Autumn in Italy
I always miss Italy but this time of the year, more especially so. I love autumn, not only because the food becomes seriously good but because most tourists have left (with their littering habits) & the country returns to normal. The restaurants are comfortable again, the parents with their screaming, yelling, hamburger demanding brats have left, prices return to normal, shops are accessible & the hawker population, thankfully, is reduced by more than half. Italians can breathe again.
The few tourists that do remain are the ones that really love the country & they’re a really nice bunch. Around this time the warm & balmy Italian weather begins to change and it becomes cooler. November brings cooler weather & rain with intermittent sunshine and that’s just perfect for mushrooms & truffles, so expect to find plenty in the markets; the year the new oils from the olive harvests also becomes available and it’s time to make hams, sausages & salamis for winter use; there will also be plenty of tomatoes because most Italian women would have bottle ripe summer tomatoes for winter use.
The leaves will now change colour & the landscape become rusty; everyone looks forward to the new seasons menus & says good bye to the fresh sweet fruits of summer. The grape harvest (la vendemmia) is over, wineries are busy & the new wines and grappa are being made and the markets begin to sell grapes. October is the time when you’ll find chestnuts in Italy and I remember what a pain it was to go anywhere with my children because they just needed to get a whiff of the roasting chestnuts and we were off! This will carry on until well after Christmas. Autumn is also the season of food fairs (sagre) and you’ll find roasted chestnuts at all of them. If you really like chestnuts, visit the village of Cusano Mutri in Benevento where the Sagra delle Castagne is held from around the 23rd – 26th of October – it’s loud & noisy and there’ll be loads of other food stalls. If you miss it, don’t worry, it’s not the only chestnut fair & loads of other towns will hold them; since Lazio is my province, I suggest a visit to the one that takes place in Soriano nel Cimino .
The Europeans believed potatoes were poisonous at first because they became sick after eating the fruit & leaves of the potato plant & didn’t know that they should, actually, eat the potato tuber. Europeans being European, nobody could change their minds for a very long time – not even the Carmelite monks who introduced potatoes to the Italians, explaining exactly how to use them.
REALLY SIMPLE VEAL & POTATO POT
- 1 kg veal knuckle or whichever meat you prefer
- 1 carrot, finely sliced
- 1 onion, finely sliced
- 1 fat clove of garlic
- A few twigs thyme
- 1 lemon, finely grated zest only (this is not a typical addition but it works for me)
- 200 ml freshly made tomato sauce
- 125 ml good fruity white wine
- 1 ½ litres home made beef or veal stock
- 4 potatoes
- 125 g butter
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- Sea salt and pepper to taste
- 50 g all-purpose flour
- Pour a little olive oil & some butter into a pot & put it on medium heat; as soon as the butter has melted, add the onions & the carrots; fry until soft & golden & then add the lightly floured meat (that you have cut up into pieces); brown the meat on all sides & pour in the wine, the tomatoes, the salt & pepper and stir through.
- Simmer over medium heat until the sauce begins to thicken & most of the liquid has been absorbed, then add the potatoes.
- Cover with stock & cook, uncovered, for 45 – 60 minutes, stirring every now and again so that it doesn’t stick.
- As soon as the meat & potatoes are tender, remove the pot from the heat, stir through and check & correct the seasoning.
Before Roman times mushrooms were a symbol of death & Pliny wrote that mushrooms were believed to be the most lethal & dangerous foods on earth (which they can be) but that was because Emperor Claudius who simply couldn’t resist porcinis & died because his wife, Agrippina, poisoned him so that Nero could become emperor. We all know how that ended. In Medieval times mushrooms weren’t eaten because people thought they were Satan’s fruit & therefore only eaten by witches.
MUSHROOMS ON BRUSCHETTA
- 500 g wild mushrooms, washed & sliced in half
- 1 small onion, peeled & finely sliced
- 250 ml Marsala wine
- 250 ml heavy cream
- 2 tsp fresh thyme, roughly chopped
- Loads of grated Pecorino cheese to taste
- 50 g butter
- 125 ¼ cup extra virgin Italian Olive oil
- Sea salt and pepper to taste
- 8 slices rustic type of bread
- Pre-heat your sauté pan over medium heat & as soon as it’s hot, melt the half of the butter & fry the mushrooms until they’re soft (about 5 minutes) but haven’t released their moisture.
- Now add the onions & the rest of the butter and season with salt and pepper & cook for another few minutes until the onions are nicely caramelized; as soon as most of the liquid has evaporated, pour in the Marsala & return to the pan where you need to reduce it by a good third; add the cream, bring to a brisk simmer until the cream thickens; check & correct the seasoning & remove from the heat.
- Drizzle the bread with the extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle with a touch of salt & pepper & toast on a grill (or in the oven’s grill) until it’s hot and crisp.
- Cover each slice of bread with grated Pecorino, a few leaves of fresh thyme and the mushroom sauce, then put 2 slices of bread on each plate and serve immediately.
Most of us love mushrooms & especially truffles and for those I’d pay a visit to the forests of Abruzzo & also the Molise regions; you’ll find loads of truffle hunters (trifolati) with their trusty dogs searching for them. Bear in mind they’re jealous of their areas & won’t exactly welcome you on a search. The most famous truffle is the white one called ‘white diamonds’ because they’re so darn expensive – you’ll only find them in the mountains, though. For the world famous porcini, you’d need to travel to Campania, Le Marche as well as many other regions, the search is on for wild porcini mushrooms. Dishes made with truffles and porcini are plentiful, especially in towns surrounded by chestnut forests where the mushrooms typically grow. Porcini (boletus edulis) was first described in 1782 by the French botanist Pierre Bulliard & it’s still known by that name. The word porcino means ‘piglet’ in Italian & comes from the word suilli (hog mushrooms) which was used by the ancient Romans (some southern Italians still use this word).
Around the world there are many names for this so I’ll just interrupt myself a second & list them here:
- Steinpilz (German)
- Herrenpilz (Austrian)+g
- Panza (Mexican)
- Penny bun (English)
- Rodellon (Spanish)
- Eekhoorntjesbrood (Dutch)
- Pankushe/barkushe (Albanian)
- White mushrooms (Russia) – bear in wine the word white means ‘noble’ here
- Prawdziwek (Polish)
- Rpavi vrganj (Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina)
- Vrganj (Croatia & Serbia)
- Cèpe de Bordeaux (France)
- Karljohanssvamp (Sweden)
- Karl Johan svamp (Danish)
The old people in Italy used to say that porcini sprout when there’s a new moon but this isn’t strictly true; they’re triggered by rainfall during warm periods of weather followed by frequent autumn rain. When there’s a lot of rain, Italians always talk about a bolete year. If you like mushrooms, visit one or some of the many, many mushroom sagre where you can taste and buy a myriad of different mushrooms.
PINE NUT & PORCINI RISOTTO
- 350 g Carnaroli Superfino rice
- 2 medium onions
- 70g unsalted butter
- 2 litre chicken stock
- 1 champagne glass of dry champagne
- 50 g pine nuts
- 1 lemon, finely grated zest only – take care only to avoid any of the pith
- 150 g fresh wild mushrooms, cleaned & sliced
- 250 g fresh porcini mushrooms, cleaned & sliced
- 250g dried porcini ones
- Loads & loads of freshly grated parmesan cheese
- Soak the dried porcini mushrooms in a litre of 2 warm water for ½ hour before you begin.
- Chop the onions & fry in butter until they’re soft, golden & almost gloopy; at this point add the rice & toss in this for a few minutes before adding the glass of champagne & waiting for liquid to be absorbed.
- Now add one ladle of stock, stirring constantly on medium heat until the liquid is absorbed and continue the process for 10 minutes.
- Add the pine nuts, stir & cook for 5 minutes and then add the wild & the porcini mushrooms (and the soaking liquid).
- Continue stirring and cooking until the rice is al dente & serve with loads of parmesan cheese and a good drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
Barley has been part of man’s diet for over 12,000 years but the Romans learnt to eat it from the Greeks who learnt from the Babylonian; if you remember, the Bible tells us that the Israelites considered it a symbol of power while the Egyptians used it for burns & inflammation. The Greeks & then the Romans made tea from it and used it for intestinal malfunction. Hippocrates, the man who said “everyone has a physician inside him or her; we just have to help it in its work. The natural healing force within each one of us is the greatest force in getting well; our food should be our medicine & our medicine should be our food but to eat when you are sick is to feed your sickness” advocated the use of barley.
BARLEY AND PUMKIN SOUP
- 200 g pearl barley
- 750 g yellow pumpkin
- 200 g Italian tomatoes (you can use bottled or tinned tomatoes)
- 1 tbsp Italian parsley, finely chopped
- 1 stalk celery, finely sliced
- 2 large carrots, sliced
- 2 yellow onions, quarterd
- 2 fat cloves garlic, peeled
- 1 tsp cayenne pepper (if you prefer more heat, feel free to add a little more)
- Sea salt to taste
- Extra virgin oil
- Cut the pumpkin into chunks & place in an oven dish with the onion, the celery, the carrots and the garlic; sprinkle lightly with salt and drizzle with olive oil; cover lightly with aluminium foil and bake at 180 C until the pumpkin is soft and has caramelized a little.
- In a separate pot, boil the barley in some freshly made chicken or vegetable stock until it has cooked – do not discard the stock.
- Add the soft baked pumpkin, the vegetable & herbs to the stock & puree with a handheld puree until velvety, then add the chopped parsley, the chilli and check & correct the seasoning; drizzle generously with olive oil and serve with loads of crunchy bread.
The sweet chestnut arrived in Europe from Sardis (Asia Minor) and was called the Sardian nut – it didn’t take long to become a staple food in Europe where it replaced cereals in non cereal growing regions. The trees did exceptionally well in the Mediterranean basin & in 1584 the governor of Genoa decreed that all the farmers plant four trees per year: an olive, a fig, a mulberry and a chestnut; this lasted until the end of the Genoese rule in Corsica in 1729. In Modena chestnuts are soaked in wine before they’re roasted & eaten and in Tuscany they’re eaten on Saint Simon’s Day. The Mugello region is the main chestnut region in Italy and in 1996 the EC gave the chestnut PGI *Protected Geographic Indication; they’re sweet, peel easily and not It is markedly sweet, peels easily, is not too floury or astringent; these chestnuts have a faint vanilla note & taste a little of hazelnuts & fresh bread whilst many other types of chestnuts may have an aroma of yeast or paper. One of the largest and oldest trees can be found in Sicily on the slopes of Mt. Etna – it’s over 3,000 years old. Sicilians call it the Castagno dei Cento Cavalli (chestnut tree of 100 horses because 100 kings horses could hide underneath it) & legend has it that that Joan I of Argon & her retinue were caught in a rainstorm during a hunt in Sicily & they found shelter under this large tree.
THE EASIEST CHESTNUT & CHOCOLATE CAKE ON EARTH
This has to be the easiest chestnut cake on earth & most of the recipes I’ve ever seen, are more or less the same: equal amounts of chocolate, butter, chestnuts with the same amount of milk in mls and half the quantity of sugar to 4 eggs for each 250 g!
- 250g peeled cooked chestnuts
- 250g dark chocolate (70%)
- 250g unsalted butter
- 250ml milk
- 4 eggs
- 125g caster sugar
- Preheat the oven to 180 C & grease a standard 23 cm springform cake tin.
- Melt the chocolate & butter together (over seriously low heat) & separately heat the chestnuts with the milk over gentle heat until they’re just boiling, then process them until you have a coarse purée.
- Separate the eggs, putting the yolks in a bowl with the caster sugar; stir in the chocolate & butter mixture & then puree this as well until it’s smooth.
- Now you whisk the egg whites until they’re stiff and fold that into the smooth batter, after which you transfer the whole mixture into the prepared baking tin for 25 – 30 minutes.
- It’s ready when it has just set – by the time it has cooled down, it will be firm (it’s okay if it’s slightly soft); most Italians keep it in the fridge for a good couple of hours.
- Serve with loads of whipped cream and decorate to your heart’s content.