20 March 2016

Agretti Spaghetti - An Ode to Spring

Agretti Spaghetti with lemon and blue Toma cheese
If you have ever had the pleasure of eating agretti, barba di frate, which translates to friars beard, then I know you have probably been in search of it ever since. This is a veggie that just screams "spring" to me. It's also called saltwort, and was once highly sought after throughout Europe for it's leaves that were reduced to ashes which were then used in the process to make glass. 
Italian Agretti. barba di frate or  Salwort
This harbinger of spring has a short lived appearance in the markets and when I spy them, I make sure to bring them home. It's a funny looking vegetable that resembles a bunch of skinny succulents. The flavor of these fleshy needle like leaves are a little reminiscent of pencil thin asparagus with a subtle and slightly mineral taste. 
Lightly boiled and then slightly sautéed in olive oil and garlic before adding cooked  pasta
Most of the time I lightly boil or steam them, drizzle with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice. They do need a bit of salt even though I have confused them with seaweed, as they are sometimes referred to as land seaweed. I thought they would be salty, but they are not. Their delicate flavor is almost nutty sweet and they taste best when least fiddled with.  
Most agretti and spaghetti recipes I have found call for boiling them together before saucing it all with a gorgonzola cheese sauce and maybe a light sprinkling of toasted hazelnuts or walnuts. That sounds great, but in the end I found that I preferred a light handling of the cheese,  a few cheese crumbles on top and was fresh out of nuts and found that we liked this version very much. I preferred to boil the spaghetti and agretti separately so I didn't over cook the agretti. Next time I might start the spaghetti first and then add the agretti a little while into the cooking for a one pot wonder dish, and I will definitely sprinkle a few nut pieces, or I might just make just like this again, cause to me it was just that good. 
Moncenisio Blue Cheese
Agretti and spaghetti united 

Agretti (barba di frate/ friars beard)

 Ingredients for 4 :

  • 500g spaghetti 
  • 400g di agretti o barba di frate
  • 1 lemon, juiced and the zest from the peel  
  • olive oil
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • salt and fresh ground pepper
  • 100 g or so Blue cheese crumbles, I used a local toma called Moncenesio - ricotta salata or parmigian are other good choices
Wash the agretti thoroughly and trim the roots off from the stems.
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil.
Mince the garlic and have your other ingredients ready to go as it all comes together quickly at the end. 
Either cook your agretti first till desired tenderness, about 5 minutes and remove from the water and then add the spaghetti and cook till al dente.
or begin to cook your pasta adding in the agretti a little later so they cook at the same time. 
While the pasta is cooking heat the oil in a large flat sauce pan 
add the garlic and only let the garlic barely cook and then add the cooked agretti.
Cook a minute or two to coat and soften the garlic before adding the cooked spaghetti. 
Once all is coated with olive oil and thoroughly mixed, season with the lemon juice and zest. Season with the salt and pepper. 
Serve the pasta and sprinkle the pasta with blue cheese crumbles to taste on individual servings. 
Agretti spaghetti with lemon and blue cheese crumbles

08 March 2016

Happy International Womens's Day, again.

International Women's Day
Festa della Donna
(as we say in Italy) 
Yellow Mimosa tree
Another year has come round to the promise of spring and the international day of recognition of roughly half of our planets's inhabitants, women.  
I have written about it a few times over the years and so I won't go into any great detail today, but have added some links below to other articles I have written in the past if you are interested in a bit more information about how it started and what it is all about.  I think perhaps my fascination with this celebration is partially because it is pretty much non existent in American, in spite of the fact that it originated there. I also love the liberal use of yellow mimosa, which I don't remember ever seeing in the states, but reminds me of forsythia which is usually one of the first colorful plants to emerge in the spring and never fails to lift my spirits with the promise of spring and everything emerging after a long winters nap. 
Aside from these pleasant, if not somewhat frivolous points of interest, there is a serious side to this day of reckoning. This is also a day to focus on women's achievements and issues that deserve greater attention. Women have made great strides in getting equal pay for equal work, although there is still much to accomplish, as the western world has done more to advance the equality of women where much of the world not all women enjoy this human right. Women are also still vulnerable to violence, particularly, domestic violence and this is an issue worth speaking out  about so that women will get the helping hand they need to rid themselves of dependency in these situation. Not an easy task for so many, as it isn't easy to walk away when you have children that are at risk and times are not so easy for anyone in this time of economic uncertainty.  Issues of arranged marriages with child brides and women's health, to determine what is right for every women that will definitely navigate through during their lifetime, are worth the scrutiny and effort to find real answers.  No, it is not easy to solve all of these concerns, but together when we shine the light of acknowledgment and search for real answers together, then we all benefit in one way or another. 
So I say, hooray for women and what we bring to this world and to each other. May we celebrate our sameness and differences and always support each other, since you can never have too many sisters, mothers and daughters in your life, even if they are just that in spirit. I feel blessed with all of the different women friends in my life, and say say to you, thank you, for being exactly who you are. Bloom where you are planted. 

Previous posts on International Women's Day or Festa della Donna
Mar 8, 2006 ... Funny, it is, I believe, International Women's Day. It was on this day, March 8th, in 1884 that Susan B. Anthony addressed the United States ...
Mar 7, 2009 ... Do you celebrate International Women's Day where you live? You might also like: International Women's Day 2010 or Festa della Donna.
Mar 9, 2007 ... A Happy International Woman's Day to all of you out there of that ... In the US there is no official celebration of Women's day but Italy still ...

25 February 2016

Hiking and Trail Maintenance in the Neighborhood

My father in law Dante, on top of Cucetto peak a few years ago
This winter just hasn't really gotten off the ground like some of our winters. Mind you, I am not complaining, especially as our livelihood doesn't depend on it like so many other people in the ski industry does. That of course wasn't always the case. Snow farmers are what we use to refer to ourselves when I worked for a ski resort back in my Colorado days.
Fabrizio working on making new trail signs this winter
Anyway, I find myself looking forward to hiking the hills around our house these days since skiing and snowshoeing just aren't accessible right outside our door this year. However since I started writing this post we are waiting for a big snow storm to arrive, so I just may be dusting off the snow shoes for a romp around the neighborhood yet.
Fabrizio and Dante trail reclaiming
We have already done a search and recovery of an old circular path that has potential, in spite of some of it being lost to  the ravages of time and disuse. One of the things I love when we are tramping around in the woods here in our neighborhood, is discovering all the old rock walls and structures that are left behind to stand witness to a different time. It always make me think of what life was like back then. I am always in awe of the labor that went into all the rock structures. They must have been mighty hungry after all the days of dragging those stones around and fitting them together to last all of the years later. Always impressive.
Rock retaining walls and old stone houses left behind 
Then when you think about what they must have been eating back then, cheese, cabbage, leeks, potatoes, repeat, and repeat again. They certainly must have been happy when there were some new greens pushing up through the winter brownness to offer something fresh to eat. I have developed the theory that may be why Italians or Europeans are so fond of their bitter greens, because when something fresh use to come up after a long winter, it tastes mighty good no matter if it might be a tad bitter. I've developed a fondness for the bitter flavor as well.
Primula -harbingers of spring
Fabrizio has spent a lot of time with his father making signs for the mountain trails that meander throughout our neighborhood. These paths were once the only means of people moving about  as they took their cheeses into town to sell, or made charcoal from the abundant chestnut forests that gave themselves up for this source of heat and cooking fuel. Once our paved road came in in the early 1960's, and the car became the main mode of transportation, it didn't take long for many of the old trails to begin to disappear.
Reclaiming and signing our trails
About 5 years ago our Regione Piemonte got involved in a program with Switzerland called Vetta and then  announced a program here to help reclaim the old trails and offering equipment to map out the trails and put them on GPS. My husband Fabrizio Roncaglia and Silvano Damiano took on the challenge along with help from Silvano's two children, Valentina and Matteo, as well as Fabrizio's father and our local C.A.I. walking association, that have been cleaning and marking our local trails. Silvano has done a phenomenal job with the actual GPS mapping and photography of the paths, as well as getting it all online.  Now these local paths will be GPS mapped and won't easily disappear and will be GPS accessible. Nice job on all the hard work everyone.
Silvano Damiano
there has been a lot of effort that has gone into the cleaning and marking of our paths.  There is still much to do to tie all of this hard work together, but it is exciting to see it all progress.
Fabrizio Roncaglia painting trail markings.
These photos taken by Silvano Damiano
New signs, new connections to old paths that are easier to find.  We have paths that head up for the big views and down to the river for the idyllic idle complete with a few deep pools for splashing your hot tired feet in. We also have lots of contour paths that go round the mountain and expose all of those old rock buildings and remains of walls and fences. A bit if this and that for everyone.

Merla Peak cross and the Grandubbione pool in the river
If you like to walk in the woods and feel the healing presence that nature offers, then visiting with us is a great choice.  If we are in the middle of a path cleaning day, you are always welcome to tag along and help if you like. 
Dante and Fabrizio clearing a path and CAI sprucing up our signpost
However there is plenty of opportunity to make the most of picnicking in the mountains with trails that aren't as challenging as others.  We are situated in the mountains and that in of itself is a beauty worth discovering.  We look forward to sharing it with you when you come, so come on! 
Bella Baita View this winter

07 February 2016

Baccala, or Salt Cod, Like Nonna Maria Use to Make

Baccala alla Nonna Maria da Venezia

Italians are crazy about Merluzzo Baccala or Salt Cod as it is known in English. You will find it all over in the markets here in the winter especially. Most cod comes from Norway, where the cod is found and fished in the icy waters of the northern seas. They say that it was originally just air dried, but as salt became more readily available and cheap, it became the preferred way to keep the bounty of fish. this method of preservation meant that the fish was easily transported and kept well for at least a couple of years. Baccala  then came to southern Europe where it became very popular and still is, especially for the Catholic countries that use to observe not eating meat on Friday and during Lent. Even though times have changed and the Catholic edict to eat fish on Friday is no longer in existence, salt cod is loved and served regularly in many various preparations. 
The recipe I am sharing today is something I recreated from a dish that Fabrizio's maternal grandmother, Maria, use to make him when he was young and some suggestions I saw on an  Italian TV cooking show.  Nonna Maria  was born and grew up in the Veneto, which is the province that Venice is located in and famous for its love of fish dishes. Nonna Maria once worked as a cook and house keeper for a wealthy family before she married Fabrizio's maternal grandfather, who was born in an old stone house over by where our garden is today. She was known to be a very good cook and is where Fabrizio's mother learned to cook before Fabrizio's parents pursued their dream to open "La Baita" restaurant here back in the 60's.
As they were getting the business built and established, Fabrizio stayed with both sets of grandparents to keep him out from under their busy feet, so he has lots of fond memories of Nonna's cooking. When I served him my version awhile back, he complimented me saying it was just like what Nonna Maria made. I like that kind of compliment. it makes me feel proud to recreate a flavor from his childhood and one I now love as well.
Merluzzo Baccala - Salt Cod
Just like most Italian recipes, this one is a little loose on exact amounts,  quite easy to make and oh so delicious. I tend to make it to fit my cast iron skillet, that my grandmother and mother did a lot of cooking in too. So this is a nostalgic dish that touches a lot of buttons. So relax and don't worry too much about the amounts, just put it together and either bake it in the oven or cook it on top of the stove like I did. In the end I thought it was a lot easier and true to the fact that Italians are not quick to turn on the oven and make most everything on top of the stove, I thought it worked just fine. Feel free to choose your favorite way, oven or stove. 
Finished dish

Baccala alla Nonna Maria da Venezia

Serves 2 hungry people


500g /1 # salted cod, soaked in cold water for at least 24 hours days, changing the water at least 3 times over the soaking time. 
1 medium to large onion, diced
1-2 cloves garlic, diced enough for flavor but not enough to overpower
2 medium to largish potatoes, your favorite variety, a somewhat floury potato is good, peeled or not as you like but scrubbed and sliced in to thin rounds. I like them about 1/8 inch or 1/4cm thick so that they don't take too long to cook.
250 - 325ml / 1- 1 1/2 c. milk, as needed. You can use all milk, or half and half, single cream and a heavy splash of heavy cream with the milk for richness if you like
1-2 T Olive oil
1 Bay leaf


Heat a heavy  9 inch or 24 cm sauté pan slowly.   
Prepare your cod by pulling any long pieces of bone that might still be in the fish and peel the skin off. 
Slice fish into thin slices by holding the knife at an angle and cut at an angle to the table. This should make thin slices. Don't worry if the fish crumbles some. 
Thinly slice the washed potatoes with or without peels. 
Once you have all of your ingredients assembled and prepared, begin to sauté the diced onion and garlic. 
Add the bay leaf.
Once the onion has begun to turn translucent, lay slices of fish in a single layer on top of the onions and garlic. 
Next cover the fish and onions completely with the potato slices.
Pour the milk or milk and cream combination over the whole top of the potatoes. 
Sprinkle the top of the potatoes with black pepper and paprika. 
Cover the top and cook over low heat till all is bully and the potatoes are done. 
Remove the top if it seems too soupy and you want to reduce the liquid some or if the m ix seems too dry before the potatoes are cooked, then a dad bit more milk. 
You can also cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake it in a moderate oven till all os bubbly. Remove the foil and let the top brown up if you like. 
Serve while hot. 
Ingredients, Layering the pan, Milk added and Paprika dusted, Cooked

25 January 2016

New Post for a New Year - Nearby Manta Castle

Manta Castle
Here it is past the middle of January and time's awasting.  I must make haste to keep up with some very modest goals I have set forth for myself and my blog for this year. I noticed that when I was writing a roundup of things to do in this area on my last post, that there were many interesting attractions noticeably missing from my lists.  I have been meaning to get around to writing about a few of them for a long tim. Others I thought I already had written up, but couldn't locate them perusing through my back posts, so I thought I would make it a goal to post a least once a month about some of the local attractions that we send our guests off to see and usually have taken in ourselves at least once if not a few times.
One such glaring omission is splendid Manta Castle (Castello di Manta), just past and overlooking the charming town of Saluzzo that sits where the base of the Cottian Alps (Alpi Cozie) and Po river plains unite, in the neighboring province of Cuneo.
Monviso of the Cottian Alps meets the Po river plains
Manta boasts a small castle perched on its hillside that has been returned to its former glory when the Lords of Saluzzo called it their home. The original building dates back to the 12th century and over the years the building grew with expansions and richly decorate with various additions of masterful and fantastical frescos whose handiwork still remains anonymous.  The current family descendants  enlisted the help of Italy's preservation society, FAI to help raise funds to restore the deteriorated  paintings, replace furnishings that had disappeared over the centuries and breath life back into the castle. These frescos are said to be a rare treasure of late gothic paintings still found in northern Italy. They really are worth a visit as they are so well preserved and magnificently interesting.
Héros, Heroines, and the Fountain of Youth Frescos
In addition to the main castle they have also restore an adjacent church and plans to continue to restore other surrounding buildings in the neighborhood. They really have done a fine job. I especially like that included with the very modest entrance fee of around €7.50 adults and €3.00 for children (2016 prices) is the use of complimentary headphones to insure you get the most out of your self guided visit. There are a number of different languages offered and they do periodically update the narration to reflect the ongoing historical discoveries or completion of nearby ongoing projects. 
Manta Castles' Church
 The castle is of a manageable size so that it makes for a great half day visit and suitable for children, who will enjoy the artifacts and furnishings as it is not only the paintings and church that are of interest. Nearby Saluzzo is another great place to stop also for a bit of shopping, sight seeing or eating, naturally. The grounds are peaceful and would make for a lovely picnic setting. You can also walk up through the woods or park closer and take a more direct route.
Castle life
Whatever you do, when you find yourself in northern Italy, you will want to make sure and not miss out on this local treasure, when you visit our slice of Piedmont, preferably when you come and stay with us.  We'll be waiting for you with many more suggestions.

The castle is open Tuesdays - Sunday, closed Mondays (unless it is a holiday in which they say they are open. Always good to check)
10:00 - 18:00 March 1 through the end of September and
10:00 - 17:00 October through 27 of November.
Last entrance 1/2 before closing
Closed December through February.

Directions to Castello di Manta from Bella Baita B&B and Italian Alps Retreat

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