Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Scent of Saffron

Zafferano (or saffron) is a spice that comes from the stamen of the crocus flower; it takes a lot of flowers to make that bit of saffron that you buy in the spice shop and that’s why it is so expensive.

I have had saffron from Spain, Morroco, and France, but never from Italy, so last night my friend Anne and I drove over the river and through the woods to Citta della Pieve a Renaissance town 5km from the Tuscan border with Umbria.

The aroma of saffron permeated the town when we arrived.  This festival celebrates the harvest, not only the saffron harvest, but there was new olive oil to try and honey to taste, as well as salamis, and new vintage wines.   We took a stroll through the exhibits with different local producers sharing their wares.
Proud of his harvest

Our host Alessandro

Stefano and his wares

Beauty products with saffron

Still sorting 
Truffle hunter with fresh white truffles 

My favorite shot of the night!

There was a cooking demo going on when we arrived, and then tasting samples were handed out.
 Alessandro is the president of the consortium here in Citta della Pieve, and a gracious host. 
It was a gorgeous night, and we took a stroll through the town.  

We stopped at this door;

once we opened it, this is what we saw.  
Perugino's masterpiece

This gentleman was the docent, belonging to the order that uses this part of the church.

The town has a communal dinner, and so we stayed to take part --- again, the only gringos in the place, aside from Sally and Tom from Maui who we’d met in Spello a few days before, and ironically were at the same table with us.  

Food was typical of Umbria, and filled with the flavor of saffron…..molto buono!  My food shots were a bit blurry, so I'll just tell you that it was delicious!

With an hours' drive home, we left early before the real entertainment started, but it was a lovely night in Citta della Pieve.  Last night was also the night that they change the clocks for daylight savings---I will not be happy when it's dark at 5 p.m. tonight.  Wishing you a buona notte from Italy. 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Chocolate Olive Oil Cake

Baking is science, the bakers of the culinary world are the nerds of the culinary world; they love to measure and weigh ingredients, they love to know the temperature of the ingredients and stress over imperfections in a recipe
I'm grateful that there are people who will test and test a cake recipe or cookie recipe until it is perfection, but I’m not a scientist—just ask Dr. C.  I like to cook and add ingredients together to come up with something mouthwateringly delicious…I can’t be bothered with having the butter at a certain temperature, or that the flour weighs a certain amount…that’s what the dip and sweep cup method is for.  Baking here in Italy is a whole different ball game…the past few days I’ve been experimenting with Simonetta’s olive oil cake from Dario Cecchini’s restaurant in Chianti.  The first hurdle was leavening---the original recipe had none in it, which I was sure was a mistake, since this cake would be leaden if it didn’t have anything to make it rise.  Then the flour…there are so many different types of flour in the supermarkets here, 00, 0, and farina con levito (self rising flour Italian style)  The farina con levito is what home cooks here use to make cakes, and other desserts. So I settled on the farina con levito, and then went from there.  After two tries, I think we have a winner which I put up online a few days ago. 
Today I’m making a chocolate olive oil cake from a recipe that I adapted from the late Leslie Revsin a fabulous woman and chef.  Since I’m working with different ingredients, an oven I’m not really crazy about that reads in Celsius, I’m fiddling with the ingredients to get a consistency that seems right to me, and it’s in the oven now—if it’s a dud, I’m fine with that, I’ll just try again.  My peanut gallery here is very enthusiastic when they come through and smell the chocolate baking, so I’m encouraged. Just pulled it out of the oven, cut off a piece, and it's a winner, so please try this one!
Wishing you a Buona giornata from Spello.

Chocolate Olive Oil Cake
Makes one 9-inch cake

1/2 cup Dutch process cocoa powder
1 tablespoon instant espresso powder
1/2 cup boiling water
3 eggs
1 egg yolk
2/3 cup olive oil
1 1/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
Confectioners' sugar for garnish

  1. Coat the inside of a 9-inch cake pan with non-stick cooking spray or olive oil.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  
  2. In a mixing bowl, put the cocoa and espresso, pour the water over and whisk to blend.  Add the eggs, yolk, olive oil and sugar, and whisk until blended.  
  3. Add the flour and baking soda, and stir to blend, making sure there are no lumps.  
  4. Transfer to the prepared baking pan, and bake for 40 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  
  5. Allow the cake to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then invert onto a rack to cool completely.  Dust with confectioners' sugar.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Olive Oil Fraud

You knew this post was coming....after spending 4 1/2 months here in Italy, I've become a crusader for pure extra virgin olive oil from Italy.  You may be buying what you think is extra virgin Italian olive oil, but in fact most of the big producers get their oil from all over the Mediterranean, and then process it here, adding a little bit of this and a little bit of that to the mix to make it turn out (chemically) like extra virgin.
A great read on this story is the book Extra Virginity, chronicling the worst fraud that has been perpetrated on the cooking public for years.

Extra virgin olive oil should be the first cold press, then you need to read the label....many big producers are now announcing that their olive oil MAY have come from Tunisia, Spain, etc.  but many are not, and you are not getting what you pay for.  At the Colavita frantoia (where they press the olives) you can buy gallons for only E2---or about $3.50 a gallon.
Each oil in each region should receive a DOP or DOC seal on the bottle to let you know that a consortium in that region has certified that the oil is from that region and has passed stringent requirements to get that seal.  These are the oils you want to's going to cost you more, but the flavor, and the product itself is pure, and not a mixture of pomace oil (the lowest of the low) lamp oil that's been manipulated in centrifuges, or sunflower seed oil.  Don't kid yourself into thinking you are getting the best when you buy that bottle of Bertoli, or Berio.  Most bottles on your supermarket shelf are a mix of Mediterranean oils--you are not getting the true flavor of any region when you buy them, and you may see "product of Italy" on the label, but that only means that the oil has been bottled here, not pressed here.  Gigantic tankers pull up to ports in Pulia loaded with Spanish and Tunisian olive oil and then have them mixed to replicate the acidity, and ph that is needed to be called extra virgin, they are then bottled in Italy and assigned the label "product of Italy".
So where do you get the real deal? I order mine from Enoteca Properzio here in Spello--they have three different DOP oils that they sell. 

  The first is Cipolloni, from this area, a buttery oil that is used just for dressing food, drizzled over steak, tossed with vegetables in salad.  it is the only oil that 5 Star Michelin chef Alain Ducase will use in his cooking.  The second is Cuore Verde, from an organic farm 3km outside the walls here, recognized organic in the US and Europe.  This olive oil has a bit of spice to it and can be used for cooking, as well as dressing foods.  The third is Terre Rosse, from here in Spello, the oil is also organic, and can be used for cooking or dressing.  I love them all, and use them for different things.

If you are in a city where there is a Little Italy, find an Italian grocer and seek out DOP oils.   The difference is night and day between these and the Bertolli's of the world. 

Mona Lisa is my fave in San Diego

The olio nuovo  is coming in right now, it is dark green in color, cloudy and viscous, but oh so delicious!  Toasted bread drizzled with this oil is a religious experience! 

 I am going to another festival this weekend, the saffron festival--should be fun, and I will be writing about it this weekend if I have time.  Until then buon fine settimana.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Celebration of Celery

The town of Trevi here in Umbria grows what is called sedano nero, or black celery; it's not really black, the roots are covered and the chlorophyll shoots to the leaves, giving them a dark green color.  October is the month when this vegetable is celebrated in style with a sagra.  Part food festival, part rock concert (they are so crowded) and part county fair, these celebrations are a lot of fun, and you get to mingle with the locals.  When my friends and I went, we were the only gringos in the crowd.

When we got to Trevi, there was a carnival-like atmosphere in the parking lot, with trucks selling everything from organic honey to candy to Cippolini onions, and fresh produce.   

Think I saw this guy at the Del Mar Fair!
Upon entering the city, your senses are assaulted with the noise, smoke from the fires cooking sausages, and the smell of celery.  Yes, celery does have a aroma, and when it’s grown organically under DOP seal, as it is here, it’s sublime.  

Our friend Anne headed towards the band that was playing and then proceeded to drag us all into the fray---I took movies, but told my friends that they are for sale. 
 The sausage grillers were working hard with grills that had flames as high as 5 feet at some points.  

 Unfortunately they weren’t working fast enough for this group!  

Even the president of the commune was cutting rolls---in his suit and tie!
The celery was for sale in the square, and each farmer has a story to tell. 

  This gentleman is in his 90’s and still farming and selling his celery. 
 This is the prize winner for the night.  

After 1 1/2 hours in the square, we headed for our dinner at a tavern located down the hill on a twisty side street---an all celery extravaganza.   


Crostini with sausage and celery

Celery tortino with lardo

Sausage stuffed celery with ragu

Wild Boar Stew

Filet of beef with celery and Sagrantino sauce

Raw Celery with extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper

Panna Cotta with sweet celery garnish

Eating with the locals
The men in charge of the sausage brigade; once they found out I was blogging then they had to have everyone in the photo.  This is why I LOVE the Italiani! If you are in Italy during harvest time, there are  festivals in almost every little town to celebrate.  Since I've been here I've hear about the snail festival in Cantalupo, and the Cippolini festival in Cannara, I had to go to this one.  At the end of the month in my grandparents' home town of Gubbio there will be a festival of the white truffles---I'm going to miss it, since I leave here a week from today.  (sad face)  Wishing you a buona notte from Spello.