Sunday, November 30, 2008

Wood-Fired Pizzas at Francesca's

Nothing compares to real wood-fired Italian thin crust, simple, real, delicious pizza!!

We were headed to Francesca's house to taste her homemade wood-fired pizzas, but stopped on the way to visit her father, who is one of a long line of butchers in the family (a family tradition for more than two centuries in Amelia!)

Handmade sausages, prosciutto and more hang in the cold storage at the butcher shop.

Preparations were underway for the following day - Thursday is porchetta day in Amelia - the only day that fresh porchetta is available, and you must get there early to buy it before it's all gone! The pork is rubbed with rosemary, garlic, salt & pepper, peperoncini and fennel seed, then slow roasted. Incredible.

We arrived at Francesca's, where she had been feeding her outdoor woodburning oven for several hours, to get it up to the proper temperature.

We borrowed a flashlight and went out into the garden to pick the last of the figs for our fig & prosciutto pizza. Have I mentioned, I love Italy?

I'm in the midst of building an outdoor pizza oven myself, so I got lots of advice from Francesca. I was amazed at how quickly the pizzas cook at this extreme temperature (literally 2 or 3 minutes). A small amount of water is brushed onto the large padella or paddle that transports the pizzas into the oven, so the dough doesn't burn.

Francesca made an astounding 7 varieties of pizza and even more astounding, we ate them all!! She used 5kg of flour! It really is so difficult to describe the true Italian woodfired pizza, such flavour and great texture - there is nothing comparable! The combination of the wood fire, the flour, and the simple, fresh ingredients is out of this world.

To begin, we had fried sage leaves - In Italy the sage leaves (and the plants themselves) grow to about double the size that it grows in Canada (sage is also used as hedges in gardens) - the leaves are dipped in egg then flour and fried in olive oil - deliciously crunchy, savoury and tasty treat to get your taste buds started.

Francesca's Pizza Night

Fried Sage Leaves
Olive Oil & Rosemary
Olive Oil Prosciutto & Rosemary
Zucchini flowers & Mozzarella
Pacchino (cherry tomato), basil & mozzarella di bufalo
Pear & Gorgonzola
Figs & Prosciutto
Nutella dessert pizza

Apple torte

Vino di casa di Faosto (Francesca's husband's wine made from his backyard vines)

A wonderful night, it left me very inspired and anxious for spring, when I'll build my pizza oven at home.

Wine Harvest at Pardi in Montefalco

Montefalco is a well-known wine growing region in Umbria, where they are especially renowned for their Sagrantino wine, a very aromatic, full-bodied red wine, reminiscent of Amarone in body and character.

We were lucky enough to be right in time for the grape harvest, and spent the morning picking grapes at the Pardi family winery. Here, the grapes are being unloaded by hand from the truck.

Joanne climbing up to have a better look at the grapes making their way into the holding tanks.

We enjoyed a private lunch with the Pardi family in the original cantina - delicious food, wonderful people.

Lunch Menu at Pardi Vineyard
Swiss chard filos
Leek & sausage filos
Farro salad
Zucchini lasagne with besciamella
Salami, cheese & prosciutto

Joanne climbing up to have a better look at the grapes making their way into the holding tanks.

The Pardis are also well known for their linen mills in Montefalco and have been in business weaving linens for over 50 years.

One of our co-pickers at Pardi sits down for a picnic lunch in the vineyard - he has spent a lifetime picking grapes.

Honest, hardworking hands.

I thought they were beautiful & poetic, stained by the vines and years of hard work.

He thought it was a little odd & couldn't understand why I wanted to photograph his hands!

Can't wait to return next fall and spend alot more time in the vineyard.

Pastamaking with Lucia

Lucia came to the palace kitchen to cook with us. The menu included fresh tagliatelle with bolognese sauce and roasted chicken with garlic, rosemary and olives. Delicious. And fun.

Lucia's Tagliatelle
1kg '00' flour
1 egg per person

The flour was put onto the table, and a well was formed in the centre, where the eggs were broken and put into. Slowly, with a fork at first, the eggs were incorporated into the flour.

As the pasta started to come together, the fork was set aside, and it was kneaded by hand, until eventually it was ready for the rolling pin, then cut by hand.

Tom had a turn with the rolling pin and was a natural at rolling pasta, Lucia gave him an A+. His zest for cooking (and eating) is contagious!

Lucia's Bolognese
extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, left whole, studded with 6 whole cloves
2 carrots, left whole
2-3 celery stalks, left whole
2 pork sausages
1/2 kg ground beef
500-750ml red wine
sea salt
tomato puree (passato)

Traditionally in Umbria, the vegetables are left whole in the meat sauce. The explanation was that some people may not like to eat the carrots, or celery, so they were left whole to flavour the sauce, and anyone could request it if they wanted to eat the vegetables. The onions, carrots and celery are first sweated in a generous amount of olive oil, then the meats are added, the heat is turned up, and more oil is added if required. Then an entire bottle of wine was added, minus a glass for Lucia, along with a 1/2 litre bottle of passato, which is just pureed tomatoes with a little sea salt.

Sidney rolling out the tagliatelle - great job! Such enthusiasm - especially considering the injury to his finger from the previous day's misadventure in the kitchen!

The owners of the palace, Rita and Gugliermo join in, and Rita instructs us on the finer details of rolling pasta.

Beautiful food.

Great company.

Inspirational setting.

A wonderful meal with everyone in the granary at Palazzo Venturelli.

JoAnne and Sidney enjoying their first trip to Italy.

Venetian glass

Pierluigi Penzo
Master glass artist

We visited Pierluigi in his new studio in Amelia, where he makes glass pearls, which are fashioned into bracelets, necklaces, and earrings.

Pierluigi learned the art of glassmaking in Murano, then lived in Milan before moving to Umbria several years ago to continue his craft. His glasswork is sold in shops in Rome and the US but it remains a small family operation, with Pierluigi working with his wife, Fiorita, also a glass artist, and their two young sons were kicking a soccer ball outside the shop after school when we visited.

When I first met Pierluigi last year, I wasn't surprised to learn that he knew Giovanni Voltolana, a glassblower at Kevin Gray Glass - one of my neighbours in Merrickville. Giovanni was born and apprenticed in Murano before emigrating to Canada 30 years ago. I get the feeling everybody knows everybody in Murano - much like Merrickville! Small world indeed.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Giacomo Vitto, Master Mozzarella Maker

We visited Giacomo Vitto and watched and learned about his tradition of making fresh mozzarella. Giacomo has been making mozzarella since he was a boy of 10, at his father's side.

Although fresh mozzarella is not a traditional cheese of Umbria (pecorino is the typical cheese), Giacomo brought his cheesemaking tradition and opened up shop when he moved to Amelia from southern Italy many years ago.

Giacomo has his hands in very hot water for most of the morning, as he fashions the cheese by hand from the fresh milk. Ricotta is made from the whey that falls to the bottom of the bins. Incredibly delicious, especially as a breakfast treat, is fresh ricotta with crusty bread and chestnut honey. Beautiful. We enjoyed Giacomo's fresh mozzarella in insalata caprese, with ripe tomatoes, basil leaves, extra-virgin olive oil and sea salt.

Giacomo made us some wonderful little animal sculptures out of mozzarella! So fun. Then he described how he is continuing his father's tradition of making an entire Nativity Scene for the store's window, entirely out of mozzarella! That alone is worth a return visit to Amelia in December!

By 1pm, the shop is often sold out of cheese. Giacomo loads up all of the empty milk bins to return to the farmer and collects more milk for tomorrow's production, then heads home for lunch and a pisolino (nap). Ahh. La bella vita.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Visit local market and cooking with Gabriella

We started the day at the local market. Too much fun! The highlights at the market included: the last of the season's fresh figs; amazing porchetta sandwiches; baby olive trees to plant in your yard (I wish!); Cashmere sweaters; and shoes, shoes, shoes, among other things!

Traveller's hint: don't touch the fruit and veggies - the stand vendor will serve you! Non tocare!

Joanne and Sidney relaxing on the terrace between stints in the kitchen with Gabriella.

We learned 4 easy pasta sauces and of course sat down to enjoy all of them, with a little break between the first two pasta courses!

We made the following sauces: Amatriciana, Puttanesca, Carbonara, and Caccio & Peppe.

My favourite was Caccio & Peppe, which I had never had before. It's so very simple, and so delicious. Caccio is the latin word for cheese, so the sauce is literally 'cheese and pepper'. It's made with a vegetable stock (empty your fridge of vegetables, eg zucchini, onions, tomatoes, etc, and simmer 45 minutes to make the stock). A stainless steel bowl is warmed by placing it as a cover over the pasta water. 3 handfuls each of pecorino and parmigiano are added to the bowl, along with the warm vegetable stock, and lots of freshly grated pepper. This is tossed with mezzo maniche, a fairly substantial pasta, similar to macaroni. Extra vegetable stock is added if needed. Amazingly simple and so so good. The cheese is the star in this dish, no embellishments required.

Tom and Dale enjoyed Gabriella's pasta and our lunch conversations.

What wonderful travelling companions!

Gabriella and Madi at the table, enjoying Gugliermo's stories.

'Open Doors'

Another beautiful day in Amelia.

After breakfast in the granary & cappuccinos on the terrace, the group headed off to see some of the sights that were open to the public as part of an "Open Doors" day throughout Italy.

Several palaces, a beautiful ancient theatre, cathedrals and churches, and the Roman cisterns, below the village streets, dating to 300BC, all took part in the event.

Amelia's City Hall, at left, features many ancient Etruscan and Roman stone artifacts and architectural pieces, which continue to be found on a regular basis, during repairs on the village walls or streets, for example.

We gathered for a lunch cooking class in the granary kitchen, where we prepared crostini, lentil soup, fennel baked in cream and parmesan and wild mushroom risotto. For dessert, the beautiful local pecorino and fresh pears.

Unfortunately our friend Sidney had a minor kitchen accident and cut his finger while working on the olive tapenade. A quick trip to the hospital one block away and he was back to stirring the pot and enjoying the local wine - albeit without any sharp objects! Good sport, Sidney. Happy to report his finger is healing nicely!

Tom and Dale are loving la bella vita in Italy!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Arriving in beautiful Amelia, Umbria

Arriving in beautiful Amelia, Umbria

Day 1 - Benvenuti in Italia!

We checked in at Palazzo Venturelli, a 16th century magnificently restored palace in the heart of Amelia, Umbria.

Beautifully appointed rooms,
magnificent views from every window

We were treated to a beautiful concert of piano and soprano in the music room before dinner. Then the musical guests, the owners of the palace, Gugliermo and Rita, and their manager, Michela, cooked us a wonderful dinner in the granary, which we all sat down to eat together.

What a wonderful welcome and beginning to our week-long adventure to discover and taste and learn about the culinary traditions and culture of Umbria.

Rush Hour in Amelia