Sunday, January 22, 2017

Under the Tuscan Sky at Le Mura Villa near Lucca

Under the Tuscan sun has almost become a catch phrase and indeed our summer guests at Le Mura mainly see pure blue skies. The view and the bright bold colours would have been loved by Van Gogh.

However, Our skies have many different variations from rivers of clouds smudging the high peaks.

The huge fluffy white candyfloss clouds trying to invade our valley but held back by the northern Apennines.

A stormy sky is a symphony in itself.

The pellucid summer skies are dotted with little meringues of clouds to rest one's eyes. 

When we first came to Le Mura it was the view which led me to this enchanted place but I never imagined, however changing the canvas would be. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Befana, Italy's friendly Christmas Witch

On 2nd January in many countries, everybody returns reluctantly to work with slightly larger stomachs and a handful of new year resolutions but in Italy, many families if possible extend their holiday until Epiphany. 12th Night for many signifies nothing more than taking down the Christmas decorations and having a good clean up to get rid of all the glitter. In Italy, for the all the children it is another chance for presents.

On the night of the 5th January Befana, the friendly old lady visits all the house with Children to leave gifts. There are many versions of this traditional ancient fable but the one in our family goes as follows.

The three Kings or Magi leave on a long journey following a bright star to carry gifts of gold frankincense and myrrh to the new baby Jesus. On their journey across many realms, they stop at every village to ask for news of the new baby and gather new followers. In one village the Magi are drawn towards the house of an old lady who is busy baking and sweeping her path. the Magi ask for news, but she hasn't heard of this baby and refuses to join the search because she is too busy with her work. The next morning she realises her mistakes and sets off to catch up with the procession still clinging to her broom and with her freshly baked biscuits as a gift for the child. Despite her frantic efforts, she is unable to find the procession and therefore every 5th January during the night, the old lady flies around on her broom leaving gifts for the children. Her skirt is always sooty as she comes down the chimney. It is said that if the children have been naughty they get left coal instead of sweets and biscuits and indeed even today if you are naughty you might find a piece of black sugar made to look like coal instead of toys and candy.

Former generations used to write letters of apology to their parents at Christmas for the year's misdemeanors to avoid missing out on Befana treats but we modern parents are more forgiving! Do try some of the biscuits you will find in the local patisseries or bread shops sprinkled with coloured hundreds and thousands perhaps they are the same recipe that Befana herself used all those thousands of years ago.

 You might just wonder where Befana got her name. Befana is a corruption of the ancient Greek name ἐπιφάνεια, epifáneia, which means the manifestation of Christ to the Three Magis.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Our olive oil harvest with a modern edge at Le Mura Villa Tuscany

I am a little reactionary by nature perhaps due to my background as a conservator. At Le Mura we have harvested our  olive trees every year by hand stripping the olives off the branches, then carefully removing all the sticks and leaves before taking them to one of the very few traditional olives oil presses or Frantoi in our area.  However this year our lovely neighbors decided to help us out and bring our olive oil production up to date.

Well, I may love tradition but a job that takes weeks was finished in days and the oil is perfect, so what did we change?
First, we used a handheld shaker to agitate the trees so that instead of climbing on ladders, Roberto made our little green and black jewels easily drop into the nets. We only had to cut a few branches that were too high and needed pruning. We were then able to gather them all up put them into crates We all went off to the Frantoio or olive press. These open up all over the area during the olive harvest so locals can bring their precious olives. The important thing is to have enough olives to make your own pressing, 200 kilos, otherwise, your olives gets mixed with someone else's, who might have sprayed their trees. If we are going to make our own oil we certainly want it to be organic and all from our own trees.

Roberto took us to the frantoio that he uses, which is a modern one, when I asked why he preferred this one he pointed out that the process was not so open to contamination, therefore,  the yield  is higher and shelf life longer. The oil, in the end,  also contains more phenols, which are what make olive oil so good for you. I felt a little sad not to be off to the old mill but decided I should embrace the experience with enthusiasm and not be set in my ways.

The olives starting their journey
The olives are washed and the stalks and leaves removed
Then ground into a paste, pressed and the centrifuge is used to separate the waste from the oil 
The first filtration 

final filtration.

The oil in our area is very high quality because it has very low acidity and our cold press virgin olive oil certainly deserves its title as the gold of Lucca.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

San Miniato White Truffle Fair

San Miniato is a beautiful medieval village perched on a hill between Pisa and Florence on the Via Francigena. This little gem would be worth a visit at any time of the year but San Miniato has more than artistic and architectural treasures. Its hills hide what could be described as the caviar of the soil, white truffles. These underground fungi are a gastronomic luxury and a mere shaving on a dish creates a unique taste and adds a fortune to the bill.

For the last forty years San Miniato shares and celebrates its strange underground jewel in a festival of Truffles. During these weekends the air hangs heavily with the aroma of truffles and you can buy any type of truffle delicacy from cheeses and salami  flavored with truffles to the virgin fungus itself.    
The Fair runs for the weekends of  12th /13th November 19th/20 November 26th/27th November,   and 3th/4th December.

What I love about this festival is it is for the locals and everyone is there to enjoy themselves and celebrate this extraordinary fungus with reverence and respect. All the truffle hunters nurture the ecology so that this prized rarity can still grow.

How to arrive at San Miniato.
It is just off the Firenze- Pisa -Livorno state road exit marked San Miniato .
There is also a train station in San Miniato Basso.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

How to Cook Perfect Dry Pasta

Fresh Pasta making is quite à la mode at the moment and in our family we tend to make it  at weekends to accompany a Sunday Ragù. The pasta is always made by Enzo and he likes to use ancient traditional wheat flour to create a unique taste. Today 25th October is world pasta day, therefore, I want celebrate it by publishing this post by Enzo singing the praises of the humble dry pasta. This product that in recent years has been maligned for being too fattening and a cheap food only eaten by students and as a quick economical family meal is, in fact, an amazing product and you can create a gourmet dish from it. Dry pasta shouldn't be treated as the poor relation nor as a cheap unnourishing food. For certain dishes dried pasta is essential for example with fish otherwise the dish tends to become gloopy.
Enzo's is our family food writer and cook and in his guest post below adapted from an old publication he reflects on this magical ingredient closest to his heart and tells the tricks for how to buy nourishing durum wheat pasta and cook it to perfection.

How to Cook Perfect dry Pasta

"I still have in my mind my father’s expression in front of a bowl of pasta in a restaurant. ‘Hanno fatto la pasta molla’ (They overcooked the pasta) He said. That sealed the fate of the restaurant. 
Nevertheless sometimes during our meals at home he would appreciate some rather slimy pasta that occasionally arrived at the table. A contradiction? Not really. I worked out that there was a reason for his inconsistency. He enjoyed a good bowl of pasta in a restaurant and expected to have it served “state of the art”. But when it came to sludgy spaghetti at home, his childhood memories resurfaced.

The reason for that is the quality of pasta depends also on its protein content, though he was not aware of this. Before WWII food in Italy was scarce and expensive and people were not really food conscious in the same way  as we are now, so his mother might have unwittingly bought low-grade pasta.
Dry pasta is more traditional in the South of Italy, especially around the Naples region where there are still many very good makers. Until not long ago, and I remember it very well, pasta was sold by the weight and wrapped in beautiful blue paper. Every Salumeria (delicatessen) had its pasta counter where the “pastaio” would serve dozens of different  shapes of pasta.

If you want to serve a state of the art pasta,  the first thing to do is to chose a good dry pasta and to check the protein percentage (pasta is not just carbs !!!) on the label. It must be high and not less then 12,5 %, the higher the better. 14 % is great. It means that the pasta was made with high-quality flour. It also important that it is made with “semola di grano duro”, which means coarsely ground durum wheat. Good quality pasta is tastier and as the Italians say ‘tiene la cottura’, meaning that the pasta doesn’t turn into a gelatinous mass. Top quality pasta has the dough drawn through a traditional bronze machine, that means that the pasta surface is rugged and when eaten has a texture. This information is also stated on the packaging (Trafilati al bronzo).

I have cooked a bowl of spaghetti and I have chosen the  Garofalo Brand.  Voiello and De Cecco are also excellent. The latter is also more widely available in supermarkets outside Italy.

To cook dried pasta perfectly you need a large saucepan  filled with water. Then you have to add salt. To give you an idea of a ratio  the proportion should roughly be:

4 cups (1 Litre) of water
1½  tablespoons (10 grams) of salt
4 ounces of pasta

Celia, my wife, was given by a friend, a shell that holds the correct amount of salt for our saucepan.
The exact  quantity of salt, however, depends on personal taste and how salty the sauce or the topping is. But also bear in mind that when you drain the pasta most of the salt will go down the drain with the water.

You need the following utensils:

A large saucepan
A wooden spoon or a large fork if you are doing spaghetti or similar long shaped pasta.
A kitchen timer
A colander

A good pasta must be ‘al dente’, (literally to the tooth), which means that it has to be slightly undercooked.
Read how many minutes cooking time the manufacturer recommends and subtract one minute because while you are draining the pasta and preparing it to be served it keeps cooking because it is still hot for a while. Later you will adjust the time according to your own taste.


Now bring the salted water to a brisk boil, then add the pasta (be careful not to splash hot water) and stir it for a few seconds in order to avoid it conglomerating.

Repeat the operation every 2/3 minutes.

Towards the end of the prescribed cooking time, try the pasta to check that it is cooking properly and the suggested cooking time is right (which is not always the case ). The pasta should be soft with a slight bite to it .

When the timer rings or you think the pasta is cooked take the saucepan off the stove and drain the pasta in the colander in the sink, making sure that you are not scalding yourself!

Pour the drained pasta into a serving bowl and add immediately the sauce or topping that you have prepared separately. Mix gently. The reason you need to do it sooner more than later is that pasta without a lubricant tends to glue into a mass and spaghetti, in particular, tend to became inextricable.

As I said before, pasta, especially spaghetti, must be eaten ‘al dente’.  It means that the outside of the noodle is cooked while the central part remained slightly hard. This makes the texture very pleasant. I’m also told by reliable sources that pasta al dente is easier to digest. Well, being myself born in Naples, I prefer pasta al ‘doppio dente’, which means even harder.

In this specific case, I thought that simple is beautiful so I have topped my spaghetti with a couple of tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and a spray of freshly grated parmesan cheese. You will be surprised how good it is.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Santini Historic Gelateria (Ice cream parlour) Celebrates 100 Years.

Gelato is a competitive business in Lucca these days. Both inside and outside the city walls there are many amazing gelato makers.  I use the Italian word gelato on purpose as gelato should not be confused with ice cream as they are not the same thing.  Gelato is a denser, smoother, less rich mixture served at a slightly higher temperature, which means the natural often delicate flavours become the main player on the taste buds.

On 26th of September, one of the oldest Gelateria in Lucca just across from the family house of one of Lucca’s most famous sons Giacomo Puccini celebrates its 100 birthday this year.  The Puccini family would no doubt cross the piazza and buy whipped cream from the Santini family  “latteria”  (a small shop selling milk and cream). I was very disappointed in Italian bought cream until I discovered the trick of buying it  from a gelateria, though it is a bit of a luxury. My first taste of this delicious indulgence, In Lucca, came from that same Santini Gelateria. The recipe for cream or “panna”  has remained unchanged since Puccini’s day and I can’t pinpoint how they make it so special .

The Santini parlour is run by the fourth generation of the same family, two sisters, Michela and Elisa with their parents Dora and Sergio. The  great great grandchildren of Pietro, who opened the shop during the war in 1916 with his wife can often be seen playing in the piazza.  The Gelateria now has 28 different flavours but originally before fridges, there were just four flavours, which were kept cool using ice. The Chocolate and Crema (a sort of custard) are still the flavours most loved by the Locals. The Gelati are all made from fresh ingredients, eggs and milk and sugar those more diet conscious can go for the fruit options which contain no milk or sugar. A truly healthy afternoon treat.

In Italy, a dessert is traditionally offered to your host at a dinner party and Santini have a wonderful selection of semifreddo delights including a variation on the Buccellato, the famous aniseed sweet bread in Lucca and there is also the famous Zuccotto plus much more. At Christmas, you can add a zip to your Panettone with a semifreddo version.

I for one am very happy to have been in Piazza Cittadella with Puccini statue  looking down on us celebrating this wonderful 100th anniversary with the Santini family. With so many historic shops closing in the city we should celebrate this families tradition and raise a cone of Crema di Puccini to them.