Master Gardeners, Italian style

Vegetable garden next doorIf you have ever lived next door to an Italian you will know how prolific they are in producing vegetables – front garden or back, it makes no difference.

My next door neighbour is constantly passing me generous bags of veggies, so despite my lack of a veggie garden, am munching my way through oodles of zucchini recipes as they sprout overnight and never cease! Or he leaves me home grown peaches and apples on my terrace at dawn, not to wake me up. Being a vegetarian makes him even more keen to be sure I have plenty…..meaning enough to feed an army of friends!

Nowadays all the talk is about, 0 kilometre produce, eco sustainability, the sharing economy, recycling, seasonal choices of vegetables when Italians have been well ahead of the times with this approach to life….if they have any square inch to cultivate.

The farmers have come a long way from the dangerous pesticides of the past and spraying sulphur till they came home looking like a green Martian! Now enclosed tractors and masks are the norm and many of the dangerous pesticides are no longer available in Italy or in Europe.Cinque terre vegetable garden

When hydroponics seemed fashionable for producing a lot in a small space without soil, Italians have been true Masters in producing quality and quantity in confined spaces for centuries and continue to do so.

The terraces at the Cinque Terre boast many a good veggie patch in the most confined spaces.

From master gardeners to farmers, this Italian Summer has been a real struggle with drought conditions and consistent heatwave temperatures of more than not 40+C  since the beginning of June.

Olive trees have lost their fruit and their leaves point skyward to lessen their heat exposure in an effort to stay alive, and while they are very resistant trees it is an extreme test for them. Grapevines also look haggard although for some it may be a top quality year, low on production but high on quality. Grape picking started early and up North in the Pinot Grigio area it has already finished. Bees are producing less honey, fig trees are losing their leaves and their fruit remains undeveloped and as the drought continues many crops are ruined.

Fires have broken out throughout Italy, creating enormous damage to farmers with loss of livestock and crops. National Parks have come under threat both from natural fires and dreadful pyromaniacs, with close to 89,000 hectares ( 220,000acres) of land burnt, an equivalent of ‘124,000 football stadiums’ as they said on the TV News!

City folk look at the news as they turn up their air conditioning or fan themselves under the shade, incredulous that the heat does not wane and sceptical of the possibility of water rationing, more expensive fruit and vegetables and no new Extra Virgin Olive Oil in November!

So it’s a tough old time this Italian Summer, one that is not unfamiliar to other countries as climatic change persists and we fail to find solutions.

Basil in a barrow

 

Still if you are coming over and would like to be an Italian gardener, do join us in the Cinque Terre on the Tourist in the Wild project – Save Vernazza as “Even paradise needs a Gardener”

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Nothing beats a Moka pot

Moka coffee pot

My new Moka pot for one

In a moment of distraction, I burnt out my Moka coffee pot….Oh No!!!

The handle literally melted off the side and while the rest was still intact, it was definitely time to buy a new one. No replacement base would do as it would ruin the coffee flavour since it had gurgled out of water for far too long. So as I popped down to the shop to get my new one, I thought how Italian I have become!

My Moka pot has been my coffee maker at home ever since I arrived in Italy and it is definitely my favourite coffee machine. No new fangle dangle devices can compete, not even a flashy George Clooney Nespresso model….unless it comes with George!?!

While the rest of the world, and a large part of the Italian world, has embraced coffee machines so they can enjoy an espresso or cappuccino at home, quite a few of us have clung to our Moka. Why?

It makes a great espresso, or added to hot milk a wonderful breakfast caffé latte. Comes in various sizes from, just for one, for 3, 6, 9 and a mega 12 person Moka which I have only seen in the Bialetti shop. Takes 5 mins to make on a gas or electric stove, and for the most part the Moka is indestructible, with easy to find replacement parts like filters, and gaskets etc.

Moka Bialetti 1940's cartoon

Bialetti’s 1940’s cartoon on how to use a Moka

Bialetti would have to be biggest brand, and in fact is the inventor, which in the Italian post-war depression was a great convenience for all people who could no longer afford to go out. Renato Bialetti is the  moustached cartoon figure that appears on their logo.

 

There is still an Art in the Making’, as in everything Italians do.

Fill the base with water to just below the heat valve, heap the coffee in the funnel just a touch, squeeze tight and place on a low flame not bigger than the pot and turn it off just as it starts to gurgle. If sharing the larger pots it’s best to give a quick stir in the top so the coffee consistency is uniform for everyone. Use only warm water, NO SOAP, to clean it and it will serve you forever.

Florentine Moka pot

Just about everyone now has a modern coffee machine, which I found out the hard way when I went to my friends wedding in Finland. I took, what I thought to be, the perfect gift: a Florentine (Brunelleschi style dome top) Moka pot with trendy illy coffee cups. I was very happy with myself until I walked into their home and was offered a cappuccino from their coffee maker!

In fact at the Milan Expo on food in 2015 I discovered that the Finns are the highest consumers of coffee, followed by Germans, Brazilians with Italians only rating fourth! Although that should come as no surprise since I think Italians do most things in moderation and think they own the coffee legend.

And while I do love a cappuccino and a good espresso, I save that desire to when I am out at the bar or restaurant as something of a special treat. Now that’s Italian!

I have already seasoned my new little Moka pot, working it through 3 coffee rounds before taking a first sip. Ahhh, just lovely! I will treat it with due respect and continue to enjoy this fabulous Italian invention and great tradition.

My Moka pots

My Moka pots for 1, 3 and 6

And if Italy is in your next travel plans, check out my post on Italian Coffee etiquette so you too can feel like a local when you get here!


 

 

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Who is sleeping in those hammocks?

Hiking the trail down to Vernazza I heard “What are those things?  They must be hammocks!” Olive netsOlive nets

 

 

 

 

A curious response I thought and there would be a lot of people sleeping under olive trees….if they were! But for those who have never been involved in olive picking it could be difficult to guess what the netting was for. Besides not every region leaves the olive nets tied under the trees. It is rare in Tuscany and only in places where it is difficult to reach the trees. These photos are from the Cinque Terre where accessibility is always problematic, terraced land far from road access make it a necessity to leave the nets tied up all year.Cinque Terre olive netsCinque Terre olive nets

 

 

 

 

Unleashed, and spread out between the trees the area looks like a fairyland so no surprise if a leprechaun or two appeared! In reality though, the nets are spread to catch the olives as they fall snatched by strong winds or drop as they mature. Not a practice that is used in Tuscany as Tuscans prefer to pick their olives slightly before maturation thus producing a superb extra virgin olive oil with an almost spicy tang to it. Being a vegetarian this is perfect to give that slight boost to dishes without overwhelming the flavour.

Liguria and the Cinque Terre of which is part, have their own variety of olive – Taggiasca which has a more delicate flavour and goes perfectly with the seafood dishes and other local specialities. And then every region in Italy is very protective of their olives, each boasting the best!

We have been so lucky this year, as it has been a good season, and the dreadful bug of last year died in the heat of the Summer. So I was happily back picking in Pienza on the Paolucci’s property, even in a T-shirt the weather was so mild!Picking olivesOlive picking

 

 

 

 

 

Olive Rake machine

 

 

While I love to hand pick, we were helped by the battery operated rake machine. 10 Quintali (1000kg) in five days was pretty good for 5 pickers, starting after the fog lifted and finishing around 5pm as the sun set. This year with the addition of a good old trusty Ape truck to help  us.

OlivesApe truck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately we were also a little on the run, hiding under the trees, as helicopters circled in the mornings and late afternoon to catch pickers who were not officially registered workers with the risk of imposing heavy fines (€ 3,000) both on the picker and the employer! We were just a group of old friends picking, like so many others, being paid in olive oil, as the tradition has been for centuries. Sunset on Pienza

Pienza Cathedral

Pienza Cathedral

Paolucci olive picking

Aleardo Paolucci – ‘Olive Picking’

Everyone was grumbling about it and pointing the finger at the large companies attempting to get a stranglehold on the olive oil industry. Not that many of us locals were likely to buy the extra virgin olive oil offered on the supermarket shelves as we had picked our own!Not unexpected either was the news that some of those major companies are now under investigation for labelling their product as extra virgin olive oil, when it was merely olive oil – meaning of lesser quality, higher acidity level and probably not from the first press. Not a surprise as for the quantity they sell it would be impossible to produce extra virgin olive oil exclusively from Tuscan or even Italian olives. So I can only suggest you find a good local producer at a farmer’s market and definitely avoid brand names like – Bertoli, Carapelli and Coricelli!

So savour the new oil, lash out and splash it about and believe me…you never get fat on extra virgin olive oil!

 

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The curtain falls on Milan Expo

Expo has closed after entertaining us for 6 months, with its exotic world pavilions, dramatic displays and superb presentations. “Feeding the planet, Energy for life” was the theme and I am only able to publish photos now as every ticket holder was bound to a ‘no publicity’ agreement. Not that they were likely to find my little blog….but you just never know?!

It has been a great success, with 21.5 million visitors, and a 140 countries represented. I was one of the early birds to go in May and it definitely had a WOW factor. An architects paradise inside and out: stylish, avant-garde, a smidge bizarre, technologically impressive, reflecting the heart and soul of each country.
Pavilions designed around the concept of sustainability, low impact energy systems using recyclable materials. External green spaces were important and a blessing to the eye and tired feet, a well earned place to stretch out and relax, lulled to the music of water fountains.

Turkey pavilionThailand

 

 

Italian pavilion

Italy’s pavilion, while looking like squirted paint gone wrong, was actually made of smog ‘eating’ concrete, and inside a full immersion in mirrors.Italy pavilion expo
 Expo Italy pavilio
 Expo Mexico
Expo French pavilion
French pavilion
   The French pavilion had laser cut undulating wood panelling while Mexico was encased in husk leaves.

Expo UAE

 

Sand dunes lead the way into the United Arab Emirates, the rice food cluster reflected the public doing yoga in its mirror walls, and solar trees lit up the German pavilion.

 

 

 

 

Expo rice cluster

 

 

Each country proudly told it’s own story of climate change, harnessing new energies, converting sea water to sweet, new and ancient customs and the move away from monoculture industrial agriculture.

 

You could feel like a bee humming in the hive in the UK, bounce into Brazil along the interlaced cord, be absorbed in incredible 3D movies in Israel and UAE, or spin off on a Coca-Cola seat.

Expo Brazil

Expo Kazakhstan
The Kazakhstan sand painting  introduction was fantastic as was the rest of their very sophisticated exhibition, definitely my favourite!  And in a moment of relax, we were entertained by Bielorussia performers
I was disappointed to see no sign of Australia nor think Australians even knew of Expo‘s existence!

My enthusiasm never wanes and I went back for a second visit with the crowds in October as I found the pavilions remarkable, both inside and out, and a wonderful opportunity to learn about gastronomic traditions and the new technologies being employed to increase sustainability.

Expo China

 

China Expo

 

 

 

 

 

 

Expo Slow FoodSlow Food Biodiversity park

 

 

The Slow Food exhibition offered much food for thought – like our inappropriate industrial food chain that is leaving the land scarred and barren, doused in chemicals as we continue to eat more processed foods. The contradiction of millions still remaining undernourished while others die of ailments from too much food. It made me feel guilty about eating quinoa seeing the changes it has made to Bolivian farmers!  On a lighter note, we were treated to a sensory display, sniffing and feeling into boxes to guess what food….a lot of laughs there, and then rested amongst the cabbages and tomatoes in the biodiversity park outside.

Time will tell if the Milan charter signed by millions will reach its goal, but it has certainly raised people’s consciousness,  produced hours of global discussions and we can only hope it will make positive changes to this tired old world submerged in problems and daily dramas which we see only too close in Europe.

Expo entrance

 

Expo Israel

 

 

 

 

 

The Italian pavilion will remain (eating smog) together with some of the other pavilions, and the Tree of life will be our Eiffel Tower. The rest is to be dismantled, returned to each country or auctioned to the highest bidders, while the remaining area will most likely to turn into a University campus, research centre and Red Cross headquarters.Expo Cezch Republic

Expo Tree of Life

Tree of Life

 

 

For more info see this Expo site

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

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A vegetarian turned carnivorous?

 

Butcher Dario Cecchini Who would have thought that a vegetarian like me would write a blog on meat!    Noooo, I haven’t turned carnivorous, but am always fascinated by personalities and live in a region full of traditions that I like to share with you.Butcher Dario Cecchini

 

 

 

 

 

Dario Cecchini is definitely one of those personalities, and on a recent hike in the Chianti area I came across him, chatting outside his shop on a Sunday morning. I had just parked the car in Panzano in Chianti and was walking toward the café to meet the other hikers along the street of his famous butcher’s shop. Cecchini is the 8th generation of butchers in his family and certainly under his guidance and inspiration the Antica butcher’s shop has expanded and gained notoriety.Restaurant 'Only Meat"

 

I first learnt about Cecchini in 2001 during the ‘crazy cow’ period when the Florentine T bone steak went off the menu. He held a mock funeral in the village, complete with a coffin containing a long spine of beef , a distressed widow and a line of mourners. He auctioned off the last T bone steaks to locals and celebrities like Elton John and Prince Charles and gave the money to charity. He’s that sort of guy, wildly extrovert and generous.

Back in business after the ban lifted he appeared for a while on a TV spot giving ‘how to cook meat” recipes in his funny colloquial Tuscan dialect and flamboyant style. Filmed in his shop, an elderly lady phoned the TV station to say the two statues depicting damned souls in purgatory that appeared on either side of his counter had been stolen from her little church in Piedmont! Again Cecchini was in the news, declaring innocently that he had bought them from an antique dealer and lucky for him he still had the receipt. The suspect antique dealer finished in court!

Restaurant Panzano

 

He is well-known to Jamie Oliver and a regular supplier to Sting who has a country house in the Chianti area.

 

 

So when I saw him I admit to being a bit overwhelmed and timidly asked to take his photo for my blog and he reacted enthusiastically “Come in, come in, behind the counter is best!”Dario Cecchini and me

 

He now has 3 restaurants in Panzano and the street is bizarrely decorated with fake steaks and colourful cow statues. One is called “Solo Ciccia” Tuscan slang for “Only Meat” and the other “MacDario” where he serves mostly burgers with roast potatoes and no roll.

Vineyards in Chianti

Chianti vineyards

 

Hiking Panzano

Hiking Panzano

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chianti hikeNot long after the day in Panzano I was dining downtown in a Jewish vegetarian restaurant and he was there with a group of American students having a great time. He was outrageously dressed in colours of the Italian flag, green pants, white shirt, red bandana, tricolour buttons, green crocs, even his socks which he proudly flashed when he came over to greet me! Such a sociable character, his generous grin radiates warmth; it’s hard not to like him even for a vegetarian.

Olive groves Chianti

Olive groves on Chianti hills

And to his credit that he has created such an empire, yet remained faithful to his Tuscan traditions and his local village. His enthusiasm and energy is infectious, and he has certainly done much to promote the area and local food specialities.

As he says in his video “Food is something very serious. It’s what nourishes our lives. And meat is something even more serious because it involves killing an animal to feed ourselves” For a man who gave up his studies as a vet to look after his siblings on the premature death of his father, he has a better understanding than most.

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Goodbye to Mr Sugar Daddy

‘Mr Nutella’ – Michele Ferrero described by Forbes as Italy’s richest man, and owner of the chocolate and confectionery empire died recently at the ripe old age of 89. He was known as a quiet, reserved man who stayed well out of the limelight. Who would have thought mixing hazelnuts with chocolate into the Nutella spread  would have made him a billionaire!Nutella, Vegemite

Every Italian I have met has grown up on Nutella, unlike many Aussies, like me, who grew up on Vegemite. I always have a jar or tube of that in the cupboard and have stifled a giggle seeing my Italian friends dive in on a slice of bread with Vegemite thinking it must be the dark chocolate version of Nutella!? Boy are they shocked after the first mouthful when that strong tasty yeast extract hits the palate. After one of these tastings a friend commented “you must have had a deprived childhood”!

Ferrero chocolatesDelving into Mr Nutella’s company I discovered that besides the famous Nutella first produced in 1964, Ferrero also produces Ferrero Rocher chocolates, Kinder surprise eggs, (that the kids are addicted to here both for the chocolate and the wacky surprise hidden inside) Tic Tacs and more! No wonder the man is a billionaire!

The Company was started in 1946 in a humble pastry shop in Alba, Piedmont by his parents, Pietro and Piera.  That later turned into a small chocolate factory and now Ferrero boasts factories worldwide and yet it is still run by the family, Michele’s son, Giovanni.

Barolo, Piedmont

Alba is full of hazelnut trees, alongside vineyards producing some of Italy’s prized reds – Barolo and Barbaresco. I had never seen a hazelnut tree till I toured through the area last year with my brother and sister-in- law and we indulged in many great wines and local chocolate/hazelnut spreads.

Alba, PiedmontHazelnut trees Alba

 

 

 

 

 

Exploring the Company’s website further I saw their Mission statement is ” Work, Create, Give” and if you read their social programs there is an impressive list of educational, and recreational programs for children, employees and retirees. An encouraging statement on their commitment to respect the environment and a glocal approach – a company “which focuses on international development, without losing sight of its relationship with local communities.” Let’s hope it’s all true.

The website also talks of its focus on nutritional values although I am sure I am not alone in thinking that Nutella is definitely addictive…once you start on the jar on a cold winter’s night there is no telling when you’ll finish!

It has some curious facts too                                                                                              – a line of Ferrero Rocher chocolates produced in 6.2 days would be as long as the Great Wall of China!                                                                                                            – hazelnuts used in 2 years could fill a basket the size of the Colosseum!

Colosseum

Image courtesy of Jon Whiles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Can you imagine that?                                                                                                                                  

            After all this talk of Nutella I think I’ll just go get that jar!

 

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Be like a local in Italy – some coffee do’s and don’ts

cappuccinoWant to be a local? Then there are some definite do’ s and don’ts to learn about Italian coffee etiquette. Melbournites are easily identifiable when they front the bar and order a latteand look surprised to see a long glass of hot milk placed before them. Worse still they think the barman has got it wrong… when he thinks they must be sick!? Hahaha!

But they are not the only foreigners who get caught out, so broaden your request to caffelatte and you will get what you are after.

Cappuccino’s can be another struggle; served with little froth and often with no cacao  which the barman seems to have hidden as if it’s as precious as gold. Don’t be afraid to ask for it though. Locals only drink them for breakfast and never ask for one after 12 noon. From then on it’s espresso – those black, miniscule, throw down, pick me up slugs that can be enhanced with just a slurp of milk (hot or cold) caffe macchiato, spiked with liquor (grappa, Sambuca, brandy) as a caffe corretto, or even more intense and minute as a caffe ristretto. Following pasta or pizza with a cappuccino is a definite no no!

Froth Leunig

Michael Leunig kindly gave permission to publish his cartoon

If you’re dreaming of a super size frothy cappuccino Leunig style, you’ll have to wait till you get home.

And there’s more to watch out for – coffees come lukewarm! Cafés cater to the morning tea-time rush when cappuccinos and caffe lattes slip quickly down as Italians stand at the counter and then return to their shops, bank, or post office job to serve you. Besides there is nothing worse than burnt out beans. But then you can do the same and pay half the cost, as stand up coffees cost less (in fact the price is regulated and displayed) even if you are in the most plush café in San Marco’s square in Venice. Try it and see. Otherwise learn to ask for a “cappuccino caldo if you want to sit over it and savour the view in the best seat in the square for an hour or two. And be warned, skinny milk cappuccinos are non-existent and soya milk ones are rare.

Cappuccino takeaway

Michael Leunig kindly gave permission to publish his cartoon

Don’t even think of asking for a takeaway either, as we don’t do Starbucks style here, and eating and drinking on the street is not done much unless it’s a gelati. Besides it saves on rubbish, which is a major problem in Italy and there are no shortages of cafés.

Oh my, is this Italian coffee adventure turning into a total disappointment?

A caffe Americano could be what you’re after, even if you’re not American, which is an espresso with hot water served in a big cup, that can turn into a classic flat white if you find the milk jug.

Capuccino French style

I hadn’t realised how addicted I was to a good Italian cappuccino till I went on holidays in Provence, France and the few cappuccinos I ordered came with disgusting coffee and canned spray cream! Ugghhh!

In the end I gave up asking and on the drive back home stopped at the first Italian café for a well earned cappuccino.

Italian coffee

Real Italian coffee with my sister-in-law

 

 

 

Buon cappuccino!

 

 

 

And for those of you who don’t know Leunig’s work, check him out here. He’s a long standing  favourite of mine.

 

 

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From Sorrento to Sorrento, just a ferry ride away

Sorrento beach Dolphin swims

 

 

 

I giggle as I take my ferry ride from Sorrento to Queenscliff, (Victoria, Australia) waving friends behind as I cruise across the bay to meet my brother and family staying at Aireys Inlet. Places that may not mean much to overseas readers, who might have first thought I was talking about Sorrento in the Bay of Naples. The giggle in fact is related to the name being adopted by a little sleepy coastal town at the end of Port Phillip Bay where dolphins swim free. A small town with a population of only 1,500 although the number does swell during the Summer months.Sorrento toyshopHotel Sorrento

 

 

 

Ferry

 

 

I have just come away from my Italian experience, having eaten at DOC pizza and mozarella bar in Mornington and been absolutely bowled over by the selection of Italian Sorrento delicatessenfoodstuffs they have in their delicatessen area.  Salamis and cheeses tease my nose and palate, figs and lush tomatoes burst from baskets and the amazing selection of pastas makes me almost homesick! All in a bustling jostling  atmosphere of cute young Italian waiters screaming orders around the table as only they know how.

Now memories flood in of the chaotic crowded ferry area of the ‘real’ Sorrento where I gathered tourists eager for the trip over to Capri. One was so eager that she got left behind in the scramble as she was still engrossed in shopping at one of the many souvenir shops near the ferry exit. What a day that was! But she forgave me as the ferry wouldn’t wait and she was last seen waving us goodbye!Sorrrento port Amalfi signposts

 

 

 

 

Sorrento known as the land of colour – it’s golden citrus fruits, majolica Sorrento harbourceramics in a backdrop of lush palm, pine and olive trees and matchbox striped bathing boxes overlooking a fantastic blue sea. Home to the legend of sirens that tempted many a sailor and tried hard to lure Ulysses. He outsmarted them fortunately, by stuffing his ears with wax and strapping  himself to the mast. It’s beautiful cloisters of San Francesco, prestigious hotels like Albergo Victoria and its crowded alleyways filled with every delicacy from fresh seafood to limoncello and baba (rum soaked cake).Sorrento piazza Yum yum!main square

 

 

 

 

Albergo Vittoria

 

St Francesco cloister

View of Sorrento

 

 

 

 

 

Home also to the famous from Casanova and Goethe and in later years Enrico Caruso, the great Italian tenor of the early 1900’s, (one of my favorite restaurants bears his name) and Luciano Pavarotti.            It’s a bustling town of around 16,500 inhabitants, and a very popular tourist destination, as ferries sail out to the most sought after places: the Isles of Capri, Ischia and Procida (a little gem), and Positano and the rest of the magnificent Amalfi coastline.

Sorrento in Victoria does not hold the same allure or the same cliffs overlooking the sea, but it’s still worth the visit.Main street I have fond memories of swimming with the dolphins who peered at us in our iridescent wetsuits, as we flapped around and gurgled into the water to attract them. ‘Flipper’ cruised past to say hello along with the rest of his family and I was breathless at their beauty and taken aback at their cheeky smiles as they glided timelessly among us.

Sorrento surfshopSorrento boats

 

 

 

 

Map Sorrento

 

 

 

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