18 March 2012

Forte di Exilles - Val di Susa, Italy

Forte di Exilles
When the winter is getting to you and you don't feel like skiing because it's too bitterly cold or maybe you just don't fancy jostling around in the crowds, perhaps it's time to check out what's on offer in the sight seeing department. We did just that a couple of weeks back. We were invited to visit the Exilles Fortress in Val di Susa, with a small group of educators and promoters of tourism from our area.  It really was a great day out. The weather was on the bitter side and over cast and just not all that brilliant of a day, but going to visit a site that has escaped me to visit in the years I have been here seemed like a good idea. I'm so glad we did. As we headed over from our parallel valley of the Chisone we headed around and up the Susa valley to the foreboding Exilles fortress. We have driven by it on numerous occassions, and now I am glad we finally stopped in and had a look round. What better to do on a somewhat dreary day?
Elevator up from the parking area to the fortress
 Calvary Courtyard of Exilles Fortress

The history of the Fortress is long and first dates back to 1155 when there was only a small portion of all that came later. The official website lays out the history and is quite a fascinating read. You can access it here, Forte di Exilles
There also is a guide on the web site, of the different routes and artfully presented depictions of the various periods down through the centuries. I was particularly struck by the thoughtful approach to a subject matter that can be rather grim and colorless.  The displays were a fine misture and wide range of multi media source. 

You'll find displays of military uniforms and stone sculptures of soldiers and scaled models of the various stages the fortress has acquired over the years. The window views are enticing and serve to remind you, how many a soldier, had, most likely, looked out of these same windows with incredible longing, no doubt.
Lost in the Fog

I found the "Area of Memory" in the The Royal Battery section to be rather moving with sculptures and passages from a letter to his family about the hardships of the soldier's life in the mountains. Winter must have been brutal at times, cold, misty and lonely. You really can get a sense and almost feel the harsh reality of life here in the silence of these thick cold walls..
Part of the Royal Battery
We wandered on through the various passages and displays and then finished off the visit with a much more contemporary exposition of Torino's 2006 Winter Olympic Games memories.  It was a pleasant surprise to find that Exilles has given a home to the 2006 Winter Olympic memorabilia. It is an interesting display for a memorable event which, we enjoyed seeing the events displayed through photos and actual memorabilia. Nicely done also.
2006 Olympic torch and prototypes
The games on display
The fortress museum has much to see, but for me the breathtaking views of the Susa valley were every bit as worthy as the displays inside.  Make sure you if you find yourself in this part of the world, that you take the time to visit the Forte di Exilles.
View up the Susa valley, towards France from under the roof of the fortress

02 March 2012

Farro Tajarin Pasta with Artichokes and Leeks

There are days when pasta is the only thing I crave. I don't know about you, but for me pasta is a comfort food that is so easy to dress up or down. We had a last minute, impromptu luncheon guest yesterday, so what to do? Lucky for me I had some home made farro, as spelt flour is know here in Italy, pasta dough in my freezer. Between that and some fresh artichokes and leeks ready to jump into the pan it made for a very easy choice. As with much of my cooking, ingrediens and amounts vary depending on what's on hand and how much of it, so this recipe is a guideline and open for much improvisation. You knew you would improvise anyway, so be my guest.  As I said I had pasta dough in the freezer and it didn't take long to thaw and roll out. The smallest setting for cutting pasta on my machine is a specialty of our Piedmont region called tajarin. Classic tajarin dough is very rich in eggs and yolks, but I made this one on the leaner side. You can, of course, use dry farro pasta or any of your favorite shapes. We get a great dry farro pasta by the brand name od Alce Nero. I have found all of their organic flours to be of excellent quality. Feel free to use any variety of pasta that appeals to you.

I feature a lot of farro pasta in my recipes I have noticed. I think it is because I tend to add recipes during our slow period and I try to eat a lot more whole grains that isn't always possible during our season when we are cooking for a wide range of tastes. Rest assured we eat lots of white pasta and rest assuredneither of us are very fond of straight whole wheat pasta. It's a texture thing for me. So suit yourself and enjoy what tastes best to you. 

For the pasta

Farro or Spelt Pasta
Yeilds: about 800g of pasta dough 
or approximately 8 servings (depends on your appetite and if it is part of a multi course meal)
80-100 g per person per serving


140 g (3/4- 1c) faro or spelt flour, your taste
100 g (1/2c) semolina flour
260 g (2-21/4 c) plain flour, as needed
4 eggs, lg. room temperature
60- 120 ml (¼-1/2c) water, this will vary depending on the size of your eggs and absorption of flour
Pinch salt


Mix your flours together in a large bowl.
Make a well in the middle.
Crack your eggs into the well
Add ¼ cup water to start with.
With a fork, whisk your eggs to break them up, and emulsify.
Gradually pull the flour into the eggs in a circular motion little by little incorporating the flour into the eggs until you have workable dough.
If you find the dough too dry, add a bit more water, but you do want stiff dough.
Turn out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth.
Cover and allow to relax for about 20 minutes
Cut into 8 portions keeping the pasta pieces covered as you work with one piece at a time.
Roll out all 8 portions ( or save have in one lump, wrap well and freeze for another time)
Roll out each piece by hand or by machine. On my machine it goes to number 6 and I stop at 5 as it needs to have some body to it.
Let the strips dry slightly before cutting, usually about 15 minutes. Dust liberally with flour if your dough seems too wet, other wise dust with a little flour so it doesn't stick together when rolling and then underneath the strips on the table. 
I used the thinnest width on my machine to cut the tajarin shape or angel hair, as it is know in the US. 
I hang the strips on a pasta holder, but if you don't have one a broom handle between to chairs works just as well. 
Separate the pieces so that they don't stick together. Let air dry for 15 minutes to keep from sticking together when they are boiled. 
Cook for 5 minutes or less when cooking fresh. You can let any extra hang overnight to dry and use at another time. Depening on your humidity level, completely dry pasta will last for quite a while, weeks, but humidity will make it go off if you are not too careful. That's why I prefer to store extra dough in the freezer and roll out when needed. 
Once cooked add to your hot sauce, toss together.
Serve with fresh grated parmigiano. 

For the sauce:
 Fresh Artichoke and Leek Pasta Sauce
Serves about 4

4 medium fresh artichokes, cleaned and trimmed up, choke removed
2 medium leeks, sliced into 1/4 inch half moons, 
using some of the green as long as it is tender
1-2 garlic cloves, minced

Olive oil, I generally use all olive oil
2 Tb butter, optional
1/4 c white wine, or brandy if you like
1/2 c chicken or veggie stock

4oz  yogurt or sour cream
Salt & pepper
Fresh chopped chives and parsley of you have any on hand.

*For a heartier version add 150g (4 oz) prosciutto crudo cut into slender 1"baton lengths
 Add the parma ham when the vegetables are about cooked halfway


Clean and slice the artichokes into ½ rounds, cutting from the base up toward the tips discarding tough leaves if you haven't been  ruthless enough earlier when cleaning.
In a medium to large sauté pan (better if it has a bit of a side to it),
Add the olive oil/butter.

Sauté leeks, adding the artichokes  and garlic
Continue cooking until they start to pick up a little color. Add the ham now if desired. 
Sauté over a medium to low flame a minute or two more.
Deglaze the pan with your wine, cooking until all the alcohol has evaporated.
Add the stock. Stir and cover letting it simmer for a few minutes till the artichokes are soft.
Reduce the stock a bit, removing lid if necessary or add more liquid if needed. 
Add the yogurt or sour cream and whisk in.
Tastes ad season the sauce with a bit of salt and pepper, a few snipped fresh chives or flat leaf parsley would be nice as well
Warm through.
Add Cooked pasta.
Toss together and serve immediately garnished with fresh grated Parmigiana.

*Recipe easily scaled up or down.

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