Sunday, June 10, 2012

Barbecue, the Beautiful Game and the Azzurri

 It’s been some time since I last posted. The series of earthquakes that has rocked Emilia Romagna since May has thrown my schedule to the wind. With every earthquake I have taken flight with the children to the mountains. But that’s another story, one that doesn’t belong here and one that I have written about elsewhere – if you want to read more, visit:

No one knows who coined the phrase ‘The Beautiful Game’, but with Euro 2012 underway in Poland and Ukraine, football is on everyone’s mind here. The Azzurri – the boys in blue – make their debut this evening against one of the tournament favourites, defending World and European champions, Spain. The feeling here is not exactly one of optimism, though that’s not surprising. Football – soccer if you prefer – in Italy has always been taken with a healthy degree of seriousness. It’s never just a game – it’s much more than that. Beppe Severgnini once wrote that ‘you cannot claim to know Italians until you have seen them at work inside a soccer stadium’.

One of the most memorable moments in my life was the day my father took me to my first football game. I was barely tall enough to see over the railings. It was the European Cup leg between the legendary Italian club Juventus and the little known Glentoran, a local Irish squad. The match was played at the Oval in Belfast. I think we were the only Juventus fans in a green sea of 25,000 Glentoran supporters. That didn’t deter my father. Football was different back then – the atmosphere was electric, spirited but good-natured. Casio scored for Juventus about 30 minutes into the first half. My brother and I broke the silence, practically exploding with joy – my father, perhaps wisely, was less vocal in his celebration. Five minutes before the end of the game Juventus conceded a penalty. Dino Zoff, the legendary Italian goalkeeper, quickly put an end to any possibility of a fairy-tale ending for the Irish when he saved Feeney’s shot. But still, the Irish did well, managing to stave off the much-anticipated slaughter, losing by only one goal. I have to point out though that they weren’t so lucky when they travelled to the Stade Communale in Turin for the return leg, where they conceded 5 goals to the Italians.    

We’ve met tonight’s opponents 29 times at international level. There’s not much in it. Italy’s won 10, drawn 11 and lost 8 times. But anyone who knows anything about football will tell you that although the Italian squad has been under-performing of late, and although the Spanish are on a high, the boys in blue are never to be discounted. They’re not considered the second most successful team in the history of the game for nothing.

Food and football have much in common in Italy. Everyone’s passionate about them and everyone has an opinion. I’m watching the first half of the game with friends around the corner in the bar. Assuming all’s going well, we’re relocating to the living room at half time. Ellie’s under instructions to keep an eye on the score line. Assuming all’s going well, she’s serving bruschetta over the second half. The post game discussions will take place around the BBQ in the garden. Hopefully when it’s over we’ll be celebrating, not commiserating. But however it turns out, football makes Italians hungry – I bought in a good supply of meat!  

P.S. Next week Italy meets the Republic of Ireland in the second leg of their group matches. Although I’m a Belfast boy, my loyalties aren’t divided, least, not quite. At the bar I’ll publicly be rooting for the Italians, but at the same time, if things don’t turn out as expected, I still remember the words of Amhrán na bhFiann – that’s “The Soldiers’ Song”, the Irish national anthem, for anyone that didn’t study Gaelic at school! I might even whip up a pot of Irish stew... just to show there’s no hard feelings. Afterall, it’s only a game!

Italian Barbecue Kebabs

400g Luganega sausage, cut into chunks
400g pork loin, diced
2 thickly cut slices of pancetta, cut into 2.5cm dice
1 large red pepper, seeds removed, flesh diced
1 courgette trimmed and diced into rounds
A few sprigs of thyme leaves, chopped
A sprig of rosemary, chopped
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

To make the kebabs, thread a piece of pancetta onto the skewer, followed by a piece of pork loin, pepper, courgette and then sausage. Repeat this sequence once more, finishing the end of the kebab off with a piece of pancetta. This amount of ingredients should make about 8 kebabs. You’ll want two kebabs per person, unless extra hungry.

To cook, lightly brush the kebabs with olive oil and sprinkle generously with rosemary and thyme. Season each kebab with salt and pepper, then place on a hot griddle or over barbecue coals. Cook the kebabs for 10 to 15 minutes, turning and basting regularly. When cooked, sprinkle with a little extra thyme and a drizzle of olive oil and serve with more Mediterranean vegetables.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Just Gelato

I don’t know which came first; gelato or the passeggiata? Perhaps one was invented to accompany the other because taking a stroll on a summer’s evening in Italy now seems unthinkable without a quick visit to the gelateria (ice-cream parlour). I live in a small town. There’s one gelateria and somewhere in the region of a dozen bars and café’s that sell ice-cream. I seldom make it past the first corner before the children force a pit stop for a cone. We’re not the only ones of course. According to a recent survey, a whopping 95% of the Italian population likes ice-cream. Who the other 5% are, I don’t know – I’ve never met an Italian who doesn’t like ice-cream.

Of course, I’m talking about artisan ice-cream here – not something that comes whizzing out of a machine or something you buy from the frozen section of the supermarket or something that adheres to a stick and pops out of a packet! Artisan ice-cream was invented in Italy some time in the 17th century, exactly when food historians are unsure. The English term, ‘ice-cream’, first appeared in a 1672 document from the court of Charles II, and the first printed recipes appeared in Naples and in France in the latter part of the 17th century.

There was a time in Italy when gelato meant milk, cream, eggs, sugar and very little else. Flavourings were natural - fruit, chocolate, the occasional nut – and colourants were non-existent! It would be wonderful to be able to say that nothing’s changed. But the signs ‘Produzione Propria’ or ‘Produzione Artiginale’ are a clear indicator that times have changed. Sickly sweet, industrially-produced ice-creams, masquerading as the real deal, are now sadly a fact of life and it takes to be something of an ice-cream-sleuth to be able to differentiate between the good and the not so great. But luckily the demand for the genuine article in Italy is such that there remain a few good men who insist on doing things the right way. Artisan producers still make gelato without the assistance of artificial flavourings, preservatives or colours. It’s just a question of finding them!

In the summer, one out of three Italians eats ice-cream between four and five times a week, 55% preferring it in the afternoon and 47% after dinner – the hours of the customary passiagata. In short, we eat ice-cream when it’s hot! My children, on the other hand, are not so fussy – they’ll say ‘yes’ to ice-cream whatever the weather might be doing. My younger son Giuliano follows the herd – he always opts for chocolate, Italy’s most popular flavour. My older son Massimo is much more adventurous – he’s experimented with them all and isn’t entirely satisfied unless he has a combination of at least three flavours protruding from the top of the cone. Personally, I’m a fan of the classics – panna (cream), pistachio and occasionally strawberry – but seldom all at once. A final little titbit for you; Italians like to eat their ice-cream cone slowly, taking on average 7 minutes… truth be told, mine never seems to last quite that long! 

Strawberry, pistachio and cream ice cream
Gelato alla fragola, pistacchio e panna

I have to say that very few Italians admit to making their own ice-cream. It’s too readily available, I guess? However, there’s something to be said for knowing exactly what’s in your ice-cream and the best way to know that is to do it yourself. Making ice-cream is a relatively straightforward process and if you’ve never tried it, give it a go - you’ll be surprised how easy it is and how wonderful it can taste!

Serves 8
Preparation time: 10 minutes + chilling
Cooking time: 5-7 minutes

1 lt double cream
150g caster sugar
6 egg yolks
50g unsalted pistachio nuts
250g strawberries

Divide the cream, caster sugar and egg yolks into 3 equal quantities.  To make the plain ice cream, place the cream over a medium heat and bring to a gentle boil.  Add the sugar and stir until dissolved.  Place the egg yolks in a bowl, whisk together and then slowly pour over the cream, whisking all of the time.  Pour the mixture into an ice-cream maker and follow machine instructions.

To make the pistachio ice cream, place the shelled nuts into a food processor and process until very fine.  Add the nuts to the cream and then bring to the boil.  Then follow the process described for making the plain ice cream. 

To make the strawberry ice cream, blend the strawberries to make a puree and then add this to the cream and sugar mixture before pouring over the egg yolks.  Again, finish the recipe by following the process described for making plain ice cream.

Before serving, scatter a few chopped pistachios and wild strawberries over the top.

TIP: For a lighter version you can substitute 250ml of cream for whole milk. Mix the milk and cream together before separating to use in the recipes.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Agriturismo – the Good, the Bad and the not necessarily Ugly

Last year, for a change from the annual summer pilgrimage to the beach, we decided to treat our children to a taste of the ‘good life’ – a week’s stay in a Tuscan agriturismo.  I didn’t do my homework properly and what we got wasn’t exactly a hands-on experience of life in a working Italian farmstead – what an agriturismo should provide – but rather, five days in a characterless apartment two kilometres up a dirt track away from what was supposed to be the main farm but was in fact an excuse for a restaurant during the day and an abandoned building at night. The Dutch couple in the apartment next to ours didn’t seem to mind – just living on a hill must have been novelty enough for them.

 “Don’t let your children throw things in the pool”, the owner said, as he gave us the guided tour. “If you want breakfast you’ll have to order it a day in advance so I can notify the bakery. The restaurant’s only open for lunch and do feel free to use whatever you want from the vegetable garden”. Then, just before leaving, he handed us his mobile contact number and one final piece of advice: “remember, nothing in the pool”!

As it turned out the Italian family that stayed in the apartment before us had harvested everything remotely edible from the narrow strip of an excuse for a vegetable garden. I assume that they too had felt cheated and were seeking compensation in whatever way they could find. We ate once at the restaurant and the food was reasonably good. However, it was over-priced and nothing that was on offer was produced on the non-existent farm. As it happens, even the prettily packaged artisan conserves sold on site were actually made off site. Although there was a pool and a Jacuzzi (which, incidentally, didn’t work), there was no sign of a working farm – indeed there was very little evidence even of the farmer – he lived in a house on the other side of the valley. After 5 days we’d had enough and left. That’s the Bad.

There are an estimated 20,000 agriturismi in Italy. In the past 10 years their number has almost doubled (up by 90%), with Tuscany leading the way with over 4,000, followed by Alto Adige. Despite Italy’s economic woes, every indication suggests the trend is set to continue. When I arrived in Castell’Arquato 7 years ago I knew of one agriturismo situated 10 kilometres from my door in the town of Vernasca. Today there are as many as 10 within a five minute drive. 

The idea of coupling farming and tourism originated as a response to the decline in the 1950s and continuing through the 1970s in small scale farming. As profits eroded, farmers abandoned their holdings and took flight to the cities in search of work. In 1985, in an attempt to halt the trend, a law was passed which enabled farmers to supplement their income with tourism. The law saw the birth of the agriturismo.

Intended as a means to reunite city dwellers with the countryside whilst at the same time providing a financial incentive to safeguard traditional agricultural practices that were in danger of being lost, no one could argue with the spirit of the law. City folk could pick fruit, tend to the animals, help in a country kitchen, learn how to make cheese or water the vegetable patch, knowing that by doing so they’d not only be having a good time, they’d also be helping to foster organic farming practices, help preserve indigenous breeds of livestock, antique varieties of fruit and vegetables and support artisan cheese and salami makers. That’s the Good, and sometimes the Ugly.

When the law was first passed in 1985 to allow farmers to open their doors to tourists, government grants were awarded as an incentive to do so. Herein lay the problem. Some farm owners saw this as an opportunity to cash in. In short, tourism was the primary motivating factor and the farm was maintained (if even that) merely as a façade to disguise what is nothing more than a glorified restaurant. In one case I’ve even heard that the proprietor used the grant allocated to refurbish a dilapidated ancestral family home. He then registered the business in the Yellow Pages, as was the law, and promptly told anyone that happened to call that the establishment was booked solid for the foreseeable future. After 3 months few people bothered calling anymore!

So how do you separate the fraudsters from the genuine article?  How do you tell from the Good, the Bad and the not necessarily Ugly?

  • As for the latter, it’s important to point out that an agriturismo is supposed to be a working farm. Appearances can be deceptive and it’s not necessarily the case that mud and manure equates to a Bad agriturismo. It may be Ugly (and smell a little), but that’s often a good sign that the farmer is following the letter of the law. So the first rule is choose a farm where the given agricultural activity is actually visible and that activity, whatever it may be, is run by the farmer and his family.

  • True farmers are passionate, knowledgeable and proud of what they do and most will appreciate any interest that is shown. Most will also be more than happy to demonstrate their skills and experience. And all genuine farmers, from my experience, tend actually to live on the farm!

  • A further clue is always on the menu. Ask if any of the dishes are based on ingredients grown or produced on the farm? Ask if they bake their own bread, make their own conserves, grow their own vegetables, rear their own meat, make their own cheese, hams, sausages or salami? Check also that dishes are seasonal and local – if the restaurant is only cooking Barilla pasta covered in a jar of sauce, then there’s something wrong. Not that I have anything against Barilla, but if I want a bowl of dried pasta, I’ll make it at home. 

  • Finally ask the farmer about what recreational activities the farm has to offer. A wandering donkey is not evidence of a working farm and although a pool might offer welcome respite from the Summer sun, if that’s all they can offer, find a hotel!
I’d be most interested in hearing your stories, your experiences – whether good, bad or ugly! In the mean time, the owner of one good agriturismo that I had the fortune to stay in once gave me a great piece of advice. To separate the wheat from the chaff, ask if they bake their own bread or make home made cakes for breakfast? If they do, it’s always a sign that you are on the right track. So here’s the recipe for an Italian country classic.

Country ring cake
Ciambella Rustica

I’ve eaten some great meals at true agriturismi in and around the country and the menu always differs depending on where you happen to be. However, one thing that I’ve found is that most good agriturismi will often prepare a cake or tart of sorts for breakfast. The three most common are the ciambella rustica, the crostata or the torta di frutta (the fruit depending on whatever’s in season). Simple to prepare, in the countryside a slice of ciambella or tart is often eaten as an alternative to brioche. Ciambella tends to be dry and when eaten for breakfast is usually accompanied with a caffelatte.  It’s also eaten at the end of a meal, most often on Sunday’s with a glass of white wine, or as a mid-afternoon snack for the children after school.

Makes 1 26cm ring cake
Preparation time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 40-45 minutes

400g self raising flour
180g caster sugar
160g unsalted butter at room temperature
3 free-range eggs
150ml tepid milk
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

This cake is simplicity itself… just throw all the ingredients into a large bowl and whisk together well!  Grease and dust a ring-shaped baking tin with flour and add the cake mix.  Bake in a pre-heated oven at 180°C for 40-45 minutes.  If you wish, you can decorate the top of the cake with sugar sprinkles or chocolate drops; simply sprinkle these on top of the cake before baking. Once cooked, allow to cool on a baking rack.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Popular Bites

It’s official. A poll conducted by YouGov on behalf of Holiday Hypermarket (, a UK-based holiday comparison site, has found that for Britain’s, Italy’s cuisine is the most popular in Europe.  In a poll of over 2,000 UK residents, 30% said that Italy has the best national cuisine. It’s most popular among the younger generation, with 42% of respondents between the ages of 18-24 preferring Italian food to other European cuisines. Although both men and women prefer Italian food overall, Italian food is more popular with women than men (33% versus 27%).

The second most popular food is British. 22% of respondents most prefer British food, 12% prefer French food, 6% Spanish and 3% Greek. Food has become synonymous with travel. Calum MacDonald, Marketing Manager at Holiday Hypermarket says: “Food is an integral part of any trip abroad, and sharing meals with your fellow travellers is often where memories are made. There are so many fantastic foods in Europe that it can be hard to decide where to visit, so we thought we’d make it easier and find out which cuisines people like the best.”

Gastrotourism is nothing new to Italy. Italians have always seen food as an important and integral aspect of a holiday. Italian food lends itself to this way of thinking. The diversity of the country’s cuisine is such that Italians will travel to a certain destination often with the specific aim of eating particular dishes and specialties that they can’t eat at home.

The results of the survey, in my opinion, don’t come as much of a surprise. But then as an Italian food blogger and writer, I probably would say that. The real question for me is; what is it about Italian food that makes it so popular?  Pizza and pasta are no doubt a winning combination, one whose popularity extends well beyond Europe’s borders. But there’s more to Italian food than that. For me, Italian food wins over time and time again because it’s a cuisine that’s easy to live with. We keep things simple, we keep it seasonal and we keep it local. But more than this, what makes Italian food stand out for me is the experience of eating. In Italy, even the most simple dish of pasta is always more than just the sum of the ingredients on the plate. It’s always an experience. And I’m not alone in thinking this way. I suspect I could find something in the region of 55 million of my neighbours who will agree with me. As for whoever is reading this, tell me what you think: what makes Italian cuisine special for you?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Goat’s cheese, dogs, pasta and the sound of music

‘Don’t get out of the car’, Roberto warned, ‘toot the horn, I’ll come and get you’.
‘Sure, I got it’ I replied, hurriedly scribbling directions. Carlo, who was standing next to me, was mumbling something in thick Piacentine dialect about being eaten by dogs and I couldn’t make out what Roberto was saying. Did he say turn left or right after the town?
‘Do you want to drive’? I asked Carlo, with a tone that said shut it old man. He didn’t take the hint.
‘Stay in the car’, Roberto repeated for the umpteenth time and put the phone down. I’m no stranger to the Cisa Pass, a winding mountain road in the Apennines that connects the provinces of Parma in Emilia Romagna with Pontremoli, a town in the province of Massa-Carrara in Tuscany. I take the pass every year on trips to Pontremoli when I go mushroom picking. That said, the farm we were going to supposedly was off the beaten path – well off!

It doesn’t take much to coax me to go on a road trip – especially when there’s cheese involved. Good goat’s cheese is much prized in Italy, especially those made by small artisan producers and it’s generally better to buy direct from source. Plus, when Carlo offered to throw in lunch at Da Giovanni, a restaurant/ hotel just outside Pontremoli, I didn’t hesitate. The pasta, always home made, is an absolute favourite of mine. When in season they make a tagliatelle with fresh porcini mushrooms that is hard to beat. Local specialties of the Lunigiana such as testaroli (a type of pancake served with a pesto sauce) and herb pie are also excellent. On this occasion I opted for lasagnette (small ribbons of pasta) served with a meat ragù. It didn’t disappoint. The food was everything I remembered it to be. Giovanni’s food defies time.

By 2.30 we were on the road again and starting the winding 1,040 meter (3,414 feet) ascent to the top of the Cisa Pass. Records of the road date back to 109BC. In medieval times, it was one of the main thoroughfares for pilgrims on their way from northern Europe to Rome. You could say we were pilgrims of a kind – the Holy Grail of cheese.

After 10 kilometres of constantly winding road I began to regret that third… I mean second… bowl of pasta! Roberto’s directions to the farm were good but we still managed to miss our turn off. We doubled back a few miles down the road, passed it again and eventually took a left hand turn that led to nowhere. I crumpled up the useless directions, scowled at Carlo and looked for signs of life. An old lady hanging her washing told us we should have turned right.

The Mulino della Vaccarezza farm is situated at the very bottom of a steep valley. As we crept slowly down the hill I opened the passenger side window. Carlo, who has a thing about dogs, almost had a fit! Porco mariana and a string of obscenities followed. As we pulled up outside the gate I was still laughing. Immediately, out of habit more than foolish bravado, I opened the door. I couldn’t see the dog but the growl was enough. I slammed the door shut, checked my window was closed and tooted the horn. By the time Roberto arrived five very large dogs were circling our wagon. We were surrounded.

Roberto and his partner Elena make goat and sheep’s milk cheese and salami. The bulk of what he makes he sells to a couple of nearby restaurants. What’s left he sells direct to the public from the farm – to anyone able to find the place and get past the dogs that is. But once you’ve tasted his cheese, the risk of being eaten seems a small price to pay. He beckons towards the small farmhouse and we follow quickly, the dogs on our tail. I’m forty years younger than Carlo but the 80-year-old still makes it through the door two steps ahead of me. Inside it’s dim and cool – the perfect conditions for cheese. We each buy three medium-sized rounds for ourselves and Carlo buys what’s left to fill the orders from his neighbours. A few would just have to wait until our next trip.

Back outside the dogs have been joined by a crowd of goats. Several are sniffing around my car – one has its nose in the boot and is eating through Carlo’s emergency supply of sandwiches. Roberto pays it no attention. Somewhat eccentric, he starts barking orders to one of the dogs, a border collie, in heavily-accented English. Apparently the dog was trained back in England and to this day only responds to instructions in English. Despite Roberto’s less than fluent command of the language the dog understands and enthusiastically bounds off up a steep slope to retrieve the rest of the herd. Within moments the valley comes alive – not exactly with the sound of music – but goat’s bells.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A car loaded with Grana Padano

Every couple of weeks I get in the car and drive the 5 or 6 kilometres to a local cheese producer to buy a kilo or two of fresh cheese – more specifically, Grana. A hard, long-keeping cheese, it’s difficult to imagine where the Italian kitchen would be without Grana. We grate it fresh over our pasta every day of the week, use it as an ingredient in stuffing and sometimes we just eat it in chunks as a snack. Simply put, we can’t do without it!

There are probably over a dozen producers of Grana Padano within a 10 kilometre radius of my house. Yet I always go to the same producer. It’s like a dentist – when you find a good one, you stick with them. My neighbour Carlo took me over 5 years back to try this particular cheese. It was good and I have been going back ever since. And I’m not the only one that thinks so. Yesterday when I mentioned to Carlo that I had to go and get some cheese he immediately said he’d like to tag along. By the morning, another 4 of our neighbours who’d passed by the bar had placed an order with Carlo. Buying direct from the producer is cheaper than buying from the supermarket and you can choose the specific producer you want to buy from. Plus, there’s the added bonus that someone else was going to do the leg work – on this occasion, that someone is me. I don’t mind. The way I see it, I’m doing my part for ethical eating – I’m buying local and I’m saving 5 other would-be cheese shoppers from making the same journey. ‘That’ll be twelve kilos of Grana, please’. 

To find out more about shopping for grana padano, click on the shopper’s basket to the right.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Fish Soup

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that there are more variations on zuppa di pesce (fish soup) in Italy than there are fish in the sea. Many restaurants won’t list zuppa di pesce on their menus. They will call it by its regional name, thereby differentiating it from all other, invariably inferior, fish soups. Brodetto, buridda, quadaru, guazzetto, cacciucco, ciuppin are just a handful of the more commonly used names. But, all told, it’s just fish soup!

With the sheer variety of fish on offer in the country, coupled with regional, provincial and town loyalties, everyone thinks that they hold the secret to the best fish soup. It’s a subject of much heated debate. Italians not only argue about how best a fish soup should be cooked, in places they even argue about how it’s spelled! In Livorno in northern Tuscany the local variation of fish soup, cacciucco, is spelled with 5 ‘C’s. Travel just a few miles further down the coast and it’s often spelled with just 4 ‘C’s. Some say this is a deliberate slant designed to irritate and provoke the neighbours – and it works!  

The one broad generalization that can be made about all fish soups in Italy is that they are a legacy of Italian cucina povera – poor people’s food or peasant food. In its original form, fish soup would always have been made with a variety of different fish, sometimes up to 13 types, and with fish of less commercial value. Most fish soups were the creation of fishermen who would sell the more prestigious fish and use what was leftover to make a soup.

Recipes abound. In Sicily it’s often made with capers and olives. In Liguria, herbs and pine nuts are often added. In Romagna, peas are used and it is made sometimes with tomatoes and sometimes without. Italians can and do argue passionately over who makes the best fish soup – I’ve witnessed this on more than one occasion. The fact of the matter is there is no secret ingredient and there are no hard-and-fast rules. 

My advice is simply to use the best fish available – and by that I don’t mean expensive, I mean the freshest! The key in the cooking is to add the fish, in sequence, according to cooking times. Again, depending on the type of fish used, the cooking time will vary – so it does require a little experimentation. However, although the dish may look elaborate, like all good Italian food it’s actually very simple. 

Fish Soup
Zuppa di pesce

Serves 4
Preparation time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes

700g fish pieces (such as sea bass, scorpion fish, shark, monkfish, sea bream)
10 prawns
6 squid
500g mussels (already cleaned)
350g clams (already cleaned)
250ml finely chopped plum tomatoes
100g fresh peas
150ml dry white wine
2 garlic cloves
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

For this recipe you will need a saucepan large enough to fit all the fish and shellfish with a tight fitting lid.  Begin by cleaning and preparing your fish – discarding any mussels or clams with broken shells. Cut the larger fish into pieces (not too small) and rinse under cold water.  

Heat the olive oil gently in the pan and infuse with the garlic (either left whole or crushed depending on taste).  Next add the fish pieces and the squid, which has been roughly chopped.  Cook these for a few minutes until just turning brown. Next add the white wine and allow this to evaporate for a minute.  Then add the tomatoes and peas and continue to simmer for about five minutes. Finally add the mussels, clams and prawns, cover with the lid and cook for 2-3 minutes. When all the shells have opened the fish is cooked. Finish by adding the chopped parsley.  Serve immediately with bruschetta or crusty ciabatta bread.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Under The Spaghetti Tree: Part 2

Sophia Loren once said that “everything you see, I owe to spaghetti”. It’s a maxim that could well apply to a nation. Virtually every person in the country, whatever their generation, whatever their background, has grown up with spaghetti. A collective memory, spaghetti is intrinsic to the national psyche. It is one of the few great unifying forces in a country of regional dialects.

A few miles from where I live, just outside Parma, there’s a huge Barilla pasta factory. As we return from a long journey, it looms up from the side of the road like a beacon and I know we are minutes from home. A few years back Barilla launched an advertising campaign with the catchphrase ‘Dové C’é Barilla, C’è Casa’ – where there is Barilla, there’s home. Like all good advertising campaigns it bore more than a modicum of truth. The sentimental chord struck by the advertisement was the notion that pasta and home are somehow synonymous.

I never did eat spaghetti freshly picked from the spaghetti tree (see my last post) – I just assumed it wasn’t in season.  But that never stopped my mother. On the annual family pilgrimage from the north of Ireland down to the south of Italy my mother would always pack a few packets of spaghetti in the boot of the car for the trip – enough to get us from Belfast to the outskirts of Naples. At the time it never occurred to me how odd we must have looked to other motorists passing by: three children sitting around a fold-up table in a lay-by somewhere on the other side of Dublin watching as my mother, stooped over a camper’s stove,  ladled spaghetti onto plastic plates while my father grated pecorino cheese directly over the top. We were eating spaghetti cacio e pepe (the classic spaghetti with pecorino and pepper), but to my brother, sister and I at the time, it was just ‘spaghetti cheese’.  

Spaghetti was just as much a part of my childhood as bedtime stories, the school playground and Saturday night baths. We must have looked every bit the mangiamaccheroni – macaroni eaters – who used to eat spaghetti with their hands on the streets of Naples (we used forks, of course!). The invention of the mechanised press in the latter part of the 18th century meant that dried pasta, for the first time, could be produced in large quantities and at lower cost. The population of Naples was rising rapidly and the people were hungry. In a few short years, pasta secca (dried pasta) became the symbol of the city. It was cucina povera (poor people’s food) for the masses. In 1840 the first industrial pasta plant opened in Torre Annunziata, just south of Naples. A few years later, in 1844, the first recipe for pasta with a tomato sauce appeared in a Neapolitan cookbook.

Versatile, inexpensive and nutritious, the craze that defined a city quickly engulfed a nation. Large industrial dried pasta factories in Liguria and Sicily shipped pasta to every port in the country. A string of others were soon established in and around Naples. And Italians, a nation of emigrants, carried it with them in their suitcases to every corner of the globe. I like to think of my grandparents, years ago when they first came to Ireland, disembarking from a ship onto Belfast docks, a strange and unfamiliar city, with nothing but the clothes they owned and a few packets of spaghetti – a taste of home.

Spaghetti with Pecorino Cheese and Ground Black Pepper

Spaghetti cacio e pepe

The origins of this classic dish are disputed. It is popularly considered of Roman origin but both the Sicilians and the Neapolitans claim that it was in fact invented either on the streets of Palermo or Naples. There may be some truth in the claims. The mangiamaccheroni of Naples would have eaten their pasta simply, straight from the cauldron and certainly without the addition of tomato sauce (which came later). Pecorino cheese was common to the city and it may well have been added to the pasta as a dressing for flavour, as might pepper.

Wherever it came from, this dish is as simple as dried pasta gets (so easy, in fact, it can hardly be called a recipe!). There are variations on the dish. Some advocate not using any extra virgin olive oil. Others suggest using an equal mix of pecorino cheese and parmesan. In the north of Italy a similar dish is made using butter instead of oil and just parmesan cheese. Personally I prefer the following recipe but that’s just a question of taste.

Serves 4
Preparation time:  5 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes

320g spaghetti
250g semi-mature pecorino cheese, grated
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Add the pasta and cook until just al dente. Once the pasta is cooked, drain, reserving a small amount (a few tablespoons) of the cooking water. Place the pasta back in the pot and add the water, the olive oil, the cheese and plenty of black pepper. Toss well and serve immediately (for a truly authentic Neapolitan experience, try eating with your hands!).

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Under The Spaghetti Tree: Part I

As a child I used to believe that spaghetti grew on trees and that Marco Polo brought it to Italy from China. As we drove through the Italian countryside during our summer holidays, I remember the excitement in the backseat as my brother, sister and I searched for the first sighting of the supposedly ubiquitous spaghetti tree. My father, something of a practical joker, had something I’m sure to do with perpetuating the myth. I had visions of playing beneath a chandelier of spaghetti as my mother picked the choicest strands and threw them directly into a pot of boiling water. For obvious reasons, the proverbial tree proved illusive - we had to settle for olive groves - but it was great fun nonetheless!

The fact is, no one can say for certain where spaghetti originated or how long a history it has (maybe it does grow on trees!). Children today are more food savvy. My eldest son Massimo, who’s 8 now, knew almost immediately that I was pulling his leg when I resurrected the myth on a drive down to Naples last summer. He said: “Daddy you’re joking, right? Spaghetti doesn’t grow on trees, it comes from Barilla”. From the corner of my eye I did, however, catch my younger son Giuliano, sneaking an exploratory peek out the window.

Of course, the popular myth that Marco Polo brought it home from his travels was debunked many years ago (at about the same time someone also discounted the notion that it grows on trees). Since then, theories have abounded but the fact is that no one knows how long the history of spaghetti spans. Its origins are intertwined with the history of pasta which is lost in time. Part of the problem is one of terminology. The word ‘spaghetti’, if not the product, is of relatively recent origin. It was only in the early 1800s that it came into popular usage. The word most used in the Middle Ages, in generic fashion for all forms of pasta, was maccheroni – spelt in as many different ways probably as it was cooked. The earliest record found thus far of the word spaghetti is in a dictionary of Italian dialect, coincidentally here in my home province of Piacenza, which was published in 1836. It wasn’t until 10 years later, in 1846, that the word spaghetti was first recorded in a mainstream dictionary, where it was equated with vermicelli. Even today, in parts of Italy, particularly in the south, the words vermicelli and spaghetti are used to describe the same thing.

Myths, origins and etymological considerations aside, spaghetti as a staple of the masses didn’t become popular until the latter part of the 19th century. Its rise coincided with the introduction of the extrusion press and subsequent technological developments which simplified the laborious process of producing the long thin strands. Today some estimates suggest that spaghetti accounts for something in the region of two-thirds of the world’s consumption of pasta. Dishes such as spaghetti alla carbonara, spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams), spaghetti al pomodoro (spaghetti with tomto sauce), spaghetti, aglio, olio e peperoncino (spaghetti with garlic, oil and chilli peppers) have gained world renown and come to symbolise a nation, a people and its food.
As for myself, I’m going to go out and pick some spaghetti for lunch – I’ll take a look under the tree in the garden and if that fails, I suppose I’ll go to the shops.

Spaghetti with garlic, olive oil and chilli pepper
Spaghetti, aglio, olio e peperoncino

Serves 4
Preparation time:  5 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes

320g spaghetti
2 cloves garlic (or more, to taste)
1 fresh chilli or 1 tsp dried chilli flakes (again, more or less to taste)
6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
A handful chopped fresh parsley

Place the oil in a deep-sided frying pan. Heat gently and add the garlic finely sliced and the chopped chilli. Allow it to warm through and infuse very gently until the pasta is cooked. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and add the spaghetti. Cook until just al dente. Drain the pasta and throw it into the frying pan. Turn up the heat for just a few seconds while you thoroughly toss the pasta. Sprinkle over freshly chopped parsley and serve immediately.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Knowing Your Porcini Mushrooms

Today’s shopping basket is filled with porcini mushrooms. Admittedly, it’s not mushroom season yet but since dried porcini means that we never have to go without, I thought I’d jump the gun and raise a subject that’s very close to my heart. It’s a cautionary tale. Not all dried porcini are equal and it helps to know what you are looking for. So, for a few tips on finding the best, click on the shopping basket to your right.

While I'm here, if there are any Italian food products you’d particularly like to hear about, please feel free to let me know. Also, if you have any shopping stories to tell, pictures you might like to show or tips you want offer, again feel free to send them in my direction. I’m always shopping for new ideas!!!

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Italian Shopping Basket

Food shopping is one of my favourite pastimes. Browsing the stalls of a local artisan food market, visiting traditional alimentari (grocery stores) bursting at the seams with regional specialties, tasting what’s on offer in the makeshift store of a local producer, even scanning the shelves of the supermarket, food shopping for me is a perpetual quest for the best ingredients. Eating has to be about more than just the finished dish and food shopping is part of the experience.

For all of us, it’s a balancing act. Italy is an expensive country and the issue of cost always, unfortunately, has to be taken into consideration. Quality standards, such as the EU’s food classification scheme, help us to make informed decisions, yet often with the unwanted consequence of driving up price. But without some system of standards, the unwary shopper shops blind.

Trite though it may sound, the first rule of shopping today is ‘Always Read the Label’. Appearances can be deceptive. I’ve been stung on numerous occasions, returning home with products that frankly were not what they seemed and not what I wanted.

This new addition to my blog is a shopper’s companion. Whether you are here in Italy or abroad, whether you are shopping at the local supermarket or in an Italian specialty store, I’m going to take you through the best the country has to offer. From what to buy (what not to buy), when to buy it (when not to buy it), where to buy it (and where not) and what to do with it when you buy it, this is a no-holds, honest and candid guide for the Italian food shopper. Welcome to the Italian Shopping Basket!

To view today's shopping basket, white asparagus, click on the shopper's icon to the right.  

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Gnocchi – the other pasta

An editor in the UK once advised me that English readers were not particularly fond of gnocchi and that I should consider carefully before including a recipe in a book proposal I was preparing. She never explained why she thought so.

The conversation stuck in my mind. How could someone object to gnocchi? On what grounds did she base her claim? I came to the conclusion that perhaps she’d suffered what’s termed a ‘gnocchi meltdown’ – one of those moments when gnocchi magically disappear once plunged into boiling water, the result of having added too little flour to the mix. It can be frustrating (not to mention embarrassing), particularly if you have four hungry guests waiting in the next room for their first course! Not that that’s ever happened to me - I’m not the one with a grudge against gnocchi. 

Gnocchi are essentially a kind of dumpling and are closely linked to pasta. Most commonly made with potato and flour, they can also be made from a mixture of breadcrumbs or cornmeal with or without flour, or semolina or polenta. Often herbs or vegetables or cheeses comprise part of the mix. They can take different forms but generally they are about the size of a thimble, and are usually given a characteristic shape by rolling the dough briefly against the back of a fork or a grater or other such means. This helps the gnocchi to hold the sauce better.

The dumplings are cooked in boiling salted water and then dressed with a sauce in more or less the same manner as pasta. In some areas they are then baked for a short period in the oven – as in gnocchi alla romana. The most simple of sauces is butter and grated cheese, usually parmesan, sometimes with sage added. Other popular sauces include the ubiquitous tomato sauce, gorgonzola cheese sauce or a basil pesto but the variations are virtually endless.

Despite their popularity throughout the whole of Italy, there’s very little known about the origins of gnocchi except that they were probably linked with the history of pasta. This is due to the fact that many old cookery books referred to both as ‘m’caroni’ – as in ‘macaroni’ - coupled with the fact that similar ingredients and methods were used to make both. Older versions of gnocchi were made from a simple mixture of flour and water. One of the first mentions of the use of potatoes in the mix dates to the 1860s.

I’ve tried various supermarket varieties of gnocchi but they just aren’t the same. Often a potato flour is used which, as anyone who has eaten the home made version will likely tell you, just doesn’t achieve the same texture or taste as real potatoes. Making good gnocchi at home is simple and once you’ve mastered the knack, it makes for a very quick and economical dish. The key is finding a good quality floury potato. It’s also best to steam the potatoes as the last thing you want is a watery potato! Although recipe books will advise as to how much flour should be added, it’s best not to be too prescriptive. The type of potato used – as in how much water it absorbs in the cooking process – will affect the amount of flour required. With practice, gnocchi can easily be made without scales or measurements – it’s simply a question of adding flour until you have achieved the desired consistency. The following recipe, my grandmother’s, has proven a faithful companion for years and is a good basis to start from.

Gnocchi with a basil red sauce

Serves 4-6
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour

For the gnocchi
1kg floury potatoes
400g plain white flour
50g parmesan cheese

For the sauce
1 small onion
2 cloves garlic
500ml tomato passata
1 teaspoon sugar
A good handful of fresh basil leaves
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt & freshly ground black pepper

To make the sauce, finely chop the onion and add to a heavy-based pot with the garlic cloves and 3 or 4 tablespoons of olive oil.  Soften for 5 minutes and then add the tomato passata and a teaspoon of sugar.  Season with salt and pepper and simmer over a very gentle heat for about one hour. Do not stir. Add plenty of roughly torn basil leaves just before serving.

To make the gnocchi, boil the potatoes in a large pot of salted water.  When cooked, drain well and mash by passing through a potato ricer. Let the potatoes cool for a few minutes before continuing.  Place the flour on a large board or work surface, make a well in the centre and add the potato and finely grated parmesan cheese.  Gently work the flour and potatoes together with your fingertips and quickly knead together to form a smooth dough.  Rip off pieces of dough, roughly the size of a tangerine and roll with your hands into a long ‘snake’ about 1cm thick.  Don’t be afraid to dust the dough with additional flour as you work to stop it from sticking.  Cut the snake into 2cm pieces and roll each of the gnocchi over the back of a fork, pressing down gently with your thumb to create a small indentation.  To cook the gnocchi bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and add the gnocchi. When the gnocchi float to the surface they are ready (this will only take a couple of minutes, so have your sauce ready). Remove with a slotted spoon into a large serving bowl and add the tomato sauce.  Serve with extra freshly grated parmesan cheese.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Imbottigliare – Bottle up

As I make our way down along the long narrow, poorly illuminated corridor I can hear bottles clanking. I turn the corner and immediately I’m hit with the distinctive smell of musty grapes. Carlo’s already at work. We have over a dozen demijohns to siphon and bottle – a few bottles shy of a thousand – so there’s no time to waste.

Everyone that lives in the provinces bottles their own wine. Whether you make it yourself or buy it from one of the dozens of small cantine within a 10-minute drive from home, bottling is an annual ritual. Two makes bottling light work. Like a conveyor belt, one to act like a pump attendant -filling bottles, from one to the next, using a spotlight so that each bottle is filled to just the right level – the other to place and secure caps, crate up and make space for the next demijohn.

Assuming no spillage, a 28 liter demijohn yields approximately 36 bottles of wine, plus a couple of glasses. Carlo never spills a drop. And the two extra glasses are essential for quality control. Least that’s what Carlo keeps telling me. Having controlled the quality on six demijohns we stop for lunch – everything stops for lunch in Italy.

A bowl of anolini (small stuffed pasta cooked in chicken broth), a pork chop with green salad and another bottle of wine later, we resume. The shelves now full, I start filling empty wine crates. By mid afternoon we move on to the white wine – more bottles and more quality control. The wines in Piacenza seldom ever receive more than a passing reference in international wine circles. Guttornio, a dry local red, is more often than not served slightly fizzy and chilled. The predominant local white, ortrugo, is also dry and sparkling. Few of the wines produced in the province ever travel beyond its border. Wines more suited to ‘quaffing’ than serious consideration, is the standard response from the wine elite.

There may be an element of truth in that, although times have changed and under the radar some seriously good wines are now being produced in the province. But that’s another story and one that, no doubt, I’ll come back to at a later date. However, for now, it is probably fair to say that for many locals wine is seen as lubrication (albeit a very pleasing lubrication) for the not so humble food that is served on a daily basis. But it’s lubrication not without purpose. It’s lubrication that feeds a tradition. There was a time when it would have been inconceivable to imagine a meal in Italy without wine on the table. For the most part that wine would seldom have cost more than the time and effort required to tend to a vine, crush grapes and siphon the product into a bottle. And for the most part it would probably have been bottled within shouting distance of the table. What makes that wine special is not the label – should someone ever have bothered to attach one – but what it has always represented: a way of life.  

Monday, April 9, 2012

Pasquetta - The ‘Little Easter’ picnic

On Easter Monday – known as Pasquetta, or ‘little Easter’ – the tradition in Italy is to go on a picnic. When the weather permits, the long queues at the motorway tolls are a sure sign that that it’s a tradition still very much in vogue.  It’s not unusual for entire city’s to empty, venturing towards the mountains, the countryside or the sea.

Picnic-watching is a favourite pastime of mine. Italians take their picnics very seriously. Easter Monday lunch is an important meal in the Italian festive culinary calendar and just because it happens to be outdoors doesn’t mean it has to equate to anything less than would be eaten at home. It’s quite a spectacle watching families arguing over how to light the fire or standing anxiously over a huge pot of boiling spaghetti.

Personally I like to keep things simple. Leftover roasted lamb from the day before is always an easy option. Add some sliced griddled artichokes, dress with homemade peperoncino oil and a sprinkling of coarse salt and you have the perfect main for eating alfresco. I always bring a large bowl of rice salad. In the 15 minutes it takes to boil the rice, I dice some cooked seasonal vegetables (again, leftovers from Sunday lunch), add some mozzarella, chopped sun-dried tomatoes and ham. A good drizzle of olive oil, some chopped herbs, salt and pepper and the only problem is finding the lid for the large Tupperware bowl.

Eggs, symbolising fertility and rebirth, are an important addition to any meal over the Easter holidays. The tradition dates all the way back to the 4th century, when Christianity became the state religion in Italy and believers would exchange eggs as a gesture of hope and faith.  They are used for both savoury and sweet dishes. One dish that I’m particularly fond of is the torta pasqualina, a savoury tart highly popular in Ligura which is made with seasonal vegetables, a tangy cream cheese and eggs. It was traditionally made with either 33 ingredients or 33 layers of filo-like pastry, one for every year in the life of Jesus. Today it’s made all year round, though the recipe is generally somewhat abbreviated.

It is, however, a great dish for a picnic. It can be made the evening before, wrapped in foil and refrigerated. The recipe that follows is my own take on the dish. In Liguria it is often made with beet greens and quagliata, a tangy curd cheese. However, I prefer to use a mix of seasonal greens such as chard, spinach and beet and a fresh sheep’s milk ricotta (although cow’s milk ricotta works equally well). All that’s left is to throw the blanket, the picnic basket, the painted eggs and a bottle of sparkling white ortrugo in the boot, muster the children and it’s time for a picnic. Buona Pasqua -  Happy Easter!            

Savoury Easter Tart
Torta pasqualina

Makes one 20 x 30cm tart
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour

2 sheets rectangular shaped ready rolled puff pastry
1kg mixed fresh greens (spinach, chard leaves)
250g fresh ricotta cheese
4 eggs
Extra virgin olive oil
1 clove of garlic
30g grated parmesan cheese
Salt & pepper

Hard boil 3 eggs for 8 minutes.  When cooked remove from the pan and rinse under plenty of cold water. Whilst the eggs are cooking wash the greens well and place them in a pot with a tight fitting lid.  Place the pan over a medium heat and allow to wilt (this will take about 5 minutes).  When cooked, drain the greens well, removing as much excess water as possible.  Place 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a frying pan and add the greens with the garlic clove.  Season well and sauté for 5 minutes until all the moisture from the greens has been absorbed. Allow to cool and then mix in the ricotta cheese.

Place one sheet of the ready rolled puff pastry on a lined baking sheet and place the greens and ricotta mixture on top (allowing 2-3cm of a border).  Peel the boiled eggs and cut in half.  Arrange the boiled eggs over the pie and place another sheet of ready rolled puff pastry over the top.  Fold over the edges of the pie and crimp to seal well.  Beat the remaining egg and brush the top of the pie with the egg wash.  Cut a few slits in the top of the pie to allow the steam to escape and bake in a preheated oven at 180°C for approximately 40 minutes. Allow to cool before serving.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Colomba Pasquale

Every feast day in Italy has its traditional sweet treats. Carnival has its fried pastries – chiacchiere - Christmas its Panettone, New Year’s Eve its Pandoro and for Easter, one of the most important days on the Italian culinary calendar, it’s Colomba Pasquale. Similar, although not to be confused with Panettone, this aromatic yeasted sweet-bread is shaped like a dove.

Surprisingly little concrete is known about Colomba Pasquale. Its origins appear to date back to medieval times.  Legend has it that it was first made in Pavia, invented some time during the three-year-siege of the city by the barbarian hordes under the command of King Alboin. One story has it that the city’s defenders shaped the bread in the form of a dove to symbolize the intervention of the Holy Ghost in battle against the barbarians. Another version suggests it was offered as a token of peace to King Alboino after the city fell. Evidence to support either version of the story, it has to be said, is slim. What can be said with certainty is that whilst it did originate somewhere in the province of Pavia, today it has assumed something of a national status.

This morning, when I arrived just after 4 a.m. at La Casa del Pane for a master class on the art of making Colomba, my local artisan baker, Franco Filograsso, was already several hours into his shift. Making Colomba in the traditional fashion is a time-consuming process. In fact, Franco had started two days earlier with selective risings of the natural yeast starter. Today, it’s just a question of a final mixing of the dough, adding the candied peel, cutting and skillfully shaping the pastry into its distinctive dove-like shape, dressing the top with the traditional topping of egg yolk, sugar and almonds and finally into the oven. A short while later the air is filled with the unmistakable aroma of 200 freshly baked Colomba cakes, signaling to anyone who happens by that Easter is on its way.

You should easily be able to find artisan Colomba cakes in good bakeries in the run up to Easter. Boxed versions from producers such as Motta, Bauli and Tre Marie are also sold in most supermarkets and Italian specialty stores and are generally quite good. In addition to the traditional version, new varieties are now widely available, some with a custard cream filling, others made with the addition of fruit, cocoa powder or chocolate chip. Traditionally Italians eat Colomba to finish the Easter meal. It is normally enjoyed simply, on its own with a glass of sparkling white wine.

Monday, April 2, 2012

A well deserved 'pick me up' - Tiramisu

There's been something of a deep Spring clean taking place in the Matassa household over the past few weeks. I've borne the brunt of the effort (as always) and so over the weekend Elena decided that I was overdue a pick-me-up for all my efforts. At last, I thought to myself, due recognition. A reward in the Matassa household almost always involves food and this case was no different. Elena rallied the troops (kids) and set them to work.

It was an opportune moment, I have to admit, because the house is not the only thing that was earmarked for something of a Spring clean. Over the next couple of weeks I plan to give the Blog something of a makeover - or perhaps I should say "pick-me-up". Two new regular features are on the cards. The first, which you are about to witness, we will call Bambini in Cucina - or, put another way, Children in the Kitchen. In fact, put another way, my kids - Massimo (8), Giuliano (6) and Milly (1 and a little bit) - in the kitchen.

Today, on their debut appearance, they will be making (me) a tiramisu. I'll come back to you tomorrow on the subject of tiramisu and anyone that doesn't quite catch the recipe from the film that follows, I'll be posting that too. For now, get out the popcorn, find yourself a comfy seat and enjoy the movie (and please feel free to share your thoughts).

P.S. I should point out that not only is this my children's debut screen appearance, but also my directorial debut - so don't expect Spielberg!

Tiramisù – literally “pick me-up” – is an Italian dessert akin to an English trifle, most often made with a base of savoiardi biscuits soaked in espresso coffee (and usually liqueur) and covered with alternate layers of cream made from a mix of mascarpone, eggs and sugar and dusted with cocoa powder.  

The origins of this dish are steeped in uncertainty. The Slow Food Movement believes that it originated rather recently in Treviso in the Veneto, some time in the late 19th century.  However, as is often the case in such matters, both Piedmont and the Tuscans have also staked their claim over authorship. The Tuscans argue that it was invented in the 17th century by patisserie chefs in Siena in anticipation of, and as a tribute to, the arrival of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo de Medici. At the time, they claim, it was known as Zuppa del Duca – or the Duke’s Soup – and so taken was he by the dessert that he brought the recipe with him to Florence where it spread throughout Italy. Legend also has it that it quickly became a favourite amongst the nobles of the court who ascribed it aphrodisiac properties – hence the name, “pick me-up”.

In Turin in Piedmont, however, they tell a different story. The Piemontese claim that it was actually invented by a Turin pastry chef who made the cake in honour of Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, to honour him in his task of unifying Italy.  Alternatively in Veneto it has been claimed that the dish originated in the ‘El Toulà’ restaurant in the town of Treviso.  The restaurant was located near a brothel, so they say, and the dish was invented by a chef at the restaurant specifically to ‘give a lift’!

Whichever story you choose to believe, tiramisù rapidly gained popularity both in Italy and abroad. There are many variations on the recipe. Some use zabaglione as the cream element, some prefer to incorporate strawberries or blueberries between the alternate layers, others add bitter chocolate, some use brandy, others prefer rum. Whichever recipe you use, at its worse tiramisù can be sickly sweet but at its best, sublime. Personally, I find it a wonderful ‘pick me-up’, as the name implies, after a long day’s work. Especially if someone else is making it! The recipe that follows has always worked well – just remember, you might want to omit the brandy if you intend serving it to children.


Serves 8
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: N/A

4 free-range eggs
4 tablespoons caster sugar
250g mascarpone cheese
400g savoiardi biscuits (ladyfingers)
350ml lightly sweetened espresso coffee
2-3 tablespoons dark cocoa powder

Begin by separating the eggs and placing the yolks and whites in large separate bowls.  Whisk the egg whites with an electric beater until stiff peaks have formed and set aside.  Add four tablespoons of sugar to the egg yolks and beat until pale and thick.  To this add the mascarpone cheese (better if the cheese has been left out of the fridge for 30 minutes) and beat everything together well.  Take the beaten egg whites and gently fold these into the mascarpone mixture.  To assemble the dish, take a large dish with high sides (a. 30 x 20 cm), dip the savoiardi biscuits into the coffee one at a time and lay them all along the bottom of the dish.  Add half of the mascarpone cream on top and spread out evenly.  Sift over a few tablespoons of dark cocoa powder.  Add another layer of savoiardi biscuits dipped in espresso, the remainder of the mascarpone cream and finally dust with cocoa powder.  Place in the fridge for at least 6 hours, preferably overnight, before serving.