Tuscany in Transit

The man sat on a platform bench, directly in my line of sight as I peered out of the water-stained window of the train carriage.  His shirt hung completely open and the dazzling rays of the Tuscan sun reflected off the curves of his generous belly.  The equally reflective surface of his bald head was surrounded by a thick ring of dark, unkempt hair that spilled over the tops of his ears.  He held a brown glass bottle in one hand which he rested on his knee.  An unlit cigarette dangled from the fingers of his other hand.  It was lit as if on schedule by a passing man of about the same age who was, bafflingly, wearing a knitted beanie and sweater.  Large sunglasses were perched on the bare-chested man’s nose, heightening the sense that he should be the head of a crime ring in some Hollywood movie.  He held a grotesque fascination for me and before my train pulled away from Pistoia station, I fought the urge to take a picture, reminding myself that I was in his direct line of vision just as he was for me.

Tuscany in Transit Deepa Pizzetta 1

The train I was on was headed for Lucca, a walled city about 140 km from Florence.  Almost three hours earlier, I had entered Santa Maria Novella Station after a brisk twenty minute walk along the sun-baked streets of Florence.  I had approached a small biglietteria, a stall selling tickets for the buses that stopped on either side of the city’s main station.  There, I met the very first impolite person I had come across in Florence, an insipid man who reminded me (in appearance but not in attitude) of my high school economics teacher.  He had set his mouth, sliced his hands through the air and in no uncertain terms told me “Lucca? NO!” promptly turning away as if I had just asked for his bank account details.

A more kindly man at another stall had told me that he too did not sell bus tickets to Lucca, but that if it was him, he would take the train.  I needed no more reasons to opt for the train, especially as I hadn’t been looking forward to the queasiness that I often experienced on drives along winding roads.

Through a combination of my suboptimal touristic Italian and my misreading of the train boards (who knew that they would have both departure and arrival information?), I failed to board one train and had to wait an hour for the next one.  It gave me the opportunity to explore Santa Maria Novella station.  The hub of the Florentine rail and bus networks, it’s imposing ceiling was what kept drawing my eyes upwards.  An intricate arrangement of criss-crossed steel beams supporting panes of grey tinted glass looms over scores of purposeful commutors and bewildered tourists. It’s cavernous underside houses a string of shops selling anything from cheap clothing, to mobile phones and gelato.  The shopping was not exactly a must-do in Florence, but an acceptable way to while away half an hour or so, if one happens to misread the train time signs.

All that speed-walking around a city and missing of perfectly good trains makes one hungry and so I picked up a pizzetta (mini pizza) at a nearby pasticceria.  The round of flaky puff pastry was smeared with pizza sauce and topped with good prosciutto, a puddle of mozzarella and sprinkling of herbs.  It was a simple but satisfying snack that proved to be worth the train mishap.  I picked up another for the journey and vowed to replicate the recipe in my own kitchen.

Tuscany in Transit Deepa Pizzetta 2

Finally aboard the train, I settled into one of the comfortably cushioned seats and set my bottle of water on the tiny table.  In front of me was a young African woman who was engaged in a very loud and animated phone conversation, seemingly oblivious to the annoyed looks she was receiving from other passengers.  Across from me sat a middle-aged man in army pants, sporting a mohawk and impossibly dark sunglasses.  He left the train at a station midway to Lucca, with a chesty swagger that I couldn’t help but watch.  A young, slim woman, probably a gypsy, walked up and down the aisles using printed flyers to beg for money.  As always, I was mildly surprised that she wore jeans and a sweater rather than the flowing skirts and jangly bangles of storybook gypsies.

So it was that for the eighty minute ride to Lucca, I took in the undulating emerald green Tuscan hills, dotted with old farmhouses and historic towns.  At each station, I admired the bright scarlet poppies that grew like weeds along the tracks and around the stone buildings.  I peeped at the laundry drying out of windows and in balconies, guessing what kinds of people lived there and how many.  I observed the Italians that I saw on the many platforms that we passed.  Some were intriguing like the very proper little old lady dressed all in grey, others distasteful like the bald, abundantly bellied platform sitter at Pistoia.

I was surprised to find the train mostly filled with residents rather than tourists.  For me, the gentle rhythm of a train has always had a lulling effect, and it was a forced time-out in what had so far been an overly active holiday.  I sunk into my seat, chewed on my pizzetta and I people-watched.  The good, the bad and like that bare-chested gentleman, the downright unsavoury.

A recipe is probably more effort than a pizzetta needs.  You see, it’s as simple as an assembling of tasty, quality ingredients followed by some oven time.  When Spiral Foods sent me a few bottles of their Sugo (Italian Pasta Sauce), I started using this to smear onto the puff pastry and it worked a treat.  It truly is a fresh, homely tasting pasta sauce.  If you are vegetarian, swap the prosciutto for a few thin slices of flavourful tomatoes or red onions.

In other news, can you believe this is my 100th blog post?? I must admit I’m a little shocked that one with as limited an attention span as myself (ohhh…..look…..a butterfly!) would have lasted this long.  But here I am.  And here you are, reading each new post and supporting me with your presence, comments and encouragement.

Thank you!  Keep coming back, and enjoy the Pizzetta.

Tuscany in Transit Deepa Pizzetta 3

Prociutto Pizzettas

Makes 8

Get:

4 sheets good quality frozen puff pastry, thawed
Olive oil
Melted butter for brushing
1/2 cup passata
1 tsp (3-5) fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped, plus a couple of leaves
Generous pinch salt
8 slices good quality prosciutto
150g buffallo mozzarella
Salt and pepper for seasoning

Make:

Preheat the oven to 200 C.

Quarter the pastry sheets.  Lay 8 pieces out onto oven trays and brush with melted butter.  Lay the remaining 8 sheets onto the brushed sheets, lining the corners up with the middle of the sides to form a star.

In a small bowl, mix the passata, basil and salt with a drizzle of olive oil, or use Spiral Foods Sugo straight up.  Taste and add a little more salt if desired, remembering that the prosciutto will be a little salty.  Spread the sauce over the middle of the pastry squares, leaving a 2 cm border clear all the way around each square.

Lay a slice of prosciutto onto each square and top with pinched off pieces of mozzarella, again leaving the border clear.

Scatter torn basil leaves over the top and season with salt and pepper.

Bake for 15-18 minutes until the pastry is fully cooked and browned.

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Disclaimer: This is not a sponsored post, however Sugo product samples were provided by Spiral Foods.

Cooking with Enrico

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He would stride confidently into the dining room, his kingdom, all six foot something of him.  He was the pulse of Antica Tenuta Le Casacce…….big hair, big smile, big personality.  His welcomes were always warm, his attire always quirky, and his enthusiasm always infectious.

Every evening with pride, he would make a booming announcement at dinner before each course.  All the diners were served the same thing.  There were no menus, buffet or orders.  Instead, we all trusted that Enrico would look after us, fill our stomachs beyond belief and leave our palates wanting more.  When he appeared in the archway, we would stop shovelling forkfuls of his food into our mouths, put down our wine glasses and cease the chitter chatter to just listen.  Animatedly, the Roman chef would describe the course before us, proudly declaring the ingredients were of this land, the Tuscan land he loved.  With a flourish of his hand, he would finish with the most important of those ingredients…….

“My olive oil, and my love!”

It was only after I heard of his passing, not long after I had left Italy, that I realised what an instrumental part Enrico Casini had been in the happiness these two weeks away had brought me.  From his warm smile to his willingness to tailor my meals to exclude beef, a real feat when it came to Tuscan cuisine, he had made a real impact on our group.  Our group was one of the last few to be welcomed to Le Casacce by Enrico.  One of the last to share his kitchen with him for a pasta-making class.  Probably the very last to tease him about his kooky, colourful spectacles.

It is some reassurance to know that he died in his sleep, a smile on his face.  Perhaps it was the same smile he wore when he taught us how to make his favourite sauces, or the cheekier one he sported when he made it a point to assure me there was no beef in the Tiramisu.

Gnocchi Pan fried 2

After two previous gnocchi disasters, Enrico’s gnocchi recipe gave me my first success.  It is cloud-like and delicious cooked in the traditional way, in salted boiling water for a few minutes.  I choose instead to pan fry it, not with Enrico’s olive oil but using Spiral Foods’ Rosemary and Garlic oil.  The range of ‘Dip ‘n Toss’ oils is a range of delicately infused organic extra virgin olive oils that also includes Sundried Tomato & Basil as well as Garlic & Parmesan.  The oil brought a wonderful crispy skin to the pillowy ricotta gnocchi, as well as imparting a herbaceous, subtle flavour.  The enoki mushrooms do a great job of soaking up the rosemary and garlic flavours of the oil, but you could use thinly sliced button mushrooms if those are all you have on hand.  This is a ricotta gnocchi, and the cheese needs to be drained for at least a few hours, requiring some forward planning.

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Pan-Fried Rosemary and Garlic Gnocchi with Enoki Mushrooms

Serves 2.  Gnocchi Recipe serves 4 and can be frozen for later use

Get:

500g fresh ricotta cheese
1 egg
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese + extra for sprinkling
1/8 tsp grated nutmeg
Plain flour (about 1 cup + more for rolling)
Salt
Sprinkle of freshly grated pepper
4 tbsp + extra Spiral Foods Organic Rosemary & Garlic Dip ‘n Toss Oil
Generous handful enoki mushrooms, fibrous part of stems cut off
Small handful fresh parsley, finely chopped

Make:

To make the gnocchi, the ricotta needs to first be drained.  Tie the ricotta up in a clean cheese cloth or thin cotton tea towel and place in a colander.  Sit the colander in the top of a deep bowl.  Place a weight (I used a tub of rice) on top of the cloth covered ricotta and leave to drain for at least 4 hours or overnight.

Once the ricotta is drained, place it in a large bowl with the egg, parmesan, nutmeg, salt, pepper and 1/2 cup of flour.  Before you start kneading, have a large tray or two small ones ready, as well as a hand held sieve/strainer.  With clean hands, knead the mixture, combining well and adding more flour until a soft and slightly sticky dough is achieved.  I ended up using about 3/4 cup of flour.  Transfer the dough onto a clean, floured surface and knead for another minute or so.  Have a small pile of flour on one corner of the bench.  Pinch off golf ball sized parts of the dough and roll into logs about 1 to 1.5 cm thick.  Cut into 1cm wide pieces and add these to the pile of flour.  When you have made all the gnocchi, toss them well in the flour.  I found this easier to do in small batches.  Sieve the gnocchi to get rid of any excess flour.  Place on trays in a single layer to dry for an hour or so, then place any gnocchi that you are not intending to use immediately in an airtight container and in the freezer.

You will need about 2 cups of the gnocchi to serve 2 people.

In a large non-stick fry pan, heat 4 tbsp Spiral Foods Rosemary and Garlic Oil.  Add 2 cups of the gnocchi and fry on medium heat, turning the gnocchi over every couple of minutes so that it is evenly browned.  Toss in the mushrooms and a generous sprinkle of salt and cover.  Cook on low heat for a further 1-2 mins until the mushrooms are tender.  Toss through before serving.

Serve with freshly grated parmesan and finely chopped fresh parsley, as well as a generous drizzle of the oil.

**Disclosure: The Dip ‘n’ Toss oils were product samples provided by Spiral Foods, however this is not a sponsored post.  Opinions are my own.

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On grassy slopes

 

Tuscan hills 2

It is my firm belief that as adults we don’t take enough opportunities to roll down grassy hills.  To lie supine, succumbing to gravity, body against plush felt and eyes squeezed shut.  To relinquish control, if only for a minute, like kids do without a second thought.

What holds us back? Is it the a fear of scratched knees, bruised elbows and scraped egos?  Of nice clothes stained with chlorophyll and indignity? Of achy joints and stiff muscles that may groan a little the next day?  Or is it that our grown-up, weary eyes just see grassy slopes as a part of the scenery, their true potential buried under the clutter of finances, relationships and other sensibilities.

Childhood holidays to Canberra, the nation’s capital, included a mandatory visit to Parliament house.  It was an oblong white structure on top of a hill where the country’s politicians would discuss, defend and decide on how best to run this place.  As kids though, the drawing card was the immaculately manicured carpet of green lawn that sloped away from the building without a tree or even so much as a pebble to interrupt it.  It was the perfect grassy hill to roll down, gathering speed until we would land at the bottom in a pile of grass and giggles.

The sculptured lawns of Parliament house paled in comparison to the emerald slopes of Tuscany.  As we drove to Pienza, a tiny Tuscan town nestled in the Val D’Orca region, winding roads took us past the velveteen undulations of the Tuscan countryside .  There were patches of vineyards here, a punctuation of a farmhouse there but mostly, it was the vast expanse of many-shaded green.  The town itself was a tangle of intriguing, winding. streets and charming shops.  Of inconspicuous restaurants and dusky pink stone walls.  It’s cathedral was as lovely as any, the immense ceiling stretching away from its wooden pews, polished by hands for centuries.

But what drew my attention again and again was the view from the city walls.  From there one could see a circumferential expanse of the voluptuous green hills.  Those hills that the child in me wanted to roll down fearlessly, gathering speed and momentum.

Unhindered, without a second thought and never looking back.

Tuscan hills 6

Something for the Hungry

I know it’s been a while since I’ve had a recipe here, and I’m afraid I’m not here to remedy the situation.  Not today.  You see I have been shamelessly gallivanting around the Tuscan hills up until a week ago and I sincerely believe at least a third of me is still over there, feet tramping through poppy fields, skin refreshed by cool mountain air and gelato melting over my fingers faster than I can lick it.

OSP chopping veg 1

So call it a kind of post-holiday lethargy, a time shortage, or let’s just blame jet lag, that old scapegoat, but I have no dish for you today.  As the Italians say…..Is ok? Va bene!

What I do have for you are some images, a representation of what I got up to in the food styling and photography part of the Plated Stories workshop.  And what I can say was that there was something inspiring about styling and shooting that assortment of foods in that sunny Tuscan Villa.  Briana, Paola, Robin, Cathy and I jostled for space, cutlery and photography boards, claiming patches of sunlight like cats.  And after the used and abused vegetables were fed to the resident donkey Socrates, we took a look at our images and were a little bit proud of what we had produced.

So here are some of mine and I promise that next time there will be real food.  Or at least, a recipe.

OSP chopping veg 2

OSP bread tomatoes 1

OSP pears 1

OSP bread tomatoes 2

OSP Beans 1

OSP yoghurt spoon 1

OSP Socrates

Click the Month: May 2014

Florence Lucca 8

A Tuscan holiday is just what I needed, and frankly I can’t think of a time when I wouldn’t welcome one.  This holiday came with exceptional timing and I soaked in every minute.  It was the perfect balance of touristy activity in Florence and immersion into a hobby I hold close to my heart, in the beautiful Val D’Orcia region.  I realised I have so many photos from this trip that it makes best sense to share them in batches.  These photos were taken during the first leg of my trip, a few days spent in Florence and surrounding areas.

Florence Lucca 2

I can’t wait to share more with you, particularly those from the Plated Stories workshop on food writing, styling and photography that I attended with 5 other fabulously inspiring women.  The workshop  was taught by Jamie Schler and Ilva Beretta of Plated Stories, both very patient and highly knowledgeable teachers, and I urge you to go over and read their post for their impressions of the lovely experience.

For now, I leave you with these images while I once again battle the beast that is jetlag.

Florence Lucca 1

 

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Florence Lucca 3

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