Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Cooking the Umbrian Way

Today we had booked a cooking class with Letizia Mattiacci of the Agriturismo Alla Madonna del Piatto.  We were to meet her at the shop named Terra Umbra in Santa Maria degli Angeli.  Our hotel innkeepers had told us how to catch the bus to the town and when the bus ran.  As usual, we arrived about 30 minutes early and found another bus that also showed the town so we decided to hop on it and go early.  As we were getting on I asked an older gentleman if this bus went to S.M. degli Angeli.  He said yes.  We knew that it was a very short trip to the town, so we weren't sure if we were supposed to get off at the first stop.  We asked him again, and he said no but motioned that he would get off at the place that we needed to.  We have found everybody to be extremely helpful!!!!!

Upon alighting from the bus, we decided to walk around and find the shop and then returned to take a look at the church.  We realized that there was a Mass in progress so we headed instead to the local market stalls that were just setting up.  They included a wide variety of goods ranging from cookware to underwear.


After a quick peak at the church we walked back to Terra Umbra and met with our chef for the day, Letizia.  We were the first ones there (go figure!!!!) and sat and talked to Letizia while we waited for the others to arrive.  We found that she and her husband were both Entomologists, but had left the sciences and opened the Agriturismo 7 years ago.  Her cooking background did not come from classes, but from her mother's side at an early age.  The other members of our cooking crew arrived.... Helen, her husband John, daughter Nicole and sister Betty Ann. 

Letizia invited us into the deli area of the shop and proceeded to tell us about all sorts of Umbrian foods, oils and other information.  She told us that she preferred this particular deli because the owner only purchased items from small, local producers.  She encouraged us to always buy locally if possible.

The first thing that we talked about was olive oil, which she called the "Liquid Gold of Umbria"  She said that the oils were more flavorful when they were young and that the olives grown in different areas would produce different flavors and qualities of oil (just like wines).   She told us that the olives were best picked when changing from green to purple and that they should all be picked within a few week period.  She provided three different oils for us to taste, but said that it might be hard to distinguish between them because this was late in the season so the oils would have been stored for almost a year.  The first two  did not have much difference in flavor, but the third one (Morniolo brand) having a spicy bite to it.


The second tasting was of cheeses.  The mildest of them was a cow's milk cheese.  She noted that they don't have a lot of cow's milk cheese because they don't have good pastures for the cows to graze in.   The next three cheeses were Pecorino which are made from sheep milk.  The first was a light cheese, the second had been aged longer and was our favorite.  The final one had been covered in ash as it aged and the flavor was really nice, but it was much drier and not as enjoyable.


Next came the cured meats!!!!  We had Cingale (Wild Boar) salami, another aged pork and finally a prosciutto that had been coated in salt and pepper and aged for 18 months...it was DELICIOUS!!!!


One thing that she noted was that Italian bread doesn't have any salt in it and is basically designed to not have a flavor.  This is because it is never eaten by itself, but is a base for other flavors such as oils, cheeses or meats.

Now we got to Balsamic Vinegar, something that we knew NOTHING about.  She explained that the vinegar is put thru a series of barrels, each made of a different type of wood.  The first one contains a sweet thickened grape juice.  After a certain period of time, 1/2 of that is placed into the second cask.  This process continues thru 10 (I think that was the number) barrels and ends in a sweet, acidic fluid.

We next sampled truffles (Tartufo) which sell for 2 00 Euros for 1 kilo (2.2 pounds).  These used to be hunted by pigs, but she noted that it is hard to make a pig understand that YOU want to eat the truffle and not the pig.  They now use dogs to search for them.  She said that her dog was a truffle dog, but that he had never done it before.  The truffles come in bottles of brine and have to be washed to clean the grit out.  They are then chopped or sliced extremely thinly and used as a topping for breads or in various sauces.  They have a musty flavor.


Before leaving the shop we purchased some of the Pecorino cheese, a vacuum pack piece of Cingale Salami (my favorite) and a bottle of Balsamic Vinegar.

We rode in  Letizia's car to her home, way up in the mountains outside of Assisi.  The views were beautiful and we enjoyed them while sipping on a wonderful white wine and watching a thunder storm roll in.  The rain finally chased us inside and Letizia was soon ready for us to join her in the kitchen.


Our first task was to make Panna Cotta (means "cooked cream")...a simple custard type desert.  She noted here that the most important thing was to have a thick cream with lots of fat as the fat was what helped it to gel.  She began by adding cream, milk and sugar to a pot and bringing it almost to a boil.  Then she added gelatin sheets...these are basically the same as powdered gelatin, but come in clear sheets that you soak in water and then they melt in the hot cream mixture.  The cooled mixture was poured into individual glasses.

Now things got hectic!!!!  She explained that we were making a Sartu (one pot meal)...we would call it a casserole.  She put each of us to doing a different task.  We made a dish with caramelized onions, ham and green peas. 

Another one was sauteed mushrooms, where she noted that the mushrooms should be cooked quickly and over a high heat so that all of the liquids don't evaporate.  We added crushed garlic and a bit of salt and pepper at the very end.
  


We made meatballs that contained finely ground pork, garlic, grated Parmesan cheese, bread crumbs, parsley and 1/2 an egg.  These  ingredients were mixed together and formed into small meatballs about 3/4 inch in diameter.  These were fried in a few tablespoons of Olive oil.

Here is a photo of lubricating the cook.....


Another pan of onions were caramelized, and then a top quality crushed tomato was added.  Finally, a bit of basil completed this  component.


There was a large pot of rice already cooked.  She said that we should use Arborio rice which is designed for risottos and cooks to be very plump.  To this we added the tomato sauce mixture, 1-1/2 eggs, and salt and pepper.

We made a Bechamel sauce in the microwave.  We began by slightly heating the milk, but only until small bubbles formed along the edge of the pot.  We melted butter, added flour and the the milk a little at a time.  This entire mixture was put back into the microwave at 1 minute intervals until it was starting to skim over.  She added a pinch of nutmeg and at this point it was finished.

Now came the layering.  First we buttered and bread crumbed the huge dish, added rice to the bottom and up the sides.  Then came the meatballs, sliced cooked sausages, mushrooms, pea mixture, mozarella cheese slices, and drizzles of Bechamel sauce.  The rest of the rice was put over the top, sealing  the mixture.  The rest of the sauce was spread thinly over the rice, it was sprinkled with bread crumbs and parmesan cheese and baked for 20 to 30 minutes in a 400 degree oven.




 

She made a fun statement at one point...someone had asked if this was Romano cheese.  She quickly answered "not Romano....this is GOOD cheese".  When we laughed at her she said that Romano is not considered to be a finer quality of cheese, although her Dad loves it!!


Her assistant scurried around the kitchen, washing our dishes and getting the appetizers ready for us to enjoy.


We all retired to the dining room while this cooked and were met with plates of our favorites from the Deli, along with toasted bread with garlic and Olive oil.   The Olive oil was made from their own trees.  She said that there was a company who they could take their olives to and they would press the oil for them.

One interesting thing was that she served the cheese with honey and we were amazed at how nice the pairing tasted. 

She served the Sartu in large slices and we enjoyed a nice red wine with it as well.

The Panna Cotta was served with a homemade Black Cherry compote that was wonderful.

At the end of the meal she asked if we wanted to try homemade Limoncello and we all said "definitely YES".  Limoncello is a liqueur that is made from lemon zests.  These are covered with a 95% alcohol (Ever clear) and left to sit in a cool, dark place for 2 weeks.  The zests are filtered out and a sugar syrup is added to the remaining alcohol.  The bottle is sealed and left for at least 2 months.  It was a potent liqueur but had a wonderful, light flavor.


We left with a glow....both from the food, the wine and the new friends that we had made!!!!

Letizia has a blog associated with her cooking classes.  Check it out at  www.madonnadelpiatto.com

Monday, August 30, 2010

All the way up!!!!

This morning we slept very late (for us) and didnít wake up until 8:00am...I woke up with the local bells ringing, however Michael said that they rang at 7:00am as well, but I slept thru that time.

We had laughed about the size of the bathroom, but really had a laugh with the size of the towels.  They are not made of terry, but of a dense linen and are huge....almost bigger than the bathroom itself.....


 We had a nice breakfast on the patio of our hotel and then headed out for our day.  The plan was to walk to the furthest (and highest) point and then work our way back down to our hotel.  As usual, we encountered some beautiful morning views as we walked.  I am particularly enamored with the unusual skylines....




Our destination was the Roman Coliseum and we were expecting to see a stadium with seating etc.  Instead we found an oval wall filled with houses of every shape and size (apparently these were built in the 1300ís).  We found an old laundry area and then enjoyed walking along the wall. 

Note the wall in this photo marking the edge of the coliseum......



We walked up another little track that Michael found and took some photos, this time seeing a fortress that looked interesting. 


We pulled out the map and figured out that it was called "Roca Maggiore"and was within walking distance so we hiked UP, UP, UP to the top of the hill.   Then we climbed a TINY circular stairway up to the top of the fortress.




The views from the top were beautiful........




The funny thing was that we looked back the other way and saw yet another fortress that looked interesting.  We then noticed that the track that we had already climbed (but not to the top), was the entrance to it.  We decided that it did not look THAT great!!

We saw this fence as we were coming down the path from the fortress and both thought that it was made of small shells. 

Upon closer inspection we realized that it is made of discarded chewing gum!!!!

We continued back thru the city and were walking past the cathedral at San Rufino when we heard a great shout and lots of people clapping.  We went a few more steps and found that there was a wedding going on and they had just welcomed the new couple after the ceremony.  We watched as one little boy carried a basket around and people put things into the basket.....presumably monetary gifts.

We continued on thru the city, ending up at the Basilica of St. Francis. 

There were large crowds of people, but the church did not seem too crowded inside.   Many of these churches just look the same, but this one is beautiful because of the colors on the walls and ceilings.  There are frescos on all of the walls depicting scenes from St. Francisí life.  The ceiling was painted with more scenes, as well as sky area with stars.

As a quilter, this church was a dream..there were quilt patterns and designs EVERYWHERE!!!!  Unfortunately, you couldn't take photos, but I did enjoy soaking up the setting.

After walking out of the main level, we walked down some stairs and into the lower Basilica where the remains of St. Francis are kept.  There were people standing all around the altar of the crypt, many touching it and praying.  There were places where people had put photos of loved ones up as they prayed and I watched one woman searching thru her billfold to find a particular photo.  There was a Monk who was selling blessings too.


As we were leaving the church we saw a newly married couple taking photos at the church and then another one in the courtyard.  Obviously this is THE place for wedding photos......

We walked back to a wood-working shop and bought a couple of items, including an olive wood mortar and pestle.  We found a small cafe and had a couple of Paninis for lunch.  I ended the lunch with a wonderful chocolate coated Cannoli. 

We returned to the hotel and spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on the patio and reading and people watching....a great day!!!!!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Oh no...we are on the wrong train....or are we????

Today was a traveling day as we moved from Milano to Assisi.  This trip required the riding of three trains, each becoming progressively smaller as we went.  The first one was a Eurostar train that we took to Firenze (Florence).  We sat with a very nice woman from Bern, Switzerland who shared an exquisite fruit bread with us.  She said that it was a delicacy in her country.

The first problem that we encountered was the fact that we only had 13 minutes to get to our next train.  We hustled our way down the platform, both looking for any sign that might tell us which platform our second train was leaving from.  We found the platform....number 12, and the train was there, but we couldn't figure out why we could not get the doors to open.  Finally we realized that we were on the wrong side of the platform, so we ran back around the front and hustled into the car.


This is when the rot set in.  We asked a young man sitting behind us if we were on train number 2311 and he hesitantly said yes....we were not completely convinced at this point.  Then, we started looking at the signs in the train car which would NORMALLY tell you which stations the train was stopping at.  As the train left the station, we realized that, according to those signs, we were headed to Sienna which was the exact opposite to our intended destination.  We debated about getting off of the train and returning to Florence, but finally decided to just stay on and to start over again when we reached Sienna.  But, we also started noticing that the stops were not the same as the ones on the sign and when we stopped in Arezza, we realized that we were indeed on the correct train....whew!!!

We then had 10 minutes to get onto our third train of the day.  Unfortunately, this entailed carrying our HEAVY suitcases down one flight of stairs and UP another.  The little train to Assisi was one 3 cars long but was a very nice train.  The route took us thru many small villages with wonderful vistas out the windows.

We arrived in Assisi and took a taxi to the Hotel Berti.  It is a cute hotel of about 15 rooms with 5 on each floor.  We took the lift up to our room and it was so small that we just barely fit with our two suitcases.  The room is small and cute and the shuttered windows look out onto the plaza.


The bathroom is tiny, with the shower only about 2.5 feet square.....it is painful when you drop your soap.
After relaxing on the patio for a few minutes, we grabbed our stuff and set out to explore the city.  Assisi is built on a mountain and the panoramic vistas are maginificent.
The main streets run the length of the city, with many of the crossways between the roads being stairs.  I use the tern "street" loosely as most will barely fit a car.  Having said that, there are many small busses that run on these streets.  We found that many people drive VERY fast down these streets so we were constantly listening for a car to come up behind us.
Our goal was to climb every set of stairs that we came to....and we did, seeing some beautiful sights along the way.....










This is a small chapel for Francis of Assisi....it apparently marked the building where he was born....


We particularly enjoyed this shop....especially the Mule balls that you could purchase......


We returned to our hotel area and had dinner at a local restaurant that was associated with the hotel.  The food was excellent....we began with Bruschetta....mine was tomato and basil and Michael's was mushroom (funghi) and truffle.

For the main course, Michael enjoyed grilled Veal steak and I had Veal Scaloppini with artichokes.  We finished the meal off with side dishes of roasted potatoes and Insalata Mista (tossed salad with oil and vinegar), and a wonderful house red wine.


We walked back toward the hotel and stopped to buy Gelato.  After sitting on the patio while eating it, we headed off to bed....the first night that we made it to bed before midnight!!!!!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Farewell Milan

We ended our Friday evening with a concert and dinner for the Italian Botanical Society meetings. 

The concert was put on by professional musicians associated with the University of Milan, and consisted of a Mozart concerto and a Brahms concerto.  The Mozart was performed by a quartet of 2 violins, 1 viola and a cello, and then they were joined by a Clarinetist for the Brahms piece.  They were excellent musicians and very expressive in their music and their posture on the stage.  Unfortunately it was quite hot in the room and on the stage and they kept wiping their faces anytime they had a break in the music.  One of the girls stopped between movements and put her hair up to get it off of her shoulders.  The music was perfect, although I will admit to enjoying the mathematical precision of the Mozart over the craziness of the Brahms!!

The dinner was up a set of stairs and outside on a balcony of the University.  The round tables would seat 10 people and each place setting had 4 glasses, 4 forks and 2 knives.  It reminded me a lot of our dinners at High Table at Merton College in Oxford.

The appetizer was a buffet of antipasti that included smoked salmon, chicken cutlets, prosciutto, braised vegetables, fruit and an Aubergine (eggplant) souffle.  This was served with bottles of white wine.

The first course was a creamy risotto with shrimp…..it was magnificent!!!!  It was served with bottles of red wine.

At this point all of the Italians were scandalized because they went straight to deserts and skipped the second course which would normally be fish or meat.  We were perfectly happy to skip the last course as we were already full, but it was obvious that there was a breach of protocol here.

Desert was small glasses (think shot glasses) with a custard filling and a very small, cute spoon to eat it with.  The vanilla custard had a jelly type layer on top while the chocolate one was spiced with chili powder which gave it a wonderful spicy flavor.  We were told that they would often add chili to rich hot chocolate to add to the flavor….we need to try it sometime.   This was served with a sparkling white wine similar to champagne.

Now, sometime toward the end of the evening it became obvious that some of the tables had drunk more wine than others as there was a spontaneous chorus of singing and many toasts to the organizers of the conference.  We stood around and talked for a long time and then made our way back to the hotel…fortunately only a couple of blocks away.

This evening was fairly dressy and I wore sandals with heels.  I quickly learned that I had to be careful walking on the cobblestone streets and particularly careful walking over the street grates!!!!

We have truly in enjoyed our days in Milan, although we are ready to move on to the next phase of the trip.  We have noted throughout the time that Milan was almost empty of people and found out that EVERYBODY leaves Milan during the month of August and goes on holiday.  As a matter of fact, almost all of Italy takes the month of August off…..there were even some grumblings that this conference was held before the month was over.  Apparently next week will be a huge week with every one returning to work and all of the trade shows starting…. I guess it is good that we are leaving.

While here, I have enjoyed looking at the window dressings in the various stores…particularly the food shops.  Here are a selection…..

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I loved the way that they displayed these cookies….the balls were hanging from the ceiling……_8266892

These are Marzipan fruit……._8266877 ….and even better are Marzipan Cactus pots!!!!_8266879

The bakery had a small window that stuck out from the normal window and displayed their baguettes……_8266883

This cheese shop called to me as well……

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So, farewell to Milan and onward to Assisi…….

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