaise to which we added tabasco, tomato ketchup and a little bit of brandy.  I have the book “The Prawn Cocktail Years” by Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham, you know !  Nothing like gastronomic time travelling now and then! 1They also brought Pacific wild caught salmon.  Call me a spoilt so-and-so but that’s all I will touch these days (even if it means I only get to eat it once a year).  4 And my friend poached it in the oven, and served it with a dill yogurt and mustard sauce. (oh, and you can’t get dill around my parts so she had to bring that over too!).  Simply divine.8 And then, one evening some time later … we were in Tuscany.  And another friend joined us, this time from Boston.  9 And look what she brought us!  Lobster …! only it was cooked and not ‘live’ as it said on the special travel box it was packed in. 11 Just look at these lobster tail beauties!12 Flowers on the kitchen table …13 Lobster salad being prepared to start with …14 (2) 15 Lobster pasta to follow ….!16And there was still another tub of lobster left over.

lobster avocado salad

We had that with an avocado salad the following day. Tuscany, friends and lobster.  Could life get any better?

IMG_6439Roses, Lemon trees, Cypress trees …

IMG_6440And a full moon.  My cup overfloweth at times like these …

Posted in Fish and seafood, Herbs and plants, Primi (first courses - usually a pasta or risotto), Recipes from outside Italy, Secondi (main course, usually meat based), Travel and Tales, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 16 Comments

Loving the Leftovers: Pasta with Peas, Asparagus and Ricotta

When leftovers are aplenty, and size does matter after all, the ensuing and logical procedure is to finish them off in their “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” glory.

When, on the other hand, one is taking stock of “bits”:  bits and pieces, a little bit of this, a smidgeon of that, a sliver of this, a morsel of that …well, then, that is when things get a little complicated.  Unless you have dogs in the house (dogs will gobble up anything), I suppose the brave thing to do is to just throw all these lilliputian remains away and be done with it, spit spot.  Then again, the ingrained avoidance of wastefulness that has been wired into our DNA for generations makes us recoil in horror: waste not, want not etc etc etc.  This is when the worlds of pasta, hash and omelette can and do come to the rescue.  Each in their own culinary context look at the remains of the day gleefully in the face and say, “Come on! let’s have some fun!”.

Or at least that’s what I told myself when I contemplated my palette of leftovers.  About two tablespoons of ricotta, roughly 1 cup of fresh peas, a handful of already cut guanciale and a clump of asparagus.  Mmmm.  There is always some parmesan in the fridge and an onion lurking about somewhere in the kitchen … hence … yes, pasta for lunch.  What follows is not exactly a recipe, more of a technique for dealing with your gastronomic conscience.

 

0 Even my pasta was “leftovers” that day …!  Dry egg pasta … (pasta all’uovo).1 The measely amount of ricotta …

3 The peas …4 The guanciale …

Time to get cracking.

6 I began by roughly chopping an onion and sweating it in some olive oil.7 I added the guanciale and some peppercorns.8 When the guanciale had rendered its fat, and the onion was nicely cooked, I added the peas, using a wooden spoon to combine all the ingredients nicely.  At this point I switched off the heat.

Meanwhile, while all this was going on, I had trimmed the asparagus and cooked it in simmering, salted water.

5

I removede the asparagus with a slotted spoon BUT kept its cooking water.  I would use this very same water to cook the pasta in later on.

1213Once the asparagus was ready and chopped … I could carry on with the cooking.9 I turned the heat on under this large saucepan.  I added 1 ladle of the asparagus’s cooking water.  10The asparagus water served to cook the fresh peas.  It is quite ‘soupy’ at first but don’t worry, the water soon gets absorbed.  So soon, in fact, that it was time to cook the pasta.

14 I had tasted the water before adding the pasta, and had to add more salt (some of it had been absorbed by the asparagus).  This kind of dried egg pasta does not take long to cook (about 4 minutes) so …

2I asked my husband to grate the parmesan (I hate grating cheese, it’s one of my pet peeves) …15 I checked on how my sauce was coming along and was mildly surprised to discover that I had to add a little bit more of the water that the asparagus had cooked in and which I had set aside.  The one truly important rule to be observed in ANY recipe is: taste, taste, taste. Keep tasting until you get it right.  A little bit of salt might be needed.  A twist of white pepper in this case.  Even a pinch of sugar (for the fresh peas).16 I drained the pasta straight into the saucepan …. and used the wooden spoon to mix the medley of ingredients.17 I then added the ricotta … and more mixing and combining with the wooden spoon.18Time to switch the heat off.
19 Add a shower of freshly grated parmesan cheese (pecorino would have been another good option).20Fresh mint leaves ….
21 22A delightful leftover pasta recipe to ring in Spring.  Not to mention a good conscience !

Posted in Basic Techniques, Herbs and plants, italian home food, Loving the Leftovers, Primi (first courses - usually a pasta or risotto), Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Colourful Table Settings

IMG_4706

 

I love colours on the table, don’t you? Even when the table is an informal, casual and “fun” affair … Monochrome is sleek and chic and never out of fashion … but on some occasions, only a rumpus of eye candy will do.

 

Have a very colourful weekend everyone!

IMG_4707 IMG_4708 IMG_4709 IMG_4710 IMG_4711 IMG_4712 IMG_4713 IMG_4714 IMG_4715All this tableware is available from Giardini di Sole (www.giardinidisole.com).  It all hand made, it all comes from small family-owned businesses.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 6 Comments

Olive Oil in the Cafeteria and an Unforgivable Failing of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization



This will probably be the only post I manage before Easter and so I would first and foremost like to wish everyone who celebrates this event a very Happy Easter.  Easter is an occasion of culminating meaningfulness for Christian believers but has also come to be associated, in a cultural sense, with renewal and Spring and freshness.  And fun too: all those Easter egg hunts and bunnies and bright colours.

This post is not about a recipe.  It is about an issue I take to heart and that is proper and real extra virgin olive oil.  As opposed to the stuff that is mostly sold in supermarkets and that is a misnomer.  I try and make my posts mildly amusing, even jolly, but this one is not like that.  Hence, if you think you’d rather not be saddled with anything remotely serious … you will find some delight in skipping the writing and just looking at the photos.  Caveat Emptor.

………………………………..

Earlier this year, on a gorgeous sunny day, such as Rome so generously metes out even during the colder seasons of the year, I had lunch with a friend who works at an international establishment in Rome, called FAO.  I hadn’t been there is a long long time and was held captive by a mood akin to that engendered by the opening line in Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” … “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again ….”  What would await me?  What memories might resurface that I couldn’t tap into now?

FAO stands for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and is in fact one of its largest agencies.  Mention the FAO in Rome and everyone knows.  It’s famous. Mention it outside of the country, however, and I am unfailingly met with a head-tilted-to-one-side baffled look and a somewhat embarrassed entreaty on the part of the person with whom I am conversing to kindly elaborate.  In the past, there might even be conjectures linking it to the legendary toyshop in New York, FAO Schwarz.  People who work at FAO think that the entire planet must surely know of their existence and the contribution they are shouldering in order to make the world a better place.  They deport themselves with a certain gravitas.  I am reminded of the quip in Mel Brook’s 1983 film “To Be or Not to Be” where a Polish actor is amazed he is not known outside the country …”He is world-famous in Poland you know!” pronounces his wife, Ann Bancroft.  Well … FAO is a bit like that … it is world-famous in Italy, especially in Rome.

I was an FAO staff member myself, on and off, for little over ten years and even wrote a short story about my experience there as a wet-behind-the-ears twenty-one year-old.  Times were very different then … no computers, no mobile/cell phones, no iphones, no internet.  And the pace was s-l-o-w, much more deliberate than today.  And the mood was earnest.  Sedulous.  The people I worked with and for were not slackers, on the contrary, they worked quite hard — but two-hour lunch breaks were quite the norm.  Punctuality was taken for granted.  And on occasion there would even be quite a buzz or stir and a sense of the whole world being present in one small space, so close to the Circus Maximus of Ben Hur fame.  I got to see some world figures and dignitaries in person, and attended a conference delivered by Indira Ghandi for instance.  Any time an important figure was visiting, a pair of very tall and very smart Italian carabinieri would stand guard at the entrance in their smashing,  brightly coloured full regalia, looking like toy soldiers (albeit on the big side) in a fairy tale.

The system was totally steeped in protocol and red tape, however, and made me bristle.  It was rule-obsessed army-like: lots of paperwork, unexceptional due diligence and long lists of signatures and, save for the time I worked at the Medical Service, I was mostly bored out of my mind.  I did a lot of typing of reports too and there is only so much satisfaction one can eke out of statistical surveys on banana plantations or drip irrigation in arid regions when your mind is besotted by a forlorn love affair and the blood stirs to the rhythm of youthful endeavours and preoccupations.  It sorted of reminded me of boarding school and I didn’t enjoy having to spend a good part of the day with older people who were married and with children and who were… well … staid, unexciting and dull as ditchwater.  I was easily bored in those days.  To the point that I just had to get away from FAO for fear of turning into one of those poor foreign spinsters who hadn’t found their Italian Romeo but who considered it too late now to return ‘home’, wherever home might be.  The concept of ‘single’ was not current then and the way I saw it, there seemed to be an alarming rate of spinsterhood attached to working at FAO.  So much for my personal attitude at the time …

FAO does pay good salaries, it must be said.  Well, that is what I used to say.  “The only reason people stay on is because the pay is good.”  People were seriously astonished to hear of my resignation and of my repugnance for this work place.  One person who was into the spiritual side of things even proffered an explanation: she said it was because the buildings were in close proximity to the Colosseum and thus all the negative energies of thousands of animals and people slaughtered there were bound to upset sensitive souls like me.  Mmm.

What I DID find at FAO was a cluster of very good friends, friends with whom I am in touch even today.  My daughter’s godmother Sing Mei who hails from  Hong Kong but now lives in Surrey near Vancouver was one such friend.  Another friend is in France, in the UK, one in Australia and yet another in South Africa.  I sometimes wonder what became of a former boss who was originally Romanian but managed to get a Spanish passport and lived in perennial fear of getting bumped off by a poisoned umbrella tip (that was the death meted out to one poor Romanian guy by the secret police) and who behaved very cagily every time another staff member entered the room; the latter was the mildest of mannered men but he was a Czech citizen and thus inextricably compromised by KGB spying habits according to my boss.  Please don’t laugh … one FAO staff member, a certain Mr John Cairncross, was one of the chaps involved in the Cambridge Spy Ring http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Cairncross).  I saw his medical file, so there, ne ne ne ne ne.  Most of my friends have retired or gone now … only one remains and it was I who suggested we have lunch there, knowing full well how strapped for time FAO staff members are at present.  Just like the Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland.

If you think that the security procedure at airports is a bind these days, I can tell you that getting cleared at FAO comes a second close.  Dear oh dear, the pallaver.   There is a part of me that thinks they are flattering themselves — “they” being the powers that be.  I am all for security etc but who on earth would want to do damage there?  Who is even important enough there?  What fuels their self importance? In my days, all staff members had to show their ID to a guard as they entered the building, and guests had to go to a special desk and ask for a pass.  These days, the staff member has to come all the way down to the desk and accompany the guest in too.  The guest can’t be trusted on his or her own — and that’s after having had their bags screened in a machine like those we see at airports.  I wouldn’t put it past them to frisk people.  How very sad that an institute that purports to improve methods of alimentary and agricultural development in the world should stoop to such low, self-important and unfriendly behaviour.

Apart from the pleasure of spending some time with a friend, what I was really looking forward to was enjoying at the view from the building’s terrace.  Truly one of the most breathtaking view of Rome.  I wasn’t interested in eating anything fancy and was quite happy to go down the cafeteria route.  Salads, various pastas, cheese and fruit plates, various cooked meat — your typical institutional food.  The shocker came in the form of the olive oil I found there.

It was a very common brand, with an Italian name but since bought up by the Spanish who run the monopoly on bulk olive oil sales in the world anyway.  I am not anti-Spanish.  I am anti corporations.  The olive oil in question … well, it is the kind I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole.  And I certainly did not expect to see it being served in an establishment that says it is all about food and agriculture!  One would think that the FAO would INSIST upon real olive oil being served on its premises, the kind we now have to call EVOO to distinguish it from the ersatz that is bandied about as healthy and what have you.  I was really appalled.  If you can’t go to the trouble of serving real and proper food, including proper salt and EVOO, in your own Headquarters, how can you be trusted to be maintaining standards elsewhere in your running of the organization. Rhetorical question.

I have no wish to be slanderous againt FAO nor unfair towards the indubitably countless decent people who work there and work very hard too.  But I cannot refrain from commenting negatively on the use of sub standard olive oil, especially since so many olive oil farmers bend over backwards to produce beautiful, healthy and tasty EVOO and should be encouraged in their efforts and lauded for their risk-taking approach.  Cheap olive oil is no olive oil, believe me.  And if you don’t believe me, then believe Tom Mueller, author of “Extra Virginity”.

Our lunch finished, our arrivederci said, I made my way to the outhouse to retrieve my ID and carry on my day.  I took a few photos of this outhouse and was sharply reprimanded by the guard there for doing so.  “Whatever for?” I enquired.  She looked at me, she of the shrill voice of officialdom, as though I were a berk, a complete and utter idiot.  “For security, what else?” she shrieked, raising her hands to heaven.   I offered to delete the photos in front of her from my camera, in a vain effort to assure her that I was not a terrorist, but no … there was no satisfying her.  She just had to cluck and tsk tsk and shake her head in unbelieving consternation.  Poor thing.  She hasn’t heard of powerful camera lenses.  All one has to do is cross the road and take excellent shots of what she was valiantly trying to defend from wanton visitors such as myself.

One last note that is truly sombre.  Rome was racked by a scandal about a month ago involving various well heeled men of high social, financial and even political standing consorting with under aged girls (14 and 15 year-olds, if you can believe it) in a fancy part of town called the Parioli.  The whole disgusting episode has come to be dubbed “Scandalo delle Baby Squillo”, i.e. baby prostitute scandal. One of these is the husband of Mussolini’s grand daughter, who is a politician and who has often voiced her fervent appeal for the use of chemical castration in the case of paedophilia.  The newspaper had to mention his name because he went to ‘confess’ his implication to the police (hopefully his wife hit him over the head with a broom stick forcing him to do so) but kept quiet about the other men involved.  It did say, later on, however, that there were also three ‘functionaries’ (i.e. top-level men) from FAO who were implicated in this scandal.  This means that these men are protected by diplomatic status.  All I can say is that I hope their diplomatic passports don’t save them from losing their face at least.  I do hope the FAO sacks them.  Yes, I do.

1 There it stands, the FAO … mighty like Ozymandias, a functional building whose only concession to prettiness are the flags of the world when they are raised on the masts.  The blue United Nations flag is always raised … you can just about see it in this photo, above the Roman pine trees in the middle.  FAO stands on this part of the Via Aventina.

1aIf you walk over to the building and turn around, this is what meets the eye opposite … the Roman Forum and the Circus Maximus.  The FAO is in the Aventine area of Rome, close to the Colosseum and standing on one of the famous Seven Hills.

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Here is a security turnstyle.  A complete turn-off …2Inside Building C, which houses most of the large conference halls, marble abounds. These are the marble plaques, written out in the official UN languages, outlining the Preamble to the constitution of FAO.  I think it goes back to the end of WWII.

3 A close-up of the preamble.4 A plaque informing us of Roman finds that were unearthed when Building C was built.5 Bits of archaological marble … well displayed, I have to admit.

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Leftovers of statuaries …6 And here, instead, we are finally on the terrace of FAO.  It’s a gorgeous sunny day, I am chatting with a dear friend and all is well with the world (but not with the olive oil that they serve here).7 There is the Arch of Constantine on the left in the distance, and the Colosseum on the right.8 The Roman Forum, the Capitoline in the background, and even the Victor Emmanuel II building, the one that Romans like to call the wedding cake or the typewriter.  FAO staff members getting a lunch break.9 Aha … a view of the Circus Maximus on the left … More of the ancient Foman Forum in the middle and the Colosseum on the right looking very dark in the shade.

10 On the right we look towards the Baths of Caracalla at the end of this road (but not visible in this photo).  Behind the trees, on the left, is the area of San Giovanni in Laterano.11 And here is a superb view of the Castelli Romani, the Alban Hills.

Later on, in the centre of Rome, on the Via del Babbuino, I came across a couple of carabinieri … not dressed in full regalia, but still … so very colourful.  Gotta love the texting!

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Testaccio Market, Wrong Season, Wrong Reason, Right Recipe – Courgettes Sweet and Sour – Caponata di Zucchine

I had a somewhat bizarre experience at Rome’s Testaccio market once.  The old Testaccio market, that is, the one that was razed to the ground a couple of years ago.  An appointment had been made for me to meet a representative of a very reputable company dealing in high-end tours in Rome to discuss, or so I had presumed, the possibility of my being taken into consideration as an Italian culinary coach for them. We shook hands and began chatting most charmingly (about the weather, if you must know), as one days to break the ice.  And then, without any explanatory preamble,  I was invited to join a tour of the market led by Maureen Fant, the deservedly famous Rome-based historian, food writer, teacher and translator for the benefit of a very engaging lady by the name of Marjorie Shaw.  Marjorie and her husband, I found out,  ran http://www.insidersitaly.com – easily at the helm now of my favourite Italy-bound travel planners.

To my dismay, I realised that Maureen (www.maureenbfant.com) was in actual fact in the midst of “working”.  I had expected an informal interview of sorts, not a tour, and for a minute I was just dumbfounded, I didn’t know how to edge my way out of this pickle.  I didn’t want to disturb Maureen, that stood to reason and plain common-sense courtesy but, at the same time, I didn’t want people to think I was indulging in a spot of industrial espionage as it were, since she and I are in the same line of business.  There was no way for me to voice my awkwardness in this situation.  All I could do was nonchalantly tag along, butter not melting in my mouth, as Maureen went her way pointing out, describing, analysing, categorising, critiquing, illuminating and praising.  I was very chuffed to see that her approach was similar to mine with my own clients.  She too, for instance, introduced Marjorie to Carmelo d’Agostino who ran a stall selling tomatoes and tomatoes only, many varieties of … and who liked to style himself as the Poeta dei Pomodori, i.e. the Poet of Tomatoes (his high price, all the tomatoes cost the same, was also subject to witty commentary).  Well, how could one not?  He was a star attraction of the market, as was the seasoned, larger-than-life fish vendor who wasn’t shy about telling people he was the spitting image of a famous Hollywood actor of yore, and even had a black-and-white photo of the actor pinned to his stall.  Neither of the two made it to the new market, but that’s another story.

Towards the end of Maureen’s market tour, the person who had greeted me initially told us she had to go now, and so I didn’t get a chance to find out from her why things had turned out the way they had … but by now I was going with the flow and feeling less uncomfortable and pretending this was all hunky dory ‘normal’.   Marjorie too then left and I ended up giving Maureen a lift home.  And that was that.  We chatted amiably enough and exchanged opinions on food and cooking and I don’t know what she made of me since, bless her, I don’t think she knew why I was part of the tour either.  I never did get to the bottom of the company’s organization of a “non-interview”, and I just chalk up the experience to a “strange day in the life of an Italian home cooking coach”.

The reason I bring this incident up is that at one point Maureen, who is a mine of information anyway, said something very interesting.  And that was …. that, to her mind, the colder seasons in Italy had much more to offer as vegetable varieties went than did those of a summery disposition.   Summer veggies being basically ‘only’ salad, tomatoes, aubergines and courgettes and string beans.  I had never thought about it, and I agreed with her.  Maureen is of course a staunch believer of eating in season.

I thought about Maureen about a month ago when I was at the Testaccio market, doing a bit of shopping this time, and espied some exceedingly out-of-season courgettes (zucchine).  I don’t know whether it was Winter ennui or just plain childish hankering after what’s not allowed … but I suddently developed an unstoppable craving for courgettes. “Maureen would not approve”, I said to myself guiltily as I hesitated before handing over the money to the vendor.  “Always remember what your mother-in-law says!” admonished the inner child in me.  “Lord save us from the Virtuous!”.   Weak as water, I caved in.  I took her advice and very uncharacteristically, for me, bought me some courgettes in March.  Naughty!

Before I proceed with the recipe, I have to come out and say it straight away.  Maureen would have been right.  The courgettes were nothing like they should have tasted,  Bland and almost ‘woody’-hard despite their good looks. On the other hand, I got to try out a recipe that I think will be a big hit this summer.  I got it out of a book by Allan Bay whose name escapes me now, as does the book itself (where on earth did I put it?).  When I find the book, I’ll furnish the title and page number.  Now, however, on with the recipe.  And yes … no cheating … wait until June before you try it out!

IMG_4343 Since I can’t find the book, I’ll have to guesstimate the order of the ingredients.  I see sugar, anchovy fillets, some garlic, pine kernels and raising soaking in water.  The teensy coffee cup contains some red wine vinegar.IMG_4344 Olive oil and some black peppercorns (they are NOT mouse droppings) …IMG_4345 Cut and trim the courgettes …IMG_4346 Chop up the anchovy fillets …IMG_4347 Add some garlic to the oil and turn the heat on … IMG_4351Now add the courgettes, the raisins and the sugar … IMG_4352And last, add the anchovies.IMG_4353The finishing touch are the vinegar and some salt.  Use a wooden spoon to mix well.  Taste.  Taste again.  Add more salt or more vinegar … or even more sugar.  It has to taste nice already.IMG_4354 Cover with a lid and cook over a low heat for about 10-15 minutes. This will depend on the courgettes, of course.  Harder courgettes (wrong time of year) will take longer to cook through.IMG_4355 Meanwhile toast the pine kernels …IMG_4356 When the courgettes are cooked through and tender, add the pine kernels. IMG_4358Allow to cool before serving. IMG_4357In fact, the re-a-lly (really is a three-syllable word and deseves a three-syllable gravitas on occasion), the really clever thing to do is to eat this dish the following day. Aha!  At room temperature.  With some fresh mint or basil leaves.  What do you think? And, remember, ONLY when courgettes (zucchine) are in season.  Don’t be like yours truly.

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