Saturday, 30 April 2011

A day in Campania, King Prawns and Grappa

Bari seemed a lifetime away, as we stopped outside our house in Campania. As we got out of the car a cold wind greeted us to let us know that we were right on top of a mountain. Gone were the hot sun, the short nights filled with the scent of jasmin and sea and the sound of cars, in the distance, and of dogs barking. Here, Spring had not quite arrived, yet. In Bari, people were swimming in the sea and eating cold water melon!

We had so enjoyed the heat of Bari, the feeling of the sun almost burning your skin, the turquoise sky and the friendly people. Most of all, I missed being with people who know and love me. My family...

Our place in Campania felt cold and damp, but the view, like a woman dressed in black velvet, was as breath taking as ever. Capri looked  more beautiful than ever covered in grey and the clouds in the sky were so dramatic, they reminded me of the frescos which once used to adorn the ceilings of our churches.

Dramatic clouds in Campania

It was cold and the sky was grey, but... how could I fail to see the abundance of beauty, the effort Spring was putting into preparing the ground for its return, there in Campania? The grapevines were just beginning to shoot. Beautiful, jade coloured translucent young leaves decorated the thin, almost straggly branches. Artichokes, as pretty as ballerinas in their tutus, had made an appearance to say "Ciao."

The grapevines were just beginning to shoot

Some of the neighbours had broad beans and lettuce growing in their gardens and the big black and white cat was fatter than ever, and looked beautiful, sat as it was, on an old bench, a pot of orange blossom behind it, whilst Audrey, the slim cat, was singing a love song. Maybe, when we go back she will have kittens! I stopped to look at some olive wood, ready for somebody's fire. A beautiful pile of wood...

Our old neighbour grows lettuce and broad beans in his garden
Broad beans

The black and white cat

A pile of olive tree wood ready for the fire

I made my way down the steep slope, hoping Teresa would see me. But she didn't come out. "I would so love to see her chickens!" I thought. But she wasn't in. I walked to one of the places where I pick wild rosemary, on the side of the mountain. It's so beautiful there... You feel like you are on top of the world!

I couldn't help missing my sun, though, and the heat, the friendly people and those who love me and I felt a bit lonely. Suddenly a ray of sunshine appeared. As I reached our place, I noticed the olive tree branches and leaves reflected on the white table, then the sea, and the boats... a good day for cooking something to remind me of my Adriatic, I thought. So I did...

Gamberoni affogati
(King Prawns in Grappa)

Serves 2

12 fresh King Prawns, shells on
Three or four big glugs olive oil
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 red chilli pepper, sliced
1 stem fresh rosemary
dried rosemary to taste
1 small glass of Grappa or Vodka
Salt and pepper
A handful of fresh parsley

This is really quick, easy, but... delicious!
Before you start, make sure you have prepared all your ingredients, as this dish needs to be prepared really fast or it might burn.

Prepare your ingredients before you start

To begin with, heat the oil in a pan or a wok, until really hot. Add the garlic and the chillies. Stir until the garlic turns a lovely golden colour, then add the prawns. Stir and cook on a high heat for a minute or so.

Next, add the rosemary, taking care not to burn it. I like to use one or two little whole stems of the herb, as I love it so much! Now... very carefully add the Grappa (like I said, you can use Vodka, if you like. I only used Grappa as I really don't like drinking the stuff and use it for cooking. It really doesn't taste nice, as a drink!) then wait till it evaporates, leaving behind a delicious tasting little sauce (good for dipping bread into!)

I use Grappa just for cooking (sorry!)

 Serve your prawns with a garnish of fresh parsley, some crusty bread, maybe a salad and some ice cold white wine. As you can see, we enjoyed our prawns with a glass or two of Castelli Romani (delicious dry white wine from Rome)

My finished dish on a table, outside

THE PIG AND THE WOLF (Story about cheese and Franco)

Do I love cheese, or do I love cheese? Let's say that in our home, in Italy, you would rarely have eaten a sweet or a cake, but one thing was sure: at the end of every meal, a selection of cheese would end up on the table, possibly accompanied by something like a simple salad.

As I was strolling home with my husband, in Italy, last month, I decided to walk into a latteria where I had bought cheese before... good, excellent cheese, all made locally with good, "dietetici" (organic) ingredients.

There's something special about entering a "Latticini" shop, in Italy: the heat makes these shops smell really lovely and homely and you want to buy everything!

A cheese stall in a street market, in Italy

The first thing I noticed, was a string of cheese animals, hanging in the background. I had to buy one, as my mum always bought me a Porcellino di Scamorza (Scamorza cheese piglet) when we went food shopping together. Then (this is actually the reason why I went in the shop) I saw the QUEEN of all cheeses: BURRATA. I bought a really big burrata nicely wrapped up in white paper and a baby one.

Next, I asked the man to cut me a nice slice of scamorzone... a beautiful big cheese, hard on the outside, but soft and almost spongy on the inside and slightly reminiscent of the gorgeous natural sponges you buy on the Greek Islands, or of your mum's breasts (really!)

I also bought another local delicacy: ricotta piccante (hot ricotta) which is spreadable and delicious. It looks like butter, but you have with with some pasta dishes and wherever you think you need a bit of a hot "kick." It's good on bruschetta, too!

Ricotta piccante

I took my "Pot of gold" to my sister's house. I worried about the cheese, as we walked, as the midday sun was so hot. As we walked, we saw enormous cacti, banana plants, oranges and lemons, all growing in ordinary gardens. The sun made me feel hot, but happy. I can so easily forget who I am, when the sun takes over my mind! It makes me so dizzy!

When we got back, we placed all the cheese in the fridge. My big burrata was so big and beautiful, and such a rare thing (you only get real burrata in Bari, as it doesn't travel at all, and you should really eat it straight away.) A burrata is like a ball of mozzarella (on the outside) totally filled with best cream and shreds of the most fantastic mozzarella you have ever eaten. It's sexy, beautiful, round and "juicy" and... I LOVE IT!

A whole BIG burrata (before)

... and after. It's so good!

I kept the cheese until the evening, when we ate it with olives, Altamura bread, and a simple salad made just with cicoria (a type of chicory you eat raw) and olive oil. The cicoria reminded me of my mum, who used to love it. We had a simple, but fantastic meal, that evening. A smoked scamorza, from my sister's fridge, added an extra taste sensation.

Raw cicoria. You make a salad with the "tips"

It needs no dressing: just best olive oil and some salt!

All day I constantly thought of the little cheesy pig I had bought.  In my mind I ate it so many times, in so many ways: I had visions of myself gradually peeling the outer layer, "undressing" the cheese to discover and enjoy the soft centre.

That evening,  as I went to take the pig from the cheese platter, I looked at my brother in law, Franco. With a very fast move, he took my cheese, and, in one gulp, he ate it! "Stop, stop!" I wanted to cry "You are eating my pig!" But there... he was chewing it, and swallowed it in one go, MY PIG!

He ate it and I didn't even have time to chant, like the pigs did in the story " By the hair on my chinny chin chin I won't let you in!" The wolf ate the pig and all that was left was a bit of green string... the collar! Sigh! NO!

From top to bottom: my big beautiful burrata, wrapped up in red and white paper, a small burrata, with green string, smoked scamorza, MY little cheesy pig, wearing a green collar
On the plate, a lovely slice of scamorzone (with holes)

I was so upset, I could have cried... he ate my pig! Good job the nicely chilled Prosecco was on the table. I had to drown my sorrow, didn't I? OINK!... OINK! OINK! Cin Cin!

Monday, 25 April 2011


It was hot, it was sunny, it was happy and beautiful... Italy before Easter! The shops were displaying chocolate eggs and all kinds of Springtime goodies. And I was there... soaking up the sun, the beauty and feeling the embrace of my mother land.

The gardens were celebrating Spring: lemon and orange trees everywhere!

In my sister's garden, a tiny little lemon tree, with one single blossom brought back memories of weddings past, when I was a tiny little girl and brides had orange or lemon blossom in their bouquet. And I saw myself at the wedding of my cousin and Olga, his beautiful blond bride. I was the bridesmaid and as we walked down the aisle I could smell the blossom and the Lily of the Valley in Olga's bouquet.

I have memories of my aunt's house, after the wedding. As we walked up the steps which led to the house, musicians played violins and, wherever you went, round the house, you were followed by violin players. It felt like being in a movie, or in one of those old Victorian poems, which smell of ferns, aspidistra and damasks. In one of the rooms, some of the older guests sat, in a circle, whilst "rosolio" (I'm sure it must have been limoncello) was being served.

Lemons everywhere, In Italy, and oranges... beautiful orange trees laden with fruit. What a feast for the eyes and for the mind!

When we left Puglia we went across to Campania. My little lemon tree wasn't much to write home about, so... all by myself, I went out one sunny afternoon, to explore and find... things! I found almonds, I found wild rosemary and lots of beautiful lemon trees! 

Almonds growing on a tree

Wild rosemary

So, I picked the five lemons I needed to make my Mamma's limoncello. And here is the recipe:

Rosa's very good limoncello


5 lemons
500 mls Polish Spirit or Vodka
400 gr sugar
500 mls water

This is very easy. First of all peel your five lemons, making sure you avoid all the pith (the white, furry stuff behind the skin.) Next, put the lemon peel in a bottle, with the Spirit. Leave to infuse for 48 hours.

Two days later...

Bring 500 mls of water to the boil. Turn off , add the sugar and stir until melted. When the water is cold, add the spirit which by now will be bright yellow and very lemony. Stir and place in a nice bottle.

Limoncello is actually good served cold. We enjoyed it at the end of our Easter dinner, with a slice of my homemade Pizza di Ricotta (Pastiera- our Easter cake) It was really yummy!
This is my Pastiera, the Italian Easter ricotta cheese cake

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

"Na' tazzulella e' cafe`" A cup of Coffee (and zabaione)

It's seven in the morning and I hear traffic noises in the street, below. The bar must be opening. I hear Michele (he used to be a bersagliere, then he married my cousin Tina and became the rich owner of a bar, married to a rich girl-my cousin!)

Michele had a really loud sounding voice and was a real character: very dark hair, a big smile... a really nice man! You knew it was morning as Michele opened his bar and the noise was really loud! He would talk to everyone and would wake everyone up. He was our honorary cockerel. If we had lived in the country, I'm sure someone would have rang his neck and cooked him "alla cacciatora" and he would never have lived to be the grandfather he is now. He was so loud!

In our house, and in every house, you could smell coffee, first thing. Like a cartoon type swirl in the air, the fragrance travelled all the way up to your nostrils. The coffee I could smell came from our kitchen. My mum made fantastic coffee!

My brother Mimmo and I, were not allowed coffee, until we were about fifteen (by which time we secretly drank babbo's Moscatello and I had a boyfriend.) No coffee for Italian children! Just a little drop in your cappuccino, in the morning, with biscuits. But not for us: no biscuits in our house. "You have to dip panini in your cappuccino!" My Mum would say. "What? Panini? In my cappuccino? But that's vile! I want biscuits!" I would say, but... not allowed!

No sweets in our house (though pasticcini and yummy things did get smuggled in!) Everything our mother fed us was fresh, wholesome and even the eggs we ate had been very painfully "delivered" by some worm eating hen, out in the countryside. Have you ever watched a hen lay an egg? Painful...

But I grew up to really LOVE strong, beautiful, fragrant black coffee (and eggs... I had no choice!) Yes, I do like a cup of espresso, in the morning. You know, the kind you drink out of a small cup. My problem is I do drink espresso, the "kind you drink out of a small cup," but I have massive helpings of it, in big cups. WOW! But you can always counteract the effect of caffeine overdose with a nice, wholesome herbal Valerian tablet, can't you?

My beautiful 1970s coffee cups. Love them!

Illy, 1994 Picasso coffee cup collection. 

Going back to the egg "thing", my mother, the 007 of organic world had "spies" everywhere. Farmers would pop out of the woodwork with baskets of beautiful big free range eggs, organic vegetables (back then, the word wasn't as trendy as it is now. My mum used to call it "Senza concime" "Organic") I'm sure my mum's organic vegetables made me the "strong " woman I am now! Maybe not...

Today I made zabaione, using very fresh free range... happy eggs. At home we were only allowed to make zabaione with fresh eggs. All we needed was:

Italian home made zabaione
Serves 1
2 extremely fresh free range eggs
(only need the yolks)
3 tbsp caster sugar
optional: 2 tbsp coffee
or: 2 tbsp liquor or brandy

Simply break two eggs. Separate the whites from the yolks, place the yolks in a cup with the sugar and whisk with a fork, or a mixer, until the mixture becomes pale yellow and smooth. Add some black coffee, or liquor (brandy is good with this.) Done! If you like eggs and really sweet "stuff" this is one for you. And... if for any reason you would like your zabaione to be "cooked"  you can make it in a bowl placed into a Bain Marie (hot water.) This makes your zabaione smoother.

My brother and I used to make our own zabaione every other day, but we were only allowed 1 egg yolk each, as two, our mum said, were not good for you! And, though we were not allowed black coffee, our mum would put whisky in our zabaione "To keep us warm"... 'cause it's ever so cold in Southern Italy, isn't it?
No coffee in this cup, just a rose for Rosa, my beautiful mother, who brought so much love into my life.