Silence in Nantes, France

After a long holiday, it’s an amusing pastime to sit down and make a ‘best of’ list. The categories are numerous but might include the best cathedral, the best small church, the best restaurant meal, rental accommodation, hotel, seascape, musical experience, road trip, small village, river, wine and so on. When it comes to churches, there are plenty of candidates. My award for best cathedral goes to Nantes Cathedral, the Cathedral of St. Peter and St Paul, in France.

The building commenced in 1434 and took 457 years to complete. It is built in the French Gothic style, with late additions in Gothic Flamboyant and late Gothic. There are no jarring classical Italianesque elements or afterthoughts. Like many French cathedrals – Chartres comes to mind – the soaring height and long narrow nave overwhelms the visitor: silence descends, with occasional echoes of shuffles and murmurs bruising the ambience. Shafts of celestial light expose incandescent dust mites, while thoughts, not necessarily religious but meditative and spiritual, ascend into space.

The Tomb of Francis 11, Duke of Brittany, is located within the cathedral. Sculpted from Carrara marble in 1507 by Michael Colombe, it is an extraordinary work in the Renaissance style and is considered a masterpiece of French sculpture. The recumbent figures of the deceased couple, Francis and Margaret, lie prostrate with hands raised in prayer, as their heads rest on pillows held up by three angels. Margaret’s feet rest on a greyhound, symbol of fidelity, while Francis’ feet are on a lion, representing strength. At the four corners stand statues each representing the four virtues, Courage, Justice, Temperance, and Prudence. Under these statues, huddled in small shell-shaped medallions, are penitent mourners draped in black.

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While the tomb is elaborate and detailed, the cathedral space is light, spare and uncluttered, making the contrast even more appealing. Time to light a candle.

My award, incidentally, for the best small church can be found here.

 

Where’s My Toga? Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe

The expression ‘Paese che vai, usanza che trovi’ is often spouted by Italians, as wise advice or an admonishment, I’m never sure which. The well-known English equivalent, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’, means exactly the same thing and is the golden rule for all travellers to foreign lands. Tourists in Rome however, can take this saying literally, especially when it comes to food.  I’ll eat like a Roman any day.

Non sto male, that’s for sure.

Some of the Roman meatless classics you are likely to find include spaghetti alle vongole verace, carciofi alla giudia, insalata di puntarella and my favourite Roman dish of all time, Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe.

A bowl of cacio e pepe: the creamy Pecorino sauce hides within.

I’ve had a few attempts at reproducing an autentico Spaghetti (or Tonnarelli) Cacio e Pepe over the years with varying success. The dish has only three ingredients yet is not so simple to make. There are a few magic techniques to master for a perfect result. After trawling through a variety of Italian sites, I’ve settled on the advice offered by the Giallo Zafferano site ( beware the advertisement bombardment on this site ). Many non-Italian sites add such things as butter or oil which ruin a good Cacio e Pepe. Don’t be misled by these recipes.

When making this cheesy peppery dish, keep in mind that the sauce will use the hot, starchy pasta cooking water. By gradually adding a small amount of this hot liquid to the grated cheese, a thick, non grainy sauce will form. The other trick is to toast the ground peppercorns in a large deep sided frying pan followed by added pasta water. This will make a starchy, peppery bath to finish cooking the semi- cooked pasta. When the pasta is added, it will absorb the extra liquid, a method similar to making risotto. It’s a good idea to read the details below a few times before beginning. If confusing, refer to the Giallo Zafferano site and watch the video demonstration of the creaming method.

Ingredients. For two large serves for a main meal.

  • 100 gr Pecorino Romano
  • 220 gr Spaghetti number 12 /(de Cecco brand is nice)
  • 5 gr whole black peppercorn ( you might not use all of this)
  • sea salt for pasta water.

Tools. Pasta pot, deep sided large frying pan or large non stick wok, small whisk, bowl, mortar and pestle, tongs, wooden spoon. Yes, only three ingredients and a whole lot of tools.

Method

  1. Grate the Pecorino.
  2. Boil the water in a pasta pot (use about half the usual amount of water to cook the pasta so it will be richer in starch) and salt well.
  3. When the water comes to a rolling boil, add the pasta. Timing is crucial here. If your pasta usually takes 10 minutes to cook al dente, set the timer for 8 minutes. You want the pasta to be slightly under cooked at this point.
  4. Meanwhile crush the peppercorns with a mortar and pestle or grinder. Pour half the ground pepper into a large frying pan or non stick wok and dry roast over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon or tongs.
  5. Add a couple of ladles of pasta cooking water to the peppercorn pan. Bubbles should appear due to the starch contained in the water. Using tongs, lift the semi- cooked spaghetti into the frying pan, keeping aside the pot of cooking water.
  6. Stir the pasta about, using a wooden spoon or tongs. When the water is absorbed, add another ladle of pasta water and continue stirring. Continue adding a ladle of pasta water as needed.
  7. In the meantime, when you think the pasta is almost ready – and this can only be judged by tasting along the way – prepare the Pecorino cream.
  8. Pour half the grated Pecorino into a small mixing bowl. Add a few tablespoons of pasta cooking water and mix well with a whisk. When it is creamy, add more Pecorino and a little more cooking water, whisking all the while. Keep going in this way, holding back a little grated cheese for the final condiment.
  9. Finish cooking the pasta, adding a little more cooking water if necessary, before adding the Pecorino cream. Briefly mix the cream by placing the bowl over the steam of the pasta pot hot water, and stir with the whisk. This brings the cream back to the temperature of the pasta. Turn off the heat and add the Pecorino cream, stirring continuously with the kitchen tongs until well amalgamated.
  10. Serve adding more grated cheese and a little extra pepper. Mangia!
Chef on break. Roman laneways and trattorie.

Do as the Romans do, eat Cacio e Pepe autentico.

Over the Bridge to Trastevere, Rome

There’s something very captivating about Trastevere, despite the busy night time crowds and touristy restaurants. It’s just a hop over a bridge to Centro Storico, Rome’s ancient centre, and depending on which bridge you take, you’ll land in a different precinct. Getting lost is part of a good day in Rome as you find new streets and more colours until once again, a familiar piazza or ancient Roman building pops up before your very eyes and you know where you are. Rome is always surprising.

One bridge takes you to the Jewish quarter, a great place to wander about on a weekday morning but avoid the weekends when this district is swamped with lunchtime crowds and restaurant spruikers.

Around the Jewish quarter, Rome

Another bridge takes you to the working class, gritty suburb of Testaccio, with its central food market and authentic Roman trattorie. You’ll pass yet more ancient Roman treasures along the way, some just lying about, and wonder why you hadn’t seen them before. There’s a certain insouciance in Rome when it comes to antiquity and this is part of the charm.

Testaccio, Roma,

Other bridges lead you through some official districts until you wander past Palazzo Farnese and find yourself in Campo Dei Fiori and nearby Piazza del Biscione, with its old style restaurants, another market and a superb fornaio ( bakery) on the corner.

The walls seem to glow in Rome’s cold late Autumn light, an attraction in themselves. Layers of ochre, pinks and reds, some colours when weathered, have no name at all. They are the colours washed by time, the colours that make you keep wandering and wondering, the colours of Rome.

 

Lombardian Stories. The Visconti Unplugged

Ambitious and successful, cruel and paranoid, the Visconti ruled Lombardy for more than 150 years (1277 -1447), an era marked by political upheaval and instability. Constant battles between warring states, ambitious condottieri with their eyes firmly fixed on a princely acquisition or a better offer from another ruler, callous despotic rulers and outbreaks of the plague featured prominently during this period.

Castello Sforzesco, Vigevano

Histories often dwell on the intricate details and dates of deals, reversals, betrayals and reprisals in the battle for power in Northern Italy: this is hard going and tedious reading for many. It’s no wonder that most Renaissance scholars gravitate towards Florentine history, a safe and fertile ground for research. Florence was blessed with relative order (once the Guelfs and Ghibellines had settled their disputes), prudent and astute bankers, graceful and relatively modest buildings, as well as talented architects, artists, writers and poets. The prolific documentation pumped out by the Humanist writers of the Republic gave rise to an historical obsession with Florence. The Renaissance history books on my shelves reinforce this idea: Milan, one of the Big 5 of Italy during that era (the others being Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples) receives scant attention.

Castello Visconteo, Pavia

During the Visconti era, the following cities came under their rule: Bergamo, Novara , Cremona, Como, Lodi, Piacenza and Brescia, as well as Pavia, and smaller towns nearby. With each new acquisition came more cash flow, more gold florins to spend on castles and palaces. They brought a period of wealth and glory to Milan and, like other dictators and warlords of the period, extracted hefty taxes from the locals, not only to build and maintain their castles and lifestyle, but to continue to pay the condottieri ( mercenaries). Often famous, admired and wealthy in their own right, the condottieri commanded private armies to fight territorial battles as well as providing the Visconti with personal protection. It is estimated that half of all gathered revenue was spent on this. As the saying goes, paranoia is just being careful, and you can never be too careful.

Castello Sforzesco a Vigevano, Lombardia

The Visconti rulers were feared, not loved, and their cruelty was legendary. One of the early Visconti, Bernabò, was passionate about boar hunting: anyone who interfered with it was put to death by torture:

‘ The terrified people were forced to maintain 5,000 boar hounds, with strict responsiblity for their health and safety.’¹

A later member of the family, Giovanni Maria Visconti, was famed for his dogs though not so much for hunting but for tearing human bodies.

‘ In 1409, when war was going on, and the starving populace cried to him in the streets, Pace! Pace! he let lose his mercenaries upon them and 200 lives were sacrificed; under penalty of the gallows it was forbidden to utter the words pace and guerra.‘²

On the side of grandeur, Giangaleazzo Visconti founded the extraordinary convent, the Certosa of Pavia, the cathedral of Milan, considered at the time to be the most splendid of all churches in Christendom and the Palace in Pavia, ‘the most magnificent of princely buildings of Europe’. He became Duke of Milan in 1395 and before his death was hoping to become the ruler of the Kingdom of Italy. The Visconti were extremely ambitious.

La Strada Coperta or the covered road, commissioned by the Luchino Visconti in 1347, part of the Castello Sforzesco, Vigevano. It was built to allow the lords of Milan to enter and exit the castle without being seen by the inhabitants of the village, and to flee  during times of impending danger. 
La Strada Coperta, 160 metres long by 7 metres wide. Massive and intact from the Visconti era.

As mentioned above, a high level of paranoia was another feature of their rule, which is often noted in the behaviour of the last Visconti, Filippo Maria:

‘All the resources of the state were devoted to the one end of securing his personal safety, though happily his cruel egotism did not degenerate into a thirst for blood. He lived in the Citadel in Milan, surrounded by magnificent gardens, arbours and lawns. For years he never set foot in the city, only making excursions to the country….. by flotilla which, drawn by the swiftest horses, conducted him along canals constructed for the purpose…..Whoever entered the citadel was watched by a hundred eyes and it was forbidden to stand at the window, lest signs should be given to those without.’³

Servants distrusted each other while highly paid condottieri were watched by spies. Despite this level of neurosis and court intrigue, he managed to conduct long periods of war and dealt successfully with political affairs of the day.

The Biscione, the viper, swallowing a child or perhaps an Ottoman Turk. The family crest of the Visconti says it all! These shields can be found in all Visconti buildings. Below,a simplified graphic of Il Biscione.

Image result for visconti family crest

Beatrice de Tende, Fillip Maria’s wife, was said to have been an intelligent woman who concerned herself with the current affairs of state. Despite this and her own wealth, territory and military strength which she brought to the marriage, Filippo Maria had her accused, on trumped-up charges, of adultery with a young troubadour, and despite her confession of innocence, she was beheaded, along with her two maids and the young musician.

Window. Castello Sforzesco, Vigevano

If travelling to Milan and through Lombardy, plan to spend at least a day in Vigevano, una città ideale, one of the most beautiful Italian cities in northern Italy, bastion of the Visconti and Sforza, and probably much more accessible than Milan. A tour of the castle takes some hours and can be booked when purchasing your ticket.

The excellent  and informed guide leaves Castello Sforzesco, Vigevano.

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Background music for this post: the Saltarello, a dance originally from Italy in the late 14th century, the word deriving from the verb ‘saltare’, to jump. I include this as a reminder that some rather nice things went on during that period also.

Notes of the old fashioned kind.

¹ Jacob Burckhardt The Civilisation of The Renaissance in Italy. 1860. Phaidon  Press, edition 1955, pp.7-8

² Jacob Burckhardt, ibid, p 8

³Jacob Burckhardt, Ibid, pp 23-4

My interest in the Visconti and Sforza was aroused many years ago when teaching Renaissance history. I recall that the Dukes of Milano were not given much time; back then, the Medici claimed all the limelight. During my visit to Pavia, Vigevano and the small towns and villages along the Via Francigena, my interested was reignited. Guided by Stefania and Lorenza Costa Barbé, and the excellent young castle guide in Viegevano who spoke such magnificently lucid Italian, I’m now looking for some modern social histories of that era. Recommendations are sought.

 

Simple Chocolate Brownies for La Befana

As we lazed around the pool yesterday, I asked the girls if they were expecting a visit from La Befana. They looked at me blankly. I began explaining the legend of La Befana when suddenly the penny dropped- yes Daisy had heard about her from her Italian teacher last year and Charlotte simply said, “You mean that witch lady who does a Santa thing?”

Italian grandmothers fondly relate stories of their childhood in Italy when they eagerly anticipated the evening of the Befana between the 5th and 6th of January, L’ Epifania, the epiphany, is the night when La Befana would deliver gifts. La Befana, personified as a benign old witch with broken shoes, riding on a broomstick, and dressed in gypsy clothes, brings gifts to all children. Legend has it that the three kings, the Magi, dropped by the home of La Befana on their way to see the new-born baby Jesus. They asked her for directions as they had seen his star in the sky, but she didn’t know the way. She provided them with shelter for a night, as she was considered the best housekeeper in the village. The Magi invited her to join them on the journey but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework and sweeping. Later, La Befana had a change of heart, and tried to find the three wise men and Jesus. She searched but never found them. And so to this day, La Befana flies around on her broomstick, searching for the little baby Jesus, visiting all children with gifts. She also brings a lump of coal for those times when they have been naughty, and a sweet gift too. In the past, gifts were simple. I remember my dear friend Olga, who grew up in Marechiaro, near Naples in the 1920s, was delighted to receive an orange and a few caramelle from La Befana.

Carbone Dolce?

The epiphany is the 12th day of Christmas and signifies the end of the seasonal festivities. I like to celebrate this day in a small way: it’s my perverse nature I suppose, but I relate to the simplicity of this legend and the grandmotherly figure of the kindly old witch. Fat Santa, shopping mall Santa, Americanised commercial Santa be gone, and down with that Christmas tree too. The new year has begun in earnest.

This year’s sweet offering will be a tin of old school brownies, the ones we used to make before expensive pure chocolate became the preferred ingredient. This recipe is gooey and rich and is made using cocoa powder, a pantry staple. You won’t believe it’s not chocolate. They last for three days or so and as they get older, I serve them with custard or icecream as a small pudding.

Old School Chocolate and Walnut Brownies 
140g unsalted butter
55 g natural cocoa powder
½ tsp salt
1 tbsp strong coffee, made from instant coffee or leftover espresso
2 large eggs at room temperature
250 g sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
105 g  plain flour
¼ tsp baking powder
¾ cup chopped walnuts, plus extra chopped for topping
Method
  • Preheat oven to 180 C.  Line a 20 cm x 20 cm cake tin pan with baking paper. If you don’t have a square tin, an old slab tin 18 cm by 28 could be used, but the brownies might be slightly lower in height.
  • Melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Stir in cocoa and salt until smooth. Stir in coffee.
  • In a medium-sized bowl whisk together the eggs and the sugar vigorously until thickened and lightened by a shade. A stand mixer makes the job easy.  Add the vanilla extract. Whisk the cocoa and butter mixture into the sugar mixture.
  • Sift the flour and baking powder over the mixture and fold it in until combined. Fold in walnuts.
  • Spread batter into the prepared pan, sprinkle with extra walnuts.  Bake for 20 minutes.
  • Remove from the oven, cool and cut into small squares.

Recipe from Christina at Scientifically Sweet.

Cute, very Italian and kitsch, this cartoon caught my attention. It’s good to know that La Befana is still alive and well in Italy as a quick search will show.

 

Villa Farnesina, Rome. Who was Agostino Chigi?

This summer throughout January, I’m catching up with some of my unpublished stories from earlier travels in Europe in 2017. Some posts will be light-hearted, centered around food and accommodation, ‘the best of’ reports, while others are research based essays. It will be rewarding to polish them up and give them a final airing. Of course there will be a few cooking posts along the way too.

                                                          Buona Lettura

I’ve been thinking a lot about Agostino Chigi lately, and wondering why there’s not a great deal written about him. Given that he commissioned one of the most elegant and beautiful buildings of the Renaissance, Villa Farnesina in Trastevere, Rome, and was a generous patron of the arts, I find this quite unusual.

Agostino Chigi, (pronounced kee-gee) was a 15th to 16th century banker who was born in Siena then moved to Rome to assist his father, Mariano Chigi in 1487. He became the wealthiest man in Rome, especially after becoming banker to the Borgia family, in particular Pope Alexander V, followed by Pope Julius 11. If there’s one thing that helps a banker stay at the top, it’s having business dealings in Rome and becoming the Pope’s treasurer. The Florentine Medici, Giovanni di Bicci and Cosimo de’ Medici, also milked their Roman and Papal connections in the preceding years. Chigi’s financial interests expanded to obtaining lucrative control of important minerals, including the salt monopoly of the Papal States and Naples and the alum monopoly in Southern Italy. Alum was the essential mordant in the textile industry. With financial and mining interests, like a modern-day crony capitalist and entrepreneur, Chigi was ready to splurge.

The connection between the arts and banking makes an interesting Renaissance study in itself ¹. Banking families were keen patrons of the arts, not only in a bid to show off their taste and refinement, but also to cast off the slur of usury. Usury, making profit from charging interest on a loan, was a crime in 15th century Europe: a usurer was heading straight to hell, according to the main religious thinking of the day, unless he made a few corrections to that practice, through intricate bills of credit requiring lengthy international currency exchange deals. Banker patrons, worried about their afterlife, could buy a place in heaven by financing religious works -perhaps a marble tomb for a Pope, or some fine brass relief doors for a baptistry, or a few walls of religious themed freschi demonstrating their piety and devotion by appearing as genuflecting bystanders in a painting or two.

Chigi, like other bankers before him, was keen to spend time with the literati and patronised the main artistic figures of the early 16th century, including Perugino, Sebastiano del Piombo, Giovanni da Udine, Giulio Romano, Il Sodoma and Raffaele. These artists, and the architect Baldassare Peruzzi, all had a hand in making Villa Farnesina so attractive and harmonious. But the main feature you’ll notice in the painted works is its secularity: no religious themes appear in the decoration at all. Thus somewhere between the mid 15th century and 1508, when this building was commissioned and begun, the subject of the visual arts had shifted. Here, the freschi depict classical and historic themes: there’s not a Madonna or baby Jesus in sight except for those cheeky putti holding up garlands. I doubt that Agostino Chigi was overly concerned with the sin of usury. Times had changed.

Suggestive coupling of fruits. New world fruits appear in the garlands of Udine.

The ground floor room, the stunning Loggia di Psiche e Amore, was designed by Raffaele, though was mostly executed by one of his followers Giulio Romano, and seems heavier in style. It’s not the best secular work by Raffaele: his most graceful works are held in the quiet gallery of Gemäldegalerie, in Berlin, Germany ( more on this gallery later). The decorative garlands and festoons are by Giovanni da Udine, and although hard to get close to, draped as they are on high ceilings and around tall window sills and pillars, they steal the show.

Sensuous and erotic, the total effect of the Loggia is complete in its aim and purpose. This is a pleasure palace, a space decorated with pagan themes of love and seduction from classical mythology, designed to amuse Chigi’s guests. The modern addition of a walled glass fronting the garden allows more light to shine on the rich colours and detail. It is delightful.

Upstairs in a smallish room, the wall panels by Il Sodoma, ( catchy nick name for the artist, Giovanni Antonio Bazzi , no two guesses why), depict scenes from the marriage of Roxana and Alexander. In such a small space, the painted walls are ceilings are visually overwhelming.

At the end of the 16th century, Villa Farnesina was bought by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese ( of course a Cardinal needs an erotically decorated villa) and its name “Farnesina” was given to distinguish it from the Cardinal’s much larger Palazzo Farnese on the other side of the Tevere. Today the Villa is the centre for the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, the Italian Science Academy and the rooms are open to visitors. Palazzo Farnese, across the river, is occupied by the French Consulate and is not open to the public.

These small decorative motifs on window shutters and in cornices add to the overall aesthetic of the villa.

 

Some useful accompanying notes.

Giorgio Vasari, (1511-1574) author of Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, often simply called Vasari’s ‘Lives’, was the first art historian and the first to use the term rinascita ( Renaissancein print, though an awareness of the ongoing “rebirth” in the arts had been in the air since the writings of the Florentine Humanist, Alberti, almost a century earlier. He was responsible for the use of the term Gothic Art, and used the word Goth which he associated with the “barbaric” German style. His work has a consistent bias in favour of Florentines and tends to attribute to them all the developments in Renaissance art. Vasari has influenced many art historians since then, and to this day, many travellers to Italy are blinded by Vasari’s Florentine list and bias, at the expense of other important works in Milano and Rome. Vasari, however, does recognise the works in the Farnesina.

¹ The nexus between banking and art patronage is fully explored by Tim Parks in Medici Money. Banking, Metaphysics and Art in Fifteenth- Century Florence,one  of my favourite books. I am now re- reading this excellent history: it is written in an accessible style and makes for enjoyable summer reading, for those who like reading about the Renaissance.

² Various papers on the festoons and garlands in the Villa Farnesina in Colours of Prosperity Fruits from the Old and New world, produced by the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei and purchased at Villa Farnesina in Rome.

Agostino Chigi, 1506. Oil on canvas, anonymous.
 Villa Farnesina is in the quiet part of Trastevere, well away from the tourist hordes in that precinct, and during our visit last November, had only a few visitors. Sadly the garden wasn’t open.
Via della Lungara, 230, 00165 Roma RM, Italy

 

In My Kitchen, January 2018. Summertime

Boxing day, December 26th, is the most casual and relaxed day of the year: grazing on Christmas leftovers then lolling about on couches or deck chairs under a shady tree, what could be more pleasing? Summer is still benign. The following five days of sloth are Boxing Day extensions before pushy New Year budges in with its commitments, resolutions and calendar reminders. Those fireworks at midnight look and sound like a whole lot of fun to the uninitiated but what they really signify is the end of lazy days. Time to get cracking again folks, says that last fizzer. As it turns out, although I’m technically ‘retired’, January is my busiest month, as the summer vegetable and fruit crops mature and the kitchen turns into a preserving factory. In this small window of opportunity before this onslaught, I’m enjoying pottering about. Sometimes things happen in my kitchen and sometimes they don’t. Can someone kindly pass me a peach and a glass of Prosecco?

While all the peaches came and went, barefoot servants too.

The peach season came and went. There is nothing in the world like the taste of a perfectly ripe peach, plucked from the tree, slightly soft and sun-kissed, whispering I’m ready. Miss Daisy tested the peaches in the days leading up to Christmas, her hand gently pressing the furry blushed spheres, as she reached up high inside the bird netting. She has learnt that when a peach is ready, it will drop into your cupped hand without any tugging. Many were eaten somewhere between the tree and our back door but a few made it into the kitchen. Daisy sat by the pool one day, eating her splendid peach, reminding me that some moments in time are unblemished and glorious. A few peachy shots followed.

Girl with Peach.

Daisy is my cooking muse and I am hers. She has appeared occasionally in my posts over the last four years, mainly because she is almost a kitchen fixture when she visits. We feed off each other. She inspires me with her love of food, perfect sense of smell and curiosity and I inspire her with my creations. She knows the contents of my pantry like the back of her own hand. We make huge messes together which Mr Tranquillo cleans up.

Licking the spoon, licking the bowl, kids in the kitchen, good for your soul.

Chickpeas are making their presence felt in my kitchen since I mastered the use of my pressure cooker. I bought a combination slow/pressure cooker around four years ago but all my attempts at using the pressure cooker function ended in disaster. As it turns out, it had a faulty rubber gasket: I discovered this only when Breville contacted all the owners of this defective product three years after its purchase. It had been sitting in the larder, swanky word for converted laundry space, gathering dust: it couldn’t even be recycled given its dodgy performance and was probably destined for the hard rubbish. Once Breville sent out the new rubber seal, the big black pot has spent more time chugging away on the kitchen bench and all is forgiven. I can now cook a pile of chickpeas, ready to use, within 45 minutes without pre-soaking. Chick peas end up in Middle Eastern Buddha bowls, Indian curries with tamarind and fresh coriander, Italian pasta and ceci soup and of course, hummus.

Cooked in the pressure cooker- from woe to go, 45 minutes.

Just before Christmas, friends gave us a big bag full of perfect mangoes, part of the annual charity mango drive run by the local pre-school. A few left over mangoes went into this mango chutney. It’s tropical, spicy and jammy, but perhaps needs a bit more fresh chilli.

Mango Chutney for Indian days. Grazie Helen e Chris.

Bread making took a festive turn when I made a batch of Celia’s sourdough fruit bread. I used walnuts, sultanas, apricots and dates, and upped the spice a bit. I’m keen to use up the excess dried fruit I bought before Christmas. More of these fruit and nut studded loaves will be made during the early morning hours of January.

Fruit and spice sourdough, randomly slashed! Summer breakfast covered.

Before leaving Pavia in Lombardy last November, Alberto gave me a sack of his own freshly harvested rice, nicely packaged in festive fabric. Grown in the classic rice-growing zone of the Po Valley, the rice was milled in October in Novara, Lombardia. I can’t wait to try it and team it with something from the summer garden.

Il riso d’ Alberto, San Martino Siccomario, Pavia. Ottobre 2017. Grazie Albe`.

When I’m trying to escape the siren song of the kitchen, a fish and chip night is called for. As it’s a 12 kilometer return trip for a take- away, we don’t consider this option often. He drives, I cut up the lemons. On a lucky night, I might even throw a green salad together. Thanks Sherry for hosting the monthly In My Kitchen series. Go to Sherry’s Pickings for an inside view of other world kitchens.

                                                          Buon Anno a Tutti

Flounder and chips, c/o Hurstbridge Fish and Chip shop.  Bring it on.

Summer Buddha Bowls

Buddha bowls have made a mysterious appearance around here lately. They are deceptive little meals. Initially, they seem easy enough- shove a few things in a bowl, grab a fork or chopsticks and plonk yourself and filled bowl in front of Netflix, then veg out – literally. But once you get into the building stage, you may find yourself led down a culinary rabbit hole, creating more and more interesting elements to complement your initial idea.

Buddha bowls, otherwise known as macro or hippy bowls, have been around for a few years, spreading from the inner suburban haunts of the hipster to outer suburban cafés and the countryside. According to the urban dictionary, ‘Buddha bowls are packed so full that they have a rounded belly appearance on the top much like the belly of a buddha’. While I’m not one for succumbing to food trends, I love a hippy macro buddha bowl in summer, so long as certain conventions are followed.

A fine Buddha Bowl is one where the individual elements and flavours complement each other culturally and ethnically. I tend to apply this general principle to other plated meals too. I don’t like mixing Middle Eastern foods with Asian, or Mediterranean with Indonesian, though I have eaten some culturally mismatched foods in cafes which make me cringe. I like to start with a particular cuisine- Japanese, for example, then ferret around the pantry and fridge finding elements that build on that theme. You could add more guidelines: there should be contrast in colour and texture and the composition should be appealing to the eye and not look like a dog’s dinner. Try to include one grain, preferably a wholegrain, the macro element, and some form of protein- such as egg, fish, pulses, beans, or tofu, as well as fresh uncooked vegetables, something pickled, seeds or nuts, and a good dressing. Your bowl doesn’t have to be overflowing like a fat Buddha- a few contrasting elements with some good flavour is all you need.

Today’s macro hippy buddha bowl followed a Japanese path and tasted clean and sustaining. It  included:

  • brown rice, cooked, cooled a little, then dressed with sushi dressing and black sesame seeds
  • tofu chunks, fried, then glazed in a miso and mirin sauce
  • pickled cucumber and red onion with ginger for crunch
  • fresh mustard leaves, shredded
  • young radishes

It was one of my ‘holier than thou’ bowls, perfect for the post-Christmas season, the umami element, the warm miso sauced fried tofu, saving the dish from total puritanism. I also considered adding some torn nori. Steamed green beans tossed in browned sesame seed sauce might have gone well too, or a sliced avocado. On market day, a crunchy fried miso glazed small fish would be a good addition. The thing is to use what you have that sits comfortably within a particular country’s culinary framework and that includes using a neutral flavoured oil, and not olive oil, if heading down the Asian path.

When does a bowl become a share platter? New terminology for old ideas. The Medit bowl made from Puy lentils, dressed in olive oil and sherry vinegar, parsley, shallots, goat’s cheese, black olives, toasted almonds. Served with croutons.

Last week’s bowls included a Mediterranean bowl for two ( pictured above) and an Indian feast. To be fair, Indian bowls are as old as Buddha himself. While the rice and dhal are cooking, begin creating small add ons- baked cauliflower with whole cumin seeds, toasted almonds, hard-boiled eggs, and a simple raita, made from yoghurt and cucumber or mint. At this time of year, fresh mango chutney adds a seasonal sweet touch.

The Indian bowl. White rice, hard-boiled egg, baked cauliflower in Indian spices with toasted slivered almonds. Masoor Dal, tomato salad, Raita with mint, mango chutney.

Today’s pickle was made as the rice cooked. It goes well with Japanese meals and makes a nice crunchy change from the commercial pink pickled ginger. It is not one to store.

  • 2 small cucumbers, finely sliced
  • one red onion, finely sliced
  • 1 cup rice vinegar/ or apple cider if improvising
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons minced/grated ginger.
  • pinch of dried chilli flakes.

Layer vegetables in a small jar. Mix the sugar, salt and vinegar, stir until blended and pour over. Leave for one hour.

Part of today’s culinary rabbit hole- a crunchy fresh pickle.

Happy Holidays dear readers.

The Pantheon Revisited. Rome

I flinch when I hear that commonly asked question, “what was the highlight of your trip?” I never have a ready answer, (a) because I cannot honestly choose one favourite and (b) because I know it’s a trick question, designed to protect the enquirer from a long-winded monologue, the equivalent of the tedious slide night of old.

And so when asked to share the most meaningful photo of 2017, I drew a blank. There are too many, ranging from beautiful shots of the young children in my life, their skin glowing with health, thousands of travel snaps taken throughout a recent five month journey, photos of my handmade sourdough bread- flour, water and salt- which always surprises me, pictures of friendly visitors, the bright red and green King Parrots, and more. None of these photos are particularly meaningful though many are quite special.

I’ve been looking at my Roman photos recently and remember the day we came upon the Pantheon after walking around randomly one afternoon last month. It was a cold day, and I certainly had no intention of revisiting that famous site. But there it loomed, that famous temple to every God insisting that we enter once again. That’s the problem with Rome. It’s hard to get much done as there are just too many distractions. Revisits offer new insights. Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon’s dome remains the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The height to the oculus and the diameter of the interior circle are the same, 43 metres ( 142 feet). It always amazes.

Snaps from the inside of the dome, edited just for fun, while I’m working on my answer to that question.

A Lombardian Christmas Card

As Christmas Day moves closer, a stressful count down for some, I’m finding peace in doing simple domestic tasks. Ironing old linen, making bread, shaping and rolling more batches of Sicilian almond balls to share with others, moving furniture around to create dining space for the day, and draping silvery bling around the Christmas tree. Mindless tasks allow thoughts to wander: the devil makes work for busy hands too. I’m back in the towns and villages of Lombardy. I don’t feel that I’ve really left: I have unfinished business there. I miss the sound of village bells, the simple risotti on every menu, the low-lying rice fields of the Po valley dotted with 17th century cascine, enclosed farm buildings and villas set midst stubbled rice fields, river flats edged with pioppi, poplar trees, remnants of Visconti castles, red bricked medieval fortresses, the wine growing hills above Pavia, and the gentle Lombardi people, my new friends and old. I will return to these stories in January: there are many waiting to be aired.

In the meantime, I’m sending out these Lombardi Christmas Cards. They depict a different kind of Christmas bell, the orange kaki or persimmons that caught my eye as we wandered about a small village in the Oltrepò, near Pavia. Nearby, an old shed housing some antique building materials attracted Mr T. This Christmas card is for shed lovers. Another renovation? A little house in the Lombardian hills? Wishing you, dear readers, many fine things this Christmas: good food, friends and family and a warm embrace. Who could want for more.