A Stuffing Style with Baroque Origins

This article was first published on the ‘In Search of TASTE’ website – please visit www.insearchoftaste.com

When ‘Superwoman’ herself,  Shirley Conran, made headlines with her sound bite ‘life’s too short to stuff a mushroom’, one must only imagine ripieni left her cold or hadn’t come her way. DSC_0133 (250x166)

Chefs and cooks have made all manner of stuffings to enhance and extend foods for centuries. Ripieni, a most special of Italian preparations, takes its tone from the orchestra. In Baroque music, ripieno was the name given to the main body of instruments and musicians who would not be soloists. Also meaning stuffing or padding in Italian, either way points us to celebrating vegetables and turning a vegetable from function to feast. All we know is that Italians get misty eyed at mention of ripieni.

DSC_0145 (250x166)‘Pound a Bowl’ fruit and vegetables are a way of life in London’s old street markets like Lewisham and Deptford. Be there on the right day – which is most days except Sunday – and the shopper comes home with good fresh produce costing a fraction of the pre-packs sold by mainstream retailers. ‘Pays yur money, takes yur choice’. I go for the noise and cheeky exchanges every time – be I in London, Genoa, Paris or wherever cooking takes me.

With five squeaky fresh courgettes (zucchini), what’s to do but stuff them and stuff ‘em good with all the respect they deserve after their long journey by road from Murcia.

First make a rich sugo of canned chopped tomatoes, cooked off with olive oil and garlic – tinned Italian is best and should cost no more than £1 a can, unless a genuine DOP San Marzano. Into the pan goes one or two cans, a Pollock of olive oil on top and a couple of cracked garlic cloves (these we’ll be taking out once the sugo is cooked). I like to cook for 20 minutes – but longer is fine too. Wash the courgettes – in Italian and American, zucchini – and take the tiniest trim of the ends. In Wales we’d call that ‘tidy’ and that can’t be improved on in a good kitchen.

Only buy courgettes when the skins squeak when touched. White courgettes are another treat – mostly found in Turkish or Lebanese shops – that are up for ripieni. Cut the courgette in half from top to bottom.

DSC_0117 (250x166)DSC_0110 (166x250)With a teaspoon and a steady handy, pull the spoon down the centre to remove all the seeds in one action. This furrow is now ready for its stuffing.

Spoon in the sugo (separated from the garlic) being sure to under rather than over fill.

DSC_0105 (146x220)Sprinkle with fresh grated Pecorino or Parmesan – my first choice is an aged Pecorino Sardo for extra depth and saltiness.

DSC_0100 (166x250)Some coarse home-baked bread crumbs ensure an authentic flavour. Set in a pan, another light Pollock of olive oil over the top and into a pre-heated 180ºC for 20-25 minutes – less time for smaller courgettes. Check whether done to your liking – I like mine when the courgette is just slightly resistent to the knife. Allow to cool and serve as an aperitif or first plate anti-pasti.

DSC_0097 (146x220)Next to prepare  the best aubergine (melanzane) yet found in the market – not pumped up Dutch, but long slim Italian.

DSC_0120 (166x250)Ripieni works for any fresh produce that can be scooped free of its seeds – round or white courgettes when you can find them, outdoor tomatoes, peppers. Squid too and mushrooms if you must, although I’d take some convincing that Superwoman wasn’t right all along. Champignons à la Grecque of every 1960′s London bistro menu stay with me. Who reading this remembers Le Bistingo?

Posted in Aubergine, Blue Collar Gastronomy, Bread, Eggplant, Kitchen Tips, melanzane, Real Italy, Southern Italy | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Saluti ‘Bob’ Freson, Arrivedeci Roma, Ciao Gene’

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Gareth Jones Now Goes In Search of TASTE

North of 500,000 words across +380 articles I am doing as pledged to myself. With this piece I am putting www.garethjonesfood.com into what I can best describe as a digital hibernation as I move on to focus on ‘In Search of TASTE‘ magazine.

It was with such thoughts in mind, travelling through Italy just recently, I was specially taken with re-visiting ‘Savouring Italy’, the Robert Freson 1992 work which followed ‘The Taste of France’. 

DSC_4390 (269x350)This remarkable photo-journalist is but one of several souls who have thrown their weight, gravitas and encouragement behind ‘In Search of TASTE’ - www.insearchoftaste.com - an independent food & wine title, free of invasive advertising and set to offer witty, passionate, experienced and fired up writing from around the world. The guest blogs on our website already are samplers of just that promise.

As you have liked what you have read here these past three years, then what’s to come will continue the journey – another promise. Very soon now our subscription channel will open – £48 pa for the four quarterly issues – with paper and on-line versions there for the asking. We are still slightly short equity take up, so I would be wasting a trick to not suggest at £1,500 per 1% over three years, it’s a snip – more from keith@insearchoftaste.com

IMG_7944 (188x250)Invited back to my beloved Italy, I recently made the 5½ hour journey by Trenitalia from Rome’s Termini station through to Genoa – that’s like London to Glasgow or Plymouth. I chose to take the regular train rather than the new high speed inter-city express which sat purring and beckoning in Rome station.

All the way it was like I was surrounded by friends – and on the journey up Italy’s west coast I chose memories, including many of Freson’s Italian images as my compass.

The Lazio stretch takes the traveller from Rome up the coast to Civitavecchia – a name one always associates with the scene in blessed ‘Tosca‘. Travel tip – a reserved seat in a compartment, long since committed to history in England, is civilised. But, the compartments are on the ‘wrong side’ for the journey north.

IMG_7949 (300x225)When in Rome, etc, I joined others and stood in the narrow al mare corridor, as people moved up and down the train whispering ‘Permesso‘ every few minutes. There were even tiny drop down seats along the corridor. We spied down into back gardens, looked across a silvery blue Mare Tirreno and got to imaging life around small train stations in little towns along the long way north through Lazio, Tuscany and Liguria.

With a head spinning with recent memories of 72 hours in Frascati and Rome, hanging with writers Jo Wennerholm and Rachel Roddy, I tried to focus on Pesto and why I was here. It’s hard to think green when all around you’re seeing blue.

IMG_7591 (250x188)Travellers unwrap home-made parcels of panini with assorted fillings. The young Chinese couple in the carriage had rice and chop sticks – and why not as the girl was heavily pregnant much to the delight of others in the compartment. Bottles of water and wine came out too. I realised my morning had been fuelled by just two sweet caffès and one last Marroquina with a small croissant all crema in Termini. Marroquina will have to wait for ‘In Search of TASTE’ to explain – it’s a close relation to the ‘Espressino’.

IMG_7872 (300x225)Italian trains and stations have great coffee and snack foods – I’d travelled on two just  months ago from Parma to Bologna and again from Bologna to Faenza. This is why I felt no need to come aboard with supplies for my 5½ hour journey to Genoa.

Permesso‘ I now said as I moved slowly up the corridor from car to car. I reached the front and First Class – no bar and a locked door. The engine was behind that door.

I retraced my steps the longer way to the rear car. No bar. I met the guard, thinking a bar might be attached along the way much as they used to add and de-couple the dining car on the Paris-Milan wagons-lits.

“No bar,” said the guard. I thought of hopping off and on at a next stop – I timed the first one and this train was in the station and off again in less than 5 minutes. No time to find a  station bar, order and pay, then wait to be served. I settled back into another 4+ hours without water and food.

It reminded me of a camping trip, as it happened to precisely where I was passing – the rounded peninsular called Ortobello. I would never travel with food supplies from home, always insisting on buying locally. These were times pre-ATM and Euro, so getting cash involved queuing in the right bank with Travellers’ Cheques. I hadn’t figured on a bank holiday and had only a few French Francs (as useful as Roubles in rural Italy). I did have two eggs and bread from the previous night up on the French border. Hungry, I fried the first egg for my partner on the one ring burner. Then I cracked my egg into the pan knowing it was the last chance of food until tomorrow when the banks re-opened. Somehow, and how I’ll never know, the unstable ring slipped over and, as if in slow motion, my half-cooked egg slid onto the mud outside the tent – despair followed as options shut down.

My thirsty train journey had me reliving that moment – as well as dreaming of the smallIMG_7937 (188x250) portion of nervetti left on the serving plate in Testaccio the night before.

Now we were into Grosseto and more memories. It was near here, on another Italian holiday, that I spent a disproportionate chunk of holiday budget – remember please, not only no ATM’s back then, but also a UK Government strictly enforced ‘Foreign Travel Allowance’ of £50 stamped into your passport.

In Grosseto market I came across a stall selling porcini – the first I’d ever seen fresh picked as against dried in London. Excited at my find, I talked with the stall holder in that funny language we would speak when abroad. That’s the one which employs charades and all the ‘foreign’ words we can muster spoken with an accent to suit the circumstance – in others words passable French spoken in faux Italian. Our man convinced me I could slice and sun dry the funghi in the three days left before heading for home. The meteo was good, he assured me. I sliced my 3 kilo’s of fresh porcini, laid them on newspaper and proudly sat guard during all the sunshine hours that shone on Tuscany that week in 1972.

IMG_7583 (300x225)I returned home happy with three cardboard sugar boxes filched from the local bar full to the brim with dried porcini.  Hence Grosseto means porcini-to-dry to me. With Elba offshore, it meant other things to the French.

IMG_7948 (250x188)Gazing again out of the window it was obvious we’re into Tuscany’s hillyt  verdant landscape with snow capped mountains behind. Cattle and sheep graze, vineyards have been pruned and spring flowers are out everywhere.IMG_8304 (217x250)

The shipyards of Livorno look busy and affluent. Pisa is next stop – not the Pisa of leaning towers and pink stoned baptistries, but a workaday Pisa of train station. Viareggio and soon views across to the marble quarries of Carrara – where Michelangelo shopped for stone, stopping as they tell you in tiny Colonnata, to eat Lardo as had been done since the Romans.

In Roman times runners would bring the pig backs from Parma across the mountains to be cured in Colonnata. 2,000 years on, Lardo di Colonnata was awarded IGP status just 10 years ago after much lobbying by Slow Food.

IMG_8320 (300x251)One year we travelled home with a well known budget airline with vac-packs of lardo, a large mortar and length of polished marble from Colonnata as our hand luggage. A life in food has us doing some extreme things on occasion and long may it last.

IMG_8322 (226x250)Bringing that Carrara marble mortar back to London was perhaps an omen of times to come – and why I was on the train from Rome to Genoa with around 2 thirsty hours to go. I have been called many things in my life and now I am officially introduced in Genoa as the London Ambassador for Pesto alla Genovese al Mortaio – it’s an unpaid role, but one I enjoy.

Back in the train corridor, I strike up conversation with a doctor from Rapallo returning home from a conference in Rome. He is excited about my journeying to Genoa, his family home town. We talk of making pesto and cooking, then inevitably to Camogli and Portofino – as with so many Ligurians I know, it’s as if Rapallo was second best. I am yet to meet a soul who doesn’t go watery eyed with mention of the pearl that is Camogli.

IMG_8307 (188x250)We pass by Recco and Nervi – places given mention by Fred Plotkin in his master-work ‘Recipes from Paradise’ – and a man who chooses to live in Camogli for part of his year following the opera seasons as ‘The Operavore’ - http://www.garethjonesfood.com/7931/liguria-plotkins-paradise-panizzas-pesto/

IMG_6114 (190x300)Finally with thoughts of water and coffee coming back to front of mind, the train slows to cross Genoa’s outskirts with typical grand villa’s and apartment blocks set into the steep hill sides and busy port below. Then on time to the minute, we draw into Genova Principe. I make straight to the kiosk by the taxi rank to drink down two bottles of water and take a caffè like a man possessed. The owner laughs when I tell him my pledge to never again travel without supplies.

IMG_7964 (300x225) (2)IMG_7969 (225x300)I eat a slice of warm onion foccacia with a local dust clearing Vermentino and get excited about seeing old friends and my role as judge again the following day at the World Championships of Pesto alla Genovese al Mortaio - http://www.garethjonesfood.com/10794/nonna-87-wins-pesto-glory-in-genoa/

Landing up in Genoa, a city I love, and eating what will stay with me as one of the best meals ever, I ask didn’t Laurie Lee once write an essay about not enjoying water until one has been truly thirsty – and not appreciating food until being hungry in the real sense of meaning. He wasn’t writing of the horrors of famine, he was talking about being really hungry and thirsty like me that afternoon in Genoa.

Gene’ is what the locals sometimes call Genoa (Genova in Italian). Who knows that this gave us the word ‘jeans’, just as Nimes gave us the name of the fabric ‘denim’ (de Nîmes). Napoleon named his newly annexed department Gênes during the short French occupation between 1805-1814. The blue dye used for mariner’s clothes was known as ‘Bleu de Gênes’ and so ‘jeans’ entered the language.  The city has just rebranded itself – Genova ‘More Than This’.  I like the earlier descriptor of ‘La Superba’ – ‘the proud one’ where the Cross of St George has flown as the true flag of honour for 1,000+ years.

IMG_8306 (225x300)Robert Freson wrote to me that he’d liked me as travelling companion when shooting ‘Savouring Italy’ in the early 1990′s. Let this journey be a sampler Bob.

Always, aren’t we in search of taste? Now it comes in magazine format – www.insearchoftaste.com

Follow us, ‘Like’ us on Facebook and on Twitter @insearchoftaste. Sign up for the newsletter. Maybe then subscribe to this independent title that’s a work of life and love.

Blue Collar Gastronomy stays my mantra. BFN.

TOP TIPS: Asked where to eat in Genoa, I’m always quick to say ‘Il Genovese’ on the Via Galata – owned and run by the Panizza brothers, Roberto and Sergio. www.ilgenovese.itIMG_8225 (250x188)IMG_8137 (250x219) (2)

IMG_8220 (250x188)Now I also offer ‘La Locanda degli Stelli’ – Lungomare Lombardo set beside the sea below at 27, Corso Italia – Boccadasse (literally ‘the donkey’s mouth’). www.lalocandadeglistelli.itIMG_8219 (300x225)





Robert Freson lives in Maine. His humour is evident. 013-DSC_1754 (250x166)

CREDITS: Bookplates from ‘Savouring Italy’ shot with permission from Robert Freson©

Posted in Basil, Blue Collar Gastronomy, DOP Basilico Genovese, Genoa, Il Genovese Restaurant, Ligurian, Mercato Orientale, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pesto alla Genovese, Pesto alla Genovese, Real Italy, Veal, Vitellone, Wild Funghi | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nonna, 87, Wins Pesto Glory in Genoa


IMG_8051 (225x300)Alfonsina Trucco, the forever smiling, laughing and all time relaxed 87 year old nonna walked away with the winner’s 22 carat gold embossed pestle after her sterling performance in the 5th World Pesto Championships. This event is about culture and local pride.

IMG_7959 (188x250)The hand  crafted olive wood pestle is said to be worth around €2000, but is that not unimportant? This lady had competed in all five World Championships since they began.

100 finalists, from all over the world, came together on March 29th in Genoa’s historic Palazzo Ducale to show their skills with pestle and mortar. Each had identical ingredients and the rules set by the Palatafini Association state that contestants could bring their family’s pestle and mortar should they wish.

IMG_8037 (225x300)World champion Alfonsina Trucco’s 150 year old mortar had been passed down through five generations of her family. She worked it with a handsome, large and heavy double headed pestle like this one – one end for savoury, the other for sweet preparations.

Alfonsina still makes the fresh Pesto alla Genovese most days at her family’s restaurant cum 10 room hotel, the Antico Trattoria Rosin Tre Fontane, in Montoggio (Genoa) – www.anticatrattoriarosin.com

IMG_8050 (225x300)This lady was so effete that one could have blindfolded her, then strapped one arm behind her back and the result would most likely have been the same. I asked her son how many pesto’s did he think she had made – we together calculated 1000′s.

Roberto Panizza founded the Championship event with a group of Genovese friends as a celebration of what is now the world’s most popular sauce after tomato ketchup and mayonaise.  All the ingredients are important for a Pesto, but the ‘competenza‘  (know how) and experience handed down from generation to generation is equally essential.

IMG_8022 (188x250)“There is no recipe for pesto, it’s all about the technique. This was an observation by my English friend*, a culinary expert. And I think he’s right,” Panizza told the Italian press in 2012.

“Pesto may be one of the most popular sauces in the world,  but almost everyone forgets where it was born, namely in Genoa. After all, if globalisation leads 73% Americans to say that pizza was invented in the US, do you expect an Australian to recognise pesto as coming from Genoa?”

True pesto is always best prepared with a mortar and pestle, an ancient system that offers better results than the modern systems have ever been able to obtain.

IMG_7975 (208x250)“Working with a mortar and pestle is like climbing up a rock wall with your bare hands, or piloting Leonardo da Vinci’s ancient flying machine. It’s an early machine that has stood the test of time,” says the man who is known throughout Italy and on some shores beyond as The King of Pesto.

IMG_7961 (300x221)Every two years, 100 finalists have 40 minutes to prepare their pesto in front of judges and an invited crowd. This is staged in the historic Salone del Maggior Consiglio in the Palazzo Ducale, formerly the Council Chamber and seat of the Doge when Genoa ruled the Mediterranean as an independent republic – and for opera lovers, the setting for an act in Verdi’s 1857 work set in Genoa, ‘Simon Boccanegra’.

“This is a celebration, not a festival or a show, where there is no food and nothing is sold. It is a moment of pride for those who participate and for those who attend.

IMG_7985 (188x250)“The Pesto World Championship, now in its 5th staging, is succeeding in highlighting Pesto’s roots outside Italy.  Of the 100 participants in 2014, 30% came to Genoa from abroad. We organised a eliminating rounds in New York, Cape Town, Bergen, Lyon, London and Belfast.

“It is as simple as it is complicated. The best pesto, prepared according to the most authentic tradition, will win,” explains Panizza.

As for the ingredients, the championship’s organisers – Palatifini – provide each contestant with: fresh picked DOP Genovese basil from Celle Ligure, Ligurian Riviera extra virgin olive oil, Vessalico garlic, Tuscan pine nuts, 24 month aged Parmigiano-Reggiano and DOP Fiore Sardo (a ewes’ milk Sardinian pecorino matured 6 months).

IMG_7980 (196x250)Most of all, Palatifini insist that the sauce should be crushed in the mortar, and not easily blended in mixers that heat and oxidise the basil. Heat is the enemy of basil as much as oxygen will destroy good wine.

Pesto should be used to dress food and never be heated in the pan. When judging pesto, this eventual use must be front of mind.

There are some 60 varieties of basil around the globe, but only one is the regionally protected Basilico Genovese DOP. I have never succeeded in making a good pesto with English grown basil – as good as the leaves may be for tearing over dishes or adding to a tomato sugo.

IMG_8031 (194x250)For a classic Pesto alla Genovese, as taught by Pesto Master Panizza, the pestle & mortar method is:

  • Clean the basil leaves in cold water and dry them on a kitchen cloth without rubbing them.
  • Crush a garlic clove and the pine nuts inside a marble mortar using a wood pestle. Once you have obtained a cream, add a few grains of salt and sufficient basil leaves so as to fill up the cavity.
  • Crush the basil with a soft, round movement of the pestle around the walls of the mortar, turning the mortar with its four ‘ears’ as you work.
  • Repeat the procedure. When the basil begins to release its bright green liquid, add freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino in equal measure to taste.
  • Gradually pour the extra virgin olive oil.

In Springtime, the classic dish in Liguria is Pesto with Trofie or Trenette pasta, new potatoes and French beans – the last two cut in small pieces and traditionally cooked with the pasta.

One moment before draining the pasta, add a ladle of cooking water to the pesto. Once the cooking is completed, drain and mix with the pesto.

Other ways with Pesto are gnocchi, baccalà (salt cod), white fish, potatoes and as a dressing for new season vegetables like courgettes, asparagus, fava beans and peas.

IMG_8215 (300x278)Pesto must be honoured. Industrial pesto must be shunned. I am the English friend* referred to by Roberto Panizza in the quote above about technique ruling over recipe. This is a man with a passion that even his crash helmet for his handsome BMW motorbike carries his brand name, Rossi.

Arrivederci Roberto and ciao Genoa, the city just rebranded this week with the tag line ‘Genova – More Than This’. In Italy, Genoa also carries the tag ‘La Superba‘. Superb you are old Gene’ (pronounced ‘Jen’).

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NOTE: 2016 World Pesto Championships kick off in Paris on April 12, 2014.

VENUE:Le Purgatoire, 54 rue de Paradis, 75010 Paris

TIME: 10h00-18h00

CONTACT: pesto@italieparis.net

Posted in Basil, DOP, DOP Basilico Genovese, Ligurian, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pesto alla Genovese, Real Italy, Salt Cod | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Thrushes and Offals

Pâté des Grives we know. Hunting of thrushes continues across mainland Europe and across on the island of Cyprus. Conversation with a Turkish-Cypriot friend called Eddie, brought back happy memories of London’s own BoHo district that was Camden Town of the late 1960′s – soon after I first arrived in London. We would chew the fat in original Andy’s, sitting at the table nearest the open kitchen. Back then, Andy and his Welsh girlfriend, Pam, owned the taverna – then one of London’s best. The last I heard of Andy, he’d returned to Cyprus after the 1974 troubles ended. I have not been back these 40 years.

As a treat we were sometimes offered ‘poulia‘ (full name Ambelopoulia) with our wine – they were pickled song birds hunted across Cyprus and served as the special delicacy which never made it onto the menu. I have on a few occasions enjoyed little birds like thrushes and larks in homes in France and I am sure that preparations of Pâté des Grives continue to be sold quite openly. For those interested, visit www.chasse-grives.fr – the website of the Association de Défense des Chasses Traditionelles à la Grive.

IMG_7660 (151x250)There my story ended, or so I thought, until I was invited to Lazio. Mamma Agnese came to dinner bearing gifts. I was to cook the two large trout she’d ‘caught’ – actually she meant ‘bought’ that morning. Then came the treat, as out of her basket she produced a package in tin foil and handed it to me with a knowing smile.

IMG_7665 (300x300)Mamma had been briefed by her daughter who was my host. I opened the package to find ‘Tordi’ – song thrushes already prepared, each one tightly wrapped in pancetta held firm with a tooth-pick. These were mine to not only eat, but also to help cook – so a first for me to be cooking my own little birds.

I am in the Frascati kitchen already well known to followers of Jo Wennerholm’s www.myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com

IMG_7698 (250x188)The trout was cleaned and dredged in flour – guanciale was gently melted down in the pan, heat turned up and the trout cooked in the rich, Roman fat from the jowl of the pig. La Vignarola was another dish on the table.

IMG_7680 (300x300)Also too a soupy pasta dish of fresh vongole and cannelini with short rigatoni.

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Later would be the salad of wild leaves, some gathered from the hedgerows and meadows around Frascati. This they call rather magically a ‘Misticanza‘.IMG_7675 (250x228)



IMG_7670 (300x300)So, to the stove to cook the ‘tordi’ with Mamma at my side guiding my every move. The tiny packages were first sautéed off in olive oil and a little butter, turning as they browned.

IMG_7671 (250x234)Then they were flambéed – I would have used gin or grappa, but Mamma insisted we use a malt whisky.

Gin and juniper have an symbiotic relationship with game birds – and, when in Rome, etc, grappa seemed to liquor of choice. I went with the whisky and was cheered by the result.

IMG_7703 (300x176)We ate the birds with knife and fork for a moment or two before settling in with fingers to suck off every morsel of the deliciously gamey little carcases. As one of the four cooks ‘on duty’ that evening, we were each up and down from table as the meal developed – conversation was noisy, enquiring and excited.

The thrushes were as pure as they were delightful. Then came another treat brought over from Bari the day before – and another first in my pan.

IMG_7695 (225x300)I was presented with the sweetest of lambs’ sweetbreads – ‘animelle‘ in Italian – prepared as I’d written only a few weeks before. Each was tightly wrapped in small intestine and ready for the pan. Behold, I was cooking Gnumuriedd – the speciality of the butcher’s shops with wood ovens found across Basilicata and adjoining parts of Puglia.

It was only seeming that the next day had me visiting Rome’s huge old abattoir site in Testaccio – the quartier of the city that was home to artisans from butchers and bakers, to builders, carpenters and all others who carried a trade. I was in a blue collar heaven and later to feed on ‘Coda’, ‘Trippa‘ and ‘Nervetti‘ – oxtail, tripe and ‘nervetti‘ being the shiny, opaque tendons from the calf’s shins (already a favourite from the Veneto).

Slaughtermen from the old abattoir would be paid in hard times not in money but with an oxtail per man. My guide around Testaccio told me that by far the majority of people living in her apartment block had been born and raised in the same building.

IMG_7676 (174x250)Soon she will publish a book about her time in the Testaccio sestiere – her name is Rachel Roddy. Right now you find her on www.racheleats.wordpress.com

Linking these writers together is their contributions to ‘In Search of TASTE’ magazine - www.insearchoftaste.com - and soon this site will hibernate as I devote all my forays, jottings, scribblings and sharings to that independent new title as its Food Editor.

Grazie mille Jo and Rachel for opening doors and sharing too.





Posted in Blue Collar Gastronomy, DOP, Farmers Markets, Food of the Ancients, Game, Negroni, Nonna's Cooking, Origins of our food, Puglia, Puglia / Apulia, Pugliese, Real Italy, Salad, Southern Italy, Wild Food | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Rome’s Spring Trinity

Frascati 001 (225x300)Cheek by jowl, but minutes by foot from Frascati’s faded but magical Villa Aldobrandini’s private gardens, we shell peas and beans, trim artichokes and chatter. We’d also visited the gardens by pulling family ties in old Frascati, so passing over the BBC’s commentary on the site being closed to all but Monty Don and crew.

Frascati 002 (219x300) - CopyBack home with guests for dinner we were to make Vignarola and were likely to be just one kitchen of thousands across Lazio making this dish that evening.

Vignarola celebrates and typifies all that is Spring in Rome. My host assures me, Lazio is a region to watch for food and cooking.  Across Italy they celebrate with Primavera dishes made with new vegetables, all telling us that winter is behind and summer in front.

The classic Vignarola is based around the three vegetables said to be found come March and April in the ‘vigna‘ (vineyard) – peas, broad beans and artichokes. That’s not to be questioned, as romantic as is the notion. The dish has writer David D Downie telling me: “Vignarola is the most divine of all vegetable dishes – and that is a huge, outlandish claim.

“There are many varieties on the theme, but the vignarola combines some of my favourites – peas, fava beans, tiny white onions, artichoke hearts, spring onions, baby new potatoes – into something resembling a slow cooked stew of vegetables which brings out the natural sugars in each item, rendering them meltingly tender and irrestistible.

IMG_0673 (250x188)Sometimes I add guanciale following one very old Roman tradition.”

Cooking the Roman Way was written by Downie during his years living and writing in the Eternal City.

Genoa Produce 036 - Copy (240x300)In Frascati and days later at No 19, we start with produce so fresh and good, it is also the custom to eat them raw – look for hand-written signs saying ‘mangiare crudo’  through the markets and delight in being offered tastes by jolly, noisy stall holders vying for your trade. Smiles are exchanged long before money.

For the Vignarola shell a kilo each of peas and broad beans (in Italian, fava).

IMG_0543 (225x300)Then comes trimming and preparing the artichokes. Even this early in the season they come in 3-4 sizes in the Italian markets, some already cut back and rubbed with fresh lemon to arrest discolouring.

IMG_0671 (250x188)Best avoid putting them in water with slices of lemon and they become near impossible to dry.

In one pan we cook the peas and beans in water and a good dousing of olive oil – some add a pinch of sugar, but I prefer not.IMG_0593 (188x250)

In a second pan, we heat oil and handsome pieces of guanciale (cured pig’s jowl) or pancetta (cured and smoked pork belly). Pancetta is ubiquitous and, in England, mostly all one can find outside of our dwindling number of genuine Italian salumeria’s.

IMG_0666 (164x250) Of the two, Guanciale would be my first choice and so worth hunting down. ‘Goletta‘ is perhaps one better again – found here in Rome’s special butcher, Liberati. The goletta is cut from the back of the neck of the pig, whereas guanciale is the jowl. Roberto Liberati we’ll come back to for his shop is a special place.

This very Roman of unctious cured meats makes the final dish more substantial, although many prefer to stay pure and meat-less – in keeping perhaps with their Lenten promise.

IMG_7823 (225x300)The trimmed artichokes, quartered or smaller and rid of any wisp of hairy ‘choke, are gently sautéed. After a few minutes or when tender to your taste, add spring onion cut roughly to the same lengths as the artichokes. Splash in a glass of white wine to soften if you so desire.

IMG_0600 (300x225)Asparagus, now flooding the mainland European markets in a delight of white, green, purple, violet tipped and ‘selvaggio’ - meaning the thin wild stems gathered in the woods and hedgerows.

Vignarola is no place for elegant white asparagus – the more robust green or purple work best. Purists tell me asparagus shouldn’t be there at all – but in Spring don’t we have rights. The thin stemmed wild varieties are again too delicate and are better served with soft scrambled eggs or forked through pasta dressed with butter and oil as for a pasta bianco, or simply served as a salad.

Taste all the while – each item will cook according to size and freshness. This could be 3-4 minutes or a short while more. Let taste be your guide. To over-cook a Vignarola should be punishable  by law.

IMG_0618 (300x225)When all the elements are good to the tooth, bring them together in one pan over a low heat. Here one can also stir through soft lettuce leaves moments before taking off the heat. I confess to having added waxy new potatoes (Anabelle or Charlotte) and cauliflower.

As with most good dishes, a Vignarola tastes best when cooled, or ‘scienza‘ as they say in Italy.

IMG_0621 (300x225)Some would serve the Vignarola to be pushed onto the fork with bread rubbed with some garlic and oil before making into a bruschetta. Others may grate over some ewes’ milk Pecorino Romano cheese.  I’m told that Frascati-born Roman chef Arcangelo Dandini (L’Arcangelo – Castel St Angelo) serves his Vignarola very agreeably on a large slice of bread. I prefer a sprinkle of coarse salt and fresh cracked black pepper. Should there be any left-over Vignarola, it will be even better the following day as a first plate or stirred into pasta.

IMG_0607 (250x188)I brought beans, peas, artichokes and asparagus too back to No 19 from Genoa’s Mercado Orientale – from market to kitchen was no more than 6-7 hours. The freshness sang – so did the lady that sold them to me.

Freshness makes the dish. Please never think of attempting it with frozen peas and broad beans, any more than one would with processed artichoke hearts or tinned asparagus tips.

My thanks for my first Vignarola’s go to three who write like angels on food: Jo Wennerholm, Rachel Roddy and David Downie. You might call them a Roman trinity too.






Posted in Asparagus, Food of the Ancients, Genoa, Left Overs, Lenten traditions, Mercato Orientale, Real Italy, Risotto, Simple Food | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Spring and the King’s Ramsons

IMG_7518 (300x225)To come across a mass of wild garlic is proof positive that Spring is with us. When you find some. there’ll be lots. This is no endangered species for sure. Like most wild plants it keeps only for an hour or so after picking – then it looses the will to live and becomes floppy and tired. At home in Wales we were never allowed to pick wild flowers for just this reason – better marvel them where Nature placed them were Nana’s wise words.

IMG_7525 (300x220)Wild garlic was special to her, also nettles, as she believed that both had powers to cleanse the blood after the long and dark winter months. Served with buttery mashed potatoes like a Welsh Champ – this would come with ham hock, lamb shoulder or sausages from the town’s butcher, ruddy faced Mr Thomas. Nettles – the top new growth leaves only – never went beyond soup.

These were times when Thomas the Meat would buy live animals in the Tuesday beast market, have them driven 5 minutes down the high street into the abattoir down the alley at the back of his shop. Such short distances from farm to market and then market to fate are now long since outlawed – and more’s the pity as all this butcher’s livestock came from the hillsides, meadows and woods only very miles and minutes from the town.

Come school holidays, his son and I would sneak in out of sight to watch the gory spectacle. The two slaughtermen would each week drink a pint glass of warm blood from the cattle they’d despatched. One time we were caught and they threatened to make us each drink a glass of warm red stuff. We fled to the riverside, hearts pounding and yet laughing at our fate.

IMG_7478 (300x225)As we run up to the World Championships of the real Pesto alla Genovese – made only with pestle and mortar – and with no acceptable basil to be had, fresh picked wild garlic was pure joy. Nana would approve.

On tricky ground here, as Genoa’s King of Pesto is famous for saying “Pesto can only be made with basil. All the rest are a Salsa“. In deference to my friend Roberto Panizza, we made a Salsa of Wild Garlic (also called Ramps or Ramsons). Rub a leaf between your thumb and forefinger and you will be in no doubt that the plant is garlic.

It is with us for only a few weeks, if that long, depending on where one forages.  The leaves are at their very best picked before the tiny white flowers appear. The season can last as long as late May / early June.  Please just snip away the leaves at their base and never pull up the bulb – that way you can return next year for more.

IMG_7527 (188x250)We found ours in a narrow lane off Blackheath (London) where it was there for the taking and owned by no-one.

One tip when foraging is to never take more than you need so plenty is left for others. Wild mushroom hunters please note when we see you scurrying with guilt to stuff away four or more carrier bags of funghi into your car boot when a small basket full was sufficient for any Blue Collar Gastronaut. Also, never use a plastic bag to haul away bounty – it’s like insult to injury.

One has to be shocked to find there is an industrial ‘Wild Garlic Pesto’- sadly from Italy too – containing and declaring a full 16 ingredients. I kid you not. I spare the maker by not shaming by mentioning their name. I list the ingredients nonetheless:


Sunflower Seed Oil, Basil, Wild Garlic (16%), Garlic, Chives, Sea salt, Pecorino Romano DOP, Grana Padano, Cheese, Cashew Nuts, Fructose, Garlic Powder, Vegetable Fibre, Acidity Regulator and Lactic Acid

Quite why one would use garlic, garlic powder and chives when celebrating wild garlic is beyond my ken. Also, why the basil? As for fructose, veg fibre, the acidity stuff all topped off with lactic acid, I am at a loss to understand the motive beyond greed and ignorance of real flavour.


Garlic Leaf (40-50%), Sea Salt, Walnuts, Pecorino Sardo DOP, Parmesan and Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Had I any Italian Nationzale pine nuts (pinoli) left, they would have been used. Best leave Chinese pine nuts in the shop that chooses to stock them. Walnuts, checked for freshness, are the best substitute – never please even consider cashews.

Pecorino Sardo DOP is always the chosen cheese to mix in with the Parmesan (never please Grana Padano for this preparation). Genoa has centuries’ old links with Sardinia and not with the cheesemakers of Roma. Both are made with ewes’ milk – indeed the cheese is said to have originated in Lazio, but tradition says that Pecorino Sardo is the cheese for pesto. You want an aged, so drier Pecorino and a 24 month Parmesan.

The oil can only ever be Olive Oil and that means Extra Virgin always.

This is an honest comparison of what’s in pots in the shops compared with the way such a pesto is made in any Genovese home. It’s doubly shocking when we find industrial food manufacturers, not makers – for that’s what they are – parading faux ingredients to peddle their products.

IMG_7472 (225x300)Now, this ugly side step aside, it is time for the Genovese technique. To make a Salsa fit for a Springtime King to feed four with gusto, proceed as follows.

In a marble  mortar pound 4-5 walnut halves with a few scant grains of sea salt – the salt helps the nuts to cream. Begin adding the fresh picked wild garlic leaves and add just a meagre grain or three of salt – again to abrase the leaves into surrender.

IMG_7479 (300x283)I like to add the leaves a few at a time – it makes a better consistency as some will be more pounded than others. Take care with the salt – it’s there to aid the blending. The cheeses add most of the seasoning.

Then for the two cheeses – again fresh grated at the very last minute for optimum freshness.

IMG_7480 (300x225)Remember the Bauhaus maxim of less is more – the job of the two cheeses is to add a depth and creamy roundness to the salsa. Each on its own is not enough.

IMG_7487 (300x225)Finally dribble in the olive oil, pounding all the while and turning the bowl by using each of the mortar’s four ‘ears’ to as you go.

IMG_7496 (300x225)From time to time, scrape the salsa off the bottom of the pestle with a clean teaspoon – that is quite correct a thing to do.

Taste for balance – more cheese or oil may or may not be needed depending on your taste.

IMG_7495 (300x225)We like to let a Pesto or Salsa stand for 30 minutes to allow the flavours to naturally meld into the finished sauce.

IMG_7545 (300x293)Serve as a dressing for pasta or fresh potato gnocchi, grilled fish, salt cod, scrambled eggs, new steamed potatoes, potatoes in their jackets, grilled or poached chicken or an unbreaded chicken escalope – then the mind turns to soup. Wild Garlic Salsa stirred into a potato and leek soup – or almost  any vegetable soup. Just forage with  care and respect for Nature.

POSTSCRIPT: I choose to write King’s Ramsons because the foraging spot was on the outer land to King Henry VIII’s hunting ground – now called Greenwich Royal Park.IMG_7530 (106x250)
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Posted in Alliums, Baccala, Basil, Blue Collar Gastronomy, Cheese, Chicken, DOP, Foraging, Ligurian, Nature, Parmigiano-Reggiano, peasant cooking, Perfect Eggs, Pesto alla Genovese, Pesto alla Genovese, Poulet Fermier, Real Italy, Wild Food, Wild Funghi | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Pizza’s Round Trip to Fame

IMG_7061 (300x191)How a cheap food requiring no cutlery found eventual fame on a round trip from the poorer quartieri of Naples to America, before returning to take Europe by storm, could have been a very different story. Without the mass emigration from Italy via Naples, pizza may have stayed put as a local Neapolitan delicacy known to few. Instead the trans-Atlantic pizza was to bring succour and solace to immigrant Italians scratching their early living in New York. This is a story that’s made millions for many and brought joy to more.

Take the case of ‘Tom’ Monaghan – he dropped out of architectural school in the 1950′s and into pizza’s in the early 1960′s. His Domino’s chain became a phenomenon of successful business. I was in Chicago the morning in 1992 when headline shock news broke that Monaghan was divesting himself of all his extensive array of luxury trappings – original Frank Lloyd Wright furniture,  a rare classic car collection, paintings, etc – to live as simple a life as a dollar billionaire might.

When pizza’s gotten popular, its origins and magic have been lessened like Tom’s wordly trappings.

IMG_7436 (225x300)Always best to get back to roots when this happens and that means entrusting a Napolitano to make your pizza.

Like Pesto, where I solidly empathised with the many who claimed they don’t care for it, saying they were right to shun the ersatz paste that bears zero semblance to what one finds in Genoa. That outburst got me invited to judge at the 2012 World Championships of Pesto alla Mortaio and again in 2014.

Dull green, long-life pastes tasting of no more than acidulated privet (often complete with reasty nuts other than Italian-grown pinoli) cannot be Pesto alla Genovese – any more than a round of yeasty dough spread thin with tomato, flecked with industrial mozzarella and strewn with dried herbs can be a genuine Pizza alla Napolitana. Olives blackened by tumbling in chemicals and hairy boned budget anchovy filets only deepen the injury to authenticity.

We can wonder at pizza’s origins and be certain similar preparations existed long before being made in Naples. Flatbreads topped with flavourings to make them more exciting and quickly cooked in a domed, wood-burning oven have been with us since the Ancient world of Greeks and Romans – some sources claim older still in history.

IMG_4470 - Copy (300x225)Tomatoes, bounty from the Americas, came into Italy from Spain via Naples and the two probably became married around three centuries ago. Focaccia pre-dates pizza and one of the best is set with ripe tomatoes before baking – see perfection in focaccia from Altamura (Puglia)at close of this article.

IMG_6890 (300x225)What was the daily bread of the harbour workers and fishermen, eaten as a fast food with the hands and no cutlery, was recognised by royalty when the Italian King and Queen, Umberto and Margherita, visited Naples in the 1890′s.

IMG_7435 (225x300)One story says that Queen Margherita was so taken by the local peoples’ dish topped as it was with the colours of the new Italian flag – green (herb), white (cheese) and red (tomato) – this pizza took on her name and the ‘Margherita‘ was born.

The secret stayed largely in Naples until the mass emigration in search of work and a new life took Italian families across the seas to America via Ellis Island and New York – and from there pizza travelled across the States from east to west picking up tweaks along the way.

I was one time taken in Chicago to eat pizza pie. I think it was at Gino’s which laid claim to have invented pizza as a pie. We queued for 30-40 minutes in an alley before being shown a table on which sat two retro shakers – one filled to bursting with the dreaded ready-grated, pavement pizza ‘Parmesan Cheese’ and the other carrying dried, dusty chilli flakes. I remember like yesterday my sinking disappointment at the first taste of this over-fat feast, set as it was against the obvious pride and delight of my two friends for the city’s famed dish. Later they took me to my first karaoke bar on the Navy Pier. I was quick to point out how karaoke was unlikely to catch on in England. The rest is history.

IMG_7076 (225x300)I’ve written already of Addommè* in London. There the pizza is real Napolitano. We celebrate as a family there. This is ‘neighbourhood’ as neighbourhood is meant to be. Margherita and Marinara are all you need to know. They are the classics.

IMG_7442 (300x160)The oven never cools at Addommè. Stefano, the owner, bakes bread in the afternoon before the oven is lit for evening service beginning at 18h00. We take a whole loaf home and the bread lasts nearly a week, getting better as it ages.  Bread was never bought daily in Italy and such lasting recipes are the status-quo.

This takes me onto lievito madre – and that’s a story to come when I finish talking with a London born Italian and Soho original, John Parmigiani, whose family ran Parmigiani e Fili on Frith and Old Compton (now I am talking American).

*Addommè – 17/21 Sternhold Avenue, London IMG_6915 (165x220)SW2 4PA – +20 8678 8496 (booking essential)IMG_7441 (300x225)IMG_7073 (225x300) IMG_6899 (220x219)


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Posted in American Dishes, Basil, Blue Collar Gastronomy, Food Influencers, Genoa, Pesto alla Genovese, Real Italy, Simple Food | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment