What’s Happening in Italy?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen many of us think of Italy, we fantasize about the good life, la dolce vita. For some of us, it’s the cuisine: others are attracted to the ‘Italian house in a village’ fantasy. Historians love to seek out the layers of history seen in every region.  For many, like myself, it is a love affair with the language inextricably entwined with Italian history and culture.

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Midst this romantic ‘outsiders’ view of Italian life stands an awful ongoing problem. Youth unemployment, which applies to those aged between 15 and 29,  now stands at 49% nationally and 60% in the south.
Many try to emigrate. Italy is experiencing a “fuga dei cervelli” or brain drain.

‘Last year, some 44,000 Italians requested a National Insurance Number in the UK alone, more than 80 per cent of them aged 34 or less. And yet the UK is the fifth largest European emigration point from Italy with Germany, Switzerland, France and Belgium receiving more.’

My young Italian visitors feel that Italy is a sinking ship. Those who attempt to migrate to Australia face a rigorous process, and despite their training, skills and English language ability, find it almost impossible. When they return to Italy, they get by and make do,
often by continuing to work in the family business, or spruiking outside department stores for a few euro, their degrees and untested professional training slowly fading into the background, becoming increasingly obsolete.

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‘According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) 2013 report on well being, Italians placed their own happiness at about 5.6, lower than the OECD average of 6.6 – and only just above that of Russians.’

Back streets of Barga
Back streets of Barga

So when you think of Italy, its wonderful architecture, glorious art and history, the fashionable streets of Florence, Milano and Lucca, the wine, food, and people, spare a thought for the 49% of young people who cannot work. The effect, in the long-term, on Bell’Italia is a disaster.

I have extracted some facts from this excellent article, which can be read in full here.  http://www.smh.com.au/national/joblessness-in-italy-no-country-for-young-men-20141007-10rfb5.html#ixzz3HToI1LW9

 

Crunchy Fried Calamari with Tahini Remoulade

Saha, by Greg and Lufy Malouf.
Saha, by Greg and Lufy Malouf.

It was a lucky find. I was cleaning out the freezer in anticipation of the bounty that late Spring and Summer provides, when I found a small packet of frozen calamari. This buried treasure was still within the realms of short term memory, unlike many of the other odd frozen parcels, which became treats for ‘el chooks’  (the chickens).

As the rest of the ingredients were on hand, it was time to attempt Greg Malouf’s Crunchy Fried Calamari and Tahini Remoulade from the cookbook Saha.

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Although the total recipe appears to have a long list of ingredients, it is really quite simple. The recipe is divided into steps: make the spice mix, then the remoulade, then the crunchy topping and finally the quick fry of the calamari. The Golden Spice Mix comes from the first chapter of Malouf’ s Saha with recipes for cumin salt, fragrant salt, paprika oil, taklia – a garlicky spicy topping- baharat, and a spicy marinade.

Golden Spice Mix.

  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 tablespoon turmeric
  • 1/2 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 tablespoon chilli

Mix together and store in a jar for up to 6 months.

Tahini Remoulade.

  • 150 g plain yoghurt
  • 3 tablespoons tahini, well stirred
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed with 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 tablespoon chopped flat leafed parsley
  • 1 tablespoon chopped gherkins
  • 1 teaspoon chopped capers

Combine the yoghurt, tahini, garlic and lemon juice in a bowl and whisk together thoroughly. Add the remaining ingredients and stir well.

Crunchy Coating

  • 3 tablespoons cornflour ( cornstarch)
  • 3 tablespoons fine polenta
  • 3 tablespoons fine semolina
  • 1 tablespoon of golden spice mix ( see above)

The Calamari, Cooking and Assembling.

  • 8 small calamari, quartered
  • salt and pepper
  • vegetable oil for shallow frying
  • lemon wedges
  • fresh garden leaves to serve

Prepare the crunchy coating by sieving all the ingredients together. Season the calamari pieces then dunk them into the crunchy coating mixture. Put the calamari pieces into the sieve to shake off any extra coating. Heat the oil in a large frying pan until nearly smoking. Add the calamari pieces in batches, shaking the pan to coat them with the oil and to colour them evenly. They should take less than a minute to cook. Remove from the pan and drain on kitchen paper. Serve them piping hot with lemon wedges and the Tahini Remoulade.

My Notes

*I used larger calamari and cut them into small  pieces. This would work well with any shape you decide to cut. I also used the tentacles.

* The coating would be handy for many other small fry, although a sticking agent, such as a beaten egg or some milk, would help the coating adhere to flathead fillets. Calamari has enough of its own ‘glue’.

* The tahini remoulade is a winner. This sauce is far more appealing than the common place tartar based on mayonnaise. I will be using this in future. I used more capers than suggested in the recipe.

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Thanks Leah, of the Cookbook Guru, for encouraging me and others to cook from a nominated cookbook, taking us away from our comfort zone!

 

 

 

Travel Theme: Numbers in Spello, Umbria

Photographic themes and challenges are a lot like time travel. I hop into the Tardis and revisit wonderful places, remembering the conversations, the food, the ambience.  After the visit, a few timely crops are made and then the hunt is on to extract a few pearls that might fit the chosen theme.

This week it’s numbers and we are heading off to Umbria, Italy.

I would love to live at No 1, Diana Temple Street.
I would love to live at No 1 Tempio Diana Street, Spello.

A house sign in Spello, on Tempio Diana Street. Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt, the moon and birthing, continues to make her presence felt throughout Italy. It is interesting to note that the cult of the Virgin Mary was tacked on to that of Diana, ( and in Sicily where Greek connections are stronger) that of Artemis too.

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Spello is an enchanting small hill town in Umbria. Apartments to rent are economical and the views from the top of the town provide vistas of Umbria, the olive grove walk from Spello to Assisi, and also the industrial plains in between, ever-present but rarely mentioned.

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The search for dinner is on. Will we dine at Number 9?

Mischa Bella and Justin Bebar
Mischa Bella, some numbers and Justin Bieber

Despite my attempts to fill her head with history, dates, architecture and numbers, Mischa Bella was still in search of her idol, Justin Bieber, and found him in Italy. She also found the Twilight actors in Volterra! Thank goodness she has now outgrown him.

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 and 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

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.

 

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.

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.

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!

 

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