26 May 2007

In Praise of early season Italian Tomatoes

Costoluto Fiorentino, San Marzano, Sardinian Dulcore or majore, these are just a few of my favorite things!
With unusually hot temperatures this past week, my mind started trotting out my simpler renditions of summer meals. Returning home from the market the other day, it was just too hot to have much of anything else other than a simple tomato salad. Making my way thru the market I kept finding different offerings of tomatoes to tempt me, so I gave in and just kept adding on a few more. I ended up with a nice combination, that when cut up and mixed together with fresh basil, extra virgin olive oil, balsamic or herbed vinegar,and add a pinch of salt, there is not much to compare to this divine treat. Refreshing and satisfying. This time of year I am always looking for the last of the Sardinian varieties of tomatoes. These small round somewhat green little gems are just such a nice blend of sweetness with an edge of tart, that I mourn them when they're finished for the season. Once the summer rolls on the gigantic "Cuore di Bue"( heart of the ox ) tomato varieties dominate the season which is fine, as they are wonderfully delicious as well. It's just that in the late winter and spring, there is such a variety of smaller tasty tomatoes from further south whose subtlety of flavor makes then worth seeking them out. I started noticing that tomatoes in the markets here were always greener than what usually passed my tomato ripeness gauge for purchasing. I found that Italians generally eat their tomatoes on the green to firmer side than what I was use to selecting. Once they hit the fully ripened stage, they are considered way past their prime salad time and ready to become passata, food milled tomato sauce. It took me awhile to acclimatize my taste buds as I conjured up the flavors of my childhood summers of eating enormously juicy "big boy and girl" varieties of beefsteak tomatoes right off the vine apples. We had an ivy covered screened in back porch that housed the extra refrigerator which for part of the summer became almost exclusively the tomato refrigerator and cool refuge from the muggy heat of a southern summer day.
I started to take on a new level of appreciation for greener tomatoes as the texture is interesting and all the flavor is still there even when green and firm. Green tomatoes used to mean the fried variety type, but here I started to select tomatoes on a whole new level of interest. It just took my brain a while to catch up with the shift of awareness. I was so conditioned to by passing tomatoes in the super markets as they were hard, and tasteless that I had almost given up on eating fresh tomatoes except for a few short weeks in the summer when we finally started getting ripe tomatoes in the Colorado high country from the western slopes of Colorado where the sun is kind to the fruit and produce and lucky I felt when they found their way to my kitchen. My "aha" moment came to me when I had first arrived in Europe to work a few years ago and I was living in a hotel in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia. I was making my way around the salad bar buffet in the hotel and debating on whether to try the tomatoes or not. Having worked in banqueting for the masses, at high altitude(9,000-1o,000 ft) for 12 years, I was conditioned not to expect much from the salad bar, let alone the tomatoes. Nothing compared to my childhood vegetables. I selected a few tomato slices with trepidation as I don't like to waste food, but tasteless tomatoes leave me cold, way cold. That heady tomato aroma and and first bite into luscious juicy goodness, surprised, thrilled and transported me back to a place where the vegetables were flavorful and plentiful. I almost cried out in surprise with joy. I knew then and there that I wouldn't be able to live with out easy access to food that tastes genuine. I went back for more, more and well, yes, just a few more. So when you're shopping around your farmer's market this summer, try to find some Italian varieties of tomatoes or at least some heirloom varieties and pick a few greener than what you might think you would normally and have a go. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

23 May 2007

Fiats Then and Now

One false move and I've publish my blog before I even started it..Oops...anyway...
Keeping on a theme of cars, we parked beside this vintage Cinquecento yesterday on our jaunt to the market. I love old cars, especially curvy ones. I have a few fond stories of cars thru the years. Anyway, this model of fiat was Fabrizio's first car so he's rather fond of them also. He kept the road hot, up and down to Bella Baita back in his early 20's when he not only worked here at the family "La Baita" restaurant full time, he also worked in Villar Perosa at the historic Agnelli family Villar Perosa hotel. In those days the Villar Perosa Agnelli family estate was the out of Torino training base for the Juventus football squad. The team used to train in the fields on the family estate and stay in the hotel, where Fabrizio worked every hotel position there over the 10 years that he worked there. He has a lot of photos of him and the players and coaches over the years and even one with l' Avocatto himself, Gianni Agnelli, flamboyant grandson of Fiat's( Fabbrica Italiana di Automobili Torin) founder, Giovanni Agnelli. Working there also whetted Fabrizio's appetite to learn English and travel abroad a bit, so the Cinquecento got put thru it's paces all those years ago up and down our road. It was sold when he left for a job London for a restaurant job with a local Villar Perosa family that still has two very successful "San Lorenzo restaurants", in Knightsbridge and Wembledon.

The faithful Panda 4x4, pictured below, it seems is almost a standard issue car and prerequisite for mountain living. Most everyone has one and now they have come out with a newer model that seems to be the rage in our part of the world. We're looking to update, but for now this 10 year old panda keeps us up and down the road year round and seems to only ask for petrol and a bit of oil and air once in a while. A reliable little car, thank you very much.

15 May 2007

The Wind in Your Hair

Our recent guests from the UK brought along their sports cars to enjoy the sun, the wind in their hair and the hairpin curves coming up and down our road along with all the other points of interest along the way. They drove down thru France and came to us via the Upper Chisonethru Sestriere, still with a bit if snow left over from the ski season and along past the always impressive Fortezza di Fenestrelle, sometimes referred to the Great wall of Piedmont.
After a stay with us the are spending some time in Liguria before heading home to Great Britain by way of Nice. There they will load their cars onto this season's inaugural Monorail overnight trip back home. Seems like a relaxing way to enjoy the journey home to me. It's the stuff of memorable trips and adventures that you talk about for years to come. I'm glad we were included in the itinerary. Reminds me of my family's European travel adventure when I was a kid. My father was the king of "the art of the deal". He arranged for us to do a home exchange in Great Britain for a month, had traded in an old Saab "96" model that he had rescued from the junk yard, as no one could get their heads around putting the oil in with the gas, so they were always a supply for my fathers side line of spare time car mechanic. Armed with "Europe on $5 a Day", we picked up a brand new Saab in Slough England, broke it in whilst we stayed in England, taking in as many sights and experiences as possible. Then we embarked on the grand European tour for 6 weeks before driving our well broken in Saab onto a train, that eventually went onto a boat, that took us to Copenhagen where we had the car shipped back to the US for a mere pittance. We naturally luxuriated on the Icelandic 12 hour propeller plane, flight back home. It was an adventure and very life changing for me I suppose. I have such vivid memories of it all, least of all the food and customs that were so foreign and exotic to a young kid from a very small town in midwest, now quaintly referred to as the heartland of America. I suppose it has helped shape the course of my life directly and more indirectly than I realized. I am still deeply grateful and appreciative of the sacrifices that my parents made in order to give my youngest brother and I, a very special summer abroad. It's a wonderful memory especially as my parents are no longer with us but their adventuresome spirit lives on particularly in that summer. When it came to cars, my father had a passion for car trading, and these sports cars brought it all sweetly back home to me. So, although I digress from the subject, the wind might not be whistling thru my hair at the moment, but the childhood memories of "European Vacation" still evoke some pleasant feelings. I guess I would encourage those of you, especially with children to consider an adventure that might be more budget that splurge, but splurge anyway as the memory will live on long after the bills are paid.

11 May 2007

then the sun, the Foehn winds and now our first spring Porcini

Yes I could go on speculating about the weather but all I can really say is that it has been strange indeed. We desperately needed the rain so our lovely risotto rice can flourish this year, and we seemed to get it even if it was torrential for 4 days or so. Then the unrelenting warm winds from the the south battered all life forms as we know them. Everything in the flower boxes and garden looked beat up and parched after 3 days of that. Anyway, now we're back to summer even if it is May and the clusters of song birds are singing in the day and the progression of wildflowers are moving along up here at a bit of altitude.
Although we received substantial rain, the higher peaks across the valley from us were quite white again, but already the sunning is winning and the snow is melting off quickly. In spite of it all, my intrepid mother in law managed to find the first porcini of the season a couple of days ago. We made quick work of it after its moment being photographed and went rather well with some "riso nero" I had prepared. Sweet chewy black or what looks to me, purple rice from our organic grower friends, "Il Frutto Permesso" ( the permitted fruit), made for a satisfying and simple lunch. The sweetness of the rice offset the earthiness of the wild mushroom and whetted my appetite for a few more the forests gifts. Happpy hunting.

07 May 2007

01 May 2007

Happy May Day or Labor Day

Although May Day has been celebrated in a variety of ways as a bit of homage to spring with May pole dances and that sort of thing. May Day here in Italy is a bank holiday celebrating the common worker and an opportunity for the political parties, in particular the Communist party to have a bit of a rally. It's been a long holiday weekend with all our local second home owners, spending the weekend in their "Baitas" working in the garden, putting out the flowers, tidying up the yard with general maintenance after the winter. Our 2 local Osterias have been busy all weekend with large parties and the 1st communion luncheon season commencing, so the activity level in Serre Marchetto has gone from sleepy to buzzing. Tommorrow everyone is back to work and our tranquil little borgata goes back to sleep till the weekends again.
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