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Tuscany

Artistry in Olive Wood

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As often happens a client is the catalyst for new discoveries.  This time a client requested olive wood utensils.  Having seen many I assumed it would be a quick easy request.  As usual, it became something much more.  While there are obviously thousands upon thousands of olive trees in Italy, there are not so many available to make olive wood good from.  And, while there are commercially made spoons, cutting boards and rolling pins, there are not so many crafted bowls, boards and utensils (that are actually made in Italy).

With the internet it seems easy to find online anything you want.  However, like many products, there is often a large difference between the lovely photos and catalogs you find and the quality of the finished pieces.   And, the location of manufacturing can be far from where olive trees are grown.

Olives have been cultivated throughout the Mediterranean throughout history.  The Romans cultivated olives throughout Italy and olive oil became so valuable they even used it as collected taxes.   Ancient olive wood is beautiful and a real sustainable source.  As I have mentioned in earlier posts, olives produce for  hundreds of years, but eventually they stop producing and are classed as ancient.  Usually it is this wood that is gathered and used for crafting the larger pieces of olive wood you see.  The large cutting or carving boards, the table tops or large salad bowls.   Every tree has its own unique pattern in the grain.  You will never see two pieces created of olive wood that look exactly the same.

Olive wood is very hard, strong, durable and has natural anti-bacterial properties which make it ideal for production of items used for food.  If cared for properly, olive wood items will last hundreds of years.  So an ancient piece of wood becomes an antique long after it is harvested.  Olive wood bowls, and utensils of the highest craftsmanship are not as ubiquitous  as you might think given how many trees there are here.

Because the olives are a most important crop healthy trees are never felled for use of the wood.   The limited availability is part of the reason for the high cost of quality olive wood articles.  Although there are artisans in almost every region with high olive oil production, there are not as many craftsmen who work with olive wood.  In Tuscany, I understand there are only a handful of artisans who work with olive wood. And, they tend to specialize in the types of pieces they like to make.  There is one craftsman in a small town near Sienna that makes only small to large pots with lids, another near Florence that works only bowls.  It seems that each artisan has their specialty.  That is why I tried to find someone who has worked with these artists and could inform me how to determine the best pieces.

Luckily I found Ricardo Amoruso.  He is from Tuscany and has resources throughout the region for artisans in a number of categories (his wife is a ceramicist) including the few who specialize in olive wood.  Ricardo explained to me that there is always a shortage of olive wood.  If the spring weather is below normal for too many days I believe he said 15) in a row the tree can be damaged and not just lose the crop of olives, the tree can be damaged beyond survival, but the wood also can be unusable from the stress of the cold.   He explained that there are numerous makers of kitchen utensils because those do not require the whole tree to be used.  In spring when they must prune the branches, they are collected and many are thick enough to be able to form spoons, spatulas and rolling pins.    They are the most affordable of pieces in olive wood.

Once I saw some of the fine works he handles I knew that this quality was superiorto most of the other pieces I have seen.  The prices will always be high so it is important to get the best quality wood that is formed by the best artisans.

 

His advice on how to  make             20180413_190744                                                                                             your wood pieces last forever… Do not soak them, or put in a dishwasher.  Use only water to clean them.  About once every month or so, brush or wipe on a light oil like coconut or sunflower oil and let it sit on some newsapers several hours or overnight.  Afterward wipe any left oil with a paper towel.It is important to keep the wood from over drying.  This prevents cracking or warping.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are some really spectacular pieces that I am now sure I must have.  The bowl below is from the works I purchased for another client.

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This totally unique flat salad bowl is so stunning I start to drool every time I look at it.

Every trip to Italy introduces me to new places, people and products.  It seems a never-ending journey.  I have introduced my Sardinia honey source to olio nuovo from Farfa, I have been able to learn about the different grades of cashmere from my scarf vendor in Florence (who uses only Italian materials and workers and produces all she sells right outside of Florence).  There are so many fine olive oils available from every region but my clients are spoiled by the consistently fabulous taste of Il Saporito’s olive oil from Farfa.

It is always a challenge to get everything done in the short time I have in Italy (a month is hardly enough time to get your breathing slowed down).   And, I always end the trip with my stop at Campo dei Fiori to fill up on the “Spezie Famose nel Mondo” and meet up with Mauro Berardi for his amazing spice mixes that have people all over the world addicted.

If you are not already on my mailing list, just send your email to:  expresslyitalian@aol.com and I will add you to my product availability lists.

There is never enough time here, never enough space to bring all I would like and always too much weight.   But I love it and hope to continue to introduce products and people from Italy to as many as I can.

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Fascinating Olive Oil Pt. 2

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I realize it has taken far too long to return to finish the Part 2 information on olive oil, but there have been good reasons.  Mostly my traveling back from Italy (bringing along  Mauro Berardi’s spices, porcini and all that wonderful Olio Nuovo from Farfa).  Then the holidays seem to move in more quickly every year.  Or, perhaps it is that I am slowing down somewhat?  Nope, that cannot be.
Looking back, it seems unbelievable that I am renewing my EU passport already.  While my husband and I managed to spend time in Italy (He mentored young film technicians for Technicolor Rome years ago) before we decided to move there for a couple years on his retirement.  After our return it was just too painful to think about not being able to frequently return to Italy (and especially visiting all our friends there), so Expressly Italian was born.  While I regret not beginning Expressly Italian’s journey much earlier,  my life as an art dealer/ consultant was fulfilling and good preparation for Expressly Italian.

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Our View in Belevedere di Riaino
 While in Italy we were living outside Rome (about 9 miles north of the center) in the country and made great efforts to see as much of the country as we could.  We traveled mostly throughout Tuscany and Umbria and I asked questions always.  I shopped every street market in every village because I was fascinated to find how different each was in personality as well as goods.   I learned to ask lots of questions even when you think you understand what you are being told.  There is not an Italian who is not very happy to have a conversation about food at any time, and if you express any interest they will tell you how their mother prepared their favorite dish, which week is the best to buy whatever product is in season and who is best vendor to buy from.
Living in Lazio I had the chance to watch the seasons change with pruning, cleaning, harvesting and of course, tasting.  Tasting is an art.   To properly taste olive oil (which many of the frantoio insist you do); first you put a little in the bottom of the glass (the glass is blue so you don’t get swayed by the color the oil, which doesn’t really indicate quality, but more about the variety of olives used).   You hold the glass in your palm (to warm it a little and bring out the flavor more), while covering it with the other hand.  Hold it and swirl it for a moment or two.  This traps the aroma in the glass.  The aroma is a very important part of the oil.  Now take a good whiff.  Do you smell grass, artichokes, berries, cinnamon or olives?  The word “fruity” in the context of olive oil can refer to vegetable notes, like green olive fruit, as well as ripe fruit notes. So think of artichokes, grass and herbs as “fruit” when you taste olive oil.  I still haven’t found those little blueglasses they officially use in the tastings, but one day I will.   images
Now, take a sip of the oil (a decent size sip).  You want enough to swirl around your mouth.  Think of the way they taste wine.  It’s the same. Suck air through the oil to coax more aromas out of it, and then—this is important—close your mouth and breathe out through your nose. This “retronasal” perception will give you a whole bunch of other flavor notes. Retronasal perception is possible because your mouth connects to your nose in the back.  Now swallow some, or all of the oil.  Think about the after-taste, the pungency of the oil as it goes down your throat.  This peppery sensation is what gives great olive oil it’s little after-kick.  It’s a pretty addictive impact that can be quite quiet or enough to make you cough.  Everyone has their own preferences.
After you’ve done all this, then you should taste the oil with food.  Usually just a piece of bread is enough to tell you if this oil is for you.  Or potatoes, some mild food that will complement the oil, but still allow you to experience it.    So, now you know the ins and outs of tasting and can taste oil with any aficionado with confidence.

Taste

The Sabine hills are about 50 minutes from Rome, and have been producing olive oil for more than 2,500 years.  In fact, in Fara Sabina there is a tree called Ulivone Canneto which has been carbon dated to more than 2,000 years old that still produces enough olives to make about 150 kilo of olive oil a year today!  This tree made olive oil for the Romans, to Byzantines and modern-day Italians.
An archaeological discovery of the small flask of Poggio Sommavilla traced back to the seventh century BC is preserved in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and is the oldest example of writings from pre-Roman times. It is a testimony of the olive culture of this area because in it are the remains of olive oil.
Claudius Galen (129 AD – 216 AD), the father of modern pharmacopoeia, called oil of Sabina “the world’s best known.”   And, although Sabina oil is not as universally known today, it is revered by those who have tasted it and experienced its quality.
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Sabina is slightly cooler than Tuscany and the hills make it ideal for cultivation of olives. The trees here are some of the largest in Europe and the distinct delicate flavor may be created by the warm winds whipping in directly from the south. There are various strains including Carboncella, Pendolfino, Moraiolo and Rosciola.  All are a golden yellow/green and harvested just before turning brown.
Sabina has a consortium of small growers and cooperatives, but my personal preference and practice is to purchase the oil directly from the frantoio of the grower.  Rosario presses his own olives from his own groves.   He also contributes to the consortium, but I love knowing exactly what I am getting and feeling like I can watch the olives be delivered and watch them be pressed and put into the lattine (tins).  It is really exciting and moves really quickly.  Sabina DOP  is available in many places, but I love knowing exactly how and when the oil is processed and how it is handled.  The drive to Farfa is beautiful and serene, although I have to admit I always seem to get lost in the hills on the way there.   I am confident that what I offer is as fresh, and high in antioxidants and flavor as possible.

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Some of the characteristics of Sabina DOP oil are:     Color:  yellow gold with nuances of green, Perfume:  fruity, notes of fresh herbs and artichoke;  Flavor: velvety, aromatic, peppery finish.

Olives of Italy

This map is from Eataly.
Each region, even village has different types of olives grown, so the oils are different.  In Italy there are 350 different cultivars of olives grown.   When you travel in Italy try to taste as many types as you can to give you an idea of which varieties you prefer which may give you an idea of what oils you might like.  And, taste oils as often as possible.  During harvest times there are often tastings available as well as sagre (festivals) for olive oils which are wonderful opportunities to try different oils.
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The Abbazia at Farfa
I hope this explains a little more of my fascination with Italian olive oils, and Sabina olive oil in particular.  It is so full of antioxidants, great taste and bright flavor, add a little zip to your life by drizzling it on everything you can.

I Hope You Become as Fascinated As I With Oil pt 1

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I realize that I’ve written about olive oil before, but as I spend more time in Italy and have more opportunity to talk with producers, growers and cooks as well as tasting  more oils, the more fascinated I become with all the details about olive oil. The history, the benefits and the lies, as well as the rationale and need for DOPs.

The DOP is the designation the Italian national government has taken to ensure that all traditional products are held to a strict standard for quality, excellence and originality)   D.O.P – Denominazione di Origine Protetta.  In particular this applies to Extra Virgin Olive Oil and signifies that the oil has passed all the government tests for quality and acidity levels (extra virgin olive oils must be no more than 0.8% in free acidity and be cold pressed.  The lower the acidity, the better since it provides better health benefits, among the many reasons.

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These days we find that it is difficult to trust much of anything we hear or read about our food.  We are “sold” on health foods on the internet without much documentation, we are in farmer’s markets buying food that has been brought by people who have never been to a farm and have no idea what has been put on the food they are selling.  It is difficult to buy almost anything with much confidence that the label is truthful, the information accurate and the pricing fair.  That is one of the reasons I have spent so much energy and time asking questions, talking to growers and finding people and resources that I can confidently believe and relay what they say to you.  These are small purveyors not exporting, not supplying distributors, just growers or consortiums.  People I trust.

If you get bored or find this information too tedious I understand.   Skim, or just look at the photos.  It will be too much information for many, but it is here for those, like me, who want all the details.  Now, for a little more on olive oil.  Actually there will be a lot more.  This is just part 1.

The olive harvest starts with the Raccolta. — the harvest of olives from the trees.  They use  a giant-size plastic comb, or more often a mechanical mop top broom that kind of whirls around.   You grab the branch, pull down and comb. The olives fall out like knots from your hair and the leaves remain.

The nets lie around the trees on the ground to catch and hold the olives that are combed from the branches.  Once finished, the olives are carefully collected from the nets and poured into the cestini (baskets).  As the baskets are filled they are taken to the frantoio (olive press).   Each region has it’s own rules for their DOP registration.  But in general, the olives must be taken from tree to the frantoio witin 48 hours.  With olio nuovo in Sabina, it is usually more direct.  From tree to pressing within ten hours.  No storing.  Often the lesser quality olives can be stored up to three weeks before being pressed which means much of the nutrients and antioxidants and lots of freshness and flavor have already evaporated before they are pressed.

Here is the process for pressing the olives:

Step 1 WASHING

Water jets on conveyor belts remove large particles of earth and foreign bodies, followed by the removal of olive leaves and small un-ripened fruit.

 

Step 2  FRANGITURA

The olives get pressed to produce a pulpy, usually violet-coloured substance, with no addition of heat or water. Though it is now done by mechanical means, it was traditionally done by grinding one stone around and around inside another larger stone, often pulled by a donkey or a horse, differing from region to region. I have friends my age from Sardinia who remember growing up with their olive oil being made like this.

 

Step 3  GRAMOLAZIONE

This is the important step of adding a recipe of movement, heat and time together to separate the pulp into diverse particles, therefore helping the microscopic oil drops unite into larger oil drops: normally 27°C for 15-20 minutes to get a high quality and low extraction. Normally, for top-quality extra-virgin olive oils, it is good to get 15kg of finished product for every 100kg of olives picked, this can change for each harvest.

 

Step 4  CENTRIFUGATION AND EXTRACTION

This machine separates the different particles produced by the gramolazione into: oil, vegetal water, and the remaining sansa or pomace, which is what the pulp is called.

 

Step 5 SEPARATION

This final step takes the oil, adds fresh pure water, mixes them together and filters the water away which in turn removes further impurities from the oil.

 

The oil is then taken and filtered through cotton, and bottled.

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PART 2  is a little more about the history and my reasons for staying firmly in Sabina for the oil I bring back.  Hint:  I love the flavor.  Oh, and as you can see above, the Sabine hills are pretty spectacular.

Campo Dei Fiori and Famous Spices of the World

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Famose spezie nel mondo
Spezie Famose nel Mondo

If you have ever been to Rome’s famous Campo dei Fiori market you will recognize this spice vendor.  Mauro Berardi is a third generation vendor in the market.

His son Marco already has his own bancarella (booth) selling porchetta and meats as well as some  condiments and sauces.

If you want some of Mauro’s spice mixes, here’s a list of most of them.

Mauro’s Pasta Mix (his most popular – similar to Campo dei Fiori, but no salt)

Campo dei Fiori,  Bruschetta,  Pesto,   Carbonara,  Ciociara,  Matricina,  Arrabbiata,

Puttanesca,  Carne Mix or Pesce Mix,  Boscaiola,  Bolognese,  Pizza Erotica,  Pizzaiola

Pizza Napoli,  Carciofi,  Filetto,  Aglio e Olio and Soffritto

If you have any questions about how to use any of these or want the exact ingredients in one of them, just email me and I’ll be happy to let you know.  All are the same high quality Mauro always has.  In addition to the mixes, I usually also bring back some spices like cinnamon, cardamom and turmeric and sometimes cumin.

Over the years I have found all Mauro’s mixes so much better than any others I’ve tried, while it is impressive the amount of spices he sells, all are still mixed by hand.  All the spices are the highest quality available and much of them are freeze dried, which allows the potency to remain the same for at least one year or more if kept well.   I have never had a complaint about his mixes, although admittedly, much of what I sell is to people who have already tried them after buying them from him in the market in Rome.  Since he will not sell outside Italy, it is quite happy that I can help his clients while they cannot visit him in Rome.

I am returning to Italy in late October for three weeks.   And, while I will be on the hunt for olio nuovo and the first harvests of olive oil, I will definitely be stopping at the market in Campo dei Fiori before returning home.

If you want any additional information or want me to bring you anything from Italy,or just have any have a question please email me at:  expresslyitalian@aol.com.

 

Fall is here and I head to Italy soon.

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As September is fast closing, I am eagerly looking forward to my returning to Italy for fall.  I have been hoping the weather there cooperates for great olive harvests throughout the country, but it does not look  like the weather there has been helpful there any more than inmuch of the rest of the world.  The droughts throughout much of Europe this year will have some impact on the harvests of olives and there is expected to be a slight lowering of expectations in the harvest from last year.  The quality of the oils may not be quite as good as last year, but we won’t be sure until October.  Some parts of Italy also saw some Mediterranean fruit fly infestations too.  Fortunately, where I get most of the oil I bring back, Lazio and Tuscany, were not much bothered.  However, I must also mention that the dollar is not doing all that well against the euro.  It has been holding steadily at $1.22 to 1 euro for quite some time and I do not expect it to change much for awhile.  So be prepared for everything to be a little more expensive.

I have not yet heard much about the honey harvests for the fall.  Last year when I went to purchase some of the fantastic honeys that I get from Sardina there were none.  The production was so sparse that there were none to buy.  I am hopeful that this year we will find a better crop and I can stock up on Stefano’s fabulous honey and olive oil soap too.

I love  fall in Italy and this year I have much to look forward to. I love each return trip to to my home away from home, visiting all my friends there.  So many dinners to re-connect,  introductions to new people, new products and new places to visit.  It is always exciting.  Always an adventure.

 

 

 

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Il Cavallino olive oil
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Stefania and Paola at Folle Casseruola

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Visiting the many markets and connecting with all my vendor friends again is so much fun.

My regular clients will be putting together their wish lists of what they want me to bring back for them –  spices from Campo dei Fiori, scarves from Florence or Milan,   It is fun for them to know they will have porcini or black rice coming for them and trust that it is the highest quality possible.  I love being able to bring them their sun dried tomatoes or porcini knowing they cannot get anything comparable here.  And, of course there is Mauro Berardi’s spice mixes from Campo dei Fiori.  Known world wide, he is a master at mixing spices together for the most memorable spice mixes.   I have most of his most popular mixes available all year (and can always bring anything you order on my twice a year trips).  Send me emailSpezie Famosean email if you want to order any of his mixes by the ounce.

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Mauro Berardi – Spezie famose nel Mundo

 

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Drop me an email if you want added onto my mailing list for the newsletter to purchase items I bring back on my journey: expresslyitalian@gmail.com.

 

 

 

Summer in Rome

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Here I am in Los Angeles, having returned from Italy only a few weeks ago and already thinking about returning to Italy in the fall.  I am missing one of my favorite times in Rome.  Summer.  August in Rome is a really special time.  Any knowledgeable tourist knows if possible to avoid August in Rome.  It is really hot and humid.  There are still many places that close for some portion of the month (although less than in years past).  Anyone who lives in Italy knows that most people who can, leave the city for cooler, less humid climes.   But there are many of us who have lived there who love the month for the benefits of August in a city that seems so empty you can always find a parking place, a city that reminds you of less populated ages.  It is quite special.  There is a slowing of everything that allows you to savor the city even more than usual.

 

 

Then there is Ferragosto, the middle of August holiday, August 15th.  It is the celebration of the Assumption of Mary as well as the earlier Roman holiday of Emperor Augustus.  Since Roman times it was the official start of summer holidays and it still means most families take the holiday off for a trip to the country for a cooler day with a picnic to enjoy together.

If you are in Rome, the Gran Ballo di Ferragosto with live music and dancing in the piazze is not to be missed.    Many of the cultural locations, museums, tourist attractions, etc. do stay open even though they normally would close on this type of holiday.

There are still tourists around, although less than you might think since most are either just passing through Rome on a quick tour stop on cruises or a one or two day stay, so there are really much less than many other months.  It is an easy walking month for sure.  Just remember to keep an empty water bottle to fill at the many fountains as you walk through town, a good head covering and lots of sun screen.

Lupa at CapSat walk 3

Be sure to stop by Campo dei Fiori Market and say hi to Mauro Berardi for me and see how his bancarella has expanded.  He has Marco, his son, now with a booth handling sandwiches and meats like porchetta and other meats, as well as condiments.  But, as always, his spice mixes are his crowning achievements.  I always have them available here in the United States if you run low.  Just drop me an email and I will happily send you information on replacing them for you.  Expressly Italian is your source for unique Italian specialties that are not found in the U.S.  that I bring directly from the producers to you here.  Send an email to expresslyitalian@gmail.com for more information,

Trajan Market

Visiting Mauro Berardi and Campo dei Fiori in May

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It’s time to make a springtime visit to Rome again.  I love visiting Mauro and wandering through the market early in the day looking at all the spring vegetables.  I love  those lovely little roman artichokes, watching them being cleaned and dropped into the acidified water.  The women cleaning the puntarelle spend all day cleaning and dropping the puntarelle into buckets of water

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Spring markets

 

But of course, the main treat for me is meeting with Mauro, Marco and Maurizio at Spezie Famose nel Mondo the most famous and largest seller of spices in the market.  I am contacted by people from all over the world looking to replace the spice mixes they purchase from Mauro.  Fortunately I almost always have a good supply of the most popular mixes available.  Contact me to find out if I have the ones you are looking for.

I am off to Rome for the month of May so if you are looking for anything in particular don’t wait, send me a request by email to be sure I bring back what you are looking for.

In addition to shopping for spices with Mauro, I will be locating Olive oil.  I know there is oil available in Vetralla and hopefully I can acquire some additional oil from Farfa, where I brought back the fabulous olio nuovo in November last year.  I won’t know until I get there what there might be available.  I have read the articles about the weather problems, but since I deal directly with growers sometimes it can be misleading and my sources availability is quite different.  I also will have to wait until I arrive to find out if there is any honey from Sardinia left.  I know those harvests were also short this year.  I continue to bring back what is available –  sometimes it is mostly Girasole (sunflower) and millefiore (wildflower) but if you have a particular type you want, please let me know, since sometimes Stefano can locate it for me in his hidden places.

Do not hesitate to email me with any special requests.  I will be checking emails often.  I will shop Milan, Tuscany (Orbetello, Florence and a few small villages)  scarves from a few sources that are reliable with their italian fabrics and italian employees that are still priced affordably.  And, if there are any new items that are interesting.  It looks like the exchange rate will hover around $1.09 to $1.00 while I am there.  If you are not on my mailing list please drop me an email and I will be happy to add you to my newsletter so you know what it available.  Enjoy shopping Italy from home.

Spring Time in Italy

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It has been a long time since I’ve posted  but there have been some traumatic times in the world, especially in Italy so I have been distracted.  Their world has been shaken much more than the rest of ours.  The results of all those earthquakes through the middle of the country has been so costly in not just lives and resources but so much more.  The 23 billion euro that the earthquakes are estimated to have cost in loss of lives, buildings and homes and businesses does not  include the losses of personal history and the restoration of some of the history of these areas.   It makes me so sad to even think of all the years ahead of recovery.  After the first series of quakes last summer some of the surrounding areas told me that every village in the area had cancellations for the entire year for reservations.  The loss of upcoming business will close many agroturismi that had no earthquake damages.

I have been plugging along with Expressly Italian trying to bring as much awareness as possible to all the wonderful products that Italians enjoy that we have such limited exposure to.  Especially olive oil, which we find are so often deceitfully labeled and poorly handled here.  It is why I started to bring oils that I know (because I get them directly from the frantoio, where I can watch them being processed and know them to be fresh).  It is only fair to warn you that olive oils are going to be soon be taking a large jump upward in price.  Erratic weather in Spain, Italy and Greece, where the bulk of the world’s olive oil is produced, has had decimated crops.    Experts say global production is set to fall about 8 percent due to horrible weather throughout Europe with global weather changes.

These shortages come as demand for the product has skyrocketed around the world. China has recently become enamored with olive oil, consuming nearly $200 million worth of olive each year. The country’s nouveau riche see the product as a healthier alternative to other fatty oils.  I have read a few articles saying they have begun planting olive trees in climates that are appropriate for their growth, (like the vineyards they are also planting) but it will be years before they will be able to harvest for oil.  They import nearly 99 percent of what they use right now.

The Guardian article I read last week stated that since October, the cost of extra-virgin olive oil has jumped 30 percent in Italy, to $6.15 a kg. In Spain, the cost is up about 10 percent, near a seven-year high, according to the International Olive Council in Madrid. In Greece, it’s 17 percent. And forecasters say the worst is yet to come.  So far, the only area where the costs have not risen much is California and  after the effects of the rains of the last couple of weeks that price stability remains to be seen.

I return to Italy in May and I will know more then about prices.    I will be bringing back spices from Campo dei Fiori from Mauro Berardi; honey from Sardinia as well as handmade scarves from La Monticiana in Rome and Florence, Olive oil from Sabina and Tuscany and as always, acting as personal shopper for any items special ordered by clients.   If there is anything you want, please get in touch with me.    My email:  expresslyitalian@aol.com

 

 

 

Home Cooking Italian Style

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It is always a pleasure to have Italian casareccio (homemade food).    It is even more exciting to enjoy it here in the U.S. and made by a well known Italian cook.  Stefania Aphel Barzini has been in the United States giving cooking classes and having events for about a month.  She finally reached Los Angeles last week.  If you are not familiar with Stefania, take a side trip to her website:  www.follecasseroula.com.  She does cooking classes in Rome as well as special events and week long events in a few regions outside Rome.  And, if you’re planning on a trip to Rome, put her on your list of things not to be missed.   Her experience as a food writer, cookbook author and cooking show presenter shine through no matter what she does.

The first event in Los Angeles was sponsored by ArtBites.net.  Maite Gomez-Rejón’s company pairs art, history and cooking in tours and classes around the southland.  The cooking portion was to be a Tuscan lunch so Maite started at the Los Angeles County Museum talking of Florentine art and artists from the dark ages to the Renaissance. She is very knowledgeable about art history and food.  We then moved on to Surfas (a cafe/kitchen store in Culver City).  It’s a wonderful kitchen for classes and Stefania along with her assistant Paola made a magical afternoon that ended with a fantastic lunch.  They are all so experienced about foods, especially regional products throughout Italy I am always happy to join a class since there is always some new tidbit of information I have never before heard.

 

 

The lunch was a Tuscan luncheon and included a fabulous artichoke and potato soup, a panzanella salad and a couple kinds of bruschetta.  The meatballs in tomato sauce were unbelievably tasty and the peach upside down cake was a finishing treat.

When you travel finding a cooking class is  a great experience and wonderful way to connect to local cuisine and you will remember the experience a long time.

One of the best dishes Stefania prepared was Zolfini bean bruschetta.  Unfortunately, you cannot get these terrific beans here in the U.S.  They  are grown only in a limited area of Tuscany, and not exported.  But you can substitute northern navy beans.  Try this healthy, high protein antipasto.

Zolfini Bean Bruschetta

Toasted Bread (Italian)
2-1/4 cups zolfini or navy beans
a small rosemary branch
2 cloves of garlic
1 shallot. chopped
really good quality extra virgin olive oil
Sea Salt and Pepper
Sautè 1 garlic clove with the shallot and rosemary in a pan.  Turn into a crock pot, add the beans, cover them with water and let cook covered over low heat until beans are softened.  Depending on the age and size of the beans –  from 2 to 4 hours.  Purèe the mixture in a blender or use a stick blender.  Rub the bread with a garlic clove, then spread some beans over the top, add a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of fresh ground pepper.  Serve immediately.  So simple, so good and so good-for-you.

 

Having access to the wonderful foods of Italy that are not readily available in the U.S. is my mission.  Expressly Italian is your personal shopper from Italy to you.  I want everyone, whether you travel or not, to experience real Italian tastes.  Much of the year I have some of the finest extra virgin olive oils (including olio nuovo till it’s gone) and honey from Sardinia (one of the only places on earth with no polution.  I want everyone to share the excitement of the wonderful spice mixes from Mauro Berardi’s Campo dei Fiori market stall.  I am contacted by people from all over the world asking how to acquire  Mauro’s mixes outside of Italy.   I have  his most popular mixes available all the time.    If you are interested in knowing all the items I bring back from Italy twice a year or want me to bring something (duty free) back for you, please drop me an email at:  expresslyitalian@aol.com and I will happily add you to my mailing list.

My love of Italy, the people, the food fuels my life.  I hope you share my joy in the Italian way of eating.

 

 

Eating well without being in Italy

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All the New Year’s resolutions are in place.  Now to implement them.  There is a world of difference between intent and accomplishment isn’t there?   Oñe of my personal goals is to become an even more aware eater this year.  That means not just thinking before stuffing a biscotti in my mouth, but to question ingredients even more.

Frankly, it is pretty disheartening to realize how compromised our food system is.   Price is no guarantee of quality.  Reputable stores do not assure you products are really as advertised.    It has become a major job and time eater just to grocery shop.  And it is not all that much better in Italy these days.  So what do we do?

pizzoccheri
Pizzoccheri – made with buckwheat noodles

Keeping it simple helps a little.  Eat mostly fresh foods,  the closer I can stay to traditional Italian cooking, especially cucina povera, (cooking of the poor) the better.  It is not difficult to find good pasta in the U.S.  Look for good quality, especially bronze cut pastas.  Always check the dates.  It should be about year ahead for dried pasta.  I find that Berilla is one of the best selling dried pastas in Italy.  Good enough for me.  The artisanal pastas are great ( I often see them at TJ Maxx or World Market), and the different shapes are always fun, but I do not find them necessary for normal cooking.  (And, again, check dates.  Sometimes those are the oldest pastas).

With a well stocked pantry (in an upcoming post I will give a serious list to help) you can always cook a great, healthy dinner in less than 30 minutes.  Winter weather always makes me feel like Ribollita – the Tuscan bread soup.  It makes a huge pot that tastes better every day.   And, it makes me feel healthy.

Here’s a recipe I adapted to use Campo dei Fiori Spice Mix, and you can use Mauro’s Mix as well.

Ribollita  – Tuscan Bread Soup

This is a traditional Tuscan soup that stays good till you finish it. Days or even a week and it holds up perfectly. Supposedly it should be thick enough for a spoon to stand straight if you put it in the pot. I adjusted the recipe to use Campo dei Fiori Spice Mix or Mauro’s Mix  to ‘kick’ up the flavor a little more.   

1 onion finely chopped
1 leek sliced
2 quarts chicken broth
1 head kale or nappa cabbage or regular cabbage
2 stalks celery sliced
1/2 cup parsley leaves chopped
2 carrots sliced
2 zucchini sliced
1 small bunch basil leaves torn
1 10-ounce can cannellini beans or kidney or borlotti
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tsp Campo dei Fiori Spice Mix (to taste – you might start out with only 1 tsp and adjust)
1 teaspoon salt preferably sea salt
1/2 cup olive oil extra virgin
1/2 pound stale Italian bread
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Sautè onion and leek in 1/4 cup olive oil several minutes until translucent.
Add a cup of chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Add the kale, other vegetables, and basil to the onions and broth.
Cook for 20 min., covered. Add the beans and the rest of the broth. Add tomato paste, oregano and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Cook for 90 minutes. At this point it should not be thick. It is best to let the soup rest a day in the refrigerator. It does deepen the flavor a lot.
Put the soup in a pot and layer the soup with thin slices of day old bread. It doesn’t make any difference how stale, or whether it’s torn or sliced, or what kind (although a good Italian or French is best). Heat while stirring until the bread breaks up and thickens the soup. You can add more broth or water if needed (but I haven’t ever needed any).

When the soup is done, turn off the heat and stir in 1/4 cup olive oil. Taste for salt. Serve with fresh grated cheese on top. It just gets better and better. This is the typical cucina povera of Italy.  

Ribollita

It is unfortunate that we have to spend so much energy to decide what is good for us, but it is worth the time to protect your health.

I hate to continue to nag about olive oil, but it seems every week there is more evidence that so much of what is available is either mislabeled, overpriced or not even real olive oil.   If you did not see the expose on “CBS 60 Minutes” recently, look for the video online.  I know that much of the oils imported are not good, but I really didn’t think about the extent of mafia involvement.  I do know they send containers of oil to the U.S. which is then bottled here.  It can have sat waiting for customs in the heat for a month, which destroys most of the value of the extra virgin oil, but they still label and sell it as premium oil.   I used to hear that Europeans did not send their best oils because Americans did not know the difference.  Unfortunately, most Americans have still not tasted good olive oil.

A friend forwarded a newsletter from Brenda Watson, an author and expert on digestive health care.   She had lists of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ olives oil.    This was apparently originally from a Consumer Reports study.  I won’t drag on about the ‘good’ list.  The bottom line is always, read the label.  It should have the per cent of acid in the oil, the date of harvest and best use by.  And, it is important to know exactly where it comes from.  In Italy, the city is always on the label, usually the type of olives and to qualify as extra virgin the acidity level must be below  0.8%.  Don’t pay for any extra virgin not labeled as such.

The bad oils are a real disappointment.  Those are most of the best known oils available in our stores.  Do not think you are getting the health benefits of olive oil if you are using these:

Bertolli, Carapelli, Colavita, Star, Pompeian, Filippo Berio, Mazzola, Mezzetta, Newman’s Own, Safeway and some of the Whole Foods oils (other than their 365).

I bring back only olive oil that I can find at the frantoio (olive mill), where they follow the very stringent laws of Italy to produce their extra virgin oil.  As often as possible I bring the olio nuovo (which is the first pressing of the beginning of the harvest).  It is rarely sold in stores.  And, the on-line sales run into the same problems of temperature variations and delays.  And, their prices are higher than mine.   I still have this season’s harvest oils so if you want to experience the true liquid gold of Italian Olive oil, get in touch with me at expresslyitalian@aol.com, or leave a note here.

In addition to olive oil, I still have honey from Sardinia and dried Porcini from my last trip.  I am constantly searching out the finest, freshest products.  My last stop on every trip is Campo dei Fiori in Rome to meet with Mauro Berardi.  Mauro is generous with his time and they always pack me the freshest spice mixes.   If you are out, get in touch.  I usually have on hand his primary mixes.  I can always shop for you when I am there for some of the more unusual products from him, just let me know what you want and I’ll get it for you.

I know that having to spend so much energy reading labels is a drag.  I am finding that it makes such a difference in the flavor of what you cook though, it is well worth the extra time.  Be healthy!   Eat Italian.