Knock, knock

In the middle of the night last night, a friend of my friend, called to say that he was arriving with more friends.  It took me more than a few minutes to remember English, to remember that the door upstairs was locked, to remember that it was pouring down rain, to remember that there was no fire in the stove, and there was no food except a confection of handmade candied apricots, figs, roasted nuts, covered in chocolate that I had given as a gift to my lovely hostess before she left for Africa.  I unwrapped it and put it on the table.  They are a self sufficient group–a good thing, because I was madly and close to obsessively washing dishes when they came in.  They started the fire, made themselves tea, made me laugh and then found their own beds.

In the morning I made my way through the cats who sleep in a pile by my side, threw on my clothes, and drove up the road to Preggio, making my hairpin turn to the top now with the best of them, and then fried happy chicken eggs and toasted thick cut toast of pane normale.  Nearly all of the  ladies are off to Assisi today, with the exception of two who would rather relax and walk through the woods and watch the clouds float by.

The joys of gnocchi

It’s not hard to make gnocchi except that you have to make a jump off the deep end of control by number. There is no such thing as knowing exactly how much is needed of one thing or another sometimes. Think of kissing. If you have the manual next to you while you kiss, and you read as you go, following all of the instructions, and stopping to read the fine print to be sure you get it right, even if you get it to the letter, the kissee could just as well fall asleep or leave all together. A gnocho or a kiss need your attention from the inside out. A vulnerable kind of moving through the dark together with a sense of where you are going and only the moon to guide you. Trust all of your other senses to tell you what is just enough flour to make a dough both light and alive, and when you have turned the potato and flour together with your hand, just enough.

And then we are talking gnocchi.

Don’t worry now; I am going to give you somewhere to jump from. Here is what to start with for about 6 people: 3 fist sized potatoes (I like yukon gold). Peel the potatoes and cut into chunks about the size of a tangerine. Salt the water until it is like a well seasoned soup. Add a tiny spill of olive oil and the potatoes. The water should just cover the potatoes. Bring to a boil, and immediately take it down to a simmer. Set the lid on the pot, slightly ajar. Cook until there is no resistance when you stick a small sharp knife into the center of a potato. Drain and put the potatoes back in the pot for a few seconds to dry them out a bit. Mash them right away with a fork, or put them through a ricer. Cool slightly in a bowl. Add one egg into a well in the center. Beat the egg with your fingertips, and then incorporate it, using your hand, into the potato. Add salt to taste and a little drizzle of olive oil. Now comes the flour. Start with two handfuls. Cup your hand and scrape it along the bottom of the bowl, folding the flour into the potato mixture. If the dough is still really tacky to the touch, add another few tablespoons to a quarter cup. It should not be at all hard and dry, just smooth enough to roll on the board. Rom it into a ball, using cupped, gentle hands, and no squishing. Let it sit on the board and cut into four pieces. Using one piece at a time, lightly dust the board with flour, just enough so that there is a whisper of flour on the board, and roll the pieces into logs the width of your index finger. As you roll your hand should hardly press the dough, more encouraging it to roll forwards and then back, and as you come back, ever so slightly pull the dough out to lengthen it. Kissing didn’t come in a day either. But once you get it, it’s yours.

Slash a head of garlic in half and without pulling it apart, set the halves in olive oil to go golden. Add sage leaves, about 10, and keep those going until translucent. Turn off the heat. Smash about three of the garlic cloves to a paste. Add about three tablespoons of soft butter and a pinch of salt and a grind of black pepper.

Boil the gnocchi a few at a time, lifting them from the pot as soon as they rise to the top, and resting them on a paper towel set on a sieve, before holding them on a warmed and buttered serving plate. When you have them all done, toss them into the sage butter and taste for salt. Give them a flurry of roughly grated parmesan and pour yourself a glass of wine.

The ladies have gone off in the rain with Pino and Marco to wind their way through Montelpulciano, Montelcino, Val d’orcia and Pienza.   I will make dinner and put the candles on the table for their return.  No class tonight.  There is just so much you can take on in a day.

Tiramisu di nuova

Every once in a while it happens that after walking down road A, year after dependable year, road B comes into view and you gotta shake up the house, and make a change.  I always used to make my tiramisu by whisking egg yolks, sugar and vin santo over a bagna maria (a pot of simmering water) until it tripled in volume, and was hot to the touch when you shoved your finger right into the middle of the bowl.  Next to the pan, was an ice bath, and as soon as the zabaglione was ready, I would continue to whisk until it was cool along the outside of the bowl.  Then whipped cream and mascarpone folded in and layers of espresso dipped ladies’ fingers.  But then, I started thinking, if the rest of the world is getting along fine without cooking their eggs, then why maybe I outta give it a try.  Sure enough, it comes out like a dream.  For every 500 grams of mascarpone, use 8 eggs, separated.  Whisk the yolks with half a cup of sugar, being sure to whisk the sugar in a steady stream, and until the mixture is light and smooth.  Whisk a little of it into the mascarpone, to lighten that up as well, then another little bit, and finally the last bit.  Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until just beginning to hold a soft peak.  Fold that in.  Make a pot of espresso.  Pour it into a wide flat dish with sides and add sugar to taste.   Give it a good spill of vin santo or marsala, maybe 2 parts coffee to 1 part liquor.  Quickly dip in the ladies’ fingers and then layer them in a 10 or 12 inch dish.  Pour over half the creamy stuff.  Another layer of ladies’ fingers and then the rest of the creamy.  Sift unsweetened, dutch process cocoa over the top and serve.

The ladies have gone to Deruta today, and they might come home with just the dish for whichever road they choose to wander.

Almost

I am always struck by love.  Yesterday afternoon a couple arrived, and though I didn’t remember a man on the list, there is always room.  Instead, he was only here for a minute; he had driven his wife to me all the way from Rome, up to the top of the white track road, and then back he went to catch a plane to somewhere far off in Africa.

Holy Cow

We have nearly everyone, only missing (separate) luggage and one student.  No clues on the luggage, but we are nearly certain that the student will arrive in time to cook.  The pasta maker is standing ready on the counter for this afternoon, and after they come back from Cortona , we will roll out satiny sheets of lasagne and sear off Trabalza sausages and a chicken leg (got no stock? make it in the sauce), and then onions, simmering until they melt, with a sprig of rosemary and a bay leaf, ground beef and pork, and a half stalk of celery, and the same of carrot.  After so much travel, bags on their way to nowhere and trains breaking down over and over and over, I am switching desserts to a classic, always delivers and will never let you down, tiramisu.

Longing

I have been reduced to wanting only chocolate.  I made a pork roast on the bone last night, stuffing it with a gremolata of fresh bread crumbs, lemon zest, smashed garlic, parsley, mint, sage, rosemary, marjoram and a douse of olive oil, then searing it before roasting, and every fifteen minutes, giving it a pour of chianti.  A side of wilted spinach with garlic, raisins and pignoli.  I made a risotto with Amarone della Valpolicella, and before that, a starter of roasted pumpkin with pancetta and onion, spooned over bruschetta that had been soaked with stock and then the whole thing set under a small stormm of Parmigiano Reggiano shavings. 

But I want chocolate.  I have had 65% Lindt truffle bars, dark chocolate balls filled with the Captain’s Rum, soft chunks of hazlenut and chocolate creaminess, chocolate with pepperoncino, chocolate with pear, and still it is not enough.  In the morning when I wake up, there is a short repreive.  Cappucino and a flaky butter pastry calms the longing at least until 11. 

Get past the wool

There is nothing like having someone come over to the house when the wind is whipping against the outside walls with an impressive effort particular to a wolf determined to eat, and start to make some cheese. At first we thought we might just start a fire in the dining room, but we moved to the wood burning stove in the kitchen instead and started to heat up great vats of sheeps milk. As it came to a lovely simmer, filling the kitchen with a wet, warm heat and fragrance, the cheesemaker made the sign of the cross, and began to move his arm, up to the elbow, through the liquid in search of curd. It was pressed into its disc like form, covered with sea salt on the top and on the bottom, and then immediately drained. We were instructed to turn it once daily for at least a month. For the ricotta, he used the whey, waiting one more time for the water to simmer, and when a third flower bloomed along the surface, the new curds were lifted out in slices and packed into baskets, left to drain for the night. We were instructed to have it with warm bread and honey from the cheesemaker’s bees, as soon as we rose from our beds. Before he left, he poured the water into a basin, big enough for 10 feet at a time, and the ladies removed all socks and shoes and boots and dipped their toes, then plunged mid calf into a skin softening, nerve soothing sheep spa.

While they soaked, I ran up the stairs to the  living room, the only spare fire in the house, to grill the pork chops.  We had them with a pappa al pomodoro, and a salad of arugula, bits of new organges, paper thin slices of red onion from Tropea, fresh fennel, and a dressing of olive oil and lemon and salt.

Goodbye, Ladies

Yesterday afternoon, the calm and gentle voice of Ann Marie called to tell me that they were stopped and the middle of the highway. She said that they had had a wonderful time in Assisi and would be home as soon as they found the road. While we waited, Darlene and I got lamb shoulder seasoned with salt, seared off and in the pan to braise in the oven along with an inch of chicken stock, white wine, and chunks of caramelized carrot, onion, celery and garlic. We made a flying leap from the written menu and started a polenta finished with fresh butter and parmesan, instead of the gnocchi al romano, because the polenta was so delicious last night at the Villa and there was a need to know how to make it. I found chickory at the market, which is a great bitter side bite to have with rich meat and mellow corn grits. There were two lemon tarts with cream for dessert because why not, it was the last night.

I will never forget our sweet salutation–”Hello, Ladies” that came over the walkie talkie from one car to the other, and then even if there was silence and no response from the other car because of the stress of nothing familiar, our deliverer of all news would press on–”everything is OK;we are 99% sure that we are about to make a turn.

I will miss them all.

Friday

If nothing else, life is a lesson in letting go. The cold is coming in and though summer has been a welcome over extended guest, he’s walking now. We dined at the Villa la Macchia last night. To warm us through the bone, we were served sausages cooked ever so slowly with onion until they were brown and plump. Sauce was added, along with great spoonfuls of polenta. And then the delight of tuscan cheeses, a soft gorgonzola and a tile shaped stracchino, and at the end of the meal, an espresso panno cotta with a caramel sauce. Before the night was over we tasted olive oil the way it is meant to be, one that reminds you that there are gentle breezes somewhere in the world, and grass that grows from the earth, and compared it to olive oil that comes with a label and a bottle and a price.

It could have been the chicken

I was meant to make one thing, but I made another. I find it difficult to pass up the idea of singed edges on bits of sweet pumpkin that have roasted in an olive oil made gentle by the passing of a year, stirred into a risotto with all the attention that a heart and soul have to offer. And for afterwards, when we are all sitting content and quiet, just happy to be feeling whatever it is, flooding our veins, looking out at the slope of a hill against a sky lit with an Autumn torch–a chicken. A fat, smooth, succulent, seared, then stuffed with the grey green leaves of fresh sage, thyme, and rosemary, and a yellow apple, a chunk of onion, a small red head of garlic all dressed with salt from a sea not so far away, and olive oil from even closer. Before it goes in the oven, we overlap slices of pancetta from the butcher Trabalza across the breast, and give the whole thing a pour Vin Santo. And then again at least two more times before it comes out. By then it only needs a spoon of the sauce it has made itself, scooped from the bottom and dripped from the top.

We can hardly move at the end, after apple tarts and tiny cups of deep, dark coffee, but we push on. It didn’t take us nearly as long to get to Lesson 2 in the heart of Montevarchi at Pasticceria Bonci, and maybe it was the Chianti chocolates that we were served before dinner, but it took us an awfully long time to get home. No bother at all though–it was a winding road I hadn’t seen for years, and the fun of trying to recognize the slightly familiar in the dark. We were great at the Christmas carols and slept deep into the next morning. For breakfast we had butterfly wings, made by Signore Silvio Bonci himself.

It’s the thought that counts

Can I just say that getting where you are going is not always the easy part.

A. Don’t ever special order the vegetarian on Virgin. There were no treats. Being vegetarian (which I’m not, but I like to special order every once in a while), does in no way mean you don’t need treats as much as the next guy.

B. Avoid a layover that includes changing airports, although pret manger is a great distraction if you happen have an extra 6 hours.
C. Ice cream in Rome is all it’s meant to be when you have been traveling for 24 hours and you need something to help you make it to 25.

My friend Caroline has made it so much better by making me entirely welcome into my home on a Tuscan hillside for the next 6 weeks. I have already had cups of tea and wine lunch and all I had to offer was a flattened Cadbury bar that I bought her in the airport.