Playing With Porridge Oats

Since my last blog post just short of three weeks ago, I’ve barely been home. I’ve been to Florence, London, Milan and today I’m packing my bag again for a whirlwind weekend to Piedmont. I don’t mean to show-off; I know I’m lucky to travel so much but when you’re in a place for a very short amount of time, you don’t get to see much and it becomes exhausting. (Especially when you’re hoping and praying that the snow doesn’t cause too many delays…)

Yesterday, finally, I’d caught up with most of my work and my sleep and so I spent a couple of hours in the kitchen, playing around.

First on my to-do list was setting aside some lemons to eat during the summer months. I made preserved lemons this time last year too, but tragically I found out the hard way that there’s too much humidity in the walls of this old house (and not to mention, there aren’t any foundations) to support any kind of shelf. My glass jar full of salt and lemons ended up shattering on the floor.

Last week, I picked up a new jar in the sales and am determined to learn from last year’s lesson. I’m going to keep these precious preserved lemons at the back of my kitchen cupboard.

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Lemons, topped, almost quartered and sprinkled with sea salt and a little sugar.

Because we’re driving to Piedmont tomorrow and because I had a ton of porridge oats that I wanted to use up, I decided to make some food to take on the road with us. We English have a traditional tea-time snack called flapjack. It was one of my favourite treats from the bakery when I was a kid. There are two main types of flapjack: thick and often dry or thin, crispy and sticky. I always preferred the latter. 

Loosely speaking, a flapjack is made of oats, butter and golden syrup… sometimes currants. (There’s a good recipe here from BBC Good Food or here on Delia Online.) For my taste now, they’re overly sweet so I needed to adapt my childhood memories into something more palatable.

I made two versions because I wanted to test two different techniques: one heated with butter (but no golden syrup because it’s the equivalent of liquid gold here in Italy) and the other with banana. Whatever you want to call them – flapjacks, oat bars, cereal bars, granola bars, traybakes – they’re essentially the same thing and they’re super simple to make.

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Oats, candied ginger, dark chocolate and orange peel.

For the first version, I put a handful of sultanas in a small saucepan along with squeeze of orange juice (I wanted to rehydrate them somewhat to avoid them becoming shrivelled and burnt.) I added a thumbnail of fresh orange and lemon peel, a spoonful of brown sugar and a generous stick of butter. I very gently simmered this mixture until everything had melted.

Then, because I will always try and economise on the washing-up, I stirred 130 grams of porridge oats into this liquid mixture and sprinkled a very light dusting of cinnamon.

As a result of the heat and the stirring, the oats puffed up really nicely before they got spooned into a lined baking dish (21cm diameter) and then flattened down.

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Puffy oats with sultanas and citrus peel, easily filling the dish.

I had read on The Kitchn (here) that banana alone was enough to provide sweetness and bind the notoriously rebellious porridge oats together.

So, I mashed up a banana and in a mixing bowl, stirred in 130 grams of porridge oats and a sprinkling of candied ginger, dark chocolate and orange peel.

After I was satisfied that the banana was evenly spread throughout, I added the smallest drop of olive oil (just for luck!) and spooned this mixture into an identical baking dish.

Both were baked in the oven at 180°C (fan oven) for 16 minutes.


The result? The puffed up oats were the more aesthetically pleasing and it tastes good… but it crumbles too easily. Clearly a little golden syrup is needed.

The addition of a banana was a really good call. It really does bind the oats together well… despite it also lending a slightly greeny-brown colour…. you probably can’t detect that in the photo but you can see it in real life.

That said, I also like the difference in textures and flavours with the ginger and chocolate. It feels more sophisticated, if that makes sense?

What would I do if making this again? I’d repeat the flavours in the ginger and chocolate version but would find a way of heating up the oats (maybe in a little butter?) before adding the banana as my binding agent.

 

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Because the oats hadn’t been pre-cooked, it remained far more compact than in the other version.

“The best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray”

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Just one quick look at the calendar and you know this week is going to be amazing. I mean, it’s not even once every hundred years that Valentine’s Day and Pancake Day/Mardi Gras land on the very same day.

I could have gone full out on the heart-shaped American style pancakes with maple syrup and caramelised bananas…. I could also have made kitschy, French crepes with chocolate sauce and strawberries (a bit like in the photo below.)

Unfortunately, however, a work meeting meant that we had to move any romantic plans that we might have had scheduled for the 14th and then the flu bug wiped us out for the rest of the week. If it was at all ambiguous, let it be known that the words “tesoro, where’s the thermometer?” coming from behind a mountain of tissues, and spoken by someone with puffy eyes whose just recovered from a sneezing fit, are not in any way erotic.

Even the best made plans can come to naught…..

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We spent a few days shuffling back and forth between the bedroom and the sofa but today, we’re feeling better. My temperature is still stupidly low at 35 degrees C but that’s become my new normal. (Any ideas why my body temperature is so low, please share…) Still, I had a bit more energy this morning and we had some milk that was about to go off so I fulfilled my initial idea and made crepes. Nothing fancy and certainly nothing that would have its place in a Mills and Boon novel… just quickly whipped up crepes with a simple lemon juice and sugar topping. Lesson learnt: sometimes spontaneity is the best!

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In the afternoon we took the car and the dog to explore a nearby town called Valdagno. It’s the town that gives its name to the valley so I was expecting something of a hub with a bustling main square. I got that one wrong. Besides one determined jogger, there was absolutely no one out. Admittedly the weather didn’t help much – a constant drizzle that never quite allowed you to decide conclusively if an umbrella is essential or excessive. We walked through the pedestrianised centre but being Sunday afternoon, nothing much was open. The one interesting find was stumbling across a small museum in a park, dedicated to all the different rocks or layers of them that had been found locally.

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I’m supposed to be going to a wine tasting tomorrow. If you didn’t know, my day job mainly consists of writing about wine, talking about agriculture and tasting as much grape juice as I can get my hands on. The only problem is that with a blocked nose and a raspy throat, tasting wine and talking to producers is next to impossible. I might, errr, “stop off” to browse the winter sales instead.

How Is It February Already?

It’s now February. February! How did that happen? We’re already a good chunk into what I still think of as the new year. I think it’s because I am starting to feel increasingly settled here in Italy, the days are going faster, the evenings are getting longer but I sometimes feel that I let days slip by without accomplishing anything.

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Carnevale gets underway in Venice today.

I am ever more impatient for the house to be ready. It probably sounds pretty stupid but I can’t wait to put up bookshelves and to unpack my boxes. I’ve had my stuff in boxes now since July 2016 and I’m itching to be able to unpack. There are so many books and kitchenware – plates, serving dishes, glasses and so much more – that I haven’t seen in nearly two years. Another thing, I can’t wait to have a functional guest-room and be able to have friends from far away come and stay.

I shouldn’t get my hopes up too much. Everything is taking far longer than expected. The geometra has a way of keeping the whole project in limbo. Just when you think, “ok, so the windows have been cleaned up and ready to be put back in,” he comes up with a new hurdle: we need more insulation. The builders therefore had to come back, chip away the bottom brick under each window and install an extra layer of insulation. That’s finally finished and he decides that we need insulation on the sides too. At this point, the window people think he’s taking the piss (to use a good English expression) so call a general meeting (architect, builders, plasterers, the engineer, and us.) Some strong language is bandied around from all sides and the window people win out: no additional insulation, it’s decided. The plasterers are happy with this decision too because they’ll be able to press on more quickly.

Meanwhile though, it turns out that the plumber, whose starring role in this ongoing theatrical performance is about to resume with the installation of the hot water system, hasn’t ordered any of the pieces yet! Another delay, jeez!

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Because it’s so easy to let the days slip by, I’m setting myself targets: one post on this blog per week and likewise on the wine blog (this one.) Walk with the dog for at least an hour every day and don’t get lazy just because it’s raining. I need to be better at updating the Burnt Cream Facebook page, but quite honestly, I remain unconvinced about the purpose of social media, especially since the algorithms on Facebook and Instagram have become so biased. I should, though, make the most of my incredible surroundings and take every opportunity to go to local cities like Verona and Venice, even if it’s only for the day.

My work (yeah, that thing that pays the bills….) is going from strength to strength. I can’t believe that I’ve been freelancing for very nearly four years now. Even though it hasn’t always been easy, I don’t regret the decision to leave the traditional office environment one bit. The freedom to work on what I want to be working on is the most important thing. Speaking of which, I’m excited to have developed a new writing project, one that will take me at least a year to complete but that promises to be hugely rewarding. Watch this space!

“Un Tempo Cruo” – late January in the Veneto

Yesterday was a beautiful, bright sunny day that had me thinking that spring might be just around the corner. It was one of those days when being outside in the sunshine was a million times better than being inside, stuck in front of a computer.

I went down to the local market and picked up a few fresh ingredients for the next couple of days. The produce is still decidedly winterly – artichokes, various green leaves, particularly the various delineations of cabbage and cauliflower, and a couple of lonely fennel bulbs. In terms of the fruit selection: you have a vast choice between clementines or oranges, oranges or clementines…

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Aubergines straight from Sardinia at the Mercato Orientale, in Genova.

Feeling that spring in my step, I made a simple, raw salad to go with lunch. With minimal effort required, straight into the serving bowl, I mixed fennel, tips of puntarelle, slices of clementine and pomegranate seeds (from the freezer.) I used just extra virgin olive oil and salt as the seasoning but squeezed some clementine juice over the top to give some acidity and sweetness. I more commonly use lemon juice but using clementines is something I’m going to do more often. Not only does this salad look bright and colourful, but it tastes great too.

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Fennel, puntarelle, clementine and pomegranate salad.

Unfortunately, today is back to being grey and unforgivingly cold. “Un tempo cruo ” in the local dialect. Personally, I’d never heard the weather being described as “raw” / crudo before but I understand the meaning. It’s a cold that gets into your bones.

In the kitchen today, I’m making a rustic vegetable soup, loosely adapted from the first of these recipes from Anna Jones in the Guardian. I started with the soffritto, only to realise that I’d forgotten to buy carrots at the market. I knew that, actually, but last night I’d dreamt that, in order to make this soffritto, I successfully found a carrot lurking at the back of the fridge. It turns out that there was actually no carrot and I’m now ever so slightly concerned about the lucidity of my dreams. I can’t be the only person who spends their valuable shut-eye imagining what they’re going to cook later in the day… am I…?

Anyway, once my half-hearted soffritto was ready, I added a potato (peeled and cubed) and some similarly sized pieces of the rind of aged Monte Veronese cheese (the equivalent of parmesan in my area.) Following more or less the method outlined in the recipe, I have added vegetable stock, tinned datterini tomatoes, borlotti beans, tips of the fennel that I didn’t use yesterday in the salad and some more of those puntarelle leafy greens, again. I’ll leave it aside for a little while and when I’m ready this evening, I’ll pop down to the bakery to pick up some bread which’ll be used for dunking. The dog is always happy to accompany me for a walk into the village.


My next challenge is to figure out what to take to a lunch on Sunday. I’ve been told to bring a dessert (does that sound familiar? no? click here.) As it happens I have a ton of milk to use up so I thought about a riz au lait. The problem is that I can’t find the trusty recipe that I used many years ago so I’m having to wing it. I’ve checked a couple of recipes online but I’m going to spend this afternoon giving them a test run. To keep the saucepan covered or not. That is the question…

Frittelle for Carnevale

After the month-long festivities to celebrate Santa Lucia, then Christmas, New Year’s Eve and finally la Befana (don’t know who La Befana is? click here and read my last blog post) you would probably expect me to say that things were starting to quieten down and for this frigid winter to be tightening its icy grip. If only! We’re now starting to revv up for Carnevale!


Find out more about the Carnevale di Venezia, which officially starts on Jan 27th this year and runs until Shrove Tuesday, on the official website here.

I also heartily recommend checking out the Venice Insider website which has painstakingly listed all of this year’s events and much of the history.


Anyway, this morning, coming back from a meeting to decide upon a new marble staircase for the house (yay!) I popped into my local bakery for a caffè-brioche and saw these on the counter….

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Frittelle!

Frittelle, fritole or fritoe (depending on which accent or dialect you’re speaking with) are small, fried balls of dough. They’re about the size of a walnut but it’s quite easy to tell that these particular ones have been handmade because they are all different shapes and sizes. At my bakery, there was the choice of frittelle studded with raisins (uvette) or filled with pastry cream. In other parts, I’ve seen apple and pine nut frittelle as well as with lemon peel or chestnuts. Once they come out of the oven, they get generously sprinkled with sugar (just as you would with a doughnut) and are best eaten still slightly warm.

Like most things in Italy, there’s a certain time and place for everything and even these (otherwise pretty nondescript) treats are actually highly seasonal. The one and only season for frittelle, as you may have guessed, is during Carnevale.

If you want to try your hand at making them, the recipe on “I Love You More Than Food” looks solid but I admit that I haven’t tried it. Link here. Good luck!

Update on the Renovations

It’s been a little while since my last update on the building works. Unfortunately, the reason largely lies in the fact that, through no fault of our own, we’ve been at a standstill throughout most of November and December. On the plus side, we ran into our team of builders at the Befana bonfire in the local village last Saturday and the boss promised that they would be back at our place on Monday morning, bright and early.

Click on the photo to jump back and read my Befana blog post.

I’ve learnt not to get my expectations too high whenever a builder, electrician or other tradesman promises to show up. There are better odds on me being able to stop my exuberant 1 year old dog from chasing the neighbourhood cat as it risks life and limb crossing our garden on its daily promenade.

It turns out that I got 1 out of 3 on Monday morning; the surveyors were the only ones to show up, two and a half hours late but it’s got to the stage where I’ll take that.

Tuesday, however, was a different story! I was savouring those last precious moments snuggled up under the duvet when I was roused from my slumber by that distinctive burrrrrr-clunk-burrrrrr-beep noise which can only come from the crane. (Yes, the crane is still up. It’s been nine months now. Babies have been born in less time.)

Like a kid waking up and seeing the snow, I had my own version of a white Christmas: seeing that all four builders had arrived and were churning the cement mixer, starting to hammer and generally do what they do best – creating a ton of dust! What they were doing was actually finishing off some preparation work, like filling in any holes in the brickwork and building a double wall in the bathroom to give enough space for the toilet tank.

Wednesday, another team of builders came to lay the first layer of cement flooring. This essentially is supposed to cover up the tubes laid down for the plumbing and electrics, insulate, and give an level surface for the plumber to then install the underfloor heating. (Yes, I fell in love with the only winemaker I know who has underfloor heating!!)

Today, I’m going to Genova for the day for work. I took this photo quickly just before leaving but the cement is still setting so you’re going to have to make do with this rather rushed peek over the barrier for now.

Next week, the builders should be back to finish off the window structures and within a couple of days start plastering the walls! Fingers crossed!

Burning “La Befana” – Very Much A Local Tradition

One of the things that I try really hard to impress upon visitors is how divided Italy is. Until very recently it was not one country and mobility between towns, cities and across mountain ranges was limited. As a result, regional traditions are more localised than you may have first imagined and remain very much undiluted.

I’m in the Veneto, up in the north east between Lake Garda and Venice. More precisely, my town lies on the boundary between two provinces – Verona and Vicenza. When I first moved to Italy, I was staying on the Verona side; now I’ve moved over to Vicenza. The two places are only a 15 min drive away but there are many differences.

Firstly the dialect is different:

‘What shall we do?’ is Cosa facciamo? in Italian. “cosa faemo?” and “cosa fazemo?” in dialetto vicentino. Not huge differences but enough for it to be obvious where you come from.

Similarly, you may well know that “a glass” is “un bicchiere” in Italian. In vicentino, I hear “biccher” quite commonly, while back on the other hill, it was “un goto.”

Finally “cucchiaio” (“a spoon”) becomes “cuchar” or “cucharo” if you’re in the province of Verona… but if you get closer to Vicenza and across to Padova, it’s “scugliero!

It’s not just the language; there are many cultural differences too.

In the province of Verona, the most important celebration over the Christmas period is the Festa della Santa Lucia on December 13th. It is traditionally on this date that the families get together and presents are exchanged. In Vicenza, however, Santa Lucia is not recognised, nor is Christmas particularly, and we have another important date instead: the 6th January.

You may know that date as being Epiphany, y’know, the three kings, twelfth night, end of the festivities… Not so. Here it’s called La Befana.

La Befana is a old woman or a witch who would fly across the sky at night, delivering presents and treats to children. (Haven’t I heard this story before…….?) In this case, there’s a slight twist because she’s supposedly searching for baby Jesus…. here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the legend:

“The magi invited her to join them on the journey to find the baby Jesus, but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, La Befana had a change of heart, and tried to search out the astrologers and Jesus. That night she was not able to find them, so to this day, La Befana is searching for the little baby. She leaves all the good children toys and candy (“caramelle”) or fruit, while the bad children get coal (“carbone”), onions or garlic.”

You might think it’s all hullabaloo and old folklore but several of my local friends got stockings full of presents from La Befana yesterday and this seems true in other regions throughout the boot.


There’s a second thing though and this seems more localised. On Jan 6th in the evening, all our neighbouring towns hold bonfires, upon which they have an effigy of La Befana who gets burned (yes, very much like the story of Guy Fawkes in England.) I’ve heard it explained that it’s the occasion to get rid of or burn anything from the previous year that you don’t want to take with you into the new.

As for us, well, we had gone to a small town called Valeggio sul Mincio (between Verona and Mantova) for a long lunch with a dear friend (more about that soon) and then came back to watch the bonfire. Most of the town’s population turned out for the event, which was washed down with plenty of mulled wine, sausages, polenta and prosecco.

New Year’s Eve in Italy… and the importance of lentils!

Happy New Year’s Eve! Or “la notte di San Silvestro” in Italian.

Whether it’s out partying or staying in wrapped up in a blanket on the sofa, I hope you’re spending the last few hours of 2017 exactly as you want to spend them. I’m personally not much of a fan of New Year’s Eve. There seems to be so much hype about what really is just another day. Many moons ago, I would choose to take a shift working in a bar or restaurant on NYE. That way, I was at least in a festive ambiance but I wasn’t spending stupid amounts of money on a set meal and a bottle of over-priced Champagne.

More recently, I’ve preferred hosting friends for a dinner and drinks party and that’s exactly what we did this year – just a small dinner party for some local friends. To lighten the load, it was agreed that they would bring the appetisers, cheese course and the dessert, and that I’d cook the main course.

The traditional main course over the winter festivities in Italy is a type of sausage called cotechino. It’s a large pork sausage, originally hailing from Modena but even my local butchers make a pretty good version.

I’m not sure why, but I always feel a little uneasy about cooking classic Italian foods for Italians. I suppose I fear that whatever I serve couldn’t possibly live up to whatever their mamma or nonna used to make.

As a result, I resort to typical English or French dishes, with which I’m fairly confident there won’t already be ridiculously high expectations. For tonight, I’ve decided to cook Beef Wellington. If you’re not familiar with this antiquated-but-undeservedly-so English speciality, it’s essentially about a kilo of beef sirloin, wrapped in finely chopped mushrooms, wrapped again speck (I chose speck ham for the smokey flavour over the more traditional prosciutto crudo) and all of that wrapped in puff pastry! I’m going to be serving it with roast potatoes (requested by the boys) and two cold side salads – red cabbage and orange (inspired by BBC Good Food) and kisir (a Turkish salad mainly of bulghur wheat and tomatoes) – and a warm side: lentils!

When I was running through my proposed menu with the boy, “yes, but you must also cook lentils,” was his advice. Lentils are a bearer of good luck and prosperity, apparently.

 

It would appear that in Ancient Rome, there was a tradition to give a leather bag filled with lentils as a gift. You would attach this bag to your belt and apparently (but I mean this is rather a stretch of the imagination!) the lentils would transform into coins!

So there you have it, a bowl of lentils is going to be on my table this evening…. just in case! Happy New Year, one and all!

Waiting for Advent

The final days of November always feel strange to me. It’s this weird time of year when you’re in limbo. My American friends have already made me hungry for turkey but yet it’s still too early to really start the Christmas countdown: mince pies, festive music and twinkling lights.

I don’t recognise the Thanksgiving holiday but I may have indulged in a little Black Friday shopping anyway (*slinks away guiltily…*) I love London in the run up to Christmas; it’s my favourite time of year to see the city. The lights in the commercial heart (Oxford Street, New Bond Street, Regent Street) are far better than anything on the Champs-Elysees and Avenue Montaigne.

Here in Italy, I’m out in the countryside so Christmas lights are few and far between. That said, the 8th December is a bank holiday (la Festa della Madonna, apparently) and it’s on that precise date when they put up and decorate the Christmas trees.

When I was told about this tradition, I looked at the boy excitedly, eyes wide open like a kid on Christmas morning. “Oh no! You don’t have a tree amongst all that stuff, do you?” he asks worriedly….

— Short aside: Most of my stuff is still in boxes. A whole room at the back of our house has been given over to the contents of the removal truck from Paris! :/ As we’ll be moving into the new house in a few months and there’s simply not space nor need in his place for me to unpack, it was decided that they would be put out of the way for the time being. The boy has clearly but wisely decided to consider that area potentially contaminated with nuclear something or other and not to go anywhere near it! It’s for that reason that he is still blissfully unaware of the presence of two large Christmas boxes! —

I’m feeling particularly festive this year; full of good cheer and all that malarkey. It’s rather out of character.

We’re going to a panettone party tonight. Yes, it appears that’s a thing. It’s held in a local restaurant and we’ll testing all the best artisanal panettoni from the region.

All this premature festivity is getting to me. The problem, though, is that December is looking decidedly busy; I’m in France for five days and then back in the UK on the 18th until at least after the holidays. If I put up the tree on the 8th, it will essentially be uniquely for the dog’s benefit. I’m sure she will enjoy tearing it to pieces in my absence! I’m wondering if it would be acceptable to put up the tree a few days before…. I wonder…

Pipes and Pythagorus

The house renovations are moving ahead. Admittedly not as quickly as we had planned, but you can now finally see that progress is starting to being made.  Today the electricians finished laying down the tubes for our lighting, the burglar alarm, the solar panels and the different power sockets. For his part, the plumber has installed pipes leading to and from the two bathrooms and kitchen. Now the builders need to come back and lay the first layer of insulation and flooring.

We had thought it would take a maximum of one month, maybe six weeks, to reach this stage. We’re actually now a full three months later.

A Spaghetti Junction of tubes and pipes

Meanwhile, the bathroom people came yesterday to double-check their measurements. This is absolutely essential because if there’s anything I’ve learnt so far, it’s not to take anything for granted. Check, double-check and triple-check everything.

I’ve already written about the old goat house and how we’ve had to rebuild our new home exactly to the same specifications as the old one. (Did you miss it? Click here.) What I haven’t mentioned is that our house is actually made up of the old, historically-protected goat house and also a part of a more recent construction. I hadn’t talked about this other part of the house because it required far less structural work – just some new interior walls and changing of the doors and windows. It was much easier because it had already been rebuilt in the late 1980s.

Rebuilt. It’s a word that now brings fear. Because this 1980s house was rebuilt exactly to the specifications of the previous house, it is completely squiffy. The only corners which are actually at right angles are the walls that we’ve had the builders put up this summer.

As a result, I asked them to check the angles in the bathroom.

I had expected them to have a L shaped thingamabob. You know, a tool that tells you straight away if you’ve got 90 degrees. But no, the man wields his tape measure once again along one of the walls. He makes a little marking. He goes to the other wall and measures that. Nooooooooo, I think to myself as silently as possible…… I’m about to witness the first time I’ve ever seen a real life use for Pythagorus’ theorum!

“In mathematics, the Pythagorean theorem, also known as Pythagoras’s theorem, is a fundamental relation in Euclidean geometry among the three sides of a right triangle. It states that the square of the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.” (Wikipedia)

I take a breath. This is 2000 year old mathematics put into practice in modern-day Italy! Whatever next……