Yoghurt, the Key to Middle Eastern Cuisine.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn their cookbook, Saha, Greg and Lucy Malouf travel to Lebanon and the food of Beirut. The book is a treasure, a coffee table book and useful cookbook all in one, although my copy comes from the library and I may need to part with it soon. In Saha, as in all their other cookbooks, they discuss the centrality of yoghurt to the Middle Eastern diet,

‘Middle Easterners eat vast quantities of the stuff, although not the over-sweetened and artificially flavoured varieties that westerners tend to prefer. Sourness is a virtue in the Arab world, and yoghurt makes an appearance at just about every minute. It is consumed as a refreshing drink, served as a dip or accompaniment to all kinds of savoury dishes, and is also used as a cooking medium in soups and casseroles.’

Throughout this seductive book, yoghurt pops up in all sorts of recipes: there are at least 10 listed in the index.  The dairy chapter uses yoghurt in a hot soup, and two different labneh: yoghurt is included as an ingredient elsewhere throughout the book, in salads, as a marinade and so on.  As this one ingredient is vital to the middle eastern diet, and more importantly, so easy to make, I am including this recipe in the Cookbook Guru’s discussion of Saha this month.  Another actual  Malouf recipe will follow. This one is my old recipe and relies on a few simple bits of equipment.

You will need:

  • a wide necked thermos, or similar thermal food container. (I use a vintage Chinese thermos because I love them!)
  • a strainer or old plastic ricotta basket
  • some muslin or an unused Chux wipe.

    Youghurt equipment

    Yoghurt equipment

Ingredients

  • Two tablespoons of full cream plain yoghurt.  This may be the last one you buy so make it a good one, read the labels and make sure there are no flavours. I can’t see the point in low fat yoghurt. Full cream yoghurt contains only 3.5% fat.
  • one litre of full cream milk.

You may need to double this amount if proceeding on to make Labneh.

Method.

  • place the milk in a saucepan and heat till it just reaches boiling point. Remove from heat.
  • When cool enough to put your finger in, holding it comfortably for 5 seconds, remove any milk skin on top, then add the yoghurt.  Mix well, using a whisk.
  • Add to the thermos which has been rinsed with hot water and drained just before using. Close lids and leave for four or so hours.
  • Put the lovely warm yoghurt into a container. It will thicken further in the fridge.
  • Just remember to save some yoghurt for your next batch. I make this weekly.

    a weekly supply of home made yoghurt.

    A weekly supply of home made yoghurt.

If needing Greek style yoghurt, strain the cooled yoghurt for an hour or more, using muslin and a fine strainer ( I use a plastic ricotta strainer) placed over a bowl. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Save the whey to add to curry gravy, an old Indian trick.

If making Labneh, continue straining the yoghurt, knotting the muslin over the bowl, and place in the fridge for 24- 48 hours.

labne kept under oil in a mason jar.

labne kept under oil in a mason jar.

Greg Malouf adds salt before making labneh: other additions he suggests are mint and garlic. In one of his other cookbooks, Arabesque, he adds 10 roasted and crushed saffron threads, along with 1 clove of garlic crushed with a teaspoon of salt. The latter sounds very appealing.

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It is hard to write about the Middle East, its exotic cuisine a long history without expressing concern over the tragedy of war and the effects on lives, homes and families. At the same time, it is heartening to see how neighbouring countries, such as Turkey and Italy, humanely accept the flood of refugees into their own countries, knowing that humanitarian issues come first in this struggle.

I commend the following documentary to you which looks at Italian shipping rescue of refugee boats at sea.

http://www.abc.net.au/foreign/content/2014/s4106724.htm

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Two Postcards from Broken Hill and the Outback.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPostcard from Francesca.                                                                                      

 Travelling east from Flinders Ranges in South Australia to Broken Hill in New South Wales involves a long, monotonous drive with few distractions. I love the big outback sky and the low rugged scrub but 469 kilometres of straight road can drive one a little bonkers. I found two things that caught my eye along the way.  This sign amused me. As we waited for the light to change, I envisaged strange scenarios of what might happen if it didn’t.

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The other highlight was the drive towards the small settlement of Cockburn. The idea of having a beer in the Cockburn pub was very appealing, which lead to a lengthy discussion about strange English spelling contractions and how the ‘cock’ part of this name can miraculously blur into ‘co’. Try telling this to the average rooster, or adolescent male.

We arrived in Cockburn only to discover that the pub had chosen to call itself the Coburn pub. Hugely disappointed, we drove on.

The Coburn pub in Cockburn!

The Coburn Hotel in Cockburn!

On entering the outskirts of Broken Hill, we noticed mobs of feral goats grazing along the roadside and nearby bush.  It is interesting to see that in the Flinders Ranges, 100,000 goats have been ‘removed’ over the last 15 years by pastoralists, park rangers and volunteers working together to remove this pest. Perhaps a roundup is needed here too.

This sign, in Flinders Ranges, lits the native bush that feral goats like to eat, and destroy.

This sign, in Flinders Ranges, lists the native bush that feral goats like to eat, and destroy.

Postcard from Mr Tranquillo                                                                          

Arriving in Broken Hill from South Australia is a visual jolt after driving through seemingly endless kilometres of arid country. It was a monumental feat to build a city in such a hostile and dusty environment.

Victorian architecture and mullock heaps.

Victorian architecture and mullock heaps.

Broken Hill has bold Victorian architecture, flamboyantly celebrating its wealthy heyday, like the gold rush-era towns and cities of Victoria. In the back streets, corrugated iron miners’ cottages predicted the modern Australian love for building homes in this material by a century or more.

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The city celebrates its working and mining history, claiming credit for the introduction of the 35 hour working week in 1920 after a protracted strike, and proudly displays its view of the importance of egalitarianism.

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To a casual visitor the landscape around Broken Hill may seem like just another desert vista, in hues of grey blue saltbush, coloured earth, and big skies, flattish, with a smattering of low hills. However, the city and surrounds have inspired artists, with about 25 art galleries in Broken Hill and nearby Silverton, the latter almost a ghost town. Film-makers have been similarly attracted, with Wake in Fright, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and Mad Max films as well-known examples.

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Broken Hill’s destiny is changing, as a reflection of the winding down of mining. The population has fallen to about 20,000, and numerous old pubs, having lost their miner clientele, have been converted to other uses.

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Will tourism and the arts sustain Broken Hill?

Silverton is a testament to what can happen when mining becomes uneconomic.

Silverton is a testament to what can happen when mining becomes uneconomic.

 

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Camogli on the Italian Riviera: Sunday Stills, the letter ‘C’.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACamogli is a small but popular tourist town located on the west side of the peninsula of Portofino, on the Golfo Paradiso at the Riviera di Levante. The name means “house of wives” deriving from casa delle mogli.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One of the guide books suggested it was a small fishing village; this is definitely a misnomer. The town is small, but well touristed, being so close to Genoa, the harbour filled with prosperous pleasure craft. Once we managed to find a spot to park, a tricky business in Camogli, we happily joined in the busy evening passeggiata then read every menu along the lido, much to Mischa Bella’s hungry frustration.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThanks to Ed, of Sunday Stills for his letter C prompt this week.

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Travel Theme: Broken in Yunnan

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATravelling around Yunnan Province, China this year, it was a pleasure to spend a week in the ancient town of Dali. After each long day of walking and touring around Lake Erhai, we would return to our comfortable guesthouse, the Jade Emu, run by a Chinese -Australian couple. Next door, they also run a quaint little restaurant, La Dolce Vita, with an Italian menu, wine, along with a book exchange, cafe and DIY laundry. These Western services are most welcome, especially for the long term guest,  but then so are the broken bikes used as decor.

Cafe in a Melbourne suburb? No, Dali, China.

Cafe in a Melbourne suburb? No, Dali, China.

The husband is from Melbourne: this would explain the broken bikes in the cafe garden, an appealing idea to copy.  Melbournians love to up-cycle junk.

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The Jade Emu is located in a quiet precinct just off the Yunnan -Tibet Highway, a road that I wouldn’t mind travelling along next time.

Thanks once again to Ailsa for the travel theme.

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Silver Beet Paneer: Curry for a Cold Snap

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe have been forced back indoors. Today, at the height of Spring, a cold front blew in and the temperature plummeted to 8.5 celsius. That’s Melbourne for you.

Yesterday afternoon was a different story. I felt like Mortisha in my Melbourne black: the hot sun beat down on my layered clothing, making the post- prandial walk quite uncomfortable. For those readers who live anywhere in the world but Melbourne, I should mention that Melbournians favour black dressing.

We had lunched at the Woodlands Hotel, a quirky hotel with an unusual menu, in Sydney Road, Coburg. We were merrily celebrating a birthday and enjoying a post- Bali get together when I noticed Madame Rosalie’s curry, a play on that Indian classic, Muttar Paneer, only substituting silverbeet and broad beans for the peas. What a brilliant idea! These seasonal vegetables have reached plague proportions in my garden. Today I’m making a silver beet Paneer curry, then next week, the Muttar Paneer, substituting broad beans for regular peas, using the same curry base as below.

Silverbeet Paneer

Ingredients.

  • A big bunch of young silver beet
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil or ghee
  • 1 tomato, diced
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2cm piece of ginger, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon chilli powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon garam masala
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 120 ml thickened cream, (or whey from paneer or yoghurt making, as well as some cream)
  • 200gr paneer, cut into 2cm square cubes, either purchased or homemade.

Method.

Strip leaves from silver beet and add to a large pan, and add a little water. (Use stalks for another recipe). Cook quickly until the leaves are wilted but still vibrant looking. Drain, and squeeze out as much moisture as you can.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Meanwhile in a heavy based pot, heat oil or ghee, then add onion, garlic and ginger and cook until the onion has softened. Add the chopped tomato, and spices (except garam masala) . Stir for 30 seconds, then add a little whey or cream to loosen. Add the silver beet leaves, salt and sugar, and the rest of the cream.  Cook on low heat for a few minutes, stirring. When cooler, use an immersion blender and puree the mixture.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAReturn to the stove, heat gently, then add the chopped paneer and the garam masala. Swirl through a little more cream when serving.

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This dish is ample for four, with rice, assuming that there is another dish, such as dhal or another curry, and raita.

Just like the cucina povera of Italy, Indian food costs little to make. The ingredients came from the garden or the pantry.  The blow out was the purchased paneer.  Next time, I’ll make my own.

Footnote: this tastes even better the next day!

 

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Art and Beauty in the Australian Outback

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The Flinders Ranges enable the visitor to experience beauty on a grand scale, either through walking and hiking trips or driving around the ranges. The day trip to Bunyeroo Track and Gorge, through Brachina Gorge, as well as the Aroona Valley, the latter with a bush camping ground and natural spring, passes through some of the most beautiful outback landscape in this country.
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It’s not easy to capture this beauty, either in words or photos. Travelling through this landscape, I am overawed.  My thoughts race, beyond reason, beyond words. I am a small creature passing through a momentous art installation.  I begin to recall the works of  Hans Heysen, whose art was popularised in print form, commonplace in homes and motels in the 1960s. That tasteless retro era comes flooding back, childhood memories tinged with melancholy, and I see this bush again, I am a part of it, it’s there in my consciousness but I’m not prepared.  The land is dignified, venerable, unspeakably beautiful. I think of the traditional owners of this land, whose love of country is unsurpassable and is inextricably woven into their legends, culture and identity.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt is about being: experiencing beauty on a grand scale, limitless skies and ancient forms, and letting go of all else. A passing cloud highlights the relief of that distant ridge- chiaroscuro, a stage, a light show. Next minute, it has disappeared, new colours and shapes emerge. Art and theatre.

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Do the landscape paintings of your memories influence and enhance your perception of the landscape? Or does the power of landscape simply remind you of the painting? Do older Australians have a pre-disposition towards this beauty, based on learning through art and history?  Would this landscape be so familiar and lovely to the visitor from the northern hemisphere, whose eyes are trained to see younger, greener and moister views?

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Spring on a Plate. Cucina Povera.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACucina Povera is my kind of cooking.  Historically, as the name suggests, it is the cuisine of the poor, or rather that of the Italian contadini or peasant class, those who relied on their own home grown seasonal produce and preserves stored in the dispensa, but not much else. It also suggests eating what’s on hand- what is available or in season. As Italy is now a very urban society, this style of cooking can be seen, historically, as rural cooking. It becomes cuisine of the wealthy when many different fresh herbs and vegetables are purchased from farmers’ markets to produce a simple Pasta Primavera.

The garden is your best friend: grow food among your flowers, in your front yard, on your balcony, on the nature strip, in containers. Many tasty and nutritious pasta dishes can be thrown together with a handful of wild rocket, herbs or silverbeet (chard). These things grow like weeds. Along with a few staples from the pantry, such as rice, pasta, lentils and dried beans, anchovies and EV olive oil, cucina povera is a few short steps away.

This week’s pasta ingredients are shown in the photo below.  It assumes you have stashed a few little luxuries in the pantry, such as some very good extra virgin olive oil, and a chunk of parmigiano Grano Padano or Reggiano. The other little splurge for today’s pasta recipe is a box of Farro pasta, in this case by Monograno Felicetti. I picked this up at the Mediterranean Wholesalers in Brunswick, and I must say here, that I receive no kickbacks from either of these companies. Substitute any short pasta you have on hand.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI picked some lovely leggy broccoli shoots, a small radicchio, young broad beans/fave, a few baby kale leaves, some fresh oregano and a big silverbeet/chard leaf. Some of the greens were shredded, hand torn or plucked. The picture also shows two small chunks of cheese- fetta and parmigiana. Some goats cheese, or tiny nuggets of gorgonzola, would make a good substitute. Again, use what cheese you have. Not shown, but always assumed, are a few cloves of garlic, smashed up, salt, and olive oil. I often melt a few anchovy fillets for flavour, but not this time- I wanted a pure Spring taste.

Pasta Primavera

  1. Into a big open pan goes a generous glug of oil and a few cloves of smashed garlic.  After a quick stir on medium heat, in go the garden pickings.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  2. Meanwhile, or even before one plays with the garden greens, a big stockpot of boiling salted water is on the go, then Butta La Pasta, throw in the pasta. I count on 100 grs per adult if the dish is un piatto unico, a one course dish.
  3. Within no time, the leaves wilt and the baby broad beans soften. Time for some salt and a few grinds of pepper.
  4. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen the farro spirali pasta is ready, scoop out a little pasta water before draining.
  5.  Add the drained pasta to the cooked vegetables and consider whether to add a few tablespoons of the reserved cooking water to loosen the dish, making a garlicky unctuous sauce. Increase the heat and briefly toss again.  Add lots of ground pepper then crumbled fetta. Feel the creative energy of Spring. Then plate.

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Serve with a golden lick of good olive oil and some grated parmesan.

                                                           Spring on a plate.

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A little footnote. Today my blog, Almost Italian, turns one. Where did that year go? A big thanks to all my friends, followers, and those who read these posts. I really appreciate your support. It encourages me to continue and to learn. Have a look at my post one year ago- it’s a funny looking thing about artichokes. Francesca

 

 

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Travel Theme: Interior of Albi Cathedral, France

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlbi Cathedral, formerly the Basilique Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile d’Albi, is a monumental brick church in Albi, Southern France. First built as a fortress in 1287 and under construction for 200 years, it is claimed to be the largest brick building in the world. In 2010 the cathedral was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site.
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The interior of this church is most striking.  Unlike the foreboding exterior, the inside is fantastic (literally), with Renaissance painted frescoes on the ceiling, Southern Gothic sculpture, filigree stone work, and the scariest of all, the Flemish painted fresco of the ‘Last Judgment’, enough to convert any happy, illiterate pagan.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Although I am allergic to religion, I do enjoy visiting the interiors of churches and temples around the world and thank Ailsa of Where’s My Backpack for the chance to revisit this one.

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Outback Camp Kitchen: a New Approach.

Wilpena Pound, Flinders Ranges

Wilpena Pound, Flinders Ranges

Setting up a base camp in the outback takes organisation and planning. Supplies are available but they are usually extremely expensive and limited to the basics. While Mr Tranquillo takes charge of things like batteries, the fridge, testing solar panels, and setting up good lighting, I like to plan a functional camping kitchen.

Before leaving home, I tend to pack in this way:

  • tall bottles in one box (extra virgin olive oil, canola oil, soy sauce, sesame oil, fish sauce, tomato sauce, passata, good vinegar, other sauces depending on length of stay).
  • dry goods box, includes, jasmine rice, arborio rice, dry falafel mix, plain flour, atta flour, fast cooking oats, lentils, dried coconut milk, couscous etc.
  • cans box includes, tomatoes, chick peas, borlotti beans, baby beetroot, tuna large and small, other canned fish.
  • breakfast basket – muesli, spreads and jam, tea bags, coffee, small long life milk packets, cups, picnic set, bread board, bread well wrapped ( more important for days when travelling)
  • root vegetable bag, includes a big bag of Nicola chats, onions, garlic, ginger, beetroot, sweet potato, ( carrots best in fridge)
  • car fridge includes fresh milk,plain yogurt, tasty cheese, parmesan cheese, fetta, fresh herbs, fresh vegetables, butter or Lurpak. Fish as found on route.
  • the spice box. (more about this below)

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Along the way, I begin to rearrange these boxes. Despite our camping rule, to do the major cooking prep in natural light, sometimes this isn’t possible as long walks and day trips demand a later start. So a new method of sorting emerges, one based on ethnicity or cuisine.

The indian bag

The Indian/Middle Eastern bag

An example of this approach can be seen with the Indian cooking bag containing:

  • coconut milk powder
  • red lentils ( masoor dhal)
  • curry leaves
  • atta flour
  • chick pea cans
  • besan flour

The spice box is a permanent feature of the camp kitchen and stays in its own compartment in the kitchen, and is regularly refreshed. In it are spices, dried herbs, salts and black peppercorn, whole chillies and stock cubes.

The spice box

The spice box

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis new approach can be seen in action on the day I decided to make some chapatis on an open fire. I simply grabbed the Indian bag and started the chick pea curry on the gas stove, a simple dish involving four steps:

  1. Finely chop onion, garlic, ginger and gently fry in plain oil (canola) till soft.
  2. Add the following ground spices, coriander, cumin, turmeric, big handful of curry leaves. Stir through for one minute.
  3. Add 1 cup of reconstituted coconut milk plus a little extra water to loosen. Stir then cook for two minutes on medium heat.
  4. Add a can of chick peas, drained and well rinsed.
  5. Let cook slowly while making the chappatis. Taste, add salt.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The chappatis are made with atta flour, water and nigella (kalonji) seeds. These were rolled out using an empty Riesling bottle, then cooked quickly on hot wood coal. Asbestos fingers are handy: so are tongs.

Chappatis ready for the fire.

Chappatis ready for the fire.

chappati cooked on open fire, raita, chick pea curry.

Chappatis, raita, and chick pea curry. Please pass the tamarind chutney.

Another Indian treat is a simple potato chat dish. Peel and parboil nicola (yellow fleshed) potatoes. Add Indian spices such as mustard seed, salt, lots of curry leaves, and fry in a little canola oil in a super hot wok over coals. Serve with then a squeeze of lemon if you have one. 

Indian chat, beer snack.

Indian chat, beer snack.

My new organisation also has a wonderful Italian bag -naturally. Basics like cans and sauces stay in the original boxes. 
I am keen to hear from anyone who enjoys packing food supplies for long getaways, especially where there are no shops and electric power is limited.
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The Outback and The Black Sheep of Burra

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On the way to the Flinders Ranges and the South Australian outback, it is customary to stay in the historic town of Burra. In the past, and I mean less than ten years ago, Burra was a sleepy historic town: attractive, but definitely ‘olde worlde’.  Today, the town is buzzing with new energy. More old houses in the back streets are being restored, the Burra Hotel has a new publican and chef , and the arrival of an Italian Osteria in an old tin shed is an exciting addition to the town. One can sense the brio!  Given that Burra is only 200 kilometres from Adelaide, it was bound to happen.

The Burra Hotel: Micheal the new manager is bound to do well.

The Burra Hotel. Michael, the new manager, is a friendly chap with vision.

After setting up camp at the central but extremely basic camping ground in town, we wandered the historic streets of Burra in search of a cleansing ale, or to be precise, a cleansing Coopers Pale Ale.  This search wasn’t long or arduous. The Burra Hotel is centrally located  and has had a makeover since our last visit, but still retains that old pub feel,  that is, spruced up but not gentrified. Michael, the new publican, had just taken over some days before and he certainly enjoys a chat. The menu looked great, and we would have stayed, but something caught my eye on the way : this sign, on this shed.

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An osteria, La Pecora Nera, in the middle of a little outback town? A beacon in the twilight. Off we trotted after our beers to find a packed and thriving authentic pizzeria and osteria complete with domed wood fired oven and a noisy, convivial atmosphere. We were seated at one of the larger communal tables. Wine is displayed on the wall shelving, so it’s a matter of choosing one and taking it to the table. Our 2009 Mt Surmon Nebbiolo from nearby Claire was the perfect wine for the occasion.  ( $35.00)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter ordering, a plate of rustic wood fired bread, drizzled with good oil, arrived at the table. Really good bread, really good oil. Then a Pizza perfetta arrives, a Napolitana with a fine, thin crusted base, ( $17.00) large enough for two.

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We ordered a delicious cheesecake to share and then the lovely Clare did the rounds of all the tables with her limoncello bottle.  It’s mid week and no one wants to go home.

Clare and her partner Paolo run this successful osteria: Paolo is the pizzaiolo and Clare makes everyone happy with little extras. It is indeed authentically Italian. Suddenly we feel like guests at her party.

Clare of La Pecora Nera

Clare of La Pecora Nera

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI can’t wait to go back to Burra, but next time for a longer stay, to walk around the town at leisure and to stay in a little renovated Cornish miner’s cottage.

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