Category Archives: The Tuscan Year

Carciofi in Umido

Since today is the last day of April, I wanted to do a post showcasing a dish from the book “The Tuscan Year”. As you may recall, I have been doing an excerpt from the book each month. The month of April was dedicated to Easter. The traditions are strong. Easter Saturday is the traditional time to plant vegetables. Beans, peas, zucchini, carrots, onions, potatoes, parsley and basil.

When this book was written in the 1980s, the parish priest still visited households to bless the house and family during Holy Week. An ancient tradition. The house was cleaned, top to bottom and the Priest sprinkled holy water into each room. Later the Priest returned for a big lunch after visiting other houses. Blessing is apparently hard work!

The culinary traditions are also strong for the Easter Feast. The Primi, or pasta course is always the celebratory dish, Lasagna. Roasted lamb is always the Secondi. Artichokes, in abundance at this time, were prepared multiple ways as part of the antipasto. I decided to try to make the Carciofi in Umido, stewed artichokes. Lets hope this one has better results than my disastrous frittata in March. 😂
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Recipe – Carciofi in Umido
Four Roman artichokes
50 gr butter
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tablespoons minced parsley
salt and pepper

Trim the artichokes of the stems and outer leaves. Enlarge the hole at the top, between the leaves. Dice the cold butter, mince garlic and parsley and mix together. Add salt. Place some of this mixture inside each artichoke. Put a very little olive oil and a spoon of water into a pan. Place the artichokes in, leaves facing down. They should fit tightly in the pan so they won’t fall over. cover with greaseproof paper and cover the pan tightly. Steam them gently. They are done when the stem end can easily be pierced with a knife. Serve with a little of the buttery garlic sauce which will have collected in the bottom of the pan.

Local Roman artichokes.
Leaves separated for stuffing.
Stuffed with butter and garlic.
Smallest pot I have.

Today, my lunch is stewed artichokes. They turned out delicious. Just right for a light lunch along with some of the Munster cheese from the French market.

Tomorrow is European Labor day. May Day. A holiday but since it is Sunday not a big thing. Buona domenica, and buona Festa dei Lavoratori!

Marzo

We are now, finally, and happily, in March. The weather will be very changeable as it is most everywhere this month. This next week we will have -3C at night which is around 25F. The temperatures in the daytime rise to the 50s. If you find a sun-trap, like in front of Bar Mary you can sit outside for a caffe or vino quite comfortably.

This post will be another one based on the book ”The Tuscan Year” – I am doing one each month. I started in January for those new to this journal. Look for one each month.

  1. The first post, in January.
  2. The second post – February.

February/March is the time the ewes are birthing their lambs. About now the lambs are sufficiently weaned for their mothers to be milked. The milk will make the pecorino cheese. This is the most prevalent cheese in both Tuscany and Umbria. The book goes extensively into how the farm-women make their cheeses.

We can buy the cheeses just about everywhere. I prefer to get mine from the Saturday kilometer zero market. They are made right around here. There are two vendors who bring their cheeses.

The recipe I picked to show here is Frittata con Cacio. Cacio or caciotto are the names of pecorino in local dialect. [I just learned that since the book was written these words have come to have a new meaning. Now they are cows cheese. But I won’t change the title of the recipe.]

For two people you will need two tablespoons of olive oil, four slices of fresh pecorino cheese. (you can use gruyere or sharp cheddar too), four eggs, salt and pepper.

Heat the oil in a heavy omelette pan, put in the cheese slices and cook on each side until they are slightly melted. Beat the eggs and season with salt and pepper. Now raise the heat and pour the eggs on top of the cheese. Let the eggs set on the bottom of the pan. Lower the heat to a very gentle flame and continue to cook untill eggs are cooked through. now, slide the frittata out onto a plate. Raise the heat under the pan until the oil becomes very hot, then smartly reverse the frittata uncooked side down back into the pan. Coraggio! it isn’t so difficult. The Cerottis eat fritatte as a super dish. This would also make a delicious small lunch with a fresh green salad and a bottle of Verdicchio.”

So, I tried to make this dish for Luther and I. Here we go!

First the, very minimal ingredients.

Then, I fried the cheese in olive oil and used a non-stick pan.

I added the eggs after flipping the cheese.

EPIC FAIL. When I had cooked the eggs I was supposed to *slide* the fritatta onto a plate. Uh-huh. The entire thing was stuck solid in the pan. In the end I scraped it together and finished cooking it. My suspicion is that I didn’t have low enough heat to cook the eggs.

It actually was a nice dinner. Very cheesy and eggy, with a crunchy bottom. It just was not a fritatta. We had gone out to lunch today so we didn’t want a heavy, big dinner. So all’s well that ends well!

If anyone tries this, let me know how it goes. If you’re successful do share what you did!

Febbraio

The month of February is the turning point of winter. The days are noticeably longer. The very early buds and tiny ground flowers are visible. The big fields of winter wheat are fluorescent green. But it is still cold.

February is when the farmers in these Umbrian valleys and in the nearby Tuscan valleys start the seedlings for their most important cash crop – tobacco. [previous post about Tobacco growing] It is labor intensive. The soil is completely removed and the beds are refilled with straw and manure and fertilizer and then rich alluvial earth is added from near the rivers. The seeds are planted according to the phase of the moon. It must be full and beginning to wane. They do things by the old ways here.
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At this time of year, beans are a very big part of the daily diet. The one recipe I chose from the book – “The Tuscan Year” – for February is for Minestra di Fagioli.
Ingredients: one onion, one rib of celery, two cloves of garlic, small bunch of parsley, 2 oz pancetta, 3 Tablespoons of olive oil, small can of tomatoes chopped, 5 1/2 ounces cooked white beans, 3 1/2 ounces short pasta, salt, and stock.
Instructions: chop onions, celery, garlic, parsley and pancetta. Heat olive oil in large pan and add to pan and cook until soft. Add tomatoes, stir and allow to cook for 10 minutes. Meanwhile coarsely purée beans and then add to soup. Simmer 10 minutes. Add stock to thin. Cook 15 minutes. Add pasta 15 minutes before serving, cook and add more stock as needed for your preferred soup consistency. Serve with pecorino or parmesan cheese and a spoon of good olive oil.
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February is normally the month when Lent begins (This year, Lent begins March 2 because Easter is late). Most Italians still take Lent seriously. But first! There is Carnivale! This is literally ”farewell to flesh”. In Germany it is called Fasching. We would be familiar with Mardi Gras because of New Orleans. Here in Italy, in the large cities, they have huge parades and feasts. But in the little mountain valley of our friend Silvana (from the book ”The Tuscan Year”) it is a bit more low key but still a festive occasion, looked forward to by all.

First the traditional sweets must be prepared. This one is called Castagnole.

Photo credit – tavolaartigusto.it

The pre-lenten dance is called veglione, a ballo in maschera — masked dance. It was held in a cleared out barn. The young women don their finest, fluff their hair and make themselves sultry with makeup. The young men slick their hair and wear their new trousers. The middle aged dance in their Sunday suits and flowery dresses. Silvana just watches. She lost her 16 year old son in a tragic accident. The big tractor tipped over and killed him. Silvana will be in mourning for many years.

Excerpt from the book…
”About halfway through the evening, the door is flung open and a group of masked, costumed figures rushes in. The band strikes up a new tune and the masked dancers form lines and perform a strange dance like a fast minuet. Their faces are covered with veiling pulled tight and they have all manner of odd hats and garments on. There are men wearing sunbonnets and cotton frocks and girls in patched trousers hung with tin cans, but the veils make them all anonymous and slightly sinister. The music changes, the formation breaks up, the masqueraders grab at the nearest onlookers and whirl them round in faster and faster circles as the tempo quickens. Suddenly, at an unheard signal, the music stops and the dancers disappear as quickly as they arrived. It is midnight and time to eat!”
The party goes until 4.

Carnevale, Fasching, Mardi Gras…whatever you call it…always has a sinister and slightly spooky feeling.

Photo from Comeviagiare.it

What I’m reading…

I am re-reading a book. This will be my third reading. There are only one or two books I have re-read in my life. This one is entitled “The Tuscan Year – life and food in an Italian valley” by Elizabeth Romer. It was written in 1984. It is still in print. I first read it a number of years before we even thought of moving here. I brought my copy along when we moved and re-read it after moving. It was only then that I realized I now live within just a few miles of where this takes place. The book is divided into the months of the year and chronicles the lives of a family of land owners in Tuscany. This farm was just near the border with Umbria. The way of life would have been the same in both regions. They were self sufficient. They grew all they needed, cured their own prosciutto, made their own pecorino cheese, raised wheat and milled it, and made bread in a communal oven, once a week. The life fascinates me.

“The only animal whose death the old Tuscan people really mourned was the ox, the beautiful white beast that drew the plough; they were mourned almost as if they were human because they too need nine months in the womb before they are ready to be born.” from the book.

Photo credit Agricultura.it

The author was an Egyptologist, British, and wanted a place between England and Egypt. She rented a house on the farm of the Cerottis. She made friends with Silvana, the wife and matriarch. By doing so she could sit and observe their way of life. There are recipes at the end of each chapter. For a cook and Italianophile it is a wonderful read.
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The first chapter, January, is all about the dead of winter; the chores that are done in this month – the butchering of the pigs and the making of prosciutti, salami and sausages. It is about how they cooked and were nourished when there was no garden to speak of. These were the bitter months when they didn’t work in the fields. The book says during this time their lives were very like their ancestors. These forbears would have spent the time making and repairing baskets for collection of olives and grapes. They would have made wooden sleds and carts to be drawn by the oxen. The women would have spun woolen cloth and embroidered their trousseaus. They decorated all their linen sheets and nightgowns with lace and embroidery. Nowadays the men repair farm equipment and tools. Silvana knits socks and shawls, using wool from their sheep. The book said she used two intertwined wools, one light, one dark so she could see in the firelight.

As I said there are many recipes in each chapter. This particular passage I loved:
“The Scottiglia is made with a mixture of meats and cooked with the odori, carrot, celery, and onion, then served on a slice of bread that has been toasted and rubbed with garlic. The dish originated in harder times when there was not much meat to be eaten and all the neighbors would crowd into one house for the evening, bringing with them whatever piece of meat they could obtain: a piece of rabbit or prosciutto, some chicken, a little veal or maybe some tripe, very often game of some description. Then the meat would all be cooked up together in the large cauldron and flavored with the usual vegetables and wine. The oldest recipes for this dish specify that absolutely no oil was to be used in the preparation of the stew, maybe because the meat was fattier in those times. While the meat was cooking what is known as the veglia would take place: the people, usually all from a small hamlet…would sit around the fire and give recitations of Dante and verses that the men had made up themselves. These would very often contain veiled references to the girl who had caught their eye, and in this way the cold evenings passed in a pleasant manner.”

Photo credit Arezzonotizie.it

The Scottiglia is served in a bowl with a toasted piece of bread on the bottom, rubbed with garlic. Juice is ladled on the bread and then a helping of meat.
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I think I may include an excerpt now and then, in this journal. This January chapter is so evocative of times gone by and cold, dark winters which we still endure but I am reminded it is nothing like they had to endure back then. Then, death was very near and if you weren’t prepared, you could die.