30 March 2010

Star Gazing along the Via Lattea

Recently we hosted some very keen astronomers. Folks that work at the planetarium, Parco Astronomico, INFINI-T0 in Pino Torinese, just above Torino.  As I always like to point out,  we have a lot of interesting people arrive at Bella Baita for a variety of reasons and what they all seem to have in  common is that they are all fascinating with quite a range of unusual lives, livelihoods, hobbies and stories. Makes for varied and lively conversations.  This group was no exception to the rule. They arrived to stay up most of one of the darkest nights of the year, searching and photographing stars, planets and nebula. Hmm, I wonder what the plural for nebula is, nebuli, nebulas?  Anyway, stay up they did, till about 4 am, after they had dismantled the command post and sent many photos directly back to the planetarium whilst they hung out gazing at the dark endless sky above us.  We only stayed till about 1 am and got to see some amazing views of fiery Mars and Saturn with its rings. It really was memorable. They had all the equipment too. I figured they would have a large telescope, and they did, no surprise there, but what I wasn't expecting was all the other gear as well. They had biggg binoculars and several computers that when lined up and hooked up to the bigggg telescope, complete with blinking lights and whirring sounds in the dark, it looked like something straight out of the mother ship Enterprise.
My camera doesn't really take fabulous night photos so you'll just have to take my word for it, but it was an impressive set up. I was waiting to post this as they were going to send me some night photos, but I'm sure they just got busy and haven't gotten to it yet. I thought I would just go ahead and post this. Why you ask?, ok you didn't but I'm going to tell you anyway. It's because all that snow that they were standing on is gone and spring is underway in our yard, although there are still a few snow piles dotted around the yard, but they are on their way out.
Their visit has whetted our appetite to visit the planetarium one of these days when we can get over to the hills above Torino and take in the museum and one of the shows. A five euro entrance fee makes it quite affordable. It will be quite interesting to see exactly where all of those photos went to that night.
In the meantime they told us about the very cool site Stellarium, which is an open source planetarium for your computer. There is a free download here for a variety of computer operating systems where you can put your coordinates in and see the sky right on your computer. You can navigate around something like google earth and they will show you the constellations  and excellent illustrations too. Very worth checking out. Their visit has inspired us eagerly look forward to a visit the Torino planetarium as we enjoy our very own twinkly sky every night here at Bella Baita.

26 March 2010

Raffaele, il barbiere ..the barber of Pinerolo

 It seems that I have stepped back in time whenever Fabrizio gets his hair cut in Pinerolo.  We always go to Fabrizio's barber, Raffaele, who has been cutting the hair of the men of Pinerolo and surrounding area for over 30 years. Fabrizio has been getting his haircut here since he was as a little boy and his Nonno Angelo brought him with him on the train and he could squirm around in one of the same three chairs this old world barber shop sports. Located in the central part of town under the grand porticos that shelters the entrance to some wonderful shops in Pinerolo, that's where you'll find this charming barber plying his trade. Always a pleasure to stop in for that feeling of nostalgia and friendly welcome and Fabrizio looks sharp afterwards, so a double treat.
 Not much has changed in all of that time. Raffaele has gone gray, and and Fabrizio still gets the same cut as his barber and the price has only slightly increased to €8 up from € 5 when I first came in with him about 8 years ago. He has new flooring in installed a couple of years back, which shows signs that he has spent a lot of time shuffling around in a semi circle as he clips, snips and trims his way through the steady line up of men  that usually crowd the shop. I always feel a certain coming home quality. One of my uncles had a barber shop not so very different from this one. His didn't have such dark lustrous wood but there was a certain mystery and fascination to this mens' gathering spot. the barber pole, the combs in glass jars, all rather intriguing. My Uncle Bob had a very dry sense of humor and was always cracking a joke. I loved visiting there. It just had a feel to it, comforting and yet foreign to me. When one of sons, my cousin Ron came to visit I took him there and he completely agreed with me about it reminding him if his dad's place. My cousin took several photos as well. Raffaele seemed rather amused, but proud too I think.
Upon entering Raffaele's place I am struck by it's low key quiet charm, that  makes me feel like I have entered a holy place. Usually, there is a clutch of men chatting or reading the paper or gossip magazines, yep, not all that different from a woman's hair salon. Today it is quiet, no waiting, just a trim and a chat. Catch up on what's going on in Pinerolo. He talks about retiring and heading back to the south from whence he came and I feel sad that this place might not be here anymore. He's tried to sell, but there's no one interested so far, in taking over the trade. What a shame if it goes away.  Another small treasure slipping away, but that is how it is sometimes. It is the small pleasures in life and the people along the way that you meet that keeps life interesting and varied. I'm glad Raffaele is still snipping away and hope he will be for many years to come.
Do you have any place like this that evokes some nostalgia, memory or tradition that you would just hate to see slip away? Tell me about it if you do, or just enjoy it while it's there to enjoy.

18 March 2010

Eat your greens, Puntarelle to be exact

 Catalogna/Puntarelle, Coste and Cime di Rapa
There are far more greens here in the Italian winter market than I have experienced living in the states. I sometimes find, in the summer, myself longing for all the colorful and robust chicorys and dark leafy greens that the cool weather brings and make up our steady winter salads and greens, replacing the tender greens of summer. As winter is starting to give way to spring, we have seen the tale tale signs of strawberries from southern Spain as Italian ones are still a ways off from being ready.  The market's new arrivals of spinach, dandelion greens and all sorts of mixed wild greens that I am not completely familiar with, although exciting I find that I still enjoy  the hardy winter greens that are still abundant and appreciated.  One interesting one that I never came across in America, is what I like to call a two for one, Catalogna/Puntarelle. This sturdy chicory is also known as Catalogna and hails from the south and favored as a Roman favorite. It is eaten up here, but not as familiar to the locals.  It gets a little confusing as there are two varieties that look quite alike until further inspection reveals that one variety has an inner base, that looks like it has an alien about to pop out of it's pod.  The other just a spikey dandelion type leafy green with no surprises, other than the fact it is more pungent  or bitter than what most north American palates are use to eating. I unknowingly purchased them interchangeably for quite awhile before discovering this secret vegetable within a vegetable. I overheard one of our market vendors one day while I was waiting to be served, explain the differences to a potential customer, exactly how to prepare them both. It was a revelation. I did miss a couple of details, but got the general gist of it.
Imagine my surprise when I peeled away the green outer stems and ta da, the naked alien was a sight to behold, la Puntarelle. Cut off the base if it is hard, and discard. Earlier in the season this will be tender and good, but as the spring gets warmer the base gets harder and bitter.  Take the rest of the vegetable and cut in half lengthwise so it will lay flavor so all the rolly rounds will at least hold still as you thinly slice them into rounds. I hear there are special cutters down in Rome that are used to get the slices paper thin. 

One of the tricks with bitter greens and such is to cut them very thin as they get coated with more of the dressing which will take away much of the bitterness. The normal dressing for Puntarelle salad is a garlic, anchovy, olive oil and lemon combination, along the lines of ceasar dressing with out the egg, or an oil and vinegar affair that goes nicely with the greens. I find that a quick dash of balsamic vinegar and flavorful olive oil is a quick tasty way to make these raw greens sing. 
Now you still have the green tops, or the Catalogna, that you peeled away earlier. Chop them crosswise into thin pieces as well and cook them up with a bit of onion and bacon if you like, before finishing them off, boiling till tender, although I like them boiled with salt, pepper and a little olive oil, just fine. The photo below is how not to chop them, but they tasted great anyway, just difficult to manage on your fork.

15 March 2010

Bourcet... the plains calls the mountains and some surprising treats

 I so forget that going to Italian events are sometimes not exactly what I am expecting. I don't always pay close attention to the details before hand and Fabrizio can be a little thin on the explanations as well, so they tend to be a surprise or at least have some surprising elements to the events. With a rather oblique title as the plains calls to the mountains, we headed out of our valley to the plains to celebrate the mountains. I concluded it was an eating event. I wasn't really sure what to expect.
What I have come to expect is that when you least expect it, there will be a political angle to many public events. Sometimes in the most unlikely circumstances. So we arrived in Carignano,  a lovely old town with some beautiful historic buildings, and a town hall that is jarringly modern and seemingly out of place. For me it isn't a brilliant fit, but it is large and able to accommodate an art display showing off the various talents of the citizens of Bourcet, in addition to some of its history.
There was a reception of refreshments of very interesting offerings, but before we got to sample anything at all, it was a long round of speeches from both sides of the political divide. I never cease to be amazed at how everything in Italy is tied to the political system. There was a lot of hand shaking and talk of what needs to be done to support the people living the mountains and all, and it is close to regional elections, so that is somewhat to be expected. It was interesting for awhile but my attention span is very short as the Italian is a bit complicated, so I was greatly relieved when we got to the reception, the nibbling, the drinking, the mingling and perusal of the art display.
Traditional upper Val Chisone costume
Bonnet detail

Upon sampling the various breads, cheese and biscotti, which went down well with a delicate sparkling wine, I became curious about what everything being served was exactly. Although familiar, they all had a slightly different take on it and not quite familiar. It turns out that one of the local women had done some experimenting to make some modern updates on some old favorite recipes using the readily available specialties of the high mountains, potatoes, honey and lentils.
The potato marmalade was delicious, especially with the local Toma cheese dipped in it. It had the look and texture of applesauce and the distinct flavor of mountain mixed floral honey. 
These traditional ciambelle looked like whole wheat fried doughnuts, but turns out they were baked lentil cakes, light and fragrant with the mountain honey again. I never would have guessed lentils. I will be on a quest to make these as I found them intriguing and light. 
I was really surprised when I discovered that these tasty Riccioli biscotti were made from the different types of potatoes. The dark ones were not chocolate as they seemed, but were made from the deep purple potatoes. Surprising and delightful.  I love when food is surprising and evolved from the traditional certainties. That is how food becomes favorites after all. experimentation and accidental discoveries.  It does seem that for many it is sacrilege to mess with tradition, so I do appreciate the bold steps of the adventuresome cooks and applaud their boldness, especially when the results are so fabulous. I look forward to sampling more of their fare the next time we get to one of their mountain festivals. It is something to really look forward to, as we wouldn't want to miss it. See you there.

12 March 2010

Out and About to Celebrate the Mountains

Today were coming out of the mountains to do a day trip towards Torino to participate in a small expo called Bourcet a Carignano - La pianura chiama la montagna  Or the plains calls the mountain. Literal translations don't always make a lot of sense, but the gist of it is the mountain folks from Bourcet are coming down and out of our valley to show off what all we have to offer to our friends on the plains in Carignano. Sounds like another opportunity to sample the local food and drink while making new freinds and seeing some of our old ones as well. We're doing our part. We're gathering up some local goodies to sample that everyone has so generously donated to the cause.  Bourcet is a small village further up our valley that we gaze upon from our view across the valley. They used to be a year round residential village, but not longer does during the winter, they hope to make some improvements to their infrastructure in order to change all of that. Fabrizio's aunt used to be a school teacher back in the day when folks still lived their year round. Fabrizio's father and his hunting buddies maintain a small hunting lodge where they have a small garden of potatoes and salad to keep them going during hunting season. It really is a kind of boys club.  Bourcet is a charming and beautifully remote spot that enjoys a fair amount of summer visits. They have a wonderful trattoria and refugio, as well as a climbing area and access to some gorgeous high alpine hiking, especially wonderful when the flowers are at their best. Will share more on this outing soon, but thought I'd pique your interest for a later installment, sure to feature some food and drink. So check back soon.

10 March 2010

Pumpkin Crumble - A savory winterish side dish

For some of you out there, spring is happening on a grand and daily basis, but for some of us the spring like feeling is more wishing and hoping and enjoying the longer days than watching tiny green things emerge. I find that I'm still enjoying some of the winter fare and finding them comforting and enjoyable. We still have some great big pumpkins that are begging to get used, so I will oblige them and find more ways to consume them as it is easy to get in a rut. I found this recipe from Beatrice Peltre for the Boston Globe and made a few adaptions for my taste and available ingredients, as you should too. Her description was to think fruit crumble only substitute firm squash and a savory topping. I loved the results and have added different ingredients to the crumble to vary on several occasions.  It's an excellent companion to  roast chicken or pork chops, but makes a nice vegetarian option paired with a green, cabbage or fennel salad for a light vegetarian option.
Pumpkin Squash Crumble
Serves 4


1  c  flour, I used half faro or spelt for a nutty flavor and half regular white flour and some cereal flakes for contrast
6  T  butter, diced I used olive oil for a healthier alternative, but it will be a softer crumble
1/2 c grated Parmesan
1  T chopped parsley
1/2 c walnuts, chopped coarsely, I used hazelnuts and they were of course wonderful
Salt Pepper, to taste

 In a bowl, combine the flour, parsley, Parmesan, and a generous sprinkle of pepper.
Add the butter and work with your fingertips or pastry sutter or fork  until the mixture forms coarse crumbs. 
Add the nuts and toss all together.
Cover and refrigerate.

SQUASH  base

 Butter or oil  (for the dish)
2 T  olive oil
1 T  butter, you can of course use all oil
1  red onion, coarsely chopped
1   tsp  ground coriander
1   bay leaf
1/2 c tomatoes, diced, canned or fresh
1   peeled firm squash, pumpkin or butternut squash, cut into 1-inch dice
5  fresh sage leaves, chopped

Salt and pepper, to taste
1 T   parsley, fresh, chopped
1/2 c   Parmesan, grated

Generously  grease or butter a 10-inch baking dish. I used 6 individual baking cups
In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the olive oil. 
Add the butter and when it melts, cook the onion, coriander, and bay leaf, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes or until softened.
Add the tomatoes and cook for 3 more minutes. 
Add the squash, sage, salt, and pepper. 
Turn down the heat. Cover and cook for 15 minutes or until the vegetables soften. I kept my squash a little firm as I like having a bit of texture to the pumpkin.
Preheat your oven to 350* F
Discard the bay leaf from the squash mixture. 
Sprinkle with parsley and Parmesan; stir gently.
Transfer the vegetables to the baking dish(es).
Spoon the crumble mixture on top.
Bake for 20 to 35 minutes or until the top is golden.Timing will depend on the size of your pan.


08 March 2010

International Women's Day 2010 or Festa della Donna

Today is International Women's Day, a day to celebrate women's achievements worldwide. It is also a time to reflect on the struggle of many women and deciding what can be done to alleviate hardship and empower women to reach their potential. Find out more about the celebration here.
As I have noted before in previous posts on this subject, Festa della Donna is a big deal in Italy. It's a day to give and receive bright sprigs of yellow Mimosa here in Italy even if the view from Bella Baita, is far from springy this year. Our lamb like weather turned in to a lion yesterday dumping about 30 cm  (12") of fresh snow here on our hill as well as some over into Torino. A good day to play hooky and go catch some powder skiing...
Speaking of skiing, Lindsay Vonn and Julia Mancuso won coveted Olympic ski medals this year in Vancouver. Then we have the first women director who won an Oscar last night, an achievement long in it's coming, but glad for it's eventual arrival. There are, of course, many women bravely battling serious illness or struggling to makes ends meet for their families to thrive, these unsung heros, not to be forgotten. One of my personal favorite role models is  Italian centenarian Rita Levi- Montacino, a Nobel Laureate, who, along with Stanley Cohen, in 1986 received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of Nerve growth factor (NGF). This proud Torinese woman is inspiring even today with her grace and sharp mind.  I also think of all the women and men struggling to recover form the latest round of natural disasters, such as the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes as well as the Afgani women struggling against a lot of odds to flourish. It is  good day to celebrate our achievments it is also a good day to show solidarity for the human struggle for equality and dignity.  So here's a sprig of Mimosa for all of my fellow women of the world. I celebrate your struggles and achievements and thank you for your individaul and collective  inspiration. Hear Hear!
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