Itchy at Iffy Saved the Day

IMG_2504I am ready for the pitiful cries of derision as I write this piece. London’s bi-annual became a biennale when the food industry was invited to strut its stuff in front of thousands who visited IFE – the International Food Exhibition. I have attended every one since they began and am remembered by many for my stand designs for JA Sharwood – ‘Trading Post’, ‘Explorer’s Tent’ and then the ‘White Cube’ with tens of thousands of pounds worth of Indian and Chinese silks and historic artifacts on display  – but always with the sharp eye and focus on taste.

Such was the cost of having an 1880s explorer’s tent made to the original design by a dedicated Glaswegian sail-maker, I had to pledged to find a buyer for the large tent and I did. It went to the then new owners of Cotchford Farm, that being the celebrated home in the Ashdown Forest of AA Milne with Winnie the Pooh, Roo, Eyeore and later, the great Brian Jones. Wonder where it is today – that canvas explorer’s tent we had pitched on desert sand at those early IFE’s in accessible Olympia, not boondocks ExCel. I digress.

IMG_2536Walking the 2015 show was mostly a steeply downward journey as aisle after aisle of booths – few designed stands – showed off salty and sweet foods mostly ‘comically’ prefixed with descriptives like Better, Get, Just, Great British, Heavenly, Hungry, Love, Mighty, then came Mr, Mrs, My, Proper, Simply and so it rolled on, booth after booth as ennui struck. One couldn’t have taken a shopping basket there to bring home ingredients for a meal. Vegetables were dying, fresh meat was oxidised, chickens were floppy and ducks well dead.

Then came solace and some joy. People who knew, grew and made their products. Hand’s up that I am not making this up, but IFE 2015 was saved 80% by Italy and the rest by France, Spain, Romania and those few independents not in my notebook or with photos on my since stolen portable – two of the best being here for the enthusiasm, charm and range. They knew food. One I worked with in another age and I can swear for his approach. IMG_2516IMG_2517

IMG_2533 (300x225)The Saudi’s sponsored much of the fair and their massive stand showed booth after booth after booth of……………….dates. Tasting Date Vinegar has me excited about a new discovery.IMG_2530 (188x250)

Real chefs manned the kitchen of the Italian national stand – in Italian the Trade Commission is ICE, pronounced ‘Itchy’ – so I thought it amusing to proclaim IFE as ‘Iffy’.

IMG_2511 (225x300)The chefs included Italian Chef of the Year for 2014, Enzo Olivieri and the president of the Italian Chefs Association, Carmelo Carnevale (left). Both men are Sicilians working in London. Both are all round good eggs oozing with talent.

Around the corner on the large Italian island site was an zone given over to Daunia Rurale and this is extremely interesting.

IMG_5878As their organiser Antonio Tomassini explains: “Daunia is probably the last Puglian site still unknown to the majority of people outside Italy – and even many Italians would know little of the region that is rich in indigenous products like Peranzana olives, Nero di Troia and Bombino Bianco grapes. I would like to make it my mission to introduce the UK to Daunia.”

The food of the region – Alto Tavoliere cooking – is cucina povera in style. Centuries old dishes made possible by locally grown ingredients. San Severo bread and pasta like orecchiette (of course, this is Puglia), lintorci, troccoli and cicatelli. We will talk more on Daunia when I visit in a few weeks.

IMG_1660South Italy’s olive trees, we know, have been literally plagued this past year. Olive oil production lies between zero and not very much. Imagine then the joy of meeting Ugo Ametta whose 6th generation family produce a certified organic, mono-varietal extra virgin oil from the local Peranzana olives.

The Antico Frantoio Ametta still uses stone for the pressing and, if that’s not good enough, their fruit comes from a farm where the trees are hand picked over just three days each November. These trees, Ugo Ametta proudly tells me, were brought to the farm near Torremaggiore 350 years ago from the South of France. According to family records kept by Vincentius Ametta (the founder), the trees were already mature when transported across from Provence to northern Puglia.

IMG_2522 (225x300)The Vincentius Ametta 2014 oil is sublime to taste – it’s bottled in never more than 12 hours from harvesting to cold pressing at never more than 27°C stresses their Swiss agent, co-producer, film maker and music man, Marco Palmieri. Production this year to little more than 1,100 litres.

They tell of how they sing or say, as the first green oil comes from the press ‘Olio amaro, tienilo caro‘. As amaro means bitter in English, but amore means love – and then caro is a word play between dear and expensive – we are already lost in translation. This special oil – selling for €47 per 50cl in Switzerland – has already arrived in the UK. Raymond Blanc was one of its early adopters at the Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons – further west they serve it at the Broomhill Art Hotel in Barnstaple. Two food stores in Banbury are also listed as selling Vincentius Ametta 2014 – Italian Larder and Bread & Milk. I know neither.

At the mill, 50cl of this oil can be purchased for around €25 – - I have that in mind for my next visit to Puglia.

IMG_2552 (188x250)Having written only recently about Capocollo – then of the famous Martina Franca recipe – I was excited to taste another made similarly, but actually quite differently.

IMG_2579 (188x250)Francesco Salcuno, the current family member running Salumi Salcuno – – tells me how. Francesco began learning the art of butchery at the age of 12.

Salumi Salcuno work with a few of the protected, rare breed Suino Nero Gargano pigs, but most of their production is what they call the ‘Italian pig’ – this being the workhorse cross of Landrace and Large White sows with Duroc boars.  They take in 80 sides, minus heads and feet, each week.

IMG_2550 (188x250)For Capocollo, the pig’s whole +/- 2kgs neck muscle is salted and cured, massaged by hand and flavoured using the local Gargano rich red Nero di Troia – the whole process takes 4-5 months. Let us hope Salumi Salcuno find an importer for such excellent artisan salumi – Salsiccia Sottolina, Soppressata, Scamone and their 16 month old Prosciutto Crudo.

IMG_2501 (188x250)Scambato was another find – made from a boned-out and pressed whole gammon (pig thigh). With a Scambato, each slice is near the same from start to finish – should that be what you want. This came from another family affair near Bologna (Emilia-Romagna) who have a desire to popularise the Valle del Samoggia for its cheese, hams and wines -

Blood oranges from around Mt Etna have been covered, but still with Sicily I close with two comments from Chef Carmelo Carnevale: “The wild thyme we find in the mountains, but it work well with the fish from the sea.”

And on spicing: “Black pepper was always very expensive and so not common in Sicilian kitchen where we have plenty peperoncino.”

IMG_2541Beats Welsh Eggs – as far as I could see these were eggs laid by hens, err, in Wales. That was their pitch.

IMG_2525As for the ‘Frenched’ Veal Rack and the Fowl Scratchings I’m at a loss. Two years to run until IFE 2017. Will there be one?

When Daunia arrived at the Italian Embassy all came good. Again, Italy won the day. Now let’s hope for importers to step forward and up to the plate.


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Blood from an Orange

IMG_2583 (300x225)The blood orange has struggled for acceptance outside its areas of production. Only those daring to trial or in the know seemed to buy them in quantity when they arrive in the shops from January on until mid-April – some years they are with us before Christmas, adding to their special status as a treasured fruit.

To me they are always in my mind as part of the grand paella – meaning that long, late winter lunches with the Spanish in-laws would end on a glass of fresh blood orange juice. Picked from the nearby trees only 30′ or so before and squeezed by hand, this was a very rare treat for those of us who’d flown down from London to Valencia and only there could experience citrus that tree ripe and fresh.

In Spain, the blood orange – the Naranjas Sanguinas – seemed more often to be drunk than eaten, whereas in Sicily, blood oranges are salad, sweets and seasoning. Who doesn’t know the Sicilian salad of thin sliced fennel and blood orange segments brought to table with new season olive oil?IMG_2647 (225x300)

IMG_2580 (300x225)Blood oranges there are creatively employed in cakes, ice creams, sorbets and marmalades too.  The Sicilian Arancia Rossa has protective IGP status and is hand picked. Production centres in orchards around Mount Etna, Catania and Syracuse. I’ve heard it said that the subterranean energy given out by Etna has something to do with the blood orange’s excellence. From here we ask questions about a phenomenon surrounding the very special Sicilian blood orange.

Some years they are rich blood red through and through. The juice comes out an intensely deep ruby red without a hint of orange colour. This is what we expect when cut into a fresh blood orange. But fresh is a hint too.

IMG_2588 (225x300)Once the oranges are harvested their flesh colour can deepen and redden. Year to year, this is greater or lesser. The 2015 harvest has been paler when compared to 2014. The flavour is every bit as rich and deep, yet the colour seems leached back to orange with flecks of red, to a richer all-red interior – although few I have cut this season are the deep blood red I expect from an Arancia Rossa di Sicilia.

IMG_2160 (300x225)I find myself wondering what San Pellegrino will do for their chic cans of naturally sparkling blood orange juice when production kicks in this year.

Francesco Batticane of the Consorzio Euroagrumi ( found it hard to grasp that I didn’t know about the year to year variability of blood oranges. The more I think on it, the more I see Francesco’s point of view. When fruit is top hole quality and not messed about by plant breeders, it will vary from season to season. That’s Nature’s way.

IMG_2593 (225x300)That Man is not in control of everything gives me another thrill – not least after listening to scientists at a research station in England talking about controlling potatoes for a list of reasons that made not one jot of sense to anyone but a frozen chip manufacturer with fast food chains as its customers. Genetic modification is as yet unproven and best stayed well clear of – calming, coaxing words from the smooth talkers hired by the chemical corporations do nothing to calm my concerns.  The Sicilian blood orange stays closer to pure than a meddled-with fruit.

IMG_2589 (225x300)The fact the orange is red is itself a natural mutation that is none too well understood by Man. It just is and that makes me happy as cook and diner.  The mutation was first noted in the 17th century in Spain and Sicily. Back then there were close links between Spain and Italy so perhaps one helped the other or vice-versa.

This delight of a fruit is to me a seasoning and an aromatic in our kitchen. Fish and shellfish come alive with the juice of a blood orange added close to the end of cooking, whatever the method. Duck, duckling and pork have a natural affinity to the blood orange too, specially with the more unctuous cuts of the pig like hand & spring and belly.

IMG_2168 (300x225)Scallops (capesante) seared in a hot skillet with blood orange and olive oil or butter added at the last moments of cooking come together because both have similar seasons.

IMG_2607 (188x250)A fresh cut blood orange served alongside comes across pretty good too. We ate skate wing with a sauce of anchovy, caper and tomato this way (below). The orange capped the dish.

Always cut and squeeze the blood orange as last minute as you dare – it also works well when fused with chilli (peperoncino). Sicilian chef, Carmelo Carnevale, showed this in a grand seafood and baccalà Couscous from his home town of Trapani.

IMG_2511 (225x300)When asked about the peperoncino, he told us the simple fact “we have no tradition of black pepper in Sicily”. Chilli is easily grown and inexpensive, whether dried or fresh. On the other hand, black pepper has to be imported and was one of the richest prizes of the Spice Trail which came from the Orient into Europe via Venice in the early 15th century. This economic factor impacts heavily on the Italian kitchen from north to south, seemingly to this day.

In Europe, only the Italians truly understand how to employ black pepper. I have said this many times and have no reason to change my mind. Black peppercorns from Sarawak seem to be making the highest prices in Italy right now.

Remember too, as we’ve said before, always choose the citrus that weighs heaviest and with tight and marked skins (see below). Before you can taste, these are your best two guides to good fruit.

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All Fingers and Thumbs

IMG_2377 (188x250)Mozzarella grows on you. Unlike most cheeses, mozzarella is named after a technique, not a place. Outside of the Italian south we are too often served up a sub-standard cheese that falls far short of the mark.

No protection law stops the making and naming of mozzarella anywhere they choose – much as Cheddar from Canada and New Zealand, Brie from Somerset and Germany, Camembert from the New Forest, Mozzarella from Denmark and the Lord knows what else. It’s a mess. But there’s a twist in this tale and that gives us a candle for hope.

IMG_1736 (188x250)Real artisans can replicate what industrial cheese makers would love to do if only they’d take the time, buy the right ingredients and invest in talent. These are the three simple reasons why industrial food rarely succeeds beyond the ersatz.

In the past eight months I have been on my own Strada di Mozzarella. I have visited buffalo farms in Campana and mozzarella makers, large and small, there, in Puglia and closer to home.

IMG_9779 (300x225)I came away affectionately attached to water buffaloes and no longer reckoning mozzarella made with cows’ milk to be in any way second class gear. It’s like Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano – two similar cheeses from two different regions that have been with us since the year dot. Many like to sniff at Grana as if it’s an also-ran. We eat both as two quite different cheeses, to be enjoyed on merit as the best of two quite different regions.

IMG_9778 (300x225)We must begin with the water buffalo and how they came to be in Italy. Forget thoughts of the jungles of Thailand and Indonesia, because there’s been a water buffalo strain in Italy for over 1000 years – some reckon they came across from North Africa around 600 AD. The breed is listed as Bufalo Mediterraneo Italiano and reared all across Italy with the biggest numbers being in Campania where their milk goes for the DOP Mozzarella di Bufala Campana. If a mozzarella is not labelled as ‘Bufala‘ then for sure it will be Fiordilatte, made from full cream cow’s milk.

IMG_9826 (225x300)Buffalo are gentle, carefree animals. Being ‘water’ buffalo, like pigs, their daily routine has a lot of wallowing in mud – essential for their skin under the relentless heat and sun rays of Italy’s south. Bulls and cows are happy to be approached and stroked – as with most species, just stay clear of mothers with calves.

IMG_9829 (188x250)I made several new friends the day I went to the large Agricola Filippo Morese buffalo ranch at Pontecagnano. I kept breaking from our group to hang with the big grey beasts – most others were happy to keep their distance from the stock.

Onto simple economics, a water buffalo produces 10 litres of milk daily and a dairy cow (mostly the monochrome Holstein-Friesian) gives up 35 litres. Buffalo milk makes three times the price per litre of cow’s and, importantly, are increasingly being valued as much for their meat as their milk. Buffalo, like farmed bison, are lean muscled, meaning their meat tastes good as well as being lower in fat – that appeals to those who rank low fat above absolute flavour.

In Nature, mammals’ offspring arrive in near perfect 50:50 ratio of boys to girls. Buffalo farmers have all the bulls they need, so the bull calf’s fate is signed. They will be reared for meat. Ask as I did, I found no evidence of young buffalo – either veal / vitellone (meat from an animal mid-way between calf and bullock). In the past – and still today on smaller farms – bullocks would be grown to become mature oxen and then worked in the fields as draft animals until their day to go down dawns.

Farming has changed greatly from 19th to 20th century with the arrival of mechanisation and the demise of the mixed farm. In leaner times cattle were worked before being slaughtered for their meat. Old farmers, famous for their wisdom, would say: ‘Two years to grow, two years to mow and two years to grow’. Thanks to Jan McCourt of Northfield Farm at Oakham (Rutland) for this ditty from the old days – he tells me he was told it by the late Clarissa Dickson Wright. Both are advocates for meat from older animals.

IMG_9636 (250x188)Fresh milk on arriving at the dairy (caseificio)  is gently heated to 36-37°C with a culture added to commence the overnight curdling, or separation, process.

IMG_1742 (188x250)The culture, used sparingly, is rennet – a complex enzyme found in the stomach of a young calf, so again we see how dairying has understood the birth ratio and brought us milk-fed, near white veal.

Now comes the magic. I stop while I go to visit a mozzarella maker in London who holds dear all the traditional ways with the craft. Neither from Campania nor Puglia, the Corsaro family hail originally from Sicily and established the Made in Italy Group some 25 years ago. Four children now help run the business of eight restaurants around London, each 2nd generation Corsaro with as clearly defined a role as any family business can have. The father decided that as they used so much mozzarella in their restaurants, they’d prefer to make it fresh nearby than wait for deliveries to be trucked in from Italy which could be some days old. The shelf life of mozzarella is 6-7 days so any days lost takes one closer to the bin.

Made in Italy Group make fresh mozzarella 3-4 times weekly using cow’s milk. Buffalo milk is not generally available in the UK, so they work with local ingredients – fresh British full cream cow’s milk no more than 24 hours old. Most weeks they process 4000 litres in batches of 500 litres a time.

Antonio (below), their artisan cheese maker, comes from the commune of Caserta in Campania. He learned his craft from his father who carried on the tradition established by his father before him – three generations of mozzarella makers from Cancello e Arnones (Caserta). He speaks little English, smiles a lot and goes about his craft with deft, quiet confidence. He tells me with pride that Cancello is the heartland of mozzarella – they celebrate it there with a Sagra for mozzarella each July.

IMG_2309 (188x250)In London, at the Made in Italy caseificio installed five years back into two railway arches in Battersea, the 500 litres of full milk have been curdled overnight to become the precious starter, the Cagliata or curds.  Here also we have a very special by-product from the curds and whey – Ricotta – which we’ll give due attention soon because Ricotta I tasted exceeded all expectations.

Around 70 kgs of curds (cagliata) are being lifted from a deep stainless steel bath as I walk through the door. Making the mozzarella can begin. Most mozzarella is produced in simple machinery, but witnessing the transformation of curd to cream to cheese must be seen once in a lifetime to behold the magic.

IMG_2319 (188x250)The curds are swiftly knife cut into manageable hunks on a draining table. More water drains away as the machine is fired up – simply replicating adding very hot water to the curds in a wooden churn and working them manually with a paddle. This is tough work for a fit man, so machines were inevitable. Made in Italy does both – as did the large MAIL cooperative I visited in Bellizzi (SA) late last summer.

IMG_2333 (225x300)The water is just below boil – 97°C – and salted to 3%. The 70 kgs of curds are in a few  minutes softened into an elastic, thick, creamy ooze – the cheesemaker checks at each step of the way, using his judgement to decide when it’s perfect time to mozza‘.

IMG_9656 (225x300) (2)Mozza‘ comes from the verb ‘mozzare‘ –  Neapolitan dialect for ‘to cut off’. This is a technique first written down in the late 1500s. Today’s mozzarella makers are continuing a great tradition. When things are written down, be sure they existed many decades before.

Whether buffalo or cow’s milk, the process is identical. Most times two men will work with the cheese, standing either side and pulling a large ball from the hot bath, before one holds and the other uses forefinger and thumb to pull away a piece of around 170g. Each is then dropped into cold water to set.

IMG_2335 (188x250)Tasted at this stage, it is distinctively creamy, but too elastic. In 20-30 minutes, it will settle down and become better eating – 2-3 hours later it will be better still.

IMG_2362 (188x250)Now the cheesemakers really get to strut their stuff. Pieces are pulled away – larger ones are pulled into ropes and, before your eyes can register, plaited into a 500g ‘Treccia‘.

IMG_9747 (188x250)In Puglia, smaller ropes are turned once into a little knot or ‘Nodini‘. Bigger balls of mozzarella are formed by hand into a precious 500-600g ‘Zizzona‘ (in English, a ‘Big Tit’), or more delicately called ‘Aversana‘ – named after the town where it first became famous.IMG_2374 (188x250)

Pugliese-style is another form – the Burrata with origins in the Murgia of my previous article on the Capocollo di Martina Franca. A piece of mozzarella is turned and formed, almost like a pizzaiola working and stretching his dough, and immediately filled with a mix of panna (cream) and ritagli (mozzarella scraps), before being formed into a bag or purse shape, sealed at the top with a splash of whey, sometimes tied with coloured twine.

IMG_1794 (188x250)This is mozzarella de-luxe – but Blue Collar Gastronomy all the same because the burrata actually uses up scraps – the ritagli and panna are often spare to the day’s production. Nothing should be left over in a cheese makers’ atelier.IMG_1816 (188x250)

Londoners can call by Fratelli la Bufala on Shaftsbury Avenue and buy the fresh DOP Campania-made mozzarella they fly in from Naples every Thursday. Freshness is essential, as is never putting your fresh mozzarella into the ‘fridge – keep it in a cool place resting in its whey. Like the water buffaloes, mozzarella likes to bathe until it’s ready for the table.

IMG_5621 (188x250)I once asked Enzo Olivieri, ‘The Sicilian Chef’, how best to enjoy good mozzarella – “with more mozzarella, maybe tomatoes or salad leaves, with a little good olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon”.

My catalogue of great cheeses would include Roquefort, Epoisses, Cabécou, Cantal and Comté – maybe a Neal’s Yard Lancashire and Caerphilly too – fresh mozzarella, both di bufala and fiordilatte, are now in the same corral.

IMG_3949 (188x250)Remember always, cold is the enemy of flavour – most retailers transport and display their cheeses at temperatures which will arrest any development – add this to using pasteurised milk, and the case for caseus is dead.


CREDITS: My thanks in preparing this article go to


2) (Cisternino BR)IMG_1751 (188x250)

3) (Bellizzi SA)



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Posted in Apulia, Archaeology and Food, Blue Collar Gastronomy, Cheese, DOP, Emilia-Romagna, Mozzarella & Burrata, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Puglia, Puglia / Apulia, Pugliese, Real Italy, Simple Food | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment