madonna del piatto

Italian family cooking


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how I got to be on TV

If you see where I live, atop a magical mountain in a rural area of Italy, you will find it quite surprising that anyone finds me at all.  And it’s probabaly even more surprising that myself and my family can make a living with our B&B and cooking classes. Mysteries of the internet, most likely.

Indeed, after having scrutinized my website statistics for years, I still have no idea how people ever gets to know about us.

Take last August, for example. I was in the car in front of a hardware shop waiting for my husband. He spends 50% of his time in the hardware shop. It was hot and I wanted to go home.

Then my cellphone rang. At the other side of the line someone with a velvety voice said “I am a TV film director”. And “we want to come next week to film one of your cooking classes for a BBC program”. Suddenly I did not feel that hot, but my head was spinning. No, I don’t often get phone calls from TV people.

A few days later I was walking in Santa Maria degli Angeli with a couple of newly wed Scottish people, Ruth and Stuart. Under the bright August sun, I was trying to tell them that I live in one of the most beautiful places on earth, Umbria, and that I can have lots of great food here.

Right, easy peasy, this is my stuff, isn’t it?

In front of me a young crew of BBC TV people – headed by handsome John Bonny – was trying to convince me to stop hitting the microphone and to walk slowly without looking in the camera which was almost attached to my nose. Easily said than done: nr. 1 I am Italian and I talk with my hands, nr. 2 all the village people was looking at me walking with a TV crew. Try to concentrate on the camera when your butcher is watching.

escape to the continent Umbria01

Hot and clumsy and weird, my TV day went on. Do you know they put a furry microphone virtually in your bra? It did take me a while to get acquainted with the microphones.

We had to go into my friend’s Barbara shop to buy prosciutto and pecorino. That took about one hour because we never said the right thing about the pecorino and we had to repeat. Beautiful John had not given us a script.

escape to the continent1

Then we proceeded to my house to cook. We made stringozzi with a Norcina sauce. The original recipe only uses one egg, but we went through a whole box because we were not capable to break it in the right way. I was terrified we would run out of eggs. Until this very day I am not sure what’s the best way to break an egg for the camera.

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Ruth and Stuart had moved house the day before, then they had jumped on a plane at 4:00 a.m. to come to Italy. We had been filming in the sun for several hours. No wonder we were starting to falter. Notwithstanding our clumsiness, John, his delightful assistant Bella and the rest of the crew stayed kind and smiling until the end. Only then I realized how difficult it must be to work with people who has no idea how to behave in front of a camera.escape to the continent Umbria11

Finally, we did manage. The pasta was cooked, stirred in the sauce, blanketed with truffle shavings. escape to the continent Umbria14

The best part – and it’s a pity it’s not on screen – was to see everybody’s eyes becoming soft because of the heavenly smell. It was way past dinner time. You could almost hear them salivating. Everybody relaxed. We shared a few forkfuls of pasta, they packed the cameras and left, leaving us with 5 failed pasta doughs and a few more stringozzi to cook.

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Ruth and Stuart with my helper Maria who took care of the failed pasta doughs

And guess what? I asked John how he found out about me, and he said “on the internet”.

Of course. I shouldn’t have asked.

If one sits at the top of a mountain, someone, sometimes, will pass by.

 

PS. the program is named Escape to the Continent (Umbria), if you can’t access the link here, you might be able to  see it on BBC i-player or just google “Escape to the continent Umbria”. You can see me from approx min. 24

 

 

 

 

 


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pasta for beginners

a good plate of pasta is true art

Pasta is such a convenient food and it’s made in a million ways all over the planet. Accordingly, it will taste everything from boring, to vibrant, from disgusting to heavenly. Don’t believe anybody who tells you they don’t like pasta. Most likely they have not tasted the real thing.

Sorry to be smug, but the real thing is made and cooked like Italians do. We do so few things really well in this crazy country. Pasta is one.

However, even if you don’t have it in the genes, you can make magic with our national starch.

Let’s see, did you buy good quality, durum-wheat, bronze-drawn spaghetti? Even better, did you just make some fantastic noodles or ravioli? Did you make some sauce?

Fine. Now you need a really large pan, better a tall stockpot, water and salt. You also need a shallow pan to assemble sauce and pasta. For this purpose, I prefer to use a wok-like pan which in Italy is called saltapasta.

The key to a perfect pasta is to keep it at a high temperature throughout cooking, saucing and serving.

Here are the rules:

  1. Use lots of water, typically 1 lt per 100 gr (1 quart per 3 oz) of dry pasta. Only start cooking the pasta when the water is on a rolling boil. You need to keep it at a high temperature so it cooks as fast as possible. As a result the pasta will keep its shape and texture (al dente).
  2. Use lots of salt, about 1 teaspoon of salt per lt (quart). Pasta cooked in unsalted water will be bland no matter how much salt you add to the sauce. I know it looks like a lot of salt, please just try and taste the difference.
  3. Keep the starch. During cooking pasta releases starch in the water which will provide a creamy texture and help the sauce  clinging to the pasta. To retain the precious starchy film, don’t rinse the pasta after draining. On the contrary, you need to reserve some of the pasta water for the finishing (see below).

Here is the method:

While your pasta is cooking keep the sauce warm in the saltapasta or similar pan. Fresh pasta will cook in 1 to 3 minutes, dry pasta will cook in 6 to 12 minutes depending on package instructions. If you don’t overcook the pasta, there is no need to add oil to the water.

As soon as the pasta is cooked, drain and transfer to the sauce pan. You actually need to drain it a good half a minute before is cooked as you will finish it while saucing. Increase the heat and stir the pasta into the sauce. Add the pasta water – up to one tablespoon per person – and grated cheese, if using. Stir some more until the excess liquid is absorbed. Sprinkle with fresh herbs and a drizzle of good extra virgin olive oil. Serve on warm plates at once.

And please remember, no swimming!


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cool inkeepers cook

my own emerald-green hill in a spring day, that's my house up there

FARROTTO.

I am a lucky woman. I am blessed by lots of lovely friends in all corners of the world. Many have all sort of interesting professions and hobbies.

Some of my coolest friends, Diana, Corinna, Giulia, Gloria, Rebecca, are innkeepers, just like me. We are the new career girls, we have first gone  into complicated studies at  prestigious universities and/or a career in entomology, physics, law, literature, languages, etc….

Then, as an obvious and logical consequence of the above efforts, we have become innkeepers.

So here we are, each one at the top of one or another emerald-green hill trying to convince the world to switch off the iphone for a moment and come to visit.  This is not an easy task, so we don’t have a lot of time to meet but when we do we have grand fun.

The recipe below is from Rebecca who lives on a green hill very near mine. In the winter, when all is quiet, we get a haircut and play the proper ladies of the house. See for yourselves how truly gracious we are:

Farrotto is a healthy version of risotto but it’s made with farro.  It’s a delicious dish good for all seasons and perfect for the last chilly evenings of spring.

Farro, or spelt in English, is an heirloom Italian grain very similar to barley. One can basically replace arborio rice with pearled farro in any risotto recipe, adding a bit to the cooking time, and end up with the same creaminess but with a more complex flavor and firmer grain.
Recipe

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 onion (or 2 shallots), chopped
  • about 4 cups mix of exotic and/or wood mushrooms (portobello, porcini, crimini, oyster, shitake)
  • about 1/2 cup white wine
  • about 5 cups of vegetable broth
  • 1.5 cup farro perlato (pearled)
  • salt to taste
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan or aged pecorino
  • italian parsley to garnish

In medium saucepan, bring stock to a boil. Reduce heat to low. Meanwhile clean and chop the mushrooms and onion or shallot. In large saucepan, heat about half of the oil over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring often, until soft, about 5 minutes. Using  a slotted spoon, transfer them to a bowl and set aside. Add remaining oil and onion or shallots and cook, stirring often, until soft, about 5 minutes.

Add the farro to the pan and stir to coat with oil. Add the wine and cook, stirring until liquid is absorbed, about 1 minute until it evaporates off.   Add 1 cup hot stock to pan and stir in mushrooms. Cook, stirring and adding more hot stock as it is absorbed, until the farro is tender but still firm, about 40 minutes.

Mix in the Parmesan or pecorino and adjust salt if necessary.
Serve with additional freshly grated cheese on each serving.

Variations:  use red wine with strong flavored mushrooms, add asparagus or roasted squash/pumpkin, add freshly ground pepper, top with a dollop of garlicky red pepper and tomato sauce or add smoked pancetta to the initial sauté.


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Happy Easter Monday

happy spring!

Spring is such a crazy special time here. It’s cold, cold, cold. Then one day we wake up and all the little birds are loudly celebrating the first sun. They seem surprised just like us. Look, there’s flowers! forget-me-not! daisies! Isn’t it amazing, one gets surprised every year.

Also we innkeepers get out of our cocoon. It’s been too cold to paint, plaster, vacuum, polish, wax, plant, prune, mow. So we run.  We’ve been alone for 4 months on our magical mountains and soon someone will turn up at our door. How can that be? And, amazingly,  it happens again.

The last Sunday of March we go to the agricultural fair in Bastia Umbra, it’s part of the spring rites. My husband needs to do some tractor watching

some interesting equipment on display at the agricultural fair in Bastia Umbra near Assisi

I need to buy geraniums and aromatic herbs and our daughter loves to see the animals.

There’s all sorts of breeds of farm animals on display and “beauty” contests to choose the champions. I love the song in the video below. It’s a silly ’50s tune where a silly guy calls a silly girl on the phone and repeats to death “you are the most beautiful of all”. Happy spring everyone.


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the big kicks

the "cauciuni", Christmas sweets from Abruzzo

CHICK PEA AND CHOCOLATE DUMPLINGS.

Did you know that ancient Romans  – if poor – were not allowed to cook? Such was the danger of fires that the plebeians were expected to eat in a tavern rather than cook on a rickety brazier.

Italian farmers had basic cooking facilities until relatively modern times. Most food was cooked in a clay or copper pot over an open fireplace which was also the only heating system of the house. That’s why the Italian tradition is rich in fried sweets. They can be cooked easily and in amounts suitable for large families.

This is  a fabulous recipe from my friend Luana. The “cauciuni”  are fried dumplings that are prepared in Abruzzo for Christmas. The name probably means small “calzoni”- of the pizza variety -, but to us Italians it sounds like “big kicks”.

The filling is a relatively extravagant concoction combining the peasant beans and nuts with the noble coffee and chocolate. Unlike real life, the combination of social strata works very well.

Recipe

Dough

  • 350 gr (3 cups plus one tablespoon) all-purpose flour
  • 50 gr (1/4 cup) sugar
  • 25 gr (1/8 cup) unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 cup sweet wine, brandy or cognac

Filling

  • 200 gr (7 ounces) cooked garbanzo beans, mashed
  • 50 gr (1/4 cup) sugar
  • 100 gr (3 ounces) dark chocolate
  • 1 teaspoon coffee powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoon sweet wine
  • 100 gr ( 3 ounces) toasted almond
  • 2 egg yolks

Make the dough in a food processor as explained for fresh pasta. Alternatively mix ingredients by hand in a large bowl, then turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead, adding more flour if necessary, until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Place the dough on a table, and flatten it  with a rolling pin until it is about 3 mm cm (1/8 inch) thin. Cut it into 5 cm (2 inch) disks. Knead the leftover dough, roll it again and cut more disks until all dough is used.

Blend all filling ingredients and place a teaspoon of filling over each disk. Fold disks in half and seal pressing with your fingers along the round edge of each dumpling (see video below). Deep fry in hot vegetable oil until golden. Serve warm with a glass of Marsala or other sweet wine.

Serves 6-8


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market treasures

Antiques Fair in Arezzo, Southern Tuscany

My husband and I have an inordinate passion for flea markets. When we lived in Zürich in the mid 90s, we spent all our free time rummaging through dusty boxes of wonders.  “Normal” people would run home or to the café after a long day of work. We, on the other hand, would meet in some icy cold warehouse to try our luck with the day arrivals. A few times we even woke up at the crack of dawn for the opening of a liquidation sale.

Spring was particularly hectic, with all the outdoor markets, no time for a romantic picnic on the Alps. As a result we collected enough stuff to furnish and decorate our home here in Umbria as well as all the guest rooms of our B&B.  We probably have in storage enough stuff for another house!

For me, going to a flea market is like walking into a fairy tale. It’s a window open on the life and strangeness of others. It’s a study on the definition of beauty and necessity. I mean, who needs a rabbit shaped tureen? A porcelain octopus? A spare pair of wings?

But that’s how it goes: you throw away something which I find valuable and attractive. Still, there cannot be that much demand for the life-size ceramic dogs, can it?

The video below is about the Antique fair in Arezzo, probably the largest in Central Italy. It’s held on the first Sunday of each month and its’ a fabulous place for dreamers. Do go.  If you don’t buy too much you might have  enough money to see the splendid Piero della Francesca frescoes.  Really, a dream day.

PS. For more information and beautiful pictures on Arezzo please visit my friend Sandra’s blog


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cooking on a sunny day

Over the years our guests have given us the gift of many beautiful images. Images of ourselves, of Umbria, of cooking classes, of fun and relaxation, of greetings.  Moments in which the lives of others have crossed ours here, atop our magical mountain. Moments for which I am grateful.

 

 

This video is a gift of Chris Honeysett, a very talented photographer who visited us 3 years ago, make sure to visit his fabulous website

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