THE ART OF ITALIAN DINING
Time here in Italy is flying by and even if I don’t do anything else but eating, traveling and drinking it seems like there isn’t enough hours in the day
to properly do all of that.
For the last few weeks my philosophy has been: Why having one gelato when you can have two? Why only order that bottle of wonderful SanGiovese when you can try that white Trebbiano from north Italy as well? It’s summer I know BUT how could I have passed on homemade pappardelle with duck ragout and fresh Tortelli Mugellani with wild boar? And since I am here, why don’t I try that mouth-watering bbq rabbit with fennel?
Just to give you an idea, everything in the paragraph above happened at dinner last night while visiting ‘Osteria del Milione’, owned by a good friend of mine (we come from the same culinary institute) where I got totally spoiled. Multiply that for the last couple of weeks and here you have the essence of my trip: ‘To appreciate and re-discover my very own Italian regional cuisine and doing so by gaining the fewest pounds possible’.
That should be the mission statement I swear by.
However, I am not here to compromise. If nourishing the passion I have for living, eating, drinking and traveling means taking on a few pounds…well, I am up for the challenge.
Regardless It has been great to see my land again, to experience those very same flavors that inspire my cuisine and myself so much. I took a few days off and went to the Mugello area of Tuscany. The weather gifted us with a picture-perfect blue sky, yellow and green fields, sunflowers, cypresses and the classic tile roofs Tuscany is so famous for.
Then had a taste of my friend Salvatore Ferragamo’s wines at ‘Il Borro’, a beautiful estate in the middle of the Tuscan countryside. He kindly took us for a tour of the private cellars and showed us the wine production.
The ‘Polissena’, a 100% SanGiovese, was absolutely stunning. So smooth and easy to drink; sophisticated yet not pretentious. Perfectly balanced was also their Chardonnay (which I am not usually a fan of) but totally different from any Chardonnay you may have tried before. Lightly balanced, fruity but not heavy. A Perfect refreshment for a summer day.
Give them a try. You will be hooked.
And then, last week, I went for a few days to the coast where the ocean and the white sands meet the pine trees, the rolling hills sunflowers fields. The most hidden side of this beautiful region.
I got there early in the morning when the little ocean town was just waking up. In a few hours a few dozens of boats/ships were already making their way in and out the port.
During the day, I sat there looking at the light changing. The colors of the water changing. A hint of a light breeze. Magnificent paintings that appear on the blue surface.
The idyllic smell of the fennel plants growing wildly along the shore reminded me of my childhood. A very familiar smell, as important in my life as it has been in my cooking.
Everything was capturing my glance, becoming ingrained in my mind forever.
That night, before stopping by my parents’ home, I visited the market picked up a few fennel bulbs, some leeks a couple of potatoes and treated them to a gently warm ‘Goat Cheese & Fennel Soup’ (recipe is below).
As we were eating, silence dropped at the dinner table. We were all concentrating on our plates. Each spoon full of memories.
It was like being a child again, running with my bicycle, rolling in the grass, smelling the wild fennel plants growing in the gardens.
GOAT CHEESE AND FENNEL SOUP
Melt butter in heavy large pot over medium-high heat. Add leeks and cook until leeks are translucent, about 7 minutes. Add broth and potatoes and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low. In the meantime slice fennel into quarters and steam with garlic for circa 25 minutes. Simmer soup until potatoes are very tender, about 25 minutes and then add the cook fennel and garlic cloves. Working in batches, purée soup in blender. Return to same pot add the cream and the goat cheese and stir until melted. Rewarm soup if necessary. Season with salt and pepper and a little bit of nutmeg. Add a splash of lemon juice and adjust the seasoning. Ladle soup into bowls; garnish with reserved fennel fronds and serve.
With its anise-like flavor and aroma, fennel is on of the oldest cultivated plants and much valued by the Romans. Warriors took it to keep good health, while their ladies took it to stave off obesity.
The bulb, the foliage and the seeds of the fennel plant have their own place in Tuscan cuisine. The leaves are used to flavor pork, veal and fish dishes. They are also used in making fish stock, for making sauces and stuffing, to add flavor to butter and salad dressings and in making mayonnaise. The dried stalks are sometimes placed under grilled or barbecued fish for getting a uniquely flavored dish. The seeds are used as a spice especially in breads sausages and sliced meets like ‘Finocchiona’, a spicer, softer and more aromatic salami we make here in Florence.