Saturday, November 20, 2010

Olive, olive-oh

 HARASSED-LOOKING men jostled for their turn to park haphazardly by the entrance. Solid women accosted them, jabbing clinking carrier bags into their chests and demanding that they lift 25-litre drums of cooking oil into the tiny, groaning cars, two or three at a time. “Jesus,” I thought. “So this is shopping?”

The date was January 14, 1991, the place a supermarket near Bologna’s inner ring road. I had arrived in the city a few days before to begin a few months’ study at the university. I had neither much Italian at my command, nor much of a clue about Italian habits and characteristics. All I knew was that I needed to buy food, and so wandered innocently into a scene of pretty advanced chaos. Italy, it turned out, was staring down the barrels of a Very Serious Problem. The Civilised World was about to launch airborne Armageddon on Kuwait, in order to expel the Evil Iraqi Dictator Saddam Hussein, who had invaded the place and was merrily committing human rights atrocities. Crucially though, he was also meddling with the balance of the carbon fuels trade. The political landscape of the Middle East was about to be savagely redrawn and there was much talk of a resulting global oil crisis. This had struck a chord deep in the Italian psyche. Without stopping to analyse the nature of the oil involved, the nation’s housewives took instant defensive action. They stripped every last container of olive oil from any retail outlet they could reach.

So two decades on I shouldn’t have been surprised to find myself on hands and knees, groping at the back of a different supermarket’s shelves for the last few packets of salt. There is no war to threaten supplies of this kitchen essential, but it is open season on pickling and bottling round here. Much of the summer’s superabundant vegetables have already been put under oil and brine, literally salted away for winter use. But right now the olive harvest is in full swing.

Most olives, and this is about to be the case for the 38 trees on the plot we look after, end up being pressed to extract their precious oil. But before stripping the branches next week we have careful picking to do, selecting and preserving the olives we want for table and kitchen use. Personally, I am beside myself with excitement at this. Having lived in the UK since summer term ended at Bologna I have never had real, live olives to play with. This is a voyage of discovery, and some background reading is required.

The first principle to absorb is one of nomenclature. Most experts refuse to call Oliva Europea a tree, referring to it as a bush despite the fact that it looks and grows like, well, a tree. Italians generally refer to olives as piante, or plants, and as I’m here I’d better do the same. As to how to render the bitter, inedible fruit of this plant into the delicious, salty, mysterious wonder that is the table olive, an initial delve into the miasmic depths of the Internet suggests that there are several thousand ways. I put a pot of coffee on the stove, fire up suitable music (violin stuff by Genoa-born violin genius Nicolò Pagannini – explosively Italian), and get reading.

Salt water, or brine, seems to be the world-champion rendering agent for olives. That and its partner-in-alchemy, time. There are many very precise recipes available, but extracting an average from them gets the following result: immerse your olives in fresh water and change it daily, for between three and seven days. Then swap this for very salty water. Change this weekly for as many weeks as it takes for the olives to become edible. Green – unripe – olives may benefit from an alkalising agent being added to the water at some point early in the curing process. Oh, and if you slice or crush the fruit a bit before curing, it may or may not take less time.

Whoever planted our olives went for a mixture of varieties, which we’re told is a sure-fire way to a superior-quality olive oil. It also presents interesting possibilities for first-time curing experiments. We have small, green olives, fat brown examples and two sizes of glossy black fruit. I picked about 10 kilos of each. A trip to the nearest DIY store yields a trio of cheap, plastic bins with hinged lids. These are intended for recycling, so the lids come colour-coded conveniently in grey, green and brown.

As I write the three batches have passed through the freshwater stage and are skulking in the darkness of their first salt water immersion. Of course salt makes them float at the surface, where evil, oxidising air lurks. If you use a round vessel for your curing you can trap the fruit underwater with a plate. If you use recycling bins, which inconveniently are largely rectangular, you have to improvise with cling film. Noting the hint about alkalising green olives, I liberated a rather manky old box of sodium bicarbonate from the kitchen and emptied it into the green fruit's initial brine.

It was as I filled the bins with water for the first time that I recalled some amazing olives bought in Sainsbury’s last year. Moroccan in origin, they claimed to be salt-cured. They were dark, squidgy and required a desalinating dip in water before you ate them. This isn’t quite Morocco, but we have black olives. I picked a batch of both small and large black fruit and researched the matter. Packed in jars with sea salt around them, apparently these will keep on getting better. The salt leaches the excess moisture and bitterness from the olives, apparently.

Of course the only other ingredients in these recipes are a cool, dark place to keep the produce and what feels like almost infinite patience. The olives in brine might not be ready until around Christmas time, and I have absolutely no idea when those under salt might be at their peak. I will know, my Internet sources tell me cryptically. Once they are ready they can be stored in brine or salt respectively, or kept in jars under olive oil and flavourings such as bay and chilli. What stops me pacing the cantina floor until this point is exactly what keeps Italians from getting itchy fingers. Apart from those employed to restock supermarket shelves with salt. There are 38 piante out there that now need picking in order to provide the necessary oil.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

My Thai

“TO ACCUSE us of racism is outrageous,” declared councillor Filippo Candelise. “All we are doing is protecting the culinary patrimony of the town.” Mr Candelise is a councillor in the Tuscan town of Lucca, which early in 2009 became the epicentre of a small gastronomic earthquake when it declared a ban on new ethnic food outlets opening within its ancient city walls. As reported in the Sunday Times, this was the head-above-the-parapet moment for a growing movement within Italy to resist the increasing influence of global immigration on its most sacred institution, the kitchen. According to the newspaper this comes from the very top, “backed by the centre-right Government of Silvio Berlusconi” and underpinned by the rather further-right North-South separatist party Lega Nord. This latter supplies the then Minister of Agriculture, Luca Zaia, who is reported as declaring that he had never consumed a kebab. “I prefer the dishes of my native Veneto,” he spits. “I even refuse to eat pineapple.”

Our Northern champion tragically ignores the glaring fact that the Italian cuisine so under threat is an ever-evolving thing of beauty, adorned with exotic foodstuffs brought here over milennia, by adventurers, conquerers, traders and immigrants of every hue. Once sown in Latin soil these somehow become Italian products, and with such profusion of wonderful home-grown ingredients who indeed would need to look beyond this nation’s 9226km of coast for inspiration?

Me, that’s who. The brilliant autumn sunshine has recently been elbowed rudely aside by strong northerly winds and squally rain. It is hardly October UK-style, but I felt cold and miserable, suffused with the kind of heaviness best blown away by a good, warm Thai curry. Thanks to a recent UK visit there were pots of green and red curry paste in the fridge, while a recent forage round a budget German supermarket yielded a good supply of creamed coconut. None of these can be found in my local shops, because they are simply not Italian. There are of course Thais in Italy, and people originating from many other parts of what used to be called quaintly ‘the Orient’. These enterprising souls open food shops to deal with the local lack of what they deem essentials. They do have an annoying tendency to stick to large cities though, and my food hunting has yet to turn up a supply near to home.

I was faced with two choices: put up or shut up. Italy itself hardly lacks for ‘native’ warm, spiced comfort food. Its 1185km length puts its toes in Africa and its hoary head in Alpine territory, and this has a direct impact on cuisine. But the embers of obsession were swiftly being fanned into a raging inferno, the kind that only a Massaman curry would quench. This is a good candidate for Thai pretenders, being a bit of a mongrel. It hails from the southern end of Thailand but draws on influences brought to the region by traders from India and the Middle East. Bay leaves, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg are cumin are all things found on my spice shelf, thanks to the excellent Asian-run shops in the UK. I got them out, along with a couple of onions, some garlic and some pickled sushi ginger which I thought would substitute for the fresh root variety.

What lovers of Thai cuisine are drawn to is its mingling of heat, sweet and sour, notes given depth by the richness of coconut yet sharp enough not to come over all lardy and indistinct. This balance of opposites is the secret of its global success. Thai cooks achieve the collection of flavour by a combination of fast cooking and careful, if unsubtle preparation. It is not uncommon for me to visit my friends Andy and Kannika at their UK home, finding the latter and Thai half of the couple sat on the kitchen floor, bashing ingredients into submission with a massive pestle and huge stone mortar. Apparently known as a kruk, this combination is a key part of the Thai kitchen and was imported by Kannika with catastrophic consequences for her baggage allowance. Scents of chilli, lemongrass, ginger and – sometimes but not always – garlic, float around the room, transporting it briefly to a patch of cleared jungle somewhere near the Thai border with Cambodia. Fortunately I once stayed for several months with this couple. I learned much, and every bit of the resource would be deployed now as I improvised. In painting terms I was aiming for impressionism rather than realism, but there lurked the ever-present danger of the whole enterprise taking a turn for the cubist.

This being a cold-weather dish, I sliced potatoes and set them to par-boil. Starch was called for. Then I set up my kruk. I haven’t got one of these stone-age marvels yet, so I settled for second-best and plugged in a liquidizer. The onions, garlic, sushi ginger, dried red Italian chilli (plus some of Kannika’s mother’s home-grown version for good luck) were reduced to a paste in short order. Normally I would add some Thai fish sauce, but one of the evening’s diners was to be a fish-hating vegetarian. So instead I added some vegetable stock. In a moment of inspiration, after wondering what to do about the sullen lump of grease that a block of coconut cream presents as, I threw that into the liquidiser, too. I also grated a lemon in, then added the juice. I didn’t have that delicate beauty lemongrass to hand, so this would have to do.

Actually making the curry from this point on was child’s play. I stir-fried finely-sliced bell peppers, carrot and green beans for a short while, then tipped in the curryish gloop from the electric kruk. The potatoes followed, with the assortment of sub-continental spices listed before. Once the vegetables were soft, my Massaman was ready to eat. Rice made an ideal accompaniment, steamed with some caraway seed to give it an aniseed tone.

In a land far, far away, a person sat on their kitchen floor. As monkeys screamed in tall trees outside they worked spices into a paste with hard wood on stone. They created something beautiful and literally reeking of authenticity, which was both nourishing and a huge pleasure to eat. In an Italian kitchen recently several people gathered to enjoy a translation of this, a warm, complex dish which brought cheer despite the downturn in the weather. Culinary patrimony remained outside in the cold.

Monday, October 4, 2010

I had a little nut tree

WALNUTS LOOK like rotting crab apples. Or at least, ours do. For this reason and because of a mental image of huge, spreading branches and elephant-hide bark, we had no idea that the little tree along the garden fence line was Juglans regia, as those of a horticultural persuasion might greet it.

Thinking back to long car journeys up Interstate 5 in California however and I recall acre upon acre of 15-foot-high trees around the Bakersfield area, which locals identified as walnuts. No massive spreading branches there, but the region produces nearly all the walnuts sold in the USA and a good proportion of the world export market.

Our corner of the Le Marche landscape is far from going head to head with central California, but the tree did produce half a bucket of walnuts. The nut itself has a fleshy outer cover, which had blackened and cracked. Within this is the shell, which must be cracked to reveal the flesh within. In truth, some of our crop was a tad past it, but we managed to end up with a reasonable mound of brain-like nuts on the kitchen worktop. At this point all we had to do was come up with something to do with the damn things.

Procrastination is always a good idea, so I fired up a popular Internet search engine and keyed in “preserving walnuts”. You can do all sorts of things to this nut, including freezing, drying it and pickling it in spiced white vinegar. None of these appealed particularly, sounding either bland, weird or plain unpleasant. Then a vague and distant memory surfaced, of somebody many years ago telling of the pleasure to be found from walnuts preserved in honey. The Internet backed this up, in terms so glowing my mouth began to water. This would be, I reflected, the perfect local treat to set before my parents should they venture over here at Christmas.

Of course, yuletide is a few months off, while lunch should by rights be but minutes away. It was no good – some of the crop would have to be sacrificed on the altar of immediate gratification. I selected about eight nuts as victims and squirreled the rest away.  Quite what to do next, I had no real idea. I keyed the search engine once more, this time pulling out the nutritional virtues of walnut. It’s a bit of a powerhouse, rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins B1, 2, 3 and 6, the antioxidant ellagic acid and minerals such as manganese, copper, magnesium and phosphorous. You could weigh walnuts in for money at a scrapyard. You’d be better to eat them however, as it seems they are low in cholesterol, good for cardiovascular function and can help control fluctuations in blood sugar.

All this gave me plenty of leeway, so I pulled a mixture of vice and virtue from the fridge. On a plate went a healthy slew of sliced beetroot, balanced by a large bunch of rocket (iron, yet more metals, lots of antioxidant caratenoids, dietary fibre, vitamin C). Warm, sliced potatoes would accompany this nicely, I reckoned. Especially after boiling, frying up in olive oil and passing through the oven coated in salt, Parmesan and the oil from a jar of sun-dried tomatoes (dietary starch, lard). The unhealthy slacker team still needed bolstering, so once the skillet was empty of spuds it received more olive oil. In this I soft-fried onion and thin slices of red pepper. I turned up the heat for a while and threw in balsamic vinegar (antioxidants, apparently), to boil quickly and sweeten the vegetables.

Because it was there, I added a little Hendersons Relish to this. There is an awful lot of hot air blown forth, especially in its home city of Sheffield (UK), about the unassailable superiority of this spicy sauce. Steel City bigots take note: Hendo’s is neither better nor worse than its rival Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce. It’s just a little different – a little heavier and less spicy, to be precise. As I grew up in Worcestershire and then transferred to Sheffield for quite some time, I have both on the shelf. I used the northern relish today because it was nearer to me on the shelf.

Besides, I was too busy considering what music to play as I cooked. Low-fi and laid-back would suit the mood, I decided, firing up the excellent It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water by The Microphones (K Records, Washington DC, USA). Perfect.

The balsamic and relish left a little moisture, so I threw in just a spoonful of tomato passata to enrich things. Then I cut the rind from a tag end of a sweet Gorgonzola that’s plentifully available here (sodium, protein, more lard) to leave the tangy inner. Any soft blue cheese would do just fine. It melted into the pan to turn the pepper and onion into a luscious, creamy sauce which I added chopped walnuts to, then lobbed onto the plate between the saladstuffs to remind them not to be so smug.

All in all this was an excellent lunch and a fine way to begin a tour of ways to enjoy walnuts. Once the shops open late this afternoon I shall take a much-needed constitutional in the direction of the supermarket, and buy a few jars of honey.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Wild Fig Hunt

THIS IS a year of discoveries in Italy, and one of my most recent is the local superabundance of the fig. Ficus, cursory research tells me, is a genus of trees and shrubs with a good 850 species within it. What is of interest to me here is the common fig. With its distinctive big, waxy leaves and stems, it is a common sight in southern and central Italy. The fruit turns up in the UK in grocery shops, especially those run by people with their roots in sunnier latitudes.

These canny shopkeepers have a point. Dried figs may look as though they once hung from miniature billy goats, but their interior is a delight. Lots of seeds are surrounded by an amazing, sweet-and-sour flesh. Removing the moisture from the fruit only concentrates the flavours and sugars. We all should want, as the Christmas carol reminds us, some figgy pudding.

In my Internet quest for pub quiz fodder I discover that the fig is actually a multitude of inverted flower heads, each creating a seed in the damp darkness of the fruit. Far from the show and tell of normal fruit trees in flower, the ficus relies on the stealthy burrowings of egg-laden wasps to pollinate it. This seems to explain the extraordinary short life of fruit on the tree. Our garden contains several figs and I was dismayed by the narrow gap between nice, soft fruit and flabby, rotten, downward-falling one.

Figgy pudding was never my goal. Rather I had my sights set on that elusive delicacy, the fig roll. For some reason this peculiarly appetising biscuit is unavailable in Italy through regular shops. We can find a slightly odd French version for €2.50 a packet, in motorway service stations. Surrounded by fecund figs, I fancied making my own.

The Internet yielded a couple of promising-seeming recepies for fig paste, and feeling terribly scientific I decided to try them both. Having beaten the wasps to a bucket full of figs I divided my spoils into two piles and set to. Method one involved gently heating lemon juice, figs, sugar and cinnamon, until the resulting gloop becomes glazed. Alas, the only thing that glazed was my eyes, as fig soup bubbled discretely away for what seemed like hours. Only then did I notice that this recipe specifies dried figs as a starting point. Damn. A couple of fruitier expletives later I popped to the shop to buy vast quantities of sugar, turned up the heat and added some apple. The resulting jam is lovely.

Method number two was much more successful. For one thing it sounded exciting – ‘pecorino Toscano stagionato with fig paste’ sounds almost like a poem. I have one Rick Tramonto to thank for it, and a reference to it and his surely excellent book, Osteria. Pecorino could be set aside however – it was Rick’s spiced fig paste that I craved. Creation of it was utter simplicity. The figs are baked for a while until “dried and shrunk by about a quarter”. For my version, read: “shrunk and a smidge cremated due to the completely unregulated furnace that is our ancient, rescued-from-the-scrapman Smeg cooker”. A cup of port is boiled with rosemary to kill off the alcohol, reduce and season, then added to the baked figs, anointed with olive oil, salt, pepper and orange zest. A food processor reduces the lot to paste in short order. My version employed red wine and balsamic vinegar in the absence of port, plus a bit of cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg to add Eastern mystique. A hand-held blender did the pasting perfectly well.

Rick advises rolling the paste into parchment paper and refrigerating, so I stuffed the lot into a clean jar. It comes out occasionally to accompany cheese, to be spread on toast or to be used like a pickle alongside savoury dishes. I haven’t quite got round to making fig rolls yet, because a friend derailed the express train of ficusian zeal by bringing a dozen packets back from the UK very recently. However, figs seem to fruit for ages and another crop is teetering on the branches, about to be nabbed by hymenoptera. I’m on a roll, and could be about to make one.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Something fishy

THE PLACE where we live at the moment is a very fortuitous spot, with the Adriatic lapping lazily at sand just 100 yards away from the front gate. In recent days the milling tourists of August have disappeared like smoke, to be replaced by the odd fisherman. These patient souls stand for hours on the foreshore, baited – and at night, illuminated – rods set up. As far as I can see, the catch is five-inch tiddlers of no note at all, but it does seem to fascinate them.

Ah, fish. My stomach began to rumble. Unfortunately I had neither the inclination nor the equipment to go and pull lunch from the briny. I had a fish round the fridge and larder instead, an expedition which yielded a jar of anchovies, garlic, onions, a tin of lentils and some liquid left over from a watery Filipino fish stew made by my wife a few days ago.

A short browse through easily-available Internet sources reveals that the term Anchovy refers to an entire family of diddy fish, of which there are around 140 species. Engraulidae is the name to drop, in case you ever want to be formally introduced. Engraulidae thrive in temperate or warm water, which means they can be found right across the globe. South-East Asian peoples love the Anchovy, making stock of it, deep frying it and fermenting it into sauces. Europeans on the other hand, tend to preserve their Anchovies first in brine, then salt or oil. This produces thin slices of highly salty, fishy loveliness that can be cut small and used to drive flavour into much blander material.

This is exactly what I planned to do. While lentils are great if you like a nice earthy flavour, and even greater if you seek a wide range of proteins, dietary fibre, folate, vitamin B and iron, they tend to need a bit of sexing up before they hit the dining table. We would have no boringness issues here, I reflected as I soft-fried onions and an excess of garlic before tipping in chopped anchoves and the tin of lentils. I set my wife’s stock to reducing like mad. It smelt fantastic. My wife is far from being an avid cook, but she does know how to use the Filipino packet sauces made by Mama Sita, which major in the use of the mysterious sourness of tamarind to add interest. To thicken the stock I threw in a little tomato passata, and kept the heat high.

Music, if you can get it in your kitchen, is a boon companion when cooking. Fancying a side-order of electronica I fired up the Ringer EP by brilliant London-based technician Four Tet (Kieran Hebden to his mother). Bing, bong and plingscapes mixed with the steam from reducing sauce. Excellent.

The sauce was united with the fishy lentils. I thought it needed rounding out, as northerly winds were blowing outside and bringing thoughts of coldness with them. So cayenne pepper, a little feta cheese and a good dash of nam pla were stirred in until the cheese had melted.

Nam Pla by the way, is Thai fish sauce. You can get it in small, expensive bottles in British supermarkets, or in large, cheap bottles from South-East Asian stores in major towns across Europe and America. It is made of fermented fish, usually any old stuff dragged in by the boats. Who knows? Who cares? The Squid Brand we use could even contain Anchovies. What it does, as my wife puts it, is “make everything taste good”.

The result of this trawl through the fridge was lovely – terracotta-coloured, earthen, rich, a little spicy and terribly warming. We ate it with rice, although brown bread or even fried potatoes would have been pretty good accompaniments. Hard-boiled eggs would have been an inspired addition, I realised far too late to do anything about the matter.

Best of all, I hadn’t had to spend hours standing on a beach in variable weather conditions, persuading a delicious, fishy dinner to come to my hook. I am more than happy to be converted to the way of the rod and maggot, but until that happens the glorious salted Anchovy will always have a place in the larder here.