Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Il Desco - Culture on a plate - Farro

This weekend the Lucca food festival celebrated farro, (botanical name, Triticum dicoccum) that is now on the menu of many à la mode restaurants in different parts of the world. This ancient grain is often confused with Spelt, they are very closely related but different. Farro is the father of all grains and has been eaten throughout the Mediterranean and Near East for millennia. The Roman Legions marched on it and the poor survived on a polenta made from it.  This wonderful nutty grain so versatile that it can be ground into flour, served in the same way as rice or simply added to soups and sweets.

For many years farro lost favour because it has a low yield and requires a longer milling cycle therefore it is expensive to produce. However it grows in poor soil, is disease resistant, meaning most production is organic. Farro is much more nutritious than wheat and also easier to digest. This seemingly perfect food is also high in fibre and low in calories. You might ask why aren’t we all eating it?   Farro isn’t a fast food as it requires be soaking and/or cooking for a longer time. The price and small production has made this a luxury ingredient elsewhere but here in the province of Lucca and especially Garfagnana where it is mainly produced, it has never left the table. In this nook of the world, fads and fashion in food pass us by. The Tuscans and Lucchesi in particular, are very proud of their cuisine and like their produce and recipes to be local. Wonderful village restaurants serve simple ancient dishes that have remained unchanged for generations.

In fact I was at a seminar on Saturday evening and the famous Italian lifestyle and food critic Marisa Fumagalli of Corriere della Sera mentioned that it was virtually impossible to eat badly in Tuscany. These words started a heated argument on the floor. There were immigrants from other parts of Italy who complained that even in Lucca city it was impossible to get a meal that wasn’t Lucchese. This meant that the cooking in Lucca was dull and without innovation. It is true that virtually everything here is based on history and innovative chefs have failed in this city as the residents are so strongly wedded to their ways, however it has meant that customs have not been lost. I understand both points of views but I respect the decision of the reserved Lucchesi to guard their traditions. I am extra fortunate since I live in this region with an extraordinary Neapolitan cook who merges his southern ways with local ingredients. All our Lucchesi friends are always happy to try and complement him on the dishes his creates. I love tradition but agree that any art must always move forward to stay alive.
However in true Lucchese style I am going to leave you with a very basic but delicious soup recipe from the Garfagnana home of Farro.

Recipe for Poor Man’s Farro Soup
120g  (4oz)  Farro   
2 lt   (8 ½ cups) water
2 cloves Garlic
2 Bay leaves
100 ml (½ Cup) milk
4 large potatoes
I carrot
I onion
I stalk of celery
30 ml  (2 heaped tbsp) tomato paste
50 g (2 oz ) cubed pancetta
salt  and pepper

1.     Cover the farro and soak for 8 hours then throw the water out.
2.     Place all the ingredients in the cold water in the pan except the potatoes and the milk and cook slowly for 2 hours.
3.     Add the potatoes and cook for a further half hour or until the potatoes are cooked.
4.     Squash the potatoes and add the milk, bring the soup to the boil again and serve with a dash of extra virgin olive oil and hot crusty bread.

 Washed down with a nice glass of Chianti you can’t go wrong on a cold winter evening.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Il Desco – Culture on a plate

Lucca in recent years has become a very active city. There always seems to be something going on from markets and music in the piazzas to art exhibitions. The comics fair used to mark the end of the tourist season and the town would go into semi hibernation only coming to life again in December for Christmas shopping. In the past couple of years this has changed with  Il Desco a festival to celebrate our local produce and what fantastic produce we have. 

These food festivals are one of the joys of Italian life. There is the added bonus that there is need to cook dinner after attending one. It doesn’t take much persuasion to temp me to try anything that is proffered.  This year Il desco has really got its act together and as well as having stalls where one can buy and taste there are lost of seminars and workshops. I even solved the problem of my husband's Christmas present, as I was able to buy the great Italian chef Gualtiero Marchesi’s cook book and as he was present even get it signed. I couldn’t believe this charming man was eighty.

What I really like about this year's fair is that it has been divided into products. So over the four weekends that it runs a different local delicacy is celebrated. Today it was beans and soup and next week will be farro. Enough of the talk here are a few pictures of today’s show to tickle your taste buds.

So next year if you feel like a break in November don’t dismiss Lucca!

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Village Festa

November can be a month of real mood swings and I don’t just mean for hormonal women. Historically November in Tuscany can be wet and I mean wet. The last couple of years the normal weather pattern has changed and we have enjoyed wonderful Indian summers but this year things sadly seem to have gone back to the old weather pattern and it simply hasn’t stopped raining for more than a couple of days at a time for what seems like forever. When the sun does break through it is wonderfully warm but when it isn’t, it does get you down.  Everybody is complaining. The odd optimistic tourist left behind has turned to gastronomic and cultural tourism, rather a delightful option in my opinion, leaving farmers to look mournfully at their olives groves wondering after the false start at the beginning of the week, if they will get them picked before Christmas! City dwellers often find that it is colder inside than out particularly on sunny days and in a country where gas is incredibly expensive no one wants to turn the central heating on, even on those days of heavy November rain. The cities seem to change from sad in the rain to radiant when the sun comes out.  The country dwellers are in many ways more fortunate as they can light the fire in the evening close their heavy green shutters and roast chestnuts. Skiers however are starting to look towards the mountains hoping that this rain is turning to snow at higher altitudes.

So therefore after a three days of listening to the rain beating down I was delighted when a friend rang and invited us to a village dinner. I certainly believe in comfort eating and Tuscan winter fare is good comfort food.Therefore last Saturday evening, dressed more for a fishing expedition than evening in a Tuscan hilltop village, we headed off having fasted all day in preparation.
Many Villages have Circoli or village clubs that organise social events and keep local traditions alive. The feast was held in what had been the theatre and it is incredible how many tiny communities had theatres. Some have been restored and are still used for the odd performance and other neighbourhood events. The money raised was to be used for a new centre light.

Now these feasts are much more about food and company than aesthetics and as Italians don’t heat plates these meals are often served off plastic plates which some visitors find slightly odd.

We started off with an antipasto, which included wonderful local salami and crostini Toscani, lightly toasted bread with a homemade liver pâté, next came the first primo, Ribollita, icon soup of Tuscan cooking, originally made from leftovers from other soups. The most important ingredients are “cavolo nero” or black cabbage, a local vegetable that is now quite widely available outside Italy, beans and bread.

As you can imagine this soup is no light number but a meal in itself. However we had a second primo to enjoy of home made maccheroni with ragù, a very slow cooked meat sauce, one of the most common dishes in Tuscany but it never fails to please the palate.

Tuscans truly love their beans and the chickpeas and cannellini beans served simply with olive oil were delicious.

Next came Baccalà. I have never understood why this Atlantic fish is so diffused in Italy and so far nobody has been able to explain when this to me. Beautifully cooked very thinly sliced roast beef was then served with roast potatoes.

My favourite part of the meal is always the primi and I can often resist the dolce “Sweet”, but the two small pieces of tart were exquisite. The apple was perfect and refreshing and the chocolate rich and velvety.

The whole meal was of course washed down with local wine and homemade limoncello. After the meal our group left because our children had a pile of homework for the next day, they therefore require their beauty sleep. The villagers however moved the tables to the side and the music started and as we went out into the damp air smelling of fresh herbs, the dance floor was already filling up.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Protest Alla 1968 Returns To Lucca

Reserved and dignified Lucca City let her hair down during the first weekend of November. The place was teaming with young people dressed in weird and wonderful costumes while attending the comics fair. The population was further swelled by a huge demonstration against education cuts by Maria Stella Gelmini, the minister in charge. Education this year in Italy has undergone a huge reform.