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Luigi drives a trailer-load of grapes to the cantina.

Luigi drives a trailer-load of grapes to the cantina.

OVER the few weeks that we have been in Italy the landscape has changed from a healthy green patterned with huge swathes of golden-yellow sunflowers to a brown that smacks of struggle and despair. Water, give me water! Turn that heat down! It has been so hot and dry that the earth is baked rock-hard and the once-cheerful sunflowers hang their heads dolefully, fearing their own demise.

The farmers potter about hotly on their tractors, not all of them with the luxury of air-conditioned cabs. They are engaged in all the usual high-summer activity, much of it at night when they and the earth can breathe. Vines take priority. Here, it’s all about the vines. Come the vendemmia, the whole area’s focus will turn to picking the grapes and getting them off to the cantina for turning into wine. 

In our vineyard, as in our olive grove, it’s always a poor harvest – or so our contadino (tenant farmer) tells us, shaking his head and looking as unhappy as one of the drooping sunflowers. Farmers are the same here, then, as they are in the UK. This ritual attack of the glooms is our farmer’s transparent ruse for excusing his diminishing annual rental payment.

We have always had an agreement that in return for farming our land, harvesting our grapes and olives, and no doubt accruing some tasty EU subsidies and grants each year, he will pay us in lakes of wine, vats of oil, with occasional extras of fruit, vegetables, eggs and strange, stringy chickens thrown in for good measure. 

Tomatoes, melon, red wine and 10 litres of olive oil.

Tomatoes, melon, red wine and 10 litres of olive oil.

Nowadays, we are lucky to get a fraction of that. But we don’t mind. We’re happy with the slightly one-sided barter system and, although others advise us to get tough, we have no intention of coming over all landlord-ish with them. Besides, we like our farmer and all his family and wouldn’t ever want to fall out with them.

They work incredibly hard, papa and his two sons, tending scores of acres of land for a number of different landowners, toiling up and down hills that are like the sides of mountains. Once, a tractor toppled over and fell on Filippo, crushing his legs. Now, 12 years on and aged 78, he struggles to walk as arthritis takes its toll. His sons are the contadini now, lovely men with wives and children who always hail us like old friends. 

As well as wanting to remain on good terms with Filippo and the boys, I am aware that making a fuss about the paucity of gifts could mean a resumption in the supply of chickens. These have been a problem to me in the past. As a vegetarian, I am not sure how many of those strange things I can cope with handling any more. The last one was presented to us already roasted, incinerated to a rich brown-black colour, with its fully beaked head twisted round to give it a view straight up its empty insides.

A few pounds of tomatoes? Now you’re talking.

Rich with promise. This is the kind of gift that brings me joy.

Rich with promise. This is the kind of gift that brings me joy.

Gifts come in all shapes and sizes - melons, tomatoes, wine and olive oil.

Gifts come in all shapes and sizes – melons, tomatoes, wine and olive oil.

Lovely knobbly tomatoes, peppers and cacchi.

Lovely knobbly tomatoes, peppers and cacchi.

The big one. A very welcome 'payment' in the form of 30 litres of the most beautiful olive oil.

The big one. A very welcome ‘payment’ in the form of 30 litres of the most beautiful olive oil.

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Easter in Italy is all about spending time with the people you want to spend time with, not those you feel you should. Convention is thrown out of the window in favour of pure pleasure. In fact, the Italians have an expression for the way they deal with these festive occasions: Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi (Christmas with your own, Easter with the ones you want).

So, being in Italy over Easter, we had no wish to be with anyone other than our dearest friends here, Giordano (a Marchigiani by birth) and Cat, his partner. They shopped together but G prepped and cooked the meal solo. He’s a great cook, a natural in the kitchen with a flair for creating a humungous mess out of which emerges the most amazing meal, every time.

Our contribution was a home-made tomato and herb tart, while the other guest brought a traditional dolce of fruit tart.

The Easter feast, complete with Prosecco for brindisi to one and all, a few bottles of local red wine, mistra to finish, coffee, and wall-to-wall chatter, lasted a mere six hours.

Half-way through, a colossal thunderstorm broke and blackened the sky, sending rainwater flooding under the balcony doors. It was a dramatic reminder of the existence of a much larger world outside our own happy, cosy, little microcosm.

 

Primo piatto: risotto di asparagi

 

Asparagus risotto

Asparagus risotto

Secondo piatto: agnello alla brace con menthe (though not for me, a veggie).

Lamb - for the carnivores

Lamb – for the carnivores

Torta di Pomodori ed Erbe.

Tomato and herb tart and stuffed artichokes not all for me, the only veggie

Tomato and herb tart and stuffed artichokes not all for me, the only veggie

Contorni: a huge and delicious variety, to my great delight, including zucchini, peperoni ripieni, asparagi, melanzane, carciofi ripieni.

Asparagus and sliced stuffed peppers

Asparagus and sliced stuffed peppers

Zucchini and aubergine - griddled and gorgeous

Zucchini and aubergine – griddled and gorgeous

Insalata mista.

Mixed salad

Mixed salad

Dolce: torta di albicocche

Quick . .  . nearly too late to snap this apricot tart before it all went

Quick . . . nearly too late to snap this apricot tart before it all went

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It’s Easter Saturday. It’s drizzling heavily (I can’t bring myself to admit it’s actually raining when we are so desperate for sun) and visibility is limited by skeins of mist drifting across the valley from the south. The vineyard, all of a drip-drip, looks bleak and wholly unpromising, making me wonder if luscious, juice-bursting bunches of grapes will ever grow from that lot this year.

So we go into the village to check the world is still turning, albeit at the snail-slow pace at which ours operates. Yes, there is life – of sorts.

In the bar there are the usual suspects – untidy clumps of men in their 60s and 70s, identically dressed in circa 1978-style (I use the word ‘style’ loosely), conversing and gesticulating like manic puppets. We find that, mercifully, the telly is not in its normal blast-your-ears-off state but blank and silent. Odd, that. Perhaps the plug’s come out. Giuseppe will be putting that right – domani.

We chat with Emanuela, the barista, and reassure her that when she makes her first-ever visit to London next month she will be able to get a cappuccino. I can’t operate without it, can’t even start my day, she tells us, with dramatic gestures, and we apologetically explain that while it won’t be half as good as the ones she makes, it’s the best we can do in a country where people habitually order a cappuccino as an after-dinner drink.

After our coffee we cross the piazza to the panificio. I’ve had a few awkward encounters in here over the years, my vocab so often failing me and a stabbing finger rarely being enough to compensate. The little shop is full and we join the queue, aware that, as ever, we are the objects of most people’s unashamed scrutiny. Actually, it’s not so much scrutiny as full-on staring, no holds barred. They do it wherever we go, and we simply cannot get used to it, especially as we are not in the least bit remarkable.

As the queue shortens, so my panic increases. Now it is my turn. I step forward and ask for 250 grams of “those” – stab-stab of finger at fly-blown cakey-biscuity things that might be puffed-up chocolate chip cookies but could equally, with my eyesight, be flat currant buns. Phew, she understands me. “A posto?” she asks. No, not done yet. I draw up to my full inadequate height, gulp a deep breath, and do a combined point-n-stab with mumbled Italian to signify my desire for “one of those bread things”, or that’s what I mean, even if it may not come across as that. Bless her, she grasps what I’m after and snatches up a large circle of bread from a display that looks not unlike a nest of sleeping snakes, and hands it to me in a brown paper bag along with the bag of mystery biscuity-cakey things. I pay, obediently take my receipt, squeeze my way past the staring know-alls and burst out gratefully into the rain. I mean heavy drizzle.Biscotti

So what have I bought? Biscotti con pepite di cioccolato – I’ll give them the benefit of my doubt and call them biscuits – egg-glazed, choc-chip beauties that have benefited from a pleasingly light hand on the sugar. As well as the choc chips there are curious seed-shaped things like hard, flattened coco-pops. Interesting, and altogether moreish, to a disturbing degree.

The other purchase, the bread-snake, was referred to in the shop as a ciambella. I am intrigued. I rabbit on about this on the way home, telling my husband with great authority that it’s more than likely associated with Easter – you know, circle of life, that sort of thing, I say, knowingly. I am so delighted to think that this minor purchase has bought us entry into the local observance of Easter traditions.

ciambella ciambella

Except, of course, I am wrong. Or I probably am. I look up ciambella when I get home. Wikipedia tells me it is a doughnut-shaped cake (i.e. one with a hole in the middle) of various sizes and many flavours, such as lemon, orange and aniseed.

What have we ended up with, then? It is an oddity, that’s for sure, so it’ll be a regional (Le Marche), or more likely an actual village, speciality. Our ciambella has the appearance of a crusty French stick, albeit a wheel-shaped stick, but break a bit off and it has the texture of a dry Yorkshire pudding or an unsuccessful attempt at a choux pastry ring. There is not the slightest hint of seasoning, nothing sweet, nothing salty, nothing herby. It is, in short, a tasteless disappointment and an enduring mystery.

What could it possibly be for? A baby’s lifebelt, perhaps? A table decoration? Pause to hunt for candles and sprigs of greenery.

Or perhaps it’s a halo. Yes, it must be a halo. I feel I deserve one for being brave enough, in those hostile circumstances, to buy one of the ghastly things in the first place.

But wait, I do have a use for it – and the timing must mean that our ciambella was indeed heaven-sent. Yesterday, the wheelbarrow tyre suffered a puncture and went flat. Do we have a spare? You bet we do. Pass me that ciambella!

wheelbarrow tyre

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(Published in 2011)

THE Moccia family of Gragnano, in the Gulf of Naples, owe much of their success in the competitive business of making pasta to their ability to move with the times.

Though centuries-old artisan recipes and traditions are at the root of what they do, their Fabbrica della Pasta, in the heart of the historic town, is a highly modernised affair, where 30 skilled workers and some of the most up-to-date machinery create pasta that has aficionados the world over.

One hundred years ago, Gragnano, with its superb quality water and locally grown wheat, boasted about 120 pasta-making enterprises. Now, there are 15, and the Moccias’ business, with its factory tours, its enticing shop stacked with a huge array of products, and ultra-smart website (www.lafabbricadellapastadigragnano.it), is very much a leader of the pack.

True to form, which has seen it modernise while remaining loyal to its heritage – the third generation of Moccias to be involved in pasta makes up the present management team – the company is pushing forward into a new area.

On the first floor, above the pasta factory, a cookery school opened this summer to introduce cooks of all abilities to the joys of pasta-making and the secrets of which salsa or ragu is better suited to which type of pasta.

The school is a response to the growing demand from visitors to become more knowledgeable through, literally, a hands-on learning experience, and the desire among Italians to be better informed about their gastronomic heritage.

Antonino Moccia is ‘Il Pastaio’, in charge of the production side of the factory, while marketing is in the hands of his brother, Ciro, and sister, Susanna. Another sister, Marianna, controls the finances.

And the fourth generation is already making its mark. Antonino’s daughters, Anna Maria, aged 12, and Claudia, seven, like to don white caps and coats and meet visitors who come to see how the simplest of ingredients – flour, water and salt – are transformed into the pride of Italy.

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(Published April 2011)

 Rosie Staal learns to make gnocchi on a hillside near Sorrento

FOR some people, the most difficult thing about gnocchi isn’t how to make it or how to eat it, but how to pronounce it. Try saying ‘nyocky’ and that will do nicely.

As for making it, I put myself in the hands of a Campanian farmer’s wife, and there can have been no better person to impart the lore and reveal what to me, up to then, had been a mystery.

With the scent of lemons all around us – her sister was peeling kilos of them, freshly picked from the farm, to make limoncello – Rosa and I set to on a trestle table outside her old farmhouse in the hills outside Sorrento.

I was a real gnocchi novice, having only ever eaten it in Italian restaurants, and the thought of making it – and of it turning out to be edible – was rather too much to hope for. I knew all about the leaden, doughy sort of gnocchi that can result if you don’t know what you’re doing, so I was concerned not to let that happen.

“It’s difficult to get it just right, isn’t it?” I asked Rosa as she watched me weighing out 250gm of flour.

Whatever Italian is for “Pshaw, don’t be so daft,” was her response, and she led me away into the kitchen to collect the potatoes.

Now the potatoes are crucial. Overcooked and too soggy and they’ll make the whole mixture too sloppy and it will break up when it’s cooked. They have to be just right – ours were large, old, red-skinned and had been simmered until they were tender but still firm enough to hold their shape well.

Back to the table with our cold potatoes, we discarded the skins and mashed the flesh to make it easy to work with and to bind into the flour. We used a ricer, which was hard work, but a fork or a potato masher would do the job just as well. For my 250gm of flour, I was given two medium-sized potatoes.

Needless to say, Rosa weighed none of the ingredients, just knowing with her experienced eye and touch what looked and felt right.

One large, organic egg was added to the mix, plus a generous pinch of salt, and working it by hand and with a knife it bound together very quickly into a pliable dough.

Rosa demonstrated how to break off a chunk and roll it into a snake, then cut each snake into 1.5cm-long pieces.

This is fun, I thought, as I rolled and trimmed and pressed each little gnocco with the tines of a fork to give it a uniquely wonky finishing touch.

I don’t think I would ever make the grade to be part of a production line, but I did well enough to earn praise from the patient Rosa, who took away the trays of little gnocchi to cook them for a few minutes in boiling water.

The proof of my first gnocchi-making effort was in the eating, and happily I can report that every last little one of them was light, tasty and delicious.

Rosa served the dish with a simple, freshly made tomato sauce – and a glass of red, naturally.

Rosa will teach individuals or groups how to make gnocchi – or pasta, or pizza, or limoncello, or mozzarella, or anything that takes your fancy – on her working farm. She is a naturally gifted cook in the old-fashioned Italian way and she loves to pass on her skills. She speaks English, too, and you are able to eat what you make. Find out more by emailing Rosa on lasorgentesorrento@gmail.com or call her on 0039 081 8072618.

To make gnocchi

You need:

Old potatoes

Plain flour (preferably Italian type 00)

Egg

Salt

(The approximate quantities are 2 medium potatoes and 1 egg per 250gm of flour, which makes enough gnocchi for four people.)

Place unpeeled potatoes into a pan of boiling water. Cook until tender but still firm. Drain, cool and mash with a ricer, a fork or potato masher.

Combine the flour, mashed potato and egg with a pinch or two of salt in a large bowl. Knead until the dough forms a ball. Shape small portions of the dough into long snakes and, on a well-floured surface, cut the snakes into 1.5cm (1/2 in) pieces.

To cook the gnocchi, drop them into a large pot of lightly salted boiling water and cook for 3 to 5 minutes or until they have risen to the top. Drain and serve with a favourite sauce.  Buon appetito!

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(Published March 2010)

TO turn a well-worn phrase on its head, ‘cooking doesn’t get much easier than this’. You sit and watch someone else doing all the work, asking questions whenever you want, and at the end, after they’ve done all the hard work, you get to eat the delicious result.

As learning experiences go, a cookery demonstration is 100 percent gain and absolutely no pain.

Dozens of people have benefited from the cookery courses and demonstrations held over the years by professional cook Felicity Roe and her husband James at their 300-year-old farmhouse, Bere Marsh House, on the edge of Shillingstone.

Soon after the Roes moved there 30 years ago, after running a leading hotel at Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight, they took in a B&B visitor who asked if he could invite 20 of his friends from the village in for a meal.

“We couldn’t really say no,” Felicity recalls, “even though, with two children aged four and two, and with plaster still damp on some of the renovated walls of the house, it was incredibly difficult for us.”

That was the first Bere Marsh House dining experience – and from that, the Roes’ massively successful home-based restaurant-in-the-dining-room venture took root, drawing in hungry punters from near and far and acquiring the sort of reputation that caused its ranks of aficionados to try and keep it a secret. Offshoots flourished, too, like shoot lunches and outside catering, as well as cookery courses.

James continued his day job as an accountant while also indulging his interest in food and cooking, but after 20 years he and Felicity closed up the house and moved to Kent to care for aged parents.

On their return to Dorset they decided not to reopen the restaurant but to concentrate together on the ‘offshoots’.

As far as the courses are concerned, the Roes respond to the wishes of their students. They will cover pretty much any topic, working in tandem and using their people skills and culinary expertise to fullest advantage, gently and enthusiastically ‘educating’ while keeping everything pleasantly casual and informal.

Of late, they have helped a handful of local men become proficient at cooking a Sunday roast, but they are equally happy passing on their knowledge of sauce-making or fish cookery or French and Moroccan recipes.

Today, it’s Thai cookery that has enticed me into the Roes’ kitchen, to sit near the Aga at a marble worktop and look and learn. To prod, inhale and take an occasional turn with the knife too, so it isn’t totally hands-off.

Like me, my three fellow students (a festival organiser, a detective inspector and a retired executive) are keen to widen their repertoire and to gain confidence. We do, in huge amounts. By the end, after five hours of having every step demonstrated and explained to us, there is a knowing zeal among us. We can do it!

This is what we learnt to prepare and cook – and then to consume, with a glass of wine and plenty of chat around the dining-table: Crab and asparagus soup, Thai yellow chicken curry and prawn curry with fragrant jasmine rice, nan bread, and a cucumber and cashew nut salad, followed by spicy fruit salad.

And if you think that sounds delicious, full of flavour, zingy and zesty, let me tell you, it was – and some.

Courses with Bere Marsh Cookery are usually run for four people at a time – better still when they’re a group of friends – and start from £40 per person, depending on the cost of the ingredients. Find out more from Felicity and James Roe on 01258 861133 or email jamesroe@talktalk.net.

Rosie Staal

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