An Evening with Arianrhod

In a grassy clearing in the middle of an ancient forest a bonfire was lit. In the centre of a ring of stones the flames began to brighten the encroaching twilight. At first the fire’s embers served a purpose as a barbecue. Together with an extensive spread of salads, rice, spaghettis, bread and cheeses the twenty-odd people gathered tucked into their sylvan supper.

Later, as night descended upon the assembly, the lambent heat helped to keep the warmth of a luminous day, for even at the end of May the temperature drops rapidly when the sun disappears. They waited for her who would be the evening’s focus. Suddenly on the edge of the nearby hill of Controni she appeared in all her silvery glory. The moon, goddess of primeval mankind, the Greek Artemis, the Roman Diana and the Catholic Mother of God, the immaculately conceived Virgin one, revealed her perfect, full transcendent orb.

As an invitee to the gathering I formed part of the circle around the fire. The moon now shone above its flames, luminous, mysterious. ‘La Luna e il falò’: the moon and the bonfire – a truly magical combination joined now by Hesperus, the evening star, the planet Venus. The constellations now appeared: Cassiopeia and the Plough prominent among them and pointing in their individual ways to the Pole star, slightly faint, but steadfast as ever and round which the galaxies as seen by us on spaceship Earth revolved.

To the right the laser-like intensity of Sirius penetrated through the dark forest braches. The priestess now initiated the ceremony of protection and purification: a ritual which has its origins in the genesis of mankind itself and which through the ages remains essentially the same, unchanged and changeless.

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At the Earth’s cardinal points of east, west, north and south acolytes, set back from the circle and before candles, invoked the four primal elements of earth, air, fire and water for safeguard and cleansing. The circle of love and affinity had to be protected against the opposing forces of hate and antipathy which for ever try to separate and combine these elements into a confusion of wildly and infinitely separate forms.

Only love can restore the primal essentials to their original form, reuniting everything and dissolving confusion and anarchy. Such is the world: for ever battling between the forces of good and evil, between love and hate, between union and dissolution.

We’d written the things we hated about our relationship to the world and ourselves on pieces of paper which we then rolled up. We combined our personal scrolls with woodland herbs and flowers like calendula, sage, rosemary and daisy and placed a ribbon round them. Each member of the circle then came forwards in a clockwise direction and threw their roll of negativities into the fire. After each person had done this the word ‘sia’ (‘let it be’ in Italian) was uttered.

A bowl of salted water, according to primordial ritual, was passed round. Each one of those present washed their hands in it, first the right and then the left, cleansing themselves Dualities were unified into a life-giving wholeness. Just as negative forces were removed so a positive offering was giving. Lavender was passed around and each acolyte took a small piece of the tenderly fragrant herb and passed it between their hands. What was left was then to be taken to own’s respective and buried in a patch of earth to feed and continue the mission of protection of all that is precious in life.

Around us the creatures of the forest night commented upon the ceremony. In particular, a civetta (a kind of small owl) was rather responsive. We felt hidden eyes of quadrupeds and avian focused upon us and intuitively sensed their presence.

We continued the natural nocturnal music with our own played on guitar, drums, bamboo xylophone, flutes and marimbas.

There is nothing quite like a walk in the forest night under the guardianship of the argent beams of a full moon. It is a quite transcendental feeling. We returned to our various homes, confident that now there would be a special defence against those malevolent forces that constantly try to harm and attempt to disintegrate our treasurable, personal worlds.

I remain grateful to Ennio whose remote plot of forest elfin-land we shared, the company I joined in and, above all to our priestess, Rebecca Lewis, who continues to facilitate the ancient and wisdom-filled rites of the ancient Celts and the Ligurians of the Apuan mountains who inhabited these mountains, rites full of empathic, natural magic.

Truly when the full moon is high above the night’s horizon it’s possible to experience live emotions lost in the mists of time and enfolded in mystery. Let us hold on to that which is life itself…

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The next big occasion, so close to us now that the days are ever-lengthening towards their summation, is the summer solstice…

Here is Rebecca Lewis’ pamphlet for your reference for future events:

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PS In case you were wondering. Arianrhod is the name of the Celtic moon gooddess

 

How to Make Necci (Chestnut Flour Pancakes)

NECCI (CHESTNUT PANCAKES)

 

INGREDIENTS

  • 500 gms chestnut flour
  • 200 Gms fresh Ricotta sheep’s cheese: (cottage cheese will do if you have no ricotta).
  • 60 Gms sugar
  • 50 ml white wine or vin santo.
  • Extra virgin olive oil to taste
  • A dash of rum
  • A pinch of salt

 

METHOD

In a bowl, whisk the ricotta with the sugar until frothy. In another bowl, whisk up a mixture made with chestnut flour, wine, a bit of oil, sugar and a pinch of salt.

When the mixture is fully consistent, smear the testi with olive oil and warm on the fire or gas/electric ring. (See picture for testi). When very hot, open the testi and ladle part of the mixture in the middle of one of them, close with the other testo and cook, turning the testi over to cook the necci on both sides. If you have no testi, use a pan with a small diameter (16-20 cm) greased with olive oil. and ladle enough mixture to cover the bottom of the pan. Turn the pan contents over when a crust is formed round the mixture’s edge so that both sides are cooked.

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Re-grease the testi or the pan every time a new neccio is cooked. You can also smear them with a potato soaked in oil. When cooked, transfer the neccio to a platter, stuff it with the ricotta cheese, roll it up and spray it with rum. Serve Necci warm.

PS you can vary the filling: necci with Nutella are particularly scrumptious!

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A Universal Sense

Spiritual therapy centres abound in in our part of the world. For example, at Bagni di Lucca Ponte, a holistic alternative medicine centre, the global village, under the aegis of Dr. Montecucco had been offering a variety of courses ranging from Yoga to Reiki for over ten years. There are religious retreats too, as at Sillico and Borgo a Mozzano. If one is trying to recover from an increasingly complex world, with its stresses and strains, the whole upper Serchio valley is an ideal place to attempt to make sense of one’s existence and move forward in one’s journey in life.

I’ve never explored this sort of thing very much, except peripherally. My guide in life has tended to be nature herself. As Wordsworth wrote, ‘Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher’.

The road to Renaio is certainly a total immersion in nature. Leaving the attractive borgo of Barga the route climbs up a spur of the Apennines and enters the most wonderful chestnut forests with some trees over five hundred years old and with circumferences in excess of sixteen feet. (One tree even has a room with windows inside its trunk. Not surprisingly it’s used as a bird hide).

In the midst of this natural wonderland there’s a very special retreat which I was invited to visit yesterday. Called Sensone, the name is actually a misspelling of ‘Sansone’ which is Italian for Sampson. In fact, Sensone isn’t a bad misspelling for it can refer to the great sense (Sensone= great sense in Italian) which encompasses our other five senses in a greater intuitive awareness of what’s around us, increasing our consciousness of the inter-related oneness of the universe.

In English, Sensone could also be an abbreviated spelling of ‘one sense’, again referring to an all-inclusive and transcendent intuitive force through which natural powers are recognized.

Renaio is a sweet little hamlet situated at a height of 3300 feet. It has a charming chapel with neo-gothic details in which a religious festival and procession was held just last week-end (which I unfortunately missed as I was at another religious festa at Gombereto).

From near the chapel a woodland goat-path descends into a verdant valley in the heart of which is Sensone’s spiritual retreat. No other place could have been chosen so appropriately: it is simply exquisite. The view from the cottage opens out onto waves of ever-distancing hills culminating in the Pisan Mountain and, beyond, to Volterra.

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On the terrace overlooking this seventh heaven we had lunch starting with a delicious combination of spaghetti and salmon, followed by chicken salad and ending with affogato – ice-cream melted into coffee.

As Italians say ‘what’s the point of eating alone?’ and our repast was accompanied by wide-ranging conversation among our six guests which included a couple from Brisbane, now travelling in Europe, and a brilliant cook and backwoodsman from Ticino, the Italian Switzerland.

Sensone’s land comprises over one hundred acres providing an excellent cordon sanitaire sheltering one from the intrusion of unwanted development and assuring perfect peace.

The animals sharing the property include this sweet pony which provides children’s treats in the form of rides when it ambles down toward Barga.

There are some very friendly cats and dogs too.

Clearly, an idyll must be bought at some price and if you read the Sensone diaries in Barganews at http://www.barganews.com/?s=SENSONE+DIARIES&x=0&y=0 you’ll get the sense of both the creative and destructive forces of nature at their mightiest.

A variety of very interesting courses are run at Renaio and it’s possible to contact the owner of the centre to find out more details. If you care at all about the world, the energy potential within you, the ability to both reach out and reach within, the desire to be genuinely fulfilled, the wish to discover what’s truly unique about yourself and the realization of a true joy then surely this magical place should be on your agenda!

Cotoletta V Schnitzel

A factory in the piana Lucchese where I taught a business English class last year had a fabulous canteen. Although it largely catered for meat-eaters there were many options for vegetarians.  None of these had to be specially made up since Italian cuisine is varied enough to cater for both food-habits.

This fact was brought out to me by a student; a committed vegetarian for some time, when I asked her how easy was it to be a veggie in Italy. Indeed, it is far easier to be one in a traditional Italian setting than (say) in Northern Europe, she answered. Part of the reason may be because meat-eating is a relatively recent food-habit in Italy. Before the last war, and certainly before the “economic miracle” of the nineteen-sixties which brought Italy out of a mainly agricultural community into a western industrialised one, meat was rarely seen on the table unless it was in the form of rabbits or poultry. There was also a clear divide between the north rice and polenta eaters and the southern spaghetti and pizza devourers. Today very significant regional differences exist in Italian cooking but the menu is much more spread out than formerly with such items as pasta and pizza becoming world-wide dishes.

In Italy meat-eating became a status-sign that “we’ve made it – we can now eat meat as often as they do in America”. Having said this, meat portions are certainly not gargantuan here as they are in the US: if one goes for a bistecca alla fiorentina (T-bone steak) in a restaurant different prices apply very clearly to different amounts of the stuff one wants to eat. Furthermore, there are attractive meat, bread and veg combinations like cotolette alla Milanese (known in Austria as Wiener schnitzel) and involtini di carne.

The cotoletta (cutlet) alla Milanese and the Wiener schnitzel are a source of contention between the two nations of Italy and Austria. What came first? Apparently documents dating back to the twelfth century have been discovered and are now on show in a room next to the basilica of Saint Ambrose in Milan describing “lombos cum panitio” i.e. veal cutlets covered with bread crumbs. Since Expo 2015 opens in Milan this tenth of May, (theme: “feeding the world”), this is clearly a scoop – another “first” for this culinary nation.

What other firsts of Italian cookery will be discovered I wonder.

Certainly, ravioli is a good contender (although Tibetan momo could also qualify) and is an excellent example of how the Italian kitchen can be both vegetarian and carnivorous, depending on the filling.

When I invited some neighbourly cat-sitters to my house for lunch yesterday and discovered that they were both veggies it was absolutely no problem. I found some very nice fresh ravioli with ricotta cheese and spinach filling at Pian di Coreglia’s  “TuoDi” (ex “Dico” but same management) which has a very good fresh pasta section. These I served with sage, parmesan cheese and melted butter.

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For the second course I had recourse to the “torta salata” (literally, salted cake, known to brits by its French name of quiche). This is yet another contender for a first, this time between Italy and the Gallic nation. Who will turn up the definitive evidence here? Useless at making my own puff pastry I used the ready-made one which I got from Borgo’s Penny Market. The name for puff pastry is “pasta sfoglia” in Italian (“exfoliate”) and the name for pastry or shortbread pastry is “pasta frolla”. I chose the round shape as it fitted my oven dish much better. I could have chosen pasta frolla equally but find it a little too heavy.

The puff pastry shell was preheated in the oven at top temperature for 5 minutes while I prepared the filling which consisted of

  • Four duck eggs
  • Half a sliced onion
  • Herbs
  • A bit of leek
  • 2 cups of milk

The duck eggs were home-sourced from Flip and Flop as were the herbs from the garden.

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These ingredients were cut and mixed together to form a consistent liquid and then poured into the shell which was replaced in the oven at medium temperature and baked for around half-an-hour.

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The torta salata was served with carrots and chickpeas  which had been boiled in a vegetable stock cube broth:

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For afters I turned to that old favourite, crème caramel, for which I cheated and used the ready-made mixture, again from Penny market. I didn’t put the crème caramel into separate cups but instead poured it into one jelly container from which guests could help themselves.

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For cheese I turned to that classic English variety, Blue stilton and that classic English biscuit, the digestive. The biscuit was sourced locally, again from TuoDi at Pian di Coreglia, but the Stilton was an overseas Christmas present. It is a great pity that we can find all sorts of cheese on the standard Italian supermarket shelf Italian, French, Dutch and German but no English ones. Blue stilton stands comparison with any gorgonzola or Roquefort any day!

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Thus refreshed we went out to enjoy a glass of liqueur in the dazzling early February sunshine which is so happily illuminating our valley.

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PS Next time I’ll try to take pictures of the dishes before I eat them!

 

Burns à la Longoio

On January 25th 1759 Robert “Rabbie” Burns”, recently re-voted by his own people as the greatest Scot of them all, was born.  Every year since his death there has been a special Burns evening to commemorate this extraordinary poet who not only was a precursor of the Romantic Movement but was also a figurehead for Scottish nationalism and a pioneer socialist to boot.

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Late yesterday afternoon it dawned upon me that this was indeed Burns’ birthday. Although neither of us are Scots (although my dad’s mum came from Wales so there is a good quarter of Celtic blood in me somewhere) we love things Scottish, delight in its country, walked its moors, climbed its mountains, navigated its lochs and  have celebrated its Burns night in our own little way.

I looked in the fridge to see if there was anything I could dig up to make a Burns supper. There wasn’t very much there at all and it was getting too dark to even go hunting for a haggis. What misery!

However, there was still a chance that something might be rustled up. On Sunday evening the only shop that’s open for miles around here in Bagni di Lucca is the Penny Market at Borgo a Mozzano. What would I be able to find there?

After my supermarket shop I did find two products that were genuinely from Scotland: salmon and whisky. Other items I bought because I thought I could make up an ersatz equivalent.

In true Italian style I started off with an antipasto. This was Scottish salmon served with a sprig of thyme and a squeeze of lemon which wonderfully turned out to be one from our very own lemon tree which, despite being under wraps to protect it from winter frosts, still manages to produce the most delicious fruits.

This was my Burns supper menu:

Antipasto

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Ingredients

  • Scottish Salmon
  • Lemon
  • Thyme

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Method

  1. Put salmon on plate at room temperature
  2. Squeeze lemon on top
  3. Eat with a rusk (failing oatmeal biscuits)

The cock- a-leekie soup became a quail-a leekie soup as I had a couple of quails remaining in the deep-freeze. The leeks were gigantic and very odorous and I had some prunes as well, which are an additional ingredient a volontà. With an original recipe dating back to 1598 this was my variation on Cock-a-Leekie:

Quail-a-leekie soup

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Ingredients:

  • 2 quails
  • 2,5 litres water
  • 1 sliced onion
  • 50 gms of pearl barley
  • 275 ml chicken stock cubes
  • 3 very large leeks sliced
  • 2 celery stalks, cut
  • A little thyme
  • 1 handful of parsley
  • Half teaspoonful of salt
  • Teaspoon of ground black pepper 

Method

  1. Defrost the quails and fry them gently until lightly brown.
  2. In a large saucepan put in the quails, water, onion and pearl barley. Cook until boiling. Then lower the flame and simmer for one hour.
  3. Remove the quails from the soup and debone them. Cut the quail meat into little pieces and replace in the saucepan.
  4. Add the leeks, celery, thyme, parsley, salt and pepper. Boil and simmer for another half-an-hour until the leeks are nicely tender.

PS The addition of prunes is also advised by some cooks.

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The haggis presented a real challenge. As the fish and chips festival in Barga ingredients have to be flown in so why not the haggis? It’s not something one normally finds on Italian supermarket shelves! I wonder why not? All sorts of other sausages can be found here from German to French and Spanish. Bad marketing? Having said this, if one wanted to taste the real stuff one could have gone to a Burns’ night dinner at Da Riccardo’s at Barga’s Fosso last Wednesday. But then it wasn’t the official date…

I couldn’t even find the sheep’s unmentionable bits that go with the haggis. So this is how I concocted my ersatz version:

Haggis à la Longoio

Ingredients

  • Mincemeat
  • 50 gms spelt (local grain) (instead of oatmeal which I didn’t have.
  • Teaspoon ground black pepper.
  • Two slice onions
  • Rosemary
  • Pinch of salt
  • Meat stock

Method

  1. Defrost the mincemeat and then fry gently in a frying pan until grey.
  2. In a saucepan place the mincemeat with the spelt, onions, rosemary, meat stock and salt and bring to the boil. Then simmer for around an hour.
  3. In the event of not finding sausage tubes drain off the saucepan and compact the remaining mixture into a pudding-like shape.

(I also served Sharwood’s mango chutney as it goes very well with the “haggis”)

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The classic Burns night sweet is, of course, the cranachan which is made up of oats, cream, whiskey, honey and raspberries. I opted for my own creation which owes a little to the clootie pudding.

Longoio Burns Pudding

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Ingredients

  • Steam pudding
  • Mascarpone cheese
  • Whisky
  • Biscuits

Method

  1. Steam the pudding.
  2. Serve on plate with dollop of mascarpone cheese on top and surround with four canestrelli biscuits.
  3. Drizzle with whisky

No pipers were available so the haggis was flageollated to the table using one of my tin whistles (or flageolet).

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I didn’t include tatties (potatoes) and neeps (Swedish turnips or swedes) with the haggis as after all that soup and the haggis my stomach was getting a little bloated. But these, traditionally, should be included.

Of course, the whisky has to be chosen with care. Instead of the usual 5 euro bottle of the water of life I upgraded to the 7 euro one which was guaranteed to have been aged for not less than five years. It really was very good and had a nice smoke-peaty taste in which I detected parts of the landscape of Islay (or was I slightly inebriated at this stage?).

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I didn’t add soda to the whisky but, instead, found that a bottle of fizzy gassosa went very well with it.

Naturally, Burn’s famous address to Haggis was also read. In case you forgot it or your Scottish was a little rusty here is the first verse together with an explanation of some of the words.

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!
Aboon
 them a’ yet tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel
 are ye wordy o’a grace
As lang’s my arm. 

 

Fa’=fall

Sonsie=pleasant

Aboon=above

Weel=well

Wordy=worthy

 

Ah well, at least it was a try in this remote Apennine village. Next year I’m promised an invite to a real Burns night supper prepared by a genuine Scottish lady. Looking forwards to that!

Poggio Gherardo

Florence seems emptier this summer/autumn. It also is a lot pleasanter to walk around in since the heat has not been allowed to build up because of the many days of rain we’ve had – thirty five in july/august to be exact!

On our way to Fiesole we passed Poggio Gherardo. Unless the name Janet Ross means anything to you, Poggio Gherardo will just be another large fortified villa on the northern slopes of the Florentine hills.

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Reading a book about this lady, invariably described as “formidable”, I realise that she is more important as a meeting point of different generations of the anglo-tuscan community which played such a large part in the life of the city in the nineteenth/twentieth century. As a character I think I’d find her intolerable. She disowned her son in her will and did not talk to her eventual heir, Lina Waterfield, for many years because she felt Lina had married the wrong person. (For more about Lina see my post at http://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/11/15/carinthia-in-aulla/)

Janet was described as frigid sexually, denying her husband (who was thirty years older than her) his marital privileges. She was always in the right about everything even though she might, in fact, be wrong. She left her estate at Poggio Gherardo to Lina in a parlous state. Lina made a valiant effort to keep it going but eventually had to sell it after WWII. Even Ross’s books are often carelessly written (apart from her cookery ones. See http://www.amazon.co.uk/Leaves-Our-Tuscan-Kitchen-Vegetables/dp/1164865420).

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On the plus side “Aunt Janet”, as she was known to all who met her, could be generous and hospitable. Among her protégés were Addington Symonds and the young Kenneth “civilization” Clark, for example. Her life style was liberated for her times and she was a good horsewoman (and cyclist too) at a time when it was still difficult for a woman to assert herself. She would amuse her guests by singing often bawdy “stornelli” (popular folk songs) on the guitar.

I don’t know if there still exists an anglo-italian community in Florence anywhere reminiscent of the one that flourished before WWII. Zeffirelli’s film, “Tea with Mussolini”, is a brilliant evocation of the last days of that community, experienced first-hand by the film’s director since he was adopted by no less formidable successors to Mrs Ross. I would need to spend more time in this city to find out but I’m sure there are lingerings of it somewhere in the city of the lily.