Category Archives: Interessante (Interesting!)

A slave to good taste

Standard

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…

Advertisements

Strengthening my resolve?

Standard

I’m not a great one for New Year Resolutions. I have All Year Round Resolutions instead…little goals that keep me motivated and on my toes…writing a blog was one of them!  Apparently the tradition has roots that are old and deep in the Christian world. The ancient Babylonians made promises to their Gods, as did the Romans and the others that followed. It also links strongly to a tradition of Lenten fasting and sacrifice. A new year is a time to reflect, to cleanse, and work on the inner self (and often on the outer one as well…sigh)

`Statistics’ shows that 88% of New Year Resolutions fail – so I’m not taking any chances. Instead of the ever-popular `lose weight’ I decided to start my new year with an indulgent treat, something I’ve only ever seen in Italy and have never tried before – an ice cream sandwich.

Brings to mind a vanilla rectangle encased in 2 biscuits does it? Aha – in Sicily it does not! It is exactly what it says on the tin – a brioche con gelato IS a sandwich filled with gelato. Italians love to indulge their sweet tooth at breakfast and this really takes the cake..er..sandwich. A bun filled with generous dollops of gelato – eaten at breakfast, or any time of the day. What a mad idea! Wow. Only in the land of the dolce vita.

Typically, this is what it would look like (Pic: http://www.newyork.seriouseats.com)

I tried a hoity toity version of the same – this is Milan remember? We Milanese need to be stylish about everything we do. So a simple brioche con gelato becomes a pannetone con gelato – a mini-pannetone gelato sandwich. You remember my blog about Pannetone, the Italian Christmas bread? No? Ok – here it is.

So – here it was. A mini-pannetone, with a cone artfully scooped out of it, and filled with two flavours of your choice of gelato. In Italy they `look’ at you if you order just one flavour…honest! I am an out-and-out  dark chocolate girl but was in a mood to pander to L&M’s whims that day, so we chose  two fruity-nutty  flavours – clementine and sweet almond gelatos as the filling.

IMG_1055

Divine? Right.

How did it taste? Just absolutely completely divine. Really, a cone does not even come close. It was all about texture and mouthfeel. Cold gelato, room temp pannetone. Melting gelato countered by chewy bread. I have to admit, I’m totally craving it. I don’t know how I’m going to keep myself away from that gelateria the next time I pass by…hmm…now THAT is a New Year’s Resolution worth making and keeping.

An Autumn Ritual

Standard

The kids are off school for the long weekend and I have a few quiet minutes to write. A contemplative, thankful few minutes. It’s Thanksgiving today and I don’t have to be American or live in America to appreciate the thought behind it. As one of my yoga teachers used to say “Be thankful for all you have, and love yourself – even that little roll of fat on your tummy. You have borne children, you have enough to eat….give thanks for that. Don’t obsess with your body, just love it”. Works for me. I LOVE the perspective!!

In many cultures across the world, autumn is the traditional time for thankfulness for a good harvest, remembrance of those who have lived before us and renewal and rejuvenation for the earth and those on it. In China, Vietnam and Myanmar they have the Moon Festival/Lantern Festival (the moon is a traditional symbol of fertility and continuity), in India in a space of 8 or so weeks we observe Shradh, and celebrate Dussehra and Diwali – each of which is heavy with the symbolism of thanks, rejuvenation and remembrance. Moving Westwards we have All Souls Day in Europe and the Day of the Dead in Mexico. It’s amazing that the Ancients were not connected the way we are, but they related to the seasons and the cycles of the earth so similarly.

In Italy I have been following an autumn ritual of my own – for the last 3 years have religiously made a `pilgrimage’ to that temple of flavor – Alba, which is in the Piemonte region of North Italy. And the presiding deity of which is the Alba White Truffle. Truffles of course are essentially, basically `mushrooms’ – but that’s where the resemblance ends. They grow below the earth, in the autumn, and hold within themselves, a deep and mysterious fragrance that belies definition (atleast in my limited vocabulary). Shaved onto simple dishes like fried eggs or boiled spaghetti, they transform the simple into the gourmet.

White and black truffles. This producer was obviously the playful sort and decided to make his products more friendly and accessible by decorating his display with the animals that typically dig up truffles – dogs in Italy and pigs in France

There are black truffles and white truffles and the most prized of all in the world is the Alba White. Gram for gram it is more expensive than gold and the larger specimens are globally auctioned off with much fanfare (apparently the best are bought by secret consortiums of Hollywood bigwigs). Whatever!

This is what plebs like me buy

…and this is what you buy if you’re a little higher up in the pecking order

Every autumn Alba plays host to the Fiera del Tartufo, the International White Truffle Fair. Truffle `producers’ from all over the region gather to display and sell their wares – not just truffles but also truffle-infused products – rice, polenta, oil, honey, pate and chocolate! The fair also showcases the other fabulous local products – the wonderful wines of the Piemonte region (including the famed Barolo and my favourite Moscato d’Asti), grappa, cheese, cured meats, dark chocolate and pasta. Even the local artisans get into the mood of things and display their wares – I bought a hand-crafted and customized walnut wood bread board 3 years ago and I love it to bits! It will make a guest appearance on this blog at some point.

A wineglass `necklace’ that comes with the ticket is the perfect accessory

So what do you do at the fair? Walk around and inhale the heady aromas, sample the wine, the cheese, the chocolate and the salami, chat with growers and artisans, buy some of the products on offer, drink some more wine, eat spaghetti with truffles, eat some chocolate, drink still more wine…you get the drift…

So what contributes to the hype around truffles? Is it the mysterious flavor? Is is the limited supply (truffles are sniffed out by specially trained dogs, and are dug up , but cannot be cultivated)? Is it the legendary aphrodasiac properties it has? Or is it just superb marketing and branding? I don’t know. What I do know is its unique aroma and the comfort of an annual ritual make it special for me. And for the opportunity to experience something so special, I give thanks.

Good taste and good fun – in so many languages

Lotus Eaters

Standard

School’s out! And with the summer holiday comes the slowing down of the days, the blurring of our  year-long schedules, and the sheer joy of hanging out and doing nothing. It is the kids who are off school but nothing to stop mom from enjoying the perks of the sumer hols as well! Only one phrase comes to mind – lotus eaters. In Greek mythology the Lotus Eaters were a tribe that lived on an island where the primary food was the lotus plant  – being narcotic in nature, it kept the islanders in a perpetual state of relaxation and drowsiness…therefore the phrase, referring to a life of indolence.

While in the mood of flower eating I must share with you my fresh Italian discovery  – zucchini fiori. A vivid orange and red with lacy petals, these flowers are a delight for the eyes and certainly for the palate. Every week I find myself irresistibly drawn to them at the market, and come home with a big bagful.

Interestingly, there are male flowers  and female flowers; the female of the species is showy and  robust – it has a small zucchini attached.

The male flower by contrast, is delicate and more subtle in it appeal.

Zucchini fiori  are as delicate as they look – so they  need to be handled with care. Essentially that means – don’t squash them in the shopping bag, use them the day they are bought,  rinse them gently in water, and use a light touch when cooking them.

I’ve tried many different recipes with them – friend in tempura batter (yum!), steamed and added to a salad (nice!), in an omlette or stir fry (loses all its special appeal), but my favourite really has to be sautéed flowers – lightly cooked in olive oil with an onion and a small amount of  crushed garlic, and topped with bit of lemon juice and salt. As a light appetizer or a side dish /salad, it’s perfect for the summers. Enjoy your holidays!

And if you’re up to it, read this little extract from Tennyson’s poem Lotus Eaters which describes how some mariners are put into an altered state when they eat the lotus.

Branches they bore of that enchanted stem,
Laden with flower and fruit, whereof they gave
To each, but whoso did receive of them
And taste, to him the gushing of the wave
Far far away did seem to mourn and rave
On alien shores; and if his fellow spake,
His voice was thin, as voices from the grave;
And deep-asleep he seem’d, yet all awake,
And music in his ears his beating heart did make

Melon and Prosciutto

Standard

There’s a new section in the C&K blog (refer `Categories’ on the right) – and it is dedicated to strange and new foods – strange and new for me that is! Crickets, escargots and haggis aside, even foods that are usually quite `normal’ in one culture or region can be considered pretty strange in another. Interesting examples are how cinnamon is never used in sweet dishes in India (the home of cinnamon) while it is very common in European cookery. Have you ever had a beer with ice in it? It’s very common in South Vietnam….and so on.

For me, until I came to live in Italy, fruit was fruit and meat was meat and never did the two come together (very tempted to quote Kipling here but shall desist). Never did the two come together except for a Moroccan style tagine in which prunes or apricots were cooked with meat, or a biryani in which raisins lend a delicious surprise to a mouthful. But even here, the fruit is only a sidekick to the  to the star which  really is the meat.

In the glorious Italian summer, a delicious and refreshing starter is Melon & Proscuitto – a superb combination of meat and fruit, sweet and salt, mushy and chewy. Paper-thin slices of cured raw ham (crudo as opposed to the cooked ham- cotto) wrapped around juicy wedges of melon. I ate it at a restaurant, at a friend’s home and decided to make it myself. Mamma mia! Bonissimo!

I wish the next level of technology would be something that would allow smell to be captured in a photograph. The freshness of the melon and the freshly picked rosemary and sage made this photo shoot a treat! I enjoyed smelling this dish almost as much as  I enjoyed eating it.