How I came to like a Brown Jolly

IMG_5104 (225x300)It took me many years to come around to liking aubergine. Moussaka in Camden Town taverna’s never helped, nor even Ratatouille on Provençal camping sites. Perhaps Fate had decided I should not get to eat a good one of either. The name ‘egg plant’ used to grate too – then I find others think the same, as ‘egg plant’ really refers to the smaller, white and rounder aubergines which are definitely ovoid.

Alan Davidson – yes, he again – wrote: ‘The word aubergine is amongst those which must fill with joy the souls of those philologists whose innocent mania is to claim that every term in the language derives from Sanskrit; without in the least being forced into the tortuous acrobatics which such exercises usually entail, they may elegantly and painlessly prove that vatin gana, the name of the aubergine in Sanskrit, gave birth to the Persian badigben, from which the Arabs derived albadingen, which via the Spanish albadingena became aubergine‘.

IMG_5102 (300x217)Bless you Alan Davidson and the immense Oxford Companion to Food, a +1,000,000 word encyclopedia much aided by those who shared at early Oxford Symposiums at St Antony’s – and a man not averse to irony.

A dark, near black dish of long cooked pork knuckle and aubergine with black beans and chilli said to be rooted in Schezuan, was a menu standard as I helped introduce Chinese home cooking to food writers in long lunchtime workshops in the early 1980s. I love a pork knuckle, but this preparation failed to excite me as much as those who learned to cook it and then eat it. The unctuous knuckle somehow became the aubergine and vice-versa – every time one went in with the chopsticks you knew you were in for a surprise, even though aubergine outnumbered knuckle by a sure-fire 4:1 – bones were the only clue as one delved in the earthenware pot.

Finally comes an ‘Ah ha’ moment and the aubergine enters No 19. Maybe £1 a bowl from the markets helped. For sure, they need careful cooking and tomatoes are their best friend.

£1 a bowl buys you 3-4 good sized fruit. Look for those with pointy ends as they are less likely to be grown on rockwool in a space-age glasshouse. Wash, trim off the calix and slice into 3-4 lengthways – rounds never look good on the plate and limit their use when cooked.

IMG_0287 (225x300)Now cut again into mouth sized dice. Heat a heavy sauteuse, add a good splash or two of olive oil and in with the aubergine – beware of ever too many at one time. There should be spaces between each piece – if it takes 3-4 times to cook the entire batch, so be it.

IMG_0292 (225x300)As they soften and take on a little colour, splash in a little more oil – note well, ‘little more oil’ as aubergines could be somehow related to the sponge family back in history.IMG_0295 (225x300)



IMG_0280 (273x300)Alongside, start a tomato sauce. Two cans of Italian plum tomatoes, a sprinkle of white cane sugar, some sea salt, two peeled and partially crushed garlic cloves and more olive oil. Peperoncino or chilli flakes are optional – and how much is optional again.

IMG_0283 (237x300)Cook on until the tomatoes soften and then break with the back of a fork – that’s the Naples way.

IMG_0296 (225x300)With the aubergines cooked, add sufficient tomato sauce to coat – cook on for 5-10′ and the dish is ready.


IMG_0297 (225x300)Even better is to prepare ahead and enjoy warm with the best white bread you can find.

Let down with a little of the pasta cooking water, the aubergines make a splendid sauce for rigatoni, ziti or another tubular shape of your choosing (below right).

IMG_4523 (226x300) (188x250)Time hunting around Basilicata had me discovering the red aubergine of Rotonda – it took me a few moments to absorb that they originated from Rotonda and that wasn’t a reference to the melanzane rosso’s near perfectly rotund shape.

Closer to home and the London markets, fresh aubergines are like bell peppers – regardless of their lack of breeding, cooked as such and you can feast for little money, so again demonstrating how the supermarket is redundant for city dwellers.

IMG_0302 (300x225)Eat better, save money and share jokes – that’s Blue Collar Gastronomy© in a nutshell.

Finally to explain ‘Brown Jolly’ – indentured Indian labourers brought aubergines to the West Indies – these people knew them ‘brinjal‘ and the word somehow inevitably got broken down to ‘brown jolly’. That’s calypso and the Trinnie way.

IMG_1980 (300x300) (300x300)As I finish it all comes clear. It was a dish of perfectly made Melanzane Parmigiana that turned my head to the aubergine. We make this too when we play £1 a bowl.IMG_2073 (300x225) (2)


Posted in Aubergine, Basilicata, Blue Collar Gastronomy, Comforting Foods, Deptford, Eggplant, London Street Markets, melanzane, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Real Chinese Cooking, Real Italy, Southern Italy, Spanish Cooking | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Stalking the Old Country

By Julia della Croce – a story teller, print & broadcast journalist and James Beard award-winning cookbook author and teacher. She lives on the west bank of the Hudson up river from New York City. Julia runs a cook school in Umbria in the summer months. 

1 anchor shot, author, Hudson River Valley, N (300x300)Please welcome Julia della Croce, a US born Italian well known as an independent who has dedicated herself to advocacy work for better food and sustainable agriculture. Julia Child cited her as her favourite Italian food writer. 


English and American readers who are familiar with my work may know that I have been immersed in the world of Italian gastronomy for over three decades, writing not only about the food and the land, but also about the faces — kin and acquaintances alike.

I’ll admit that my world of food has been something of an obsession and not, perhaps, for the reason one might surmise from the dedication pages that have often read like love letters to my mother, a woman born in Decimoputzu, Sardinia, in the early part of the 20th century. A narrative of her life in the crosshairs of an abusive, if wealthy, father; of Fascists, Nazis, and the debacle of Mussolini’s Italy would read more like a Lina Wertmüller story than the romance I am perhaps guilty of portraying. Case in point, in the introduction to my first book, I wrote, “My mother was fresh from Italy, so to speak, having met and married my father there after the last war. When she came here, she brought only her most treasured possessions, some packets of saffron and recipes dating from her Sardinian childhood and her adolescence in Rome…. It was not only that she loved to cook. It was her quiet passion. It was her poetry.”

2 family portrait (1) (209x300)While my description of her history is truthful, the tender words reflect the mind of a child caught in the crosshairs of yet another war, this one of the sort that adults wage on each other in the wake of their own childhood turmoil.

Italy has never been one nation in spirit, and it certainly didn’t unite under our roof. Sardinia, my mother’s turf, is a long way from my father’s in Puglia – countryside as below scattered with the historic dry stone trulli houses dating back to the 1700s and maybe even before then.

3 trullo in Bari countryside (300x200)My mother complained about my father’s Pugliese predilection for pasta, especially if beans entered into it, no matter the occasion. “Give him a plate of pasta e fagioli and he’s happy,” she’d carp. “Il mangiare dei morti di fame!”( meaning “Food fit for people dying of hunger”). She was from Sardinia, where bread rules.

4 pasta e ceci (300x207)

Still, as long as she didn’t get any ideas about trying out the post-war fads of the times—TV tray dinners, canned soup, instant meals, or other 1950s American food notions, dinnertime was open season for her.

I don’t know where the two of them got some of the provisions that glued their marriage together. We lived in Pearl River, a sleepy hamlet north of New York City bordering Camp Shanks, named after Major General David Carey Shanks, once the largest army camp and point of embarkation for American troops sent overseas during WW2. In 1945, it sheltered German and Italian prisoners of war. Once all the POWs were gone, there was neither hide nor hair of Italians anywhere except for us, as far as I could tell. 5 Italian POWs with their visitors at Shanks VIllage, c. 1946 (2)

I remember bumping along in the backseat of my parents’ 1955 Dodge on Saturdays, going to the Italian neighborhoods of Paterson and Newark, where they bought olive oil, canned tomatoes, and spaghetti in two-foot lengths wrapped in indigo paper. My mother was always lamenting the gaminess of American lamb, claiming it was no better than mutton, or the toughness of the artichokes. Tomatoes didn’t taste like tomatoes should and where would she ever find the potent mushrooms of her girlhood?

6 the author doing fieldwork (200x300)Only the original versions of anything she tasted were the true ones. It seemed like we were always on a quest for some ingredient or other that she wanted. It’s no wonder I’m hardwired to sniff and taste for a living, like here picking artichokes in the country near Toritto where my father’s family were from.

At first I was shy about introducing such seemingly peasant fare to my culinary circles, but my mind kept returning gratefully to the everyday food of my childhood. Eventually, finding Americans evermore adventurous in their eating habits, I began to serve up the family heirlooms to friends and students. One by one, the recipes were unabashed successes whenever they debuted.

7 broccoli from Tricase Porto market, Puglia (300x195)One dish, which we called simply, ‘Macaroni and Broccoli’ is a particular favorite wherever it goes. A meatless dish requiring no more than four ingredients — broccoli, good olive oil, anchovies, and pasta —with no compromise in flavor. Its origins are the classic Orecchiette con Cime e Acciuga – little hand made pasta ‘ears’ with ‘broccoli rabe‘ in Italian-Americanese and anchovy – this was a specialty of my paternal grandmother’s native Bari.

Speaking of cime di rape, literally, ‘turnip tops’ (Brassica Rapa Ruvo), these pleasantly bitter greens were a quiddity of Puglia and a few other southern Italian regions until 1973, when the legendary grocer Andy Balducci ordered a few crates of it via airmail from a childhood friend of his who was growing it back in his native town, Corato (Provincia di Bari).

8 cime di rapa (200x300)Where there was once no cime di rapa anywhere to be found in American produce stalls, now the likes of James Beard (‘ always Mr B’ to the Balducci’s), Cher and chef Mario Batali were coming to ask for it at the famous Greenwich Village shop.

But that was a long time after my forebears sailed to America in 1908. With no such providence in the markets of the south Bronx on her arrival in New York City, Nonna Domenica was forced to improvise using broccoli instead — a vegetable unknown to southern Italians until fairly recent times, but back then, one in widespread use in the States. This delicious and exuberant dish of the sort Americans rarely experience is, if anything, a true Italian-American hybrid and easily adapted to the British kitchen.

11 macaronibroccoli sauce ed copy (282x300)My sisters and I loved it so much that we fought for whatever bits were left at the bottom of the bowl—even after we had had second helpings. My mother eventually learned to make double what she usually made, and the next day for lunch, she warmed up the leftovers in a frying pan until the rigatoni were sizzling, and crisp at the edges—we fought over that too! Even avowed anchovy haters for whom I have made this dish have loved it (why, I wonder, do so many Americans hate anchovies?). The little preserved filets dissolve completely into the hot olive oil to form the sauce. Note: never feel tempted to add grated cheese, please.

Nonna Domenica’s Macaroni and Broccoli

(From Italian Comfort Food: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul, by Julia della Croce – Kyle Cathie, London)

For 4-6 people

1 large head of broccoli

2 tsp sea salt

1 Ib (450 g) good Italian rigatoni (alternatively ziti, penne or penne rigate)

1-2 tins or jars anchovy filets – only ever those in olive oil

½ cup (125 ml) good extra virgin olive oil

1 Wash and trim the broccoli, cutting off any tough or discolored parts. Divide the top part into florets, and slice the stalks into thin 2-inch pieces as no part of the head of broccoli goes to waste. (Editor’s note – I sometimes will peel thicker stems)

2 In an ample pot, bring 7 litres water to a rapid boil. Stir in the salt, broccoli and pasta all at once. Cook over high heat until the pasta is al dente and the broccoli is soft and creamy (we don’t want broccoli al dente here). Stir several times as the pasta cooks to prevent it from sticking together and allow for even cooking.

3 Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium-low heat, warm the olive oil and the anchovies together, including the oil from one of the anchovy cans/jars. The anchovies will dissolve completely in the oil, so forming the basis of the sauce. Keep warm.

4 When the pasta is cooked, drain it, but don’t over-drain; set aside a teacup of the cooking water, which you will no doubt need shortly. Once drained, the pasta should still be moist and dripping a little. Toss the pasta and broccoli with the anchovy sauce in the skillet. If you think it could use a bit more loosening up, work in a little of the reserved pasta cooking water. Serve at once, piping hot. Once again, resist the temptation to add grated cheese of any sort.

Thank you e grazie mille to Julia della Croce for enriching our Independents’ roster.

Visit her on her website: and blog:  Connect on Facebook: Julia della Croce – chef & foodwriter – Twitter: @juliadellacroce – Instagram: juliadellacroce. Julia writes regularly for Zester Daily. logo2

Photo Credits:

1 Author photo, Julia della Croce ©Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

 2: The author (sitting on the pedestal), with her family, 1952.

 3: A trullo in my father’s ancestral Toritto, Bari countryside, 2014. ©Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

 4: My mother’s pasta e ceci, pasta and chick-peas, a favorite dish of Puglia. Credit: ©Paolo Destefanis/ 

 5: Italian POWs with their visitors at Shanks Village near our home, c. 1946. Credit: Thomas MacAvoy for LIFE, courtesy LIFE archives

 6: The author doing field work in Toritto, Puglia, her father’s birthplace, 2015. Photo: ©Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

 7: Broccoli from Triscase Porto, Lecce. Credit: ©Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

 8: Cime di rapa from Palo del Colle market, Bari province, 2015 Credit: ©Nathan Hoyt/Forktales9 vendor at Palo del Colle market, Bari (1) (300x200)

 photo 9 (right): Vendor selling cime di rapa at the Palo del Colle market, Bari. Credit: ©Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

 10: Nonna Domenica’s Macaroni and Broccoli | Credit: Christopher Hirsheimer & Melissa Hamilton for Italian Comfort Food: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul, by Julia della Croce (Kyle Cathie, London, 2010)











Posted in Anchovies, Apulia, Food travel, peasant cooking, Puglia, Puglia / Apulia, Pugliese, Real Italy, Southern Italy, Street Markets | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

There was once a pig called Jimmy

Once upon a time, many years ago near the little town of Pietralunga in the province of Perugia, a farmer had a pig called Jimmy. Jimmy was a very special pig. He was prized as a truffle hunter which is unusual because in the days when pigs were used, they were mostly girl pigs because females would become unexpectedly over excited by the pheromonal scent of the truffles below ground and anticipation of what was possibly to come.  Boys would be less interested as the scent was of other boys, but both sexes of pig have heightened sense of small – they like to snuffle below the surface for roots and tubers. Pigs had to be muzzled as they’d have the truffles down the gullet in moments. Being far stronger  and less obedient on the leash than truffle dogs, they took a strong handler to keep them under control.

photo 1 (300x200)Since 1985 the dog has taken over and truffle pigs are no more. The specially trained dogs with a good nose have taken their place. Times change, but the pig called Jimmy’s memory lives on in a gastronomic enterprise called Tartufi Jimmy, named in his honour.

IMG_9310 (300x225)Truffles have intrigued me for decades. My first serious learning came from Chef Rudi de Volder at his then famous T’convent restaurant. This is the chef they affectionately called Le Roi du Diamant Noir. He was the founder of  Belgium’s exclusive Chevaliers of Truffles who came together one night each January to celebrate mainly the black Perigord truffle – the Tuber Melanosporum – with an elaborate initiation ceremony followed by a magnificent Banquette des Truffes. Like the truffle hunting pigs, sadly I have recently learned this too is no more.

IMG_0109 (2) (225x300)But now I learn of White Spring and nothing thrills me more than making a new discovery. These babies are graced with the botanical name of Tuber Borchii.

In plainer language we are talking about Bianchetto – a ‘whitish’ truffle that is found between mid-January to mid-April. Some in Umbria and Tuscany might call this little truffle ‘Marzuolo‘ because March is when it is strongest pungency.

photo 1 - Copy (300x225)It is uncannily similar, if smaller, to the grander White Alba truffle – the Tuber Magnatum – of which I heard Chef Rudi once joyfully sing the ditty: “E grata, grata sur le mandolino, le tuber magnatum pico”. There were more verses, but I failed to scribble them down.

In same vein, Marcella Hazan shared the wise saying of when white truffles from Piedmont are good: ‘tartufo buono, vino cattivo’ meaning good truffles, poor wine. This because the best of white truffles are found in years when there are plentiful rains during the late summer. Hardly good for the ripening vines of Barolo and Barbaresco.

IMG_0111 (2) (300x225)Bianchetto are small, growing in the size to anything from a pea to an egg, so 5-10g specimens are the most common. In my hand I have little over 60g. Being so small, cleaning them of their soil is harder,  but same rules as for all truffles and wild funghi apply – only a stiff  brush, a paring knife, a wipe with damp paper and please never wash.

photo 2 (2) (274x300)On rare occasions hunters will find a Bianchetto weighing as much as 100g. My truffle friend in London is Lorenzo Vannozzi and he has sold just this one Bianchetto of this weight this season.

The price of Bianchetto ranks alongside Melanosporum (the black Perigord truffle) at between £550-600 p/kg – or one tenth of the precious White Alba truffle (Tuber Magnatum).

Bianchetto and Marzuolo are familiar names in Italy for the Tuber Borchii and there has been intrigue over the years due to their lower price and higher yield. There are hushed  tales of how they would be mixed into batches of expensive Alba truffles for sale to unsuspecting buyers and worse, a completely tasteless truffle from Turkey called Terfez was sometimes thrown in too. Funnily, the Terfez was a feature of the Ancient Roman kitchen where cooks prized it for picking up other flavours of a dish – doubtless Lucullus would have eaten many at his famous banquets.

IMG_0105 (225x300)Genuine Bianchetto are splendid as I have only just learned – outside of Italy they are little known. There has been success too in cultivating them. Intrepid trufflers have found them in Ireland, Scotland, Finland and Poland that I know – and in similar terrain, Bianchetto have been found in quantity in Portugal and parts of Spain.

Like the white truffle, the Bianchetto should only be served raw and as fresh as you can find. The simpler the dish, the better to enjoy the fragrance and taste of the ‘White Spring’ truffle.

IMG_0113 (300x225)The natural affinities of eggs, risotto and pasta are obvious choices. For me, farm butter rather than olive oil is the better medium.

This is where a truffle specialist is your friend so as you can be assured of the freshest supplies from the shortest chain from hunter to seller. The Vannozzi family has been engaged with truffling for many generations and their sourcing network spreads out from Umbria to Tuscany, Molise and Piedmont.

IMG_0114 (225x300)Without giving away secrets I know top rated London chefs, Marcus Wareing, Jason Atherton and his chef colleague, Paul Walsh buy Bianchetto – and restaurants like Nobu, Signor Sassi and The Gilbert Scott too. Most will list Bianchetto as spring truffle, so hopefully good waiting staff will know to explain.

IMG_1013Lorenzo Vannozzi’s Truffle Paradise*** has many private customers as well as the professionals. Their quality is always tip top and their prices are keen as they are not plagued by high overheads.

They sell the range of fresh and ambient truffle based products from Tartufi Jimmy – a farm one can visit for lunch and they tell me no reservations are required because lunch is served every day to locals who call by. Eating at Tartufi Jimmy**** is special – simply assemblies of good ingredients served most days.  photo 1 (1) (300x299)photo 2 (3) (211x300)

IMG_0121 (225x300)Thank you, grazie mille Lorenzo Vannozzi for a chance remark which led to me learning about the little Tuber Borchii. These are preparations from the Vannozzi family and the risotto from Paul Walsh at City Social *****.

I carry on the Tartufi Jimmy tradition of simple preparation with spaghettini, finished al-dente and dressed at table with rich Italian egg yolks before each diner shaved their Bianchetto as the final, generous, end-of-season extravagance.

Truffles sourced this way are both affordable and of highest quality. Ours were around 24 hours from harvest. We can’t buy milk that fresh in a British supermarket.IMG_0117 (300x225)




*** / or by ‘phone: 07961 854 021 / 07745 023 805 (tell them Gareth sent you)




Posted in Best Pasta, Blue Collar Gastronomy, Faella, Farm Shops, Food of the Ancients, Food Scams, Foraging, Latini, Pastificio G De Martlino, Real Italy, Risotto, Southern Italy, Terroir, Truffles, Truffles, Wild Funghi | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment