Are we missing British food in Italy?

A recent article from an unmentionable UK paper gave a list of desperately craved food items by what the paper calls ‘ex-pats’, but who are best described as ‘immigrants from the United Kingdom’ and, probably, in around two years’ time, to be called as the Italians say ‘extra-comunitari’, i.e. those who still possess a passport showing that they are not members of the European Union, like Pakistanis, Nigerians, Bolivians, Russians etc.

This is the list the paper gave in descending order of yearning:

 

FOOD ITEMS MISSED MOST BY UK IMMIGRANTS TO ITALY DO I MISS THESE? WHAT DO I DO?
Crumpets Yes Wait for some kind soul from the UK to bring me a pack. I could, of course, learn to make them when I get a crumpet griddle.
Baked Beans

 

 

Not really Get a tin of Fagioli cannellini and make Tuscan Fagioli all’uccelleto. Much more delicious. (recipe at  http://ricette.giallozafferano.it/Fagioli-all-uccelletto.html )
Organic First Infant Milk Too old for this Nothing
Gravy Granules

 

Not really Look for a small cardboard tin of ‘brodo granulare’ (both ‘classico’ and veg)
Tomato Soup

 

Not really Make your own tomato soup. Recipe at  https://www.chowhound.com/recipes/creamy-tomato-soup-10836. If lazy pick up a packet of powdered tomato soup at any large supermarket.
Crème Egg Absolutely not. Horrible sickly things. More vegolate than chocolate. Go for real quality Italian Easter eggs which come in all sizes and all qualities of chocolate. They’ve even got a nice ‘sorpresa’ when you crack them open.
Sage and Onion Stuffing

 

No Nothing
Branston Pickle

 

 

Sometimes A friend makes some home-made pickle for me. There’s also a recipe at http://www.food.com/recipe/the-almost-original-branston-pickle-recipe-246675

 

Ginger Nuts

 

Definitely. Put ginger powder into your cuppa and then dunk a frollino biscuit in it. (Or wait until some kind soul brings you a packet across from the UK)
Earl Grey and Vanilla teabags

 

Not really There’s some decent Earl Grey tea in Italy. What I do miss is PG tips, however.
Unsmoked Back Bacon:

 

Not really There’s some decent Danish bacon one can pick up at Tuodi’, Pian di Coreglia.
Blackcurrant Fruit Pastilles

 

Not really Nothing
Richmond Thick Irish Sausages

 

Not really There are some great Italian sausages, some quite spicy too. However, they do tend to be a bit too salty for my taste.
Steak and Kidney Pie

 

Definitely missed Make your own.  Recipe at https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/1313/a-good-steak-and-kidney-pie

You can use ready-make pasta brisè (short-crust pastry) from any supermarket if you want to cheat.

Cream Crackers

 

Not really ‘Fette biscottate and crispy focaccie do the trick excellently
Jaffa Cakes Not really Eat half a digestive biscuit easily available here (thanks McVities!) with a slice of orange.
Salt & Vinegar Crisps

 

Not at all. Ghastly chemical concoction. Nothing
Mushy Peas

 

I miss these if I’m having ‘Pesce e patate’ (fish ‘n chips at the Barga sagra). It’s on from the end of July to the middle of August. Barga should include not just mushy peas but fried onion rings too. Make and bring your own. Recipe at http://allrecipes.com/recipe/50281/mushy-peas-i/

 

Cheese & Onion Crisps Not really. If you are desperate for chemically-flavoured crisps they are now appearing at Lidl in Lucca.

 

What I most miss, however, is not on the above list: strong farmhouse cheddar cheese. Ok, you might say what with all the amazing varieties of cheese in Italy: asiago, mozzarella, pecorino, gorgonzola (a great substitute for blue stilton), provolone, taleggio, ricotta, mascarpone, scamorza etc. why should I still have a craving for cheddar? Moreover, why can one obtain in Italy cheeses from France, Switzerland, Holland and Germany and not a single variety from the UK?

Has the anti-brexit revenge already started on both sides of the Channel? Will the benighted inhabitants of the British Isles be deprived of camembert while we’ extra-comunitari’ (as several Italians are already mockingly calling us) will still be dreaming of a cheddar cheese toast with a lump of butter on top, especially welcome in the often dark days of a Tuscan winter.

Actually, I’ve long since come to the stage where I’m missing decent (and decently priced) Italian food and eateries much more in the UK than I’m missing UK food in Italy. It’s hardly surprising when the UK has just 65 products with EU protected status and Italy has 267. I wonder how all this will be affected in the promised forthcoming Brexit negotiations after June 8th.

I really do wonder?  To end on a smiley note would you say ‘formaggio’ or ‘cheese’?

 

Italy’s Eel-Pie Island

In Italy, Pasquetta or Easter Monday is traditionally a time to go for a journey ‘fuori le mura’ – outside the walls, which here doesn’t just mean getting out of one’s house but out of one’s town which, like Lucca, is often surrounded by defensive walls.

We chose a local coach firm, largely to experience this aspect of Italian traditional life.  We crossed the Apennines through Renzi’s greatest achievement – an alternative Autostrada del Sole route (variante di Valico) opened in December 2015. It traverses the mountain range almost entirely through tunnels and has cut the journey time from Florence to Bologna by almost an hour. It’s fine on speed, not so good on panoramas. Luckily the old autostrada route has been kept for more scenic travel.

We then travelled through the lush Emilia-Romagna lands with their rows of San Giovese grapevines and dramatic cloud formations.

Our first stop was Ravenna which should by all rights deserve at least a couple of days to visit decently. Although we felt short changed on mosaics we did, at least see some of the extraordinary sights of this city which, at one time in its glorious past, was capital of the Roman Empire.

Theodoric’s’ mausoleum dating from 520 AD is an amazing feat of engineering with a solid stone roof carved out of one stone block weighing tens of tons and originally transported to cap the structure via a ramp.

The Arian baptistery with its beautiful dome mosaic is unique in the world for being the only architectural evidence of a heresy which believed Christ to be literally the son of God i.e. born from the creator and, therefore, subservient to him without any hint of the Trinity as expounded in the Nicaean creed and which is recited by most Christians today. (There’s a tablet inscribed with the Nicaean creed in Bagni di Lucca’s ex-Anglican church, now library).

Dante’s tomb is surely the holiest secular shrine in the Italy and it’s a moving experience to see where the major formulator of the Italian language and the author of the Divine Comedy now rests.

Although bashed about a lot in the Second World War Ravenna retains many characteristic town corners including a lively main piazza.

The biggest event of the ‘scampagnata’, or Italian Easter Monday trip, is, of course, the lunchtime meal which in this case took place in a vast restaurant with no less than five halls. It was quite amazing how quickly and how well we were served with appetizing food. I sometimes think that if cooks and restaurateurs were elected to run the country Italy would turn out to be far better administered! Our lunchtime company was very congenial and remarkably well travelled too.

After lunch we headed for the valli di Comacchio which is an extraordinary area of wetland – probably the largest in Italy and one of the largest in Europe, approaching the Danube delta in dimensions. A continuation of the Venetian lagoon, the area is flat, often marshy, filled with immense brackish lagoons, canals, dykes, clearly a bird-watcher’s paradise and, above all, famous for its eels.

The main town, Comacchio is the centre of eel fishing and production and is a charming place in its own right with a highly photogenic triple bridge and some delightful traffic-free streets.

Half-way along what must be one of the longest porticoed streets I’ve walked along is the entrance to the eel manufactory where eels are dried and canned. The old factory is now a museum with interesting exhibits showing the boats and basket nets used. Among the photographs were stills from a Sophia Loren film I have yet to see, describing the romantic life of an eel-canner and appropriately entitled ‘La Donna del Fiume’ ‘(the lady of the river.’)

It was then time to return home. Since we’d joined the coach at 6 am in Fornoli by the time we reached Bagni di Lucca close to midnight we were ripe for bed-time, falling swiftly into a dream-world where Theodoric, Arianism, eels, lagoons and La Loren were collaged together in ever unbelievable sequences.

 

Cappiano’s Osteria Numero Uno

A delightful detour if one is taking the route from Altopascio to Empoli across the Arno valley on the way to Florence is to cut across to Ponte a Cappiano, a major engineering work carried out by Cosimo de Medici and replacing an older bridge on the pilgrims route known as the via francigena and once protected by the knights hospitaliers of Altopascio. I have described this area more fully in my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/10/09/the-biggest-wetland-in-italy/

I’ll just add here that if one parks one’s vehicle in the main square of this truly laid back town and walks round to the right one comes across an excellent osteria appropiately called ‘numero uno’.

We ate well and cheaply there with excellent pasta first courses and brilliantly cooked manzo and involtini for seconds accompanied by some of the best mashed potatoes I have tasted.

The osteria’s facebook page is at https://m.facebook.com/osterianumero1fucecchio/?locale2=it_IT

Booking is essential. We didn’t book but were lucky as the osteria filled up quite quickly. Helpings were generous and some of what we couldn’t eat was packed away for us by the friendly proprietors and served for our supper too!

 

Ponte a Cappiano was a truly welcome break on our journey towards the capital of the Grand Duchy during yesterday’s brilliant spring day.

A Sweet Start to Pistoia as City of Culture 2017

Pistoia has been elected Italy’s City of Culture for 2017. We dropped into this neglected Italian beauty of a city on our way back from Florence as we’d heard there was a chocolate festival on.

The festival itself turned out to be a slight affair but at least it provided a break in our journey. The amazing things Italians do with their hand-crafted chocolates!

We’ll certainly be spending more time in Pistoia this year and will also try not to miss its famous blues festival. There’s more information about visiting Pistoia at:

http://www.florencedailynews.com/2016/01/26/pistoia-is-italys-2017-culture-capital/

 

Let us be Thankful for Being Still Alive

Thanksgiving Day was celebrated yesterday with another gorgeous lunch at the spectacularly good Cantina di Carignano which I have already described in a previous post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/07/23/working-for-ones-lunch/

I was invited by the editor of that quintessentially good magazine for our Lucca area “Grapevine”. I doubt that few other “ex-pat” mags could ever match, let alone surpass, the high quality of this publication. Indeed, all back numbers should be treasured as they form the closest we’re ever likely to get to a compendium or encyclopaedia of life, credences, places, traditions events, trends, indeed of everything useful we’re ever likely to find in our promised land of Lucca province.

I realised that Thanksgiving Day is the one day in the American calendar that unites everyone regardless of creed or country of origin. It is also, thankfully, just one day’s celebration of joy and hope (unlike Christmas, which now apparently starts shortly after August Bank Holiday!) We can’t wish happy Christmas to everyone we meet these days when different belief systems run riot. Birthdays are spectacularly easy to forget. We could transform Easter into a pagan feast of spring’s reawakening as we could with Christmas’s rebirth of the sun but, again, there are still many people about who would object to being called pagans.

Thanksgiving should be an important feast anywhere in the world (and is), at least where English is spoken. OK, the UK has imported Halloween and now Black Friday makes a mark but it’s Thanksgiving which should really be given importance anywhere where English speakers meet.

For the first time in my life I think I have truly understood why Thanksgiving Day – that day which celebrates the Mayflower pilgrims from Plymouth survival through their first harsh winter in a completely unknown land – a planet even – means so much to Americans. It began to mean a lot to me too and I regretted that in the UK we no longer have a day which brings people together in one faith; in one God (whichever name may be given to the Deity) I see sadly a Britain divided as I see an America divided by a world changing into beliefs that we thought had long been declared dinosauric, a weary world battered into some sort of quasi-sense by two ghastly eras of mass destruction last century and a Middle Eastern sphere which is throwing the last vestiges of the Geneva convention out of the troposphere of our assaulted planet. Who can possibly stare unmoved at the scene of shattered classrooms and bombed hospitals in countries which formed the cradle of our civilization (if we by the skin of our teeth can so call it) and which border the same sea that gave rise to the great glories of Hellenism?

Yet we, too in Britain have do much to be thankful for – the international touch the Romans gave us during their three hundred year stay here, the great Northumberland monasteries for preserving learning and knowledge while the rest of the world was crumbling into barbarian ignorance, and, dare I mention it, the continuity which our constitutional monarchy has given us and the mother of all parliaments which still manages to protect us from the horrific excesses which so many parts of the world are today subject to and which today is dividing families, friends, acquaintances, associations, even football clubs because of the rant and rave of schicklegrubian-like imitators.

It is all so sad because when the infamous vote result for Brexit took place and the ignorant and the bigoted became faragian triumphalists, the more sensible of those in our area were truly worried about a kind of backlash from the local Italians. None of it. The Italians don’t behave like that. It’s not in their nature. The people we should worry about are those ill-informed brits who voted for the fourth major British political disaster in the last hundred years (the other three were appeasement, intervention in Suez and alliance with the USA in the 2003 Iraq war). Let’s try not to drink or even acknowledge the presence of these unfortunate individuals around us. We realise how this mess (or casino) could finish up as. Emotions could be roused by even a pint of that nice beer they serve down at a well-known local bar. The ignoramuses will leave us in due course and return to their island Kingdom (if it’s still United, that it) if they don’t reach enlightenment on the issue. Karma will do its good turn and we’ll merely ignore them. It’s quite pointless to discuss or argue with those who only believe in lies and have only dinosauric prejudices lurking within the vacuous space of their cranium. Hopefully, they’ll find out the truth soon enough….

Thanksgiving Day is about survival and the hope for a brighter future. Let us believe in it please!

It’s a National Holiday in Canada and the USA on the last Thursday of November, Thanksgiving associates a harvest festival together with the commemoration of the Pilgrim Fathers’ survival through their first days when they landed from the good ship Mayflower onto the shores of a ‘new’ continent

The fact that the Pilgrim Fathers survived at all was largely due (somewhat ironically as it later turned out) to the local native Indian population. It was Squanto of the Wampanoag tribe who taught the newcomers from England’s Plymouth where and how to find food. Thanks to him the pilgrims learnt how to catch eels and grow maize. They were also introduced to sources of nourishment such as turkey, pumpkin, cranberries and potatoes, none of which had been known in the country they came from.

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Let us believe in Thanksgiving for to do otherwise would be to give way to dark forces. At the very least let us honour our harvest festivals.

We must believe and be true to each other as humans with genuine humanity can honestly be, for, as Mathew Arnold so eloquently and persuasively put it:

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

If we are not true to our own humanity then those ignorant armies will always clash whether they be in the plains of Iraq, the mountains of Syria or even in our own cities….

Let us be true to those values which we inwardly truly nurture, as a mother’s breast nurtures her baby, before we sink into a second barbarian dark age whose door is open and welcoming us in with its lurid promises.

Anyway, let’s get back to food which is love itself, like Dali’s loaf of bread (have you visited his great exhibition at Pisa’s Palazzo Blu?) which is the giver of life Himself.

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Here is something of what we ate:

And here are some of a convivial family of guests at our table:

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Full and hearty thanks are due to Norma Jean Bishop (far right in photo above), editor of our English-language Lucca magazine, ‘Grapevine’ and great organiser of events designed to further the cause of conviviality, exchange and harmony! We so desperately need more people like her to nurture the good qualities in us, to release our creative faculties and to celebrate our diversity with joy and not our differences with hate, that detestable word so mailed daily to too many people in the UK.

As George Herbert wrote in the seventeenth century:

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back

                              Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack

                             From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,

                             If I lacked any thing.

 

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:

                             Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,

                             I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

                             Who made the eyes but I?

 

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame

                             Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?

                             My dear, then I will serve.

You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:

                             So I did sit and eat.

Mighty Senators of the Forest

On my way back from Vagli’s Tibetan bridge (see previous post) I came across one of Italy’s own noblest green-robed senators of mighty woods (to adapt a phrase from Keats’ ‘Hyperion’). This senator was a tiny seedling when the New World was just discovered, and has given hope and nourishment to generations of families in the areas of Roggio, Puglianella and Roccalberti. It still belongs to the descendants of those families. For me it is one of the loveliest living beings upon this earth and something to truly kneel before in awe and adoration. No wonder our ancestors worshipped trees (and some of us still do!) There are many religions and cultures which give praise to these verdant giants thankfully, for without them we would not only be deprived of their fruit and wood but, most importantly, of their life-giving oxygen.

The Bread of Life in our part of the world is not just the Divinity but the Castagno, the chestnut tree, which has supported so much of the population with the flour made from its fruit.  This magnificent tree, a little outside Roggio, is half a thousand years old and is truly an immense power emanating a mystic strength which I felt throughout my whole self as I touched it.

There are many other such colossal beings in your area and perhaps, if you live here, you may have your own favourite Castagno. Just feeling it and putting your arms round it will fill your whole existence with new life and energy because the tree is one of the highest manifestations of life itself.

Here are some of pictures of that ‘Castagno monumentale’ di Roggio taken the other day.It’s 86 feet high and its circumference is 33 feet.

Which reminds me – have you already been to your Castagnata if you live in this part of the world? Yesterday I was at the delightful one at Cascio. If you weren’t there you’ll have to read all about it tomorrow….

Beating Brexit with Food

That six-letter word starting with B, ending in T and with an X in the middle has clearly made inroads into many expats’ disposable income in various parts of the European Community.

In Bagni di Lucca there has been very roughly a 15 to 25 per cent reduction in the spending income of most people due largely to exchange rates between Sterling and Euro. (I’m not going to add the shocking increases in Rubbish tax – actually most taxes in my opinion are rubbish – and the water bill.)

Rather than moaning about it all there are, in my opinion positive actions to take to reduce the pain in one’s purse. I’ll concentrate just on food this time.

  1. Shopping for food. It’s of course possible to grow much of one’s own and, frankly, scrumping among abandoned fruit trees is as acceptable as blackberry-picking. It’s also worth using discount stores with own-brand names.
  1. The other day I was amazed at noting that the price difference between famous brand names in non-discounts and own-brand in discounts was as much as 40% in favour of discounts. Italy appears to have the greatest price differential of any products in relation to many other European countries. One might think that the difference in quality between expensive cat food in a non-discount store and an own-brand name cat food in a discount might be noticeable. Laboratory tests have, in fact shown, that usually own-brand names are of an equal quality. I am at this moment testing how effective lab tests are on my three cats and so far have noted that for them texture of food is often more important that brand name. Napoleon goes in for paté-based cat food and Carlotta and Cheekie rave for gelatinous sachets.
  1. It’s Italian law, in keeping with avoiding food waste, that when you buy a meal in a restaurant and can’t finish it you can ask what in the UK is known as a ‘doggy bag’ but what in Italy is known more accurately as a ‘family bag.’ (After all how much of that delicious arrosto really gets to the dog?). The problem is that many Italian families think that it’s shameful to ask for a family bag. Nothing of the sort! You’ve paid for all your food whether you’ve eaten it or not. Families with American origins are much more forthright in asking for left-over food to be packaged for them. If any restaurant refuses to give you a doggy bag then avoid them for they are truly breaking Italian law, no matter how ‘high-class’ they are.
  1. Income spent on food. It’s been worked out that an Italian  family with two children spends around euros 8,000 on food, that couples spend 6,000 and that singles spend 4,000. It’s also been calculated that with wise shopping i.e. discount stores, own, brand, loyalty cards and special discounts these figures could be reduced by at least 30 to 40 %!

If there’s a will there’s a way. Beat the bloody Brexit effect on your income by trying these shopping tips if you don’t already do so.

I could go on about clothes but women are much dabber hands about this than men. I just head for Primark when I’m in the UK (although there are real moral qualms about the far-eastern sweat shops where so many of their products are made).

There’s another test to be done on food – at least cat food in my case. Here are some examples of my cats enjoying a four-mile walk on discount own-brand cat food. Would they fare any better with expensive ‘superior’ brand cat food from non-discounts I wonder?  I’ll let you know the results of that test in due course.