Jul 28, 2010

An Italian cheese route

Author Clifton Fadiman said it best when he described cheese as “milk’s leap toward immortality.” Almost everyone loves one type of cheese or another, whether it’s delectably mild, creamy and soft or pungent, hard and crumbly. Personally, I love them all. My oversize mandolin-shaped derriere reminds me of my cheese fetish every time I look in the unforgiving mirror. But I don’t care, because life is better lived with cheese. Especially in Italy.

A dinner that ends without cheese, is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.
–– Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

There is no exact number. Italy churns, blends, pulls, stretches and ages milk into virtually thousands of different cheese varieties. Each region, city and hamlet, is home to ridiculous amounts of native formaggi.
If the topic of Italian cheese is still a mystery to you, allow me to guide you on a cheese tasting tour. Walk with me down the fragrant route of Italy’s most prominent cheeses.

So, uncork the wine and get the warm bread ready...

ALPINE REGIONS (Trentino Alto Adige, Valle d'Aosta, Lombardia, Piemonte)

Asiago is a cheese that according to different aging can assume diverse textures, from smooth for the fresh variety, to a crumbly consistency for the aged variation. Semi-sweet, nutty flavored cheeses like Asiago–which is similar to Swiss Emmental and French Comte–are produced from cows that graze on lush, mountain pastures. As a result, the cows produce a thick, rich milk that serves as the backbone for making these full-flavored cheeses. Asiago cheese also holds certification by a dedicated consortium, which ensures that the cheese is produced under certain guidelines in order for it to meet high quality standards. The aged version is often grated over salads, soups, pastas, and sauces; while the fresh Asiago cheese is sliced to prepare panini; with fresh fruit, bread and red wine, and it can also be melted on a variety of dishes. Asiago is an Italian kitchen must. Recommended wine: Bardolino.
Asiago (mature)

Bitto is a wonderful Alpine cheese used in much of the cuisine of the high Valtellina mountains of Lombardy. On tasting a ten-year-matured sliver of Bitto cheese, the palate is surprised by its delicious flavor, which results in an explosion of taste. Bitto is made using cow's milk added to Orobic goat's milk, a breed risking extinction. The mixture is then poured into traditional copper molds shaped like an overturned bell. Bitto cheese represents, without any doubt, one of the symbols of the dairy industry in Lombardy. High elevation pasture lands, hand milking, no use of additives, preservatives and enzymes in the cattle feed, and 3-month rotational pasture cycles assure superior quality to the cheese and conservation of the environment and alpine biodiversity.


Castelmagno This sophisticated Protected Designation of Origin cheese is made from partially skimmed cow’s milk, with some added goat–or sheep’s milk, after which the evening milk mix is left to ripen overnight. The next day, the morning milk is added, which contributes to Castelmagno’s strong taste and unusual texture. This cheese usually has a cylindrical shape; its reddish-yellow, natural rind is crusty, with splotchy gray mildew. The cheese shapes are left to ripen in damp cellars and drying rooms, occasionally turned and washed to encourage the development of the natural micro-flora that contribute to the pungent, yeasty aroma. Blue molds, present in the cellars, sometimes penetrate the rind to form fine, blue streaks that impart a spicier flavor to the cheese. It is used as after-dinner cheese, occasionally paired with savory marmalades and chutneys like as red onion, or aromatic honeys.

Fontina A cheese that has been made in the Aosta Valley, in the Alps, since the 12th century. It is somewhat creamy and has a pale yellow interior with very small holes and a semi soft texture. Italian Fontina has a mild, somewhat nutty flavor, yet rich, herbaceous and fruity, with hints of honey. It melts lasciviously well. In fact its name derives from the French fondre, to melt. Fontina is the base for Fonduta, the Italian traditional cheese fondue dish, which is made with whipped Fontina added to eggs and milk. Fresh vegetables and toasted bread are dipped directly in the fonduta pot on the table, heated by small burner. The dipped foods are retrieved with long skewer forks and devoured in collective elation.


Gorgonzola is the world famous smelly Italian blue cheese, made from unskimmed cow’s milk. It can be buttery or firm, crumbly and quite salty, with a terrific bite from its marbled blue veining. It dates back to the early Middle Ages and many cheese makers around the world have attempted to imitate Gorgonzola, but have had little success, being unable to replicate the balance of molds found in ripening caves for Gorgonzola. It is frequently used in Italian cooking in many ways, my favorite is melted into risotto or polenta in the final stages of cooking.


Robiola is a sensational cheese. The taste and appearance of this versatile cheese varies depending upon where it was produced, ageing and refining method. Robiola di Roccaverano DOP/DOC for example, has no rind and a slightly straw-yellow color with a sweet, yielding taste. Robiola Lombarda has a thin, milky-white to pink rind and tends to be shaped like small rolls. The cream-colored Robiola underneath its bloomy rind has a smooth lushness to its full, tangy and mildly sour flavor, likely due to a high fat content. Its rind can be cut away, but is mild with no ammonia and adds a subtle crunch to the cheese. Robiola from the Piedmont area of Le Langhe is a fresh cheese, and is generally served as a table cheese, either alone or with bread and fruit. It has a tangy taste, pungent smell (resembling a mix between jasmine and gym socks) and if you can overcome the smell, the taste is amazing.
Robiola delle Langhe

Ubriaco is a bizarre looking hard cheese made from cow’s milk, whose appearance is far from appealing. But looks can be deceiving, as is the case with this “drunken” cheese. The young dipsomaniac dairy is initially soaked in wine, then covered with crushed grape skins left after pressing, and subsequently allowed to mature for 10 months. The cheese has a firm, crumbly yet open texture that is fairly wet and the taste has unexpected notes of pineapple.

Puzzone di Moena A delicious hard grain pressed formaggio obtained with raw skimmed cow’s milk, aged 4 to 8 months, with a humid crust, decisive flavor and a piercing smell. Its name in fact clearly describes its principal characteristic. The word puzza is Italian for “stink.” Puzzone is an augmentative, Big Stinker, essentially. Puzzone can easily be identified (even at a great distance) by its pungent emanation, and the greasy, brick red colored rind. The flavor is milder than its smell, still decidedly strong, with hints of hazelnuts.
Puzzone di Moena

NORTHERN LAKES, LAGOONS & LIDOS (Liguria, Veneto, Friuli Venezia Giulia)

Sottocenere ai Tartufi The area of origin of this particular aged, ash coated semi-firm cheese is venerable Venice. The bizarre aging process involves a rub of ashes to convey subtle flavors into the cheese, with a variety of spices (cinnamon and nutmeg, among others) mixed with the ash. Flakes of truffles speckle the mellow yet aromatic creamy body.
Sottocenere makes a unique addition to a cheese board alongside honey and tangy marmalades. Otherwise you can grate it into vegetarian omelets, or stir into delicate pasta dishes, and smile.
Truffle-speckled Sottocenere

Taleggio is a stinky soft cheese, whose crust is pinkish-gray and the paste is white, supple and fruity. As a semi-soft, washed-rind cheese from the Valtaleggio area of Lombardy, it is characteristically aromatic yet mild in flavor and featuring tangy, meaty notes with a fruity finish. The texture of the cheese is moist and oozy with a very pleasant melt-in-your-mouth feel. The combination of the supple texture, pungent aroma, and buttery flavor has proven to be addictive especially when smeared on warm crusty bread. Taleggio pairs nicely with Nebbiolo wines, as well as a wide range of whites.
The celebrated Italian libertine Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) took Taleggio before bedding his conquests on account of its reputation as a subtle aphrodisiac. Taleggio is versatile, as it can be enjoyed at the end of the meal, diced in radicchio and arugula salads or softened over stir fried zucchini and sage.

CENTRAL REGIONS (Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Umbria, Abruzzo, Lazio, Marche)

Caprino A very fresh soft cream cheese traditionally made with whole pasteurized goat's milk. The name derives from the Italian word for goat, capra. The two major styles of caprino are fresco (fresh) and stagionato (matured). Caprino cheese is delicious enjoyed for breakfast, folded in a mushroom omelet; as an appetizer, with the addition of sun-dried tomatoes, olives, or just crumbled over a well dressed mixed salad.

Formaggio di Fossa The humble origins of this cheese have in no way impaired its fortune and today, having shed its peasant clothes (but not the pungent odor), it hangs out mostly in high-level entourages and frequents only the most exclusive restaurants.
Bologna gourmand grocers contend for it. In Milano it constitutes a food legend. This Traditional Guaranteed Specialty is native to a small town called Sogliano al Rubicone in the Forlì-Cesena area of the Emilia Romagna region. This unique cheese is also produced in another small province town, Talamello in the Marche region.
Formaggio di Fossa is typically a "mixed" cheese, made that is with equal parts of ewe's milk and cow’s milk. The formaggio is then aged for three months in dark stone pits, the very fosse that grant the cheese its name.
Formaggio di Fossa
The oval pits of Sogliano are ancient 14th century granaries, carved 9 feet deep and 6 feet wide in natural volcanic limestone.
The cheese shapes, cloaked in white canvas sacs (usually old pillowcases) are buried in the pits in the last week of August and exhumed at the end of November. In Sogliano, the official established re-opening date of the fosse is November 24th, eve of the local Santa Caterina day.

One of the Sogliano aging pits

Mascarpone is a triple-cream cheese, or more accurately a lightly whipped cream, and not a cheese at all. It smells like milk and cream on a Sunday morning. This whitish to straw yellow, creamy, mild fresh cheese is compact, but supple and spreadable, and it is the main ingredient for tiramisù.


Parmigiano My absolute favorite food. Original of the Emilia Romagna region, this 18-month aged delicacy, whose texture is compact, velvety and melts in the mouth, reminds the lucky eater of life’s grandness with each bite. Italy’s most popular dairy product, Parmigiano defeats any French molded snob cheese with its simplicity and candor in an effortless battle. My grocer sells me large, grainy chunks of Parmigiano, chiseled from the shiny drum that carries its name emblazoned on the rind, on a weekly basis.
Perfect eaten alone, or with pears, walnuts, white grapes, figs, drizzled with honey, red onion chutney, or with a Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena creamy reduction. Its flakes are ideal sprinkled on appetizers, pasta, salads and meat carpaccios. You’ll find Parmigiano mentioned ad nauseam in all my recipes and in this detailed Parmigiano post.
I've always dreamed of doing a spoof of the popular Hollywood blockbuster American Beauty icon image, with me wallowing nude, in a sea of Parmigiano petals.


Pecorino This sheep’s milk cheese was first made roughly 2000 years ago in the countryside surrounding Rome. To make it, the cheese is curdled, salted and then pressed into molds, to which it sets. The pressing removes most of the moisture, making it very hard. Pecorino boasts a rich flavor that can enhance any. This cheese is great eaten alone sliced into small cubes, along side juicy slices of fresh pears; or grated onto pasta. Its distinctive strong, very salty taste makes it preferred for highly flavored pasta sauces, especially those of Roman origin, like Amatriciana. Pecorino is the worthy companion of fava beans in the Roman spingtime fave e pecorino combination and full-bodied reds.

There are a few varieties of this cheese, which differ slightly by region. The DOP varieties are the sharp Pecorino Romano; the milder Pecorino Sardo; Pecorino Toscano, the Tuscan relative of Pecorino Sardo; and Pecorino Siciliano, from Sicily all come in a subvariety of styles depending on how long they have been matured. Pecorino Romano is not called Romano because produced in and around Rome, but rather because it’s made following the production methods developed by the Ancient Romans. The more matured cheeses, referred to as stagionati, are harder and have a stronger, saltier taste. Some varieties may have spices included in the cheese. In Sardegna, the larvae of the cheese fly are intentionally introduced into the Pecorino Sardo to produce a local delicacy called Casu Marzu. Only the brave attempt it. You literally have to chase it across the table… because the live larvae virtually move the cheese!

Stracchino, Squacquerone and Crescenza all belong to the same cheese group. They are soft-ripened cow’s milk cheeses with no rind, produced in northern Italy. They are buttery with a rich, slightly tart flavor. These spreadable cheeses are eaten very young, and their soft, creamy texture and normally mild and delicate flavor make them very versatile and digestible. These are normally produced in a square shape, and wrapped in moist paper.
On the Adriatic coast, typical Piadina unleavened bread, daubed with Squacquerone is a mainstay of the local food industry. On the Ligurian riviera east of Genoa, Stracchino is used as the filling for Focaccia col Formaggio, one of man’s most wonderful inventions.

SOUTHERN REGIONS & ISLANDS (Molise, Basilicata, Campania, Puglia, Calabria, Sicily, Sardinia)

Burrata is a divinely decadent fresh cheese, made from mozzarella and heavy cream. The outer shell is solid mozzarella, while the inside contains both shredded mozzarella and cream, giving it a unique pulpy texture. It is usually served fresh, at room temperature. Cutting through a fresh new burrata and the witnessing the soft shredded pulp oozing out, is a truly mystic experience. The name burrata means "buttered" referring to the toothsome filling’s texture.

Caciocavallo is a gourd-shaped cheese that originates in southern Italy. It's a traditional pasta filata (stretched curd) cheese made from cow's milk. It is commonly tied at the thin end with a raffia cord to hang. The word cacio is slang for cheese, cavallo means "horse", the name caciocavallo derives from the fact that the curd is left to dry by placing it "a cavallo," i.e. straddling, upon a horizontal beam or branch. Smoked versions of caciocavallo are very popular as well. 


Casizolu, a semi hard cow's milk cheese, is known in the Montiferru area of Sardegna (a Slow Food recognized consortium of artisan cheesemakers) as the women's cheese, because the labor intensive job of molding the curds and whey used to be a chore exclusive to the females in the family. Flakier with age, sweet and almondy Casizolu is a rare and delightful cheese. Available only late fall through early summer, following the natural lactation period of the free range, grass fed 'sardo modicane' and 'bruno-sarde' cows.
Provolone, cousin to Caciocavallo, Provolone is a semi-hard cheese with a thin, hard golden-yellow and shiny rind that is sometimes waxed. It is produced in different forms: shaped like large salami up to 30 cm (12 inches) in diameter and almost 3 ft in length; in a watermelon shape; in a truncated bottle shape; or also in a large pear shape with the characteristic round knob for hanging. The average weight is 5 kg (10+ lbs). Provolone’s taste varies greatly according to age, from the piquant Provolone Piccante, to the sweeter and milder Provolone Dolce as the name clearly indicates.

Mozzarella is the generic term used for several kinds of fresh Italian cheeses that are made by spinning and then cutting the curd, hence the name’s root mozzare. The Italian verb mozzare stands for “to sever”. The different kinds of mozzarella available are: a) mozzarella di bufala, made from water buffalo milk, which in Europe is sold as mozzarella di bufala campana; b) mozzarella fior di latte, made from fresh pasteurized or unpasteurized cow’s milk; c) low-moisture mozzarella, which is made from whole or part skim milk, and widely used in the food service industry, and d) smoked mozzarella otherwise known as Provola Affumicata.
Mozzarella comes in all shapes and sizes, from bite-size cherry bocconcini, to the awesome 1-pound bowling ball size Aversana, or the delightful interlaced bufala “braid”. Mozzarella is sold swimming in a whey brine, it is soft and rubbery, and simply divine.

Mozzarella di Bufala

Ragusano is a brine-salted, hard pasta filata cheese, and one of Italy’s favorites produced in Sicily. It comes in the shape of a brick and it is made from non-pasteurized cow’s milk. The curd is heated and stretched until it is rubbery. It is then pressed into rectangular molds and left to dry. Once salted and rubbed, the cheese is ready for refining. During this 6-month ageing and refining period, the hard cheese is regularly rubbed with a mixture of oil and vinegar.

Ricotta is a fresh cheese whose name literally translates “cooked again”. It is grainy and creamy white in appearance, slightly sweet in taste, and somewhat similar in texture to cottage cheese, though considerably lighter. Like many fresh cheeses, ricotta is highly perishable and smells horrid once gone off.
Ewe's milk ricotta is a favorite component of many Italian desserts. In Italian households and dining establishments, ricotta is often beaten smooth and mixed with condiments, such as sugar, cinnamon, cocoa and occasionally chocolate shavings, and served as a delicate dessert. This basic combination (often in addition to candied citrus and pistachios) also features prominently as the filling of the crunchy tubular shell of the Sicilian cannoli, and layered with slices of sponge cake in Palermo's typical cassata. Combined with eggs and cooked grains, then baked firm, ricotta is also a main ingredient in Napoli’s Pastiera, one of Italy’s most famous Easter desserts.

Ricotta Salata When fresh ewe's milk ricotta goes through its natural aging process, it becomes a hard, pungent cheese, suitable for eating or grating. Its best friend is Pasta alla Norma, where it is profusely sprinkled over the savory spaghetti and its zingy eggplant and tomato sauce.
Ricotta Salata

Fiore Sardo The rind is natural, golden-yellow to dark brown and has a sour, damp smell. The Sardinian “flower” is hard and grainy, and has a wonderfully rich flavor, with caramel sweetness, salty tang and a hint of fruit.

Fiore Sardo

Once again––like I had to with my Salumi primer––I had to make a choice. A sad one, my cheese-loving friends will agree. But there are just too many Italian cheeses and too little cyberspace for this post. So please forgive me and keep in mind that what you have just read is an (incomplete) inventory listing of some of Italy's best cheeses. 
Know that choosing one over the other has been a difficult task, and a huge sacrifice.


Jul 23, 2010

Selena's "rosbif" recipe

I’ve known Selena since my first clumsy approach towards country-life in my early teens, many many years ago. It seemed an impossible task back then. Forcing a family summer vacation in campagna on a 14-year old whose only desire was to dance on the beach, flirt and watch TV. But I must say, I tackled it phenomenally.

Every summer, Selena and I grew closer and became good friends. Each time I’d visit her splendid country estate, I learned some new kitchen trick, surrendered peacefully to the supremacy of bees and babysat her kids. She taught me to appreciate the rural life and helped fuel my love for the simple joys of cooking.

She was with me during the very last days of single mama-to-be pregnancy, when I needed the fresh, hands-on advice of a fellow mother and the warmth of a friendly embrace. I was in full gestational nesting compulsion, and she encouraged my impetus by helping me clean out an entire wall-to-wall bookshelf, rearranging all the volumes I own, and classifying them thanks to her skillful archivist expertise.

Selena competes with my mother for the 'best cook I know' title. She delights friends and family with her spectacular cooking and engages in crazy food tournaments with my mother when we all visit together. Copious drinking, gargantuan meals–and consequent weight gaining–take place during these festive occasions.

After swimming or roaring ping pong matches, forest walks, lazy chit chat while crafting lavender sachets, or picking fruit off the trees in the orchard, I like to sit under her cherry tree, smiling in the sunset. I sip last year’s vintage Sangiovese, and sniff the aromas wafting out from the nearby kitchen. Bliss.

Here is the recipe for what she fed us 20 guests during last year's grape harvest special. With prior permission to pass it on, Selena's rosbif––as is pronounced here––a sensational (pot)roast beef.

1 kg (2 lbs) lean beef sirloin tip roast, trimmed and tied
2 garlic cloves, unpeeled
1 fat sprig of rosemary
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

Butcher's twine

The trick is in the lacing, she says. Start tying the roast salami-style. This is quite easy, just tie one of the ends with a piece of kitchen string and do not cut it. Then pull the string about 5 cm (2”) from where you made your first loop and circle again around the roast.

Pass the string inside the loop and pull (see picture). You'll need to use all three pairs of hands for this. Although my mother (she's the hand model in these photos) does it without thinking.

Scrub the beef with salt and pepper and place in a high-rimmed Dutch oven type broiler with the oil, unpeeled garlic cloves and the rosemary. I slide the herb sprig directly under the lacing so that it is in close contact with the meat. I do NOT however cut small slits to lodge the garlic in the beef. Too surgical. And useless, since this particular cooking method assures plenty flavoring without cutting gashes into the flesh.

Note: Be sure that whichever pot you choose as a cooking vessel, is complete with a tight fitting lid.

Turn on the heat on very high mark, and as the oil begins to heat up, sear the meat with the lid covered for 5 minutes. Uncover, turn the roast on the other side and cover again. Sear for an additional 5 minutes on the b-side, then lower the heat to medium intensity and cook covered for 20 more minutes. It is important that you do not take the lid off the cooking pot during this time. Ever!

Serve your roast beef immediately, carving generous slices against the grain, lavishly drizzled with the cooking drippings. Best if eaten along side a fresh garden salad or fluffy mashed potatoes and stewed peas.

Note: for roast cuts of different weight, calculate 3 minutes for each 100 gr (3 1/2 oz) total cooking time. For my kilo (1,000 g) of roast I counted a total of 30 minutes, searing one side for 5 minutes, the flip side for 5 minutes and then roasting for final 20 minutes (5+5+20=30). Provided no cool air enters the pot, the result is an evenly browned, sizzling outside and a lovely rare crimson heart.

Visiting Selena and her storybook family in her splendid Tuscan Renaissance Villa in the hills overlooking Prato is my idea of the perfect vacation. I usually plan it out so that I can also squeeze in hosting a few cooking classes and offer Culinary Adventures in the area.

My train whistles at 8:40 tomorrow morning. For the next 3 weeks, this is where you can find me...

Villa Rucellai ~ Canneto (PO)
Rosticciana, tomato salad, bruschetta...


Jul 21, 2010

100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go book review

There's a new book every woman should read. Wandelust writer and Italy-expert Susan Van Allen has put together a love letter to Italy. I am honored she picked me to tell you about it here.

100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go is a compendium of captivating stories, useful pointers and magical places seen from a feminine point of view. Susan's itineraries add depth and novelty to the Italian dream vacation. Her empirical tips, interlaced with fascinating insider knowledge, make this book a must read for independent women travelers seeking to discover the Bel Paese's hidden treasures.

The following is an extract from her book that Susan has decided to offer my epicurean readers.

So make yourself comfortable, pour yourself a glass of vino, and enjoy with me Susan's account of Italy's Women Owned Wineries:

"Lucille Ball lifting up her skirt, jumping into a barrel, and stomping grapes with the peasants might be the first image that comes to mind when you think of Italian women and winemaking. As entertaining as that is, cut to the twenty-first century’s more sophisticated and inspiring phenomenon: Italian women have jumped into the art of winemaking and joined the ranks of the country’s top producers, winning awards and high scores in wine journals.

It all started in the 1980s, when gutsy Italian women began to move away from their traditional roles. Instead of simply helping out on their family’s farms and with marketing, they enrolled in winemaking schools, often where they’d be the lone female in their classroom. In 1988, an organization called Le Donne del Vino (Women of Wine) was formed, and now it has over two hundred members from all over Italy.

Che coincidenza that ever since that time Italian wines have become some of the most beloved in the world. Not only have women brought fresh insights into production, they’ve also pumped up the marketing, traveling internationally as multilingual ambassadors for Italy’s major export. Big wineries like Antinori, Lungarotti, Planeta, Argiolas, and Zenato all have women running them or in top-level positions.

If you're planning on visiting wineries, keep in mind that most aren't set up Napa Valley-style with elaborate tasting rooms and souvenir shops. Once again, a woman, Donatella Cinelli Colombini (profiled below), was on the forefront of Italian wine tourism, founding an organization in 1993, called Movimento Turismo del Vino. It now includes over eight hundred wineries which host events throughout the year. The most famous is Cantine Aperte on the last Sunday in May, when these wineries open their doors to the public. For now, even if a winery’s tasting hours are posted, it’s best to call ahead to confirm or make an appointment.

Here are a few of the many places where women reign:

Tuscany: Val d'Orcia–Brunello
South of Siena, the landscape opens to rolling hills graced with stately cypress trees, stone farmhouses, olive groves, and vineyards. Here’s where Brunello di Montalcino, one of Italy’s most prestigious wines, is born.

Casato Prime Donne, Donatella Cinelli Colombini

This place is exceptional for two reasons: It’s the only winery in Italy (maybe anywhere) that has an all-female staff, and it produces award-winning Brunello that made history as the first to be designed by an all-female panel of experts. Trailblazer Donatella moved on from her family’s renowned wine business in 1998 to create two Tuscan wineries. Both have brought her great success, including the Best Wine Producer in Italy award from the Italian Sommeliers Association.

A visit to her Casato Prime Donne, a converted sixteenth-century hunting lodge, is not only a wonderful tasting experience. The grounds have been transformed into an open-air museum, inspiring peaceful wandering. Paths amidst the hilly vineyards have rest spots with contemporary artwork or engraved quotations from winners of the Casato Prime Donne award, given annually to a female who has promoted women’s roles in society. Among previous awardees are the Cabrinian nuns and the ballerina Carla Fracci. The engraved quotation on Fracci’s signpost says: "Look around, you are in the moral center of the world."

Guided tours in English are available Monday-Friday, and by appointment on Saturday and Sunday.

Fattoria Resta, Anna Lisa Tempestini

"Earthy and soulful," is what I’d call Anna Lisa’s Martin del Nero Rosso Orcia wine. I would describe her the same way. Her passion for sharing her passion of the Val d’Orcia, a place she’s called home for twenty years, is deep. In only half a day with her, I felt plugged into the spirit, and flavors of this place.

Though she grew up in cities, Anna Lisa is a country girl at heart. She was born in Chicago and moved to Florence with her family when she was four. Her love for wine began when she was nineteen, working in the PR department of Florence’s Chianti Consortium and slipping next door to taste top DOCG wines. Yearning to work in the vineyards, she quit her job and headed to the Val d’Orcia.

I meet her twenty years later, with a husband and three kids, living in a converted monastery that overlooks her very own vineyard. We taste her wonderful wine, her olive oil, there’s even some balsamic vinegar she’s working on. As Anna Lisa is part American, she especially enjoys visitors from the States, and she’s sought after for her custom-designed winery tours and cooking classes. “Each tour is an adventure for me, as well as my guests,” she said.

My tour included lunch at the Vineria Le Potazzine, in the heart of the nearby medieval hilltop town of Montalcino. Wine bottles surround us as we dig into homemade pici with sugo di cinghiale (thick spaghetti pasta with a sauce of tomato and wild boar). We taste a rich, delicate Le Potazzine Brunello, made by Anna Lisa’s girlfriend Gigliola and her husband. Potazzine are the little, colorful birds that flit about these parts, and also a word used as a term of endearment for children.

As we’re sitting there, Gigliola’s two young potazzine burst in from the school bus. They’re wearing matching grape-colored turtlenecks. Full of energy, the girls spin around, kiss their parents, then settle down for lunch. That’s just how idyllic life can be around here.

By appointment. Winery tours and cooking classes also available.

Image © Eleonora Baldwin

Piedmont: Le Langhe–Barolo
West of Alba, the northern Italian town that’s famous for its white truffles, is a graceful wide valley of lush vineyards—Le Langhe—where Barolo, the “King of Wines” is produced. It was a woman, Marchesa Giulia Colbert, who made Barolo famous in the nineteenth century. She wanted somethiing better than the wine that was being produced from the grapes growing around her Piedmont castle. So she called in a French wine expert to make wine similar to a Bordeaux. She was so happy with the result, she sent cartloads of it to the King of Savoy in Turin. It became a hit there and all over the courts of Europe.

Marchesi di Barolo, Anna Abbona

Anna has been married for twenty-eight years to Ernesto Abbona, whose family has owned this prestigious winery since the early twentieth century. She’s a glamorous VIP of the wine world and when I met her she graciously took a break from a meeting with producers to sit with me in the dining room, which she also oversees. By the way, you must make a reservation to have lunch here to enjoy Piemontese specialties such as brasato—veal braised in Barolo. “My husband is home resting from the weekend,” she said. “We women are stronger!”

The winery is a grand butter-yellow complex that sits across from the Barolo castle where Marchesa Giulia Colbert once reigned. It originated as the headquarters for the Opera Pia Barolo, a charitable foundation Giulia created to help the town’s needy, which the Abbona family keeps going. On a tour, you get to see the original barrels used in Giulia’s day, and there’s an incredible wine library, with a bottle of Barolo from 1859 as well as shelves that hold vintages from 1938 on up—totaling 35,000 bottles.

Call for appointment and restaurant reservation (017 356 4400).

Pira & Figli Estate, Chiara Boschis

“The Barolo Boys and One Girl” was written on a t-shirt for a promotional tour for Barolo in the 1980s. That one girl was Chiara Boschis, who was put in charge of this place in 1990. Chiara says that since her parents never treated her any differently than her brothers (who taught her winemaking), working in the male Barolo world has never been a problem. Chiara’s an exceptionally attractive woman who makes a silky and refined Barolo. It’s won many awards and turned a spotlight onto this small winery that puts out a limited produc-

tion. The winery offers accommodations in a renovated farmhouse on the outskirts of Barolo—a perfect agriturismo base to explore the abundance of delicious wines in the region. Movimento Turismo del Vino: www.movimentoturismovino.it


Barolo, by Matthew Gavin Frank; also excerpted in The Best Travel Writing 2008 and The Best Travel Writing 2009 edited by James O’Reilly, Larry Habegger, and Sean O’Reilly

Adventures in Wine, edited by Thom Elkje."

About the author
Susan Van Allen's passion for Italy stems from her maternal grandparents, who emigrated from Southern Italy to the US. When she first stepped off the train into Roma Termini in 1976, she was immediately hooked on Italian travel. Since that day she's explored Italy up and down the peninsula–visiting relatives, immersing herself in the country's masterpieces and culture, taking language and cooking classes, and going on boating, biking, and hiking adventures. 

{ Excerpts courtesy Susan Van Allen and Travelers' Tales }

Grazie, Susan for sharing your love for Italy here!

The best book of the year for traveling women is available online and in bookstores near you.
I was not paid for this review, I received a free copy of the book. 

Jul 17, 2010

15-minute fish recipe

Some folks are intimidated by cooking fish, and I used to be to. My fears started at the fishmonger's. Was I choosing the correct variety for what I wanted to make? Was it going to be full of bones, or likely to fall apart in the pan?

Then I discovered that in the kitchen, if the ingredients are fresh and the method stays simple, there's very little that can go wrong. Here's a first step towards conquering your seafood stovetop fears.

This ridiculously tasty fish recipe virtually takes 15 minutes to make. If you don’t trust me get a stopwatch and the following:

4 white fish fillets (any kind you like, as long as super fresh. I usually use trout, amberjack or Dover sole)
4 tbsp. breadcrumbs (preferably home made)
4 tbsp. Parmigiano cheese, grated
2 tbsp. mixed fresh herbs (basil, chives, dill, thyme, sage, parsley)
1 unwaxed lemon
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat oven at 390° F, and go relax in a tub of floral infused water and bath salts.

Start the stopwatch. Scrub the lemon with baking soda to remove any grit, dry well and obtain 1 tablespoon of grated rind.

In a small bowl, mix cheese, breadcrumbs, herbs and lemon zest.

Place the fish fillets skin down on an oiled oven sheet, season with salt and pepper, then sprinkle with flavor mixture.

Drizzle with olive oil and bake in hot oven for 5 minutes. 

Check the stopwatch.

Jul 13, 2010

Panelle recipe

The pancake-thin chickpea flour fritter is a trademark of western Sicilian eating. To savor this dainty fried carb fest at its best, locals eat panelle as a sandwich filler, stacked between two slices of crusty homestyle bread. But no one will frown at you for scoffing them as is, simply sprinkled with salt.

Image © agrodolce.it

Sicilian friggitorie (shops that fry and sell several kinds of food) and street food vendors, cut their panelle in irregular squares. I like to make mine round, but you can shape them however you like, of course.

400 g (2 cups) chickpea flour
1 liter (4 cups) water
3 tablespoons Italian flatleaf parsley, finely chopped
Peanut oil for frying

An empty soda tin with the ends cut off

Place the chickpea flour, water and salt in a large stewpot over medium heat, and stir until the mixture hardens to porridge-like consistency. Let it cool briefly before pouring it over a flat work surface. Sprinkle some chopped parsley, level the "dough" evenly and let it rest.

Use the bottomless soda can to cut round panelle, and fry them in small batches, in abundant peanut or sunflour seed oil until golden on both sides.

Fish them out and blot the panelle on a paper towel before serving hot with sesame rolls or casareccio bread and chilled dry, white wine.

I love street food, don't you?

Jul 10, 2010

Italian gelato 101

Gelato is among Italy's most loved and consumed foods, but where do its origins reside? And exactly how is it produced? Grab a scoop and discover the evolution and characteristics of Italy's most popular product.

The history behind gelato is uncertain. There are two theories, and the first asserts that the inventor of Italian ice was a Renaissance artist who lived off his sculptures, paintings and set designs for the sumptuous parties Cosimo I de’ Medici would throw at the Florence court. Bernardo Buontalenti was his name, and, according to a legendary tale, his frosty invention happened during the majestic plans for a banquet honoring very important Spanish guests. On the night of the event, he managed to astound his VIP audience with a curiously chilled concoction made with bergamot oranges and lemons, obtained through a clever use of ice and rotating barrels.
Before Bernardo's engineering inventions, the only chilled foods in existence had been "sorbet" hailing from the Middle East, imported to Italy by the Crusaders. Astonishing how a foodstuff made with crushed ice mixed with citrus-based beverages could survive the Arabian Peninsula's climate. Today we call that miracle granita.

The second theory on the birth of gelato relies on the figure of Francesco Procopio de’ Coltelli, a Sicilian who invented a machine specifically intended to blend cream, fruit and ice into a homogeneous mix.

Francesco knocked at the Versailles doors of the Sun King Louis XIV, bearing tubfuls of the new food which immediately fascinated the monarch, and the royal entourage in his wake.

With the king's endorsement, in 1686 Francesco opened a cafe on Rue de la Comédie Française, in Paris. His creamy chilled specialty became the leading attraction, with Parisians flocking in droves just to taste the Sun King's ice cream.

Whether it was indeed Buontalenti or Procopio who invented gelato is still open to question.

Fortunately, the first true chronicled gelati we know of were those created by Italian immigrants from Veneto and Friuli, who at the turn of the century, established in Austria and Germany–two of Europe's leading industrial ice cream manufacturing countries.

The turning point in the ice cream industry came when, in 1927, a gentleman from Bologna–Otello Cattabriga–invented the first automated gelato machine, thus making the product available to a wider public.

So its precise origin may still be debatable, but one thing is for sure, gelato was invented by Italians.

What is the difference between gelato and ice cream?

I get asked this question a lot.

Gelato is not simply an Italian word for ice cream. It is, in fact, an entirely different and unique product, separate and distinct from ice cream. Gelato contains many ingredients as ice cream–water, milk, sugar, flavorings and air–but in uniquely different proportions.

The three most distinctive differences between gelato and ice cream are low butterfat content, low overrun, and extreme freshness.

Butterfat content
In many jurisdictions, a frozen dessert cannot be called "ice cream" if it does not have at least a certain percentage butterfat content. Gelato butterfat content is typically one tenth of regular ice cream. The majority of gelato flavors are made with whole milk instead of cream.

Overrun is a measure of air which is injected into the ice cream during production. A high overrun means a lot of air is added to the ice cream during the making, low overrun means there is not much air added. Typical North American-style ice cream can have an overrun of 100% or more. This literally means that half of the ice cream by volume is composed of air. In contrast, artisan gelato has a much smaller overrun, around 30-40%. But some less scrupulous Italian gelato makers have figured out that a higher overrun can cut ingredient and raw material costs. So steer clear of frothy, excessively sculpted and over abundant gelato: it's mostly all air.

At an authentic gelateria, the gelato is made from scratch daily. Unlike many overseas ice cream parlors, the gelato here is made on the premises. True Italian gelato is not produced in large quantities and then stored. There are no preservatives added to create an artificially long shelf life, so typically, gelato is made fresh for consumption within a day or two.

The combination of extreme freshness, low butterfat and low overrun results in a product that is denser, creamier and more intense than traditional ice cream. Gelato is served at a warmer temperature than ice cream and has a cleaner, more smooth perception on the palate.

The best artisan gelato can be divided in two greater families: those which are egg/cream-based (chocolate, vanilla, pistachio, hazelnut, zabaglione, etc.) and those that employ fruit as their main component.

The blend that will eventually end up in a generous scoop in your wafer cone, usually starts with the mixture of liquid components, like water and milk. Next are added the slightly thicker components, like evaporated milk, eggs (obviously only in the "creams" category, not in fruit gelato), and glucose.

At this point this blend is heated to maximize homogenization (process in which the fat droplets are emulsified and the cream does not separate). When the heated blend reaches 40° C (104° F), the solid components are added, like sugar, natural thickeners (like agar-agar, or carob flour), ground coffee and cacao powder. This blend is then further pasteurized to guarantee absence of bacteria.

The following stages of production involve vigorous mechanic agitation and brisk stirring; churning in low temperatures, and maturing. These are two very important steps. By resting, the proteins in the milk and eggs absorb the moisture present, which stops the forming of irksome ice crystals, a veritable gelato no-no. Gelato should be velvety, smooth and creamy. If it's sandy and tooth-gritting because of grainy ice in its texture, it definitely is not gelato. This is also the delicate stage at which perfect gelato is whisked just enough and not pumped with too much air to obtain low overrun.

During the churning at low temperatures, gelato finally ices and becomes the creamy frozen delight that we know. At this point the water present in the blend changes from liquid to solid state, and most importantly, this is when artisan gelato makers add the typical ingredients which will define their gelato flavor: freshly squeezed fruit juices, fruit chunks, cacao, gianduja, vanilla, hazelnuts, pistachios, etc.

The final stage of the gelato production is when it is set to harden. The mixture is refrigerated at lower temperatures (-20° C/-4° F), and will be stored like that until beautifully dollopped on a wafer cone or in a coppetta, the typical Italian 3 to 8-oz tub.

Although gelato can be a year-round treat, strolling the avenues of the Eternal City in summer, we always discover newly elected ice cream shrines, where coppette and cones come filled with unconventional new glacial flavors.

The whim and talent of genuine Italian gelatai are beyond measure. Here are a few personally tried and tested fashionable flavor combinations:

Nero d'Avola Sicilian red wine and dark chocolate
Wild strawberries and spumante
Raspberry and sage
Basil, honey and walnut
Ginger, cardamom and almonds
Provençal lavender
Gorgonzola and pears
Poppy seeds
Wasabi, made with dark chocolate and horseradish
Kentucky, which is a blend of chocolate, tobacco, coconut-ricotta, and a splash of pure zabaglione
Candied rose petals
Rice and cinnamon
Saffron and ricotta

The list goes on...

Jul 6, 2010

Taralli pugliesi recipe

Deciding to move away from the chaos of the city and retiring in one of Alberobello’s trulli cone houses–typical whitewashed dry-stone dwellings of the Valle d’Itria– has always been a dream of mine. This has however recently become a very trendy choice. Tangible proof of this are the price listings of the original edifices: sums well over €250,000 can be payed for the smaller units.

But there's far more to Puglia than lucrative real estate and picturesque olive groves. Puglia is a ridiculously beautiful region. And a very powerful magnet.

The Tremiti Islands, for example. The Adriatic Sea archipelago, north of the Gargano Peninsula (the stirrup of the boot) is divers' and beach lovers' paradise. It forms part of the impressive Gargano national marine park, the Parco Nazionale del Gargano.

The name of the islands is linked to their seismic activity, and their long history of earthquakes–the word tremiti aptly translates to "tremors."

Legend has it that the Tremiti isles were created by Diomede. As mentioned in the Iliad, she was one of Achilles’ mistresses. One of many. Upon her hero's return home back from Troy, Diomede discovered Aphrodite's charm and younger age had replaced her in her lover's bed. In a temper tantrum, she hurled the rocks Achilles had brought back from Thrace as a sheepish gift right into the sea. Those rocks are now the tremor islands.

The best diving spots on the islands' coasts are the Punta del Vuccolo and Cala degli Inglesi, but the Torrione dei Cavalieri di San Nicola, where the remains of a shipwrecked roman vessel with her intact cargo still sitting at the bottom of the sea 30 meters deep, wins first place.

Other things worth doing and that should not be missed when visiting Puglia:

Visiting the Bari harbor at 10 am, where local fishermen feed early bird clients raw octopus, clams and mussels with warm bread and chilled beer for breakfast; between loud, barking rounds of zumparidde (the vehement version of morra, a numerical grown-up version of "rock, paper, scissors").

Spending time in the towns of Vieste and Peschici on the Gargano peninsula to watch the wooden trabucchi fishing implements stretched out at sea from decks perched on steep rocky walls. The complex structured and spider-like "machines" are entirely hand operated–the long, slender pinewood arms couldn't bear the weight of a heavy motorized winch–by 2 to 4 trabuccolanti anglers, who spot the schools of fish, drop the netting and haul up the catch with a series of coordinated agile moves.

Staying the night in a masseria, one of the many remodeled rural farms that dot the Canale di Pirro valley, in the municipality of Fasano. A few miles from intact Roman aqueducts, or a prehistoric menhir, 5-star b&bs inhabit the old farm buildings. These facilities usually boast high standards of comfort, spas, wifi, private beaches with dinghies for rent and sometimes 9-hole golf courses. On windy days, paragliding classes are held upon request.

Shopping for tableware and majolica handicrafts in the small town of Grottaglie, in the province of Taranto, the original home of terracotta.

Visiting Castel del Monte, a spectacular 13th century castle resting on an isolated hilltop, that dominates a vast plateau. Eight sides, eight rooms on each floor, eight eight-sided towers, the impressive stone structure stands inland from Barletta, in the middle of the countryside.
The abundance of red clay in the area promoted the production of pottery––mostly functional vessels, like large jars, pitchers, urn and pots––as early as the 8th century BC. Over time an increasing number of pottery artisans settled in the area, setting up their studios and kilns in natural caves. This "District of Terracotta" is still intact and absolutely worth a visit.

My beloved Emperor Frederick II built Castel del Monte around 1240. It was one of 200 fortresses that the Norman genius erected, but the only one with such an elaborate floor plan. Its shape is compliant to all manner of esoteric, astrological and geometric interpretations. Then again, it could have been just a geometrically pleasing hunting lodge. It doesn’t seem to have had a serious military raison d'être, although its location on top of the only high hill on a vast flat plain certainly gave it a commanding presence. Castel del Monte is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and you can find it pictured on the obverse face of the Italian Euro cent.

Dancing pizzica in Salento. The remains of Greek and Roman temples, medieval castles and Arabian-style monuments are scattered all over the dry campagna, popping up amid cacti, olive groves and mill farms. And then there is Salento, a small rural area on the coast, unlike the rest of the region, where you can be liberated of all sorrows by a type of music therapy called pizzica tarantata.

La pizzica is a traditional healing trance dance, originally born in the southernmost part of the Puglian peninsula (Lecce in particular) and later spread throughout the entire Salento area. It is a fast and compelling rhythmic dance done to the accompaniment of a tambourine, or accordion and violin. Pizzica is danced to all summer long, in small beachside village festas or the mega annual Notte della Taranta event held in Melpignano, with guest musicians and massive crowds.

Besides the dishes I have written about, Orecchiette with turnip tops, Altamura bread and fave e cicoria, another Puglia must is at least once making (and then eating) the region's typical taralli.

Wheat flour, olive oil, fennel seeds and salt, are baked into small crunchy loop-shaped crackers, which are poached and then baked to a crisp. Traditional taralli Pugliesi are a snack that can easily pair with your antipasto platter, or become your favorite addictive munchies food.

1 kg (2.2 lbs) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 glass of dry, white wine
1 tbsp. salt + 1 pinch
Extra virgin olive oil
Lots of santa pazienza (patience)

Arrange flour in a volcano mound on your work surface. Pour the oil in the crater, add the wine and a pinch of salt. Knead with your hands until the dough reaches a homogeneous, smooth and elastic texture. Do not over-knead.

Let the obtained ball of dough rest for 20 minutes, covered with a kitchen towel somewhere not too cool and drafty.

In a large pot, bring about 8 cups of water to a boil with the remaining salt (about 1 tablespoon) while you preheat the oven to 200° C (390° F).

Shape the taralli from the dough by forming ropes about 1/2-inch thick and 3 inches long. Bend each rope to form a ring, overlap the ends and press down with a finger to clasp them. Some like their taralli bent in a figure-8 or in a horseshoe shape, that's entirely up to you.

Boil the taralli in batches of ten, fishing them out with a slotted spoon as they surface in the salted boiling water.

Rest the drained taralli on a clean kitchen towel to dry for a few minutes.

Grease a baking sheet with some olive oil and position the taralli so they don't touch one another. Bake for 40 minutes, or until they become light brown. It depends on the oven, it may take less. Don't worry if the taralli feel soggy once baked, they'll become crisp once completely cooled down. 

Taralli can be flavored in many ways. During the initial ingredient mixture, you can add 1 or 2 tablespoons of either: fennel seeds, sesame or poppy seeds, dehydrated onion flakes, chopped rosemary, peperoncino, black pepper or a squirt of tomato concentrate, etc.

Note: For 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of flour, your oven's capacity most probably will not contain all the obtained taralli in one single batch. Calculate how many to boil before baking according to sheet size, as the poached dough needs to be toasted right away, within a few minutes.