orWine Tastings in the Comfort of you own villa or B&B while on holiday in Tuscany or Liguria

To book an informative and fun wine tasting whilst holidaying in Italy or arrange for a wild food walk in your area contact me on tuscanytipple at libero dot it or check out my Facebook page

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Sunday, 28 February 2010

Spring Tart and another award

I'm happy to have received yet another award from a fellow blogger. This one I received from Jenn of Sweet Water (http://murphyjenn78.blogspot.com/) ( I still haven't worked how to do proper links). Jenn blogs in Canada about cooking, photography and her fight against depression and I always enjoy her posts. Today's post will mostly be about something I know is close to her heart as well, i.e. local food.

But first I have to deal with the obligation coming with this award of listing 10 things which make me happy. So here it comes:

  1. A disvovery of a new food topped by the fact that it is gathered for free. I love experimenting with such ingredients and when it does work out, like the example below, that makes me extremely happy!
  2. A walk / hike in the country, especcially if it's coupled with finding some wild foods. (there's a theme developing here, I feel)
  3. A good glass of wine. It doesn't have to be your top of the range classed growth Bordeaux (although I wouldn't say no), but an obscure discovery gives me just as much pleasure.
  4. Watching seeds grow and become fully fledged vegetables that sustain us.
  5. A musical jam session with our next door neighbours. We are extremely lucky to have some really musical neighbours. Mauro plays the squeeze box and bag pipes, Marco is multi-instrumetalist, playing the guitar, banjo, fiddle and other instruments. Between them they know some of best musicians of the province. Occasionally all those gather in our neighbour's kitchen and they don't mind me contributing my feeble efforts on guitar, banjo, harmonica, tin whistle and vocals, and we just make music for hours on end.
  6. A good book
  7. An act of kindness towards us. As I said a few days ago, there's nothing like "a little help from my friends".
  8. Eating my first meal of broad beans in spring. It's the first veg ready on our land. I love it just boiled briefly and with some olive oil and lemon juice over some pasta. It's the taste of spring (well I'm going to have to add my spring tart now as well (see below))
  9. Following number 7, it makes me even happier if I can help others. So if you need anything, if it's in my power, just ask!
  10. Best of all would of course be all the above in combination! A good meal and a nice few bottles of wine shared with friends, while making music contributing all in various differing ways. What could top that!
Finally I would like to pass the award on to the following:

  • Mrs. Ayak at http://ayak-turkishdelight.blogspot.com/ (I believe it's Linda isn't it? How do you do?) She normally sends awards in my direction so now it's my turn to return the compliment. I reckon her village in Turkey and ours in Italy should be twinned as they sound just the same.
  • The other one I would like to pass on to Beck at http://greenspain.blogspot.com/. This is for offering to share some of her tomato seeds with me. She is relatively new to blogging. She writes about her efforts to live a more sustainable lifestyle in Spain, something that can only be applauded.

Right so much about that. Remember a couple of weeks ago I was blogging about the edibility of primroses and reprinted an historic recipe for a spring tart from http://www.theoldfoodie.com/. As the recipe was from 1733, it was rather lacking in detail and also when I was posting about this, another ingredient, the violet, wasn't ready. However now they are and this is my take on this ancient recipe.

Spring Tart

For the pastry:
  • 200g flour
  • Pinch of salt
  • 75g sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 125g cold butter
For the filling:
  • ca. 2 pints of mixed leaves of primroses, violets and wild strawberries
  • 1 handful of primrose and violet flowers
  • 150g spinach
  • 400ml cream
  • 100g grated sponge biscuits
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • Pinch of salt
  • ½ grated nutmeg
  • ½ tsp grated cinnamon
30g sugar

  1. Mix the flour with the salt and pile on a your work surface. Make a mould in the centre. Put the sugar and the egg into the centre. Dot the cold butter cut into flakes around the edge. Knead all this quickly together into a smooth dough. Wrap in foil and refrigerate for an hour or so.
  2. In the meantime make the stuffing. Wash the leaves well and separate the flowers and set aside in a small dish with some water to keep them fresh. If you have a juicer, simply juice your spinach and keep the juice aside. If not, maybe just boil the spinach with a drop of water and liquidise. Use a little less spinach in that case.
  3. In a large saucepan bring a little water to the boil. Add the leaves and blanch for a couple of minutes. Drain well and place in a food processor together with the cream.
  4. Whiz leaves and cream in the food processor and return to the pan. Bring to a boil and simmer for another few minutes (3 or 4). Take off the flame and leave to cool for a moment. Add the grated biscuits, the eggs, the salt, the nutmeg, the cinnamon and the sugar and stir well. Finally add the spinach juice to colour your tart green and most of the flowers set aside, leaving a few behind for a garnish

  1. Preheat oven to 175 C. On a lightly floured surface roll out the pastry to fit a round cake tin with about 2cm going up around the edge. Grease the tin and place the pastry inside. Pour in the filling and bake for about 40 minutes.
  • Leave to cool and garnish with the remaining flowers

I think it should have turned greener, but it sure was tasty. We had a bunch of people around for a wine tasting yesterday and I let them judge without giving away the ingredients beforehand. It was an unqualified success!

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Window of Opportunity

I was starting to get really itchy feet. Many a fellow gardening blogger had started spring sowing a couple of weeks ago whilst I was stuck on the wrong moon phase wondering if I was the only one following silly superstitions. It's not so much that I'm convinced this works, I just don't like showing a 'brutta figura' in front of my Italian neighbours. If they see you sowing tomatoes or the like during the waning moon period, they just tut and shake their heads at your utter foolishness. Only stupid foreigners evidently don't know about the cycles of nature.

The weather wasn't playing it's part either. According to local lore, today is the very day, half way between new moon and full moon, to start your spring sowing. And guess what: after days of miserable weather and lashings of rain, today the clouds parted and perfect conditions for sowing presented themselves! What's more, after a fantastic day of balmy sunshine, we were barely back indoors again, the rain returned giving everything a nice watering and more rain is forecast for the rest of the week.

On cue the almond tree opened it's first flowers too.

As I don't have a heated green house (not even a heated house for that matter), and the space I had created in front of an upstairs window for putting seed trays has been taken up by cats, who would cause chaos amongst my delicate seedlings, I have decided to sow straight into my newly built cold frame. More sensitive plants I sowed in trays covered with a plastic lid within the cold frame to give it a double glazing effect so to speak.

Incidentally, I had left a small gap during the construction of the cold frame, which I was going to block off anyway to avoid a draft. Today I had discovered that the gap was about cat-sized as a cat obviously enjoyed the nice warmth under cover.

Here is what we sowed today:

  • dwarf beans slenderette. I haven't tried these before, but according to the package they can be sown earlier (i.e. from Feb. onwards), so I shall stagger sowing.
  • pea 'progress No.9'. I don't usually do well with peas. The autumn sown ones are struggling and in summer they don't like the sun beating down on them either. Maybe they'll do better this time. This variety sounds like a song from the Beatles' White Album!
  • lettuce 'salad bowl'. A vigorous, easy and quick growing variety.
  • Rocket. It normally sows itself out quicker than we can eat it, but this winter we suddenly found ourselves without any. Don't know how that happened.
In the cold frame:
  • Tomato 'Marmande'. This one makes the bulk of my production every year, a large, fleshy and productive variety.
  • Tomato 'Gigante seedless'. I don't know what posessed me to buy a seedless variety, it won't sow itself out in my compost. I must have just read GIGANTE and thought that sounds good. I didn't bother with sowing any other varieties as some cherry toms, salad toms and plum toms seem to usually spring up spontaneously anyway and I always run out of space to plant them all.
  • Sweet pepper 'Feher'. This is a small pointy yellow variety ripening early and giving good crops for a long time.
  • Pepper 'Quadrato d'Asti'. Large red peppers, very sweet
  • Cayenne chillies.
  • Chilli 'spicy cherry'. Great for stuffing with tuna or anchovies and preserving under oil.
  • Aubergine 'halflange violette'. Obviously a Dutch cultivar meaning half long purple. Produced well last year
  • Kohlrabi 'Delikatess Blue'. They were slightly old seeds, hope they'll come.
  • Gherkin 'Vert Petit de Paris'. I love pickled gherkins. Last year I sowed some direct in the ground with only limited success, so I thought I'll start it off in the cold frame this year.
  • 3 types of lettuce: 'meraviglia di 4 stagione', a reddish open head, 'gentilina', green frizzy lettuce and 'brasiliana', an iceberg variety.
Finally I decided to experiment with a few things. I love lentils and they are part of the Italian cuisine, but for some reason I have never seen lentil seeds for sale anywhere. A bit of research on the net revealed that they seem quite easy to grow and can even cope with some frost. So I just took a few brown lentils out of an ordinary packet of dried lentils and sowed them. Let's see what happens, eh?

Secondly I gathered some angelica seeds from the wild last year. I thought I'll try and grow some on one of my lower terraces where I can't do much else anyway in honour of my friend Angelika (Engelwurz) mentioned in the previous post.

Thirdly I was going to write something in the next part of wild food of the month about the judas tree. Both flowers and 'beans' of this apparently pretty tree are edible. Trouble is I haven't tried any myself yet and also I'm not sure I could identify one. In Arcola, near our land there are some pretty pink flowering trees which I thought might be it. So I picked a couple of pods with a view of sowing some out and making a positive id. It appears it's not a judas tree.

This is what the seeds and pods look like.

Like a judas tree they have an abundance of pink flowers in spring, but these specimen are trained in a pergola in a public park rather than growing upright. So I'm not sure what I've got there, anyone any ideas? I should maybe take a photo when it is in flower. I sowed a few of them anyway, it's a pretty plant.

Friday, 19 February 2010

of money

“In the end though, maybe we must all give up trying to pay back the people in this world who sustain our lives. In the end, maybe it’s wiser to surrender before the miraculous scope of human generosity and to just keep saying thank you, forever and sincerely, for as long as we have voices.”
Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love

It's the time of year again when the infamous hunger gap opens over us again. Our larder is looking worryingly empty. The last of the tomato sauce is finished as are various beans under brine. There's still quite a bit of chutney and jam, a few dried beans and sweetcorn and most importantly olives and olive oil.

Also inside my wallet a yawning emptyness greets me. Above you can see the entire current contents of it. The bank account doesn't show any more either. So this state of affairs together with the fact that outside there is a howling gale and horizontal rain leads me to philosophise a little on the subject of money.

To put it quite simply, I really do not understand the concept of money. I mean it, I don't. I can just about follow why they invented it in the first place. Back in the days when humans just roamed the countryside, life maybe wasn't exactly easy, but it was simple. All you needed to sort out was who went foraging for berries and roots and who did the hunting. In the evening they all met up again and shared their spoils.

When they invented culture you could still manage quite easily. You hunted an extra wild boar or deer, picked a few more berries and invited the guy with the interesting metal contraption from the other valley to bring along some pina colada and the other chap who manages to extract those strange sounds out of an old goat skin to join your feast and hey, you had a party!

But once people started settling down people started to specialise. There was the cabbage farmer, the goat herder, the medicine man, the carpenter and the plumber. Once the cabbage farmer got himself yet another acre of land he needed a bit of help. But soon his workmen got bored being paid in cabbages, there's only so much you can do with them. So they needed to come up with some sort of currency, some sort of token with a value they all agreed on.

Initially they started with pretty seashells, however Hungary, Mongolia and other landlocked countries felt a little left out, having to go so far to pick up seashells. So they came up with gold, which was quite a good idea, because firstly it's quite rare unlike seashells and secondly it's completely useless for any other purpose. Far too soft for weapons or tools. Now things started to become complicated though.

Money started taking on a life entirely of it's own. Initially, when they introduced money, I'm sure they said something like: "ok, one money is worth one chicken, which in turn is worth 20 eggs, unless it's an old stringy thing, in which case it'll only be worth half a money. As for cabbages, you get 5 cabbages for one money and we'll give you one free on top." But then some people got a bit greedy, especcially those with special skills like the medicine man. Instead of taking one money to make you better, he started taking two.

He saved up the extra moneys to go and build himself a jacuzzi and a snooker table in his basement. So this of course had a twofold knock-on effect. One, the guy helping the cabbage farmer says he needs more money to make his wife better. This puts up the price of cabbages and leaves others needing more money too and two everyone else now wants a jacuzzi and snooker table too. This way I imagine inflation was invented. So all of a sudden no one new from one day to the next how much his moneys were worth.

In addition you had the problem that the Hungarians had just got used to using seashells having aquired enough through trade, whilst the coastal countries had meanwhile moved on to using gold or marbles or football player collectors cards. Now if you wanted to trade with a neighbouring country you didn't only have to consider the changing value of your money against goods within you own country, but also against currencies from other countries.

All of a sudden the real villain of the story appears, the banker! I imagine the first banker as your average nerd at school. Instead of spending all his pocket money on sweets like any normal kid, he saves it all in a secret hiding place under the floor boards. At school he sells half his school lunch to his fellow pupils and maybe starts a sideline in betting on the outcome of school fights. By the time he's grown up, being quite lonely and avoided by his peers he comes up with a plan for everyone to love him again.

First he goes to the medicine man with the jacuzzi and snooker table, gives him a big smile and a warm handshake and says:
"Look Doc, you and me we've always been the best of friends haven't we? Don't answer that, it was a rhetorical question. Listen you keeping your money under the pillow like that, it's not safe, you know. Next time the cabbage farm worker calls you out to see his wife, he'll come straight to your house and take all your lovely money away. I've seen him eye up your snooker table, you know. Apart from anything else there's that inflation thing that you set off. Means your money is becoming less even if no one comes stealing it."
"How do you mean it's getting less, if I have it under my matress? What should I do about that then?"

"Ah, you see, you are lucky to have me, an expert as your friend. You just give it all to me and..."

"No, no, let me explain, I will invest it for you. I don't expect a busy man like to understand the details. All you need to know is whenever you need money, come to me and I will give you more than you have given me originally. (Subject to conditions, market variations, currency fluctuations, plain luck, the weather and other unforeseen circumstances...). I'll offer other services (for a small surcharge at my discretion...), like paying your weekly grocery bill by direct debit or you can pay at the butchers by simply writing out a piece of paper that he then presents to me. Imagine how much time and bother this would all save you!"

Having bamboozled the nedicine man our newly created banker is now off to the cabbage farm worker and puts a friendly arm around his shoulder:

"My friend!" he says.
"What do you want? I'm not putting on another bet with you, I always loose!"
"No I want to help you!! I've seen you casting an eye on that snooker table of the medicine man, I have good news for you, I can help you get one!!!"

The cabbage farm worker is starting to worry about the increasing use of exclamation marks, but wants to know more anyway. You have an idea how the strory ends.

Now, a few centuries later we find you're a nobody if you don't have a bank account, your bank manager has absolute power over you and they get bonuses of a squillion dollars. How on earth did that happen? Why did the medicine man and the cabbage farm worker not see straight through that first banker and told him where to go in possibly although not necessarily very impolite language?

Anyway, you can tell I'm bored, hence my ramblings. For the past few weeks we've lived on €5 a week, which we get paid for teaching this young lady out of the village some English. I know we should be charging more, but hey, it's sort of a community service. Also we know her Mum isn't exactly loaded either.
For your general day-to-day living €5 is actually enough. We even manage to feed our cats on that, as long as they are not fussy. But then things like electricity and phone bills turn up, you run out of gas for heating and cooking and the petrol in the car runs out on a small country lane a mile from home (luckily walking distance!) It's then that you are glad you haven't been as nasty to your fellow humans as the banker and people come to your rescue.

This brings me neatly back to the quote on the top. The little card under the moneys on the top photo came with a wee parcel by my dear old friend Angelika in Germany. The parcel was stuffed full of goodies such as tea and chocolate, which is keeping us at least warm. The value of friendship is something bankers try to use in their advertising, but it simply does not compare. I much rather stay poor as long as I still have friends.

So thank you to all our friends both real and virtual, I feel richer than a Russian oligarch!

Sunday, 7 February 2010

...and another poem

Ok, only my most loyal readers will remember my last masterpiece about the red spider mite. It's just one of those things. You work on the land and you just feel one with nature, so you can't help but be inspired.

So today it happened again, as I was digging over a particularly weed infested bed the muse kissed me, or rather hit me over the back of the head with a large club (otherwise Susan would have complained anyway: "Who's that tart you've been canoodling with?") and here's the result:

The Root
Root, oh root within the earth,
of thou* a favour I'd like to ask,
To a weed, I know, thou wilst give birth,
Which leaves me with one cruel task.

To pull thou out by thy head,
To remove from my veg'tables thy threat
So why don't thou savest us both this arduous toil
And simply stay beneath the soil.

Footnotes for younger readers: In the olden** days people used to say thou instead of you and thy for your, which sounded more poetic, though knowst***. They also added _st to the 3rd person singular like the Germans (see German: du binst = thou arst).
**In the olden days they also said olden instead of old, not sure why. There used to be an insult directed at people who hadn't had a bath in a while (which apparently was quite common): "Thou olden swyne!" The original meaning of this phrase has been lost in the mists of sage... thyme! Sorry thyme, not sage.
***Thou knowst was a popular turn of phrase in the olden days.

I retain all copyrights to this poem for any reprinting or public recitals. Allright, Mr H. you may read it to Mrs. H. I had to recite it to Susan a few times, so I guess that means it's quite deep. Well it is about roots after all...

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Wild Food of the Month: February

Here comes No. 2 of the series wild food of the month. This month I'm featuring the primrose:

This photo was taken last year, as they are not in flower this year yet. I learnt about the edibility of this pretty herald of spring from afore-mentioned calendar from our local hardware store. It says both leaves and flowers are edible and suggests either throwing them into a salad or boiling them briefly and serve with olive oil, lemon juice and a bit of salt.

Now both these suggestions seem to be the standard in Italy for anything edible from the wild. If in doubt, add to salad or serve with olive oil and lemon juice. It does go on and further suggest adding the flowers to soups or an omelette, however I was after something a bit different, so googled for other recipes involving primrose.

During my search I came across this brilliant blog called "The Old Foodie" (http://www.theoldfoodie.com/) by an English woman in Australia. She has made it her mission to find a traditional food / menu for each day of the year. This became a bit of an obsession by the sounds of it and she has collected 100's of historical recipes and anecdotes in the process.

According to her, 5 February is primrose day and she published a couple of recipes for that. I couldn't collect primroses yesterday, because it rained all day. The recipe that I will have to try, but can't do quite yet is called Spring Tart and is taken from the Cook's and Confectioner's Dictionary from the year 1733. It goes like this:

"To make a Spring Tart.Gather such Buds, in the Spring of the Year, that are not bitter, also the Leaves of Primroses, Violets, and Strawberries; take also a little young Spinage, boil them, drain them in a Colander; then chop them very small, and boil them over again in Cream; add to them Naples Bisket grated, and so many Yolks and Whites of Eggs as will make the Cream very thick, colour all green with the Juice of Spinage; season with Salt, Nutmeg, Cinnamon and Sugar, and bake it in Puff-paste or otherwayes."

The main reason I haven't tried this yet is that the violets aren't quite there yet. I saw one single solitary one today. Saying that, it does say the leaves, doesn't it? "Naples Bisket" I'm told is a type of sponge biscuit. So shall try this out very soon and let you know the result and quantities used.

For today we shall use some with everything else we gathered on todays wild food gathering expedition in a wholesome soup involving potatoes, lentils plus wild chicory...

...wild onions, daisies, borage, stingy nettles, salad burnett aaannd... I think that's all. Anyway, just to give you an idea of our walk today. After 24 hours of rain the air had cleared beautifully and the views were magnificient. It was one of the few days in the year when we could see Corsica clearly in the distance.

This a view back to our village:

and that one over towards the sea and the Gulf of La Spezia.

Unfortunately the photo doesn't do reality any justice, but it gives you an idea.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

An Award

Well Mrs Ayak awarded me yet another award. She is considering me one of her circle of friends. Thank You Ayak, it's an honour. I shan't be sticking it on my side bar, but it is appreciated nontheless. For those who don't know Mrs Ayak, she writes a blog "Turkish Delight" (http://ayak-turkishdelight.blogspot.com/) (Sorry, don't know how to do that neat link thing...) about her life as an English woman in Turkey.

What I like about her blog is that the village she lives in seems a carbon copy of our village: up in the hills, but not far from the sea, exposed to the elements, things such as electricity, water supply, telephone connections don't always function as they should, but all in all there's a close community spirit there and people make you feel at home.

The award is supposed to be passed onto 5 others and I am to tell you about 5 things I like doing. First of all other bloggers I have started to consider as friends more recently are as follows:

  1. Angela @ Letters from Usedom (http://lettersfromusedom.blogspot.com/). Angela writes from her cosy sounding home on the Baltic Sea island of Usedom in Germany. Her love for humanity is infectious and she often has virtual cake eating sessions around her fire, with nice cups of hot chocolate. I recommend her place for a pleasant evening in.
  2. Jan @ Espace on Blogger (http://jansespaceonblogger.blogspot.com/). Jan and her husband Steve are building up a finca on the wind swept high plains of Catalunya. It sounds harsh up there and they have my sympathy.
  3. Anna @ Liguria Bella Liguria (http://beautiful-liguria.blogspot.com/). Anna is an Italian girl, who writes about her home region Liguria in English. She lives in Genoa and takes you on all sorts of excursions along the Italian Riviera.
  4. Chaiselongue @ Olives & Artichokes – a Mediterranean Garden (http://olives-and-artichokes.blogspot.com/). She and her husband escaped Wales to live in the Languedoc region of southern France, where they cultivate a small plot of land, experimenting with olives and other more or less exotic crops. Besides they take you on little trips to their local market or vineyard with some beautiful pics. You can stop by for some scrumtious meals too.
  5. Jen @ Sweet Water (http://murphyjenn78.blogspot.com/). And talking about scrumptious meals, you get some real feasts at Jen#s, especcially if you are into exotic meats. I don't comment on her site as often as I should. Jen suffers from bipolar disorder and depression and I often feel helpless. I don't want to pass comments which may make things worse for her, so I rather say nothing. I do listen though... I do often think of her though and hence I hope this award will cheer her up somewhat.

Right and on the 5 things I like doing. I'm a man of simple pleasures

  1. Gardening. Well obviously derrr. Otherwise I wouldn't be doing this. I just like being in the outdoors and keep witnessing the miracle of seeds becoming fully grown plants which sustain us.
  2. Cooking and baking. I am the cook around our house and I like coming up with new combinations from limited resources. I can almost do the Charlie Chaplin and turn an old boot into a meal!
  3. Listening to music from all over the world. Music tells so much about a culture it comes from. I listen to anything from Irish diddledee to India Sitar, from Blues to Classic, some rock, Nordic folk, Italian folk, Mongolian throat singing, Indonesian Gamelan you name it. My only criterion is, it has to come from the inside, not some made up commercial rubbish made to please the masses
  4. walking / hiking. For those who don't know, my name rhymes with psycho. So I suppose you could say I was predestined to enjoy "heiking" We've lived here for over 5 years now and we are still finding new paths through the woods. This of course combines well with another passion of mine: wild food gathering.
  5. reading. Finally I do like reading a good book.

That's it for today folks!

Monday, 1 February 2010

Violence pays off...

Well, just before throwing that Bl$+^@@?!!****d camera onto the rubbish heap I thought I'll give it the violent treat. You know, pair of pliers and just yanking the old lens out. This being sensitive electronic equipment, obviously it's the last saloon option. But guess what: it worked. Since then the camera (touch wood!) has been working again and taking beautiful pictures. So for the time being this is becoming a picture blog again.
The celebrate this event I thought I'll kick off with a "Spot-the-Odd-One-Out" competition. Which of the 3 in the foreground (or should it be a threeground???) is the odd one out? The winner wins a week on the farm shovelling manure!

Yes we were on Piero's farm again today shovelling manure. Mind you I wasn't the only one the donkeys took a shine to:

Anyway, now that I can take photos again I thought I'll show you how things are looking at the moment. First of all my pride and joy: my recently constructed cold/warm frame:

And here some pics of the current state of of some of our veg. White cabbage,

Cavolo Nero (Tuscan "Black Cabbage")


This is the later sown terrace of broad beans (actually half terrace). They were sown in November. The October sown ones are further advanced, already being in flower, but they suffered more in the winter storms and I fear they are in flower too early. So having experimented with sowing times from October to January, remind me next autumn to sow in November.