Friday, December 30, 2011

Italian Lentils For New Year

On the evening of 31st of December, Italian families and friends gather around the table to eat the “Cenone”, a dinner of gargantuan proportions. It is a ritual meal that closes the old year and welcomes in the new one. The courses and dishes change according to the region but in Naples, Enzo’s home it is mostly based on seafood. There is one dish , that is common to the entire peninsula plus the Islands: lentils: They are actually eaten at midnight, even if most people eat them with cotechino (a kind of sausage) during the Cenone and have a supplement at the witching hour. The reason for this is that lentils because of their shape are associated with coins and therefore money, so eating lentils at midnight just after the Prosecco cork pops out is a good omen for the comming year. Every New Year's Eve Enzo cooks lentils according to a family recipe that has been handed down through his Mother.  This year there should be a run on the lentils particularly by European bankers and politicians.   


Lentils 250 grams
Extra Virgin Olive oil: 2 tablespoons
2 cloves of garlic
Chopped Ripen Fresh Tomatoes 500 grams or a can of very good quality tinned tomatoes.
Tomato paste 1 or two tablespoons
Sage 6 leaves at least
Rosemary  1 or 2 sprigs
Sea salt

1. Rinse the lentils and put them in a saucepan with plenty of cold water. Turn the flame on and bring them to the boil. Put a lid on the top and simmer for 20 minutes. Add a quarter of a teaspoon of salt  a couple of minutes before the end.

2.  While the lentils are simmering put the olive oil in a frying pan and add two crushed garlic cloves.  Gently fry them for a minute or until the garlic looks light golden. Then add the sage and rosemary.  Stir the oil the garlic and the herbs for a few seconds then add the tomatoes. Stir in the tomato paste. Depending how ripe the tomatoes are, add one or two tablespoons of tomato paste.

3. When the lentils are ready drain them and add them to the tomato sauce in progress. Mix them gently with a wooden spoon and cook them on a low flame for another 5 minutes. Adjust salt to taste before the end. 

Buona Fortuna e Tanti Auguri per il Nuovo Anno
Wishing you all a Happy and Prosperous New Year

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Presepe, Christmas Crib, in Piazza San Michele Lucca

Tanti Auguri di Buon Natale e Buone Feste a Tutti

Wishing You A Very Happy Christmas

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Struffoli An Italian Christmas Dessert

One of the joys of being an international family is that one can cherry pick traditions to create one’s very own folklore. Struffoli for Enzo was not negotiable. The first time one of these deep-fried honey coated balls, flavoured with orange and lemon, hit my taste buds I was smitten. No Neapolitan Christmas table would be complete without this volcano shaped mountain decorated in candied peels, silver balls, hundreds and thousands and sometimes-cylindrical anise seed sweets, but since none of us like these hard white sweets we tend to leave those off.
This delicacy is very archaic and probably dates back to the 8th century BC when the Greeks founded Naples.
Struffoli are better if prepared a few days in advance as the balls become crunchy and all the flavours develop. I love to watch Enzo preparing this special mouth-watering Christmas dessert with Isabella our daughter. It really starts the Christmas holidays rolling. Below is Enzo’s  traditional family recipe.

Serves 10 

Flour: 450 grams (3 1/3 cups) plus a little extra if required
Granulated Sugar: 110 grams (4 oz) plus 110 grams (4 oz)
3 regular size eggs
3 egg yolks
50 grams (2 oz) unsalted butter at room temperature
The grated rind of 1 unwaxed and untreated Orange
The grated rind of 1 unwaxed and untreated Lemon
Brandy: 1 tablespoon (15 ml)
A pinch of salt
225 grams (½ pound) good quality honey
Good frying oil (sunflower or peanut)
110 grams (4 oz) of candied lemon peel
110 grams (4 oz) of candied orange peel
Coloured sprinkles to decorate
Silver/gold sugar balls
Water: 2 Tbsp (30 ml)

1) On a pastry board place the flour in a mound and make a well in the centre. Have the extra flour ready in case it is needed.
Put 3 eggs and 3 egg yolks in the hole making sure that they do not overflow.
Add 110 grams (4 oz) of granulated sugar and the butter, a pinch of salt, the grated lemon and orange rind and the brandy.

2) Using a wooden spoon start mixing slowly from the centre of the well making sure that the liquid does not spill over.
Slowly incorporate the flour.
When the dough becomes denser start mixing it with your hands and finish incorporating all the flour. If the dough is too wet add some of the extra flour.
Make the dough uniform in colour and consistency and shape it like a ball and wrap it in cling film (this stops it drying out).
The dough must rest for 1 hour at least in a cool place.

3) After the resting time remove the cling film and divide into smaller pieces.
Each section must now be rolled into a long sausage about 1.5cm/½ inch thick.
Cut the sausages into small 1cm/ 1/3 inch dumplings (the size of the dumplings is not canonical, some people likes them very small)
Place all the dumplings on a clean tea towel.

4) Pour enough frying oil into a deep frying pan and heat the oil slowly. Do not overheat the oil.
If you think that the oil has reached a good temperature add one dumpling. If it starts frying you can add a small load of dumplings. Turn them using a frying spoon so they brown evenly. In about two minutes they turn golden so remove them from the oil and place them on kitchen paper to absorb any excess oil. Fry the rest of the dumpling in small loads making sure that they do not turn too brown so be quick to remove them from the hot oil when they’re ready.If the oil gets brown replace it.

5) Now in a saucepan put the honey, 110g (4 oz) of sugar and the water. Heat it slowly and stir continuously with a clean wooden spoon. When the sugar and the honey are melted and look like syrup, test its consistency by pouring a drop on a cold plate. It has to settle like jam. Make sure you do not burn it!
Turn the flame off and slowly add all the dumplings, the orange and lemon candied peel. Now with the wooden spoon very gently start moving them in the pan so they can be coated with the syrup. Do it with care, as you do not want to break the dumplings.

6) Pour them on a serving plate in the shape of a volcano (some people prefer the shape of a ring).
Scatter coloured sprinkles on the top and then add the silver/gold sugar balls to decorate.

Wait until the syrup has settled and they’re cold before serving. They’re even better a day or two later. 

If you enjoyed this post you might also like to read about the "presepe" Christmas crib tradition in Italy on

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Chestnut Flour in Northern Tuscany

This week un prosecchino takes a new direction by joining forces with 'Lemons and Olives' to follow Enzo accompanying Antonio on the journey of the chestnut from the tree to the mill.
Looking out of the windows of Le Mura our Tuscan country home the sweet chestnut clad mountains with their stones villages snuggling between the trees dominates the near landscape: lush and green in summer and bare skeletons in winter. The woods seem as ancient and wild as the hills themselves but the chestnut forest are a testament to the cultivation of an earlier civilisation. The trees were planted because chestnuts were the staple diet of mountain populations in the western part of Eurasia for millennia.

It seems that the Greeks introduced the Castanea Sativa in Europe and later the Romans and the mediaeval monastic orders propagated them. In Italy the chestnuts were mainly ground into flour. Sadly the last commercial mill closed just before our arrival in the village over ten years ago. Now only a handful of growers produce this wonderful flour. A more poignant tragedy as this is a thoroughly modern product perfect for those with gluten intolerance or healthy eaters because it is low in fat and calories and contains less carbohydrates than regular white flour. This wonderful product was even endorsed in The Guardian by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. The locals still guard this gastronomic tradition and our village friends introduced us to necci, crêpes made simply from the mellow sweet chestnut flour and water, cooked over a flame or open fire between two heavy forged cast-iron plates called testi, passed from generation to generation. The older the testi the more proofed they are and the better the necci. Some families even still use terracotta discs lined with chestnut leaves. Local winter festivals would be incomplete without these mouth watering delicacies which can be served either as a savoury or with a sweet filling. (Recipes, I promise to follow in another post.)

Our woodman and friend, Antonio is one of the few still producing a small amount of flour in the traditional way and so I was more than delighted when he  suggested that I follow the course of the chestnut from tree to flour.

Part one – Mid October. Gathering sweet chestnuts.
I had my first rendezvous with Antonio on a damp morning in mid October. Finding the exact meeting point deep in the wood adjoining our land was in itself quite a challenge. The old chestnut trees were gothic and I almost felt I was walking in an enchanted forest penetrating much deeper than I normally do. Eventually I heard the distant rumble of an engine and hone in on Antonio, his brother in law Gino and his mother Maria Francesca, literally hovering up the prickly cupules that contain the nuts. After ingesting the chestnuts the machine that looks like a cross between a vacuum cleaner and a triffid spits out the prickly cupules. Antonio hoovers every corner of his land: no cupule escapes. The chestnuts are then stored in sacks.

Part 2 – Mid November - At the Metato.

If you wander around Northern Tuscany you’ll see little stone two storey buildings too small to be houses (even if some of them have been converted by foreign residents). Each floor has its own entrance and there are no stairs, which is why they’re built into the side of a bank. This is the place where the chestnuts are dried. The process takes about a month. On the ground floor of the Metato a special fire is prepared using very well seasoned chestnut wood and the discarded dry skins of the previous year’s chestnuts. The fire mustn’t produce flames. The first floor is where the chestnuts are laid. Antonio for the full month comes twice a day. First thing in the morning at around 7 and 12 hours later before supper. He checks the fire on the ground floor, it must just smoulder. He may add another piece of wood if needed. Then he stirs the chestnuts on the floor above. Even 50 years ago the Metato for the month of October was the centre of village life. The fire would provide warmth for everybody and stories were told. Northern Tuscany, Garfagnana in particular, is famous for its fairy tales and legends. Sadly now everybody sits in front of the telly or computer screen.

At the end of the drying month in mid December I met up again with Antonio at the Metato, which is wedged between the woods at the edge of the village and a small plot of land full of chickens. When I arrive Antonio, Maria Francesca, his Father Gianvi and small son Giovanni are already hard at work feeding the chestnuts into a machine that breaks the chestnuts’ now crisp skins leaving the clean dry fruit ready to be taken to the mill. Gianvi, who loves tradition, demonstrates how the chestnuts were cleaned before they got the machine: he puts a few pounds of chestnuts in a flabby canvas bag and holding the top with both hands starts bashing it against a stump with all his strength. A few minutes later he showed me the content of the bag. The brown calybiums were broken; the fruits also were damaged, then he blew away the dry skins. A back breaking slow job, the machine produces a much neater job in a fraction of the time.

Antonio keeps climbing on the side of the machine to put the chestnuts in a funnel on the top. The dried chestnuts are pushed into a big pipe to the lower level where they’re collected in buckets.
Between the shell and the chestnut there is a fluff that now floats freely in the air. Gino replaces him and we take in turns to push more chestnuts in the pipe. 

The ventolaccio which is the waste, is piled up. It will be stored for next year when it will be needed to make the smouldering fire.

Antonio puts the chestnuts in bags ready for the mill. There’s not very much time for lunch, the job must be finished before dusk.

Part 3 – At the Mill.
A few days later on a nasty damp morning I met up with Antonio in the valley. His van is loaded with the bags of chestnuts. Like all good Italians, we down a coffee before setting off for Fabbriche di Vallico, a village in the mountains on the edge of the Garfagnana where there is an old recently restored mill. It’s all very green and wet. We unload the sacks, there don’t seem to be very many for all that effort. The owner of the mill greets us. He’s very pleased I came with Antonio as he is very proud of his mill and rightly so.

Running beside the mill is a stream but the water sadly isn’t used to power the stones as if there isn’t enough water it becomes a problem, therefore Fosco the owner bought a small electric engine. He says he needs very little electricity to run the mill. I hope one day he will go back to water power or at least have a dual system. There are four grinding stones in the mill. Two of them are for chestnuts, one for corn, the forth one is resting now. Today Fosco has a problem, a few chestnut, not entirely dry have caramelised and if the residue is not removed they can damage the stones. Fosco hoists one stone and very patiently chisels the dry molasses. He can now put the stone back and restarts the milling. Opposite there is another stone grinding corn for polenta.

Antonio’s flour is now ready and Fosco is collecting and bagging it. We thank Fosco and drive back to the valley.
A few days later I am in Antonio’s house. Maria Francesca presents me with a bag of chestnut flour. In the village everybody has reserved their bag, the quantity produced is very small so there is nothing left.

The flour has a wonderful taste that is in my opinion enhanced by being dried over a natural fire. It seems however the French don’t like the smoky flavour and require the chestnuts to be dried using electric ovens. Antonio’s flour is all produced  and consumed locally, lets hope that his young son will continue when the time comes to make the flour and perhaps even reopen the village mill. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

La Banda- The Italian Wind Bands Tradition.

Now Wind bands may not exactly be hip but they certainly get the toes tapping and lift the spirits and are the perfect open air Orchestra. Italy is the country of opera and song and we even sing about ice creams! Italians are naturally musical and the Banda (wind band) tradition has been around for more than 150 years. The Banda brought the tunes of the Italian opera to the streets and piazzas in towns and cities and the tradition even extended to remote villages.  Puccini was after all the top of the hit parade for his generation. The tunes where often taken down second hand but the stirring interpretations spread huge national pride. Like in most other parts of the world wind bands where made up of the folk for the folk and they also acted and still do as training grounds for young musicians.

My sentimental side loves to see rural bands with grandfather playing alongside grandchildren just like in those 1950 movies about La Dolce Vita. Italian bands also keep the folk tradition alive and over the years they have become an essential part of religious processions especially during holy week and local saint day celebrations. Band music for some reason is very positive and crosses musical boundaries from jazz to pop. The spectacle of a local band in their polyester uniforms with polished brass buttons and plumes, which often look more like feather dusters only add to the charm.

There also now seems to be a penchant for having majorettes twirling their batons marching with the band. This must make the village banda the perfect place for teenage dating!

flickr- Daniele Nicolucci

My favourite Military Wind Band are Bersaglieri troops, the 'Fanfara', who are trained to play while running, imagine how fit they must be and their helmets are quite a fashion statement with their shiny black feathers. 

I have heard these bands described as corny but they always make my spine tingle and uplift my spirit so perhaps it was the perfect choice to have the band play for the inauguration of the Puccini Museum and bring opera in the traditional way to all the citizens  of Lucca in the piazza below his family apartment.