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traditional

I know, I know, the ingredients might be challenge — chicken combs and testicles aren’t the easiest to obtain or to handle for some — this isn’t for the faint of heart. But I will say that this is a wonderful, divine and very special dish with an incredible Florentine history, and I think in today’s context is still extremely relevant as a sustainable and respectful choice for omnivores who care about eating for the planet.
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It began with 120 kg of tomatoes. Six huge boxes of small, somewhat oval tomatoes of a Sicilian variety called siccagno, from the word secco, dry. They’re grown in tiny bushes, low to the ground, without any water at all. When you cut them open they’re just flesh, no juice, and deep, deep red. They taste almost savoury, as if they’ve been sprinkled with salt.
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My favourite butcher shop, Sergio Falaschi, which is one of the reasons why we bought a house in San Miniato (joking — sort of!) has one of the prettiest and enticing counters, it could compete with any pastry shop window. It is run by my friend Andrea, Sergio’s son, and they are the fourth and third generation to run this shop, with great care for the products, and in turn the heirloom breed animals and local farmers they work with (see my last post all about their prosciutto di Cinta Senese).
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I have long been taking advice from my friend and favourite butcher, Andrea Falaschi (above), a fourth generation butcher who goes by @guidofalaschi, the name of his great grandfather who first opened the family butcher shop in 1925 in San Miniato. We share the same passion for ethically and sustainably raised free-range animals, Tuscan traditions and quality over quantity when it comes to eating meat.
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This is a slightly untraditional variation on the most traditional recipe I know for panforte — a sweet, dense, spicy medieval cake from Siena. The recipe comes from the bible of Tuscan cooking, Paolo Petroni’s Il Grande Libro della Vera Cucina Toscana and every time I make panforte (since I first posted about it back in 2011) I make some kind of variation on his recipe.
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The supermarket was offering the prettiest fish plucked out if the waters of the Tuscan arcipelago last night — so fresh they smell of the sea and are still in rigor mortis — for a steal, 6 euro a kilo. Look at how bright eyed and beautiful they are! These small fish — a mixture of different types of sea bream known as fragolino (the pink one, known as pandora in English) and mormora (striped sea bass, with the yellow stripe on his cheeks), along with gallinella (gurnard), scorfano (scorpion fish) are labelled as pesce da zuppa, fish for soup, or sometimes paranza, for frying whole, because of their pint size.
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I am quite aware that this title sounds a bit ridiculous — because there is no such thing as Tuscan spice pumpkin bread and it sounds like one of those recipes that I see online and abhor, that has nothing at all to do with Tuscany, like “Tuscan salad dressing” (no such thing exists in Tuscany, we just use olive oil and a wine vinegar of choice).
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Cooking post-lockdown is still keeping us grounded, but also relaxed and even entertained. I have been turning more than ever to Tuscany’s comforting, frugal cuisine for inspiration – it just feels right. Not because we can’t get ingredients or are rationing but just using what we have on hand or what is abundant (hello tomatoes) at the little bottega in the piazza, skipping that trip to the supermarket in favour of staying home or close as possible to it.
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I would go as far as to say that Pellegrino Artusi helped me start this blog almost a decade ago. And write my first cookbook, Florentine. He would be turning 200 today, so I felt it apt to cook him dinner for his birthday. I didn’t choose anything fancy because to be honest, the recipes in his 790 page cookbook are anything but fancy.
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Cooking as a family has been keeping us grounded and inspired lately. We have been baking a lot, Marco has started a new sourdough project, while Mariu, our 7 year old, and I have been making some recipe videos. These are two really easy recipes that you can make with stale bread — and I mean you can use completely rock hard bread.
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I have a picky eater. For any fellow distressed parents of picky eaters (in particular parents who care about and love food, whose lives even revolve around food) out there, I’m here to say it’s all going to turn out fine. My daughter Mariu was always particular with food. She refused to eat baby mush. Or be spoon-fed. No purees, her tightly sealed lips made sure they never reached her tongue.
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This isn’t a pretty dessert, let’s face it. But then so many treats that you could label comforting aren’t usually, are they? And I would put this in the same category as bread and butter pudding, rice or semolina pudding, even french toast or pancakes. It’s simply good, rather wholesome, definitely rustic and absolutely homely. An oldie (literally; it comes from Pellegrino Artusi’s classic cookbook from 1891) but a goodie, I’ve made a few modifications to the nineteenth century version.
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I’m back home in Australia for a couple of months, a blissfully extended holiday with the family before a busy and exciting book tour! It’s been a long time since I’ve spent Christmas and New Year’s here, let alone my mother’s January birthday, so I wanted to create a very special birthday cake for her. Around this time, the raspberry bush — taking over a large corner of the garden — flourishes and every day there is ripe, juicy fruit for the taking.
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Some of my favourite ingredients from the Maremma, in southern Tuscany, are also those flavours that I love at Christmas — I’m talking about chestnuts, dried figs, nuts and chocolate, and game like guinea fowl. They are ingredients that make this season’s table feel special yet not over the top. I’d rather be comforted by a Christmas meal than overwhelmed by one and these dishes, for me, do just that.
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Summer in Italy means one main thing for me — trying to keep cool, which includes staying away from the stove. Luckily, it’s also the time of year when fresh produce is so ripe and sweet, you barely need to do anything to it anyway — I practically live off tomatoes in the summer, dousing them in olive oil and eating with thickly torn pieces of buffalo mozzarella, usually.
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Honey from a Weed is one of those few cookbooks I could keep by my bedside. I like to open it at random and become absorbed by a recipe or a story, like the one about sharing a dinner with shepherds on Naxos, the differing views of a Milanese and a Salentine diver on what to do with the an octopus, or the “majestic” Catalonian feast that ended with a century old wine that tasted of chocolate syrup. 
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What would you do – you’re driving past hundreds of citrus trees. With a better look, they’re mandarins, or, more precisely clementines. On the roadside is a truck selling crates of them for 1 euro a kilo. You stop, right? And buy a crate of 10 kilos. Even though you have to get on a plane the next day. I couldn’t help myself.
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When I was writing the manuscript for Florentine, I enlisted the help of an army of recipe testers — about 80 people from all over the world — to test every recipe thoroughly. Only one came back to me consistently with problems. From Minnesota to Melbourne, three testers wrote to me that their very first attempt at making Tuscan gnudi (ricotta and spinach balls that, rather than be encased in pasta like for ravioli, are simply dusted in flour) resulted in a pot of simmering water with “dissolved” gnudi. 
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This is not a very practical recipe unless you chance upon a basket of wild plums at your local farmgate, like I did, while picking out some enormous, gnarled tomatoes, sunny zucchini flowers and purple and white eggplants the size of my fist. Or, even better, find yourself a wild plum tree that no one else (birds and bugs included) has noticed.
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One of my personal favourite food memories of all time was the first time I realised the potential of shopping at my local market in Florence and being able to speak to the other shoppers as well as the stallholders — only I didn’t think to write down all the gems I collected as I took in bits and pieces on what to do with artichokes or how to tell which fennel bulbs are the best.
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I have been dreaming about Mimi Thorisson’s black locust (robinia, acacia or false acacia) flower cake since I first came across it a couple of years ago, while searching for recipes using these bunches of white flowers with a strong, heady perfume similar to jasmine or orange blossom. I’ve been too busy frying them — dipping them in a runny batter, swirling them through a pot of bubbling oil, then eating them crunchy and piping hot, either sprinkled in sea salt or with a scant drizzle of acacia honey (of course), so sweet and clear it’s like syrup.
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The sudden burst of spring produce in the market after a long, monotonous winter of cavolo nero and bright oranges is one of the things that constantly reminds me why I love living and eating in Italy. A wander through the market like any other becomes, in spring time, a new experience. I feel like a fresh arrival, like it’s my first time walking through my local market.
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There’s a story in my Tuscan family of nobility and forbidden love. It’s set in Taranto, Puglia, on Italy’s southern heel and involves my daughter’s great-great-grandmother. The best known version is told by my husband Marco’s uncle, Riccardo, who remembers it being told to him by his elderly Nonna Anna herself. Anna Michela Comasia Maria Calianno. Her long name was a sign of her family’s noble status.
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I didn’t notice it at first, the skinny tree with dark leaves in our shared garden at our new home in Settignano, in the hills above Florence. I was too taken by the green vines hanging like a curtain over our entrance, keeping the house cool in the humid Florentine summer. But now that it’s autumn and the the leaves still left on the vines have turned a shade of rose champagne, that skinny green tree is sporting bright vermillion fruit, like fuzzy cherries or red christmas balls.
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It seems like a long way to go about getting some fresh saffron to frost a birthday cake with, but it was worth it. I’ve been plotting for months with my friend, Sarah Fioroni, to let me get involved with the saffron harvest at her family’s farm in San Gimignano. It’s not the first time I’ve celebrated my birthday with a saffron theme on the farm at Fattoria Poggio Alloro — there was this pumpkin and saffron risotto too.
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There are a lot of claims out there for ‘best’ chocolate cake recipes, which is not only a wild claim to make, but also a tricky one as, when you consider what makes a chocolate cake ‘the best’, we are talking about preferences that are extremely personal. Chocolate cake can be many things, and serve many purposes. There are ones that are fluffy and moist, a good specimen for a birthday or even a layered wedding cake (like this chocolate olive oil cake that I made for my brother’s wedding).
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I’ve had this cookbook sitting beside my bed for weeks, trying to decide what to cook. I’d pick it up, let a page fall open — almost like letting fate choose the recipe — and get distracted reading. It continued this way for a while. It’s my favourite way to read a cookbook. But the problem for me is that I’m indecisive.
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Three ingredients, and there you have my favourite type of iced coffee ever, and my ideal pick me up on a slow, hot afternoon. ‘Caffe in ghiaccio’ or Caffe Leccese is a favourite summertime drink in Lecce, the beautiful capital of Puglia‘s southernmost area of Salerno, something I tried — and got hooked on — during my first trip to the baroque town about five years ago.
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Quite possibly the best way to enjoy really good, ripe summer tomatoes – as well as making the most of spending as little time in front of a hot stove as possible – is raw tomato sauce for coating pasta. It’s something Marco makes for lunch on a warm day when he’s craving pasta al pomodoro (his ideal comfort food), but either doesn’t have the patience to cook the sauce or the desire to turn on the stove (except to boil the pasta).
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Preserving fruit under alcohol and sugar is an age old preparation, and an enjoyable one at that. The liqueur infuses the fruit, the fruit infuses the liqueur and the sugar adds a bit of sweetness that takes the edge off the strength of the alcohol. Marco’s nonna used to make these in the summer during the height of cherry season and then serve them to anyone entering the house as a welcome — the ultimate sign of good old fashioned hospitality.
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Lady fingers, also known as savoiardi in Italian, are widely used in dessert making, namely, for soaking up rum-splashed coffee and layering into a glass dish with that creamy, rich, sweetened and egg-fortified mascarpone for tiramisu. There are other biscuits you can use but I consider savoiardi indispensable for tiramisu. My Tuscan mother in law prefers to use Pavesini, which are thin, finger-shaped children’s cookies, but being so thin, they get soggy very quickly and they just don’t have the wonderful soft and springy texture of perfectly re-hydrated savoiardi.
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I had known about this place for years, heard so many good things, knew it was just the sort of place I would love. But somehow it took me years to get there — perhaps because of not being right in the centre of Florence (it’s in the neighbourhood of Peretola, very close to the airport) and having opening hours that aren’t always easy to fit in with (they’re only open for lunch during the week and Friday nights for dinner).
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It’s been two months since the book has “been out there” — Two exhilarating, nerve-wracking and unbelievable months and sold out book launch dinners and workshops in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and London! To say thank you for all the wonderful support and enthusiasm for Florentine, I’m sharing one of my favourite recipes from the book — a humble but delightful apple cake — and I’m giving away a limited edition print from the book to one lucky reader!
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Don’t be fooled – it may look like pesto, but this is far from that rich and creamy pasta sauce. It’s on another level all together. Salsa verde is sharp and savoury. Zingy and fresh. And a dollop goes a long way to add brightness to anything from grilled meat or fish, sandwiches, salad or even pizza. Known as bagnet vert or “green sauce” in Piemonte, salsa verde has parsley to thank for its grassy freshness and long-lasting color (it doesn’t oxidise like basil in pesto does, turning dark when exposed to the air).
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If you’ve ever studied art history, you’ll know how to easily spot Saint Agatha in a fresco painting – she’s the one holding her breasts on a platter, a hint at the legend behind her torturous martyrdom where they were cut off with pincers by a powerful Roman suitor when his advances were rejected. The young girl, said to be from a noble family in Catania in Sicily’s east, was buried in her home town where she still watches over the city and guards it from Mount Etna’s volcanic eruptions.
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On my recent trip to Sicily, I brought with me Helena Attlee’s beautiful ode to citrus in Italy, The Land Where Lemons Grow. It’s a fascinating, beautifully written account of the history and current situation of citrus through Italy’s best known citrus areas, from the Medici’s citrus collection in Florence to the mafia tainted mandarins in Palermo, the lemons of Amalfi and Garda and more.
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I seem to be raising a little cook — not a surprise really, as we probably spend three-quarters of our day in the kitchen. She has taken to liberally adding her touch to dishes that she can reach on the table (apple juice tipped into the marinade and half a jar of dried chilli flakes shaken over the salad were some highlights this week) or completely taking over whenever she sees any type of dough being made, rolled or cut out.
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Last weekend Giulia and I hosted out first Tuscan Gathering, an excuse to cook and eat and drink for hours and wander the woods or fall asleep in front of the roaring fire, an excuse to get together with friends near and far (and to connect in person, as many ‘friends’ are those that we know only via social media, which happens so often these days).
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It felt like I was mixing a magic potion. A little bit of this. A little bit of that. A crumbling of some bark, a few seeds. And then the final touch: a couple of spoonfuls of dried insects. Kermes or cochineal insects are what give this Renaissance-aged Tuscan liqueur it’s distinct colour, and its name. The dried insects infuse the liqueur with a deep, pinkish-red magenta hue and are then strained out, along with the other spices that permeate the liquid.
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“Cookbooks aren’t read in a linear fashion,” my editor explained when we decided to cut up my lengthy introduction to Florentine and place bits and pieces strategically throughout the book instead. I knew it was true. I, too, with very few exceptions (Alice B. Toklas’ cookbook and Rachel Roddy’s Five Quarters for example), love flipping randomly through cookbooks rather than reading them cover to cover.
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I’ve mentioned it before; I can’t say no to free produce. Especially when it comes from Marco’s cousin, Lorella, and her husband, Antonio, who have a vegetable garden large enough that it basically makes them self-sustainable. They have ducks and geese, walnut trees and vines for making their own wine. And, right next to the cubby house that my daughter thinks is paradise, is a wonderfully prolific fig tree.
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One of the places that I can truly call my happy place is a farm in San Gimignano. Partly it’s because of the wonderful Fioroni family who run Fattoria Poggio Alloro, who I feel are like long lost family because of the way we are embraced (literally and figuratively!) when we arrive, the way we are fed (as if we must not have eaten in weeks), and the familiar way that this place somehow feels like home (we also always stay in the same room, so that even my two year old calls it her “casa”).
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I never met Nonna Lina, my husband’s grandmother. She passed away six weeks before I met him, coincidentally on the exact same day my maternal grandfather died. But from the way my husband and my mother-in-law talk about her, the constant references to her, especially when we are in the kitchen, I feel like I know her. And I feel connected to her when I cook her recipes.
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I love the five minute drive to Orbetello from our home in Porto Ercole in Monte Argentario. I look out the window, waiting for that curve after you pass the sandy stretch of Feniglia, when suddenly you hit the flat lagoon and you see the old town of Orbetello rising right out of the water, a little reminiscent of Venice. Orbetello’s lagoon characterises and in many ways defines the city.
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Food brings people together, this we all know. It unites people around a table, for the everyday or the special. A meal is the reason to go out, to stay in, an excuse to get to know someone new or celebrate with those closest to your heart. It’s also the main thing two food bloggers who have never actually met in person know they have in common.
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Living in a port town (and an island-like port town at that) means I am spoilt for choice when it comes to seafood. And when the supermarket isn’t that handy for me to get to but the local pescivendolo (the fishmonger – though I should point out, here too I am spoilt because it’s not just a fishmonger but the outlet direct from the fishermen themselves) is, it means fish is often on the menu for dinner.
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I must admit that I am one to succumb to an impulse buy every now and then. Well, actually, almost all my produce shopping at the market is an impulse, except for when I actually plan for a recipe and need certain ingredients. Whatever looks good or cheap or particularly interesting is what ends up in my basket – perhaps it’s a box of figs, jammy, over ripe and going for next to nothing or a bunch of herbs that I don’t normally see, like wild fennel tops that you can smell from a few stalls away.
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This week I was given some bad news about my cookbook. It’s release will be delayed. For those who know already the process behind the making of a cookbook (or any book for that matter), it can take months and years of work but also a lot of patience and waiting around. I thought I was quite lucky that my book was going to be released just a year after being offered the deal, but the downside to that was an extremely tight deadline.
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There’s nothing more disappointing than finding out that a recipe you’ve posted hasn’t worked out for someone. Worse if multiple people have had the same problem. Luckily in this case, it’s not my recipe, but it is a recipe that I’ve written about for my Food52 column, Regional Italian Food. It’s for a torta di noci, a traditional walnut cake from Calabria in southern Italy.
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Today is bittersweet. It’s the last edition of Italian Table Talk, which, if you have been following over the past two years, is a monthly discussion on an aspect of Italian culinary culture that I’ve shared with fellow bloggers, Jasmine, Giulia and Valeria. It’s been an inspiring exchange, one that I’m honoured to have been part of. But after two years of emailing, brainstorming and recipe swapping, we’ve decided to finish Italian Table Talk with the theme of books.
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You should probably be wary of a food that’s named after a bomb. A calorie bomb, no less. Italians like to use the phrase “bomba calorica” when it comes to describing something rich, fried and possibly cream-filled and there’s no hiding the fact that bomboloni do indeed satisfy all these requirements. These Tuscan pastries are like a doughnut, minus the hole, and usually filled with pastry cream or jam or often simply covered with a heavy-handed dusting of sugar.
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It’s hard to believe that two years ago, a few bloggers interested in promoting real Italian culture though food, began a little series called Italian Table Talk. Two years! Once a month, and now, more recently, bimonthly, we “get together”, throw around ideas and come out with a theme, a topic or an ingredient that showcases an aspect of Italian food culture.
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A few weeks ago a bomb was dropped. My Tuscan husband, the can’t-live-without-bread, pizza-loving, pasta-making man that he is, was told he has a severe intolerance to wheat and that he’ll need to cut it out, cold turkey. Needless to say, when your partner or someone in your family has to change his or her diet, it pretty much means that the whole family change their diet, unless you want to cook separate meals to cater to everyone’s needs – I don’t, personally, I find it hard enough some days to get time to cook one meal!
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One of her first food words was “uova”, eggs, which also happen to be her favourite breakfast, usually soft boiled and eaten with a spoon (a bit messy as she insists on feeding herself) or fried, sunny side down. It’s one of the few foods I can easily get my little girl eat. Partly I think it’s the fascination with the egg itself – that hard shell outside, smooth and weighty in her little dimpled hands, then so fragile when cracked.
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While I love summer for its fruit, autumn for its earthy flavours and winter for hearty dishes, spring is my favourite time of year for vegetables – asparagus, broad beans, artichokes. And then there are the wild things – weeds, herbs and vegetables that grow spontaneously, filling up cracks in the pavement or taking over fields or overgrown garden corners.
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Italy in the spring. It means blossoms and longer, warmer days. Early on, it usually means rain too but also a gorgeous landscape of luminous, bright green pastures of new growth. It means fritelle. It means Easter and plenty of fresh eggs, especially from my sister in law’s busy hens. But, most of all, to me, it means artichokes.
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A surprise find at one of my favourite markets in Florence last week led me to this beautiful and ancient dish, acquacotta (literally, “cooked water” but also meaning “cooked in water”), a tradition of southern Tuscany and Lazio, where the fields are filled with mounds of curly, jagged-edged weeds and other wild vegetables and greens that I had never seen and certainly never cooked with before.
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This is one of those dishes that make a regular appearance on our table at home. It’s simple, it’s crunchy, it’s meaty and always satisfying. But while simple, there is somewhat of an art to getting this golden, breaded veal chop perfectly crisp outside and moist inside. All the credit to cooking and testing countless recipes, I have to say, goes to my husband Marco, who is obsessed with getting the most incredibly crisp breadcrumb coating possible.
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“First you need good beans.” The good advice of Elizabeth David always goes straight to the heart of the matter. We arrived back in Tuscany a week ago for what should be a few good months of family time, visiting friends and research, all peppered with good doses of eating and drinking. No sooner had we arrived at my mother in law’s house, weary from traveling halfway across the globe, did the pantry and kitchen doors open wide in invitation that I spotted them.
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This is a 123 year old recipe for apricot jam. It comes from my battered and worn pocket sized edition of Pellegrino Artusi‘s Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. I only bought it a few years ago, it’s just battered because I use it all the time. I carry it around in my bag and read it’s old fashioned Italian like a novel.
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Soup is the measure of a good cook. It may be a simple and humble vegetable soup or an extravagent bisque, but either way, it needs to be made with the knowledge of how to get the flavour out of your ingredients. Layers are key. As is texture. And a good stock goes a long way. It’s a dish that takes not necessarily time but a certain amount of skill and instinct in the kitchen.
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Summer wouldn’t be summer without that perfect salad, a must when it’s simply too hot to cook and all you crave are the season’s fresh offerings. Things like this caprese salad, made with heirloom tomatoes straight out of the garden and torn hunks of buffalo mozzarella. In Tuscany, it’s always and forever, panzanella, a rustic bread salad born as a way of using up day old bread and the abundance of fresh vegetables straight from the fields.
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This is a clever and thrifty dish with peasant origins from Puglia, the most southern tip of Italy’s peninsula. It’s an area which is rich and abundant in seafood, grains and vegetables but over the centuries has seen some of the worst poverty in the country. It’s famous port city, Taranto, is known as the city of two seas as it’s home to two geographically interesting bodies of water known as “The Great Sea” and the flat, lagoon-like, “Little Sea”.
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A neighbour’s plum tree hangs over into our courtyard. By a lot. Dark plums, with a matte grey-blue coating a sometimes dark blue, sometimes pinkish-purple skin. Inside they’re sweet yellow, but when picked a little early, like I did to beat the birds (they wait until that crucial moment when the plums are just ripe – somehow they know – then they strip the tree at the blink of an eye before you’ve even had a chance to get out of bed), the flesh is lime green.
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Few things are as good as really well-made, fresh bread. That initial crunch, then the springy softness of the inside, perhaps still warm. Even better when it’s homemade and the smell of bread baking fills your kitchen and lingers throughout the house. I’m lucky to have a passionate home baker as a husband. I love having homemade bread around but if it weren’t for him, I probably wouldn’t be able to get all the way through the process – these days, running around after a curious, walking one year old, it’s hard to even finish a cup of tea.
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It’s crept up on me this year. Here I was still thinking it’s October, but suddenly it’s December. Time to start preparing gifts and thinking about the Christmas table, though my mind is elsewhere as I’m really trying to plan my baby’s first birthday! I knew having a Christmas baby would make the holidays different and I have this feeling that from now on my Christmasses are always going to creep up on me and the birthday will take pride of place.
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When it comes to choosing a recipe, length does matter. Short, simple recipes always appeal to me. Carefully chosen ingredients that you can count on one hand. A gentle tousle, a sprinkle of this or some other straightforward preparations and it’s done. The good ones are balanced, even elegant, and seemingly more elaborate than they are. These are worth having up your sleeve.
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I remember my mother telling me when I was a young teenager in the kitchen that the key to a good soup or ragu is the way that the onion is cooked – softly, gently, sweating in butter or olive oil until transparent. I’ve followed that advice ever since. The gently cooked onion is a foundation for flavour in the dish.
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“What are you going to do with those?” Asked an elderly woman eyeing the artichokes I held like a bunch of flowers towards the busy fruttivendolo, waiting my turn to pay. There are many reasons why I prefer shopping at the farmers’ market to shopping at the supermarket, and this is just one of them. Each and every visit to my local market in Florence has always been a learning experience.
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Whenever I see fresh sardines at the market, shimmering with their silver scales, I have to have them, regardless of what was going to be on the menu before I noticed them. Packed full of flavour, nutrients and cheap as chips, they are an essential ingredient in regional Italian home cooking from top to toe of the peninsula. Pasta con le sarde is probably my all time favourite pasta dish, in any of its guises (though I’ve always loved the Sicilian one with toasted pine nuts, currants, fennel tops or dried fennel flowers and golden breadcrumbs), while sarde in soar, deep fried, vinegar-marinated sardines, are one of my must-have Venetian cicchetti – I could eat an entire platter of them in one sitting.
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It’s a gorgeous winter’s morning – too gorgeous really to be called winter – for a drive through New South Wales countryside towards Reidsdale, near Braidwood. We pass plenty of paddocks, dotted with resting sheep and cows, a blur of pale yellow ochre under a crisp, bright blue sky. It’s a day for truffle hunting. We’re greeted in Braidwood by Kate Marshall, a Sydney girl turned country.
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It’s early evening, you’ve finished work and are ready to wind down. Perhaps you’re also a tiny bit hungry, or, at least, are at that point where you start imagining what you’ll be eating for dinner. You’re on your way home and perhaps it’s a place on the way, your regular, where you know you’ll bump into a friend or two and a drink is in order, along with some nibbles.
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As much as I am an advocate of simplicity in the kitchen – simple procedures, simple flavours, a handful of good ingredients and a quick, delicious result – there is also something about a process that I have always enjoyed. I find having a patience-requesting, detailed process in front of you actually quite meditative and relaxing, and when there are those rainy days when you don’t want to leave the house and have no where you need to rush off to (a bit of luxury for me these days), then making jam is just one of those things that I find a rewarding way to slow down.
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I’m very pleased to announce a new and exciting collaboration coming up in October this year – an incredible, sixday gastronomic getaway in Tuscany and the opportunity to be immersed in age-old traditions of Tuscan cuisine following the lead of the great-grandfather of Italian cuisine, Pellegrino Artusi, whose nineteenth century cookbook Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well is one you’ll still find in practically every Italian kitchen.
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After a good five weeks away at our “other home” in Tuscany, Melbourne’s autumn is being particularly kind in letting me ease into the idea that winter is on its way. With crisp weather that doesn’t bite you if you don’t do up your coat or you forget your scarf, trees slowly dropping their beautiful yellow leaves like slow motion confetti and even some gorgeous sunny days, the only thing I can really complain about are the shorter days.
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It goes without saying that Florence is a city that lives in its past. In every nook and cranny, history – a fantastic, unique history that influenced the way the entire world saw things – seeps out onto the well-trodden stone streets and into the every day. On some occasions all it takes is walking right through the centre of town, passing over literal layers of history in a square like Piazza della Reppublica, the spot where the medieval mercato vecchio, the ‘Old Markets’, of Florence were once the beating heart of the city.
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Breakfast is such a cultural eye-opener, at no other meal time do you get such a view of a place or a person than through their first meal of the day. For some, it’s a strictly savoury affair, often resembling lunch or even dinner, for others it’s always sweet or perhaps all it consists of is a cup of coffee. We’ve decided this month to make breakfast the topic of Italian Table Talk with Giulia whipping up a fresh batch of cornetti and Valeria going back to her childhood with panini con l’uva, raisin buns.
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It’s not easy saying goodbye after a wonderful month amongst friends, family and good food in Tuscany, especially when time has flown so quickly and it seems we only just got here. Even though I’m a self-confessed autumn girl, it was particularly nice being back at this time of the year, spring, to indulge in plenty of those food cravings that I have for things that just aren’t the same in Australia.
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From Melbourne’s Indian summer, I’ve been propelled into Tuscany’s spring – and apparently I brought the warm weather with me. Though the trees are still bearing winter’s naked branches, the hills and fields are covered in a brilliant green cloak, often dotted with flowers. Even the cracks of the concrete and stone footpaths of Florence are filled with chickweed (a fresh tasting leaf with a slight pea-shoot similarity, lovely for garnishing salads, which just reminds me of something Nigel Slater said of the dandelions in the cracks between the flagstones of his kitchen doors, “I treat the gaps as a source of free salad.”).
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It’s been a year and a half since we left Florence ‘for good’ and settled into a new and starkly different life in Melbourne. A lot has happened in that time that probably wouldn’t have happened if we’d stayed in Florence, which is a reason why we left – so that things might happen. Marco has worked with three of Australia’s best chefs and their restaurants as a sommelier.
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The first thing that attracted me to this cake recipe before I had ever even tasted it was its rather romantic name, Amor Polenta. It’s an unusual name whose origins have long been forgotten but it is perfectly fitting for someone partial to polenta, or should I say, with a love for polenta. There’s something about polenta that I adore in a cake – the way it soaks up the other flavours around it, that golden colour, and most of all, that bite, that grittiness that gives the cake crumb its unique texture.
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It’s nearly April, when autumn in Melbourne should well and truly be taking over the season but summer is dragging on and after a long, slow heatwave that felt like a giant hair dryer pointed at the city, a bit of autumn weather would be highly appreciated. I’m beginning to crave a refreshing, crisp morning, for example, when you need a nice hot cup of tea or coffee to warm you up and perhaps a floaty scarf to layer over the summer clothes you’re tired of wearing but have yet to put away.
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One of my favourite things about Artusi’s cookbook, the 1891 bible of Italian cooking, is his suggested menu at the back for seasonal and traditional dishes, listing recipe suggestions by the month (see some of them here), with additional menus for special holidays. It’s not only is a quick way to glance over some of the nearly 800 recipes in his book, but it is also an incredibly interesting indication of what a meal consisted of in the late 1800s.
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They have a saying that I love in Tuscany, “Fritta è bona anche una ciabatta,” which means even a slipper is good deep fried (in other words, anything is good if it’s deep fried). Fried foods are a beloved part of Tuscan cuisine, whether it’s the fritto misto of the seaside (a “mix” of calamari, baby octopus, prawns and little fish, usually), the fritto of the countryside (rabbit and seasonal vegetables like artichokes – my favourite) or traditional, festive sweets like cenci (“rags” of fried pastry) and these dangerous frittelle di riso, rice fritters.
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By far one of my favourite Venetian cicchetti is sarde in saor – fried fresh sardine fillets marinated in softly cooked white onions, usually with vinegar, raisins and pine nuts, all preferably prepared the day before serving. Found in the bacari nestled along Venice’s narrow laneways, where one stops for an ombra (a tiny rounded glass of local wine) and a bite to eat, this cicchetto is just as suitable as an antipasto at the table.
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For a celebration known as Fat Tuesday, you might think that the traditional recipes would be a chance for gluttons to gleefully stuff their faces with, well, fatty things. Mid-week, no less. Well it’s sort of true. Martedì Grasso (also known as Mardi Gras in French), or Fat Tuesday, which just happens to be tomorrow, February 12, is probably the most well known day of Carnevale, Carnival.
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After last week’s Amaretti Ice Cream Sandwiches, I’ve still got this thing for almonds. And ice cream. Or more precisely, gelato. In this case, it’s almond milk gelato, scented with a splash of orange blossom water – a 120 year old recipe from my favourite, Pellegrino Artusi‘s cookbook. I’ve used his gelato and sorbet recipes before and, whether using a modern ice cream maker or the good ol’ freeze and stir method, have always had good results.
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There are times when something sweet, comforting, even old fashioned, is exactly what the doctor ordered. For me, it could be a sponge cake with fresh whipped cream and strawberries, an apple and rhubarb crumble or a short, crumbly crostata with homemade jam. But some Italians might find that a torta di semolino, semolina cake, brings a smile of nostalgia as they recall their grandmothers making this delectable yet simple, humble cake.
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If you’ve ever sat down to an antipasto of Tuscan salumi (the Italian word for cured meats in general; not to be confused please with salami!), you’ll know that Tuscans are serious about their cured meats. It’s the topic of this month’s Italian Table Talk, as January is popularly the month for butchering pigs and making salumi in the natural refrigeration that winter provides (if you’re interested in the how-to side of things, see this post on my first experience making salumi with my friend’s family pigs on their farm).
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Simplicity. It’s such a reassuring concept. Everyone knows that the simple things in life are often the best, and honestly, who doesn’t need to simplify their lives every now and then? No one needs to overcomplicate their lives. And at this time of year, when the holiday rush and madness seems to be over and – well here in the Southern Hemisphere anyway – the long summer days call out for time to be spent enjoying them, you can relish in having a simple and impromptu meal, perhaps whipping this up even at the last minute with the abundance of ripe summer peaches.
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It’s a time for celebration or two, not only for the festive season and for the well-wishing the imminent year 2013, but we’re also celebrating the arrival of our first baby, a little girl, born just before Christmas. And – for those of us in the Southern Hemisphere right now – it’s also early summer and the beginning of stone-fruit season.
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Christmas is a personal event that changes from household to household almost anywhere you go, but an Italian Christmas is always about being with family and keeping up age-old traditions, especially when they have to do with the food. This Christmas more than other is one where we’re thinking about being with our families, near and far, as we’re about to become new parents.
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