30.6.04

a public utility post

last sunday the monthly food magazine that comes with the observer was completely dedicated to italian food.

i will forgive the fact that it used all those worn out clich├ęs you can expect in these occasions: mafia jokes? check
happy families around table? check
pictures of smiling old peasants? check
tuscan villas? check
"insert_name_of_region" the new tuscany? check
etc..? check

i will forgive the fact that the food of northern italy was completely ignored. there's no way you can paint a complete picture of italian food by ignoring the wealth of flavours and wines that come from piedmont in general and the langhe in particular.
no way.

i will forgive all of the above because nowadays i'm older and wiser and more tolerant.
*much* more tolerant.

what i will not forgive though is that the whole of the issue was sponsored by bertolli, which presents its oil as the quintessentially italian product of a quintessentially italian family run producer of centuries old tradition.

the present owners bought the bertolli *brand* in 1994 from the holding company which owned it. just the brand. not the production plants. not the family estate because it never existed in the first place.

moreover, bertolli only packs and resells oil it buys from various sources: not less than 80% comes from spain, greece, turkey, tunisia ( all the big "italian" brands out there - berio, carapelli, carli, sasso etc.. - do the same).

it's not a scam, it is perfectly legal and perfectly detectable: check the bottle and you will see that it only says "packed in italy".

so, next time you want to buy extra virgin olive oil steer clear from the big itaian brands: they just add a premium on the greek oil you find on the same shelf at a cheaper price.

20.6.04

the catch of a day

moscardini
i'm beginning to think that blog is a contraction for backlog...

i just can't keep up with everything. i cook,i eat, i take pictures, (not necessarily in this order). the photos are then left to gather digital dust: not much time for choosing, editing, writing etc..

it was with a huge sigh of relief that i welcomed wena's nominating "the catch of the day" as the theme for this month's is my blog burning? day.

what a wonderful chance to indulge in some fresh fish while at the same time get to use up some stale old photos, i thought.
then i changed my mind.

this post will therefore describe the fishiest parts of a meal prepared last saturday with the catch of that day. we were on holiday in italy, guests of the very wonderful marina & stephen (via marina's sister francesca and her husband antonio who actually owns the place) in an heavenly house overlooking the golfo dei poeti.

the italians amongst you will have immediately recognized the alien blob pictured above for what it truly is: moscardini!

a moscardino is a baby octopus, usually no longer than ten centimetres. tentacles and all.
what i bought that morning from the fish market in lerici were a sort of teenager octopi (?): not fully grown but still half a kilo each. i had to feed 10 hungry italians so i bought a few.
they went in a shallow pan with water, garlic, herbs, tomatoes, celery, carrots. all cold.
the pan was covered with a lid and left to simmer for almost two hours which is a bit longer than needed.
(i wanted to play it safe: the previous day i had a bad experience with a reckless fisherman and a fully grown octopus: "cook it for twenty minutes" he said. "twenty minutes???" i said "twenty minutes!" he said.
i cooked it for twenty minutes.
it was so hard that i threw it on the rocks below where it bounced and bounced and bounced and bounced ...)
the moscardini were oh so tender, with a flavour to match.

triglie in the garden below the house and above the rocks where the octopus is still bouncing, there are a couple of lemon trees.
a previous experiment during a previous holiday proved that the usually neglected lemon leaves make a perfect complement for a delicate fish such as red mullet.
the typical mediterranean red mullet is a tiny, delicious fish, much smaller than the equally delicious version i can find here. i bought 1.5 kilos of red mullets and went back home with 40 plus little fishes, mercifully cleaned by the the fishmonger.
my original idea was to fill the cavity of the fish with rosemary and garlic and wrap it in a leaf frm the lemon tree. i did it before and it worked wonders. this time there were so many fishes and so little time. i took an oven tray, covered it in foil. i laid a layer of lemon leaves. the fish went on top, sprinkled with chopped rosemary and garlic. more leaves, more foil to seal, oven.
10 minutes are enough.
the smells of lemon, sea, garlic and rosemary are the essence of this dish.
i filled my lungs and i tucked in.

18.6.04

the flying italian vs ricotta woman

"two starters ready for table two, quick!"

early into the debut night of the flying italian i actually said those words.
that's when it hit me hard.
i was doing it!

matthew, official photographer for the brighton festival and la cena, runs up and down the stairs to bring orders and take plates. max, mac evangelist and it technician runs around the kitchen trying to make sense of what i'm telling him.

i run around the kitchen trying not to look like an headless chicken on panic.

the first guest arrive. the first plates go upstairs.
more guests. more plates.

the plates come back empty.
everything runs smoothly.
almost.

"any comments matthew?"
"yeah, everybody says food is great..."
relief
"but woman at table 7 says it is edible"
oh well, i'm all up for some constructive criticism, i'll check that table later.

later on i go upstairs.
all plates are empty. good sign. my maternal (??) side rejoices.
there's a table where nobody had any cake.
my maternal side shrieks in disbelief.

i approach the table.
one of the ladies asks:
"so what is it that you teach in your cook group??"
i explain while the lady looks aloof and dismissive. then, full of drunken contempt, she says
"i can teach *you* how to make a cheese cake without making it curdle..."
"curdle??"
"yes. this cake is curdled. you know, it tastes of whey!"
"...errr madam this is a ricotta cake and ricotta is just pure whey..."
"isn't this mascarpone??"
"please look at this menu: it says *ricotta*. by the way, you might be interested to know that one of the things i teach is how to tell ricotta from mascarpone.."

almost everybody left happy and tipped generously.

ricotta woman and her lady friends' bill was £57.50. they paid with £58.00 and asked for their 50p change.