Monthly Archives: October 2013

A slave to good taste

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I’m not easily shocked. But today I was – when I read that Tesco, the UK’s largest supermarket chain, has admitted that everyday, every single day, it throws away 66% of its salads and 48% of it’s bread. I’m pretty sure Tesco is not unique in this respect – all supermarkets do it, restaurants do it and certainly people do it at home. And it’ s not limited to the rich world where there’s supposed to be enough to go around and one can `afford’ to be wasteful. In developing countries like India 30-50% of fresh produce and foodgrains go to waste because of the lack of infrastructure – roads, cold chain transportation, warehousing facilities. It’s a crime. Against humanity.

It was not always like this. Long ago (and not so long ago in some parts of the world), humans were close to the source of their food – growing it, killing it or buying it from close by. Food was grown, traded and eaten (perforce) according to climate, geography, trade, society and history. In a good year, each of these elements worked in beautiful harmony to provide people with sustenance. In a bad year…well, things could get really bad.

One superb example of this harmony at work is a very interesting food product – Lardo di Colonnata. Translated from Italian – Lard from Colonnata. Si – you read right – lard. Also known as pork fat. I can almost see some of you grimacing – lard?!!  Yuck!!  I know – that’s a typical reaction.  But we’ll get to the taste…first, there’s a story to be told.

Colonnata is a very small village high in the Tuscan hills in Italy. It lies within the Carrara area which is best known for its marble. It is a well documented fact that Michaelangelo sourced most of his marble for  his exquisite sculptures from around here.  In fact the town’s piazza or main (and only) square, the one in the pic below, is actually fully paved in marble! In most parts of the world, Carrara marble flooring  is synonymous with luxury….

It was pouring cats and dogs the day we visited Colonnata...we were literally the only people there...and a cafe owner wanted to know how we had gotten there because the town had been cut off from the outside world for 5 days because of landslides

It was pouring cats and dogs the day we visited Colonnata…we were literally the only visitors there…the owner of the trattoria where we ate lunch wanted to know how we had gotten there because the town had been cut off from the outside world for the last 5 days because of landslides

The hillsides of Colonnata are very rocky, the soil is poor and not much grows there except for chestnut trees. Because of this, the land cannot feed cows or goats. Pigs love chestnuts however, and can live on them.

So where is this leading? Well the ancient Romans were interested in Colonnata only for its marble – all of which went into constructing their beautiful villas and sculptures.  And guess who mined the marble? Slaves – of course. It was brutal and harsh work and slaves lived short and nasty lives. But of course they had to be kept alive so they could work, right? And voila! That’s where lardo comes in.

The land grows only chestnuts. Pigs eat the chestnuts, The delicious meat of the pigs goes to the masters and the slaves are left with the fat. So what do they do? They get  inventive. Huge vats are carved out of marble, and are filled with brine. Into it are added garlic, rosemary and salt. And in go blocks of pig fat. Steeped in that mixture, left in a cool and dark cave, reacting with the calcium carbonate of the vat, the fat is cured and flavoured slowly and emerges a couple of months later as a delicious slab of Lardo. It’s perfect for the era and the situation – cheap to produce, never spoils, eaten with simple bread, and is high in calories – just the kind of food you need to work long unpaid hours in underground caves, hacking at and hauling stone. To see how it typically  looks in situ, before it reaches the table, click here

A close up look - wafer-thin slices of Lardo do Colonnata

A close up look – wafer-thin slices of Lardo do Colonnata

Typically, lardo is served in the simplest way possible – with bread and wine. Usually as a starter or as part of an antipasti platter with other cold cuts of meat. I’ve heard it is also a very swish pizza topping in some restaurants in the US and London, but I haven’t been to one of those yet.

And the taste? I have to say the only barrier is in the mind. Not like what you’d expect fat, pork fat to be. It’s refined, not raw. Silky, not unctuous. Fragrant, not bland.  Musky and intense, almost melting on the tongue. Like the best butter you never had. It’s a treat, and a very satisfying one at that. Twice or thrice a year for me, tops. Beautiful.

How does slave food become gourmet?

Bet the slaves never had it so good…

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A Taste of Home…or atleast what feels like it

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Existential question – what is home? I am of course, not the first, the only or the last to ask this question. Mostly, home is a place, at other times it is also a geographical space. Home is most definitely people. Often home is sensorial, a feeling that transcends time and space – a song, a smell, a taste.

Sometimes again, home is all of these, or none of these at all. Often, it is more than one place – when I’m There, I feel like I never left, and when I’m Here, it feels like I always belonged. Each one of us carries our own definition inside us and even that changes over time and situation.

Much has happened over the last few weeks – most important in this context, I’ve had a housewarming party; after 6 moves, that is a ritual that tells me “This new place is my home, and I need to build my life here”. School has been a mad rush of parent meetings and moms’ coffee mornings and when I meet a whole load of new people one of the  inevitable questions I get asked is `So which was your favourite country to live in?’

Quite honestly, I don’t know how to answer that. I leave a little bit of my heart everywhere. Myanmar gave me magical moments to spend with my new baby, Vietnam introduced me to a whole new world of culinary delights, India offered me fresh perspectives on my own country, Belgium was a totally new way of life, and Italy was well, just Italy. How does one even choose…I lost myself and found myself in each of them.

In contrast to those places, England feels almost like home. And it’s not just the language. Social mores, manners, rituals, houses and architecture have a familiar look and feel to them. Of course there’s going to be a lot to discover, and that is a journey I’m looking forward to, but we Indians and English did not live together for 200 years without rubbing off on each other a great deal. I can even see why we got on so well…but that is another story, for another time.

For the moment, it is Italy that inspires a touch of homesickness. I miss the food, the coffee bars, the Prosecco, the Spritz on the Rinascente terrace, and the Tiramisu. Oh yes the Tiramisu, that very Italian dessert, the one that is impossible to make in small quantities (or eat in small quantities for that matter!). Surprisingly, even in Milan, the quality of tiramisu can vary greatly – from sickly sweet to blandly lukewarm cream.

The perfect tiramisu needs to be (in my non-Italian, non-professional opinion!) `balanced’ – creamy without being unctuous, chilled without being semi-frozen, coffee-ish without being bitter, moist without being soggy, fluffy without being frothy. Too much to ask?

My search for the elusive `perfect’ tiramisu came to an end when I tasted one prepared by my friend Gemma, who is Korean, married to an Italian and has lived in Italy for a couple of decades. It was love at first spoonful – me and the tiramisu that is. Gemma is a kind and lovely person and she was generous enough to share her recipe and her tips with me. I always thought a dessert as exquisite as tiramisu was difficult to make and normally I’d be terrified to attempt something that seems so complex – but it turned out to be so simple. Really simple. And perfect each time. Never as good as Gemma’s but still pretty decent.

So here is the recipe, to share with you. The proportions are for 8-10 portions but I think it can easily be halved, although I have not tried it.

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GEMMA’S PERFECT TIRAMISU

  • 500g Mascarpone cheese
  • 3 large eggs
  • 500 ml fresh strong coffee (I’m guessing you could use instant coffee also…though it will be less flavoursome)
  • 2 tbsps rum (NOT if you are planning to serve it to kids : ))
  • 9 tbsps white sugar (or 8 or 10 depending on your taste buds. Remember it will taste less sweet once it is chilled)
  • Bitter/unsweetened cocoa powder
  • Savoiardi cookies / ladyfinger biscuits (approx 2 packs). Basically enough to make 2-3 layers, depending on the dish you will use to prepare it in. I know someone who uses fingers of lightly sweetened sponge cake as a substitute but I have not tried it.

Quite important – a dish in which the dessert will be layered. Think lasagna, and choose a large square or rectangular dish in which you can prepare 2-3 layers. I like to make 2 layers because 3 makes each serving quite `tall’ and therefore a little fiddly to serve out. But some people are more dextrous than others, so you can choose what works for you.

  • In a food processor beat whole eggs with sugar until the mixture is light and creamy and smooth.
  • If you have a whisk attachment, whisk it for a few minutes so it is even more light and airy. My new toy, my xxx brand kitchen machine does this wonderfully but my marketing savvy teen has prohibited me from endorsing brands unless I am paid for it…
  • Then add Mascarpone cheese, beat again until there are no lumps.
  • Mix the coffee and rum  (if using) in a glass or small jug that is atleast as deep as the Savoiardi biscuits are long. That’s important because at the next step, speed is critical.
  • Quickly dip the Savoiardi biscuits in the coffee one by one and layer the bottom of your dish, keeping the biscuits close to each other to form a seamless layer (break /cut some of the biscuits if needed to get a tight fit. If you dawdle, the biscuits become soggy in an instant and fall back into the coffee! You know like when you dip your biscuit into your tea and it falls in? Yuck!
  • Cover the biscuits with a layer of the mascarpone mixture (Not too thick or thin – eyeball the mixture to see that you have enough to make the 2 or 3 layers that you plan). Don’t worry if the mascarpone looks slightly runny at this point – it will thicken and set  as it sits in the fridge.
  • Lay out another layer of the savoiardi biscuits, working quickly and carefully to cover the mascarpone.
  • End with a layer of mascarpone, and voila! You are done.
  • Chill uncovered in the refrigerator for 8-24 hours. Before serving, sprinkle the cocoa powder liberally over the top.
  • Cut  or spoon into generous servings, and sit back and enjoy the luscious flavours of an Italian classic.