Projects: To Grow, To Make and To Cook.

At risk of sounding like a snob, I don’t like going out to restaurants for mediocre food.

If we leave, having paid upwards of 50 or 60 euros (for two) for a dinner that I feel that I could have cooked myself, I am disappointed. I would rather go out once and be faced with a bill of 100 euros for an exceptionally good meal and a memorable experience than go out twice for sub-standard offering.

I choose to go to places which offer food that I can’t or don’t want to cook at home. For example, unless it’s so fantastic that it will knock my socks off (a very English expression!) I will rarely order a pasta dish in a restaurant. We have pasta for lunch nearly every day. Pizza, however, is a completely different kettle of fish because pizza costs between 6 and 9 euros and is cooked at temperatures that my home oven (even with a pizza stone) cannot rival. Similarly, I will happily order fish (well, probably not on a Monday) because when I cook a beautiful salmon or bouillabaisse at home, the smell remains with us for two more days at least. Am I the only one like this? Continue reading “Projects: To Grow, To Make and To Cook.”

Fortune Favours The Bold

Setting up life in a new country is never simple. That said, it’s been almost exactly one year since I made the decision to move and I don’t regret it at all. For every “that didn’t work out the way I thought it would” set-back (I wouldn’t go so far as to say failure, although some ideas did fail), I’ve made a huge, astronomical leap forward.

What is rather strange, when I reflect on it, is how the best things to have occurred to me didn’t happen because of or due to any of my own calculations. They occurred purely by chance.

My four-legged companion, who is currently snoozing by my side, found me. She had been abandoned one night on the top of a hill, aged just two and a half or three months, and she sniffed out the winery where I was staying. She announced her presence by, unwittingly, causing a huge fray with the winemaker’s (rather aggressive) German Shepherd. By the time we took her to the vet the next morning, it was too late – love at first sight!

People said, “are you really going to keep her? What will you do when you travel? What about that wild nomadic lifestyle you have? You don’t even have a proper house to call your own.”

I will admit that I woke up at 4am the morning after making the decision in a cold sweat. I grew up with dogs and I knew that I wanted them in my future too, but this was much sooner than planned. Wasn’t I supposed to be settled first? “What have I done?! They’re right. Oh ****!”

The man then lying next to me (fast asleep) still doesn’t know the important role he played in those deliberations that night.

He too was a chance encounter. We came across each other three times (we both work in the same industry, in a part of Italy that’s as big as the back of an envelope) before he asked me out.

For him as well, it turns out, I was completely unexpected but happened to arrive at a fortuitous moment. He had recently come out of a very long relationship, a partnership so established that it seemed unfathomable to me. (See “wild nomadic lifestyle” above!)

“You’re the first girl I’ve been on a date with since breaking up…”

After our second date, I initiate a heart-to-heart conversation about if he wanted to jump straight into another relationship. “With you, yes.”

We’d only been seeing each other for a month or two when I wake up in that panic. It was my gut feeling as I watched him sleeping which convinced me to keep the dog. I could see a future here with those two in the leading roles.

I would have had neither the man nor the dog had I not left everything behind and made a leap of faith. Having been single or chasing after the wrong men for most of my twenties, permanently renting apartments, this feels like a very healthy step to have made.

I knew what I wanted: to leave France, to leave the city and to settle down in a rural region, where I could continue to work in wine. I was fully expecting to have to go it alone – I was looking at houses to buy, wondering how I would set myself up and if I could make it all work despite Brexit. But just this once, life played me a good card.

audentes Fortuna iuvat.

Some Like It Hot

It’s been really boiling hot this week and often without as much as the slightest breeze. Temperatures will easily soar above 30 degrees (86F) every day… and what makes it particularly unbearable is that it doesn’t start getting cool until at least 10pm at night.

Normally I like standing in the kitchen, spatula in hand, stirring, tasting, seasoning… but in this past week, I have not wanted to spend any time near any sort of heating element. Therefore, on the menu this week have been quick, easy, healthy meals – packed full of fresh vegetables – which I can prepare in advance. (Thereby getting any cooking done before the heat of the day.)

June is one of the most exciting months for food, in my opinion, as it is the most plentiful. It is the perfect time for courgettes, peppers, beans – runner, broad and green beans – aubergine, lettuce, fresh garlic, tomatoes… and there are still a few good peas to be had. For fruit – it’s even better: strawberries, cherries, plums (especially for a particular, very small, variety called susine in Italian and mirabelle, in French), apricots are all in season…

In the garden, my mint and oregano plants are going crazy. My basil is crying for more water and a little less heat.

I’ve just come back from a week in Paris and my choices reflect that. On the dining table this week have been:

  • tarte fine (using puff pastry) with the thinnest of layers of Dijon mustard and thinly sliced, ripe tomatoes. Baked – first blind, then with all the toppings – in the oven for 15-20 mins. So simple but really tasty.
  • salade niçoise – this French classic requires no introduction.
  • soupe au pistou – using David Lebovitz’s recipe as my inspiration but adapted to what was in my cupboard, I made enough of this soup to last us several days. I prefer to serve it warm, rather than boiling.
  • panzanella: this is an Italian summer dish, composed of stale bread, pickled red onions, basil and lots of tomatoes. Fresh, tasty and filling.

 

I’ve promised the boy that, throughout the summer, there will always been something cold in the freezer. This week I made a granita (think of it as somewhere between a sorbet and an ice slush) and super-easy to make.

  • lemon and raki granita. I love citrus flavours because they’re so refreshing. I’ve made Diana Henry’s pink grapefruit and Campari version many times, but it’s easy to change the ingredients depending on your mood. This time, lemon juice and lemon peel were mixed with a little sugar and heated until melted. I added a small amount of water and a generous glug of raki (an anise spirit very popular in Turkey) to give it a bitter kick on the finish.

 

P.S. Pimms! It’s a lifesaver in moments like these. I leave the Pimms to macerate in fruit (lemon, apple, cherry) and mint for a couple of hours and then when the boy gets back from work, I fill up the jug with lemonade… and we go onto the half-finished house, once the builders have gone, and raise a glass to the future!

Mimolette – the “cheese-mite cheese”

Mimolette is the famous French “cheese-mite cheese” – a term which sends shivers down the spine of the uninitiated and provoked wholly unjustified terror in the case of this journalist for the Kansas City Star!

It’s a round cheese, hailing from the French/Belgium border (near the city of Lille.) Its size is fractionally smaller than a bowling ball and has a rock hard exterior somewhat resembling the craters on the moon. The interior is bright orange, thanks to the addition of annatto – the same colorant also used for gouda.

What’s particular about this cheese is the fact that during the ripening stage, small mites nibble their way inside…  Continue reading “Mimolette – the “cheese-mite cheese””

Renovating A House In Italy Is Nothing Like “Under The Tuscan Sun”

Picture an old house, on a hill, in the lush Italian countryside, completely surrounded by vineyards. Sounds idyllic, right?

Especially if you’ve seen or read “Under The Tuscan Sun” you’ll already have indulged yourself in a fantasy of doing up a house in Italy. Read this superb article in The New Yorker if you’re under any doubt of the power of this perceived paradise.

My move to Italy was nothing like that. I arrived, knowing only that a winemaker would be putting me up for a few months. I knew nobody else in the area but when you are working harvest, you don’t have time to be bored! I had thrown caution to the wind and let fate decide my future.

As it happens, the order in which things worked out for me is very different from that commonly portrayed in the films: only once I was here, did I meet the dream man (meaning that I chose to stay in Italy.) Then the puppy arrived (she found us) and that prompted me to settle down but she now rewards me daily with her company and then the house, which is our current project and the point of today’s blog post.

For the sake of keeping Under The Tuscan Sun film within two hours, no mention was made of the hurdles of legislation that you’re going to have to jump through when renovating a house in Italy.


Let’s do a quick quiz to see how realistic you are!

So imagine that you are the new owner of this dream-house. Because it is actually close to falling down, you have to do some renovation works on it. You have an architect, engineer and a trusted workforce. However, the local comune has decided that this old house has “historical value” and therefore must be protected.

Question 1: What can or can’t you do with this house?

a. Because the house is protected, there’s nothing much more you can do than a few cosmetic touch-ups. It’s protected after all.

b. You can restore the existing structure and build a relatively large extension for your guests once they come to stay in the finished house.

c. Demolish the building completely but you have to build it again to the exact, same, precise dimensions.


Question 2: There are tons of building regulations in Italy and an expert from the comune will come to check that the works have followed the proposal to the last square centimeter. What changes or exceptions are allowed?

a. You can use these renovation works to put a door where there was previously a window and vice versa…

b. Ok, you don’t want a really large extension… but you would like to put in another couple of rooms, which would correspond to an increase of roughly 25% in terms of surface area.

c. When rebuilding your protected-but-demolished house, you can raise the height of the roof a certain amount but only to put in earthquake protection measures and isolation panels.


Question 3: In Under The Tuscan Sun, Frances Meyer found a wonderful, original fresco in her villa. In this old country house, what did we find?

a. Authentic mosaic flooring.

b. Absolutely nothing exciting.

c. A dead goat’s skull.


ANSWERS: In all three questions, the answer is the final option. You can demolish an old house as long as it is rebuilt to spec; we’ve only been able to raise the roof for the cement anti-earthquake structure and, yes, we found a goat’s skull!!


Previous posts about this renovation: “Building a Life” and “Shaky Foundations.

To Survive In Italy, You Must Be Resourceful

Living – and surviving – in Italy means being resourceful.

You think something’s going to be ok because previous experience has taught you how it’s done. Well, moving to Italy means putting all that “I’ve got this figured out” attitude aside and being prepared to eat a lot of humble pie.

After a while, however long it takes for to train your brain cells to think quickly, it gets slightly easier. For example…

Exhibit A: You want to buy some stamps. Most days, I add on “… and two stamps please” to my coffee order at the local bar.

“Ah, no, we don’t have any stamps today,” comes the reply on this particular occasion. “Try the place down the street…”

Turns out that the place further down the street doesn’t have any stamps either. I’m going to have to go into one of Dante’s circles of hell: the Post Office.

It is approaching 11am. There are two workers manning the windows. I wait 20 minutes in line for my turn, only to be told that I need to wait and speak with his colleague.

Another 15 minutes goes by (… by which point my dog is really fed up!) only for me to be told “signora, we don’t have any stamps.”

“What? You’re a Post Office! How the hell is that possible” goes through my mind, but fortunately the only audible sound I make is a surprised “ma, veramente?”

Si, si, mi dispiace, ciao, arrivederci signora…

My dog takes the hint and gets up to leave. I, unfortunately, am not going to be defeated so easily. Not after having spent the best part of my morning trying to send these two letters.

“But could you, maybe…” I am aware I have to get the next word exactly right or I will find myself back out on the street a second later… “affrancare my letters?”

With a sigh, the lady backs down. My knowledge of the outdated postal system (I think the last time a letter of mine was franked was at least 20 years ago!) has meant that her coffee break will have to be postponed for another few minutes. Victory!!


Exhibit B: Taking your bicycle in Florence also means having a bag full of accessories (tissues, water, puncture kit, umbrella) that even Mary Poppins would have been proud of. You need to be equipped for every possible situation. In my case, I got in the habit of taking multiple bike locks (even if I didn’t have the corresponding key, like for the red lock below) because you never know when they might come in handy.

On this particular occasion, the railing to which I wanted to attach my bike was set a long way back into the cement wall. As a result, it required three chains, looped together, to secure my bike…. as you can see in the photo below.

Problem solved!

Exhibit C: There are two temporary signs on the street saying “no parking for building works”. These two signs happen to fall neatly on a defined orange zone. I asked an Italian friend yesterday who confirmed that the signs indicate the beginning and end of the space needed. I parked my car in the adjacent blue zone.

Just now, upon checking on the car, the builders tell me I need to move it. I maintain that I’m parked on the correct side of the sign. They shrug, in that “do I look bothered” way, saying they could just move the sign further up the street and therefore my car would be parked illegally.

I ask how much extra space they need. One of the builders is telling me that the official rule in this kind of matter – didn’t I know? – was up to the nearest lamppost. Yet his colleague signals to the parking meter, thereby superbly negating this supposed Italian rule of the road.

In any case, the difference is no more than a foot and there’s almost a yard between me and the car in front. I suggest, rather that looking for a new spot (impossible in Florence at this time of the morning anyway), that I simply close up this gap. They convene to consider the suggestion.

By the time they’re somewhere close to an agreement, I’ve already started the engine and am inching forward. In the end, once I’m sufficiently close to my neighbour’s bumper, they give me the thumbs up.

European problem solving, like a boss!

Summer’s Here With A Strawberry Genoise Cake

I find the concept of food blogging quite awkward. A casual food blogger is not a professional chef, nor is he or she a recipe-writer. (Unless you have the patience to test each recipe until it has reached perfection, e.g. David Lebovitz.)

I personally don’t have that kind of dutiful patience. For example, as much as I enjoyed playing the piano when I was a kid, I got so bored practicing one particular piece until it was faultless.

I am also challenged in a couple more ways.

First, artistically. Beyond stick figures and flow-charts, I have never displayed any kind of artistic talent. If I’ve got my camera out, I’m able to take a couple of decent photos but I have no pretences or leanings towards being a food stylist. If that’s what you’re looking for, let me steer you to Emiko Davies, who has some of the most beautiful food photography coming out of Italy.

Second, practically. I should be telling you about dishes which are easily replicable in your own kitchen. The problem is, my experiences over the last few years living in the UK, France and Italy, have rendered me and my house a unique blend of cultures, tastes and objects. This can’t be a normal food blog because what’s going on in my kitchen is entirely personal and therefore completely unreproducible.

What I have to offer is a sneak-peak into my kitchen and of my life. A form of exhibitionism on my part, I suppose… and voyeurism for you! Continue reading “Summer’s Here With A Strawberry Genoise Cake”

On Shaky Foundations?

You may remember from my post ten days ago (Building A Life) that building works have started recently on the house next-door.

Consequently, my daily routine has now been set to a soundtrack of drilling, banging and grinding of heavy machinery. It starts at 7am and plays on loop until 5pm, with just one hour of respite.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the sun has recently revved into gear and it’s now blasting us with temperatures which reach 30 degrees (86 Fahrenheit) by lunchtime. Have you ever been in a sauna while thrash metal music is playing? It’s not pleasant, let me tell you.

In these sultry conditions, the English idea of pudding is just far too much. Instead, the end of a lunch is signaled by a coffee (espresso, of course) and a tablespoon of ice cream. This is definitely something I could get used to.

Harder, however, is the daily decision of what to wear. My loose linen trousers are already too heavy for the midday heat. I really need to make an appointment to be able to bare my legs in public.

Another daily challenge is our Internet connection. It has become so slow that Spotify can’t even stream my playlists anymore. I’ve resorted to listening to CDs from the early Naughties in order to drown out the builders.

It’s not even just our builders. It turns out that the owners of the house across the way have been inspired by our works to finish their own. In true Italian style, their house was completely renovated not so long ago but came to an abrupt halt. Word at the local café says that the two couples who wanted to live together ran out of money and started arguing. (Before you raise an eyebrow, this seems to be a relatively common living arrangement here in Italy…) So just in terms of heavy machinery in my immediate vicinity, there are four diggers, one roller and countless trucks…

This makes my situation all the more precarious because the conclusion of the hole in the wall (see previous post) and the incessant digging of next-door’s foundations has revealed that the house that I’m currently living in and working from has been built without any foundations! It’s just sitting upon a large slab of hard volcanic rock! Not entirely reassuring….. but then again, everything in Italy is somewhat of a gamble!

 

Building a Life In Italy

It’s never a good sign when someone wakes you from your postprandial siesta with a knock at the door and a “permesso?”

On this occasion, standing on our stoop were next-door’s builders.

They have just started work on the house adjacent to where I live with The Boy and Super Dog.

If ever there’s been a test of my prowess in the local dialect, this is it.

Buongiorno signora, senti, gursay problem con wall, bedroom, blahbla…”

The words for hammer (martello) and complete disaster (macello) sound very similar in Italian. Impeded by my slumber, I hold out a hope that they have just popped over to ask to borrow something from our utility cupboard.

The man standing next to this wizened, dust-covered, bearer of bad news shrugs indifferently.

If you’ve seen the film “Under The Tuscan Sun” – or had any experience with builders in Italy – you wouldn’t be at all surprised that on the very first day of the building works, there was an unexpected surprise. In this case, the fact that they had come right through the wall and into our bedroom!

With another couple more shrugs and the beyond-believable excuse “but we thought there were two walls….” they left to go and start hammering on another section of wall.

An architect, an engineer and another opinionated old man with a cigarette always hanging out of his mouth will come over in the morning to reassess the situation.

Taking a Tart for Labour Day

“Hey Emma, you remember we’re leaving at 10am….” whispers the boy, “… well, it’s almost 9am and you still have that cake to do!”


The done thing in Italy on the 1st May (Labour Day) is to organise a day-out in the countryside. It doesn’t matter if you’re already living in rural countryside, surrounded by vineyards…. there’s always somewhere more remote for you to escape to.

Most days I’m up by 8am but we’d been at the Gusto Nudo festival in Bologna the day before and had only got home in the early hours of Monday morning.

For the holiday, we were going up into the mountains above Vicenza (where Asiago cheese is made) to a friend’s house. It may just be in this particular area of Italy, but holidays and special occasions here are often marked by a grigliata or BBQ.

In the UK, when someone organises a BBQ, you expect an outdoor charcoal grill, an undercooked sausage and, if you’re lucky, some red peppers and halloumi on a kebab stick. Almost inevitably, a rain shower will also be on the menu.

Here in Italy, a grigliata is most often cooked on a large indoor fireplace. Old country houses are equipped with a wood-burning hearth on which you can cook all manner of meats – spare ribs, chicken, pancetta – and, of course, polenta. Polenta is everywhere in the Veneto.

Two other girls were bringing savoury sides; we took wine (you never run dry with a winemaker) and I had been put forward for making a dessert.

I’m really bad at cakes. I find them way too stressful. I prefer the kind of dishes that you can adjust during the cooking process rather than putting a mixture into the oven and praying to the gods of baking.

As a compromise (and also because I had very limited ingredients at home) I decided upon a Bakewell Tart.

If you’re not familiar with a Bakewell Tart, it’s a traditional English cake, made of shortcrust pastry, jam and an almond sponge.

I used Mary Berry’s recipe for the shortcrust pastry, used a mixture of different jams (predominantly blackberry, made from the brambles surrounding our vineyards) and an almond-heavy sponge on top.

I didn’t have time to fuss around with icing…. I just scattered some sliced almonds on top of the filling before it went into the oven. Considering I was so rushed, I was rather pleased with how it turned out.

I learnt the Italian way of indicating “it’s tasty”: to put your index finger on your cheek and turn it back and forth!

From the Transparent Language blog