When the first suggestion of Winter arrives, right in the middle of Autumn, it’s a reminder to gather wood for the fires and adjust the wardrobe and mental outlook for the oncoming cold season. Many Melburnians still have their head in the sand, believing that Australia is a hot place. For six months of the year, it’s cold and inhospitable, with dreary grey skies dominating the landscape, and black dressing de rigeur. Out come the Michelin man garments, those unflattering and un-environmental puffer jackets and vests that work rather well, along with fingerless gloves, berets and warm leggings, umbrellas and wind jackets. I’m not a fan of Winter but in theory, it does have a certain romantic appeal.
And that appeal centres around soup. Late Autumn soups become thick and creamy, a French purée or perhaps an Italian crema. Lunchtime zuppa del giorno loaded with beans or pulses, is eaten as a piatta unica withcrusty bread. Vegetarian shepherds pie makes a comeback, Autumn’s new eggplants feature in rich Turkish fare dressed with Pekmez, and the day might culminate with a sharp cheddar cheese served with whisky laced fig jam, a salty, sweet and peaty treat beside the fire. Served with a single malt of course.
One of my favourite creamed soups, Cullen Skink, features smoked fish. Cullen is a small fishing village on the east coast of Scotland and is well worth a visit, while Skink ( no, not a small lizard) may be derived from soups made with shins or ham bones. There are as many versions of Cullen Skink as there are Scots. Some like it chunky: others, like me, prefer it pureed. The main thing that each recipe has in common is simplicity: potatoes, smoked fish, onions and milk. Once you begin adding fresh fish, or bacon or any other bits and pieces, the soup becomes a chowder.
Cullen Skink, for four servings or two greedy sized servings.
I tablespoon butter
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 large stick celery, finely chopped
2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 1cm cubes
300 ml water
250 g smoked haddock, or mackerel, skin on.
1 bay leaf
250 ml milk
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley or chives
In a large heavy based saucepan, sauté the onion and celery till soft. Add the potatoes and cover barely with water. Bring to the boil, lower to medium heat and cook until the potatoes are soft.
Meanwhile, in a separate pan, add the milk, smoked fish and bay leaf. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 8 minutes or so while the potatoes are cooking.
Remove the fish from the milk. Skin the fish, carefully remove the flesh, discard all the bones and skin, then strain the milk back into the pot containing the potato. Add the flaked fish. Bring back to high heat. Then puree using a hand-held stick blender. Add more milk or cream to thin a little if you prefer. Reheat,
Add finely chopped parsley or chives to serve, with crusty bread.
* The choice of smoked fish is important. Look for small, dark whole fish, not the supermarket, chemically dyed yellow cod, or smoked salmon or trout, the latter being too mild in flavour. New Zealand readers will have more options as more varieties of smoked fish are readily available in NZ supermarkets and fishmongers.
An interesting Guardian article about the ins and outs of Cullen Skink can be found here.
Which season do you prefer? What are your thoughts on Puffer Jackets? Do you like smoked foods?
This is an old stand- by soup, made when I need to charge my batteries. It requires minimal thought and is adaptable, relying on 3 basic elements: onion, potato and a pile of greens. This week’s green soup was made from zucchini, silver beet ( chard), parsley and basil. In winter, I make it with half a bunch of celery and add a few dark leaves for colour. The outside, often discarded, green leaves of an iceberg lettuce make an excellent addition. Peas go well. Any soft, non- bitter leaves will do. I don’t usually use a recipe but today, I am attempting to add quantities. It’s a great recipe for beginners in the kitchen as well as worn out cooks too.
Super Green Soup
400 gr potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
200 gr onions, peeled and roughly chopped
1 kilogram of greens, such as, zucchini, silver beet leaves and stems, outside leaves of an iceberg lettuce, young Cos lettuce leaves, parsley, celery, basil etc, roughly chopped or torn.
1 vegetable stock cube
Add the chopped potato and onion to a pot. Add a good pinch of salt and cover with water. Cook for 10 minutes, then add all the greens. After another 10 minutes, check that everything is soft. Don’t overcook or you will lose the bright green colour. Puree with a stick blender, return to pot. Add the stock cube. Add some cream if you don’t feel too purist. Serve with chopped chives and ground pepper.
It is hard to imagine a world without pasta. Italian style pasta was unknown to most Australian households until the 1970s, despite the presence of Italian pasta manufacturers here in Melbourne. One of the earliest producers of quality pasta, Nello Borghesi, established La Tosca Company in 1947 in Bennett’s Lane, Melbourne. They eventually moved to a larger factory in Brunswick in 1971.
“Before then, Melbourne’s Italian community were largely the only customers of this fine pasta. By the 1970s many new Italian restaurants emerged: it was, for many families of Anglo-Saxon background, the first time they had tasted real pasta beyond spaghetti or macaroni from a can.” ¹
Dried pasta could be bought in supermarkets, especially around Carlton and Brunswick, but it was still unusual to eat pasta at home regularly, and when it did make a regular appearance, it came only in one form: the ubiquitous Spaghetti Bolognese.
‘The Borghesi found it challenging at first to introduce the pasta to the Anglo-Australian consumers. The Italian Australian market also had to be convinced that the product was as good as that which they could make themselves. The pasta would be made in the mornings, then delivered in the afternoons in the family van. It was a very labour intensive process and the whole family would help in the production. Deliveries were made to most Melbourne Italian food outlets and restaurants, such as Florentino’s, The Latin, and Mario’s. By the 1960s, the clientele grew to catering for weddings and non-Italian cafes, and then the business really took off. In the 1960s, the delivery of dry pasta was replaced by frozen products.”¹
The Borghesi business and I became very well acquainted in 1997 when I decided to take a job at La Tosca Pasta Company in Victoria Street, Brunswick, a suburb of Melbourne. This short-lived factory job was wedged between one era of teaching and another, a time when I felt lost in my search for meaningful work. I took the job thinking that it might be interesting to work in a completely different field, to do some physical work for a change, and that the Italian staff might help me acquire a better grasp of idiomatic Italian. I had finished a degree in Italian, followed by three years translating an autobiography. Without daily interaction in Italian, I feared that I might lose the language. So off to La Tosca I went.
Our working day started at 8 am precisely. We would begin by moving the racks of drying spaghetti, linguine or tagliatelle which had been stored on wooden drying rods in darkened rooms overnight. The pasta was carefully scooped off the rods, taking care not to break any of the brittle strands, and bundled neatly onto the bench for packing. Each stack was then weighed to a precise weight: after a while it was easy to gauge this visually. The pasta was placed in small boxes, ready for the machine to wrap and seal with the La Tosca logo. These packets were then placed in large boxes, twenty to a box, ready for the delivery trucks. The work was relentless and swift: there was no time for conversation beyond the conveying of basic instructions.
At 10 am on the dot, a whistle would sound, and a short Neapolitan woman would yell “Andiamo,” let’s go. All activity ceased instantly, machines and work stations were abandoned, the factory floor silenced by the call to coffee. We climbed the narrow stairs in single file and gathered in a cramped morning tea room above the factory floor for a piccolo cafe ristretto, made in an old beaten up aluminium Napolitana by the Andiamo lady. Ten minutes later it was back to work. Huge dough mixers gyrated above, operated by men on platforms, moving effortlessly in a noisy industrial ballet. Other machines chugged permanently in the background- pasta cutters, ravioli stuffers, packing machines- the factory floor was alive with mechanical noise. The strong coffee kept us going for more back-breaking work, boxing, stacking, wrapping, then sweeping, constantly inpiedi for the 8 hour working day. I lasted for about 6 weeks at the La Tosca Pasta factory- the unremitting noise eventually drove me demented, my legs longed for that moment of rest and my back was trashed. I began to consider other forms of paid work.
In that short time, I came to admire the endurance and stamina of these women who had worked in factories since migrating to Australia in the 1950s and 60s, sturdy middle- aged and older women, dressed in sensible and spotlessly clean factory uniforms, standing solidly on concrete floors in stockinged legs and sensible shoes. The work was hard and relentless. They made the pasta that Melbourne came to love.
Melbourne’s Italianita´can be found far more easily without taking such drastic steps, as I was to discover. Inner city libraries specialise in Italian film and magazine collections, there is a local Italian newspaper, Il Globo, an annual Italian film festival, numerous Italian regional and cultural clubs as well as fresh markets, delis, restaurants, and Italian supermarkets. Melbourne’s Italian manufacturing centred around pasta, cheese making, salami and shoes, though this was far more pronounced in the last century than it is today.
Zuppa di Ceci con Maltagliati-Chick pea soup with Pasta Offcuts.
I recently made a large batch of pasta and after cutting the square shapes for some cannelloni, I was left with a nice pile of maltagliati, irregular shaped off cuts. ( I often call these cenci or stracci too ) These little pieces make a wonderful addition to a rustic soup, which can be thrown together in minutes, becoming a meal in a bowl. Like many good Italian recipes, my quantities are approximate. The soup is designed to be eaten at once- any soup with pasta is not suitable to be eaten the next day. The amount below makes three good serves.
2 -3 large garlic cloves, chopped finely
one stem fresh rosemary, leaves stripped, finely chopped
4-6 anchovy fillets
one dried chilli, finely chopped
a generous glug of EV olive oil
cooked chick peas- around two cups ( if using canned chick peas, drain off well and rinse off that awful preserving liquid)
one vegetable stock cube with water or home-made stock, vegetable or chicken.
Fresh pasta offcuts/maltagliati
Italian parsley, finely chopped
black pepper to taste
grated Parmigiano to serve
Using a heavy based saucepan, add the oil to the pan and gently fry off the soffritto, the garlic, anchovy, chilli, and rosemary, pressing the anchovies to a paste as you go.
Add the chickpeas and stock to cover (or water and stockcube). Bring slowly to the boil, then add the pasta pieces. Fresh pasta should cook in two minutes- if the pasta has been left overnight, allow a little longer. Taste as you go. Season with black pepper. Serve with ample parmesan cheese.
Midst all the opulent and overly ornate works of art from the Baroque period, hangs a modest but well-known painting, Il Mangiafagioli, by Annibale Carracci (1560-1609), depicting a quotidian scene, a peasant sitting down to a simple lunch of bean soup, onions, bread, a vegetable pie and a jug of red wine. The Beaneater is as Florentine as Brunelleschi’s dome, given that the Florentines were often called by the taunt, ‘beaneaters,’ especially in bygone days.
The painting captures that moment when ‘the peasant is just raising a spoonful of beans to his lips, only to stop, surprised, by the intrusion of the viewer’, and in one sense, it is remarkably like a modern photo, a snapshot of a working class scene. At the same time, the table setting could be the work of an early food stylist. In modern times, food stylists bombard our senses and shape our taste from every media quarter. Note the crisp white linen and the well composed meal, the wine on the table and the strategically placed bread. You would expect to see a rustic wooden table in this naturalistic vignette, something that the modern food stylist would prefer too. (Have wooden planks used as food styling props become clichéd yet and why is good linen shunned in the modern world?) This bean eating peasant has a fine knife and glassware, a generous jug of wine and serve of bread. Perhaps he is an upwardly mobile peasant of the 1590s about to become a member of the white meat-eating class, despite the dirt under his nails.
Interestingly, up until modern times, beans were regarded as peasant food,
‘Social codes in Baroque Italy extended as far as to food. According to contemporary thinkers, foodstuffs like beans and onions, which are dark in color and grow low to the ground, were suitable only for similarly lowly consumers, like peasants.¹
If this Beaneater’s repast were placed before me today, I would be overjoyed and would probably pay dearly for it too, as I once did, at the delightful restaurant, Il Pozzo, in Monteriggione, Tuscany, where a bowl of bean filled Ribollita, served with a side of raw onions and good Tuscan bread cost me a large wad of lire. Other than the price, the meal hardly differed from the one depicted in Carracci’s painting of 1590. Things don’t change much over the centuries in Italy, a conservative country, particularly when it comes to food, recipes and styling.
This modern-day beaneater, Mr Tranquillo, was bribed with a bottle of Yering Sangiovese 2010, to pose for this ‘painting’. A bowl of bean soup, good bread and a glass of wine is a lunchtime reward for hard work.
How to cook dried white beans and eat well for one dollar.
This recipe will give you enough cooked beans for a very large soup for a crowd or enough to divide and freeze for later soups or dips.
500g dried cannellini beans
2-3 cloves garlic, peeled but whole
4-5 sage leaves, and/or a small branch of rosemary.
60 ml extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra to serve
2 teaspoons or more of salt
Place the beans in a very large bowl with plenty of cold water. Leave to soak for at least 8 hours or overnight.
Drain the beans and place in a heavy-based saucepan or cast iron pot with the garlic, herbs, olive oil and 2.5 litres of water.
Bring to a simmer on the lowest heat setting and cook, covered, very gently until the beans are tender. Do not add salt and do not boil. Salt hardens beans and prevents them from softening and boiling splits the beans.
Remove any scum that rises to the top of the water. When the beans are soft and the cooking water is creamy, add the salt and some freshly ground pepper towards the end of the cooking. Test and adjust seasoning. Depending on the age of the beans, this could take two or more hours with slow cooking.
Use the beans to make a simple cannellini bean soup. Start with a soffritto of finely chopped onion, carrot and celery cooked gently in olive oil, then when softened, add some vegetable stock and cook for 10 minutes. Add the cooked beans and creamy cooking water. Heat for a further 5 minutes, taste and season. Consider pureeing half the mixture with a stick blender and return the puree to the pot. Serve in a deep bowl over grilled slightly stale sourdough bread and drizzle some good oil on top.
Winter time and the living is – expensive. Electricity prices have increased at nearly four times the rate of inflation over the last 5 years and will probably continue to do so. One solution to the soaring power bills stemming from heating, lighting and the immoderate use of the oven, is to run away to a warmer place, preferably somewhere in Asia, where the living is cheaper and the climate is tropical. Another is to stay cocooned in a doona all day, watching addictive Icelandic Noir drama series that makes the Australian winter look tropical. Then, like many others, you could traipse around a heated shopping centre all day, drinking coffee and playing with your smart phone. Or you could make a conscious effort to adopt some energy saving routines, at least when it comes to routines in the kitchen. This post is a reminder to myself about energy use.
After baking, use the residual heat of the oven to make other basic things for the week.
Boiling water is a huge energy waster. Fill up a Chinese thermos with green tea.
Always cook too many beans. Finding a stash of pre-cooked cannellini and borlotti beans or chick peas in a zip lock bag in the freezer is like finding a golden nugget. Soup making becomes a breeze. Two of my winter favourite bean based soups can be found here and here.
Add barley to root vegetable soups. What is it about Barley Soup that warms us up, both physically and emotionally?
If you have just split open a large pumpkin and are baking chunks for a recipe, double the quantity and store the leftovers in a covered bowl in the fridge. Stuff the pieces, along with fetta and herbs, into filo pastry triangles, add them to a risotto, use them with cooked lentils in a pastie, or toss them through barley to make a winter salad with spinach and nuts. Or head to Ottolenghi land and make this or this.
Always double the pizza dough, whatever quantity you decide to make. Most weeks I make a 500g batch of yeasted pizza dough using this recipe. If the hungry hordes don’t visit, I stretch and shape half the risen dough to make one 35 cm pizza, more than enough for two hungry people, then stash the other half in a zip lock bag in the freezer. Then it’s simply a matter of defrosting the dough, bringing it back to room temperature, and shaping it into a slice baking tin, allowing for another short rise, before dimpling the top with oil, salt and herbs or other leftovers.
Pumpkin, Red Onion and Sage Foccaccia
risen dough, made from 250 gr baker’s white flour
EV olive oil
one red onion finely sliced
1 cup pre- roasted diced pumpkin
coarsely ground sea salt
Preheat oven 200 c FF. Oil a small slab tin ( 26 cm X 17 cm) and stretch the dough to roughly fit. Leave for 30 minutes or more, covered with a tea towel. Push the dough into the corners of the tin and using your fingers, make small indentations in the dough to carry the oil and salt. Brush on a generous amount of olive oil, letting it pool a little in the indentations. Spread on the finely cut onions, then the pumpkin, then some sage leaves, then plenty of coarsely ground salt. Bake for around 15 minutes, check on the colour of top and bottom, and cook a further 5 minutes if needed.
This month, Maureen is taking a break from hosting In My Kitchen, but the series still goes on. Below you can find an informal link up to some other IMK posts for this month:
Every winter solstice, I am drawn to dark looking foods. One year it was squid ink pasta, followed by an eggplant dish. Sometimes, we have a pint of Guinness. On one particular occasion, an old friend, Brian, arrived dressed for the occasion, his cheeks smeared with charcoal, a crooked stick in hand, and wandered around my kitchen muttering Celtic chants. He then placed a wooden box of dried oak leaves on the table, a box of spells perhaps.
This year’s Solstice offering is a traditional mushroom soup. I only make this soup when my favourite green grocery sells discounted bags of mushrooms that have dark gills. White coloured mushrooms are rather insipid in flavour. I have add a handful of dried porcini to boost the taste of the dark woods.
First make a good rich vegetable stock. The smaller you cut the vegetables in a veggie stock, the more they will sweat off flavour. Also use the mushroom stems in your stock.
Crema di funghi e porcini, Cream of mushroom and porcini soup
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
50g of butter
1 potato, diced
500g sliced mushrooms, preferably with darker gills.
1 litre vegetable stock
15 g dried porcini mushrooms
a handful of fresh thyme leaves
1/2 cup of cream, or more
1 tablespoon or more, dry sherry
some sour cream or crème fraîche to serve
black pepper and salt
finely chopped parsley to serve
Soak the porcini mushrooms in some of the hot stock. Leave for 20 minutes, then remove porcini and strain the liquid through a muslin cloth. Save the soaking liquid.
Add butter to a heavy based saucepan or soup pot, add the onions and cook gently until softened but not coloured. Add the garlic and toss through briefly, then add the sliced mushrooms and chopped porcini. Toss around for a few minutes until the mushrooms wilt and reduce, then add the diced potato, thyme, stock and reserved porcini liquid.
Simmer gently for 30 minutes or until the potatoes are soft, then blend with a stick blender until very smooth. Add the cream, warm through, then add freshly ground pepper, a little salt, and the sherry. Taste and check for seasoning and sherry.
Serve with a little crème fraîche or sour cream and parsley and some good bread.
When I’m tired, I need fish. Any sort of fish will do, I’m not too fussy. Nor am I willing to ignore farmed salmon, despite some of the bad press it receives. I like to believe that the industry is improving with regard to environmental concerns. The pristine water around the Huon River at Dover and Lake Macquarie, where Australian Tasmanian Atlantic Salmon is farmed, looks as pure as can be. I can’t paint myself into a tight little purist corner when Tasmanian Atlantic salmon is often the only fish option available. Having said that, a little salmon goes a long way.
This little Japanese bowl takes 10 minutes to prepare. The recipe makes two large bowls.
The Marinade and Fish
200 g salmon, skin on, halved lengthwise.
1 tablespoon Japanese soy sauce, Teriyaki or Tamari
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
½ teaspoon sesame seeds
Put fish fillets in a bowl and cover with the soy sauce and oil. (not the sesame seeds). Leave aside until ready to grill.
½ litre or a little more of vegetable stock (or water and 1 vegetable stock cube)
1 tablespoon mirin
½ tablespoon soy sauce
mixed mushrooms, hand separated ( enoki, cloud ear fungus, shiitake)
1 tablespoon Miso paste
100 g silken tofu
a large handful of baby spinach leaves
Putting it all together.
Turn on the grill to around 200c fan forced. Cover a baking tray with baking paper, arrange pieces of salmon on the tray and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Grill for around 5 minutes, then turn for 1 minute. Remove from grill.
Meanwhile, in a medium-sized saucepan, heat stock with mirin, soy, and miso on a gentle heat until well amalgamated for around 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms , then add the cubed tofu. Gently heat through to cook.
Flake the cooked fish and bits of juice from the tray into the base of serving bowls. Add the spinach leaves. Pour over the hot soup, sharing the mushroom and tofu pieces evenly.
If you are making this for four, count on around 100 g salmon per person and use a whole packet of silken tofu, then simply double all the other ingredients.
Time for an ear worm or stuck song syndrome for those old enough to remember:
Since I’ve been making this soup, the tomato glut is no longer a double-edged sword. Requiring no special tomato peeling and seeding or fine chopping, I can get this soup going quickly and come back later to a bit of arm gymnasium, via the hand cranked Mouli. I have simplified the recipe so that I can remember the balance of ingredients, then whip it up at whim with consistent retro tasting results. Almost every ingredient has the number three in it. This quantity serves 8 – 10 people. Make a big load when you have a tomato glut or meet one in a Farmers Market. It freezes very well.
Moulin Rouge Tomato Soup – a retro styled soup, loved by children and elders alike.
3 kilos fresh vine ripened tomatoes. ( I used Rouge de Marmande tomatoes which have a fabulous depth of flavour and give off lots of juice )
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 large onions, chopped
3 small carrots, or around 300 gr, peeled and chopped
3 small celery sticks, chopped
3 or more large cloves garlic ( more is good!)
3 cups vegetable or chicken stock, or use water and a stock cube
3 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 torn bay leaf
2 teaspoons finely ground pepper, white pepper is best with this soup.
3 tablespoons chopped basil
Choose a large heavy bottomed soup pot. Heat the oil then add the onion, carrot, celery and garlic and cook on medium heat, stirring often to soften until the onion turns a pale golden colour. Add the chopped tomatoes, stir about and let them give off their juices for 5 minutes. Then add the tomato paste, stirring through, then the stock, bay leaf and salt. Bring to the boil then lower the heat and simmer on low with the lid off for 40 minutes of so.
Remove the pot from the heat. Lay a mouli over a bowl so that it sits neatly when the arms are extended. Sit the bowl on a tea towel so that it is stable. Ladle a cup at a time and turn the handle, pressing though as much as you can to extract colour and sweetness from the tomato, carrot and onion residue. You may need to pour off the pureed soup back into a clean and empty soup pot as you go, given the quantity. Don’t attempt to process or blend this soup- the flavour comes from the pressing.
When all the pureed soup is back in the pot, reheat, adding freshly ground pepper and chopped basil.
We like our soup straight, but adding cream gives it a different texture which is comforting on a cooler day.
Moulin Rouge Goes Flash
briefly chargrill some sea scallops, halve them and place them in the centre of the soup before serving.
serve with fingers of toast spread with tapenade.
or with olive oil oven baked crostini, spread with gorgonzola, then briefly grill.
I like to eat soups in the height of summer, not necessarily cold soups, but light minestre of vegetables in season. They are thrown together and take around 20 minutes to cook, using whatever is abundant in the garden.
This vegetable soup is similar to the French Soupe au Pistou in many ways, but I am waiting on the garden’s fresh borlotti, i fagioli scritti, and green beans, before I go down that Provençal path.
1 onion, finely sliced
1 garlic, finely chopped,
2 tablespoons EV olive oil
4-5 chopped Roma tomatoes
1 medium zucchini, finely sliced
1 can of drained and well rinsed chick peas or white cannellini beans
¼ jar of home-made or purchased tomato passata
4 cups vegetable stock
small broken pieces of Mafaldine (flat ribbon) pasta or other dried pasta on hand
salt and pepper
freshly made pesto from a handful of basil leaves, two cloves garlic, salt, olive oil and pecorino, bashed to a pulp in a mortar and pestle. (Leave the nuts out when serving with soup.)
grilled bruschetta to go with the soup.
In a large heavy pot, add a generous slurp of olive oil and gently cook a sliced onion and a chopped garlic until soft but not coloured. Then add the vegetables as listed, stirring each new addition for a minute or so as you go. When they are almost cooked, after around 15 -20 minutes. add the some broken pieces of Mafladine and cook until the pasta is al dente. Season well. Serve in wide bowls with a dollop of freshly made basil pesto.
The pasta Mafaldine was named in honour of Princess Mafaldine of Savoy, daughter of King Vittorio Emmanuele 111, and is also known as reginette or “little queens”.
In the depths of winter, Minestra di Farro alla Lucchese, or Farro soup Lucca style, hits the spot. For me, it’s a one dish meal, un piatto unico, especially when served with good bread, olive oil and grated parmigiana. It is also a kind of Tardis soup, a little ‘time machine’ bowl of goodness, flying me back to Lucca and the Garfagnana hills nearby.
Many restaurants around Lucca list Farro soup on the menu, especially in the popular touristy places offering piatti tipici Lucchesi. After experiencing a few good ones, and some not so good, I set about copying the local version during our extended visits to Lucca back in 2008 and again in 2011. On the first occasion we rented a little apartment close to the railway station and just outside the walls of the city. Being close to the station enabled us to choof up into the Garfagnana hills, the home of Italian farro, to spend the days visiting the villages of Barga and Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, steep hill towns that at certain times of the year seem forgotten in time.
The first time I visited Barga, the dark slippery cobblestoned lanes echoed with the sounds of the Celtic fiddle. It turns out that there was a Scottish musician in residence and his little studio faced directly onto the street. There are a few other Scottish peculiarities around the town-a genuine fish and chip shop on the outskirts, most unusual in Italy, and advertisements around the place about a visiting delegation from a sister town in Scotland. Many folk from Barga emigrated to Scotland in poorer times. Perhaps the landscape looked familiar. Some returned as adults, hence the strong connection. Well, Barga me!, said with an Italian/ Scottish accent.
On the second occasion, we rented a small house around 7 kms out from Lucca. La Casa dello Scrittore, a small rural house in the grounds of Casale dei Tigli, is situated close to vineyards and olive groves. The charming young man and owner, Guido, delivered beautiful gifts to us each day- magnificent olive oil, a great local red wine or two and a Buccellato, the sweet fruit studded bread of Lucca. The car was essential for forays back into Lucca or further afield into the hills and small villages, to visit restored villas and their gardens or to lunch at my favourite Italian restaurant, Antica Locanda di Sesto.
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The terrace. Casa dello Scrittore, Lucca
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Minestra di Farro Lucchese/Farro soup from Lucca
100 g dried borlotti beans ( fagioli scritti)
100 g Italian farro
EV Olive oil
1-2 sticks celery
5 cloves of garlic
1 potato (optional)
a few leaves of cavolo nero ( Tuscan Kale) (optional)
1 can of tomatoes, chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
fresh herbs such as sage and marjoram
Soak the borlotti beans overnight. The following morning, cook the beans in ample water, with a few herbs, until softened. Also soak the farro for an hour or so.
In a large soup pot, make a soffritto of onion, carrot and celery. Chop them finely and cook gently in olive oil. Add the garlic towards the end.
Add the farro, cooked beans, tomato paste, can of tomatoes and chopped herbs. Cover with enough water. Cook until the farro is soft and ready . You may need to add a little more water along the way. Add the finely shredded Tuscan kale, season well with salt and pepper, and cook for a further 5 minutes.
Serve with a drizzle of good oil and grated parmesan.
Many versions of this minestra cook the beans and other ingredients first, then puree half, returning them to the pot, before adding the farro to the mix. I prefer to leave the beans whole as they shed enough thickening as the soup cooks. The pureed version is extremely thick and the farro tends to catch.